While some concepts, like photo-sharing, have seen more than their share of social web app activity, other areas are nearly untouched. Take personal finance. While it will take some tricky maneuvering to avoid overstepping privacy bounds, a recently launched startup called Wesabe is trying to take public the parts of personal finance that can collectively help people make better decisions.
Wesabe CEO Jason Knight’s pitch: “When it comes to personal finance, you’re all alone. if we pool our collective knowledge, we might know something.” Wesabe combines 43 Things-style goal-setting, local reviews and tips, and the nitty-gritty of your bank accounts. The idea is Quicken or Money software as a service with the addition of a community.
Key to Wesabe’s success will be company’s projected vibe. It has to be clean-scrubbed and shiny-faced to get users in the door. To that end, the site is well laid-out and easy to use (I especially like the “badgification” tool which turns any imported graphic into a tip button). Click on the “I’m freaking out” button at any time and you get a Flickr slideshow of kittens.
A downloaded client interfaces with your bank account so the startup doesn’t give itself a chance of mis-managing your passwords. Users have two identities within the system — the one they use privately to compile their income and expenditures, and the one they use to share tips and goals with other users. Knight is making himself personally available for customer support at an 800 number from 12 to 4 p.m., seven days a week (except Thanksgiving), for the launch period. Full export capabilities are promised, but not available yet.
On the personnel front, Knight and cofounder Marc Hedlund, who met as teenagers participating in the squeaky-clean Junior Statesmen of America, are self-funding the six-person, Berkeley, California-based company. Knight was formerly a marketing executive with various companies, while Hedlund was an entrepreneur in residence at O’Reilly Media after co-founding Popular Power and Lucas Online. For more personality, check out their Wheaties for Your Wallet blog.
I held off on writing about Wesabe while waiting for the team to finalize full support for my bank, Bank of America. (For personal background: in terms of financial software, I think once I bought TurboTax, but that’s about it. I do use online banking and bill payment tools as well as the simple and effective BillMonk to keep track of household expenses.) However, Wesabe is an interesting enough idea to tell you about it without fully testing the product, and those of you who use Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo, or many other banks should be fine.
Once within the interface, your bank transactions are automatically uploaded for your tagging and grouping. The system learns from other users, so if one of those typical inscrutable transactions “STORE 00021 PURCHASE #5698″ appears, and someone has already labeled it “Apple Store,” the system will tag it appropriately. Wesabe also surfaces collective wisdom by telling you how much you are spending on your services — say, car insurance — relative to its other users, and showing tips that are relevant to the tags you choose.
The system also tries to be smart about weighting feedback by gauging the relationship between a company and a customer. So, for instance, a captive user’s complaint about her mobile carrier would be taken with a grain of salt, while a clothing store’s fan club couldn’t easily push its rating off the charts.
Then, because an advertising-based business model would be entirely inappropriate, the company will have to convince users to upgrade from free to $4.99 per month (though early members will get the premium level for free through 2007). Knight admits the challenge is helping people save enough money that they will be willing to spend money on his product.
I think I will try using Wesabe for the next month or so. I did overdraw my checking account last week, so I already have my first goal ready-made…now I just need to find a good picture for a badge! Let us know if you think you could overcome your privacy concerns to make your finances a little less lonely.