Archive for November, 2006

Kathy Sierra joins our advisory board

November 29, 2006

Kathy Sierra

I’m very happy to announce that Creating Passionate Users author Kathy Sierra has joined the Wesabe advisory board. Welcome, Kathy!

I originally met Kathy at the first FOO Camp, when she gave one of her first presentations on the “Creating Passionate Users” theme. That presentation has evolved into a blog and will soon be a book on the topic. Seeing the presentation was amazing — she tore down a lot of ideas about what matters in getting people involved in a book, product, or experience, and rebuilt those ideas in a way that lit up the room. Her emphasis on giving people the “I rule!” feeling and letting them shine has dramatically shaped how we’ve built Wesabe. The presentation was the talk of FOO Camp that year, as it has been every year since, and I’ve made a point of attending as many of them as I can.

This year at ETech, I was able to sit down with Kathy and her partner Bert Bates and talk about the ideas behind Wesabe, and they both immediately responded with fabulous suggestions and encouragement. A lot of what Kathy said at that discussion later appeared in a post on her blog, “Reducing guilt is the killer app.” You can easily see how that applies to Wesabe — people feel guilty about money more than almost anything else. We’re out to change money, to make it not the source of guilt and stress it is for so many people today, but instead to help people feel like they rule at managing their money. I’m very glad for Kathy’s encouragement and ideas, and am thrilled to have her help making the site better.

Top ten goals on Wesabe

November 22, 2006

Pay Off my Credit Cards

One of the things we do on Wesabe is try to build tools to help people reach their goals. (The company’s code name was “InReach” — bring your goals in reach, and a pun on enrich — and we would have gone with that name if it had been available. Somehow I couldn’t talk anyone into the idea of inrea.ch — “too del.icio.us,” they said.) The goals section has lit up this week, and it’s been great to see how many people are sharing ideas for reaching goals.

So what are people working towards? Here’s the current top ten list:

  1. Pay Off My Credit Cards (207 people, 5 discussions, 0 tips)
  2. Save Up An Emergency Fund (134 people, 1 discussion, 8 tips)
  3. Lower Spending (118 people, 2 discussions, 0 tips)
  4. Buy A House (89 people, 6 discussions, 1 tip)
  5. Spend Money With Green Values In Mind (42 people, 6 discussions, 5 tips)
  6. Stop Paying Late Fees, Overlimit Fees, Nonsufficient Funds Fees, ATM Fees, And Any Other Fees I Can Find! (41 people, 4 discussions, 3 tips)
  7. Contribute To My IRA (39 people, 0 discussions, 0 tips)
  8. Make Wesabe Better (33 people, 11 discussions, 2 tips)
  9. Buy A MacBook Pro (29 people, 7 discussions, 2 tips)
  10. Don’t Panic About Money (20 people, 0 discussions, 8 tips)

(“Make Wesabe Better” isn’t really a financial goal, but we like using the site’s features to help talk about improving the site. The discussions in that goal are great, too — people are doing a lot to help us improve the site already.)

Wesabe user Community Pal wrote up an absolutely amazing post about how he and his wife paid off their credit cards:

My life was immensely better after paying off credit card debt. It has been almost 2 years since my wife and I tore up the last one. It still feels incredibly wonderful!!

I’m not exactly sure how we ended up there, but I remember reviewing our finances and realizing that things were pretty bad. We were newly married with a baby on the way and a nice, comfortable house. It suddenly it dawned on me that it probably wasn’t a good sign that we had just paid our mortgage with a cash advance from our Platinum Card.

The craziest part about it, was that I had a fantastic job, but we spent all of the income (plus our credit) on things that were not necessary. It wasn’t that we lived a “jet-set” life style, it’s just that we didn’t have any savings, or a budget. […]

I almost feel stupid writing this, but after getting married and having a child, I’d say paying off (and swearing off) our credit card debt was the most joyful moment of my life. I felt so incredibly liberated. I actually started sleeping well. I lost weight. My skin even improved. My marraige improved DRAMATICALLY.

There’s a lot more in the post, including a ton of tips for how they were able to do it. What I see in this post is exactly what I hear from so many people: that money was a huge stress for them; that their stress was not tied to low income, but instead to feeling out of control of their spending; and (speaking with my own bias here) that they had to dig their way out of it on their own with makeshift tools. It’s fantastic that they were able to do it, and the post has great advice for anyone in a bad place with money. Hopefully what we build in Wesabe will replace the makeshift tools they had to use with community support like this, and easier, more automatic, more effective tools.

Thanks to Community Pal for the post, and to everyone who’s dug into the goals section.

A few known issues

November 20, 2006

Sorry for not posting since launch — I had a backlog of sleep to catch up on the first night, and then I had to sit and reload our stats reports every couple of seconds all Saturday. That was a lot of fun. 🙂 The reactions we’ve gotten have been fantastic, both from users and in blog and news posts. Thanks to everyone for all of the great feedback, praise, suggestions, and occasional criticism. It’s all helpful in improving the site, and for us, having worked on this for a long time in a small group, it’s been great validation and satisfaction. Thank you.

Thanks also to our preview users, who made the site launch as successful as it was. We had a six-month preview release, and in that time, we were able to make the first experience great for a lot of people this week. Without our preview users, that never would have been possible. I know a few hundred people who signed up for the preview didn’t get in until we launched, even though we were letting in a couple of hundred a day at the end. We really appreciate everyone who signed up, tried it out, and especially sent us feedback.

That said, with thousands of banks and credit cards in the U.S. and thousands more around the world, we have some fixes to make. If you’ve sent in a support request, we’re working through those requests and expect to have them mostly cleared tomorrow. In the meantime, here are a few answers to the most common questions:

  1. Yes, we happily support any international bank or credit card that offers OFX, QFX, or QIF export. We didn’t have a good database of banks around the world when we launched, but we’re adding them on request. We are planning to allow you to enter your own bank or credit card, so you don’t have to wait for us to do it, shortly.
  2. For Chase, you need to activate automatic downloads. Go to http://www.chase.com and log in to your account. Click on the “Customer Center” tab. Under the “Reference Center” header, go to the “Tools” subhead and click on “Activate Money, Quicken, etc.” You can now add Chase to your Wesabe account list and your data will be automatically uploaded. We’ll add a note about this to the next release of the Uploader, so the process is more clear.
  3. We know there’s an issue with Discover and one with B of A New York. We’re working on both of these now.
  4. We’ve gotten a bunch of requests for CSV import. We’ll add this.

For the rest, one of us will get back to you via email very soon.

Also, our usage is already several times what we estimated for the first month, so we’re adding another server tonight after midnight Pacific time. We’ll be down for about fifteen minutes during the addition. The servers survived a direct hit from Boing Boing without a hiccup, but today was quite slow for a while.

Thanks again, and keep the suggestions and questions coming! The “Make Wesabe better” goal on the site has a lot of great discussion in it — feel free to dive in their if you want to chat about the features you want.

Thank You!

November 18, 2006

We’ve been live for a couple days now, and I’m not overstating it when I say the response has been AMAZING.  The number of people joining has exceeded our highest expectations, so thank you everyone who is participating in this new space called Wesabe.  I’ve also been taking phone calls between 12-4pm PST which has been great.  I really didn’t know what to expect when we posted a link to our phone number (1-800-511-8544).  My wife was concerned that nobody would call and that I would feel like the lonely kid eating alone in the bleachers in high school, so she called just to make certain the phone would ring…thanks Jane.

In fact a number of people have called and they each had questions or topics they wanted to discuss, so I thought I’d share what we have been talking about.  The questions I get asked most frequently are:

Q: How do you make money?

A: A basic account will be free, but next year we will be offering “Pro” accounts for $4.99/month.  However, anyone who signs up with Wesabe in 2006 will get a “Pro” account for all of 2007 for free (already you are saving money).  We do NOT plan on taking advertising – plenty of people will help you spend your money we want to help you save it.

Q: Why should I trust user generated tips?

A: You shouldn’t, you should do things that make sense to you and fit into your life. My favorite tips have been about getting value in places it would have never occurred to me to look.  As soon as I see them I know they’ll work for me…the others…just pass by…they may work for someone else.

Q:  I want to try Wesabe, but I’m not comfortable using the Uploader, can I still get a good Wesabe experience?

A: Absolutely, you can download your data from your bank and then upload it via our Web site so that you never put any of our software on your computer.  We built these tools so that people could protect their privacy – we want you to be comfortable using the service.

I’ve noticed a few things from these calls: 1) Everyone sounds surprised when I answer the phone 🙂 2) Mostly callers want reassurance that we are “good people,” 3) People who call like being able to call, it makes them feel good about us, and 4) It seems nice people are interested in personal finance because every call has been great.  Thanks for all your calls, and keep them coming!

Wesabe Launched!

November 17, 2006

Today was a big day for us at Wesabe. Our site is live and available for everyone to use.

We set out to build a tool to help people gain control over their money, and we believe we have accomplished our goal. It isn’t perfect and we have a ton of features we want to add, but this product helps people right now.

We have been helped on this journey by an amazing number of people who gave their encouragement, time, feedback, patience and, truth be told, love (particularly our familes).

From all of us at the Wesabe team, welcome! We can’t wait to meet you.

Jason & Marc

Clay Shirky joins our advisory board

November 14, 2006

Clay

I’m happy to announce that the brilliant and wonderful Clay Shirky has joined the Wesabe advisory board. Welcome, Clay!

Clay is one of the most thoughtful and persuasive thinkers about online communities, and what makes them work or explode into a million pieces. At the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conferences since 2000, Clay has given a series of fantastic keynotes about his research and ideas, and every time I hear one of them, I wind up reconsidering something I was sure was right, or thinking about something I thought I knew in a new way. It’s been fantastic being able to call on him in designing Wesabe; during one discussion, a comment he made — “That’s definitely fun data, but are those empty calories?” — wound up setting off a huge discussion and several big changes to the site. If you’re designing social software, his A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy is required reading, and the rest of his work is very much worth your time.

I’m occasionally mistaken for Clay — it must be our hairdos (photo taken by our other advisor). Jeff Bezos from Amazon came bounding up to me at one ETech to tell me how much he’d loved my speech — thinking I was Clay. I wish I could have taken that credit! We’re lucky at Wesabe to have such a great group of people helping us, and I feel very lucky to have Clay’s help.

Open Data at Web 2.0, and our "Data Bill of Rights"

November 10, 2006

Open Data at Web 2.0

I spent time this week at O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, and led a panel discussion on the topic of “Open Data.” Thanks very much to Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle for asking me to organize the panel. Stewart Butterfield from Flickr/Yahoo and Christine Herron from Omidyar Network (pictured with me in the photo) agreed to join the panel — thanks much to both of them for making it a great and well-rounded discussion.

Open data as a topic ran through the conference sessions — it seems to be on people’s minds right now. Thomas Claburn wrote up a good article on TechWeb about the session, and conference speakers Ben Trott from Six Apart and Eric Schmidt from Google, among others, mentioned the topic explicitly on stage. Whenever people talk about the new wave of web applications like Flickr and del.icio.us, the idea of users contributing their data to a pool of information on a site — photos on Flickr, bookmarks on del.icio.us, and so on — always comes up. Open data is about the next step — what then? What happens to my information once I share it on a web site, and what can I do to control it?

On the panel, we talked about three topics in the general area of open data:

  • Open data sets – collections of data that are available for public reuse, the best-known being Wikipedia, though we talked more about OpenStreetMap during the panel.
  • Open data protocols – ways for people to get access to data from a site, either through open APIs (the Flickr API being a great example) or microformats.
  • Open data licenses or policies – the Creative Commons licenses being the best known and most successful to date, but see also the Talis Community License.

During the panel, I gave an example of a great open data policy from Google, one that I think is worth emulating. Back in 1994, someone named Andy Woodward posted a Usenet newsgroup message asking, “Are there any FTP, Gopher or WWW sites out there which archive Usenet news?” He got a rather short-sighted and foolish — some might say stupid — answer:

The general answer to your question is no, there is no one site that perpetually archives all of Usenet news for public access. The size of such an archive would make its maintainence unworkable.

I feel comfortable calling that answer stupid since the person who gave it was me! You can see how stupid it is by visiting the thread on Google Groups, which is “a site that perpetually archives all of Usenet news for public access.” So much for unworkable….

Fortunately I’ve gone on to have enough of my other ideas proven right that I’m okay to have this stupidity available on the net — I’m even happy to make fun of myself about it. But let’s say I were applying for jobs and didn’t want employers to be able to see me denying the possibility of one of Google’s now-successful products, or let’s say I had posted even more embarassing things on Usenet (as plenty of people did) back in 1994. What could I do? 1994 was one year before DejaNews, the first company to archive Usenet, was even founded; and it was four years before Google, which later bought DejaNews, was incorporated. So one company that didn’t exist when I wrote that post bought another company that didn’t exist when I wrote that post, and as a result, my silliness is available on Google forever?

Google has taken what I consider to be a great stance on this problem, and has more than lived up to their “Don’t be evil” philosophy. They provide a page that explains how to remove your own posts, and they even provide a three-step removal tool to let you remove a post you’ve made. This is great, since it gives people control over the data they create. I’d love to know from Google how many posts have been removed by how many people — that would be interesting data about the demand for policies like this. We can see today that it is a common request, though, by looking at their Top 5 Groups Help Questions, which include:

  • #2. How do I remove my own posts?
  • #4. I don’t want you to archive my articles! How can I keep my messages from being archived on Google Groups?

People want control over their own information.

Of course this matters a lot to us at Wesabe — we know that a personal finance web site couldn’t possibly exist without us taking a very strong stand, and we want to be leaders in setting the right approach, as we think Google has in the Groups case above. So, at the panel I announced our “Data Bill of Rights,” which are the promises we make to everyone in the Wesabe community:

  • You can export and/or delete your data from Wesabe whenever you want.
  • Your data is your data, not ours. Our job is to help you understand and act on your data.
  • We’ll keep all of your data online and accessible for as long as you have an account. No “archive access” charges.
  • Any data you want us to keep private, we will.
  • If a question comes up not covered by these rights, we will answer it remembering that your data belongs to you.

We’ve already implemented most of these as features on our product — we still need to add a good export format, which we’re choosing now, and I imagine that people will want more privacy controls as the product gets more mature. The intent of this list, though, is to lay out our intentions and the promises we make publicly.

I’d love feedback on these ideas. What’s missing? What needs to be more clear? Of course there are aspects of our product that will be open but are not explicitly mentioned yet — for instance, we will have an open API, and we do plan to open source some of our code after a short time — but we wanted this document to lay down the ideas we felt were most important. If you have feedback, please let me know in the comments.

Getting health insurance without spending, ahem, an arm and a leg

November 3, 2006

busWesabe is a young company, so I’ve been using COBRA from my last employer to keep myself in health insurance. That’s often the most expensive possible option, though — with dental and vision, my PPO plan was $465 a month — so I decided to look through what other options I could find.

After asking around a bunch, I decided to go with Blue Cross, where I’ve had insurance before. They haven’t been great, but they’ve been better than Aetna, by previous provider. The options were interesting. I’ve always heard the personal finance mantra of, “Go with a high deductible, you’ll save yourself money!” I didn’t realize just how much money I’d save by following that advice. I eventually decided to go with a $1,500 deductible, which, compared to the $250 deductible I had before, will in all likelihood save me between $200 and $1,000 over the next year. If the worst happens and I max out the amount I could possibly spend on health costs with this insurance plan, it’s still only about $100 more than I would spend with a low deductible plan.

I put together a spreadsheet comparing the four PPO plans from Blue Cross California, which vary primarily in the amount of the deductible ($500, $1,000, $1,500, or $2,500). I’ve posted my spreadsheet on Google Spreadsheets, so you can see the different plans and how they compare to each other. The big unknown, of course, is how much I’ll have to spend on health costs over the next year. So, I listed three scenarios to see how much I would spend under each of the four plans:

  1. The good life: how much would each plan cost me if I had no health expenses?
  2. A moderately bad year: how about if I had $2,500 in expenses?
  3. Hit by a bus: finally, what if I had a big disaster, and had $25,000 in expenses?

I chose these because they are good inflection points — if something happens that incurs more than $25,000 in expenses, under these plans, my costs wouldn’t change (at least until I hit the maximum insurance amount). At the bottom of the chart, you can see how each plan compares to the others for each of these three scenarios.

How does my $1,500-deductible plan compare to the $500-deductible plan? In “the good life” scenario, by taking the higher deductible, I’ll save $888 over the next year. If I have a “moderately bad year,” I’ll still save $118 over the year. Things only work out worse for me if I get “hit by a bus” — but even in that case, I only lose $112.

I could save even more in the first two scenarios by taking the even higher $2,500 deductible, which I’ll probably do next year if I have a little more saved up. And with the savings I get by taking a higher deductible now, that will be a lot easier.

I was feeling pretty good about this math, and having run the numbers to my benefit, but the insurance company had the last laugh: because I’m allergic to cats, they tacked on 25% more for my premium. No, your eyes don’t deceive you — I carry an inhaler I use once or twice a year, and I got stuck with a 25% price increase as a result. They must have a “figured out the high deductible trick” strike team that looks for ways to get back at you for getting around their price structure. Bah! Still, if they applied the same surcharge on the low-deductible plan, I’m still saving over $1,000 a year in the best case.

Health insurance is pretty nasty to figure out in the U.S. If you’re looking for insurance, I’d strongly suggest you take a look at my spreadsheet and run the numbers for your own options. (You can copy my spreadsheet using Google Spreadsheet’s “File -> Copy” command, and then modify it for the plans and prices relevant to you.)

Cory Doctorow joins our advisory board

November 2, 2006

I’m happy to announce that Cory Doctorow has joined the Wesabe advisory board. Welcome, Cory!

In 2000, Wired Magazine wrote an article covering a set of peer-to-peer companies, including OpenCola, which Cory co-founded, and Popular Power, which I co-founded, and we met up as a result. I’ve been incredibly impressed watching Cory’s work at the EFF and as a superblogger on Boing Boing. I’m also a huge fan of his writing. I wanted his advice on Wesabe because he is one of the clearest thinkers I know on liberty and freedom in the Internet age, and on top of that is fantastically insightful about where the tech world is heading — and where it should head. (Talking to him about Wesabe for the first time was so much fun — he got it immediately and made a perfect suggestion to help protect privacy a short minute later.) I’m glad to have his counsel.