by Hans Eisenbeis
A few presentations at this financial services conference were especially in line with consumer values and needs during the Great Recession. BillShrink, which conference attendees voted as Best of Show, does pretty much what its name says: It performs a sophisticated analysis of a member’s spending habits on gas, cell phones or credit cards and makes specific, actionable recommendations about how to pay less. For example, by simply inputting my home address, my work address, and the make and model of my car, BillShrink calculated where I can find the cheapest gas along my daily commute — including an adjustment for driving out of my way to get the best price. BillShrink is a powerful mashup of Googlemaps, Gasprices, and KellyBlueBook. And that’s just my gas bills. BillShrink does the same thing for credit cards and cell phone plans, and they’re preparing to launch into the mortgage space as well. This business is right in key with consumers’ Hard Bargain desire to pinch every penny on non-discretionaries.
I was relatively surprised at the lack of innovation in the green + FS + tech space, but that only set the stage for my personal Best of Show: Cooler is a powerful PFM tool that extracts all my financial information across all areas of expenditures and drops it into a carbon-calculator, basically providing a green budget report telling me not only how much I spent on fruit rollups, scotch and bike tires, but what the environmental cost was. On top of that, it recommends areas where I can save the planet AND save money. And to finish off what to my mind is a perfect trifecta for consumer sentiment, it provides contextual green advertisements — like Google ads. Its founders claim it’s the first environmental ad network online, and I believe them. A dashboard that brings together personal finance with sustainable consumption and provides recommendations for greener and leaner alternatives hits all the right Control Freak notes, and provides prima facie evidence that being green means saving green. Though this nifty offering is, as I understand it, a B2B platform mostly for banks to buy into and offer their customers, perhaps companies like Quicken will offer a Cooler-powered green module.
As everyone knows, another area of serious consumer pain is medical bills. It’s the single most commonly cited reason for personal bankruptcy, and IOUSOS is a clever new online service that allows people with big, unpaid medical bills to negotiate terms with their providers — in effect, a high tech middleman willing to do the haggling to get deep discounts on outstanding medical bills, to get them paid and processed and off everyone’s books. Is it the game-changer in the completely dysfunctional healthcare industry? No, but it is certainly a tool for consumers in crisis.
A similar offering, LowerMyAssessment, provides consumers with a tool to make sure the assessed values on their homes are in line with their fair market value — and to provide credible data and other resources to allow consumers to petition for lower property taxes wherever possible. Given that home values have declined an average of 30% in the last year, many homeowners are paying taxes on tremendously inflated assessments; the housing bubble popped, why haven’t property taxes? The service is available in 10 states, and finding out if there’s a gap in assessed value vs. FMV is free. The actual report, which can be filed with local tax boards, costs about $130 — up to half the cost of a traditional, no-tech assessment.
Finally, Tempo was a personal favorite that raised more questions than answers. Recognizing the HUGE opportunity in consumers’ shift to debit cards, the company “untethers” the plastic from the banks that typically issue them, and allows debit cards to be personalized. Best of all, it provides an opportunity to address a long-term injustice: rewards programs, which have proliferated in the credit card space but remain feeble in debit cards. I’m still not sure how the company can make money to pay for more robust rewards programs, and it’s unclear whether their cards would allow non-PIN transactions, but just identifying the issue — which we’ve been talking about for months — got my juice flowing just in time for lunch. But what’s the tech angle, you ask? Pretty skimpy: They offer totally customizable card skins, not unlike Capitol One’s cardlab. Cool, but the innovation here is all in the service and potential payoff for consumers.
Next up: A jolt of terror in the social lending space