Sorry in advance for a long post. I'm not a big believer in hoarding ideas - I have many more than I will ever use, so I like to toss them into the public domain in the instance that someone else wants to steal one of them. If you use any of these ideas, feel free to throw a small equity stake my way :-)
I'll be making this a regularly occurring series, as new ideas bubble up, so stay tuned.
I've tinkered with a ton of iphone and ipad apps in the last few years. You'll know from my recent post on game dynamics that I've been keenly interested recently (thanks to a SXSW panel I attended) on how clever application designers are earning our loyalty (obsession / compulsion?) by employing the same principles that good games do to keep us enthralled.
Case in point: Apps like Foursquare, that reward us points for checking in to dining and shopping establishments, and increase the points they dole out to us based on frequency. The "status" game dynamic is strongly employed by awarding "mayorships" for the most loyal patrons, and often showering the mayor with freebies or exclusive deals for their loyalty. Players compete against each other to steal back the mayorship. Friends compete against each other to be the most active, checking in at the most places. In short, it's an app that unabashedly rewards consumerism.
Swipely takes it a step further, allowing you to publish a news feed of all the places you swipe your credit card. Seriously. As I understand it, they leverage Yodlee's API to gather data on the purchases you make and publish them to a feed that your friends can subscribe to, comment on, etc. Which might be great for a gal that wants to brag about some new Christian Louboutin shoes, but not so much for a guy like me who is likely to be buying an 8-pack of toilet paper and a Mountain Berry Powerade at Walgreen's.
I don't need any more help spending money, thank you. My wife and I spend enough money eating out to each month to seriously support another family altogether. It's shameful, we know it, and while our kids will still get to go to college, they may have to check their textbooks out from the library instead of buying them, because mom and dad took everyone out for a few too many cheeseburgers when they were little.
Steal this idea #1: Don't help me spend money, help me save it
What I'm looking for is a killer app that does the exact opposite - helps you stop spending money. If game dynamics can encourage you to hit up Starbucks every day for two months until you become the mayor, surely we can embrace the same principles to reward you for every day you don't go to Starbuck's.
Mint.com does a pretty good job of letting you see what you've been up to, integrating all of your finances into a single view, allowing you to create budgets and compare actual spending against them, and quite a bit more. It falls short of actually encouraging behavioral changes, though. I want an app that lets me acknowledge my spending weaknesses; since I drive through McDonald's nearly every morning for a sweet tea and either an oatmeal or a yogurt, that's $2 - $3 dollars per day, Monday through Friday, that I know I shouldn't spend. If I could flag McDonald's as a "vice purchase", then let the app and game dynamic principles reward and encourage me for every day I didn't go there, I'd be well on my way to finding financial app bliss. It's the reverse of Foursquare. Instead of rewarding me for checking in and spending money, it rewards me for NOT checking in and spending money.
Expansion opportunities abound. Let me automatically invest the savings from the days I achieve my goals into an investment, or toward a goal. Let me connect socially with my friends who share common goals, and let us compete against each other - or better yet, work in tandem - toward achieving the goal. Maybe we agree that if we ALL stop smoking, all the money we would have spent on cigarettes goes to a group vacation, and the app helps keep us honest and also tallies the amount of money we are collectively saving toward the vacation.
I would also like to see an app tackle debt payment more effectively. It's shocking that Dave Ramsey hasn't turned his debt snowball, and his money management ideas in general, into an app. Seems like Yodlee would jump to help someone with his reach build an app that taps into their data sources and take a cut of each app store download.
Steal this idea #2: Fractional Investing in Charitable Causes
This one doesn't even have to be a mobile app. The web would do quite nicely, thank you. Point is, I like to give money to good causes. Most of us (hopefully) do. But I'm inundated with causes, and it gets a bit overwhelming. I'd like to centralize my giving, in the same way that I have centralized my investment portfolio. I don't go individually to every company I want to buy stock from and buy and manage my investments separately, I do it all from a broker.
Taking it a step further, and using the stock world as a model, I love what ShareBuilder offers. For people who might not be able to buy large quantities of shares at once, or that like to split small amounts of money among a handful of investments, they allow you to purchase fractional shares of companies. In the non-profit world, I'd love to be able to allocate a fixed monthly contribution - say $100 for example - and then choose a "portfolio" of causes I would like that money split between. Clearly, I understand that administrative and payment processing costs might dillute the amount of money the charity gets in the end, but I'm leaving that to someone else to work out. These are free ideas, after all :-)
The ability to change your percentage allocations on the fly would be a must. When tragedy strikes, I may want to move Red Cross to the top of my list for a few months.
I'd also like the service to centralize and automate all tax documentation I need for end of year filings (though in my instance it never amounts to enough to matter, I view the function as a necessity to help much more well-financed donors).
Steal this idea #3: Fractional purchase of airfare (my favorite idea, btw)
Airfare is expensive, right? Families that aren't in the upper echelon have to save for quite a while to afford plane tickets for the whole gang to visit relatives, take vacations, etc. And with prices constantly fluctuating, you can miss out on tremendous savings (and the airlines can miss out on your money) because you don't have ALL the money you need to purchase the trip up front.
This model would turn airfare into a commodity you could invest in over time. A plane ticket would be comprised of a fixed number of "points" or "shares," similar to the way the loyalty programs work. But the points could be bought any time, in any quantity, at market prices for that day and moment in time.
For example, a coach ticket from Austin to San Francisco, round trip, requires 200 points. On the day I am shopping, the fare is $540. Each point, then, is worth $2.70 ($540/100). If I thought the fare was a really great deal (it isn't, btw), I may decide to go ahead and invest 50 bucks today, since that is all I can spare but know I want to make the trip this year. My 50 bucks gets me appx. 18.52 shares of the 200 I need to cash in for the ticket.
A week later, the fare drops to $380, and I have just received my paycheck. I decide to invest $200 and get 105.26 shares (this time at $1.90 each), bringing my total ownership to 123.78 shares at $250.
A month later, it's getting pretty close to when I would like to travel, so I buy the remaining 76.22 shares at $2.15 each (based on that day's fare price of $430.)
Thanks to dollar cost averaging, my full ticket price is appx. $413.87 - right in the middle of the highs and lows from the days I invested - and I was able to set money aside for travel while locking in pricing on my own terms.
Clearly, the idea has potential for all sorts of resale and brokering opportunities, as well. There are many complexities. Again, yours to work out if you so choose. For me, the potential for families to save for airfare while locking in pricing - and passing much needed dollars over to the airlines - is a win/win. It could also put airlines out of business, for all I know.
Steal this idea #4: Make my grocery shopping experience better
Target, the big box retailer, marveled me when what has to be at least a decade ago, they started listing the aisle numbers that items on baby and wedding registries were located. This effectively ended the age-old "hunt for ambiguously named product" dance we all did when shopping for gifts. While the items were still fairly ambiguously named, we at least could focus our search to one aisle instead of an entire store.
But little progress has been made since then. I can order a sandwich and have it delivered to my house from my iphone (thanks, Jimmy Johns). I can manage my entire retirement portfolio. But I can't see what aise the macaroni and cheese is kept at while I am grocery shopping?
I've seen some pretty cool apps for grocery lists - but I wonder why the stores themselves don't put out apps. Here in Austin, where HEB is our major grocer, an HEB app would get huge uptake. While I am in the store, I could search for an item and instantly find where it is kept, the price, and the in-stock status. While I am at home, I could build my shopping list, choose the store I am going to, and have my list automatically sorted in the order I walk the store.
Sure, the macaroni moves around. But the store employees and manager always know where it is. Product placement is an enormous part of grocery store and retail strategy. There's no reason the data can't be easily shared.
I imagine that groceries might think that more impulse purchases are made when people DON'T have this type of information at hand, when they are looking at the shelves instead of at a list. And maybe they're right. But it will only take a store opening that embraces these principles for me to abandon loyalty to the stores that want to cling on to old ideas. We're entering an era where consumers demand access to information, and expect transparency from the stores they frequent.
Plus, if I'm staring at YOUR app in YOUR store, you have a captive audience. You can give me coupons, you know what's on my list before I even get to the store (for inventory and stock projections), you don't need a loyalty program to know who I am every time I enter the store, you know even more about my shopping patterns, how long I am on an aisle, etc. Use the data.
Steal this idea #5: Receipt itemization
Somewhere, someone is already working long hours on this one, I am sure. But maybe you have a better idea of how it can work. I mentioned earlier how much I've liked the ideas behind Mint.com. I also checked out Shoebox.com not long ago, a pay service for scanning and archiving receipts, business cards, etc. And I read an article somewhere on the "interwebs" that suggested possible integration between Mint and shoebox. Cool, but not cool enough.
Here's the challenge. My wife brings home a receipt from Target for $150, and I have to figure out how to itemize it in Mint.com. Is it shopping? Is it household? Is it gifts? Is it personal care? Is it entertainment or clothing? The answer is, it's all of those. Unless I want to go to the painstaking process of manually splitting the transaction and calculating the portion of tax associated with each item and re-categorizing 20 or 30 different line items, I'm stuck picking one master category. How can you effectively set and follow a budget when you have to force long receipts into generic categories?
I'd like to be able to opt my credit card into a service where more information is transmitted than just my total. Seriously. Retailers already store every detail of every transaction. They can scan a barcode on my receipt, or even swipe my credit card in the store, and tell me what I bought and when, and issue me refunds, etc.
A cool 3rd party service would integrate with major retailers and POP systems to be warehouse customer receipt / purchase info, then feed into services like Mint.com or even Yodlee to make that information accessible within their products to the end-consumer that wants full purchase itemization and receipt downloads. Perhaps to protect privacy the data would only be recalled when the card holder opts in or requests transaction details. But I want to see my Target purchase on Mint.com, click for more details, see an itemized receipt, and have the items already categorized for me. I could change the categories as I see fit, of course. Since products already carry SKU's, it's a matter of a relational table that maps categories to the store's inventory.
Stay tuned for "next time"
And that's round 1 of "steal my ideas." Please point me to working examples of apps that already do these things, and share your ideas for how to extend or improve on these ideas, too. Hell, share your own ideas here. Nothing would be more flattering to me than to have a successful business or app originate from my blog.