If there’s a hole in your pocket, Corey Maass wants to help. His startup, TheBirdy.com, sends daily email reminders to subscribers to keep them aware of what they are spending and where. Those shoppers then record daily purchases, slotting them into categories—food, entertainment, transportation, clothes––to see their progress on a graph. Like a feathered friend sitting on your shoulder, The Birdy is supposed to help you control spending so that you make better financial decisions and change habits. We spoke with the 35-year-old Brooklyn, New York-based entrepreneur to find out more about his fledgling business, who is really keeping an eye on spending, and why it sometimes feels so damn good to splurge.
FAST COMPANY: What inspired you to create a company to help people track their spending?
COREY MAASS: I started out as a musician, composing electronic dance music. Fifteen years ago, I taught myself to build a website to promote my work. The Birdy.com is my third startup and 12th product. My day job to support my projects now is freelance programming. I’ve struggled for years with cash flow issues. It’s hard to manage inconsistent income.
I rent space at WeWork Labs, a co-working place for early stage startups. Other entrepreneurs there are working on uses for email, because we all have to deal with it. It’s part of our daily workflow. And instead of visiting a website, now people reach for their phones because there’s an app. But I’ve always wanted sites to be more interactive, so I started thinking about how to integrate email better instead of relying on a web interface for a product.
Also, I’m a productivity nerd. I love Lifehacker.com. So I started looking for tips to be better with money and then it all came together. I thought, "What if a request for data came to you? Maybe you could track your spending with daily email content."
Who’s signing up for The Birdy?
Mostly young professionals, because the mid- to late 20s and early 30s are usually when people set out on their own, earn income, have expenses, and realize they have to keep on top of that. I get a lot of newlyweds, mostly wives saying they’ve been tasked with handling the budget.
What about shopaholics?
There’s a little shopaholic in all of us. Lots of people do shopping therapy and I’ve struggled to have less stuff, not more. We can justify buying something any number of ways. It feels great to splurge. There’s psychology behind hearing the cash register ding, so digital ones still make that sound because it’s associated with getting the prize. And there are eye-level products in stores and other ways marketers work hard to get you. I’m targeting the middle of the bell curve—the majority, who are aware of their consumerism and admit spending more than they should, even if they live comfortably.
Shopaholics are an extreme at one end of the bell curve and need intervention. I’d love if I could help, but I don’t know that The Birdy would do it for them. At the other end of the curve are people who use a spreadsheet to watch their money. Great. They’re disciplined enough. I say, "Good for you. Just keep the momentum going."
For the others, I have to make it seamless and easy for them to track spending. My number one goal is not to make people feel guilty because you’re not going to not buy. You’re going to start not telling The Birdy what you bought.
How do you keep people from feeling guilty?
I spend a lot of time and effort making the site feel casual, conversational, personal, easy-going. I use lots of exclamation marks and emoticons. I want it to feel light and casual at all times because I’m trying to help people. Honey versus vinegar.
On your site you admit you were terrible with money, so your users don’t feel judged.
Yes. And they email me daily to share their stories, partially because I shared mine. And that feels great.
What’s your favorite story?
A woman wrote that she had been looking for something like this for years. She said, "I’m a little older. This helped me a lot. I just wanted to say thanks." I wrote back encouraging her to tell me more. She said she has grandchildren and spends most of her money on gifts for them, so she might not be saving enough for retirement. I said, "If you buy enough gifts, they’ll let you live with them when you retire because they’ll love you so much." You know, tongue in cheek. It was fun because as hard as I try to get out of my own head, I’m not the epitome of my customers. This woman, probably in her 50s or 60s, using The Birdy––that was absolutely priceless.
You’ve been in business for nine months. How’s it going?
I’ve had 13,000 sign-ups. Ten percent used The Birdy for longer than a week. Last month, I introduced "freemium," so users can pay $4.95 a month for extra features, like setting budgets and tracking income. A few dozen have signed up so far.
Besides getting more paying members, I hope to sell anonymized data for targeted marketing, advertising, coupons, or partnering with other companies. Companies like Starbucks are interested in people who mention buying there often––that X number of people in a metro area spend Y amount daily on their coffee.
Isn’t Mint.com going after the same business?
With Mint.com you plug in all your bank account numbers and loan information. The Birdy just has your email address and name. I take security precautions, but the only information The Birdy has is what you give—that you spend too much money at the movies or drink lots of coffee.
I recommend just tracking one thing at first—whatever you’re concerned about. You do as much or as little as you want. One subscriber broke down his grocery list into three-dozen items to track how much he was spending on healthy and not healthy food. So The Birdy is very adaptable. Some people want to be asked three times a day what they bought, which is counterintuitive.
Why? Because that’s closer to the time when they spent the money and can better remember it?
Exactly. And people reply to emails right away. When they get a reminder at the end of the day, they have to think and remember what they bought, which is psychologically a huge hurdle. The advantage to more reminders is that even though they’re a little disruptive, they keep spending at the top of your mind. While you’re walking around during the day, you think, "Do I really want to buy this? Because I’ll have to tell The Birdy." Or, "The Birdy is going to email me, and I’m going to have to report this."
What do you think is the threshold? Three reminders might be okay, but five might be nagging.
I don’t know yet.
What’s next for The Birdy?
In the next few weeks, subscribers will be able to receive texts and request the number of texts or emails they want daily. Apps for the iPhone and Android are under development and should be out in a month or two. In the next few months I want to get into the mommy blog industry, which is huge and booming, because a lot of new moms, or soon-to-be moms, or ongoing moms, are looking at ways to be more productive, help their kids, and have less stress in their lives.
What challenges does The Birdy face?
The biggest challenge for the product is to battle apathy—people giving up on tracking spending. As a business, the biggest challenge is numbers. When I get to a million users, more will stick around and pay so revenue will increase, of course. So far, it’s been a pretty good trajectory, given that I’ve done no marketing and am trying to do all this myself. And I’m still focusing on building a better product so that people are more likely to stay.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
[Top image: Flickr user spatulated]