22seven, the gamification of personal finances

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The well-known founder of the pioneering online bank 20Twenty Christo Davel is hitting the market with a new startup, also in the financial management space.

20Twenty was an acclaimed South African online banking platform and an acknowledged leader for its time, but eventually went under when its bricks-and-mortar backing bank, Saambou, collapsed. 20Twenty was later sold to Standard Chartered for a cool US$10-million and closed.

The new venture, the similarly-named 22Seven, is billed as an “intelligent money saving tool” that plugs directly and securely into your personal bank accounts and then delivers analysis on your spending habits.

And this is what makes the service special and unique. Most money management tools require users to transfer their data and information across from their bank accounts, but 22seven grabs this information directly and automatically from your bank account — with your permission and the bank’s co-operation of course.

22seven, is an independent, privately held company whose investors include Hollard, Hasso Plattner Ventures Africa and a consortium of angel investors.

‘How do we make ends meet?’

Davel poses the question, “How do we make ends meet?” The answer, it seems, is to become aware of the financial decisions we make. And Davel hopes his new platform will enlighten us.

“Our service doesn’t have all the answers but it does have a few insights. 22seven is founded on the idea that if we become more aware of why we make the decisions we do, we will be in a better position to make smarter money choices,” he says.

Often having more money, brings the feeling of being less in control. 22seven proposes that the flaw lies in the stock-standard money management tools which are reliant on objectivity, rationality, budgeting and discipline. Davel unveils the human thought process behind money.

“The reliance on purely empirical data to make decisions is the problem. People are hardwired to make choices on instinct, intuition and emotion. It doesn’t matter how many budgets we do or how many books we read, we will still act like the complex, emotionally governed human beings we are,” says Davel.

The company aims to “offer insight and guide customers into being in control of their financial lives”. But how does the actual product fare?

The app-like website

Memeburn was part of an exclusive group of beta testers who have been testing the service in secret for some months. Davel wanted no advertising for his product, but rather to use word-of-mouth and selected media to spread the word of his new invention.

The service is built mainly in Flash and operated from a browser. Unlike a traditional website, it has a silky app-like feel to it. It feels more like a tablet app than a website, and this is what makes it special. From a user interface perspective its a class act and a real piece of innovation, possibly ahead of its time.

Memeburn has written before on how websites of the future are beginning to take on application-like qualities — and this is exactly what is evident in the creation of 22seven.

But the use of flash is both the site’s biggest strength and weakness. Flash has made it work well, work fast and work beautiful. However it does limit the web application’s use on iOS devices such as iPhones and iPads. One would think that this well-heeled, savvy market is key for a service that plays in the financial management space?

Humour and security

The service does not take itself too seriously: It is full of humorous, and often cheeky, messages that guide the user on how to use the functionality, keeping users informed and up to date. This is a bold step for a tool that essentially plays in the conservative world of personal finances, but it is one that the creators succeed in pulling off with aplomb.

Learning from past mistakes in order to improve decisions is one of the “core elements” of 22seven. Davel has labelled it “productive failure”. Creating a financial learning environment to play around in, the “what if” space so to speak, is Davel’s accomplishment.

The service is remarkably intuitive. Users are constantly guided each and every step of the way. This button does that, these figures mean this and so on. Clean lines and flashy animation disguise the boundless opportunities for experimentation with personal funds.

To start, users need to link their bank accounts to the service. A user supplies their personal bank information from one of the country’s six or seven major banks that are pre-selected on the site. Doing this would make most users think twice. Our bank information is a closely guarded secret, and giving a third-party website access to this is very scary.

22seven acknowledges users’ concerns and publishes extensive information about how it keeps users’ details secure. The platform also stresses that the system is “read only” — the service is unable to make changes to a users’ personal account.

Once users link up their banking information, the system presents their financial data as a series of circles which highlight various levels of income. Categories called Money In, Recurring, Day-to-day and Expectations are how 22seven divides your life.

“Money In” is your salary, “Recurring” are the fixed monthly costs we must all endure, “Day-to-day” are the variable expenses which usually end up being a surprisingly expensive debt and “Exceptions” are the unplanned expenses.

Users are able to drill down into these circles, and then picked apart month by month. Underneath each month, a detailed breakdown of all expenses such as eating out, entertainment and general purchases. The system smartly decides (as well as basing it on your bank statements) which category each expense falls under. If you are unhappy with the decision, you can manually select where the money is linked to. It’s smart, and it works.

Every aspect of 22seven’s system is a breeze to use, even for a money-noob such as myself. Costs go in, results come out. Users are welcome to sign up to the beta. Eventually the cost of the service will be R70 per month. Davel explains that the price is to “align our commercial intent with the happiness of our clients. We have to consistently add value to customers’ lives or go out of business.”

Test subjects

During our initial testing phase, Davel’s team gave us R400, sent us to a shopping centre, and let us loose in retail heaven. Everyone was given different denominations. Some had debit cards loaded with money, others had large bills, some had small bills. It was later explained to us by Myles Leighton, a behavioural economist, that we were divided into three groups to discover the associated guilt and buying decisions which come with money in its different forms.

This is the crux of 22seven then. Regardless of what type of money you have, the value is in understanding where your money goes, and how you can hang onto it better.

Emotion, sentiment and desire

22seven launches today. Can it turn the ordinary user into a turbo-charged fiscal giant? Davel has high hopes, plus the promise of improved decision making for the everyman. “22seven is a personal money service that knows that emotion, sentiment and desire are more powerful than rationality when it comes to decision making. It works with our humanness rather than against it.” Visit 22seven, sign up and enjoy the ride.

Will it work? We think it will. This is no average startup, and its one that will fly. We’ll be watching.

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