Archive for February, 2006

Virtual Currency Support

February 25, 2006

You have used BillMonk to track rent, meals, and trips, but what about splitting the cost for buying that plot of virtual land in a virtual world? Well now you can!

Today we added support for virtual currencies, such as those used in massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, or thriving online communities like Second Life. Why? Because these virtual worlds are producing huge and complex economic systems of their own which are tied to the real world.

You only have to do a couple of searches on the topic before uncovering a plethora of virtual currency exchanges where you can exchange hard dollars (or euros, yen, etc.), for in-game money like Lineage Adena or Everquest Platinum. Furthermore, there are lots of vendors of virtual goods selling everything from virtual land, to virtual clothing in exchange for real-world cash. In fact, the Second Life community encourages its users to become entrepreneurs in its online world, earn Second Life Dollars, and later convert them back to real money. Wow!

We’re doing this as a trial to see if BillMonk is answering an actual need for tracking debts in virtual money. If there is a lot of interest, we will add more currencies and support exchange rates for virtual currencies. At first, we’re supporting just the biggest MMORPGs and communities:

  • World of Warcraft (gold)
  • Lineage II (adena)
  • Everquest, Everquest II (platinum)
  • Second Life (linden dollar)

As always, we thank the users who requested this feature. Although we ourselves are not big gamers, this seemed like a compelling idea.

[Update 3/1] Enough people asked for Eve Online that we have added the Eve ISK.

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Tagging

February 24, 2006

We’re proud to announce that BillMonk now supports tagging! This powerful new feature gives you more control over reporting and viewing your transactions. Here’s how:

  • Categorize your bills. Pick whatever words (tags) you feel best describe an expense.
  • Drill down by category. On the history page, you can filter the list of transactions by tag. For example, you could choose to see everything that is a “ski-trip” and “meal”.
  • Keep it simple, or see all the details. Not everyone wants to use these advanced features, and you can disable them if you like.

tagging.png

Tagging is great in all sorts of situations. For example:

  • Roommates and couples can tag “utilities”, “rent”, and “groceries”. Want to know how much your house is spending on food? Now it’s easy.
  • On a vacation, you may spend money on hotels, gas, food, and excursions. Tag all of these like “vancouver-trip.”

This release makes us 100% Web 2.0 compliant according to IEEE 97098.19b. *Ahem* Ok, seriously, we’re doing this because tags and other such metadata make BillMonk much more useful, especially if you use it a lot – not because “tagging” is a hot buzzword.

BillMonk Spreads Like a Happy Virus

February 23, 2006

One of the reasons BillMonk has been growing so well is that friends add friends who add more friends. You have an incentive to add your friends because it makes your lives easier. Being the geeks we are, we wanted to visualize this.

user_graph_small.png

This is just a small part of the BillMonk universe. Each dot is a person; bigger dots mean more recent user activity (the very first two users, Gaurav and Chuck, are the colored dots). Lines with arrows (which you can’t see very well) represent a new user invitiation, and lines without arrows show friendships.

Here are some observations:

  • There are some long chains of person to person to person, which is just neat
  • There are lots of clusters, which correspond to real-world groups of friends
  • These clusters usually start with one person (the seed), but often other friends pass it on within the same group or even spread it to a new circle of friends (it’s easy to see the people who span multiple groups)
  • There tend to be two different group patterns:
    • One primary billkeeper is entering bills on behalf of the group (we’d guess these are probably roommate situations)
    • Everyone is creating transactions with everyone else
  • Lots of people are using BillMonk regularly
  • One thing this graph doesn’t show you is that people often check out the site, then come back a week later when they have a need for BillMonk

Whenever we do this kind of analysis, we are always very careful to protect user privacy. The first thing we do is to strip all potentially identifying information. (The exception in this case is for ourselves as users).

5 Days, 15 Currencies

February 21, 2006

One of the coolest things about launching with international features is seeing people from all over the world use your service. In the 5 days since we added multiple currency support, we’ve seen transactions in 15 currencies – and each day new ones pop up! The list so far includes:

  • AUD – Australia
  • CAD – Canada
  • CLP – Chile
  • CNY – China
  • EUR – European Union
  • GBP – United Kingdom
  • ILS – Israel
  • INR – India
  • JPY – Japan
  • NZD – New Zealand
  • PLN – Poland
  • RUB – Russia
  • SEK – Sweden
  • SGD – Singapore
  • USD – United States

Comments, History Page, Currency Conversion, and More

February 19, 2006

We pushed out a release tonight with a slew of new features and fixes. Many thanks to the users whose feedback encouraged these changes! Here’s what is different:

  • New comments area for shared bills, IOUs, and payments. You and your friends can discuss the bill and sort out what happened. When a bill is saved or changed, the comments are included in the notification email. This lets you keep all your negotiations in one place.
  • History page now shows who paid and the impact on you.
  • New foreign exchange calculator. A handy tool that guides you through converting between an amount in one currency to another currency. We look up the current exchange rate, and you can use that or whatever exchange rate you think is right.
  • Currency symbols are now displayed to the right of the amount for currencies where it’s important. (Let us know if we missed your currency!)
  • Tool tips for the “Create new…” IOU, shared bill, and payment buttons.
fx_calc.png Exchange rate calculator pop-up

I *heart* BillMonk

February 19, 2006

We created BillMonk in part because we needed something like it for our own social lives.

I was reminded of this last night when I was out to dinner with 11 friends. Out of morbid curiosity, I held my tongue at first so I could observe the traditional Ritual of Splitting the Check. One person had hardly eaten anything, and so of course didn’t want to pay a full 1/11th of the bill; three people didn’t have any cash, only credit cards; everyone else had twenties; nobody could agree on what the tip should be, or even how much each person owed – in short, it was a mess. At one point, we tried to foist the math on the waitress. We handed her 5 credit cards with the instructions “put one share on this card, two shares on this card and that card, and…”. She flatly refused.

The situation was getting dire, and the clock was fast approaching the time of the show we were all supposed to be seeing. I couldn’t bear it any longer, so I heroically (at least in the telling) grabbed the bill, saying, “I’ll just BillMonk it.” As we walked to the show, I recorded it into my cell phone so I wouldn’t forget.

It was the perfect poster child for BillMonk – well, almost. Some friends had later worked out various payment schemes amongst themselves, but had no way to communicate it with the rest of the group. Anyone could of course change the details of the bill themselves, but there was no way to annotate the bill with their thought process so as to make a discussion/negotiation possible.

This, of course, would not do!

This morning I sprung into action and coded up the ability to add comments to bills, and to include these comments in the emails sent out whenever a bill is changed. That change will go live in a few minutes (less than 24h after the event that spurred me into action!)

The main points of this story are:

  • I love that we can make changes quickly. Yay, us! Yay, Ruby on Rails!
  • The best way to get a change into BillMonk is to take one of us out to dinner (*cough*)
  • I have a social life, but…
  • The boundary between my social life and work life is wearing dangerously thin

Multiple Currency Support is Here!

February 15, 2006

We’re proud to announce that BillMonk now supports many currencies! If yours is missing or we display it incorrectly, please let us know. If you already use the US Dollar, this will not affect you. For our other users, you can pick your default currency upon signing up, or change it from ‘Your Account’.

This is not a simple change of the displayed currency symbol. We keep track of each currency in a separate bucket, e.g. you can owe someone Euros, as well as British pounds. Now when you report a transaction you can pick the currency.

For those of you who will be using BillMonk to track multiple currencies, we will be adding tools to look up exchange rates, and perform currency conversions in the coming weeks.

Picking a Payment Service

February 15, 2006

On TechCrunch today, Michael Arrington covered a mobile payment service, TextPayMe, and concluded by saying “I’d also like to see something like this partnered with BillMonk“. TextPayMe’s blog alludes to the same.

This thinking makes sense because we are two different but potentially complimentary services. TextPayMe is a payments service, like a mobile PayPal. BillMonk does accounting, akin to a social Quicken with a mobile component. We solve the tracking and math problem: we split your bills, add up the bits and pieces, and generally help friends with money.

Roommates, for instance, love BillMonk because their problem is not paying one another, but tracking debts over time so they know how much to pay. But there are other situations, like after a big vacation with friends living in different parts of the country, where after tracking debts you would want to settle up.

BillMonk does not currently support payments, but we will soon – we are currently in talks with several potential partners. While PayPal is the most obvious, we have have some concerns. Their focus is not on the consumer-to-consumer space, and there is poor support for a third party like BillMonk to facilitate transfers, so fees might be too high (see PayPal veteran Ryan Donahue’s analysis; n.b. he covers BillMonk here).

Why aren’t we building our own payments service? Cost. A small company like ours cannot afford to do this on its own without significant investment. Fraud protection is extremely expensive becuase when you deal with other people’s money, you are liable and a target for attack. Chuck saw this first-hand when he worked on the fraud-protection team at Amazon. A senior PayPal executive we recently talked to said “[they] spent 1/5th of their inital $500m on fraud protection”. Ryan’s conclusion about building a payments system? “Do not attempt this.”

Our goal is to pick the system which is safest for our users, easiest to use, allows BillMonk to earn a small commission, all while keeping fees as low as possible for our users. Rest assured, we are working hard on this – and as always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sneak peek at multiple currency support

February 11, 2006

Here at BillMonk labs, we’ve been coding up storm as we add support for all currencies. The core pieces are in place and working, what remains is polish and a rigorous battery of tests.

multiple_currencies_peek.png Here’s an example screen. Vincent is logged in and looking at his friends. Vincent’s native currency is the euro. His girlfriend Amelie and he both live in France, so they both deal in euros. Vincent travels a lot, so Hendrik in Germany owes him euros, and Vincent owes rupees to Rahul in India. When Vincent, Amelie, and their friend visted London to see their friend Peter, Vincent winds up owing Peter many pounds; he also owes Marie a few pounds while at the same time she owes him a few euros. See how easily BillMonk can make sense of all that?

Here are the most important points:

  • You pick your native currency. You can change this whenever you like.
  • If you only ever deal in one currency, you only see one currency – the site will look pretty much like it does today, only with your currency symbol.
  • We tailor your view to your native currency, showing the three letter currency code for all other currencies.
  • You can create bills and IOUs in any currency (default is your native currency). We extend the cell phone interface to allow you to specify currencies other than your default by three-letter code, e.g. “I owe joe GBP15”).
  • Each currency is kept in a separate bucket. For example, Vincent owes Marie 22 pounds while she owes him 11.67 euros. We will help you with currency conversions, but don’t force them upon you. This avoids a lot of disagreements over exchange rates. (The very first release won’t offer very advanced exchange rate support, that will come in a forthcoming second release).

We expect to go live with this change quite soon.

It’s pretty easy for us to add currencies. We don’t want to start with all the currencies in the world because the list would get pretty long. So please, just tell us that you’d like us to include your currency, and we will!

New sign-in, different phone model

February 10, 2006

We pushed out a point release this afternoon. There is a lot of polish (added a friendly summary to the privacy policy, tidied up the FAQ and added more information about phone SMS) and an important change to how we deal with cell phones and the sign-in process.

Before, when you signed in, we asked for your email address and phone number. Now we just ask for your email address. After you sign up (your first-ever login), we take you to a page where you can enter your other email addresses. It makes for a better BillMonk experience if you enter all the addresses that your friends may use to refer to you. We make it clear that we only send account emails to that first email you provided (configurable).

We also show you how you can add your cell phone by sending us a short message (a join-code). So now you use your phone to join BillMonk, rather than telling BillMonk your phone number and letting us figure out how to send a message to your phone. There are a couple of reasons we do this:

  • Anyone in the world, not just the few in the United States, can use BillMonk SMS
  • The new system works much better for certain Verizon users
  • New users will step through sending a SMS message to Bill Monk at least once, which makes them more comfortable with sending SMS messages to us when they’re on the go

Existing users can see this change in “Your Account: Add contact”.

We also changed the site so that you can only invite new people by email, not phone number.

As always, we appreciate feedback. Thanks to all the users whose suggestions led to this change!