On paper, Ashvin Kumar fits the mold of the quintessential twenty-something Bay Area social media entrepreneur: he grew up in the Bay Area, majored in computer science at Stanford University, and worked at a social networking-based start-up after graduation.
However, it would be a mistake to assume Kumar is just another budding social media entrepreneur. Blippy, Kumar’s latest entrepreneurial venture, is bigger and more revelatory than just the latest iPhone application or Twitter-wannabe. Blippy actually has the potential to change the way we spend money.
How? Blippy.com offers an interactive way to see and discuss the things people are buying. Kumar serves as CEO and co-founder along with Chris Estreich and Philip Kaplan.
This is how Blippy works: Users register on the website and choose which of their personal accounts to make visible on their Blippy profile (such as iTunes, Netflix, and eBay accounts). Others choose to share a credit card as well. What you spend on the personal accounts you share on Blippy shows up in your profile feed. Those who “follow” you can see and comment on your purchases.
If making your spending transparent online is unnerving, you’re not alone in feeling this way.
“When we first started, this was a really crazy idea,” said Kumar. “We went to our friends and asked them to publish their credit card statements online. The most common response was, “are you kidding me?”
“But here we are a few months later and we have more than 10,000 people sharing their spending on Blippy,” said Kumar. “Now it doesn’t seem like such a ridiculous idea anymore. Now people see value in this idea.”
In late 2008, Kumar and Estreich left their positions at start-ups to pursue their own venture. Together, they tested out over 15 ideas in one year.
“We would spend a week or two experimenting with an idea, launch it, and see if anyone online validated the thesis of the idea,” said Kumar.
For example, they launched Greetbeatz.com, a site where artists make personalized songs for people in exchange for reasonable commission price. The site is still active today.
Blippy started off as one of these ideas. The thesis behind this idea was this: there is a social interaction that is possible with every purchase we make. Why not validate the thesis by creating a site where we can share information on the things we purchase?
Blippy was founded in December 2009 and has since taken off.
One reason Blippy stands out among the plethora of social media websites and applications is that becoming acquainted with someone through their spending is a unique experience. One could argue that it is a more intimate and personal interaction than, say, “friending” someone on Facebook.
For example, Kumar’s Blippy account (http://blippy.com/ashvin) is prominently featured on the site’s homepage. After the phone interview, I clicked on his profile to view his recent spending. I could see that he spent $44.12 on snacks for the Blippy office and $460.40 on Delta plane ticket to Austin, Texas to attend a last-minute conference.
Suddenly I’ve learned all this information about the interview subject that I wouldn’t have known otherwise—regardless of how many questions I could have asked.
What are the implications of allowing our spending to be public information?
For some, making spending public enforces accountability. A non-profit uses Blippy to publicize their bank statement online so donors can have more trust in them. Others use Blippy for expense reporting and utilize privacy settings to exclusively share finances with an accountant or significant other.
Blippy users also appreciate being able to use the website to compare prices and deals. Type “24 Hour Fitness” in the search engine and you’ll see conversations and shared transactions among Blippy users about how everyone is paying different monthly membership fees for generally the same service. These cost discrepancies exist because businesses like 24 Hour Fitness, which I’m a member of, have variable price schemes that rely on people not sharing information about how much they are getting charged.
For example, after seeing the conversations about 24 Hour Fitness membership fees on Blippy, I asked a friend who is a member of 24 Hour Fitness how much she pays for her monthly membership fee. To my surprise, she pays five dollars less than me simply because the representative who worked out her plan offered a better deal.
“Now with making this kind of information public with Blippy, businesses which relied on variable prices as a technique to make money are on notice,” says Kumar.
I wanted to see if Blippy could help me become more responsible with my spending. It’s been two years since I graduated from college but, in some ways, I still live a college lifestyle because I don’t make a whole lot of money.
I don’t spend more than I make and I don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck, but the reality is I spend more money than I’d like to admit. But I derive pleasure from clinching good deals, implementing cost-cutting measures, and sharing my thrifty practices with my family.
I created an account on Blippy and made my VISA debit card spending public. Instantly, my last thirty purchases appeared on my Blippy profile feed. At first I felt exposed. How would peoples’ impressions of me change based on how I spend money? $2.85 on a latte at Pete’s. Would I appear “boushy” because I bought overpriced gourmet coffee? $52.00 dollars to get my nose pierced in the Haight. Doesn’t throwing down more than 50 dollars to put a hole in my nose seem indulgent during a recession?
Blippy reiterates that spending is a form of expression. “All of a sudden, when your spending is being published online and you know people are watching what you spend, it changes your behavior and how you spend money,” explains Kumar.
After creating my account, I called my mom and asked her to view my Blippy feed (www.blippy.com/rups). We reviewed my recent spending together. My mom commented on some purchases, like the 17 dollars I spent on postal shipping (I could have instead bought a flat rate box for five dollars instead). Contrary to what I feared, my mom didn’t admonish me about my superfluous purchases; instead, she simply reminded about best practices I could utilize.
I realize I’m probably more comfortable about what I put online because a lot of my personal information is already out there on the Internet.
“There is a whole generation who sees more value in being public rather than being private,” Kumar notes.
We live in a world where we’ve increasingly become acquainted with each other, professionally and personally, through social media. Even if keeping track of someone’s spending is a much more intimate online experience, it is not hard to imagine Twitter-happy people of my generation embracing the concept without reservations.
I asked Kumar if he thinks people of my parents’ generation would ever use Blippy, to which he responded by asking me if my mother was on Facebook.
Of course my mother is on Facebook. Kumar’s mother is too.
“The adopters of social technology starts off with the younger users. If someone told you a few years ago that your mom would be in Facebook, that would have sounded ridiculous. The world is moving in this direction and at a certain point, if you can build enough of a network on a site, everyone will get on it. We’re in a very early phase, but over the next 5 to 10 years, people like our parents will be on Blippy.”
Rupa Dev is an associate editor at YO! Youth Outlook/New America Media and resides in San Francisco.