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Competition Redefined – Lessons from Wesabe’s Demise

Posted on October 11, 2010 by Sean

Competition breeds excellence and we all enjoy the fruits of the fight. It brings us better phones and better food and better experiences at (usually) better prices. Without competition we might not have Android smartphone software or the Macbook or the commoditized coffee chain from which I write this blog.

There are two groups of winners in any competitive arena, first and most obvious - the winner of the event, whether it’s a sports team who won the series or start-up who secured the most VC interest. The second group of winners is us - the market, those for whom the gadget was designed, for whom the game was played. If the winning team is at the receiving end of millions (or billions?) of dollars, we’re at the receiving end of a product polished, edited and refined by the competitive process; and for us, the more brutal the competition, the better.

In his post-mortem essay, “Why Wesabe Lost to Mint” Wesabe co-creator, Marc Hedlund responds to speculations surrounding the Wesabe vs. Mint competition, and debunks several misunderstandings associated with Wesabe’s eventual acquiescence.

If you haven’t used or heard of either, both Wesabe and Mint were/are personal finance web-applications. In his essay, Hedlund makes his intentions clear. “I prioritized trying to build tools that would eventually help people change their financial behavior for the better, which I believed required people to more closely work with and understand their data” he says.  A noble pursuit, to be sure, but in the end, not enough.

It wasn’t the name.  Hedlund mentions several examples of screwy-names-turned-profitable, listing Google, Yahoo and Amazon (I might also submit Hulu). While the term “mint” helps conjure images of fortresses full of gold bars or the literal creation of money, Wesabe supplements bland sushi. No matter, he says, it wasn’t the name that held them back.

And it wasn’t the timing, either. According to Hedlund, Wesabe had nearly a 10 month head-start on Mint. In the world of all-night programming binges and instant market feedback, 10 months is an eternity. While he admits that there are some advantages in not being first (learning from competition missteps, free market research etc.) it is generally valuable to be the first to market. Wesabe was first and they still failed.

“Most people simply won't care enough or get enough benefit from long-term features if a shorter-term alternative is available” Hedlund concedes. As someone deeply interested in personal finance (and well-versed in the usefulness of web-apps) I’ve tried both services and found Hedlund’s hypothesis true, without question. While Wesabe might have yielded the most permanent results (Long-term personal finance improvement) I never got past the myriad of fields and required data-entry. Simply put, Wesabe was too hard to use.

Mint, at the other end of the spectrum, might be too simplistic to effect real change. Yes, it gives me a nice macroscopic view of my finances. It sends me emails when I am approaching my determined budget-limit in certain financial categories. It’s effective in that regard, but I believe long-term, sustainable personal finance goals are met when the user develops responsibility and discipline - qualities likely to come through a series of repeated micro decisions. The sad irony is that while Hedlund and I are simpatico in this regard, he is the co-founder of an out-of-business personal finance enterprise and I am the user of a semi-ineffective personal finance web application.

In my experience, most of us slave over branding issues and domain name ideas and spend too much time doubled-over and panting with exhaustion trying to beat the competition to market. Mint wasn’t first, and yet they won because they gave us what we wanted.  Maybe it’s time to consider what the user actually wants, rather than what we want them to want.

For now, I’ll just check my email and make sure it’s okay to buy another cup of coffee.

 


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