When Ilian Georgiev left a career in gaming to start developing a new personal finance solution, he began by interviewing all kinds of folks in terms of income, demographics and financial sophistication. The CEO of Charlie Finance quickly learned that personal finance isn’t really about money.
“When you talk to people, they talk in terms of verbs, like how do I afford to buy shoes or send my kids to school,” Georgiev said. “They don’t ask how to prevent overdraft, and they don’t need more charts.”
As a gaming product manager, Georgiev has worked on some of the top grossing mobile games in history, like TapZoo and Paradise Cove. He’s launched games that scaled to hundreds of millions of users. The gaming community drives 75 percent of mobile revenues and knows how to make a lot of money. He sees Charlie as his way of using his evil powers for good.
As it conducted customer development interviews, the Charlie Finance team saw how easily overwhelmed people get when it comes to managing their money. While they might be motivated to do the right thing, people get lost when it comes to finance. Between the math and the amount of data personal finance apps spit out, they tune out.
“We are built to chase antelopes, not to do data dumps that are our bank statements,” Georgiev said.
The ex-gamers concluded that to be effective, Charlie would have to do the heavy lifting while the user remains mainly passive. They built Charlie to deliver advice, like how to avoid overdraft or save for certain goals, after crunching a user’s bank and payment information in the background. Charlie isn’t an app or a website and there’s nothing to download. Consumers use a conversational interface to ask Charlie questions over Facebook Messenger or via text.
This simplicity requires a lot of back end complexity. The Charlie team didn’t set out to remove the user interface — game designers understand how to get the most out of mobile apps. But for the simplicity and timeliness they required, it became clear that conversation was the right format.
“It forces you to be super simple and to the point — if it doesn’t fit in 140 characters, it’s not simple enough,” Georgiev said. “Don’t offload complexity on to the user. Going to conversation forces us to just deliver the punchline. It is the oldest UI.”
Charlie itself is like a game. As a character, Charlie takes the form of a penguin. He’s been designed to be an assistant, positioning himself into the social hierarchy as inferior to the end user. That’s in contrast to other chatbots that were designed to assume coach status. Charlie’s fascinated by humans and humbly offers users suggestions, not commands.
Like a character in a game, the colorful penguin has a 25 page character bible, defining his voice and origin story. For many Americans, who are vulnerable when it comes to money, Charlie aims to lower anxiety. When a notification is delivered, it starts with something as simple as “Good news” or “I’m worried”, quickly influencing how a user should feel about the news without having to engage the part of the brain that deals with numbers. This technique, common in gaming, is about building a fantasy world, motivated by emotions.
Charlie scours for opportunities for its users to save money. It’s not enough for the penguin to just tell a user that her bill is too high. To make the advice actionable, Charlie wants to create deep integrations with partners, like it has with BillShark and US Mobile. You can sign up for BillShark to negotiate lower bills directly from Charlie. Charlie also analyzes users’ phone bills, determines their mobile provider and then compares their current plans to about 260 different mobile phone plans. If Charlie determines that US Mobile can save a customer money, a user can hit a button and within a couple of days receive a SIM card in the mail.
“We’re trying to create magical, frictionless experiences,” said Georgiev.
For some users, Charlie’s occasional text messages are enough to steer them in the right financial direction. 22 year old Alyssa lives in Apple Valley, California. She found Charlie when she was going through a tight financial situation and was looking to save and make more money.
“Charlie constantly alerts me to balance changes and upcoming bills so I don’t overspend anymore,” she said. “Now, I’m saving for my first house and Charlie has helped me set up reasonable goals that I can actually accomplish. It takes a huge weight off of my shoulders.”
Callie lives in Florida with her husband and Jack Russell. She started using Charlie while following Dave Ramsey’s steps to debt freedom and experimented with other budgeting tools.
“The cute little Charlie penguin gives you updates daily on your budgeting and your goals,” she said. “He has helped me spend less and save more on the things that matter to me most — such as forgoing buying that next thing on Amazon and instead putting aside some money for my husband and me to take a small trip next summer.”
The app-less Charlie Finance takes a different approach to helping people manage their money. Designed by gamers, it assumes the cognitive load of personal finance decisioning onto its own servers, leaving a user largely passive. Using behavioral triggers, its only deliverable to users consists of short messages, urging them to take specific behaviors at opportune times. It’s early days but if Charlie is successful attracting a large userbase, it may have ushered in a new framework for personal finance tools.