Joining the increasingly crowded online personal finance space is Banzai, the brainchild of Morgan Vandagriff (LinkedIn) who envisioned the system while working for a wealth management-advisory firm, SEI Investments.
Vandagriff, a 2002 Wharton biz school graduate, is positioning his firm as a financial assistant, not just a financial automation tool. Rather than sit back and let users put their finances on autopilot, Banzai induces them to spend 5 minutes every day tracking and categorizing their spending. And unlike Web 2.0 companies hoping to scale to millions of users with a handful of employees, Banzai assigns a personal coach to each user and actively encourages users to make contact.
How it works
Banzai uses "jars" as the metaphor for budget categories. Users establish jars for every bill, spending category, and income item. Transactions are uploaded from previously downloaded bank and credit card statements using a proprietary uploader similar to Wesabe's. Entries can also be made manually.
Banzai then forces users to take money for every transaction from one of the pre-established jars. It believes that it's important for users to "touch" every transaction to see how it impacts their pre-established spending plan. If a jar is empty, say groceries, then users must take money from another jar to cover the transaction. It helps users see the tradeoffs in spending. It's not a zero-sum game. Users can have their "reserve" jar go negative, signifying debt spending.
Take the company tour here.
The four-person company is headquartered in Provo, UT, coincidentally just 10 miles from their most similar competitor Mvelopes, a personal finance site established in 2002 and run by Finicity (formerly In2M). The company has been in development mode since early this year. It is planning an official launch (to public beta) on Nov. 12, but anyone can sign up now at its website.
The company also competes with newer players, Wesabe, Mint, Buxfer, Jwaala and others and the big packaged-software players, Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft Money (note 1). Like its most-similar competitor, Banzai's business model calls for modest monthly or semi-annual fees; in this case, $4.95/mo or $29.70 for six months. The $30 fee includes a copy of a 120-page book, The Banzai Way.
Banzai has a great logo, user-friendly layout, vibrant color and easy-to-read copy. The company has developed a good product tour, YouTube video, and blog – all the usual trappings of a Web startup, circa 2007. And the founder sounds very customer focused. It's unfortunate that a video game occupies the primary URL <banzai.com>. The company's <banzaiway.com> address along with the unusual spelling, will make it somewhat harder to find.
I like what Banzai is doing, but I wonder, as I always do, how the company will attract users. Few people have the discipline to spend any time, let alone 5 minutes a day, managing their finances, and most of those already use Quicken or Money. And the $5/mo fee puts Banzai at a disadvantage compared to the free sites.
However, Mvelopes has survived at double that rate, and if customers can be convinced it works, one caramel macchiato per month is not much to pay to keep your financial house in order. In fact, a site is somewhat more trustworthy when its business model is obvious, an important benefit in online finance. Finally, putting a a face on the product with a personal coach on call may help differentiate Banzai from the free sites.
Screenshot: Transaction sorting
Screenshot: Jar setup wizard