Inside Even

We’re bad at being Obi-Wan

When we try to be like Obi-Wan and make people think something other than reality is happening, we’re really bad at it.

This is the first post in a new blog about what we’re learning in the process of building Even. You can read more about the purpose of the blog here.

Because Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Jedi master, he could make people believe in an alternate version of reality by twirling his fingers at them while speaking in soothing tones:

But we are not Jedi masters. So when we try to be like Obi-Wan and make people think something other than reality is happening, we’re really bad at it. That’s what happened with the very first version of Even.

The goal of version 1 was to provide members with an “Even Salary”: a steady amount of pay they could count on getting every payday, based on the average amount they made in their variable paychecks.

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We believed having this salary would reduce members’ stress and make it easier for them to plan, budget, save, and spend the way they wanted.

The catch was, we didn’t have the power to change the way members actually got paid; they would continue to receive direct deposit paychecks from their employers into their bank accounts like normal. Given that constraint, our goal was to create the experience of a salary using the power we did have, of transferring money in and out of members’ Even-connected bank accounts.

The experience we came up with was nicknamed “Replace.” The day before a member’s regular payday, Even would deposit their Even salary amount into their bank account. The next day, as soon as Even detected that their paycheck from work had been deposited to that same account, Even would withdraw the money in the paycheck (It went into a separate savings account called the “Even Safe”).

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The idea was that the Even salary deposit would “replace” the paycheck deposit, not just literally but also psychologically in the sense that members would start thinking of their Even salary as their “real” income and ignoring their paychecks (“These aren’t the dollars you’re looking for”).

Pulling this off would have been a real Jedi mind trick. Because as we knew from our own research, Even members were in the well-established habit of checking their online banking each payday to find out how much they’d made and how much they could spend. We were asking them to make a big change — to start checking a new place (the Even app) and relying on a new number (their Even salary). It didn’t work.

People knew their paycheck money was real; they could see it right there in their accounts. Crucially, they could see it hours before Even could, because of delays in banks sending information. This frequently led to members spending the money from a paycheck before we even knew it had arrived, forcing us to cancel the paycheck withdrawal in order not to overdraft their accounts.

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(Members weren’t necessarily trying to thwart our system — most of them just didn’t get how it worked since we did a poor job of explaining it.)

What people didn’t know anymore because of Replace was how much of the money in their accounts was actually okay to spend. Before Even, the available balance number they saw in their online banking had been a relatively reliable indicator of that. But Even’s various deposits and withdrawals caused that number to fluctuate wildly around payday, making it worthless as an indicator. In the following excerpt of a support interaction, you can see Luke,* one of our earliest Even members, struggling to make sense of things:

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When I interviewed him around that time, Luke (the ideal research participant) gave it to me straight: “It’s hard to imagine this current model adding a lot of value to my life.” Reflecting on Replace, Even cofounder Cem says, “I think we assumed we were replacing kinda ‘magically,’ when in fact we were leaving a messy trail behind.” This messiness was the result of us disrupting members’ existing bank-account reality without successfully replacing it with a convincing-enough alternate “Even” reality. Replace wasn’t magical at all — more akin to Vader’s force grip than Obi-Wan’s hypnotic voice.

The payday experience we switched to and currently use is “Boost.” Now, when a member gets a paycheck, we leave it right there in their account. If their check is lower than their Even salary, we “boost” their check by sending them a deposit for the difference, so they end up with their full salary amount. The next time they get a check higher than their salary, we make a withdrawal to pay ourselves back.

Boost provides the same essential value of reliable pay, without asking people to abandon their reality for one of our own creation.

Even cofounder Ryan’s conclusion from the Replace fiasco is, “We need to fit into members’ context.” That means “embracing their bank as the place where money lives and where people live their financial lives.” And not trying to be Obi-Wan. Because we suck at that.

*Luke gave me permission to share his story in this post.