Penny, a personal finance bot we reviewed last fall, has raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Social Capital.
As a refresher, the app offers a chat-based interface that offers advice tailored to your personal finances. This advice includes things like how much you spend on food each week, how this month’s spending compares to last month’s and even income graphs.
One unique thing about Penny is that the app only lets you send pre-populated messages, not natural language requests.
While we originally touted this as one of Penny’s downsides, the recent explosion of chat-based bots (most of which are terrible at parsing a user’s natural language requests) now helps explain why pre-populated messages may actually be beneficial to the user. The startup explains that they implemented this feature so the user isn’t forced “to figure out not only what they want to ask, but also how to ask it in a way the bot understands.”
Essentially, the pre-populated options make it easier for a user to just talk to the bot, and not worry about what to say and how to say it.
Since we looked at Penny last year, the startup has also rolled out new features to help people change their financial behavior. For example, the app now will help users decide if their gym membership is worth it, or compare your Amazon spending with the average person’s.
As we enter the age of bots, it’s becoming clear that a messaging interface just isn’t the best way to do everything. Shopping is an example — many startups have pushed shopping bots, but until the technology progresses, it’s definitely not easier or better than shopping through a traditional e-commerce site.
On the other hand, finance could be an area where bots shine. No one likes to log into their bank’s account portal, and even when they do it’s difficult to parse and understand the itemized statements offered each month. A bot can interpret this information and simplify it for the user, which hopefully can lead to the average consumer being better at understanding their financial situation.
Penny currently only lives in its own iOS- and Android-based mobile app. However, Mitchell Lee, co-founder of Penny, noted that they would definitely consider putting their bot on a platform like Facebook Messenger, but not yet — mainly because the startup can’t yet see a clear value proposition of offering Penny on other platforms. This is because the young platforms aren’t yet developed enough to fully support Penny’s key features (secure password entry, pre-populated responses, etc).
The startup will use the funding to hire one or two people to deepen their expertise in machine learning, a critical (but often forgotten) part of developing a bot. It will also let them continue to experiment with figuring out how Penny will provide value to users, as the app currently doesn’t have any monetization components.