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Occasionally something crosses my desk that triggers a dusty synapse.
A company called Voot is one of them. Voot is an app for splitting the bill, but in advance. Say someone books a weekend home or pays for the soccer coach's gift, that person can get reimbursed quickly and accurately, without having to nag people or get stiffed.
Voot, however, reminded me of Vig. It was a "web site" or a "dot com" back in the early 2000s when I covered such things for the New York Post. It was started by a PR guy who couldn't stand to see people throwing good money after other people's bad ideas and wanted some action of his own. Vig was based on the word vigorish, or the winnings. If you talk about the vig you are talking about the cut or the take, the amount charged by a bookmaker, or the interest on a shark's loan. Plus, you sound streetwise when all you probably do is push pixels around on the screen of a wheezing Windows 95 Pentium. Vig was an early fintech play, as they didn't call it back then, some way of paying money back. I think. I don't remember any more than the weird name.
Voot, on the other hand, is alive and well in the cloud and in Southeast Portland. It launched in July.
Voot (wevoot.com, not to be confused with Viacom's Indian entertainment site, voot.com) is a classic startup. No longer made in garages, such products are built at dining room tables by people who work from home but sometimes work together. (The coders are in Mexico and Belfast.)
Katie Lamb, who wears many hats, especially the marketing hat but not the developer hat, says Voot is most useful for those situations where a group purchase can derail a friendship if someone doesn't pull their weight.
"Ultimately someone doesn't"
She gives examples from her own family life: paying for the East Side Lacrosse uniforms, or booking a trip to Bend. Someone, usually the coach (her hubby) has to shell out $1,500 for dues and $400 for uniforms, and then collect the money from the other parents, usually by an ugly combination of checks, cash and Venmo. "Ultimately someone doesn't," she says.
A Voot user invites people to a web page where they are told how much the purchase will be and what the split is. Then everyone has to cough up electronically before anything else happens. Lamb says that peer pressure is far more effective than collecting money after the fact. Once everyone has paid, the system creates a one-time-use virtual Visa card — basically a hyper link that can be pasted into a payment system — and then the purchase can be made. If there is any money left over it is automatically split and returned to the participants. This is useful for security deposits.
Going to Bend made paying for a shared house more complicated. "It wasn't Airbnb or Vacasa, but we are talking to them about maybe integrating payment with them."
Voot is for preplanned purchases, not spontaneous ones like splitting the bill at dinner. Another example is going on a trip with multiple families: someone has to do a supermarket run and inevitably feels resentful about shopping, cooking and collecting cash when they're supposed to be enjoying themselves.
Lamb used it for buying sports team pictures which were only available at the lower price if bought in bulk. "In a couple of hours everyone had paid in. That's different!"
Also, the app, not the planner, does the dirty work of chivvying people along and reminding them to pay.
Right now, the app only takes credit cards. They are gearing up for ACH, which moves money electronically from checking accounts. When credit card charges go through the "interchange" they incur a 2.9 percent charge, which the retailer rarely passes on to the consumer. "That can really add up when you are spending thousands. ACH we'll cap at $5."
They hope to use Stripe, a new, secure ACH company, which charges 0.8 percent. Voot itself charges $1 per use, so if 10 people are sharing, Voot earns $10.
"Rental cars, rafting trips, ziplines, wine tasting renting a limo, these are things that it's great for. Now we're educating people how to use it."
She adds it is also good for paying for childcare when one divorced parent can't stand to talk to the other.
"Just set it up on Voot and you don't have to nag!"
Voot's competition includes Snapcash, MakeItSocial, PayByGroup and Zelle, the international banks' way of fighting back against PayPal and peer to peer money transfer
Lamb says Voot is different because it is not market specific or merchant specific. It's about persuading consumers — families and friends — to use it.
Money transfer licenses cost $5,000 per state. Voot is self-financing, "staff" get equity that vests in four years, not a salary, and Lamb makes no secret of an exit strategy based on being acquired by a big fish such as PayPal.
The CTO John Pontefract outsources development to Inner Square. Features they were asked to add during beta testing with 320 testers included a way copy and paste to the Visa card link.
That is all simple stuff. I like Voot, because of its simplicity. One, Voot goes after a real bourgeois irritation — splitting a bill remotely — and two, it only tries to do one thing. In a world of mission creep and feature bloat, that's refreshing.
They used a Facebook insider group for six months and they are trying to go after influencers, bloggers and idea testers to spread the word on the cheap.
Voot partnered with XPND Interactive for help spreading it. (Lamb's husband Peter Lamb, Voot's Vice President, had previously worked with them on Ni-Q, the breast milk bank, and XPND Interactive seemed to know what they were doing.)
"We're looking for a personality type,
not just a demographic. Ours is an extrovert, a planner. We did a Myers Briggs
test on people who had expressed an interest," said Katie Lamb. Given how quickly ideas spread in the social space — especially when people are feeling strong emotions about money, family and lifestyle — I think they have a shot at making it.
Vig, for the record, seems to have vanished from the record, and gone to the land of the unGoogleable.
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