In a time when Australians still seem to get technology products long after they're built in the US, but the local startup scene is booming, it was only a matter of time before someone threw their hands up and said they'd do it themselves. For entrepreneur Alvin Singh, that happened this year in the oddest place for a struggling startup: his pocket book.
As a business owner, Alvin Singh found himself with a problem with balancing his books. Previously, he'd been using tools like Mint.com to track his transactions; however, after it was bought by Intuit in 2009 and restricted to the US and Canadian markets only, Singh had to go back to doing everything by hand, come tax time.
"The last couple of years, I've been doing it manually and it's been a real pain. This year, I started doing it and I thought, 'This really sucks!'"
Without an Australian-focused application, Singh, in his frustration, began to code a few tools to make his life easier — and before he knew it, he was adding more and more features to what had started out as simple way to import transactions into a spreadsheet.
Instead of manually importing information from his bank accounts, he found ways to automate the process, and then, not content with stopping there, he realised that he might as well automate how transactions are categorised, too.
"It started to get quite sophisticated.
"If we see something like a cafe, for example, we put it under food. If we see a restaurant, we put it under restaurants, and then, over time, the system learns by itself as more and more transactions come in. It learns, 'Big W? That means clothing.'"
Singh's market isn't empty. His competition will eventually include the likes of Intuit, when it inevitably moves to Australia, and he is already up against stiff competition from Australia's major banks. ANZ has its own MoneyManager web application, which allows users from any Australian bank to do things like analyse their expenses and income in a single place.
For now, however, Pocketbook's focus is still on what forced Singh to take matters into his own hands in the first place: finance is not a simple matter. Singh and Tan have instead been trying to make things so simple that users shouldn't need to spend time importing and categorising transactions, which is something that most competitors rely on the user to do.
Singh claims that some users will simply spend 30 seconds getting signed up, and everything will be automatically categorised, due, in part, to how Pocketbook learns what categories transactions should be in from other users.
"Our whole reason for being is to make it super simple. For 30 seconds, you're going to get a whole lot, and if you delve a little bit deeper, you're going to get even more."
Pocketbook also appears to be ahead, or at least looking toward the future, in more than one way. Pocketbook is tied into Android and iOS, providing users with the ability to not only get a quick overview of their accounts, but also project what their financial situation will look like based on past expenditure and other upcoming expenses, like bills.
"Every Sunday at about 10 a.m. while you're having a coffee or your breakfast, you get a small snapshot update of what happened last week and what's coming up this week."
Pocketbook hasn't found a way to use Google Now to present the information on cards — Google controls everything that goes on its cards — but it is among the first Australian companies to use Apple's Passbook, which until now has only really been used for displaying bar codes, not at-a-glance information.
Singh and Tan are also using the regularity of payments to immediately recognise when something is a bill, or when something is amiss. When it detects something, it can flag a transaction in real time, then offer the necessary contact details for the company that performed the transaction, so the user can simply press a button and follow it up with a call.
Even while developing Pocketbook, Singh has come across instances where it has alerted him of problems, and he has had to double-check that it was accurate.
"When we first set up this auto-detection feature, I set it up and ran it, and it told me I was a week late for a Telstra bill. I thought, alright, this must be wrong, but I went and checked and it was actually late."
Pocketbook also flagged an additional home loan fee that he should have been exempt from, saving him AU$900.
Singh and Tan's focus on being an Australian operation also rolls over to conducting their business locally, taking a few lessons from the top minds in Google Australia and Atlassian to first use the local market as a sandbox before branching out.
Singh said he wants to "get it right here first before hitting the accelerator," but that this doesn't necessarily mean treating those in Australia like test dummies. Although Singh and Tan have features like automatic categorisation, real-time flagging, and the like implemented, they've only released Pocketbook as a private beta.
"We're trying to get the behaviours right, and if we get that right, then we want to hit the scale button. That's why we're in private beta at the moment."
But, more importantly, Singh and Tan appear to be cautious of becoming victims of their own success and creating false expectations.
"We don't want to sell a big promise. We want to make sure we're delivering, and then start talking to people to get us to the next stage.
"We want to be on rock-solid ground to make a pitch or go talk to people to take us to the next stage."
As such, Singh and Tan have only put in an application for one startup accelerator so far, despite having reasonable success at SydStart earlier this year, only four weeks after Pocketbook was founded.
But the pair hinted that there may be more opportunities other than the traditional route of raising funding and going it alone.
"What's potentially most surprising [are] all the corporate-innovation types. They're talking to us, and I think that's really encouraging in that they're starting to recognise this is an important field," Tan said.
"They're seeing what's happening over in the US, and seeing the innovation that's happening by these startups in Silicon Valley and New York, and they're starting to take notice. The same thing is being done here. Corporates want to get a little bit ahead of the game, and this is one way they see that [happening]. They see what these smaller guys are doing, because they can innovate quickly, innovate faster, cut through red tape, whereas in large corporates, it's much, much harder," Singh said.