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iOS-only OnTrees hopes to be the of the UK

I've been attending a lot of meetings with various London-based startups in the last few months to learn their stories on what it takes to launch a successful new product. I'm particularly interested in ones that have a heavy slant towards mobile -- and iOS. This interest is magnified when I find a startup that is making a product that truly makes my life easier. One such startup is OnTrees and I think the process of bringing their idea to market is one other iOS developers can learn from.

OnTrees wants to be the of the UK.

Financial data aggregation can be big business. Just ask Aaron Patzer who sold his startup to Intuit in 2009 for $170 million. And while the Intuit deal did lend an air of legitimacy to financial aggregation services in the United States, in other parts of the world -- particularly the United Kingdom -- financial data aggregation services are still looked upon with apprehension. After all, who wants to give their sensitive financial account usernames and passwords to some faceless entity out on the interwebs?

But that's just what UK startup OnTrees is trying to achieve -- and they're doing it on iOS-only for now. It wants to create a one-stop offering that allows users to get a complete financial overview of all their accounts. One login; all your data and spending tracked and graphed. And though generating awareness of what financial aggregation and building trust around it is one challenge, there are others: namely security, bank participation, and making a UX good enough so people will want to spend time with your service. And though OnTrees is still in beta, the company had made great progress in the six months since it had its soft launch in November 2012. Here's what OnTrees founder and Managing Director Charlie Mortimer told me about the experience so far.

Fill a void.

"More than 20 million people in the UK use online banking, of which around 50% have accounts with multiple providers," Mortimer tells me. "Our proprietary research has shown that people using online banking want to keep track of their finances, but the methods they use are typically time-consuming: 32% rely on keeping receipts and cross checking with statements, 20% use Microsoft Excel to keep budgets, 14% keep written notes and 4% use a software package e.g. the now defunct Microsoft Money."

The above could be said to be boring product marketing statics, but they illustrate a point every developer should keep in mind: your product needs to fill a void or why will anyone use it?

And it's that void -- potentially fillable by 20 million UK online bankers -- that makes OnTrees so attractive. After all, financial aggregation giant Mint isn't in the UK. And while there have been other UK financial aggregation services, none have seemed to have caught on even though Mortimer recognizes the need for aggregation to allow people to see their complete financial picture.

But what about just using your bank's web services?

"It's great that some banks (most notably Lloyds) are launching their own 'money managers' that try to help people see what they are spending," Mortimer says. "However, OnTrees' offering is unique because it is 'provider agnostic' and enables users to see their spending across their Lloyds account as well as their Halifax, Barclaycard, and Amex accounts."

And matter of fact, OnTrees works with over 200 financial institutions in the UK, some of which don't even have dedicated apps -- another void increasingly tech savvy, smartphone using consumers are itching to have filled. "For people with these accounts," Mortimer tells me, "OnTrees provides a way of seeing transactions and spending on the move."

Build partnerships.

But surely if OnTrees works with over 200 financial institutions (and counting) it must be a development nightmare -- especially when OnTrees web services and iOS app are only coded by six developers, which seems like something of a skeleton crew for a company that has a goal of providing users with easy-to-understand financial data of all their accounts.

But that's where Mortimer tells me choosing good partnerships is critical.

From day one, OnTrees choose a number of partners carefully. And not just technology partners. Before it's soft launch in November, the company ran a closed beta with users of Mumsnet and the National Union of Students to work out what features were wanted. And make no mistake about it, these were not just "testers." OnTrees thought of them as partners to get valuable feedback from in designing their services.

Mumsnet is a popular UK parenting site (and as any parent knows, tracking finances are always a priority) and the NUS gave OnTrees access to another important group of people -- younger ones who like checking their financial situation from the comfort of their smartphone. The circle of feedback from these partner helped guide OnTrees on its path.

"We've maintained this focus on our users since beta and have recruited a panel of 'SuperUsers' who provide us with really helpful feedback about the site and app which is proving really useful. By doing this, we think we stand a better chance of creating a product that is as useful as possible and truly satisfies consumer demand," Mortimer says.

But partnering presents challenges of its own. "We use quite a broad range of different services, so we do have a challenge in 'knitting' them all together. For example, we use plug-ins for some of our charts, we let users sign in with Facebook and Gmail, and, in bringing this together on the Microsoft Azure platform, we use a range of their off the shelf solutions. Integrating this range of services into a smooth process for users can be a challenge, but this approach does allow us to leverage 'best in class' modules."

And of course there is that small matter of interfacing with over 200 financial institution in the UK. For a team of only six developers, a challenge like that might seem almost insurmountable. But again, this is where partnering matters.

"When we first decided to build a personal finance manager we thought that aggregating from dozens of banks would be a real challenge and would require a significant amount of development work," Mortimer tells me. "That's when we found out more about Yodlee and learnt that they could take care of a lot of these issues, and that, as the leaders in this type of technology, may be able to offer a better service. By using Yodlee to take away these headaches, we are able to concentrate on building the consumer proposition and taking that out to users."

Yodlee is a company that most consumers have probably never heard of, but one of whose services they probably use regularly without ever knowing. The company offers scalable personal financial management solutions for banks and companies, which allows them to work with user's existing financial data. Before Mint was acquire by Intuit in 2009, Yodlee powered its entire backend.

"Yodlee interfaces with the banks and allows us to offer a truly global service. This is quite important in the UK, where a relatively large number of people have accounts in different countries. Yodlee have built 'data agents' which connect to each of the banks' websites and provide us with a user's recent transactions as an xml feed once they have added an account," explains Mortimer. "As the data we get from Yodlee is in a simple (xml) format, it is a good starting point for us to build up data for our users. They also provide a 'best guess' at the categories a user's transactions fall into (e.g. Tesco – groceries) which is useful, but definitely needs improving. The Yodlee system 'learns' over time as more and more users re-categorize their transactions, so this will improve the accuracy."

But even though Yodlee allows OnTrees to offload a majority of the backend work, that doesn't mean relying on partners is all smooth-sailing.

"There are challenges involved, as we have to develop on top of a framework and APIs that they have developed, which are not always ideal for us," Mortimer admits. "As a new brand, it can be hard for us to push for new features which we would like them to offer. However, the pros definitely outweigh the cons, as their platform allows us to offer aggregation of 14,000+ accounts around the world, and focus on how OnTrees can actually help people manage their money."

Choose your platforms.

Creating dual-solution web/app platform is time consuming -- especially for a startup when financial considerations bear more heavily on what you can get accomplished in a set about of time. With that in mind, I asked Mortimer why OnTrees decided to launch with an app and a web service?

"We were keen to do both web and mobile because we think that people use different devices in different ways," Mortimer explains. "Users want to 'manage their money' via the web (e.g. set budgets, open new savings accounts, analyze their spending over time), but they also want to quickly see how much they have in their account, or what they spent last night via the app."

Thus a dual-solution was necessary. And the data that have on their user's usage patterns prove it: one-third of their users are only using mobile, one-third are only using the web, and one-third use both.

"From a development perspective, it's actually probably helped us to launch with a dual-solution, as it has ensured that we separate out our service layer from our web / app layer. This probably meant it took us longer to get everything ready, but means that we're in a better place for launching new versions, as we have a very distinct 'service' layer in our architecture."

As for mobile, OnTrees initially choose only to support iOS upon its soft launch last year. Mortimer explains why: "We actually started building for both Android and iPhone, but realized that as we only have a small team, we could only really support one format. We chose iPhone as it has the largest number of users on a single device." However, Android users can expect a native app in the near future.

Build trust in your product.

Though OnTress is technically out of beta, the company is still working on refining the service so its hard launch won't be for another several months (though new users can start using the service today). One it's developmental journey the company seems to have successfully used partnerships and good-ol-fashioned developer know-how to bring together a pretty slick service. But one last major hurdle is left to be overcome: convincing a critical mass of users that their financial data is safe with OnTrees.

Indeed, Mortimer admits that dealing with users' highly sensitive customer data was the most challenging part of launching OnTrees. "Our main priority when developing OnTrees has always been security. Throughout the development process, we have had to make sure that everything we do adheres to the highest levels of security. Whilst necessary, this has slowed down development, which can be frustrating at times as there are lots of new features we want to add, and it also increases the amount of testing we have to do."

Part of that security involves Yodlee's security protocols (which, because of their time in the business, are virtually as strong as you can get -- a benefit from choosing the right partner), while other security involved externally-validated processes that are certified by TigerScheme.

Having used their service with my own personal accounts for over a month now makes me believe they achieved their security goals. But I'm used to financial aggregation sites (I use Mint for my US accounts) and I've had a lot more contact with OnTrees about their security than most customers ever will. So how does the company go about proving to potential users that their data will be safe?

Mortimer says that delivering a high level of customer service is key. "We have our number on the site so anyone can call and speak to us, we can explain more about what we do, and that we're a UK based site. We're also keen to make sure we get back to people really quickly whether they call, email, tweet, or Facebook message us, and try to resolve any issues or answer any questions they have."

Another method OnTrees uses -- that's already a staple of most developer's relations -- is promoting the product to influential and well-respected journalists, bloggers, and media outlets. Independent scrutiny is key here. Another method OnTrees uses, which goes back to choosing the right partners, is that they work with already-trusted financial sites, like who are one of the UK's leading personal finance sites with 4 million visitors per month. OnTrees uses their content and product tables to ensure that we have high quality, independent news content on the site.

"In short, we believe that if we work to the highest levels of security, are very transparent in what we do, and try to convey that message, then we will build trust and credibility."

Building a financial empire.

Will OnTrees become the next Mint? Time will tell. But they certainly seem to be doing everything right from a developer's perspective: they've recognized a void that needs to be filled, sought out the right partners, chose their platforms, and are working to build user trust. But Mortimer says there's one more piece to the puzzle: a good UX.

"Another challenge we face is in making users' data fun and easy to understand. How do you turn rows of financial transactions into something that helps users manage their money better? We're currently looking at lots of different ways to present this data, so that people can interact more with it. This seems to be a common challenge in the industry with lots of hype around 'big data' but few people able to make it meaningful and engaging."

Can OnTrees do it? That's something Mortimer would bet his money on.

OnTrees is a free download on the UK App Store.

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