CubeCheater Updates

A couple of interesting things have been happening in the CubeCheater world recently.

First, I recently received a nastygram cease-and-desist from the Rubik's Cube company, which claims that CubeCheater infringes on its rights.  Apparently they claim rights to any and all "depictions" of Rubik's Cubes.

I obviously did not use any "Rubik" names or logos in the app, so I had thought it would be in the clear, especially since the app only solves cubes and does not simulate them. I don't know enough about intellectual propery law to know whether it's legitimate to claim rights to depictions of products, but there does seem to be some precedent for trademarking the "likeness" of a product.

Either way, there's no way I could possibly afford to fight it in court, so I didn't have much of a choice. I negotiated with the Rubik's Cube company, and we came to an agreement that I could keep CubeCheater alive as long as it was available for free.

So this week I made CubeCheater available for free on the App Store. In the few days since then, it's been downloaded about 25,000 times.

On a more positive note, version 1.2 of CubeCheater is now available, and adds support for many new languages!  CubeCheater is now translated into Japanese, German, French, Italian and Spanish. Fortunately the app doesn't have a whole lot of text so it was fairly easy to translate. Still, some problems did come up, such as most of the German text strings being too long for the buttons that I had calibrated for the English version. Eventually I got everything to fit.

Here are some screenshots of CubeCheater in Japanese and German:

CubeCheater in Japanese

CubeCheater in German

Posted on June 20, 2009

Lite Sales Boost

So as promised, here's more data about how the release of Piratizer Lite helped the sales of the full version of Piratizer. As expected, it did create a light (ha) boost in sales. Here's the graph - the large spike around June 1 was about when the Lite version was released:

Piratizer Sales

Piratizer Lite sales boost

So it's still a little early to conclusively call it a trend, but the release of the Lite version seems to have boosted sales of Piratizer by about 4-5x. Sales are now around 20-25 per day.

The one thing I know the sales won't do is stay constant, but imagining that they did, 25 sales per day would be about 9000 per year. Add in say 5 more apps pulling similar numbers and you could have yourself a nice little source of passive income, which is a good thing to have during these days of recessions and layoffs.

It's looking more and more like Piratizer won't achieve the great success of CubeCheater, which is what I had feared and intended to test by making the app. Certainly with 50,000 apps now in the App Store, only a select few are going to be making any real amounts of money, given the way the system is set up.

Posted on June 15, 2009

Lite

It's been a few weeks since Piratizer was released, so it's about time for an update. Unfortunately the update is not all that good - yet.

After an initial burst of purchases by friends and family (thanks everyone!), daily sales have slowed and and leveled off in the single digits:

Piratizer Sales - First Three Weeks

Piratizer Sales - First 3 weeks

The problem is the same one that most other iPhone apps face: nobody knows that the app exists. With 40,000 other apps on the App Store, it's impossible to find any apps that aren't in the Top 100 lists, unless you hear about the app through some other means, and then search for it. The trick is to somehow get enough people to buy the app in one 24-hour period that it shows up on the top lists, where lots of other people will see it and then buy it (hopefully).

So far the response from existing customers has been positive, so I'm hoping that the app will be popular if it can just get onto the charts.

CubeCheater was able to really take off once it got mentioned by Wired, Gizmodo, and other high-profile sites. Unfortunately I'm not sure that Piratizer has quite the same "cool factor" required to get mentioned on one of those sites (of course I have submitted it for review to all of those sites, but no luck so far - they probably get hundreds of apps submitted every day, so it's difficult to stand out of the crowd).

Not all hope is lost, though: there are still a lot of other opportunities to increase sales. Since "app visibility" is such a large problem, enterprising developers have come up with lots of ways to tackle it. The first big one I'm going to try is the "Lite" strategy: make a Lite version of the application which has limited features and advertises the full paid version. Huge numbers of people download all the free apps they can get, so any free app is almost guaranteed to be downloaded many times, at least if it's any good. The popularity of the free app will drive some fraction of users to "convert" up to the paid app.

This "demo" strategy has existed forever, but its power on the App Store was only really quantified with the success of the iShoot app, as chronicled in this Wired article. Ethan Nicholas's iShoot tank game was selling slowly until he released iShoot Lite. The Lite version was downloaded 2.4 million times, and that caused the paid version to be downloaded 320,000 times (all numbers are from February - they are certainly higher now). He was smart, though: his app cost $3, so he pulled in a cool million dollars from those sales.

So if Piratizer Lite has even a fraction of that kind of success, then I'll be happy. It's waiting in the Apple approval queue now and will hopefully be approved soon. Once it's been out for a while, I'll make another post about the results!

Piratizer Lite Logo

Posted on May 28, 2009

Piratizer on sale!

Late last night Apple approved Piratizer for sale on the iPhone App Store! I only noticed it this morning when I unexpectedly received a sales report saying it had sold 9 copies on Sunday (I still haven't received the email notification from Apple).

Anyway, it will be quite interesting to see the total sales for the first full day it's available for sale (today). Before beginning the full marketing blitz, we need to build up a good stable of reviews and fix any critical bugs that the early users find (hopefully there won't be any). If you'd like a free promo code to download and review the app, let me know!

We finished and uploaded the website just in time. There are still a few things to tweak, but it's pretty much complete. Check it out over at piratizer.com!

Piratizer.com website

I'm still trying to figure out how to fix the thumbnail of the YouTube video to display properly, but at least the video itself works OK. Speaking of the YouTube video, here it is:

If you're reading through an RSS reader or otherwise can't see the embed, here's a link to it on youtube.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMlJmdyy-zM.

Posted on May 4, 2009

Piratizer Preview

My trip to China and the craziness immediately beforehand and afterward delayed my new Piratizer iPhone app a little bit, but I'm pleased to note that it's back on track and should be sent off to Apple early next week! There are still a few cool features left to code up, but it's mostly all done.

Here are some sneak preview pictures:

Piratizer iPhone iPod Touch Pirate App

Piratizer uses face-recognition technology to find the faces of all of the people in your photographs and automatically turn them into pirates. There are all kinds of pirates - Buccaneers, Corsairs, Wokou, Vikings, and maybe a super-secret fifth pirate type if we have time.

Piratizer iPhone Photo Fun App

There's a large collection of all kinds of professionally illustrated pirate gear - hats, eye patches, jewelry, beards, hooks, peg legs, parrots, monkeys, swords, scars - you name it!

Piratizer - turn your friends into pirates!

Once you're done editing your photo, you can save it and then email it, assign it to a contact, upload it to Facebook, etc.  Here's me as a Buccaneer.

Posted on April 24, 2009

Staff Favorite

My parents noticed this today on iTunes and sent it along:

CubeCheater is a Staff Favorite on the iTunes iPhone App Store

CubeCheater is a Staff Favorite today (and maybe all week - I'm not sure how this process works yet)! An unknown Apple employee has smiled upon my app, which is exciting (it's tempting to assume it's Steve Jobs himself, but that's of course extremely unlikely).

It'll be interesting to see how this affects sales. For the most part, I personally get apps directly on my phone rather than through iTunes on the computer, so I'm not browsing the Staff Favorites very often. Getting onto the "Featured" or "What's Hot" lists would probably be more beneficial since those lists are browsable on the device itself.

Posted on March 3, 2009

Piratizer

UPDATE: Success! After 3.5 days, here are the Google results for 'piratizer':

Piratizer search results on Google

A sneak preview of Piratizer in action is coming soon :).

--------

Wouldn't it be cool if you could take a picture of your friends with your iPhone and it would recognize their faces and automatically turn them into pirates? A couple of my friends and I thought it would, so we got to work on a new iPhone app called Piratizer.

The app is still weeks away from being complete, so the site is currently only a teaser. When it does launch, it's important that the number one web search result for "piratizer" returns our site rather than any of the random things it returns right now. To make that happen we need to seed the web with links to the Piratizer iPhone app web site several weeks in advance.

In case you haven't figured it out, that's what this post is about :). If you're a human reading this, then you can move along - there's not much to see here. If you're a crawlbot, welcome! Please crawl all the links in this post, particularly the ones to piratizer.com.

Piratizer iPhone App Logo

Posted on February 14, 2009

15 Minutes of Fame

So as promised in last week’s post, here’s a whole load of data that breaks down CubeCheater’s 15 minutes of fame over the last couple of weeks.

First, the obligatory chart of App Store sales:

CubeCheater Sales Chart

As you’d expect, sales saw a big boost after getting publicity, and then dropped back off afterwards.

Many sites include “via” links as a way to give credit to the people they got some content from. It’s interesting to plot these links in and see how content spreads through the blogosphere. Here’s a link graph, with solid lines indicating confirmed “via” links, and dashed lines representing my best guesses as to how the content spread:

CubeCheater in the Blogosphere

The next interesting bit of data is to look at YouTube’s new “Video Insight” feature, which tracks a lot of data about how your videos are viewed. The view count graph is about what you’d expect: a huge spike and then near-total falloff:

CubeCheater YouTube Views

The YouTube viewer demographics are more interesting:

CubeCheater YouTube Demographics

I was surprised at the age range: well more than half of the YouTube viewers were over 35 (I would have expected the majority to be under 30).  The gender breakdown is 90% male, 10% female - I am actually a little surprised it was skewed this much. Both of these statistics probably have more to say about Wired & Gizmodo readers than they do about YouTube viewers or iPhone owners (since the vast majority of YouTube views came from embeds on those two sites).

The last bit of interesting data I have is from the hits directly on my CubeCheater web site. Here’s the graph of daily pageviews, which shows a spike similar to the others, though its shape is slightly different:

CubeCheater website hits

The HTTP referrers also reveal some interesting tidbits:

CubeCheater HTTP Referrers

Surprisingly, Yahoo is by far the #1 referrer, most likely due to the fact that the Yahoo Games article did not include an embedded YouTube video: it was the only one which prominently linked to the CubeCheater website directly.

The vast majority of search keywords during this period were either cubecheater or cube cheater.  For these terms at least, Google Search apparently has about 20 times the traffic of either Yahoo Search or Live Search.

Posted on February 13, 2009

As Seen On..

This week CubeCheater has gotten a storm of publicity, ever since one of the videos was featured on YouTube. I'm getting so many comments and emails that it's been hard to keep up with it all.

So far the two YouTube videos have been viewed a combined 90,000 times. A Google search for "+cubecheater" now returns 2.3 million results, where it returned zero little more than a month ago (the vast majority of those are spam sites & splogs, of course).

Once everything settles down I'll write up a full post with all the relevant traffic charts and link graphs (yay, data!). In the meantime here's a preview of the good bits:

CubeCheater - As Seen On:

  • Gizmodo: "iPhone Rubik's Cube Solver Is Pure Genius"
  • Wired: "iPhone App Solves Rubik's Cube in 20 Moves or Better"
  • TUAW: "CubeCheater solves that Rubik's Cube for you"
  • MAKE: "iPhone app will help you deconstruct the Rubix cube"
  • Cult of Mac: "Your iPhone is Better than You at Solving a Rubik’s Cube"
Posted on January 30, 2009

Featured Video

For a brief moment today, this was the Videos page on YouTube:

CubeCheater video featured on YouTube

A CubeCheater video is at the top in the "Featured Video" section!

So far it looks like being featured was worth about 10,000 views. Alas, since the video doesn't feature any scantily clad women and/or European soccer games, it probably won't get 100,000 views and show up in the coveted "Most Viewed" section.

Tomorrow I'll check the sales reports to see how YouTube views affect actual App Store sales. Based on previous experiences, my prediction is that about 3% of the YouTube views will translate into purchases, which is actually pretty good given that it's basically free advertising.

Posted on January 26, 2009

Big in Japan

This week CubeCheater officially became big in Japan. Kan Omi of ipodtouchlab.com wrote up a very generous review on his popular iPhone/iPod Touch site. It's quite extensive and even includes his own YouTube video:

ipodtouchlab review of the CubeCheater iPhone app

His YouTube video has already been viewed 3,000 times, which is about 3 times more than mine has been viewed in a month.

On the first day the sales in Japan shot up from about 0 per day to 218, netting a cool 25,000 yen. CubeCheater is now #20 on the Top Paid Apps list in the Japanese App Store - and that's all apps, not just Utilities:

Japan iPhone App Store Top Paid Apps - CubeCheater

For comparison, in the U.S. App Store, it peaked at around #30 in Utilities, and never came close to making the Top list of all apps, which is dominated by games and fart apps.

Posted on January 17, 2009

First Week of App Store Sales Stats

CubeCheater has been on sale for one week now, so I figured I would post the sales stats since they are pretty different from what I was expecting them to be like. It’s always a question about whether or not you should post your sales stats, but I think that one week of data doesn’t reveal too much. It was really useful for me when other iPhone app developers posted their stats, so maybe this info will help others who are thinking about jumping in too.

While I was making the app I was expecting to get only one or two sales until the app was reviewed by a prominent iPhone site or blog, at which point there would be a spike of sales, followed by a drop-off back down to almost zero sales after a few days. So my strategy was to make a gimmicky sort of app that bloggers might find interesting, and then try to get someone to write about it. It’s now looking like that might be the wrong strategy to use in the App Store.

The first surprise was that the app has sold more than 50 copies each day that it’s been available, and as far as I can tell there has been absolutely no English press about the app at all yet which would be driving these sales. At first I thought that it might have been due to the app showing up in the “new apps” section in iTunes on the day it was released, but it hasn’t been new for a week now, and the sales are still keeping up. Without any press or publicity, my only guess is that people are finding the app by browsing the Utilities section in iTunes, where it currently is ranked around #70.

The next semi-surprise was that I started to receive a whole bunch of emails from customers who had purchased the app. Many of them were of the “Hey, great app!” variety, but a lot of them were from people who liked the app but couldn’t use it because it didn’t work with the cube that they had. Among other problems, it turns out that all cubes sold in Japan and many in Europe use a different color scheme than cubes currently sold in the U.S. The app would tell the user to input the “Blue face with the White face on top”, which would be impossible because the Blue and White faces are on opposite sides of those cubes. I rushed out a 1.1 update to support that style of cube (and custom user-specified styles), but the update has been languishing “In Review” for almost a week now - Apple’s system was closed for much of the Christmas week, so I’m hoping that the update will go live sometime this week.

So far only 68% of the sales have come from the U.S., meaning that a full 32% are coming from overseas, which is more than I had originally expected. The app isn’t localized at all - it’s only available in English. Localizing it would require paying quite a few translators to translate all the text strings in the app, which could get expensive depending on how many languages I wanted to support. At this point I’m not really sure how to tell whether or not it would be worth doing that, financially-speaking. I designed the app’s UI under the assumption that nobody reads any explanatory text anyway, so it’s pretty graphical and should be usable without knowing much English. It seems to be selling OK in non-English countries, and I haven’t received any emails requesting that the app be translated into a specific language, so maybe it is OK as it is. On the other hand, that’s sort of an argument from fallacy because if people aren’t buying the app since it’s not available in their language, then they wouldn’t be sending me emails in the first place. Also, a large majority of sales have been from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Germany, where most everyone understands English (or at least the people who are buying iPhone apps). At this point I think that if I did localize the app, the first languages to tackle would be Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese, in order to cover the largest number of potential customers.

Anyway, enough with all the blathering, let’s get to the meat of the post: the actual sales stats. Here’s a graph of CubeCheater’s daily sales, overlaid with its rank in the Utilities category in iTunes:

CubeCheater iPhone App Sales Stats

This graph shows a few interesting things:

  1. The sales were pretty consistent leading up to Christmas, at which point there was a huge jump. Right now there are only two data points after Christmas, so it’s hard to say if this is a permanent shift or if it’s a one-time fluke. I assume that it happened because a whole bunch of people got new iPhones and iPod Touches for Christmas, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the new stable sales point is somewhere in between.
  2. The iTunes rank stayed constant even through the Christmas spike. The rank is determined by number of downloads, so the fact that it remained the same indicates that all iPhone apps probably experienced a similar huge jump in sales (See: A Christmas iFart Explosion: 40,000 downloads - Man do I wish I had thought of that app).

And here are the sales broken out by country for the 12/18-12/27 period:

CubeCheater iPhone App Country-By-Country Sales Stats

It’s interesting to see that there’s sort of a “long tail” of countries where the app was purchased one or two times, but not in the Chris Anderson/power-law sense, since the bottom 80% of the countries only account for 10% of the sales. With this distribution I could completely ignore all but the top 3 countries if by doing so I could increase sales in those countries by 20%.

Other random thoughts after one week of sales:

  • The YouTube demo video has been viewed only 573 times. Given that many of the YouTube viewers probably did not end up buying the app, this means that far less than half of the people who did buy the app watched the demo video or visited the web site for the app before buying it.  I had originally thought that most people would buy the app after watching the video, but it looks like this is not the case.
  • It’ll be interesting to see how long these sales numbers remain consistent. On one hand, you’d expect the sales to drop off after all of the people with both cubes and iPhones buy the app. On the other hand, the installed base of iPhones is still increasing exponentially now, which might counteract that drop-off.
  • I’m curious to see how the sales are impacted if the app does get any mentions on any high-profile sites. Other developers have noted large yet temporary sales spikes.
Posted on December 28, 2008

CubeCheater Available for Sale

This morning I received a mail from Apple saying that CubeCheater was approved and is now available for sale!

It took about three days for the app to be approved, which is not too bad - I was prepared for it to take up to a week or more. Still, according to iTunes there were a whole bunch of apps which were apparently submitted yesterday and today which were also approved at the same time, so something about the process still seems a little fishy. I'm not complaining though!

Another strange thing is that now I am only given 700 characters to type a description of the app, which is not really even enough room to fully describe all of the features. I think the limit used to be 4000 characters, and other app developers certainly took advantage of that space to write long-winded advertisements for all of their other products. Maybe this is a new shorter limit in order to cut down on that sort of behavior. It certainly forces you to be terse and succinct.

Interestingly enough, a Brazilian iPhone blog has already written up a post about the app (in Portuguese): http://appstoreblog.com.br/2008/12/resolva-o-cubo-de-rubik-em-poucos-segundos-usando-o-iphone/

Here's the iTunes link to the app: http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=300162540

And a screenshot of the app for sale:

CubeCheater on the App Store

Posted on December 18, 2008

CubeCheater

CubeCheater

Loyal readers have probably noticed that I haven't been posting very often in the last couple of months. During the spare seconds between my job and two classes at UW, I've been working on a new iPhone app.

I'm pleased to (finally) announce that the application is complete and should be available on the iTunes App Store soon. I just uploaded it and am now waiting for Apple's approval before it goes live.

The app is called CubeCheater and is an iPhone/iPod Touch app for solving everybody's favorite 80's puzzle cube. You input the state of your cube, and it will compute an optimal (or near-optimal) solution to solve it.

It uses the Group Theory algorithm discovered by Herbert Kociemba to do the solving. I haven't tried all 519 quintillion cube configurations, but I have run through quite a few random ones during my testing and I've never seen the program give a solution worse than 22 moves (the current upper bound [2] on optimal cube solutions as of August 2008). On average it takes about 7 seconds to find a good solution.

The other particularly cool part of the app is that it takes advantage of the iPhone's camera and can recognize your cube from pictures you take of it, using computer vision. I was pleased with how well this turned out - if you orient the cube properly with good lighting, it recognizes the cube perfectly every time.

That feature and most of the cool animations and 3D effects are best experienced by watching the app in action, so if you're interested, head on over to the website and check out the embedded YouTube video (or view it directly on YouTube, and don't forget to click "watch in high quality").

Here are some screenshots:

CubeCheater Title Screen CubeCheater Input Screen CubeCheater Computer Vision CubeCheater User Error

CubeCheater Searching for a Solution  CubeCheater Solution Preview CubeCheater Solving the Cube CubeCheater Solution Options

Posted on December 15, 2008

Thoughts on (not) owning company stock

At work recently some discussion came up about owning stock in the company we work for. I briefly mentioned the fact that I do not own a single (vested) share of stock in the company and was treated with scorn and disbelief. Am I some sort of traitor? Do I not believe in the company? I tried to explain that no, it had nothing to do with any of that, but didn't get a chance to fully explain my reasoning. So here goes.

While the decision is certainly made easier by the fact that the stock in question has grossly underperformed the market for more than five years, I base my reasoning mainly on sound investment policy. Even if I worked at Google or Apple I would do the same (in theory, anyway).

It's all based on one basic principle: not being a sucker. There are three reasons why you risk being a sucker if you have large holdings in the company you work for, all related to diversification:

  • If you are an employee of a company, your salary is tied to the fortunes of that company. If you have lots of stock in the company, then so is a large part of your savings. This is a very strong correlation, and correlation among financial assets is very bad. If anything bad happens to the company, you could lose not only your job, but also your savings. There are many examples of this happening - we've all heard the stories of the thousands of Enron employees who lost their jobs along with their entire 401(k)'s (100% Enron stock). A similar thing happened recently to all the United Airlines "employee-owners" who foolishly voted to convert their pension fund into United stock: the company went bankrupt, the stock became worthless, and many of them were laid off.
  • It is a bad idea to own large amounts of any one individual stock, regardless. Each additional share has a 100% correlation with all the others and creates un-hedgable risk that the entire position might blow up. Examples of people losing large amounts of money on single stocks are so common that they're not even worth repeating here.
  • Along the same lines, you don't want to have significant holdings in any one individual market sector either, because all of those stocks correlate fairly well with each other, and that correlation creates risk. There were many people who worked in the tech industry during the late 90's and "diversified" their portfolios by owning a variety of telecom and dot-com stocks (since those were the "hot" sectors). When the bubble popped, they had significant losses (and were probably laid off as well). So you don't want to own lots of stock in the sector you work in, which by definition includes your company.

At this point the common responses are along the lines of "Bah, I don't expect that our company (or market sector) is about to go bankrupt!".  As Nassim Nicholas Taleb might point out: that's exactly the point. Nobody expected Enron to suddenly blow up: the sheer unexpectedness of it is precisely what made it such a spectacular disaster. If the market expects a company to go bankrupt, the stock will already be trading around $0, so it will be too late (see: Freddie Mac, GM, etc.). The unexpected events (so-called "black swans") can be the most risky and need to hedged against along with the run-of-the-mill risks.

With all that in mind, there are some questions which inevitably pop up:

  • Don't you lose out big-time by immediately exercising stock options? Shouldn't you hold them for a while until the stock has gone up considerably? Sure, but those are stock options and are a different beast with their own set of incentives. But given the recent industry trend toward eliminating stock options and replacing them with stock "awards" and "grants", there are fewer and fewer incentives that favor the employee holding onto the stock. Companies started switching away from options after the Enron scandal in order to avoid large "surprise" expenses on their accounting books, which means that typical employees will no longer be "surprised" to strike it rich one day. With stock grants, there's basically no particular incentive for employees to hold onto the shares (and many disincentives, as discussed above).
  • What about the tax implications? Won't there be unfavorable capital gains taxes if you sell immediately? At first I thought this would be a problem as well, but after looking into it, it turns out that it isn't. In fact, it can actually simplify your capital gains taxes if you sell all of your shares as soon as they vest. Stock grants are treated as ordinary income on vest, and some of the shares are withheld for taxes at that point. So the remaining shares have already been taxed, and if you sell at that point then there's neither a capital gain nor a capital loss, and thus no further tax implications. With no capital gain, there's also no particular incentive to hold the shares for at least a year in order to get the long-term capital gain tax rate.
  • What about employee stock purchase plans? These work slightly differently, but end up being similar. Typical plans allow employees to purchase the company's stock at a given discount, like 10%. As long as the purchase date is the same as the vest date (with no backdating), then there's no capital gain (companies are also switching to this model in order to make their accounting simpler). The 10% discount is treated as ordinary income paid to the employee and is taxed at that rate. So again, with employee stock purchase plans, there's no particular incentive to hold onto the shares for any amount of time. If you sell them immediately after purchasing them, you can make an easy risk-free 7.5% return on your money (assuming a 10% discount and a 25% marginal tax rate).

So after all that, what should you invest all the remaining money in? That's a large topic which I will save for another post sometime in the future, but the answer is simple: just listen to Warren Buffet (the world's richest person) and buy an S&P 500 index fund. I deviate slightly from his advice since I feel that the S&P 500 weights your portfolio too heavily towards big U.S. multinationals and exposes you too much to downturns in the U.S. economy, so my investment strategy is basically to go with no-load S&P index funds plus some as-cheap-as-possible international index funds. I'll talk more about the reasoning and mathematics behind it in a future post.

Posted on September 4, 2008
Filed under: Business, General Comments

Financial Profiling & Optimization

Sometimes I wonder if I am spending too much money and should be saving more. It's tempting to try to micro-manage things by clipping coupons or skipping out on meals out with friends, but this strikes me as being similar to premature optimization of code, which as Knuth would say is the "root of all evil."

Just as it's not worth optimizing the 90% of the code where your program spends less than 1% of its time, it might not be worth packing your lunch every day to save a dollar a day ($250 per year) if your real problem is that you unnecessarily spend thousands of dollars on new laptops or other expensive equipment each year.

So what's the first step before I can figure out what to optimize? Profiling, naturally. About a year ago I grabbed a copy of MS Money, which is a personal finance tracking program. It can go online and download your bank account information and credit card statements. It tracks each transaction you make and uses heuristics to assign them to various expense categories. For example if Safeway is the merchant, it'll assign it to Groceries, if it's Comcast, then Utilities, and so on. Sometimes it doesn't know what a specific merchant should be assigned to so you have to configure it.

Once that's all set up, it can generate all kinds of plots showing your cash flow over time, estimated monthly budgets based on trended spending, and various other reports. Here's a pie chart of my spending over the last year:

Financial Profile

Without this tool I would probably have had a hard time even estimating the percentage of my spending which goes into various categories, so it was quite interesting to see it charted like this.

The biggest item that jumps out of the chart is obviously "Mortgage/Rent", which in my case is just Rent. It accounts for nearly half of my spending, if you include Utilities (electricity, water, internet) along with it. I'm not sure whether this is a good or bad observation: on one hand I am spending a ridiculous amount of money on rent each month, but on the other hand it's nice to know that I'm not spending a similarly ridiculous amount of money on anything else.

"Education" is the next biggest category, which includes grad school tuition, fees, textbooks, etc.. I'm OK with spending a good chunk of money on this category since self-improvement and continual learning is a good thing. It's also nice that these expenses are completely reimbursed by Microsoft, so the chart of my "real" expenses should probably not even include this category (in which case Mortgage/Rent would fill more than half the pie).

Next biggest is "Hobbies/Leisure", which contains a large range of transactions, the largest of which are from "AMAZON.COM", "GAMESTOP/EBGAMES", "APPLE ONLINE" and "REI STORES."  Overall I'm not too concerned about the current size of this pie slice since Hobbies/Leisure is basically the category for "what you do with your spare time," which, in the end, is the whole point of working and making money. I was a bit surprised at the total cost of my Amazon purchases over the last year - I could probably be a lot better about borrowing "read once" books from the library rather than buying them outright (Amazon Prime makes it too easy..).

"Automotive" is up next, which seems to be about equally split between car insurance and gas. I think I already have my car insurance pretty well optimized, so about the only way to reduce spending here is to drive less.

I'm lumping Utilities in with Mortgage/Rent, so "Groceries" is next. The final number in this category was another minor surprise and is probably a good area for optimization. Whole Foods organic milk and cereal apparently add up pretty quickly.

The rest of the spending categories don't sum up to much, so some of them are actually surprising for being so small. I'm disappointed that "Travel/Vacation" is almost not even visible on the chart. I hope that next year's chart will show Travel/Vacation making some big gains. "Gifts" is one category which is too small to show up, which would be totally pathetic of me if it weren't for the fact that most of my gift purchases were probably from Amazon and thus got stuffed into the Hobbies/Leisure slice.

One thing which is notably missing from this chart is money allocated to savings accounts & stock investments (I guess they aren't "Spending" since I still have the money). I had to generate a separate report for savings & stock investments and was pleased to find that the total number there was about equal to the total number in the Spending chart, which means that I have a savings rate of 50%, which is a lot better than the U.S. average, which is hovering around 0% even with the recent "stimulus" package.

Overall this was an interesting exercise to do. Now that I know the actual numbers I don't feel all that guilty about spending too much (except for in a couple of areas). In fact, I'm now feeling like I can probably afford to spend more, especially in "Travel/Vacation".

Posted on August 6, 2008
Filed under: Business, General Comments
   

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Eric Faller

Software Engineer at Facebook
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