Toolmaker Talk: Bethany Soule & Daniel Reeves (Beeminder)
December 7, 2011
This is the fifth post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features intrepid self-quantifiers and their stories: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? In Toolmaker Talks we hear from QS enablers, those observing this QS activity and developing self-quantifying tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences?
Bethany Soule and Daniel Reeves have presented at New York City QS meet ups (here and here) on a couple ideas that came together and turned into Beeminder, which they co-founded in 2010. Through much personal experimentation they’ve developed unique ideas on how best to visualize your progress towards a goal and how to set just the right amount of monetary incentives.
Q: How do you describe Beeminder? What is it?
Soule: Beeminder is a goal-tracking tool with teeth. Report your progress every day and make sure to keep all your data points on a “yellow brick road” to your goal. If you fail to do so your graph will be frozen and you can pledge (by which we mean pledge actual money) to stay on track on your next attempt.
Reeves: The idea is to give yourself a kick in the pants. Here’s how to tell if Beeminder could be useful for you: Is there something you know you should do, you really do want to do, you know for certain you can do, yet that historically you don’t do? (Also, are you a highly nerdy data freak?)
Soule: What we mean by the “yellow brick road” is a line on your graph that gradually gets you from here to there and tolerates some daily deviation without allowing a slippery slope of sloth.
Reeves: I had a friend who wanted to lose weight. This was in February 2008. I had her email me her weight every day and I’d send her back graphs of her progress and tell her if she was on track to hit her target in time. I was mostly following the principles of The Hacker’s Diet, in particular the part about getting as much data as possible but smoothing it so as not to be discouraged by random fluctuations.
Soule: I quickly wanted in on it, because I was tracking my own weight in Excel — Lame! So we started automating it and getting more friends and family on board. We called it Kibotzer (the kibitzing robot), though no one got the pun. Even before we started with the data collection and visualization side of things we’d been making bets with each other as part of various productivity schemes for quite some time, so it was only natural to bet about staying on track with our graphs.
Reeves: We’ve since dropped the betting terminology but it’s equivalent. Now you’re pledging (money) to stay on track on your yellow brick road. (HT: PJ Eby)
Soule: In 2010 we decided to quit our day jobs and turn it into a real startup, which we renamed Beeminder.
Reeves: But if you really want to trace the roots, the backstory starts in 2005 when Bethany and I were dating and I was writing my dissertation. I’d been dragging it out forever so Bethany concocted a Voluntary Harassment Program, as she called it, and we tried out all kinds of crazy incentive schemes and productivity hacks. They apparently worked, since I got my PhD that year.
Q: What impact has it had? What have you heard from users?
Soule: Our users think it’s the bees’ knees! I assume that bees have awesome knees.
Reeves: We do have a small number of users who find it powerfully motivating. Lots of weight loss success stories, of course. And we use it to force ourselves to keep up momentum on Beeminder itself.
Soule: Here’s an ongoing success story that we blogged about: Our friend and early beta user, Jill, wanted to join a new gym, which is often a recipe for throwing away money. But she actually worked out how often she would need to go to make the membership worth the money (1.8 times per week, on average) and then used a large Beeminder contract to force herself to maintain that average. That’s been going since March: beeminder.com/jill/gym.
Reeves: There are plenty of failure stories, too. We find that it really only makes sense to beemind things that are both objectively measurable and that you have complete control over. So you can beemind how much time you spend working but not, say, how focused you are. Weight loss is a borderline case: you don’t have complete control over it since your weight fluctuates randomly from day to day, but we’ve put a ton of work into adjusting for that with an auto-widening yellow brick road and other data-smoothing tricks.
Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?
Reeves: Primarily that it works as a commitment device. Most goal-tracking sites don’t work that way (nor do they want to). A notable exception is StickK.com. What sets Beeminder apart from StickK is the focus on the data and the graph and Yellow Brick Road. By having everything based on your data you get far more flexibility. We think it’s more motivating and insightful to pledge to keep your data points on a yellow brick road to your goal than to StickK to your goal.
Soule: Yeah, with StickK it’s all about the contracts. You have to fully pre-specify exactly what you’re committing to do and how much money to put at risk to force yourself to do it. With Beeminder you just first start tracking. Your data then informs you on what to commit to. You don’t even have to think about how much to risk — we tell you, and you climb up the fee schedule until you hit an amount that really motivates you. There’s also this clever thing called the “akrasia horizon” that lets you continuously adjust your commitment — the steepness of the yellow brick road — without it, y’know, defeating the whole point of a commitment contract.
Q: What are you doing next? How do you see Beeminder evolving?
Reeves: We’re working our butts off on a ton of features that our users are asking for in the Beeminder feedback forum.
Soule: Beeminder is literally getting better every day. In fact, we’re beeminding that: We have to make one User-Visible Improvement to Beeminder on average per day or pay one of our users $1000. We’ll have made about 300 improvements when this goes to press!
Reeves: In the near future we’d like to add more ways to automatically collect data instead of needing to report data points to the Beeminder bot. We can currently connect Beeminder to Withings scales and our own (very hacky) TagTime stochastic time tracker. Bethany also made a pushup counter for Android which semi-automatically counts pushups (you put the phone on the floor and touch your nose to it). Finally, we have a version of our API in private beta which a couple people have used to automatically send data to Beeminder as it’s collected.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Reeves: If you want to keep up with the latest on Beeminder, follow the Beeminder blog — we’re committed (literally) to posting frequently!
Platform: Web, email or SMS
Price: Free as long as you stay on your Yellow Brick Road
(If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at firstname.lastname@example.org)