Category: ideas

PayTrustExport still works after all these years – and how to put the post office out of bussiness!

I just got my 2013 archive CD from PayTrust, and the PayTrustExport tool still works!

If you use PayTrust, you should use this tool to make an unencrypted backup copy of your data.

While I am glad the tool still works, I am very sad that they have not done any meaningful work on this system since Intuit bought it back in 2005. With a tiny bit of effort, they could save us users thousands of hours of work and frustration.

Considering that the US Post Office is going out of business, I think there could be huge value in services that divert traffic away from the mail system. PayTrust is well positioned for this play.

In case you don’t know, PayTrust is a system that lets you receive your paper bills online. They give you a special postal address somewhere in South Dakota and you set up all your bills to go there. Every time a bill arrives at PayTrust, they open the envelope and scan the bill and then email you.  You never have to touch the paper (or possibly loose) the paper.

If I owned PayTrust, I would make some very easy improvements to make the system better, and then immediately make it free. Even in its current dilapidated state, it still saves me significant time every month and if it were actually good and free, I think huge numbers of people would start using it.

With a large number of users receiving their paper bills though the system, I’d be in a unique position to start diverting paper mail.

Fist step would be to run a report of the top billers sending paper into the PayTrust scanning center. Then I’d start making very easy phone calls….

JOSH: “Hello American Express! This is Josh from PayTrust. I see from my report that you mailed 100,000 bills to my processing center last month. You paid an average of $0.30 per piece in postage to mail these to me- that’s $30,000 in postage last month – $360,000 last year! I also see that 5% of the bills you sent never even made it to me, which makes your customers sad. How about next month I just send a truck to your mailing center to pick up all the bills addressed to our common customers?  I also promise to have all the bills you give me delivered to your customers within 24 hours after I pick them up rather than making them wait the extra 2-3 days they typically spend in the mail.”

AMEX: “So, you are saying that you will save me $360,000 a year in postage, and you will eliminate my problem with bills lost in transit, and you will get the bills into my customers’ hands 2-3 days sooner? Sign me up!”

JOSH: “Done! Listen, if you are interested, I can also save you the $300,000 you spent on ink and paper to print those bills. I just have to scan them in anyway once I get them, so it would save both of us a lot of work if you just gave me a download every day of all the bills that you would have printed and loaded onto my truck. You might even be able to shut down a few of those crazy expensive high speed printers too! I can send my computer people to talk your computer to work out the details, but it could be as simple as you just redirecting the output from your printer to PDF files. We do this all the time and know all the tricks, so we will make it be super simple and easy for you!”

AMEX: “Wholly cow that would be awesome! We hate those printers, they are so frickin’ loud! Thanks Josh!”

See what happened there? 100,000 pieces of mail completely diverted from the USPS’s trucks and trains and planes. Millions of sheets of paper saved.

Everyone is better off – Amex saves money and is able to focus on what they really do rather than printing and mailing, the customer gets the bill sooner and with higher reliability, and PayTrust saves having to scan and store all those paper bills. The only apparent looser is the USPS, but considering how unprofitable they are maybe having less mail will help them to lose less money.

Repeat the above steps for everyone who is sending bills into PayTrust and soon you will reduce the flow of paper bills to a trickle. Yeay.

There are some other interesting angles, too. PayTrust could also get into the paper bill mailing business. I know this sounds backwards, but bare with me. This requires buying, building, or renting  a huge bulk mailing operation – basically a bunch of very fast printers scattered around the country near the postal distribution hubs.

Now can call Amex and say…

JOSH: “Hello Amex! I hope you have been enjoying the 100,000 fewer paper bills per month as much as we have!”

AMEX: “We sure have! I just wish we could get rid of all our paper bills!”

JOSH: “Funny you should say that- the reason I am calling is to ask if you’d like to just send us all your bills as PDF files. We will handle the details and deliver the ones to PayTrust customers electronically, and the other ones we will print and mail for you. You are already spending $0.60 each to print and mail these, but we can do it for you for $0.25 per bill. Interested?”

AMEX: “Wait, just the postage to mail these is $0.30, and you are willing to print and mail them for $0.25? Done! We will start sending you all of our PDF files tomorrow! You might want to check ebay tomorrow for our giant printers- you are going to need them!”

So how do I stay in business by charging $0.25 for something that costs $0.60? Two ways…

On every bill I send out, I add a cover sheet that says…

You can also view this bill online anytime at

When the person goes to that URL, they see their bill on the screen (I already have it in digital form from the PDF file). There is no security exposure since  they are seeing the same info that is on the paper bill, which they must have to know the URL. At the bottom of the page it says…

Enter your email address here to receive an early copy of this bill via email 3 days before it comes via postal mail.

With no downside (they still get the paper bill same as always, just now also get email a few days sooner), many people who are otherwise reluctant to switch to ebills will sign up. Once that is done, the cover letter on their future paper bills will say something like..

You should have already gotten the email copy of this bill a few days ago. Are you tiered of opening envelopes and sorting papers? You can now choose to all your PayTrust paper bills mailed to you in a single envelope once every week, month, or year. You will continue to get your early email copies like you do now, and will also get the periodic backup paper copies to keep – already sorted and ready for you to file away.

Again, no downside and lots of value for the customer, so many people will opt for this. While I am still printing and sending paper, I am paying a lot less in postage because I can now put many bills into a single envelope, aggregating both multiple bills from the same sender and multiple bills from multiple senders into a single periodic envelope. It is much cheaper to mail 1 envelope with 20 pages in it than 10 envelopes with 2 pages in each.  In the case of a person who ops to get all the backup copies mailed to them annually, I can send a single Priority Mail parcel with 500 pages of bills for about 1/10th the cost of sending sending 100 bills of 5 pages each via First Class.

The final step, of course, is the cover sheet on the periodic aggregated pack…

Here are the backup paper copies of your bills. Did you know that we can store these copies for you, and we will then send them to you immediately whenever you need them? And it is free! Just visit

Again, if I do it well (always printing sending out backup copies the same day people request them and even offering to print them instantly at a local FedEx if needed), then I will end up almost never actually having to print bills.

The end game, then, is moving a huge amount of mail into electronic form and, at each step of the way there, both sender and receiver were better off and did not have to give up anything that they wanted. Compare this to the current path from paper bill to ebill, which requires work to log into the website of each biller and figure out if they even do ebills, then find the way to opt in, which almost certainly will immediately terminate your paper bills forever.

If anyone at PayTrust is listening, please call me and let’s get this done. Come on PayTrust, let’s save some trees (and trucks)!

Marketizing CitiBikeNYC – No more full stations

As of 5/16/2016, this has come true! Well, sort of. Points rather than money and generally much less than what I think is justified- but it is a start!


There is nothing worse than arriving at your destination only to find the station full. 48 docks… and no where to park. You are stuck with the bike and you can’t do anything else until you find a free dock.  The free dock hunt is frustrating and sometimes kills any time saved by taking the bike in the first place.

So many docks and no place to park

They do send around fancy CitiBike vans to move bikes around, but the effort is futile.

DSC03630 DSC03629

Having people driving vans full of bikes around NYC is wrong in so many ways.

I’m guessing that keeping one of those vans on the road costs $100k-$200k per year (think about the salaries, gas, insurance, and depreciation to start). I’d also guess that each van can only move 10-100 bikes per hour. There must be a better way.

I always prefer a distributed, market-based solution. Short term…

New CitiBike Rewards Plan:

  1. Take a bike from a full rack

  2. Return to a different station with at least 2 empty spaces

  3. Get a $5 reward!!!


Simple. The $5 bounty would automatically get applied to your CitiBike account. Do it one every couple of weeks and your annual membership is free. Do it more, and you have a new (fun!) job.

If you don’t have an account, then the trip would just be free. Same checkout procedure as a normal day trip, but when you return the bike to a non-full station you just don’t get charged the normal fee.

First step is a simple software change in the billing system. Quick and straightforward to implement. It could even be done as an offline system that searches for qualifying trips after the fact and then applies a credit to the account.  You could start the new policy immediately and bring up the software later, applying the credits and refunds retroactively when the software is ready.

Immediately the number of frustrated people not able to return a bike drops.  Huge win for almost no work.

Next step would be to add a…

Alert me when I am within [500 feet] of a full station

… feature to the CitiBike app, just to make it even easier for interested people to collect. In the meantime, if CitiBikeNYC says it is ok to use their data, I’ll happily write a Show Me The (Bike) Money app for people to use until the new CitiBike app is ready.

Next step is to add a bounty for returning bikes to empty stations. This is not as important as the full station bounty (real and mandatory costs of not being able to return a bike are worse than the opportunity costs of not being able to borrow one in the first place), but could still be very effective in keeping bikes well distributed throughout the system.

Next step would to be bring some dynamic pricing into the system so that the bounty is high for really valuable moves (apparently downtown Brooklyn to Chelsea on a Sunday night) and low for not so valuable ones (Cliff Street to Fulton Street ever). Update the app with a new option to…

Show me all bike rewards more than [$25] ranked by [nearest to me]

Start using demand prediction to get ahead of the curve and move bikes before stations are empty/full. A predictive/reactive self-balancing system without heavy fixed costs like vans and bike wranglers, and a new class of professional bike riders. Please?

UPDATE 8/24/16

London Citibike could use some marketizing too…

2016-08-22 19.23.16.jpg

OrsonObject – Google for your lost keys

A combination of hardware and software that would keep track of all your belongs inside your home. If you wanted to find (say) your scissors, you would just search for them on the system and it would tell you where they were last seen.

right with object detection

There have been a spate of systems that try to solve this problem by attaching a piece of hardware to each object to be tracked, but this would be impractical and expensive for more than a few objects.

OrsonObject would be pervasive and, once set up, would automatically keep track of everything by tracking objects by their appearance. To set up the system, all you would need to do is install a bunch of tiny cameras around your home such that they had a pretty good view of almost everywhere. This is not expensive or as much of a hassle as it sounds- there are systems like VueZone with tiny wireless cameras that you stick onto the wall with double sided tape.

wire-free battery power gives you instant mobility

I am not a big fan of the VueZone system specifically, but it shows that this technology is nearly ready. Since the OrsonObjects system doesn’t need to stream video, it would be possible to make the cameras even smaller and cheaper.

The cameras would automatically take pictures whenever anything happened in front of them- typically you moving stuff. These images would get uploaded to cloud-based servers in the background. These servers would use continuous recognition to find and any objects and track their movement throughout the space.

This is hard, but possible (or almost possible). People have made a lot of progress in automated object recognizers lately. Since the processing is all done off-line, you could bring to bear huge, cheap computational resources to do the recognition and tracking.

The user interface to the system would look a lot like Piccassa’s face view, showing a list of all recognized objects. You could sort the list by things like object size, most recently moved, or most often moved. You’d click on the object you are looking for and it would bring up the last time that object was moved – directing you to the object’s current location.

These system could be extended to recognize objects that are often used together and group them logically into sets. It could keep track of most used objects and predict when you might need an object based on what other objects you are currently gathering (he has the coffee grinder…. and the sugar… which usually means that next he will need the filters also- which I last saw in the top drawer) and suggest their location to you when it seams like you are looking.

Looking ahead into the future, the system could be expanded to also manage the location of objects for you. You’d have a piece of furniture that looked like a large bureau. It would have a large, easily accessible shelf top in front. Anytime you were done using an object, you would drop it on the shelf and the system would automatically store it inside. Objects would be stored much very efficiently than you could in normal drawers and cabinets since the system could put every object where it fit best. Objects would be retrieved in seconds any time you needed them. This would save users both time and space.

UPDATE 5/24/15-

UPDATE 12/31/2016 –