As financial management tools become a more common online banking feature, executives have realized that to be successful, they have to be different.
Several vendors offer personal financial management applications, but banks and credit unions that are among the early movers here say these products are too generic.
Some have pushed their vendors to customize the software, while others have tweaked the applications in-house. The goal, bankers say, is to maintain their lead with this emerging technology by delivering services their rivals cannot easily copy.
"Your Web site should reflect the personality of the organization, and if you go with these cookie-cutter things you really sort of hand that over to somebody else," said Stu Fisher, the senior vice president of e-commerce for Addison Avenue Federal Credit Union. "I don't think people should do that with their branches just stamp them out so that they all look the same and they are undifferentiated but somehow when it comes to the Web we tend to do that."
Addison Avenue, of Palo Alto, Calif., is preparing to roll out by September a financial management product based on technology from two vendors; it is adapting software from Jwaala to develop the basic tools to help its members monitor deposits and track spending, and is adding community features developed by Wesabe Inc.
Fisher said that working with two vendors is a challenge, but the credit union wanted to create a unique financial management product. "We've chosen to take a bit of a harder road in getting this work done but feel that, at the end of it, it should reflect the personality of Addison Avenue," he said.
Mark Schwanhausser, a research analyst for Javelin Strategy and Research in Pleasanton, Calif., said Addison Avenue and other financial companies working on financial management tools now are in the vanguard but would quickly lose their advantage over the competition if they relied on off-the-shelf products.
"The barrier is much lower to being able to match" a rival that hasn't customized the software, he said. "The whole goal, in many cases, is to be distinctive."
Banks have tried in the past to introduce personal financial management tools, but these earlier efforts gained little traction, largely because they offered few of the features that are becoming popular now.
The products, then and now, are typically based on aggregation technology, which presents in one place account data from various financial companies. But the earlier products did little to show consumers how to interpret this information.
In the past two years, Web sites operated by nonbank providers such as Wesabe and Mint Software Inc. have become popular destinations for consumers who want to keep tabs on their finances; these companies use aggregation technology originally developed for banks to gather users' financial details and then apply their own software to help people make sense of the data.
Joe Polverari, the senior vice president of strategy and development for the technology vendor Yodlee Inc., said this combination is helping financial management tools catch on with mainstream users, and that many banks are taking the same approach. (Mint is a Yodlee client.)
Polverari agreed that banks need to differentiate their offerings. If they thought that offering generic personal financial management tools was all it took to satisfy their customers, "they would just put up the hosted solution as fast as they could, and market it as quickly as they possibly could and be satisfied with the result," he said.
Instead, half of Yodlee's 155 financial management software clients have opted to adapt its basic offering. "I think they're all planning for the future," he said.
PNC Financial Services Group Inc., for example, built on Yodlee's software to add a spend-tracking feature to its Virtual Wallet product, which presents financial data in an interactive calendar.
Mike Ley, a senior vice president in PNC's payments and e-business group, said no off-the-shelf product would have worked for Virtual Wallet.
"Some of the out-of-the-box things are very broad and they're targeted at solving the needs of a lot of different people," he said, but Virtual Wallet is aimed at a very specific market young adults who have recently graduated from college and PNC needed to modify the generic software to appeal to this user group.
Stanford Federal Credit Union asked its vendor to take on a task that wasn't even on its product menu. The Palo Alto, Calif., credit union uses financial management software from Geezeo Inc., and also wanted to make the tools available through mobile phones; Geezeo's developers found a way to make it possible.
Kelly Dowell, Jwaala's chief operating officer, said many clients have a vision for their financial management products that goes beyond what his company's software supports.
"We wanted to make our product very open because we know this is emerging, we know people come up with new ideas," Dowell said. He said that he is often competing against his potential clients, which must decide whether to build something themselves, or buy it.
Jwaala chose to provide a third option: build and buy. It offers clients access to its source code, the building blocks of its software, which they can then assemble as they wish.
"The beauty of that source code is they don't have to start from scratch," he said. "They can license the source code and then build on top of what we have and tailor it any way they want it."
Seven of Jwaala's 32 clients, including Addison Avenue, have chosen this approach, he said.
Fisher said that he picked Jwaala's PFM software over Wesabe's because "it was architecturally a better fit. We would get access to the source code, which we can then choose to develop further on our own."
The one thing that Jwaala did not have was a community component to allow Addison Avenue's members to interact with one another online; for that, the credit union turned to Wesabe.
Marc Hedlund, Wesabe's co-founder and chief executive, said he does not mind having his software paired with that of another vendor.
"All of the engagements that we've done so far have involved some other vendor, whether it's the online banking platform provider, usually, or something else," he said. Just as Jwaala did not build a community element, "there are things that we don't do yet."
Though Wesabe, like any vendor, aspires to offer its clients as much as they want, he said there will likely be other times when a client chooses to mix Wesabe's product with others in the same space.
"Nobody wants, 'Can you give me exactly what everybody else has?' " Hedlund said.
Javelin's Schwanhausser said that although there are a growing number of vendors in the PFM space, their products are still developing.
"Part of the problem right now is: nobody has the whole solution," Schwanhausser said, "so they're having to go out and buy 'partial PFM' here and there and piece it all together."