Why Astra? Three Years Later.
Last year we shared an article about the origins of our startup, Astra. Back then, we were in the process of developing our “beta” web app and we outlined our commitment to developing smart technology to help people make empowering decisions about their finances.
Since we published that article, our original commitment has remained, but a ton of other things have changed. We rolled out our beta, gathered a ton of high-quality feedback from our users (thank you!), gained a company mascot named Otis, and moved our HQ from the Midwest to Silicon Valley. And this month we are in the final sprint towards the launch of our new Astra iOS app.
More than information presented about their finances, our early users told us they wanted to be able to automate the movement of their money from account to account and track their savings goals with flexibility and ease. So we’ve built this app from the ground up to do just that. It includes a dashboard to get a high-level view of your finances, rule-based actions to move your money via ACH, and infinite sub-accounts to earmark funds for each of your savings goals.
This week also marks exactly three years since my co-founder Sam and I had a long, detailed conversation about the pain points in our own finances and how we thought personal finance apps should be better. We thought technology for consumer finance should be smarter, help us do more, and offer a tailored experience and set of services to fit personal needs and objectives. It was clear after our conversation that we should build the personal finance app we wanted to use. That conversation led us to start working on what would become Astra and marked the beginning of our startup journey. As we hit the three-year mark since our initial ideation conversation, now seems like a great time to revisit the question that got us started in the first place: “Why Astra?”
By most measures, the United States is currently in one of the longest sustained post-recession recovery periods in modern history. Our economy has been steadily growing with reasonable Gross Domestic Product numbers and the stock market has climbed to all-time highs in the last year (and backed off a bit since January). But consumer debt has also grown just as fast.
As of Q1 2018, we have accumulated $13.21 trillion of consumer debt including mortgages, with student loan debt reaching $1.41 trillion alone. For comparison’s sake, we owe more in student loans than Australia’s annual GDP, which is the 13th largest economy in the world. (For more crazy graphs, check out this great Twitter thread by Austin Allred.) And in just the three years since Sam and I started defining the core of Astra’s mission, the US has added:
- $218 billion in student loan debt (+18%)
- $131 billion in credit card debt (+19%)
- $261 billion in auto loan debt (+27%)
Overall, we are accumulating debt at least as quickly as Gross Domestic Product or Gross Domestic Income is increasing. So at best, we are still in the process of recovering economically and this sentiment comes through in more than just the numbers. Just last summer, if you were to ask 10 Americans if they feel the recovery has reached them, 7 would say it hasn’t — and I’d have to say I agree. On a personal level, the feeling is compounded by the reality that most of our financial goals haven’t gone away — we still want to attend our friends’ destination weddings, save for our kids’ college funds, and buy homes.
But what does all this mean? From what we’ve heard from our users, and from my direct experience, the challenge is a lack of free cash flow — we don’t have surplus cash to more quickly pay down debt and achieve our goals at the same time. We have to do more with less while meeting all of our competing objectives. Our take is that it will take smart, data-driven tools to help us overcome these challenges — and we’re designing our app to do just that.
Given the scale of the numbers surrounding consumer debt, and the corresponding trends over the past three years, my co-founder Sam and I feel that it is even more important for us to be developing technology to help each of us achieve our financial goals more efficiently. In July 2015, when the two of us were sharing our respective frustrations with the lack of existing apps and tools to help us do more with our money, we started documenting how we thought personal finance should work for us. Before Astra was even a reality, we had a version of our mission — it’s evolved since but has remained directionally the same. This is why Astra exists today and having this purpose has helped us persist through long development cycles. Here’s our mission, our thinking behind the elements that compose it, and how the features in our upcoming iOS app reveal it:
Our mission is to make your finances more intelligent, empowering, and personal.
Personal finance contains problems of scale and complexity, so Astra should be smart. Our tech should enable your desired actions to be automated and leverage user-defined rules to save time and reduce stress. It should also utilize predictive capabilities to proactively engage you (like autocomplete in the Google search bar) wherever it will add value. And wherever we can link what you want to do with your money with your actual dollars or wherever we can give you the right information at the right time, we should.
With Astra, you can set up an “Action” that will transfer $x funds from one of your accounts to another. This can be a one-time or recurring Action and can send funds to a traditional bank account or a specific goal you define in the app. Want to transfer $50 at the jump? Or save $10 a week towards a big trip next year? No problem. It’s easy to set up any goal you’d like in the app.
Personal finance is abstract, and it’s time-consuming to manage your finances week-to-week and month-to-month. We want Astra to make the process of engaging your money easier and more convenient than ever. You should feel like you have the information you need — like the balances of your checking, savings, and credit cards or the status of your transfers — clearly presented and at your fingertips at all times so that you feel you are always in control of what’s happening across all of your goals and all of accounts.
In addition to the dashboard views for all of your Accounts, Actions, and Transfers that present your current information, the Astra app will send you push notifications about your Astra wallet balance and transfers so you’re always up to date on what’s happening with your money. Plus, our mascot, Otis the space octopus, manages the sending of all email updates right to your inbox.
Personal finance should be personal. Your experience of interacting with your finances should be as unique as your financial situation. A personal finance app should give you the customization and flexibility you need, as well as help you see the bigger picture about where your money is going in a quick glance. Your tools should be driven by the unique decisions you make, the money you earn, and the financial goals you have. And those tools should, therefore, be made more useful, making your financial life easier as a result.
Whether you have an account with one financial institution or twenty, with a big bank or a local credit union, you can connect them all to the Astra app to view all of your balances in one place. And when creating an Action, any depository account (checking or savings), as well as your Astra wallet or goals, can be specified as the source or destination. With Astra, you can manage the movement of your money however you want.
Astra is meant to be “mission control” for your finances — one place to gather all the crucial information you need to get to the moon and beyond, where you can manage your money and achieve your financial goals. All of the technology we develop follows our own mission and should serve as a vehicle to make your experience with your finances as intelligent, empowering, and personal as possible. Our iOS app is launching soon and has some exciting features that allow you to earmark funds, track savings goals, and automate the movement of your money through rules.
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Originally published on Medium.