Please steal this idea! (How a bill at work can save money & save lives)

Saving money while making a difference What if you could do the right thing while also doing good? If you had a way for people at work to save money for their firm while contributing a portion of those savings to a good cause?

We’re working on implementing just such an idea. It’s something every firm can do. And maybe the lessons we’re learning can help your firm realize the benefits faster.

The idea: myBill

The idea is to give every employee a personalized bill of what the firm pays for on their behalf - software, hardware, phone bills, etc. - and make it easy for them to eliminate things they no longer need or want. Then they can direct a portion of the savings (say 5%) to one of the firm’s philanthropic efforts.

We had the idea for myBill almost two years ago and first described the problem in a blog post. Here’s a snippet:

“Most cost management energy is usually spent on the approval process. Once an item’s approved, though - whether it’s hardware, software, market data, or even real estate - it’s inherently difficult to know when something’s no longer required unless the employee leaves.

Also, employees often don’t know what’s being charged on their behalf. And, if they do, they don’t have much incentive to give things back (even if they knew how). So, as people move and re-organize, and as needs changes, the waste adds up.”

The bill would let employees quickly remove things they don’t need and point them to low-cost alternatives for the rest. It might even include analytics comparing their costs to those of other employees. And by connecting the bill to our internal social platform, we’d make it easier to spread the word about the possibilities. “John just saved $112 and is helping provide clean drinking water to those without it.”

The barriers: no funding, no resources, no permission

Although you can quickly see your bills at home, you almost never see one at work. Since different resources are managed by different departments, the data about who uses what is locked up inside many different golden sources. And each resource tends to have its own idiosyncrasies. For example, getting a unit cost for a piece of software might be difficult if the firm has enterprise licenses. You may not save anything if you give up 1 unit but you might save a lot on the next contract if you give up 1000.

Discovering these idiosyncrasies is difficult and time-consuming. And so we had trouble building a credible business case and attracting funding.

It’s also hard to connect the bill to philanthropy. It’s much easier for the corporate social responsibility department to give money to a charity than to tie operational benefits to that same charity. That may have more to do with budgets and org charts than policy. But the lack of a convenient precedent means you’ll have to create new processes from scratch. It may not even be clear what approvals you'll need and from whom.

The lessons: how innovation really happens

For a long time after that original blog post, not much happened. We pitched the idea and people liked it but we never got funding.

Then we worked on it anyway. One person, a former Peace Corps member, was passionate enough about the idea to keep pressing. He found two software developers who generously volunteered their time to build a prototype. And he used the “Lean Startup” method to build enough of a product so he could get feedback and some early results.

The first online bill had all sorts of problems. Data quality issues. A lack of automated processes. No unit costs.

But it was enough that people could see what we were trying to do. And when the first few hundred people reviewed their bill, they could share their results with their online network. So now their connections knew about the project, too. myBill went from being an old blog post to being something a lot more people understood, were talking about, and could become a part of.

The lesson was that we should have built the prototype and got feedback much earlier. If we had the chance to do it again, we’d have done less pitching and done more to make the idea real so we could build a tribe around it, share early results, and get noticed sooner.

Now, finally, some of the people talking about myBill are those with the funding to overcome the barriers and make it real across the firm.

What if...

Every company I know is trying to eliminate waste. What if more of them created their own myBill project and scaled the possibilities?

For example, a 100,000-person firm might spend $10 billion on non-payroll expenses. What if we could trim just 0.5% of those expenses by people seeing their full costs and identifying waste? And contributed 5% of the savings to a good cause?

That could mean $47.5 million for the firm and $2.5 million for others. It could mean tens of thousands of employees being as careful with the firm’s money as they are with their own while providing 100,000 people with clean drinking water for life.

Now what if 10 companies did that? 1000 companies? What if,  by simply nudging employees to eliminate waste, we could save millions of lives and be part of something wonderful?

What if you tried to implement myBill at your firm?