Waze co-founder bolts Google for new crowdsourcing start-ups

Waze co-founder bolts Google for new crowdsourcing start-ups

Uri Levine's new start-up FeeX and his other investment, Zeek, once again put the wisdom of crowds at the service of consumers

Waze co-founder Uri Levine at a Jerusalem conference in May 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Waze co-founder Uri Levine at a Jerusalem conference in May 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

Waze co-founder Uri Levine has opted out of joining Google, instead focusing his attention on FeeX, a new Israeli start-up that uses the wisdom of crowds to save investors money, much as Waze, the company he co-founded and sold to Google for about one billion dollars, crowdsources to reduce drivers’ time in traffic.

In addition, he is the initial investor in Zeek, another Israeli start-up that fosters social connections to enhance the shopping experience for consumers.

FeeX debuted this week in the US after running a successful six-month pilot run there. By “rescuing our retirements from the tyranny of hidden fees,” Feex’s mission is to use crowd wisdom to help consumers avoid the unnecessary fees taken by banks, stockbrokers, and investment houses. According to the company, these fees can total up to one-third of money saved in retirement accounts.

It’s hard to believe, but according to an investment industry standard publication — the 2013 Investment Company Factbook — over a quarter of Americans’ retirement savings are invested in individual retirement accounts (IRAs). In 2013 alone, Americans paid $43 billion in fees on the $5.4 trillion invested in those accounts. Considering the fact that the majority of people hold onto those accounts for decades, a significant chunk of the money they are supposed to be earning goes to pay fees. With anemic returns from interest payments and the bond market, fees hurt more than ever.

But like with anything else, there are bargains on administrative fees to be found — if you know where to find them. FeeX furnishes a platform to do that. Users sign up and supply information about their IRA accounts, and the system analyzes how much they have available and how much they “owe” the institution managing the account (using Yodlee, a financial platform powering 9 out of the top 15 U.S. banks, uncovering hidden fees that account holders are likely not even aware of, said the company). FeeX especially looks for “expense ratios” — small percentages subtracted from returns before they even show up in the account balance.

With the philosophy at some institutions apparently “what they don’t know won’t hurt them,” the company said, finding the fees is key. “These small percentages can compound year after year and add up to some startling amounts,” according to FeeX.

“If you don’t know how much you’re paying in fees, you’re probably paying too much,” said Yoav Zurel, FeeX CEO. “FeeX is breaking this asymmetry by shining a light on both the short and the long-term effects of fees. To reduce these fees, FeeX offers users crowdsourced cues based on the anonymous, empirical efficiency of other users’ portfolios. This crowdsourcing element allows FeeX to remain objective while helping users rescue their retirements — without sacrificing performance or taking on more risk.”

While FeeX mines the wisdom of crowds to save users on fees, Levine’s other new project, Zeek, uses one of Waze’s greatest strengths — social networking — to build a community that also aims to help people save money. Zeek seems to solve a very Israeli problem — what to do with the “store credits” that many people never get around to using.

Until a recent change in the law — and in a practice still prevalent, due to custom and non-compliance — many Israeli retailers are very reluctant to refund money when they get a return. Instead, they hand over a “store credit” — a chit that allows users to buy other items in the store for the same cash value as the item they are returning.

Often though, credits go partially or even wholly unused; it’s difficult to find alternative items that add up to the exact amount of the chit, so the consumer either gets “change” in the form of another chit, or has to add money to the original amount. And that assumes there is anything else at the store they actually want; if there’s nothing else that interests them, the chit could sit unused for months, or longer.

According to Zeek CEO Daniel Zelkind, retailers are cleaning up on this system, to the detriment of consumers. As much as NIS 600 million ($175 million) in store credits go unused every year. The platform created by Zelkind and his partner Itai Arel monetizes these credits, bringing together buyers of store credits who can get a discount on the face value of chits, while sellers get money out of the credits that have been lying around unused, sometimes for years. Zeek vets buyers and sellers, and works with stores to create an electronic version of the credit, which buyers download and take to the store. For the service, Zeek takes a small fee from sellers.

According to Arel, the technology could be used for any barter purpose, and versions of the platform are planned for other consumer plays. “Our technology enables buyers and sellers to get together in a safe and secure manner without having to search on their own. We have met many people who have tried many different ideas to sell their credits, often having to travel far away in order to make a physical exchange of cash for chit. Zeek frees users from the burden of trying to get rid of their store credits, and promises a safe and quick transaction.”

Levine, who discovered the power of crowdsourcing and social networking with Waze, sees his new ventures as the next step in the evolution of both. “Again and again we’re seeing that the power of community trumps other more traditional, individual approaches,” said Levine. “Why hold only one piece when together, we can see the whole puzzle?”

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