Money Stories

15Jun12

Readability can’t do anything right, apparently. First they were tarred as “scumbags” for their subscriber payment model (which, originally, paywalled certain premium features and set aside 70% of the fees for content creators to claim at will). Now they’ve discontinued that model, and they’re taking punches again (for putting a deadline on claims for the uncollected fees, after which they’ll donate the fees to literary nonprofits).

Here is what happened. Readability created a product that “gets between” readers and publishers to in order to provide a useful service to the readers (i.e., reformatting content to make it more readable). The product was also designed to accept money for providing that service.

How is this any different from Instapaper: a product that “gets between” readers and publishers in order to provide a useful service to readers, and accept money in exchange for it? How come Instapaper gets to make money by getting in between readers and publishers–and take no shit for it at all–while Readability has gotten nothing but shit for it?

Money stories. Instapaper has a totally different “money story” than Readability’s. Instapaper’s money story is a good-guy story: Guy makes thing that makes my life easier, that thing has value, I give the guy money for it, that sounds fair. Everybody wins! Readability’s money story is a bad-guy story: Company makes thing that wedges itself in between me and the people creating the value, so not all my money goes where it’s supposed to and the people who should be getting it in the first place have to “sign up” with Company to get what’s rightfully theirs. That doesn’t sound fair. FUCK THOSE GUYS!

Money stories are black and white. They are about good guys and bad guys, smart or stupid, noble or evil. These stories may not necessarily be true (which is why Planet Money and Businessweek can be so fascinating, by going into the grey-area behind these stories), but for buyers and sellers making decisions they’re simple and helpful and they feel right enough. And for observers they provide drama and entertainment.

So again, why are the money stories for these two very similar products so radically different?

I have no real answer, but here’s a guess made with 20/20 hindsight:

Make sure the thing you are selling is the same thing the customer is buying. Instapaper is a thing (an app) that does something you want/need, so you pay for that thing. That’s the proposition; no different than buying food or tools or toys. Readability is also a thing, but they necessarily didn’t present it as the thing you are buying. I buy a subscription “to” Readability, but 70% of the money goes to the publishers. The story that transaction tells is this: what I’m really buying is their work, not Readability’s.

What if Readability had simply flip-flopped the split, saying: “we donate 30% of your money to the publishers you read using our app”? Maybe that would have just gotten people more angry, or equally angry… or maybe it would have told a different money story right from the get-go, a story more like Instapaper’s, but with Readability positioned even more like “good guys.” That money story would be: you, the readers, are our customers, and you pay us to make this thing for you, and we’re thankful for your support. But guess what — unlike Instapaper, we’re going to kick some of the money you pay for our thing up to the publishers, because without them, this thing would be useless and you wouldn’t buy it in the first place. In that story, the thing Readability is selling is the same thing their customers are buying (an app that makes reading easier), because that’s where most of the money is actually going (to Readability); and so the lesser portion allocated to publishers then feels like a gift, not something they’re owed. This makes the money story about Readability’s business model (in which the publishers are magnanimously included as a bonus–good guys!), not about the publishers’ business model (which Readability is parasitizing without consent or “holding hostage”–bad guys!).

But Readability’s “big idea” was to be a platform, not a mere product–that was how they differentiated themselves from Instapaper. What kind of “good guy” money story could be told around this platform? Again, maybe it’s just about making sure you and your customers know each other and are on the same page about what the money is for. In a way Readability was trying to function like Kickstarter: we help you support the creators you love! Platforms like Kickstarter, which connect buyers to sellers and take a cut for the service, don’t necessarily rile everyone up; hell, Kickstarter does this to near-universal acclaim. But Kickstarter doesn’t find projects that are already in progress, set them up on its service, solicit money from users without the project-makers’ involvement, and then turn around and say “come and get your money (less 30% for this service you didn’t ask for)”. That would be weird, to say the least. Kickstarter has opt-in customers (totally distinct from the users), who “pay” 5% of what the platform helps them raise in exchange for access to that platform (and its audience). What if Readability had presented itself more like that–what if the “pass through percentage” of subscriber fees only went to publishers who signed up to be part of a “What to Read” feature within Readability?

I just tossed that out off the top of my head, so it’s probably a terrible idea. I guess I’m just trying to do a thought experiment about what kind of “good” money story, if any, might have emerged out of the Readability payment scheme. Maybe my larger point is that when you bring money into the picture, it starts telling its own story about you, your app, your mission, everything. It’s got a life of its own. And when people are confused about your actions or in doubt about your intentions, the money story is what they’ll believe.

Postscript/disclosure for anyone who cares: I’m friendly with the Readability folks, and use both services: I prefer Instapaper for offline “reading later” on my phone, and Readability for online “reading now” in my browser. 

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One Response to “Money Stories”

  1. 1 Matt O

    As I was discussing this with my wife, the “money story” that came to her mind was Netflix…when they changed their money story, splitting streaming from video rental the way they did, the money story pissed all their customers off. if they had thought about that differently it could have gone a lot smoother.



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