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A train flying off the tracks and feeling good about that

“Potentially Paying Customers”

We ended the last blog post with what you might think is an unfortunate epithet for new Beeminder users. Being buried at the end of a bunch of nitty-gritty about business reasons for the timing of collecting payment info, approximately zero percent [1] of people noticed it, until we had to go and lead with it in this blog post.

But I want to really double down on it!

We’ve argued before that Beeminder’s incentives are not at all as perverse as they seem. If Beeminder didn’t help you succeed at your goals then you’d stop using it. We’d have to be very myopic (and certainly wouldn’t have survived 7 (!) years) to want to make people more likely to fail.

Still, it would seem too convenient to be true if maximizing Beeminder revenue and maximizing user awesomeness were always entirely congruent. Well, being a fan of simultaneously having and eating cake, I’ve got an argument for exactly that congruency. [2]

Here it is. As a user, your tolerance for paying Beeminder scales with the value you derive from it. And the kicks in the butt, the stings, are where all the motivation comes from. If they’re excessive then you’ll quit or make your goal too easy. Which sacrifices both revenue and awesomeness. (And if the amounts of money you risk are too low, of course, they won’t actually motivate you.) What maximizes both revenue and awesomeness is being right below that threshold — motivating amounts of money that you’re willing to keep paying because of how much progress you’re making on your goals.

Maybe the key to seeing Beeminder’s incentives as wholly non-perverse is to remember that derailing does not equal failing. Derailing is a lot of things — a kick in the pants, paying for an immediate break because the goal has been really hard, valuable information about how realistic the goal is — none of which have anything to do with failing. The only ways to fail are to quit the goal, to set the yellow brick road bright red line to something stupidly easy, or to cheat. [3]

“Beeminder’s objective is to maximize your derailments, and at the maximum amount of money you can tolerate”

What do you think? I’m being serious now, and if we could convey that to users then we could unabashedly say that heck yes, Beeminder’s objective is to maximize your derailments, and at the maximum amount of money you can tolerate! (Maximize your long-term derailing, I mean. See again the footnote about Mexico [2] which in fact minimizes long-term revenue!) Put that way it sounds ridiculous but, for typical users, it’s equivalent to maximizing the amount of progress on the actual thing you’re beeminding. That’s worth paying for.


I like taking things to extremes so, now that we’ve reached the nitty-gritty portion of the post that no casual passersby will read, let’s see how that might look! What if we really went all out with trying to get you to derail more? Instead of or in addition to premium features, we could dangle carrots like this:

You need to pay $X more in derailments before unlocking the whizboggle feature. Go make some goals more ambitious!

Probably at this point I’m not serious but a little bit I still am. The reason not to take it this far is to not dilute Beeminder’s sting. More derailments are legitimately great, but not if they’ve been incentivized or otherwise made to be less painful when they happen. It’s great when it’s due to making your goals more ambitious and getting more done or being more awesome — accomplishing more of what you set out to when creating your Beeminder goal in the first place.

Once More, With Feeling: Derailing Is Not Failing

Let me get back to full seriousness: Not only is derailing not failing, it’s quite the opposite. Pushing yourself hard enough that you sometimes derail is great for us and great for you. You don’t know how much more you could be accomplishing unless you sometimes find your limits!

PS: Ongoing forum discussion. UPDATE: I’ve found that discussion eye-opening. A lot of it seems to contradict my thesis here. I’m not sure it does as much as it seems to but it has convinced me that this is just a part of the picture and Beeminder’s power and flexibility continue to amaze me. People improve their lives in a lot of different ways with Beeminder!



[1] Fun fact: Exactly one user complained and it was my mother. She wasn’t exactly complaining, just worried that it might sound kind of cynical or money-grubby of us. Like confirming users’ worst fears that we’re just waiting for people to fail at their goals so we can cash in.

[2] Exceptions apply. If we lock everyone out of their goals, collect all the derailment money, and flee to Mexico, that could count as revenue being incongruent with users’ awesomeness.

[3] There’s one more failure mode, thankfully rare, but it is an exception to the titular claim: Sticking your head in the sand and just letting the derailments rack up without doing any more work on the goal than you would’ve without Beeminder. When that happens it’s typically due to actual depression and we’ve got a deadman switch to bound the damage.

Image credit: Lucifer Nine on Drawception