For months, the UK’s cost of living problem has dominated the news, with no end in sight. Newspapers just last week reported that inflation had reached 5.5 percent, a 30-year high, driving increasing costs for basic necessities like food. Worse is still to come, as an energy price ceiling will expire in April, causing bills to skyrocket by more than 50%. The poorest families are forced to choose between ‘heating or eating.’ A new London-based business, Nous, is attempting to toss a life raft into this bleak sea by providing a free customised report that explains how price increases will influence household spending and offers advice on how to adjust to inflation.
But that’s only the first step. The company’s larger pitch and “social mission” is to use (first-party) household finance data and (third-party) vendor data to build models that can gradually automate the management of essential service switching and/or contact renegotiating in order to provide a kind of household savings-as-a-(subscription)-service. Nous, whose name rhymes with “house,” talks about creating an “autopilot” for everyday household decisions that monitors and scans energy, insurance, mortgages, broadband, and other subscription services to direct people to better bargains.
According to the company, its future subscription service will save an “average” home more than £1,000 per year. (Of course, its own service pricing would have to be far lower to persuade hard-pressed consumers to sign up.) Nous says it envisions being able to take on a public ‘punching-up’ role once/if it’s operating at scale, with high-level visibility into the consumer experience, saying it could call out vendors it sees trying to pull a fast one, such as sneaking in an extra price hike under the guise of a standard inflation rate rise and using transparency and shame to force-correct bad behavior.
(Food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe’s use of social media to publicly call out massively over-inflationary price rises in supermarket ‘basics’ food lines — or footballer Marcus Rashford’s use of social media to drive change to free school meal contracts by showcasing horribly inadequate provision — may provide some inspiration.)
To deliver on its consumer-friendly promise of intelligent and easy service switching, the young business must first nail down data access, perform bespoke modeling, and use automation technologies. For the time being, the 2021-based firm is focused on product development. It’s currently in closed beta as it strives to construct models and fine-tune decision-making heuristics in order to build technology that can safeguard consumers against opportunistic vendor price rises and loyalty charges. Or, at the very least, that’s the fantasy.
Nous, in addition to being a fantasy, has a lot of money behind it — it just closed a $9 million seed round — and isn’t in any danger of going bankrupt. It can boast a lengthy list of early investors who believe in a concept that, according to co-founder and CEO Greg Marsh, intends to use data to work for the customer rather than against them.
“There’s always seemed to me to be something very problematic about the way that just as direct debit and other fintech innovations have created a lot of convenience for householders, they’ve also made us vulnerable — precisely because I can pay for my energy, my mobile phone, and my car insurance on this sort of automatic mechanism… but that convenience creates this power imbalance because it puts the onus on individual householders to pay an enormous amount of money… but that convenience creates this power imbalance because it puts the onus on individual household.