Home Alone…with All My Stuff

Every serious adult should have an inventory of the possessions in his or her home in case of fire, flood or alien attack, but I don’t. This is one of the things that I’ve been meaning to do forever, and I’ve always thought that software should be able to help me do it. But home inventory software has always struck me as being unrealistically data entry-oriented. That is, most of the packages I’ve seen are predicated on the idea that the user is going to be very thorough and record every data point around each possession: not just the make, model and serial number, but also date of purchase, price, a scan of the receipt, notes on any servicing that might have happened, even a photograph of it… I mean come on. Who’s going to do that?

Part of the problem is that almost all of the home inventory software I’ve seen is intended to live on my hard drive. It’s packaged software (or, now, downloadable from the Mac App Store) that resides locally, tied to a specific computer, with little or no awareness or acknowledgment of the network. In reality, it should live on the cloud where it would make much more sense as a service, and not just because keeping this data physically off-premises is in keeping with the whole point of tracking it in the first place.

All Your Stuff in the Cloud

More than that even, creating a home inventory on the cloud can transform the process from just one of data entry into something more social and less chore-like. When I inventory my HDTV, simply entering its make, model number and serial number could return a complete profile of that product: technical specifications, manufacturer contact information, updates and recalls, etc., all aggregated from the many other users who have also inventoried that same television set. Going further, aggregate knowledge could transform the home inventory process from what basically amounts to compiling a spreadsheet into joining micro-communities built around each product: if I need warranty service on a refrigerator, this theoretical home inventory service could connect me with other owners of that same fridge to see who’s had similar experiences.

Is there something out there already that does this? I find it hard to believe there isn’t, but even more so, I find it hard to believe that this isn’t a major social network of some kind already. So much of our lives concern products, from appliances to furniture to electronics, and yet most of us, as consumers, are alone in maintaining and engaging with the things we own — social software seems like the perfect remedy for this situation. A startup that could put together this kind of audience and this kind of data would have a wealth of consumer information to act upon. But more importantly I think socializing the consumer experience in this way would actually improve things for everyone: it could help us buy, repair and trade products more effectively: it could even help us communicate with manufacturers more effectively too, and get them to produce the kinds of goods that we really need and that will last. If nothing else, it could get more of us to compile our own home inventories before disaster strikes.

  1. This is numero uno on my list of “great” ideas/side projects that I don’t have the time to complete. You’ve pretty much summed up 95% of the features. It would have been really nice if I could have replied with “Yes, it exists. Take a look at my app right over here.” I’m in if anyone makes this happen.

  2. “So much of our lives concern products, from appliances to furniture to electronics, and yet most of us, as consumers, are alone in maintaining and engaging with the things we own”

    I think a large part of the problem is that most of the consumer product industry exists solely to SELL us products, not to help us maintain and engage with them. Once you buy a product you’re on your own, and if it isn’t usable, if it’s replaced by a new model in a few months, or if it breaks after a few years, then no problem, just go out and buy a new one!

  3. I use Know Your Stuff, which exists on the cloud but is missing most of the auto-complete features that are on your wish list.

    Still, I would recommend the service, as it’s better to have a less-than-perfect inventory on the cloud than to have nothing at all. It is data-entry-intensive, but after the initial set-up, it’s easy to keep adding to.

  4. I think when the ‘Internet of Things’ that some of the social and tech blogs keep hyping up becomes a reality what you’ve described would be one of the first things to be implemented. and it would be as simple as clicking an authorize button. but for now as we are not living in that future just yet that sounds like a killer app.

  5. It almost sounds like a variation of Delicious Library, but cloud-based and not focused exclusively on your media.

    I’d buy that.

  6. This would be most easily accomplished with an opening of receipt services or through the credit card companies. Or, how about those pesky “bonus cards” provided by the places we most frequently shop. Someone’s tracking our purchases, why can’t we tap into the line item detail on our receipts?

  7. You would be correct in assuming that there are many services out there that do this. The problem is that no one has gotten it right yet. Even Amazon, has a product called Your Media Library that they’ve abandoned at some levels. Originally they were working on a webcam barcode scanner (Like Delicious Library). It failed. I’ve seen at least seven different startups attempt to solve this problem, all without much luck (not enough money/resources/users).

    I currently know of two companies in my state alone that offer a home inventory web app and couple it with specialists that come out to your home to do the inventory for you. That’s not really my cup of tea. I think the social aspect you write about really speaks to me. However, it suffers from the chicken or egg problem. How do you get users to want to start adding their own items? I must admit even searching or scanning the items in with a barcode reader is time consuming.

    I’m also convinced that trying to add features that are too similar to E-bay/Facebook is a major red flag for most of these startups. Many of them try to tackle too many features and then you suffer from feature creep (diluting the core functionality) which ultimately results in users who are uninspired. I’ve seen it fail several times already (myself included).

    I’ve been watching this space exclusively for many years now. I’m in the midst of trying to solve the problem myself. I must admit, it’s easy to get caught up with adding feature upon feature, because inventory is such a broad function for data.

    I’m definitely excited to see who and what is going to come out on top, I really feel that this type of application will be the new “it” app sometime in the near future.

  8. Yeah, this is an idea I’ve had for years now… I think my Dad and I started discussing during Katrina. What you laid out was a big part of it, and my idea also had some additional components/features, too, beyond just physical posession.

  9. This sounds like a cool idea, but as a matter of practicality? Our insurance people simply recommend making a video of all your crap in case of catastrophic loss or theft. Americans have a bizarre relationship to “stuff” (cf. Hoarders) anyway…not sure we like to look with a cool, clear eye at things we already have.

  10. I think a model like Ravelry.com for home inventory would be great. It’s not too complicated and it’s well integrated.

    My girlfriend is a knitter and when I saw her using Ravelry, I was blown away. It simply allows knitters to upload their projects. But the hook is, the knitter then identifies the type of yarn used and the pattern.

    Ravelry then lets other users sort through the site by yarn, pattern, person, and other knitting miscellany.

    It’s insanely useful and if applied to home inventory, I think it’d be nearly perfect.

  11. This is where the semantic web and RDF will come into play. You should check out Siegel’s book “Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business”, it’s a bit “pie in the sky” but who would’ve predicted the technological world we live in today 20 years ago.

  12. Definitely the right time for someone to come along and invent an iPhone/Android app to do just this, considering the current awareness of barcode scanning apps.

  13. I don’t know if I’d spend the time it would take to inventory my stuff; however, access to a dialog has helped me in the past, from figuring out why my hot water heater pilot goes off when the plumber told me to replace it to car defects. I’m on Ravelry & that is a good model for people to interface about knitting, etc. An app might be great, scan the bar code and no need for typing in details. good luck with the proposal.

  14. Well, Khoi, I’m certainly uplifted by the spirit of the post and the validation of the concept in the comments. I’m a co-founder of Keepio, an online platform to organize your belongings with some natural extensions into the world of friend-to-friend commerce.

    While we have not yet released the auto-suggest features you mention to the entire Keepio member base, they will be released globally in less than two weeks. Regarding Mr. Baumgarten’s comments above, yes there are plenty of opportunities for other “features” that can and will continue to inhibit our greater goal of connecting people more meaningfully with the products they own.

    Keepio’s mission focuses on creating transactions that save time and money as well as fostering advocacy and trust among product enthusiasts of all kinds. We’d love to have you kick the tires when you find time. Thousands of people are using the Keepio system in its initial state (released as an alpha project in Sept 2010), though a significant overhaul is underway and will be released in early- to mid-March.

    Thank you for giving me and the other Keepio co-founders that warm and fuzzy feeling of “idea validation”, Khoi. 🙂

  15. What you need is a home inventory app, that can take a photo of bar codes and add the pertinent data to your cloud-based database.

    If you don’t have the bar-code anymore, then take a good photo and mash it against Google’s image database. Pick the image that most closely resembles your thing, and voila!

    Eventually, as you get a new couch, etc., this process becomes much easier.

    And I only need 10-20% commission on all apps sold. 🙂


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