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Terp-powered service tracks those sneaky subscription charges

By Natalie Koltun

Bills

​Illustration by Steffanie Espat ​

​Illustration by Steffanie Espat ​

Last summer, Yahya Mokhtarzada ’06 noticed a $40 charge for in-flight Wi-Fi—but he hadn’t been on a plane in months. A quick look into his credit card statements unveiled that he’d been sneakily charged the monthly fee for over a year.

That experience led him and his brother, Idris ’10, to launch a company to help people find, track and cancel paid subscriptions through a free online service.

TrueBill Founders

“Ten years ago, you bought CDs. Five years ago it was songs on iTunes. Those were one-time purchases. Now, you pay each month to access music, news, makeup and meals,” says Yahya Mokhtarzada, CEO of Truebill.

But before he started TrueBill last winter, the former government and politics major worked at several tech startups in business development roles. Idris, a computer science major at UMD, previously co-founded Webs.com with brothers Haroon ’01 and Zeki ’00; it later sold for $117 million.

After spotting the Gogo in-flight fees, the brothers created an algorithm that scans read-only online statements with “bank-level security” and identifies recurring charges based on pattern recognition. They sent it to friends and family for initial feedback, and the majority discovered at least one subscription that had gone unnoticed. Then the Mokhtarzadas fine-tuned the service to adjust to individual users’ spending habits and added a one-click feature that cancels just about any unwanted recurring fee (except mortgage payments), so now users don’t have to waste time on the phone canceling each one.

Just after launching in January, Truebill was accepted to prestigious startup incubator Y Combinator, where the company received $120,000 in seed funding, mentorship for three months and access to potential investors like David Marcus, head of Facebook Messenger and former PayPal president, who was one of Truebill’s initial backers. Now, the San Francisco-based company has grown to seven employees and touts more than 50,000 users.

Subscription services have mushroomed in popularity as millions of people discover an easy way to buy services and products such as groceries, media, software and even razors and diapers. What’s not so easy is managing them all, says Yayha Mokhtarzada, so a management platform like Truebill can help. The average user saves $512 a year by canceling unwanted memberships, he says.

TrueBill

“Subscriptions aren’t going away, and the headaches that come with that, as well as the cancellation process, aren’t either,” says Brad Flora, a Truebill investor and founder of advertising startup Perfect Audience. “There are so many scams out there just preying on people’s laziness to not notice a few dollars here and there each month.”

TrueBill makes money by making subscription recommendations based on users’ individual interests—and generating referral revenue for each new signup. Though this initially seems like it contradicts the company’s mission, Yahya Mokhtarzada insists it makes sense.

“We’re not anti-subscription. We might identify that you’re paying for Netflix but not Spotify, so we suggest that, and if you sign up, Spotify will pay us for referring you to a service you might like,” he says.

Much of Truebill’s success, says Chief Technology Officer Idris Mokhtarzada, is rooted in his relationship with Yahya.

“We’ve spent more than 30 years together, so we understand how the other thinks, and we have a sort of shorthand communication that’s unique to siblings. It makes working together pretty efficient and fun,” he says. “But there’s also a huge motivating pressure to work hard and never, ever let your brother down.”

 

 

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.