The Bubble That Wasn’t
“The smaller the loan, the more likely a lender will deny it. The denial rate for applications for small loans (less than $100,000) was more than twice as high as it was for bigger loans.”
– CNNMoney 8/16/12
In early 2009, a very wise friend of mine gave me a bit of advice. As an ex-stock broker who made his fortune in the 80s, he’d seen his fair share of bubbles. And so he bestowed upon me his wisdom that the Merchant Cash Advance (MCA) industry’s days were numbered. “It’s got 6-8 months left of life in it and then it’ll go away. Everyone’s in freakout mode right now but things will go right back to the way they were and banks will push you right out of a job,” he lectured me. My expression didn’t change, for he wasn’t the first one to sing me this cautionary tale. He continued on, “You’re a nice guy so I suggest in the next few months, you go out and get into another line of work. You can always look at this experience as a wild ride but MCA is a fringe industry borne out of the financial crisis.” I thanked him for looking out for me and went home that night to mull over what he and a few others had been saying.
No one wants to believe their thriving business is part of a bubble that will inevitably burst. But at the same time, no one wants to later on be perceived as that naive fool that couldn’t see an obvious end coming either. And while the career itself seemed honorable and sustainable (helping small businesses get financing), there were a lot of pivotal moments along the way that made me think for a second that at any day I could be told to pack up my stuff and go home because there was suddenly no more demand for MCA.
I am reminded of the time when a Craigslist Ad was answered by over 500 recently laid off mortgage brokers and underwriters. Some had literally been hired to underwrite mortgages, only to be told days later that their division was closing down. Similarly, there were hot shots from the payday loan industry who stopped by to learn what our business was all about. These people looked like they had been punched in the gut and told stories of major success followed by unforeseen ruin as states legislated them out of business overnight. And still others had the mentality that MCA was a get rich quick scheme and went on to run their own funding companies or brokerage offices into the ground within a matter of months. They cursed the MCA gods and the bubble they believed they were a victim of, ignoring the reality that they had poorly managed themselves into oblivion.
As the 6 to 8 month timeline for destruction expired and the light shone on those still standing, I realized I had made the right choice by sticking it out. MCA was not a progeny of the financial meltdown. Heck, the product itself had already been around since the late 1990s and had gained significant popularity around 2005 when other players began entering the market. It also had none of the trademark signs of a bubble. If financing businesses was a bubble, there would be no such thing as banks today. Business financing has been around for literally thousands of years. MCA firms just catered to the ones that banks ignored and by 2008 that included nearly every small business in the country. One could argue that the growth rate of MCA would eventually slow down, supporting the claim with the same wisdom I had heard nearly a year before, that everything would return to “normal.”
Today’s world is anything but the world of yesterday. The unemployment rate in July was 8.3% and according to a survey reported by CNN, “[Today], the option most often sought by businesses — opening a new credit line — face[s] the lowest approval rate at 13%” Banks never did return to their old ways, nor does it seem likely that they will any time soon. Those that doubted MCA’s longevity in 2009, including those who left the industry altogether back then in fear, did not foresee the many roads of evolution that would allow it to thrive.
Years ago, an MCA was easily defined as a purchase of future sales that would ideally be completed in 6 to 9 months. Virtually every provider offered identical terms and costs, which stymied competition and eventually created stereotypes that would come to haunt the image of MCA for quite some time. For a while, America had a hard time envisioning MCA as anything but a 1.38 factor rate that was available to those that fit a certain credit criteria and processed a minimum amount of credit card sales monthly. So imagine the shock some small business owners felt when approved by RapidAdvance, a veteran MCA firm, for a ::gasp:: small business loan. A loan?! could it be? Yes, MCA has been semantically broadened to include many forms of short term lending. And then there’s Florida based Merchant Cash Group that became famous with their Fast Funding program, a financing option for businesses that fell outside the box for traditional MCAs. Some companies don’t even require businesses to accept credit cards as a form of payment. “Credit card sales? Who cares how much they’re doing in credit card sales?!” Would you ever imagine an MCA rep making such a statement in 2009?
MCA is still widely considered to be tied to credit card processing and it doesn’t ever need to officially evolve away from that. Withholding a percentage of sales directly from a payment processor is what initially allowed the many business owners that were horrible at making monthly payments suddenly eligible to receive capital. But for all the changes that have been applied to the financing product itself, something has changed with the companies offering it as well.
Competitors used to be ultra secretive about their practices. An MCA firm could be underwriting an application that another MCA firm funded the day before. Sure, the merchant wasn’t supposed to hop around and do this with more than one company at a time, but the other firm wouldn’t even confirm if they funded them if you asked. One of the great failures of the past was the lack of cooperation amongst the players in the industry. An ‘every man for himself’ mentality hurt more than it helped in a business that was struggling to create its identity in the mainstream world of finance. The North American Merchant Advance Association (NAMAA) sought to correct that through data sharing and the promotion of common standards. Some of the major members have years of experience under their belt including Merchant Cash and Capital, Strategic Funding Source, RapidAdvance, and Merchant Cash Group. These firms have been around the block and back. “MCA bubble? What bubble?,” they’ll say with 100% confidence in their tone.
So why a boring history lesson on MCA today? It’s only fitting on the day that CNN declared the bursting of the social media bubble, that I re-visit a decision I made 3 years ago. “I’m just looking out for you kid,” a mentor once told me. Bad advice for sure. This year, I am noticing many people that left MCA years ago are coming back. After so much time has passed, they are STILL getting in early on something that’s going to be huge, rather than coming back to ‘manage the decay’ (did I just take a swipe at Obama?!). VCs are having a field day trying to get in on it. Accel Partners recently forged an equity deal with Capital Access Network with the ultimate goal of what I’m guessing is to one day go public.
The only things bubbly in MCA these days are the excited account reps, underwriters, and support staff that are working to get America’s small businesses humming again. Some have taken to wearing their FUNDED pants 7 days a week. I know I have practically worn mine out.
I’m always struck now by the college grads that ask me if this business is sustainable. Their anxious parents are worried sick that their babies are going to be caught up in some bubble and be out of a job 6 to 8 months from now. To this I offer a few words of wisdom. “Providing small businesses with capital isn’t going away anytime soon. Sure, the product might evolve and the economy will change, but the fundamental demand for short term financing is here to stay. You seem like nice parents so I’d hate to see your kid get involved in some other industry at the end of its life cycle. He or She is getting in early on something big, something long lasting, something that has become a permanent staple of the American financial system.” Good advice for sure.
By: Sean Murray
Founder of Merchant Processing Resource (https://debanked.com)
Began career in the MCA industry in August, 2006
The FUNDED pants do exist and were created by Next Level Funding in early 2010.
Sean Murray is the President and Chief Editor of deBanked and the founder of the Broker Fair Conference. Connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on twitter. You can view all future deBanked events here.