On Deck Capital IPO, An Insider’s Perspective
It was August 23, 2011, the day the Virginia Earthquake could be felt all the way up in New York City. The four of us were enjoying outdoor seating at a restaurant on the Upper East Side. The ground shook, my drink spilled and Ace looked at each one of us and said, “Okay so I’m putting you down for five deals this month.” OnDeck Capital’s relationship managers were aggressive. If you were a small Independent Sales Organization (ISO), they didn’t expect to get all of your dealflow so they roped you in little by little. It was hard to say no. If five deals was too much, Ace would say three and if three was too much, then he’d put you down for three anyway. Zero was not in the cards. OnDeck owned a specific niche and if you didn’t send your premium credit clients to them, then any ISOs you were competing against would. That was a death knell in those days. Just a few years earlier I would’ve shrugged them off, but public sentiment was changing. Merchants were embracing the fixed daily payment methodology and the merchant cash advance industry would never be the same.
OnDeck Capital is now going public. Will you buy stock?
I’m in a unique position to discuss OnDeck. I started my career in this industry before they even existed. I’ve competed against them as an underwriter at a rival firm, worked with them as a referral partner when I was in sales, and covered them in my capacity as Chief Editor of an industry trade publication.
I left my post as Merchant Cash & Capital’s Director of Underwriting in late 2008. I was 25, about a year or two older than the average employee in the industry. Several of MCC’s rivals got demolished in the financial crisis but OnDeck wasn’t one of them. They also weren’t much of a competitor either. Struggling to define themselves as the anti-merchant cash advance, their product ran counter to the spirit of the industry’s rise. The single biggest allure of a merchant cash advance wasn’t that it was easy to obtain but that there was no fixed repayment term. The funds came with a pre-determined net cost but no specific date on when the delivery of future sales would be due.
Outsiders like the news media aren’t exactly sure what separates merchant cash advance from OnDeck except for maybe the cost of funds. Cash advance just sounds expensive, doesn’t it?
Outsiders identify the company by three characteristics.
1. They’re a non-bank business lender
2. They’re more expensive than a bank
3. They’re a tech company
These bullet points gloss over the fact that OnDeck’s loans require payments to be made every day. Can you imagine a credit card company forcing you to send a payment every day of the month? Or your landlord asking for rent on the 1st of the month, the 2nd, the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and so on every day until your lease is up?
This is not to say that this system is necessarily bad for borrowers, but that it is quite possibly the most unique and important part of what makes OnDeck different. It’s their secret sauce. It is why OnDeck gets lumped in with merchant cash advance companies in many conversations. OnDeck and the legion of copycats they have spawned are part of a broader industry that includes merchant cash advance companies. I call them daily funders. Daily funders provide financing on the condition that payments are made daily. I don’t call them daily lenders because traditional merchant cash advance products are not made by lenders, but by a unique group of investors that purchase future revenue streams.
Under company founder Mitch Jacobs, OnDeck had established themselves as the de facto loan option.
The merchant’s not biting on merchant cash advance? Send it to OnDeck. The merchant doesn’t accept credit cards? Send it to OnDeck.
They were every merchant cash advance ISO’s frenemy. They’d solicit you for your deals and then throw you under the bus to journalists as evil purveyors of expensive financing. They needed us to source dealflow and we needed them to maximize closing ratios but neither was quite satisfied with the arrangement.
When the company’s first employee took over as CEO in June 2012, the rhetoric changed. While still happy to be portrayed as the anti-merchant cash advance, OnDeck transformed their image from a niche Wall Street lender to a Silicon Valley-esque tech company. Noah Breslow was a curious choice. He has a BS from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He’s tall, charismatic, and he introduced vocabulary words such as algorithm to an industry that relied entirely on manual human underwriting.
At a recent lending conference, the younger crowd characterized Breslow as the Steve Jobs of business loans. He commands a cult-like following inside and outside the company, and in 2013 was embraced by New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg.
Breslow fast tracked OnDeck. With only $43 million raised in the first 5 years, the company went on to raise more than $300 million in the first 24 months under Breslow’s leadership.
This was their plan all along
In November 2012, OnDeck entertained a buyout offer from UK-based payday lender Wonga in which they reportedly received a $250 million valuation. The deal fell apart in the late stages but at the time I believed the negotiations were all a ploy for OnDeck to get a true market valuation. With a solid offer on the table, they knew both where they stood and where they needed to go. Last week the WSJ reported that preliminary IPO discussions valued them at $1.5 billion, six times higher than where they were two years ago.
With stock options being offered to new employees at least as far back as 2012, the plan to go public should come as no surprise. Later this year, those employees may actually get to do something very few startup workers ever get to do, convert those options into real shares.
So will OnDeck ride off into the sunset of billion dollar bliss? Not so fast say several industry insiders, some of whom are itching to short the stock on the first day they can.
Smoke and mirrors?
As OnDeck took advantage of the swing in public consensus (that fixed terms were better and lower costs increased the attactiveness ), insiders began to ask an important question. Why weren’t merchant cash advance companies collectively countering with lower prices to remain competitive? Greed was fingered by journalists especially in the wake of the financial crisis. But greed is a weak prerogative if you consider that merchant cash advance companies were filing for bankruptcy left and right in 2009.
And oddly or perhaps even ominously, an entire segment of merchant cash advance companies began to raise their prices just as OnDeck was lowering theirs. When I wrote The Fork in the Merchant Cash Advance Road in April 2011, I said:
While the margins earned on high credit accounts shrank, funding providers were dealing with another challenge simultaneously, defaults. Whether the business owner intentionally interfered with their credit card processing or the store went out of business altogether, bad debt in the MCA world was mounting…FAST!
Risk was and still is the number one reason that merchant cash advances cost so much. While it’s true that OnDeck serviced higher credit businesses, insiders speculated that the spreads were too thin. For years, OnDeck’s merchant cash advance competitors have doubted the soundness of their model.
It’s a debate that continues even to this day and yet OnDeck has secured hundreds of millions in investments from companies like Google Ventures, Goldman Sachs, Peter Thiel, and Fortress Investment Group. Their notes got an investment grade rating from DBRS. And as far as volume is concerned, they have likely eclipsed the industry’s all time reigning giant CAN Capital. If they had reached none of these milestones, OnDeck would have little credibility to convince critics of their sanity.
With a mountain of circumstantial evidence through big name backing in OnDeck’s favor, it seems to be indicative that the skeptics are wrong. But maybe they’re not. Could their model be both seriously flawed and superior at the same time?
It’s all about eyeballs
Going back to the 1990s, Internet companies have been judged, valued, and made famous by the price of eyeballs and the number of site visits. It’s a measure that’s never disappeared and according to USA Today is making a comeback. And while OnDeck Capital has always been based in New York City, true to their Silicon Valley form, their model has been to conquer market share first and take on profitability second. In their case, it’s not eyeballs or site visits, it’s loan origination volume.
Five months ago Breslow was quoted in the WSJ as saying OnDeck is “imminently profitable“. With seven years in business, it’s proof that their critics have been right all along, that their model doesn’t make money.
What scares their competitors though, is that this strategy has been intentional. Very few if any players in the industry have had the luxury, guts, or the purse to lose money for seven years as part of a coup to conquer the market. Disbelievers in this long term wildly risky strategy are salivating at the opportunity to inspect the company’s financial statements in the IPO.
In When Will the Bubble Burst?, RapidAdvance CEO Jeremy Brown, whose company became part of the Quicken Loans family last winter, fired shots at OnDeck, “To accomplish high growth rates, which may be driven by a desire or need for an IPO or to raise investment or to sell to private equity, assets are being overpaid for through higher than economically justified commissions (I’ve heard 12-15 points upfront from the more aggressive companies) and stretch the repayment term of the MCA or loan even further (On Deck24, I am talking about you).”
Insiders testify that OnDeck’s strategy has not so much been about lower costs but about growth at all costs. Among the evidence is the sudden removal of an industry-wide practice of verifying the business owner is current on their rent. Repayment terms are getting stretched out, commissions have shot up, and for a while they ran a program that allowed applicants to get funding with the submission of just a single bank statement.
Merchant cash advance companies look at their own default figures and scoff at the notion that OnDeck’s aggressive practices could produce low single digit defaults as they’ve publicly claimed.
Through it all, there remains the fact that OnDeck has never claimed their methodologies to be profitable, at least not yet. Red ink at IPO time might reward their detractors with a certain delicious satisfaction, but what will they say if and when they become profitable?
I’m reminded of The 20 Smartest Things Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos ever said. Below is a few of them.
- “There are two kinds of companies: Those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less. We will be the second.”
- “Your margin is my opportunity.”
- “We’ve done price elasticity studies, and the answer is always that we should raise prices. We don’t do that, because we believe — and we have to take this as an article of faith — that by keeping our prices very, very low, we earn trust with customers over time, and that that actually does maximize free cash flow over the long term.”
- “If you never want to be criticized, for goodness’ sake don’t do anything new.”
- “Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood. You do something that you genuinely believe in, that you have conviction about, but for a long period of time, well-meaning people may criticize that effort. When you receive criticism from well-meaning people, it pays to ask, ‘Are they right?’ And if they are, you need to adapt what they’re doing. If they’re not right, if you really have conviction that they’re not right, you need to have that long-term willingness to be misunderstood. It’s a key part of invention.”
I wonder if the executive team at OnDeck would share these philosophies.
They’ve always claimed themselves to be a tech company, much to the bewilderment of their competitors. Will technology come through for them?
The data available on businesses has changed. Bank statements and a credit report might’ve been all there was to go on when the company first started, but in Automated Intelligence Breslow said, “the fact is most businesses operating today, in 2014, are already technology focused to one degree or another. They have computers, they have online banking, they use credit card processors, their customers are reviewing them online, there are public records, etc. All this electronic data helps paint a deeper and more accurate picture of the health of a business.”
With such easy access to important data, it might be possible that through the use of 2,000 data points, OnDeck doesn’t need to do all the manual investigations that their competitors still place high values on. The available data might be able to predict loan repayment success just as well as a human analyst.
And if that’s true, then they can reduce the cost of overhead as they scale. As their predictive algorithms get fed more data, they might be able to eliminate humans altogether. At the May 2014 LendIt conference, Breslow admitted that 30% of their loans were still manually underwritten but said that “if customers want full automation, we are prepared to deliver it.”
By that charge, a sustainable model should not be that far out of reach. Through advanced data analysis and decreasing fixed costs, profitability may indeed be imminent.
If the story of the merchant cash advance industry has been a race to the top, then OnDeck might be declared the winner in a successful IPO. It would be an ironic achievement for the company that positioned itself as the anti-merchant cash advance. In their wake today are hundreds of daily funders offering fixed payment products.
OnDeck’s critics are in a paradoxical position because a successful IPO is good for them too. They want to believe OnDeck’s model never worked, can’t work, and have it be proven a failure. But if it goes the other way, the legitimacy of the daily funder universe will be solidified in the mainstream. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
As AmeriMerchant CEO David Goldin said to Inc, “the OnDeck IPO shows that Wall Street is now taking this industry seriously.”
So does that mean he’d buy stock? Somewhere out there at a restaurant in New York City, an OnDeck relationship manager is probably putting Goldin down for five shares.
Cue the earthquake, the industry will never be the same.
Curious how it will change it exactly? Read my magazine published prediction, The Retail Investor. Last modified: August 5, 2015