IT’S A BROKER’S WORLD
From east to west, small businesses are getting funded. But how they’re found and who they work with depends on where they are. In the US, where brokers tend to have a love/hate relationship with the funding companies they work with, they are no doubt a driving force in the market. In other countries, they might not even exist, are just starting to bloom or they add balance to a mature market. Is the world built for brokers? deBanked traveled far and wide to find the answers.
Down under in Australia where American-based merchant cash advance and lending companies have expanded, the ISO (which stands for Independent Sales Office and is synonymous with broker) model has not really followed. David Goldin, CEO of Capify, an international company headquartered in New York, told deBanked that there’s very few ISOs in Australia.
He believes that’s because there’s next to no payment processing ISO market there, a foundation that was a major precursor in the US towards the development of ISOs reselling merchant cash advances and business loans.
Luke Schmille, President of CapRock Services, echoed same. The Dallas-based company founded Sprout Funding in Australia earlier this summer as part of a joint venture with Sydney-based family office Huntwick Holdings. “Direct marketing is the primary method [of acquiring deal flow],” he said. “The credit card processing space is controlled by several large banks, so you don’t see ISO efforts in the acquiring space either.”
Big bank dominance was only one reason why another country’s emerging alternative small business funding market developed slowly. In Hong Kong, non-bank alternatives like merchant cash advances faced legal uncertainty for a long time. For example, Global Merchant Funding (GMF), once the only merchant cash advance company in the Chinese special administrative region, had been relentlessly pursued for years by the Secretary for Justice for conducting business as a money lender without a license. GMF fought it. And won.
In May of this year, the legality of merchant cash advances ultimately prevailed after the highest court ruled the agreements were not loans. Emboldened, several companies have stepped up their marketing of the product. But whether they’re doing daily debit loans or split-processing merchant cash advances (both of which exist there), marketing tends to be directed at merchants, not a middle market of brokers.
Gabriel Chung of Hong Kong-based Advanced Express Capital said that there are a handful of large brokers typically comprised of former bankers, but the rest of the broker market is highly fragmented, mostly made up of individual freelancers.
Adrian Cook, the Founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based Asia Capital Advance, agreed that marketing is usually aimed at merchants directly but that it’s changing. “Since the market is still very new and MCA is only beginning to gain popularity, brokers on the market are only starting to recognize MCA,” he said. “There is a lot of room for the brokerage market to grow.”
In the UK, where Capify also operates, CEO David Goldin explained that the UK doesn’t have a lot of credit card processing ISOs so there wasn’t a major migration from that business to MCA like there was in the US. But that doesn’t mean there is no middleman market at all.
Paul Mildenstein, executive director of London-based Liberis, said that brokers are an important channel, but not as dominant as they are in the US. “Our brokers are usually members of the NACFB, an organisation in the UK that actively supports and provides operating principles to the furtherance of the commercial finance broker community,” he wrote. The National Association of Commercial Finance Brokers claims to have 1600 members, one among them is Liberis.
“Many clients want the support of an experienced professional who can discuss the financial options available to them in their specific circumstances,” said Liberis’ CEO, Rob Straathof. “Given relatively low awareness of the Business Cash Advance product in the UK, this means that brokers have a key role to play in educating potential customers on when this is the right option for them,” he added.
Straathof stressed a robust criteria for the brokers they work with and explained that brokers are their eyes and ears in the market. “The relationships we have with them are not transactional, but transformational for our business,” he said.
The NACFB was also praised by Alexander Littner, Managing Director of Chelmsford, Essex-based Boost Capital. The company, which is actually a subsidiary of Coral Springs, FL-based BFS Capital in the US, sees a balance between their use of brokers and their efforts to acquire customers directly.
“As the alternative finance market is still relatively new here in the UK these brokers are important for this independent advice, and to help educate the market and establish trust,” Littner said. “At Boost Capital we work very closely with brokers across the UK, they are a critical part of our growth and fundamental to our ongoing success.”
In the US, brokers play such a dominant role in customer acquisition that some MCA funding companies rely on them to source the entirety of their business. Back in February, Jordan Feinstein of NY-based Nulook Capital told deBanked, “We decided that the best way to grow is to build relationships to avoid the overhead, compliance, training and manpower that a sales team would require.” Nulook markets its broker-only approach as a strength.
Others take a more blended approach, like Justin Bakes, CEO of Forward Financing, for example. “While our priority is to self originate, it is essential to create and maintain partnerships in this business,” he said earlier this year.
Notably, no such guiding authority like the UK’s NACFB exists for brokers in the US so it’s not easy to track exactly how many there are or how they operate, but their role in the industry cannot be understated. deBanked actually labeled 2015 The Year Of The Broker, when it published an article in its March/April 2015 issue that tried to capture the essence of the industry at the time. Tom McGovern, who was then a VP at Cypress Associates LLC, said of brokers, “They’re like the missionaries of the industry going out to untapped areas of the market.”
But preaching the gospel of alternative funding exists at different stages across the world. And Goldin, whose company Capify operates in four countries including the US, thinks that many middlemen here at home may not ultimately survive. In an interview, he predicted that the stronger ones over time will be acquired by funding companies and that direct marketing will only increase. “I think more and more companies are going to start building their own internal sales forces,” he said.
Other brokers are not convinced that acquisition costs will lead to the death of their businesses, especially if they’ve already found ways to reduce overhead costs. Several brokers have discreetly mentioned running operations from Costa Rica, Nicaragua or elsewhere as a way to keep things profitable. Still more, like Excel Capital Management based in Manhattan, have found that offering a suite of products allows them to monetize more customers. Chad Otar, a managing partner for Excel, said that they recently brokered a $4.9 million SBA loan. MCA is just one of their options these days. “As long as there’s small businesses, there’s always going to be opportunity,” he said.
In the US, the brokers have certainly seized it, but that’s because most funding companies offer big bucks and quick payment to those that are capable of sourcing customers. In other countries, compensation for services rendered might be the responsibility of the broker to arrange with the merchant since it may not be customary for funding providers to pay commissions. That would mean more work and more risk for the broker.
Ironically, some brokers in the US will tap into both sides, earning a commission from the funder and charging a fee to the merchant for services rendered. And if the broker has payment processing roots, they can go a step further and earn merchant account residuals as well.
Brokers can’t exist without funding companies willing to support their endeavors, of course. While their prevalence around the world varies, most of the funding companies deBanked spoke to, appear eager to nurture the middleman’s role, so long as they act responsibly.
“Brokers in the UK are incredibly important as independent advisors to small businesses on the various sources of finance to suit their needs,” said Littner.
And as long as those customers, wherever they may be, are getting the value they want from a broker, that role, so long as it can continue to be done profitably, will likely have a place in the world for the foreseeable future.Last modified: April 20, 2019
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.