“What’s a cash advance?”
This is how Avi Bernstein, CEO of 2M7 Financial Solutions, recalled a typical conversation in 2008, when his company was founded in the Canadian market. According to him, customer knowledge of alternative financing methods was dismal, partly due to a handful of homogenous banks dominating the scene as well as a void of funders in the country.
Flash forward to 2019 and 2M7 is operating within a Canadian market that is much more trusting and knowledgeable of merchant cash advances, although it is not yet at the levels witnessed in the U.S.
“Low hanging fruit,” is how Bernstein describes the industry now, as small and medium-sized businesses are flocking to 2M7 and its contemporaries, which offer higher approval ratings and faster confirmation of funding than their more traditional counterparts. In fact, according to a 2018 study conducted by Smarter Loans, 24% of those Canadians surveyed stated that they sought their first loan with an alternative lender that year. As well as this, only 29% reported that they pursued funding from more established, traditional financial institutions and 85% of those that received financing confirmed their satisfaction.
Figures like these help to explain why the Canadian market has seen a rise in interest from foreign businesses in the previous five years. Greenbox Capital, First Down Funding, and Funding Circle are examples of those companies who have successfully implanted themselves within the market, a feat that Bernstein claims isn’t easy.
“It’s a different business,” he notes when comparing the market to that of the U.S. Listing the dissimilarities in market maturity levels, sales tactics, processing channels, and collection styles, as well as the currency exchange rate that’s to be considered, Bernstein says that he’s found those American funders who come to Canada unprepared never stay long enough to become a fixture of the industry.
Warning against half measures, Bernstein explains that “You’ve gotta put boots on the ground” if you want to succeed in Canada. Giving the impression that unless you’re willing to learn the rules applied in the market, hire people, and house them in an office north of the American border, Bernstein is keen to highlight what’s required of foreign companies looking with interest at Canada.
But it’s a risk-reward situation. The market is opening up as more funders enter it, and with the arrival of larger companies, such as OnDeck Capital, more resources are being devoted to raising awareness of alternative financing amongst Canadians.
Meanwhile, homogenous firms like 2M7 are continuing to grow in this developing market. Receiving an average of 200-300 applications for funds per month, 2M7 is capitalizing off opportunities by proving themselves to be open to a wider range of applications. Bernstein asserts that “we try to fund everything,” and that they keep an “open mind to every opportunity” that lands on their desk. Perhaps this is a mindset not shared by more conservative of funders in the industry, but, as Bernstein says, “we’re here, we’re funding, and we’re ready to rock n’ roll.”
You can meet Avi Bernstein and 2M7 at deBanked CONNECT Toronto on July 25th.
Canadians have been slow out of the gate when it comes to mass adoption of alternative financing, but times are changing, presenting opportunities and challenges for those who focus on this growing market.
Historically, the Canadian credit market has traditionally been dominated by a few main banks; consumers or businesses that weren’t approved for funding through them didn’t have a multitude of options. The door, however, is starting to unlock, as awareness increases about financing alternatives and speed and convenience become more important, especially to younger Canadians.
Indeed, the Canada alternative finance market experienced considerable growth in 2017—the latest period for which data is available. Market volume reached $867.6 million, up 159 percent from $334.5 million in 2016, according to a report by the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance and the Ivey Business School at Western University. Balance sheet business lending makes up the largest proportion of Canadian alternative finance, accounting for 57 percent of the market; overall, this model grew 378 percent to $494 million in 2017, according to the report.
Industry participants say the growth trajectory in Canada is continuing. It’s being driven by a number of factors, including tightening credit standards by banks, growing market demand for quick and easy funding and broader awareness of alternative financing products.
To meet this growing demand, new alternative financing companies are coming to the market all the time, says Vlad Sherbatov, president and co-founder of Smarter Loans, which works with about three dozen of Canada’s top financing companies. He predicts that over time more players will enter the market—from within Canada and also from the U.S.—and that product types will continue to grow as demand and understanding of the benefits of alternative finance become more well-known. Notably, 42 percent of firms that reported volumes in Canada were primarily headquartered in the U.S., according to the Cambridge report.
To be sure, the Canadian market is much smaller than the U.S. and alternative finance isn’t ever expected to overtake it in size or scope. That’s because while the country is huge from a geographic standpoint, it’s not as densely populated as the U.S., and businesses are clustered primarily in a few key regions.
To put things in perspective, Canada has an estimated population of around 37 million compared with the U.S.’s roughly 327 million. On the business front, Canada is similar to California in terms of the size and scope of its small business market, estimates Paul Pitcher, managing partner at SharpShooter, a Toronto-based funder, who also operates First Down Funding in Annapolis, Md.
Nonetheless, alternative lenders and funders in Canada are becoming more of a force to be reckoned with by a number of measures. Indeed, a majority of Canadians now look to online lenders as a viable alternative to traditional financial institutions, according to the 2018 State of Alternative Lending in Canada, a study conducted by online comparison service Smarter Loans.
Of the 1,160 Canadians surveyed about the loan products they have recently received, only 29 percent sought funding from a traditional financial institution, such as a bank, the study found. At the same time, interest in alternative loans has been on an upward trajectory since 2013. Twenty-four percent of respondents indicated they sought their first loan with an alternative lender in 2018. Overall, nearly 54 percent of respondents submitted their first application with a non-traditional lender within the past three years, according to the report.
Like in the U.S., there’s a mix of alternative financing companies in Canada. A number of companies offer factoring and invoicing and payday loans. But there’s a growing number focused on consumer and business lending as well as merchant cash advance.
Some major players in the Canadian alternative lending or funding landscape include Fairstone Financial (formerly CitiFinancial Canada), an established non-bank lender that recently began offering online personal loans in select provinces; Lendified, an online small business lender; Thinking Capital, an online small business lender and funder; easyfinancial, the business arm of alternative financial company goeasy Ltd. that focuses on lending to non-prime consumers; OnDeck, which offers small business financing loans and lines of credit; and Progressa, which provides consolidation loans to consumers.
By comparison, the merchant cash advance space has fewer players; it is primarily dominated by Thinking Capital and less than a dozen smaller companies, although momentum in the space is increasing, industry participants say.
“The U.S. got there 10 years ago, we’re still catching up,” says Avi Bernstein, chief executive and co-founder of 2M7 Financial Solutions, a Toronto-based merchant cash advance company.
In terms of opportunities, Canada has a population that is very used to dealing with major banks and who are actively looking for alternative solutions that are faster and more convenient, says Sherbatov of Smarter Loans. This is especially true for the younger population, which is more tech-savvy and prefers to deal with finances on the go, he says.
Because the alternative financing landscape is not as developed in Canada, new and innovative products can really make a significant impact and capture market share. “We think this is one of the key reasons why there’s been such an influx of international companies, from the U.S. and U.K. for example, that are looking to enter the Canadian market,” he says.
Just recently, for example, Funding Circle announced it would establish operations in Canada during the second half of 2019. “Canada’s stable, growing economy coupled with good access to credit data and progressive regulatory environment made it the obvious choice,” said Tom Eilon, managing director of Funding Circle Canada, in a March press release announcing the expansion. “The most important factor [in coming to Canada] though was the clear need for additional funding options among Canadian SMEs,” he said.
OnDeck, meanwhile, recently solidified its existing business in Canada through the purchase of Evolocity Financial Group, a Montreal-based small business funder. The combined firm represents a significantly expanded Canadian footprint for both companies. OnDeck began doing business in Canada in 2014 and has originated more than CAD$200 million in online small business loans there since entering the market. For its part, Evolocity has provided over CAD$240 million of financing to Canadian small businesses since 2010.
“There is an enormous need among underserved Canadian small businesses to access capital quickly and easily online, supported by trusted and knowledgeable customer service experts,” Noah Breslow, OnDeck’s chairman and chief executive, said in a December 2018 press release announcing the firms’ nuptials.
There are also a number of home grown Canadian companies that are benefiting from the growth in the alternative financing market.
2M7 Financial Solutions, which focuses on merchant cash advances, is one of these companies. It was founded in 2008 to meet the growing credit needs within the small and medium-sized business market at a time when businesses were having trouble in this regard.
But only in the past few years has MCA in Canada really started picking up to the point where Bernstein, the chief executive, says the company now receives applications from about 200 to 300 companies a month, which represents more than 50 percent growth from last year.
“We’re seeing more quality businesses, more quality merchants applying and the average funding size has gone up as well,” he says.
NAVIGATING THROUGH CHALLENGES
Despite heightened growth possibilities, there are also significant headwinds facing companies that are seeking to crack the Canadian alternative financing market. For various reasons, some companies have even chosen to pull back or out of Canada and focus their efforts elsewhere. Avant, for example, which offers personal loans in the U.S., is no longer accepting new loan applications in Canada at this time, according to its website. Capify also recently exited the Canadian business it entered in 2007, even as it continues to bulk up in the U.K. and Australia.
One of the challenges alternative lenders face in Canada is distrust of change. Since Canadians are so used to dealing with only a few major financial institutions to handle all their finances, they are skeptical to change this behavior, especially when the customer experience shifts from physical branches to online apps and mobile devices, says Sherbatov of Smarter Loans. He notes that adoption of fintech products in Canada has lagged in recent years, partially because there has been a lack of awareness and trust in new financial products available.
One way Smarter Loans has been working to strengthen this trust is by launching a “Smarter Loans Quality Badge,” which acts as a certification for alternative financing companies on its platform. It is issued to select companies that meet specified quality standards, including transparency in fees, responsible lending practices, customer support and more, he says.
The Canadian Lenders Association, whose members include lenders and merchant cash advance companies, has also been working to promote the growing industry and foster safe and ethical lending practices. For example, it recently began rolling out the SMART Box pricing disclosure model and comparison tool that was introduced to small businesses in the U.S. in 2016.
Another challenge that impacts alternative lenders in the consumer space is having restricted access to alternative data sources. Because of especially strict consumer privacy laws, access is “substantially more limited” than it is in any other geography,” says Jason Mullins, president and chief executive of goeasy, a lending company based in Mississauga, Ontario, that provides consumer leasing, unsecured and secured personal loans and merchant point-of-sale financing.
From a lending perspective, goeasy focuses on the non-prime consumer—generally those with credit scores of under 700. Mullins says the market consists of roughly 7 million Canadians, about a quarter of the population of Canadians with credit scores. The non-prime consumer market is huge and has tremendous potential, he says, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
Another issue facing alternative lenders is the relative difficulty of raising loan capital from institutional lenders, says Ali Pourdad, co-founder and chief executive of Progressa, which recently reached the $100 million milestone in funded loans for underserved Canadian consumers. “The onus is on the alternative lenders to ensure they have good lending practices and are underwriting responsibly,” he says.
What’s more, household debt to income ratios in Canada are getting progressively worse, with Canadians taking on too much debt relative to what they can afford, Pourdad says. As the situation has been deteriorating over time, there is inherently more risk to originators as well as the capital that backs them. “Originators, now more than ever, have to be cautious about their lending practices and ensure their underwriting is sound and that they are being responsible,” he says.
On the small business side of alternative lending, getting the message out to would-be customers can be a challenge in Canada. In U.S. there are thousands of ISOs reaching out to businesses, whereas in Canada, most funders have a direct sales force, with a much smaller portion of their revenue coming from referral partners, says Adam Benaroch, president of CanaCap, a small business funder based in Montreal.
He predicts this will change over time as the business matures and more funders enter the space, giving ISOs the ability to offer a broader array of financing products at competitive rates. “I think we’re going to see pricing go down and more opportunities develop, and as this happens, the business is going to grow, which is exactly what has happened in the U.S,” he says.
Generally speaking, Canadian businesses are still somewhat skeptical of merchant cash advance and require considerable hand-holding to become comfortable with the idea.
“You can’t wait for them to come to you, you have to go to them and explain what the products are,” says Pitcher of SharpShooter, the MCA funding company.
While Pitcher predicts more companies will continue to enter the Canadian alternative financing market, he doesn’t think it will be completely overrun by new entrants—the market simply isn’t big enough, he says. “It’s not for everyone,” he says.
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