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BRIEF: Legend Funding Secures $3 million Debt Facility

June 14, 2016

New York City-based merchant cash advance company Legend Funding secured a $3 million debt facility from Houston-based investment investment banking firm Ango Worldwide.

Legend provides working capital financing to businesses in the USA and Canada and the company plans to use the funds for expansion. The deal gets Ango some equity and a seat on the board.

“The merchant cash advance industry is experiencing exciting growth and we felt that the legend management team are strongly positioned to take advance of this opportunity,” said Ango CEO John Carson in a news release.

Money2020 Kicks Off – With part of last year’s prophecy fulfilled

October 23, 2016
Article by:

Money2020 2015

The industry’s biggest conference by attendance kicks off today at The Venetian in Las Vegas. With more than 10,000 attendees and 3,000 speakers, topics range from payments to financial services innovation.

During last year’s conference, alternative lenders appeared to be waiting for a shakeout. Has that happened?

It’s starting to. Since then, online lender Vouch Financial shut down and CircleBack Lending announced that they are no longer issuing loans. Lending Club’s founder resigned in a scandal, the pure marketplace lending model died and no other alternative lenders managed to IPO in 2016. Even a handful of merchant cash advance firms have quietly exited the market.

Valuations are down as well, perhaps more in line with reality. Robert Greifeld, the CEO of Nasdaq, warned attendees about the validity of private market valuations of fintech companies at Money2020 last year. “A unicorn valuation in private markets could be from just two people,” he said. “whereas public markets could be 200,000 people.” And the public markets have been tough. Lending Club’s stock has fallen by 67% since then while OnDeck’s has dropped by 52%.

And yet much of alternative lending is still standing and still raising capital. Over the summer, Fundry secured a new $75 million credit line, Bizfi secured a $20 million investment from Metropolitan Equity Partners, Pearl Capital secured $20 million from Arena Investors, and Legend Funding secured a $3 million debt facility from Ango Worldwide.

We’ll see what happens this week at The Venetian.

Confidence Down, But Not Out On Continued Success of Small Business Finance, Survey Reveals

July 19, 2016
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industry executive confidence barometerA joint Bryant Park Capital/deBanked survey of chief executives in the small business lending and merchant cash advance space showed a decline in confidence in the industry’s continued success, down from 91.7% in Q1 to 78.5% in Q2.

Respondents were not asked to explain the reasons behind their confidence levels, but increased competition is likely one contributing factor. No doubt some of the creeping pessimism is also spillover from the adjustments occurring in consumer lending, namely declining loan volumes, layoffs and the events that took place at Lending Club.

Decreased confidence may have been the reason that attendance at AltLend last week was down compared to last year. AltLend is an alternative small business lending conference hosted each year at the Princeton Club in NYC. deBanked has been a media partner of the event for the last two years.

On Forbes, Lendio CEO Brock Blake wrote that “2014 and 2015 brought an unhealthy amount of euphoria characterized by huge growth rates, hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital, enormous valuations, high-flying IPOs, new lenders sprouting (almost) daily, and yield-hungry hedge funds chasing the newest, sexiest cash-producing asset.” But he added that “the industry is maturing and the future for online lending remains bright.”

Notably, 78.5% isn’t even bearish territory, but rather just a step down from the highs Blake described that have catapulted the industry for some time. Even as executives come to grips with the increasing regulatory scrutiny, non-bank small business financing companies have come to view themselves as in it for the long haul. That’s because growth in this sector has been less about refinancing credit cards to a lower interest rate for evermore narrow yields like on the consumer side, and more about fulfilling a role with small businesses that banks have been reluctant to take on for some time.

“Small business lending provides the fuel for small businesses across the country, and the fundamentals are still in place for this to be a formidable industry,” Blake wrote. “I am confident the supply of capital will continue to come from online lenders using technology to minimize risk and streamline processes.”

To his point, June and early July were a bright spot for companies raising capital. Fundry, Bizfi, Pearl Capital and Legend Funding all announced deals. The BPC/deBanked survey showed that industry optimism in this endeavor hasn’t shrunk by much, decreasing only from 91.7% in Q1 to 84.2% in Q2.

industry executive confidence in capital raising

The Confidence Index kicked off after Bryant Park Capital and deBanked produced the industry’s first ever comprehensive report, which is available for purchase only.

Fundry Secures $75 Million Credit Line, Confirming That This Niche Is Still Hot

July 5, 2016
Article by:

Fundry Team

Fundry has secured a new $75 million credit line, according to the company’s CEO Isaac Stern. The transaction was facilitated by Brean Capital and Pi Capital.

Fundry is commonly known by one of their subsidiary companies, Yellowstone Capital. According to a document obtained by deBanked, the company did more than $40 million in deals last month, with the vast majority funded in-house. The positive announcement follows their recent big move from NYC’s financial district to Jersey City, NJ, after being wooed to the state with tax incentives in return for creating jobs.

While confidence has retreated from online consumer lending after the scandals at Lending Club, specialty tech-enabled commercial finance companies, some of whom specialize in merchant cash advance, are still finding enthusiasm from institutional investors. Just over the last three weeks, Bizfi secured a $20 million investment from Metropolitan Equity Partners, Pearl Capital secured $20 million from Arena Investors, and Legend Funding secured a $3 million debt facility from Ango Worldwide. That’s $118 million invested into a very specific niche industry in less than a month.

Fundry alone, facilitated $422 million in funding to small businesses just last year.

When The Music Stopped: How The Pandemic Threatened the History and Culture of Austin, Texas

November 15, 2020
Article by:

Austin Music Scene

This story appeared in deBanked’s Sep/Oct 2020 magazine issue. To receive copies in print, SUBSCRIBE FREE

In April of this year, Threadgill’s – a legendary Austin music venue and beer joint that, in the 1960s, famously launched the career of blues singer Janis Joplin — turned off the lights and pulled the plug on its sound stage.

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A converted gasoline station, Threadgill’s had been a rollicking music scene since 1933 when musician and bootlegger Kenneth Threadgill secured the first liquor license in Texas after Prohibition. His juke box was crammed with Jimmie Rodgers songs and Threadgill himself famously sang and yodeled Rodgers’ tunes.

AustinFor generations of students at the University of Texas, Threadgill’s was a rite of passage.

“The first time I went to Threadgill’s was in the fall of 1968, when I was a freshman at UT,” recalls Perry Raybuck, a songwriter-folksinger and retired government worker who, as a member of the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance, played the stage in 2018. “It was the beginning of an education for me,” he adds. “I had been a Beatles and rock n’ roll kid and it opened me up to different music styles. I became a convert.”

In 1981, Threadgill’s was taken over by another acclaimed club owner, Eddie Wilson, who previously had been the proprietor of the Armadillo, a fabled music venue. Wilson began to actually pay musicians – Threadgill had compensated them mainly with free cold beer – and installed a circular stage.

“LIVE MUSIC IS WHY PEOPLE COME HERE”

AustinIt was Threadgill’s and an assortment of funky clubs and stages with names like the Soap Creek Saloon and Liberty Lunch helped put Austin on the map as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” The city remains home to the widely acclaimed television program “Austin City Limits” on PBS and the internationally renowned South by Southwest festival, which was canceled this year amid fears of a “superspread” of the coronavirus.

“Live music,” says Laura Huffman, chief executive at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, “is why people come here. It is a central component of Austin’s cultural and economic life.”

Omar Lozano, director of music marketing for Visit Austin, the city’s main tourism organization, says: “We have close to 250 places in the greater Austin region where you can hear live-music, although it’s closer to 50-70 on any given night. During South by Southwest, no stone is left unturned — everything becomes a stage: parking garages, grocery stores, housing co-ops. There are also four or five stages at the Airport, which helps liven up the mood.”

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But that identity is being put to the test. So far this year, Austin has lost a raft of live music venues. Among those joining Threadgill’s in honky-tonk heaven since the pandemic struck are Barracuda, Plush, Scratchhouse, Shady Grove, and Botticelli, all of which provided niche audiences to both established musicians and up-and-coming acts.

The roller-coaster ride of government mandated shutdowns followed by a limited re-opening in the spring and another shutdown since July fourth is making life miserable and untenable for both club owners and already hardpressed musicians and artists, says Marcia Ball, a piano player and blues singer.

“THESE VENUES AND BARS ARE VITAL TO THE MUSIC ECOSYSTEM”

Ball, who was named by the Texas Legislature as “2018 Texas State Musician” and whose musical style was once described by the Boston Globe as “mixing Louisiana swamp rock and smoldering Texas blues,” told deBanked: “There was already a limited amount of opportunity for musicians to perform and monetize their work in Austin, so it has always been necessary to travel to make a living. But we still depend on a thriving local scene, and we’re losing that when key venues like Threadgill’s disappear.”

Adds Graham Williams, a prominent Texas promoter of touring bands: “These venues and bars are vital to the music ecosystem. Local bands and cover bands need hangouts, even if people are not buying tickets. They’re places to play every night of week.”

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While unheralded outside the Austin scene, the local music joints were often a port-of-call for out-of-town promoters and nightclub owners checking out Austin talent – “most notably Barracuda (which) had super-popular acts and was like a hipster garage venue,” says promoter Williams. “A lot of touring bands played there on their way up.”

A July study by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston found that the city’s live music industry is in desperate straits. Sixty-two percent of live music spots and 55% of the bar-and-restaurant businesses reported to researchers that that they can endure for no more than four months, making them the most vulnerable of 16 industries surveyed.

And the situation has become “even more ominous” since the report was published, explains Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston and a lead researcher on the Hobby study. “That survey finished polling two hours before all bars and restaurants closed back down,” he says. “Everything people were saying was when bars were at 50% capacity. That’s a best-case scenario.”

AustinAustin’s experience amid the Covid-19 pandemic mirrors what is occurring nationwide as bars, nightclubs and music halls in myriad cities and towns experience similar trauma. In Seattle, Steven Severin is co-owner of three nightclubs – Neumos, Barboza and recently opened Life on Mars – all in trendy Capitol Hill, the hub of the city’s club and live-music scene. He reports that he is barely holding on thanks to some help from the city and a sympathetic landlord who is “a big music advocate.”

“He knocked down the rent a little bit,” Severin says of his landlord, but the situation is dire. “We just had a fifth venue, Re bar, close at the end of August,” he says. “It was a punch in the gut. This could be me.”

The Bitter End in Greenwich Village is also keeping its head above water despite not opening its doors since March. The nightclub has a storied past: owner Paul Rizzo recounts that it is where pop singer Neil Diamond got his start and where “everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Randy Newman” has performed since its opening in 1961. But the club is silent now since the pandemic overwhelmed the city’s hospitals and made New York the epicenter of sickness and suffering during the spring. So far the club is getting help from a landlord’s forbearance and loyal musicians.

Peter Yarrow (the “Peter” in the bygone trio Peter, Paul and Mary), donated a streamed concert to patrons who contributed to a fundraiser that raised more than $50,000. And grateful local musicians also put on a benefit directing people to a Go Fund Me page on the Internet that raised another $16,000. “We’re a major venue for local musicians,” Rizzo says. “We should pull through.”

“TOURING HAS BEEN CRUSHED”

It’s in their self-interest for artists to do whatever they can to keep the doors open at a club like The Bitter End. “These days because of the last two decades of declining record sales — live music is the bread and butter of a musician’s income,” says journalist Edna Gundersen, a recently retired, 28-year-veteran of USA Today. “That’s true whether it’s a local entertainer or an international superstar.” (Gundersen earned the reputation as Bob Dylan’s favorite journalist; it was she who scored his only interview after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2018, publishing his eccentric musings in the The Telegraph of London and breaking the news that he would indeed accept the prize.)

“Touring has been crushed,” Gundersen adds, “and festivals have been canceled. So people doing the circuit and clubs are gone for all intents and purposes. Streaming — while initially up — is down because people aren’t listening to music in the gym or in their cars. Physical record sales are also down because people aren’t going to stores. All of this is just killing musicians.”

PPEThe Paycheck Protection Program, the multi-billion, multi-tranche aid package for small business which Congress authorized as part of the CARES Act in March, has provided some funding for the live-music and entertainment industry. But because of the PPP’s requirements that only 40% of the funds can be spent on rent, mortgage and utilities, which are major expenses for nightclubs and music venues, the program has largely been a disappointment.

Hoping to win attention and assistance for their plight from the federal government — “We’re the first to close and the last to reopen,” Severin says — live-music entrepreneurs like himself and Rizzo and more than 2,800 club-owners and promoters across the country have banded together to form the National Independent Venue Association.

Their membership includes independent proprietors (no corporate members allowed) of saloons, cabarets and concert halls as well as theaters, opera houses and auditoriums from every state plus the District of Columbia. To help plead their case with Congress, the organization hired powerhouse law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the largest Washington, D.C. lobbying firm by revenue.

NIVA also blanketed Congressional offices with two million letters, e mails and correspondence generated from hordes of fans and performers. Among the many scriveners are a slew of boldface names: Mavis Staples, Lady Gaga, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Earth Wind & Fire, and Leon Bridges. Comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Jeff Foxworthy have also penned notes to lawmakers championing NIVA’s cause.

“THEY OPERATE ON THIN BUSINESS MARGINS TO BEGIN WITH AND THEY’RE TOO HARD TO DEVELOP”

Their message: without federal funding, 90% of independent stages will go under over the next few months. “The heartbreak of watching venues close is that once a building is boarded up, it’s not going to be a music venue any more,” warns Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director at NIVA. “They operate on thin business margins to begin with and they’re too hard to develop.” For touring acts, each city stage is “an integral part of the music ecosystem,” Schaefer explains. “When artists finally do get back on the tour bus, they might have to skip the next five cities and go on to the sixth.”

Capitol BuildingThanks to the bi-partisan efforts of Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), NIVA’s campaign has gotten traction. The unlikely couple have teamed up to author a rescue bill, known as the Save Our Stages Act. If enacted, it would establish a $10 billion grant program for live venue operators, promoters, producers, and talent representatives.

The legislation would provide grants up to $12 million for live entertainment venues to defray most business expenses incurred since March, including payroll and employees’ health insurance, rent, utilities, mortgage, personal protection equipment, and payments to independent contractors.

NIVA’s chief argument for the legislation is coldly economic rather than sentimentally cultural. The organization cites a 2008 study by the University of Chicago that spending by music patrons produces a “multiplier effect” for the broader economy. For every dollar spent by a concert-goer at a live performance, the Chicago study determined, $12 in downstream economic activity occurs.

Explains Scott Plusquellec, nightlife business advocate for the City of Seattle: “You buy a ticket to a show and the direct economic impact of that purchase is that it pays the artist, bartender and the club itself as well as the band, advertisers, and promoters. The indirect economic impact,” he adds, “is that after you bought the ticket, you went to a barber shop or a hair salon to look good that night. You might also have dinner, go to a bar for a drink and tip the bartender. That’s the whole the idea of a ‘multiplier.’”

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In Austin, that economic logic is an article of faith with city burghers, asserts Lozano of Visit Austin, who reports that live music in the capital city is roughly a $2 billion industry. To promote live music, the tourism bureau sponsors such endeavors as “Hire an Austin Musician.” That program, Lozano says, “sends musicians around the U.S. to represent us during marketing season.” In another promotional campaign, Visit Austin arranged for singer-songwriter Julian Acosta to play a gig at travel agents’ offices in London when Norwegian Air inaugurated direct flights between London and Austin in 2018. “The U.K. is one of our best markets,” he reports.

Even so, efforts by the business community and the City of Austin have failed to stanch much of the industry’s bleeding. According to its website, the city has disbursed $23.7 million in loans and grants to small businesses and individuals, but slightly less than $1 million of that has gone to live-music and performance venues, entertainment and nightlife, and live-music production and studios.

Austin, TXIn late September, The city of Austin’s Economic Development Department released a slide show breaking down how the $981,842 in industry grants and loans – of which $484,776 was provided by the federal government under the CARES Act – were awarded. Most top recipients appeared to be well known nightclubs and entertainment venues downtown or close to the city’s inner core.

The Continental Club on South Congress – a key fixture in the hip “SoCo” strip just over the Colorado River from downtown – appeared to do best. It picked up $79,919 from two programs: $40,000 in the CARES-backed small business grants program, and $34,919 from the city’s Creative Space Disaster Relief Program. Other clubs receiving $40,000 in the small business grants program included Stubbs, The Belmont, Cheer Up Charlies and the White Horse. (For a full list go to: http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=347299)

Joe Ables, owner of the Saxon Pub, a major Austin venue for jazz – blues singer Ball hailed it as one of several important Austin clubs “that sustains creative endeavor, especially for songwriters” – was vexed that his grant application was denied by the city “with no explanation.” Ables also voiced dissatisfaction that the city paid the Better Business Bureau a 5% administration fee to handle $1.14 million in relief funds, including determining which applicants were approved. “What would they know about live music,” he says.

Even for clubs that received city largesse, it hasn’t been nearly enough to sustain them. The North Door, which got $15,240, closed for good on September 11 (an ominous day — the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.)

Meanwhile, enough clubs and venues were left out in the cold that club owner Stephen Sternschein could tell deBanked just before the slide show was released: “I’ve heard talk of a $21 million grant program but most people I know haven’t seen a dollar of that.”

“PEOPLE ARE LOOKING TO THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT FOR ANSWERS”

Sternschein is managing partner of Heard Presents, an independent promoter and operator of a triad of downtown clubs that includes the spacious Empire Garage, which features hip hop and urban jazz, and has space for 1000 music-goers. A member of NIVA, Sternschein describes efforts by both the state and local governments as “woefully inadequate.” Says he: “People are looking to the federal government for answers.”

texasThe diminution of places for musicians to ply their trade is a double edged sword. If Austin loses its luster as a hot music town, it puts the city’s overall economy in jeopardy. Explains Jones, the Rice political scientist: “The difficulty for Austin is that it could lose its comparative advantage. Unlike restaurants, movie theaters or sports events, which people can find just as easily in other cities, the Austin music scene draws capital and revenue from across the country.

“You can go out to dinner in Waco,” he observes, referring to the mid sized Texas city between Austin and Dallas best known as home to Baylor University and its “Bears” football team, fervent Baptist religiosity, and unremarkable night life. “Music brings in revenue to Austin and to Texas that wouldn’t otherwise come here.”

In addition, Jones says, the large presence of “artists, creative types, and freelancers” helps make Austin a strong selling point for “brain industries” to attract talent from the East and West Coasts. “It supports the technology industry by making it easier to recruit employees to live there,” he says. “Austin is an alternative to Silicon Valley. People who are progressive might be hesitant to come to conservative, red-state Texas from California but they’ll come to Austin because it’s culturally cool.”

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Austin, which embraces the slogan “Keep Austin Weird,” is on the verge of becoming just like every place else in Texas. Should it relinquish its flavor and charm, it could discourage many of the assorted business groups and professionals from keeping Austin on their dance card as a popular destination for meetings, conferences and get-away trips.

Howard Freidman, managing director at Bluechip Jets, a broker of private luxury aircraft, had an earlier career as a technology industry executive. Partly drawn by his previous experiences with the city, Freidman moved to Austin earlier this year. “It had the same coolness and weirdness of New Orleans — but also with the professionalism of a tech city,” he says.

MUSIC“Whenever we’d come here,” Freidman adds, “the music was always integral to the Austin scene. Even when you’d go to private parties you’d end up downtown at the club scene on Sixth Street. Austin was always a place everybody liked going to.”But as Austin has steadily been morphing into more of a high-technology center than a live-music town, it’s experiencing a silent exodus of musicians and artists who are being gentrified out of their apartments and Craftsman duplexes. Displacing them are software engineers, website designers and the like, their sleek BMWs and black, tinted-glass SUVs glistening in the parking lots of steel-and-glass corporate centers.

Many of the technology firms – including such needy companies as Samsung, Intel, Rackspace, Facebook, and Apple – have each received tax breaks, grants and subsidies worth tens of millions of dollars from a variety of local jurisdictions. Not only have the city of Austin and Travis Country been beneficent, but adjacent county governments and the state of Texas have provided abundant support. A 2014 study by the Workers Defense Project, in collaboration with UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, reported that the state of Texas showers big business with $1.9 billion annually in state benefits. Most recently, officials with Travis County and a local school district granted Tesla more than $60 million in tax rebates to build a massive “gigafactory” southeast of town near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

To house the burgeoning cohort of “knowledge workers,” there are condominium conversions, tear-downs, high-rises and other forms of frenetic real estate development which, in their train, bring higher property taxes, steeper rents, and unaffordable housing.

austin cityAdd in some of the country’s most snarled traffic, dirtier air, and a growing homeless population, and members of the artistic community are increasingly decamping for smaller satellite towns like Lockhart and San Marcos. Others in the diaspora are abandoning Texas altogether for more hospitable locales like Fayetteville Ark., Asheville, N.C., or Olympia, Wash. “Whatever made anybody think this would be a better town with a million people,” laments blues singer Ball. “This was a perfect town with 350,000. Now we’ve got Silicon Hills, Barton Springs are cloudy, and drinking water’s going to be scarce. Why is this supposed to be better?”

The drop-off in live music and the belt-tightening by musicians is causing third-party pain for people like veteran Austin journalist and publicist Lynne Margolis, whose national credits include stories for Rolling Stone online, and radio spots for NPR. “The public relations aspect of my work has dropped away because artists can’t afford to pay,” she says, “and music journalism is falling by the wayside. It’s hard not to feel to like a double dinosaur.”

Led by bars, restaurants and music venues, on many days the solemn departure of small establishments has the business news sections of Austin newspapers reading more like the obituary page. One hardy survivor is Giddy Ups – a throwback honky-tonk on the town’s outskirts that advertises itself as “the biggest little stage in Austin” – promising “just about everything,” says owner Nancy Morgan, including “country, blues, rock, bluegrass, and soul.” For the past 20 years Giddy Ups has developed a devoted following of musicians and patrons while fending off hyper modernity.

“It has an untouched, back-to-the-seventies, cosmic cowboy vibe,” says local musician Ethan Ford, a guitarist and bass player whose trio, The Slyfoot Family, has graced its stage. “It’s a time capsule,” Ford adds.

Morgan declined to disclose her annual receipts but in 2019, she reports paying out $188,000 in wages to employees, $72,000 to musicians, and $185,000 in combined sales taxes to the city of Austin and to the state. Despite her status as a taxpayer, employer and entrepreneur, she has received no state aid and is disqualified from receiving city pandemic assistance programs, meager as they may be, because she’s located in an extra-territorial jurisdiction.“

Nancy still bartends most nights and does all of the booking,” says Ford. “Her knowledge of the Austin music scene could fill a couple of books. I know a decent fistful of Austin venue owners and she’s about the only one that hasn’t given up, been forced out, or just retired. She’s a dynamo.”

Unless the cavalry arrives for Morgan and other holdouts, though, their musical days may be numbered.

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Editors Note: Threadgill’s didn’t make it. The venue “has closed for good, the property has sold, and the building will eventually be torn down,” according to information disseminated for its Last Call Music Series. Its November 1st grand finale show featured Gary P. Nunn, Dale Watson, Whitney Rose, William Beckman, and Jamie Lin Wilson.

The building will be replaced with apartments.

1 Week Until deBanked CONNECT MIAMI

December 19, 2019
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deBanked CONNECT Miami Travel Advisory

January 20, 2019
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GOING NATIONAL: How David Gilbert Built One of the Largest Small Business Lenders in the Country

October 17, 2018
Article by:

This story appeared in deBanked’s Sept/Oct 2018 magazine issue. To receive copies in print, SUBSCRIBE FREE

David GilbertWhen Ty Austin, who owns a florist shop in West Palm Beach, secured a $5,000 loan from National Funding last year, he was happy to have working capital and could build inventory for mini-gardens and landscaping,

The experience, moreover, was surprisingly pleasant. “The guy I worked with was really cool,” Austin says, referring to the sales representative at the San Diego-based financial technology firm. “It turned out that he was getting married and I ended up giving him and his fiancé advice on floral arrangements.”

The borrowing worked out so well that the Floridian, who is 46 and the sole proprietor of Austintatious Designs, re-upped for a second loan of $12,000 to help purchase a commercial van. The van will be used to transport flowers, plants and tools while doubling as a billboard-on-wheels. “It gives me more ‘street cred,’” he jokes.

To register his approval with National Funding, Austin went online to TrustPilot and posted a rave review of the sales rep: “James Johnson Rocks!”

Pam, a Texas wellness coach who provides clients with an array of holistic health therapies, needed extra money to buy an infrared sauna to add to her portfolio of services. But her credit rating was “poor,” she told deBanked in an e-mail interview, “from when I changed careers and lost my health and struggled to make my credit card and student loan payments on time.”

Like Austin, Pam — who asks to be identified by her first name —found National Funding through an online search. And she too secured $5,000, although her transaction was structured as a merchant cash advance, rather than a loan. The terms of the MCA require a daily debit from her bank account. She reckons that the total cost of the MCA to be roughly $1,500.

National Funding San Diego, CAPam pronounces herself satisfied with the deal and mightily impressed with the way National Funding treated her. The process took about three days — and would have gone even quicker if she’d located her professional licenses sooner. Best of all, she says, the agent at the company tailored the financing to suit her circumstances. “They were great as far as getting my questions answered, even listening to my past situation, which others may not have cared about,” she says.

“They really wanted to get me an option that they knew I’d be able to repay,” Pam adds. “They said they were in the business of helping small businesses grow rather than putting them in a hard financial situation.”

The positive experiences that Austin and Pam had with National Funding are not isolated instances. Rather, they are representative of clients’ dealings with the company. Witness its online reviews from business borrowers at TrustPilot which go back three years, run for 36 pages, and merit National Funding a 9.4 rating on a scale of 10. That’s a straight-A grade on any report card. Although there’s the occasional naysayer — four percent assert that their experience was “poor” or “bad” (and some negative comments can be blistering) — the weight of the reviews is almost embarrassingly positive.

Typical postings find that National Funding and its agents win kudos for, among other things, being “prompt and professional,” providing service that is “hassle free and about as friendly as you can be,” and even being “accommodating and gracious.” A man named Al McCullough spoke for many when he declared: “My experience was great. Professional and on time. Couldn’t ask for more.”

National Funding officeAll of which helps account for why National Funding — its 230 employees working out of a sleek suburban office building guarded by a tall stand of palm trees in San Diego — is a rising star in the world of alternative business lending and financial technology. In 2017, the company raked in $94.5 million in revenues, a 24.8 percent bounce over the $75.7 million recorded a year earlier and nearly fourfold the $26.7 million posted in 2013.

In recognition of the company’s three-year growth rate of 142%, Inc. magazine included National Funding in its current list of the country’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies, the lender’s sixth straight appearance on the coveted roster. Since its inception in 1999, National Funding reports that it has originated more than $2 billion in loans to some 35,000 borrowers.

The company’s impressive performance has similarly merited accolades for David Gilbert, the 43-year-old chief executive who started the company on little more than a shoestring and whom employees regularly describe as “visionary.” Among Gilbert’s trophies: Accounting firm Ernst & Young recently presented him with its “Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 Award” for San Diego finance.

At first glance, the San Diego financier doesn’t look too much different from its cohorts. The company proffers unsecured loans of $5,000 to $500,000 to a mélange of small businesses in all 50 states and across multiple industries, including retail stores, auto repair shops, truckers, construction companies, heating-and plumbing contractors, spas and beauty salons, cafes and restaurants, waste management, medical and dental clinics, and insurance agencies.

David Gilbert, CEO National Funding at Broker Fair 2018
David Gilbert speaks on a panel at Broker Fair 2018 in Brooklyn, NY

To qualify for financing, a prospective borrower should have been in business for a year, have at least $100,000 in revenues, and boast a personal credit score of at least 500. While there’s no collateral required for loans, National Funding insists on a personal guarantee. The website reviewer NerdWallet cautions borrowers that this “puts your personal assets and credit at risk if you fail to repay the loan.”

Along with unsecured loans, National Funding offers equipment leasing – usually for heavy trucks and construction equipment – as well as merchant cash advances. The equipment lease is secured by the machinery. As in the case of Pam, the wellness coach cited above, MCAs are debited daily, the money automatically withdrawn from bank accounts.

There are a number of businesses that National Funding disdains, no matter how stellar their credit. “We won’t finance casinos, strip bars, tobacco, or firearms,” Gilbert says. “We’re not going to support industries like that.”

For CEO Gilbert, doing business ethically is a signature feature of the company. Among other things, National Funding presses its salespeople to steer clear of putting people into dodgy loans that are likely to default. “We’re lending capital,” Gilbert says, “and one of our core values is the way we support our customers. Are we placing people with the right product to meet their needs or are we being selfish? The best way to be customer oriented is to get a better understanding of what capital will do for them.”

That corporate ethos, coupled with the company’s remarkable performance, has raised its profile while earning it a measure of esteem among industry peers. “What I do know about National Funding,” says Douglas Rovello, senior managing partner at Fund Simple, a lender and broker in the Tampa area, “is that they have five or six different programs and set their rates high but competitively. They’re known for fitting their products to a client’s needs,” he adds. “And in a business that has its share of bad actors, they have a reputation as a company with a conscience.”

A company with a conscience. Customers come first. And yet National Funding turns heads with its sales production of roughly 1,000 financings a month and triple-digit growth rate. So how do they it? A good place to start is with Gilbert, whose leadership skills, business acumen, and second-to-none work ethic “set the tone,” says Kevin Bryla, the company’s 52-year-old chief marketing officer.

For his part, Gilbert credits his family background and an upbringing in which education and academic achievement were strongly encouraged. The fifth of six children, he’s the only one who opted for a business career. “There are three doctors, two lawyers – and me,” Gilbert says.

made in yorba lindaThe son of a prominent physician, his mother a homemaker and volunteer docent at the nearby Nixon Library for the past 25 years, Gilbert grew up in Yorba Linda. He attributes his keen interest in business to observing how his father, a pathologist, operated his own laboratory, which employed 60 people. “It was the business side of medicine that fascinated me,” he asserts.

Even so, his two closest friends at the University of Southern California — fraternity brothers Marc Newburger and Sean Swerdlow– tell a somewhat different story. They remember Gilbert as someone who found his true calling, his métier, during his college years. Enrolled initially in pre-med courses, he was a diligent student but, his friends assert, manifestly unsuited for a career in medicine.

“Formative,” says Swerdlow, the older of the two fraternity brothers and now a management consultant based in Southern California, “would be a very good word” to characterize that period during which Gilbert abandoned medicine in favor of the world of commerce. In 1997, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration “with an emphasis in entrepreneurship.”

But it was fraternity life just as much as the classroom, his friends agree, that shaped him and foreshadowed his future. “It wasn’t ‘Animal House,’” Swerdlow says of Alpha Epsilon Pi. “We boasted the highest GPA (grade point average) on fraternity row.”

Nonetheless, Gilbert took to the social life and camaraderie that the fraternity offered with gusto, and his friendship with the colorful Newburger was especially fateful. A freewheeling entrepreneur today, Newburger takes a measure of credit — Gilbert’s disapproving parents might have preferred the word “blame” — for contributing to his fraternity brother’s metamorphosis. “Dave hated all of his pre-med classes,” Newburger insists. “He had zero stomach for it. He was so much like I was: a natural people person and a born entrepreneur.”

Newburger is the quintessential soldier of fortune. After college, he tried his hand as an actor, supporting himself by playing poker and getting paid to be a contestant on TV game shows including “The Dating Game,” “Card Sharks,” and “3’s A Crowd.” He’s now the co-president and co-inventor of Drop Stop, a patented device that “minds the gap” between a car’s front seat and the console and prevents coins, keys, glasses, and mobile phones from disappearing down that rabbit hole. (Drop Stop really took off after Newburger and his business partner appeared on the television show “Shark Tank” and scored a $300,000 capital injection from celebrity-investor Lori Greiner who took a 30% stake in the company and slapped her name on the brand.)

Sign of University of Southern California

Back at the frat house, Newburger and Gilbert collaborated on business ventures. The pair once sold T-shirts sporting an off-color message about USC’s archrival, the University of California at Los Angeles. “The (anti-UCLA) message was pure hatred,” Newburger recalls. “But it was just for the day of the football game and it was all in fun.”

At first, sales at the stadium were lackluster. USC students kept trying to bid down the price or importune them to throw in an extra tee. As for the game itself, USC’s chances for victory looked equally unpromising. As time ran out, however, the Trojan quarterback completed a Hail Mary pass and USC won. The two fraternity brothers grabbed the bundle of shirts and sprang into action. “We got to the exit just in time and sold out in a matter of seconds,” Newburger recalls.

Newburger takes credit too for introducing his friend to Las Vegas’ gaming tables. Gilbert, his friend says, immediately demonstrated a knack for counting cards, handling money, and taking risks. “It was typically blackjack,” recalls Swerdlow, who sometimes accompanied them. “We didn’t have much money then. But there were moments when Dave would bet a big pile of chips. He’s willing to make a bet and live with the consequences.”

Sports are another of Gilbert’s enthusiasms. His friends say that, whether he’s returning serve at ping pong or standing over a putt — he plays to an 11 handicap at golf – he wants to win. Remarks Newburger: “He’s competitive to the point that — when he beats you — he wants the Goodyear blimp flying overhead to announce his victory.”

Gilbert, who is married with two children, is legendarily loyal to friends and family. While most members of a college fraternity might keep up with old companions after graduation by exchanging greeting cards and attending college reunions, Gilbert goes the extra mile.

USC Marching BandHe once footed the bill for Swerdlow to travel with the USC football team to an away game, arranging it so that his fraternity brother could view the action from field-level. After Newburger had a recent health scare (no worries, he’s O.K.), Gilbert rounded up a couple of dozen fraternity brothers and their wives (or companions), and put together a four-day bash in his buddy’s honor. The event was held at Cabo, the Mexican beach resort in Baja California, and Gilbert underwrote a fair amount of the cost. “He shares his success with his friends,” Newburger says, adding: “I don’t know anybody who works harder on friendships.”

Many of the personality traits described by friends and colleagues — tenacity and competitiveness, self confidence and leadership — played a key role in the development and success of National Funding, which Gilbert founded just two years out of college with $10,000 borrowed from his uncle, Howard Kaiman, of Omaha.

He’d worked a couple of quick jobs right after college, including a stint at small-business lender Balboa Capital, but he was always destined to be his own boss. Gilbert’s start-up was called Five Point Capital and, at first, it was located in the affluent Chatsworth section of Los Angeles and concentrated on equipment leasing.

“The first two years we were a cold-calling company and then we got into direct mail and saw some success and then we moved to San Diego and started to scale up the company,” Gilbert says. The decampment, he explains, was “for the quality of life, but we also felt we could hire from a better talent pool than L.A. We wanted to set ourselves apart.”

By 2007, Five Point was cranking up operations, revenues shot to $28 million and its headcount totaled 210 employees. “Then the Great Recession hit” in 2008-2009, Gilbert says. The company was forced to furlough 140 employees, two-thirds of its workforce. Yet even as it retrenched, the company managed to branch out. It began making merchant cash advances, Gilbert says, and, also in 2007, it linked up with CAN Capital to do broker financings. “We were pretty well known and they were looking for partners for factoring and leasing,” Gilbert explains.

It took time to recover after the financial crisis. But by 2013 – the year that Gilbert re-branded his company “National Funding” – the company was able to hire back as many as 15% of its laid-off employees (most had found other jobs, in many cases relocating to Silicon Valley, Gilbert reports). By then, the company had secured a $25 million credit facility from Wells Fargo Bank, which allowed it to move up the food chain to “become a balance-sheet lender,” Gilbert says, and offer a wider selection of financing options.

Key to driving the company’s phenomenal growth has been its flood-the-zone marketing and sales strategies. The company spends $16 million annually on marketing using a full panoply of channels and media, both online and offline. These include direct mail and targeted marketing, paid advertising, search-engine optimization or SEO, and sports sponsorships. “We try to build a whole range of marketing mechanisms,” explains marketing chief Bryla, “and when you get the mix right, they all help each other.”

Padres StadiumGilbert is a big believer in the benefits of sports marketing, the company’s website featuring the logos of the San Diego Padres (baseball), and Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings (hockey). Ever the faithful alumnus, Gilbert and his company back USC football as well. During the 2015 2016 college football season, the company paid for naming rights for what became, for one night, the “National Funding Holiday Bowl” at Qualcomm Stadium.

Janet Fink, department chair at the McCormack School of Sports Management located at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, told deBanked that sponsorship programs can easily cost a million dollars or more. “It’s not cheap,” she says. “When a company sponsors a team, they get a number of benefits. One is that they get to put the team’s logo on their website. The idea is that fans are passionate or have an affinity for the team and that it will rub off on a sponsor.

“Sports enthusiasts,” Fink adds, “often make good customers. When you have enough disposable income to go to these sporting events, you’re probably a good prospect for a loan.”

The sponsorships — which include civic involvement such as offering Holiday Bowl tickets to members of San Diego’s large military contingent as well as to company employees — also build good will in the community and team spirit among the workforce. (National Funding also makes an effort to hire veterans, says Bryla.)

Gilbert believes in the old adage that you have to spend money to make money. The company spends $14 million rewarding its network of outside brokers. Inside the company, high-performing salespeople are compensated with commissions, bonuses and an assortment of rewards, including resort trips.

But sales representatives’ must conform to company guidelines. Justin Thompson, National Funding’s sales chief, explains that the “customer comes first” philosophy is not just a slogan but a core value. “We’re not a factory spitting out widgets,” Thompson says. “We’re here to build relationships and sell a repeatable product. We want that customer to come back to us. Every loan is customized. Six of ten customers who pay off their loans come back for a second financing. Whether your business is dog grooming or you’re an asphalt company,” he adds, “people will do business with people they like and trust.”

Using the software program “customer relationship management” (CRM), National Funding expends a lot of effort gathering data on its business customers and extrapolating the information for use in credit evaluations. But the use of technology only goes so far.

National Funding's office in San Diego, CAGilbert reckons that the art of the deal involves about “70 percent algorithm and 30 percent people.” He adds, “You still need the people component to look at credit profiles. The algorithm spits out a recommendation but we still need the human element.”

If there’s a fly in the National Funding ointment, it’s that the company’s fees can be more expensive than a bank loan.

But borrowers who have been denied loans at a bank or other lender are likely to overlook those costs. Austin, the florist in West Palm Beach, for example, came to National Funding when his bank, North Carolina-based BB&T Bank, gave him the cold shoulder despite the $15,000 in deposits that he averages each month. “I’ve been with them for six years,” he fretted, “and they treated me shabbily.”

Even more grateful was Jimmy Frisco, of Annapolis, who is co-owner with his wife of Lisa’s Luncheonette, a business that includes a food trailer and several cafeterias located in the city’s office buildings. They employ about a dozen people.

Frisco had taken a nasty spill and was laid up for seven months. Health insurance covered the $18,000 in medical costs but he and Lisa fell behind in their bills and needed working capital to pay for food purchases and other business expenses. By the time a flyer from National Funding popped up in his mailbox, he and his wife “had been turned down by several other lenders, including banks,” he says, adding: “Things happen in life and we don’t have the best of credit.”

Getting that loan for $25,000 from National Funding took just three days. Frisco’s health is much improved and business is back to normal. He won’t discuss the terms of the financing, other than to say “it was reasonable.”

He adds: “There were no problems with National Funding, no hassle with the paperwork. They’re great people to work with.”

This story appeared in deBanked’s Sept/Oct 2018 magazine issue. To receive copies in print, SUBSCRIBE FREE



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