A study conducted by Square Capital and the Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, pulled back the curtain on small businesses and the financing process.
Notably, the #1 reason that businesses said they had been declined for funding (regardless of the source) wasn’t credit, it was that they hadn’t been in business long enough.
#2 was (ironically) a lack of cash in the bank.
#3 was insufficient collateral.
Personal credit worthiness and business credit worthiness ranked #4 and #6 respectively.
These findings were one of many in the report published by Square last week. Among other key details were that healthcare & fitness businesses were the most likely to receive all the funding they sought whereas leisure & entertainment businesses were the least likely to receive all the funding they sought.
Black/African American business owners were more likely to apply for financing in the last 12 months than any other ethnic/racial group. A chart in the report shows that they were more than twice as likely to apply to an online lender or credit union than white business owners.
Funding Circle announces $100 million equity investment to help thousands more small businesses globallyJanuary 11, 2017
- Round led by Accel, with participation from other existing equity investors
- Investment comes as UK business reached profitability for Q4 2016
- Lending through Funding Circle passes $3 billion globally, benefitting over 25,000 businesses in the UK, US and Europe – creating more than 50,000 new jobs
Funding Circle, the world’s leading lending platform focused exclusively on small business finance, today announced it has raised a further $100 million in equity capital. Led by Accel, the round saw participation from existing Funding Circle investors, including Baillie Gifford, DST Global, Index Ventures, Ribbit Capital, Rocket Internet, Sands Capital Ventures, Temasek and Union Square Ventures.
The new investment follows significant growth at Funding Circle over the last 12 months. Globally, investors on the Funding Circle platform have lent more than $1.4 billion to small businesses in 2016, with approximately $485 million lent in Q4 alone, a record amount for any SME direct lending platform. Additionally, in Q4 Funding Circle UK recorded 90 percent year-on-year growth and reached profitability.
Samir Desai, CEO and co-founder of Funding Circle, said: “Funding Circle is changing the financial landscape for small businesses and investors globally, ensuring a better deal for everyone and helping to create a more sustainable and fairer economy. Today’s news is the next step on our journey to create a category-defining company that helps thousands of small businesses access finance and create jobs. Over the next 12 months, lending through the Funding Circle platform will create a further 50,000 new jobs, supporting economic growth in the UK, US and continental Europe.”
Funding Circle facilitates lending to small businesses from investors including 60,000 individuals, local and national government, the European Investment Bank and financial institutions such as pension funds. The investment comes as lending to small businesses through the platform passes $3 billion globally, benefitting over 25,000 businesses and creating 50,000 new jobs.
Harry Nelis, Partner at Accel, said: “We’ve been impressed by the Funding Circle team since our early investment in the company. It has achieved significant growth across multiple international markets by delivering an appealing lending option to SMEs and attractive risk-adjusted returns to investors on the platform. This investment makes Funding Circle the largest and best capitalized SME lending platform in the world, and we’re thrilled to continue to support its journey.”
Launched in 2010, the Funding Circle model has opened up small business lending to a wide range of investors, improving competition in the market, creating jobs and reducing dependency on bank lending. This latest investment is recognition of the efficiency of the direct lending model, and its ability to channel much-needed funds to the real economy, while providing investors with attractive, stable returns. In total, Funding Circle has now raised $373 million in equity funding from some of the world’s largest and most respected investors.
By bringing together industry leading risk management and cutting edge technology, creditworthy businesses typically access the capital they need in days rather than months.
About Funding Circle
Funding Circle (www.fundingcircle.com) is the world’s leading lending platform for business loans, matching small businesses who want to borrow with investors who want to lend in the UK, US and Europe. Since launching in 2010, investors at Funding Circle – including 60,000 individuals, financial institutions, the listed Funding Circle SME Income Fund and Government – have lent more than $3 billion to 25,000 businesses globally. Approximately 10 percent of investor money now comes from Government sources, including the British Business Bank, European Investment Bank, KfW, the German government-owned development bank, and local councils across the UK. Funding Circle was the first lending platform to announce a formal referral partnership with Santander, one of the UK’s leading high street banks, and has since announced a similar partnership with RBS. It has raised $373m in equity capital from the same investors that backed Facebook, Twitter and Airbnb.
Accel is a leading early- and growth-stage venture capital firm, powering a global community of entrepreneurs. Accel backs entrepreneurs who have what it takes to build a world-class, category-defining business. Founded in 1983, Accel brings more than three decades of experience building and supporting hundreds of companies. Accel’s vision for entrepreneurship and business enables it to identify and invest in the companies that will be responsible for the growth of next-generation industries. Accel has backed a number of iconic global platforms, which are powering new experiences for mobile consumers and the modern enterprise, including Atlassian, Avito, BlaBlaCar, Deliveroo, Dropbox, Etsy, Facebook, Flipkart, Funding Circle, Kayak, QlikTech, Simplivity, Slack, Spotify, Supercell, WorldRemit and others.
* Update 6/30 AM: Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago is expected to introduce a revised bill today.
** Update 6/30 PM: Reintroduction of the bill has been delayed while they wait for comments from additional parties
Bankers and non-bank commercial lenders – two groups that often disagree – are united in their opposition to financial regulation proposed in Illinois. Both contend that if the state’s Senate Bill 2865 becomes law it could choke the life out of small-business lending in the Land of Lincoln and might set a precedent for a nightmarish 50-state patchwork of rules and regulations.
Foes say the measure was created to promote disclosure and regulate underwriting. They don’t argue with the need for transparency when it comes to stating loan terms, but they maintain that a provision of the bill that would cap loan payments at 50 percent of net profits would disrupt the market needlessly.
Opponents also regard the bill as an encroachment on free trade. “The government shouldn’t be picking winners or losers – the market should be,” said Steve Denis, executive director of the Small Business Finance Association, a trade group for alternative funders.
The states or the federal government may need to protect merchants from a few predatory lenders, but most lenders operate reputably and have a vested interest in helping clients succeed so they can pay back their obligations and become repeat customers, several members of the industry maintained.
“The ability to pay is really a non-issue,” noted Matt Patterson, CEO of Expansion Capital Group and an organizer of the Commercial Finance Coalition, another industry trade group. “I don’t make any money if a borrower doesn’t pay me back, so I don’t make loans where I think there is an inability to pay.”
Outsiders may find interest rates high for alternative loans, but companies providing the capital face high risk and have a short risk horizon, said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Electronic Transactions Association, whose members include purveyors and recipients of alternative financing. Several other sources said the risks justify the rates.
Besides, a consensus seems to exist among industry leaders that most merchants – unlike many consumers – have the sophistication to make their own decisions on borrowing. Business owners are accustomed to dealing with large amounts of money, and they understand the need to keep investing in their enterprises, sources agreed.
In fact, no one has complained of any small-business lending problems in Illinois to state regulators, said Bryan Schneider, secretary of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and a member of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s cabinet.
Regulators should not indulge in creating solutions in search of problems, Sec. Schneider cautioned. “When you’re a hammer, the world looks like a nail,” he said, suggesting that regulators sometimes base their actions on anecdotal isolated incidents instead of reserving action to correct widespread problems.
But the proposed legislation could itself cause problems by placing entrepreneurs at risk, according to Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which has 400 members operating 20,000 stores. “It would stifle potential access to capital for small businesses,” he warned.
Quantifying the resulting damage would present a monumental task, but a shortage of capital would clearly burden merchants who need to bridge cash-flow problems, Karr said. Shortfalls can result, for example, when clothing stores need to buy apparel for the coming season or hardware stores place orders in the summer for snow blowers they’ll need in six to eight months, he said.
Restaurant owners and other merchants who rely on expensive equipment also need access to capital when there’s a breakdown or a need to expand to meet competition or take advantage of a market opportunity, Karr observed.
Capital for those purposes could dry up because just about anyone providing non-bank loans to small merchants could find themselves subject to the proposed legislation, including factoring companies, merchant cash advance companies, alternative lenders and non-bank commercial lenders, said the CFC’s Patterson.
Banks and credit unions are exempt, the bill says, but a page or two later it includes provisions written so broadly that it actually includes those institutions, said Ben Jackson, vice president of government relations at the Illinois Bankers Association.
Trade groups representing all of those financial institutions – including banks and non-banks – have joined small-business associations in working against passage SB 2865. “The most important thing is to make sure we’re coordinating with the other groups out there,” the SBFA’s Denis contended. “Actually, Illinois was good practice for the industry in how we’re going to go about dealing with attempts at regulation.”
Patterson of the CFC agreed that associations should coordinate their responses to proposed legislation. “We’ve tried to gather all the affected players in the space and have dialogue with them,” he maintained.
Even though that various associations reacting to the bill generally agreed on principles, their competing messages at first created a cacophony of proposals, according to some. “There was a lot of noise, and I think we’ll all learn from that,” Denis said. “The industry has to learn to speak with one voice to legislators.”
Citing the complexity of dealing with 50 states, 435 members of Congress and 100 senators, Denis said everyone with an interest in small-business lending must work together. “If we don’t, we lose,” he warned.
Many of the groups came together for the first time as they converged upon the Illinois capital of Springfield last month when the state’s Senate Committee on Financial Institutions convened a hearing on the bill. The committee allowed testimony at the hearing from three groups representing opponents. The groups huddled and chose Denis, Jackson and Martha Dreiling, OnDeck Capital Inc. vice president and head of operations.
City of Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers was the only witness who testified in favor of the bill, according to Jackson. The idea of regulating non-bank commercial lenders in much the same way Illinois oversees lending to individuals arose in Summers’ office, said an aide to Illinois Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago. Sen. Collins serves as chairperson of the Financial Institutions Committee and introduced to the bill in the senate.
Sen. Collins declined to be interviewed for this article, and Treasurer Summers and other officials in his of office did not respond to interview requests. However, published reports said Drew Beres, general counsel for Summers, has maintained that transparency, not underwriting, is the main goal. Talbott has met with Sen. Collins and said she’s interested primarily in transparency.
Support for the bill isn’t limited to the Chicago treasurer’s office. Some non-profit lending groups and think tanks back the proposed legislation, opponents agreed. The bill appeals to progressives attempting to shield the public from unsavory lending practices, they maintained.
Politicians may view their support of the bill as a way of burnishing their progressive credentials and establishing themselves as consumer advocates, said opponents of the legislation who requested anonymity. “It’s an important constituency,” one noted. “No one is against small business.”
After listening to testimony at the hearing, committee members voted to move the bill out of committee for further progress through the senate, Jackson said. Eight on the committee voted to move the bill forward, while two voted “present” and one was absent. But most of the senators on the committee said the legislation needs revision through amendments before it could become law, according to Jackson.
The legislative session was scheduled to end May 31. If the bill didn’t pass by then it could come up for consideration in a summer session if the General Assembly chooses to have one, Jackson said. If it does not pass during the summer, it could come to a vote during a two-week “veto session” in the fall or in an early January 2017 “lame duck session.” Unpassed legislation dies at that point and would have to be reintroduced in the regular session that begins later in January 2017, he noted.
Although time is becoming short for the proposed legislation, it’s a high-profile measure that could prompt action, particularly if amendments weaken the rule for underwriting, Jackson said. The Illinois General Assembly sometimes passes important legislation during lame duck sessions, he said, noting that a temporary increase in the state sales tax was enacted that way.
Whatever fate awaits SB 2865, some in the alternative funding business have suspected that the bill came about through an effort by banks to push non-banks out of the market. But cooperation among groups opposed to the proposed legislation appears to lay that notion to rest, according to several sources.
“I don’t get that impression,” Denis said of the allegation that bankers are colluding against alternative commercial lenders. “I think this shows banks and our industry can get together and share the same mission.”
Talbott of the ETA also counted himself among the disbelievers when it comes to conspiracy theories against alternative lenders. “I’d say that’s a misreading of the law and not the case,” he said. “Traditional banks oppose this because it would effectively reduce their options in the same space.”
The interests of banks and non-banks are beginning to coincide as the two sectors intertwine by forming coalitions, noted Jackson of the state bankers’ association. A number of sources cited mergers and partnerships that are occurring among the two types of institutions.
In one example, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. is using OnDeck’s online technology to help make loans to small businesses. Meanwhile, in another example, SunTrust Banks Inc. has established an online lending division called LightStream.
At the same time, alternative funders who got their start with merchant cash advances and later added loans are contemplating what their world would be like if they turned their enterprises into businesses that more closely resembled banks.
And however the industries structure themselves, the need for small-business funding remains acute. Banks, non-banks and merchants agree that the Great Recession that began in 2007 and the regulation it spawned have discouraged banks from lending to small-businesses. The alternative small-business finance industry arose to fill the vacuum, sources said.
That demand draws attention and could lead to bouts of regulation. Although industry leaders say they’re not aware of legislation similar to Illinois SB 2865 pending in other states, they note that New York state legislators discussed small-business lending in April during a subject matter hearing. They also point out that California regulates commercial lending.
Many dread the potential for unintended results as a crazy quilt of regulation spreads across the nation with each state devising its own inconsistent or even conflicting standards. Keeping up with activity in 50 states – not to mention a few territories or protectorates – seems likely to prove daunting.
But mechanisms have been developed to ease the burden of tracking so many legislative and regulatory bodies. The CFC, for instance, employs a government relations team to monitor the states, Patterson said. The ETA combines software and people in the field to deal with the monitoring challenge.
And regulation at the state level can make sense because officials there live “close to the ground,” and thus have a better feel for how rules affect state residents than federal regulators could develop, Sec. Schneider said.
Easier accessibility can also keep make regulators more responsive than federal regulators, according to Sec. Schneider. “It’s easier to get ahold of me than (Director) Richard Cordray at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” he said.
Also, state regulators don’t want to take a provincial view of commerce, Sec. Schneider noted. “As wonderful as Illinois is, we want to do business nationwide,” he joked.
State regulators should do a better job of coordinating among themselves, Sec. Schneider conceded, adding that they are making the attempt. Efforts are underway through the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, a trade association for officials, he said.
At the moment, state legislatures and federal regulators have small-business lending “squarely on their agenda,” the ETA’s Talbott observed. The U.S. Congress isn’t paying close attention to the industry right now because they’re preoccupied with the elections and the presidential nominating conventions, he said.
The goal in Illinois and elsewhere remains to encourage legislators to adopt a “go-slow approach” that affords enough time to understand how the industry operates and what proposed laws or regulations would do to change that, said Talbott.
At any rate, the industry should unite in a proactive effort to explain the business to legislators, according to Denis. “We need to work with them so that they understand how we fund small businesses,” he said. “That’s the way we can all win.”
THE NEW THOUGHT MOVEMENT HAS TAKEN OVER THE SALES PROFESSION
Somewhere between the 19th and the current 21st century, the profession of sales as a whole integrated the concepts of the New Thought Movement, going so far as to actually shape the mantras, slogans and thought processes of salespeople everywhere.
In my opinion, the New Thought Movement has the potential to do far more harm than good, because it does not emphasize the importance of individuals learning how to critically think. It has an over-reliance on positive thinking and positive faith, with a complete disregard for critical thought and analysis. When a person fails to critically think, they can easily fall prey to scams, manipulation, brain-washing, etc. and even mismanage their finances through various forms of impulse (emotional-based) spending. As a result, for whatever amount of good that the movement does, in my opinion, it has the potential to do far more damage, such as the damage that I believe it has done to the sales profession.
THE HISTORY OF THE NEW THOUGHT MOVEMENT
It started in the 19th century with the promotion of ideals by philosophers such as Napoleon Hill, that life begins in the mind and that the quality of your life would be based on your level of positive thinking and positive faith. The mantra of the movement is that if you maintain the right level of positive thought processes as well as keep high levels of positive faith, then you can “attract” to you whatever you desire, which usually centers around materialistic items like fancy cars, shallow things like very attractive mates, significant wealth, or good health and wellness.
By the 20th century, the movement would eventually spread to various religious denominations in the form of the prosperity gospel (the word of faith movement), promoted through television evangelists and the vast majority of mega churches throughout the country.
By the 21st century, the movement would spread to even more authors and even film producers with the 2006 film “The Secret” which also included a book version of the ideals promoted during the film.
It was also by the 21st century that the movement had been fully ingrained into the vast majority of sales training material, which would serve as the foundation for a lot of what I deem to be “issues” of the sales profession today. These being the utter lack of critical thinking and critical analysis which leaves too many sales people as mindless, robotic, and routine order-takers, rather than strategic thinkers, innovators, and business developers.
NEW ENTRANTS TO THIS INDUSTRY ARE INSPIRED BY TECHNIQUES FROM THE NEW THOUGHT MOVEMENT
Since this year’s March/April edition of deBanked Magazine, we have talked about the Year of The Broker as it relates to the surge of new brokers coming into the space. These new entrants are inspired by funders, lenders and large brokerages using techniques from the New Thought Movement.
The rah-rah sales motivational speech that’s provided to these new brokers is founded mainly on the New Thought Movement. The people recruiting these new brokers into the space get them to dream about:
- Getting out of debt
- Moving out of their mother’s basement
- Living in a big/fancy house
- Having a very attractive mate on their arm
- Driving a Mercedes Benz S-Class
- Making $25k, $40k, or $50k per month
- Being “the man” in the nightclub, buying up all of the drinks and being the life of the party
They would sum up their rah-rah sales motivational speech with simply, “As you think, so shall you become,” quoting the great Bruce Lee.
Thoughts that arise of a critical nature that look for more market research, market planning, trends, innovative solutions, ROI analysis, and other forms of foresight are either quickly shunned as “over-thinking” or “negative thinking”. You might flat out be kicked out of the room where the rah-rah sales motivational speech is being conducted, with accusations of having “stinking thinking.”
THIS ISN’T ROCKET SCIENCE, IT’S CRITICAL THINKING
The New Thought Movement’s over-reliance on positive thinking and positive faith can be detrimental to personal growth. Being a part of the Mom and Pop Network isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I have operated within the Mom and Pop Network, but what’s shortsighted is not giving brokers all the tools they need to think critically and truly be successful.
For you to survive, you are going to need to have resources that the vast majority of other brokers don’t have access to. Relying on UCC records and Aged Leads (that every other broker is calling on), isn’t going to cut it. You are going to need resources that provide you with a significant market competitive advantage which includes but isn’t limited to: having better data so you can produce your own exclusive internal leads, having “center of influence” partnerships with banks, credit unions, and other professionals, having access to creative financing in the form of either equity or debt, among other advantages. These advantages will not just give you a leg up over other brokers in the market, but they are truly the key to your long term survival.
A FINAL WORD
In my opinion, The New Thought Movement does more harm than good, by not emphasizing the importance for individuals to learn how to critically think.
We are living in the day and age where to survive in any professional sales environment, you are going to have to be more of a critical thinker and do things outside of “the box”, versus being the stereotypical smiley faced, overly optimistic, robotic, sales guy, that’s incapable of true “independent thought.” You want to be the sales guy that thinks and operates outside of the box, which is basically this bubble in which everybody else is operating and thinking within. You can’t achieve this unless you first embrace cynicism by taking a long hard look at this box, poke holes in it, discover new ways to profit, and then blaze your own trail.
Being cynical, pessimistic and “negative” are the first steps towards becoming an excellent critical thinker, even though they will not make you feel as “good” as compared to that of being optimistic and positive. But in that regard, I must quote Dave Ramsey in that: Children do what feels good. Adults make a plan and follow it.
Critical thinking doesn’t feel good, but you can’t properly plan without it.
Meet the Source: How Jared Weitz and United Capital Source became one of the industry’s fastest growing shopsOctober 23, 2015
Jared Weitz came from humble beginnings and nearly settled for a humble fate. But associates say an ordinary, uneventful life wouldn’t have suited him – he works too hard and figures things out too quickly.
Almost ten years ago Weitz, 33, was parking cars to earn money for community college. After finishing at St. Johns University, he almost made plumbing his career. But now he’s CEO of United Capital Source LLC, an alternative-finance brokerage with deal flow of between $9 million and $10 million a month and an annual growth rate of over 65 percent.
Business associates, former bosses and his small cadre of employees all seem to revere Weitz for his honesty and straightforwardness. They consider him a personal friend. They say he continues to grow as a businessman and as a human being while taking pleasure in helping others do the same.
Geographically, Weitz has the good fortune to know where he belongs – the city of New York is in his DNA. “Every time I fly back,” he said, “I’m so happy to land.”
His love affair with the city began in Brooklyn. He was born there and raised in a Brighton Beach apartment in the shadow of Coney Island. When he was 16, the family moved to Oceanside on Long Island.
As the second of six children, Weitz had to come up with the money for college on his own. “My older sister and I had to pay our way,” he said. “Everybody else, my dad was able to cover.” He started school at Nassau Community College, selling cell phones and parking cars at night.
But then came an abrupt change. Once Weitz saved enough money, he transferred to Tulane University in New Orleans to pursue a relationship with a woman who was finishing her studies there. He attended classes part-time, worked as the athletic director at the Jewish Community Center, tended bar in a Mexican restaurant and served summonses for a law firm.
The relationship with the woman fizzled, but Weitz made lasting friendships during his days down south. His old roommate in New Orleans, who now practices law in Atlanta, serves as counsel for United Capital Source.
When Weitz had been in New Orleans for two years, Hurricane Katrina struck. He evacuated to Houston, where he stayed in a Holiday Inn for two weeks before realizing he wouldn’t be able to return to southern Louisiana anytime soon. The magnitude of the devastation was just too great.
Shouldering the duffel bag of belongings he had managed to pack on his back during the evacuation, he returned to New York, enrolled in St. John’s University and began working in sales for Honda Financial Services and parking cars.
Weitz had started school expecting to become a teacher. He had grown up with younger siblings and liked leadership roles, which convinced him teaching would be a good fit.
Still, many of his college jobs had required him to sell. As a bartender, for example, he promoted drink specials. As an athletic director he convinced people to sign up for classes. “Everything that I took to naturally wound up being in the sales, marketing and finance arena,” Weitz observed.
When he was nearly finished at St. John’s, Weitz was parking a car for an acquaintance who offered him a job as a union plumber. Suddenly, he was making $27 an hour and had health benefits. “It was a big breather for me,” Weitz recalled.
He quit his three jobs and labored as a plumber from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. School started at 3:30 p.m. for him and stretched into the evening. But when he finished his degree, working as a teacher for $35,000 to $40,000 a year no longer seemed attractive.
Besides, his plumbing work didn’t center on toilets. On typical commercial plumbing jobs he did things like install air, medical and gas lines in hospitals. He was reading blueprints and bidding for jobs. A promotion to foreman didn’t seem that far off.
At about the same time, near the end of 2006, a friend, Mike Caronna, landed a job at Bizfi, formerly known as Merchant Cash and Capital (MCC), The company, which had just started and had only a few employees, was looking for underwriters.
As fate would have it, Weitz fell into a conversation with a fellow union plumber, one who had been on the job for 30 years. The older man reminded him that his wages would never climb much higher than they were right now. The veteran plumber then showed the younger man his hands, bent from decades of holding tools. “That got me thinking,” Weitz said.
He asked his friend Caronna to arrange a job interview at MCC. He got an offer and took a 90-day leave from his plumbing job to give the world of finance a try. “After about two weeks, I knew it was for me,” he said of the alternative-finance industry. It was by then the beginning of 2007.
Weitz excelled as an underwriter, and the company CEO, Stephen Sheinbaum, picked him and four others for a sales contest. Sheinbaum gave them some leads and turned them loose. Weitz won the competition but asked his boss to help him gain experience in business development and operations before taking on a sales position.
Sheinbaum was happy to comply. “He is one of the best and the brightest in the space,” he said of Weitz.
So, at age 25, Weitz found himself building a business development department by cultivating relationships with ISOs and persuading them to send business to MCC. “It was amazing,” he said of those days. “That was a big opportunity.”
Weitz learned the mechanics of the business. He found that the right ISO can originate good deals and a bad ISO can ruin deals. He learned the politics of when to talk, when to remain silent and when to let someone vent.
Then Weitz and a good friend at MCC, Anthony Giuliano – who’s now managing partner of Sure Payment Solutions – worked out how they could improve the MCC sales effort. They pitched Sheinbaum on the idea of having a second internal sale force, and that led to the birth of Next Level Funding (NLF), a division of MCC.
Weitz and Giuliano each owned 10 percent of NLF, and MCC owned 80 percent. “I’m 26, about to be 27, and I’m like, ‘You did it, Man,’” Weitz said as he looked back.
After about four months, NLF absorbed MCC’s original sales division. Next, Giuliano and another executive, Paul Giuffrida, decided to leave MCC. Weitz felt torn. He felt an allegiance to Giuliano and respected Giuliano’s knowledge of programming – a subject that was alien to him. Yet Sheinbaum had provided Weitz a series of opportunities.
Weitz stayed at MCC but felt he deserved to become chief sales officer. When that didn’t happen, he sold his shares back to the company at a dramatically reduced price to extricate himself from a non-compete clause and set off to start United Capital Source (UCS).
With a five-figure investment, Weitz and his then partner, started UCS in January of 2011 in a 250-square-foot office in Long Beach, L.I. Weitz invested about 90 percent of the money he had saved while working at MCC.
Jon Baum left NLF with Weitz and became the first UCS employee. Within a week or two, Danielle Rivelli, left NLF to join UCS, and Weitz put the remaining 10 percent of his savings into the business to meet the expanded payroll. Today, Baum and Rivelli are UCS sales managers.
The first month UCS was open, it funded $240,000 in deals. “It just felt good to be on my own and start funding deals,” Weitz said. From the beginning of UCS, he won praise from funders for bringing them the right kind of deals with merchants who were likely to repay.
“He really has the pulse of the marketplace and what a lender is looking for,” said Todd Sherer, who handles business development for Entrepreneur Growth Capital. “He doesn’t waste time giving you transactions that don’t fit in your box.”
That’s because doing things right means a lot to Weitz. “He is one of the most straightforward, honest, high-integrity people I have met in the industry,” said Steven Mandis, adjunct associate professor at the Columbia University Business School and chairman of Kalamata Capital LLC.
He’s won the OnDeck seal of approval. “OnDeck has a rigorous and extensive background check process as part of our broker certification process,” said Paul Rosen, OnDeck’s chief sales officer. “Jared Weitz and United Capital have passed our screens and process and are currently active brokers for OnDeck.”
And with time, Weitz has learned patience. He was sometimes short with funders when he started his company but has matured into a pleasant person to deal with, said Heather Francis, CEO of Elevate Funding. “I’ve seen that growth with him,” she said.
All of those good qualities soon came together to help UCS succeed. Within four months of its launch, the company rented a 1,500-square-foot office in Garden City and hired two more people. Next came a 3,200-square-foot office in Rockville Centre and three more employees.
“The company was growing and gaining traction,” Weitz recalled. “I bought out my original partner.” Since then, Vincent Pappalardo has invested in UCS and become a minority partner.
Meanwhile, the lease was expiring on Long Island, and Weitz felt the time had come to move to Manhattan. That would enable the company to draw employees from throughout the region and not just Long Island.
“We decided to bite the bullet and pay the excess money to move to the city because we believed it would be better for the business,” Weitz said. He added two people and rented a 5,500-square-foot space near Penn Station in the Garment District in September of 2014.
Within three months of making the move to Manhattan, business doubled. “Being in a faster-paced environment caused the business to go through another growth phase,” he said. After nine months in the city, UCS is now taking over a whole 8,500-square-foot floor of the same building.
UCS remains a small shop in terms of headcount with 21 people, but the company’s funding numbers equal the output of many brokerages five times its size. Twelve of the UCS employees work in sales, with the others engaged mainly in underwriting, operations and customer service.
Less than 2 percent of UCS’s funding volume comes from broker business. “We self-generate all of our business,” Weitz said, declining to elaborate too much on his company’s marketing efforts.
“My salespeople – bar none – are the best in the industry,” he claimed. “Much like the Navy has the SEALS and the Army has the Rangers, there are groups in the industry that can do triple or quadruple what other people do because that’s just the way they are.” His people fund an average of $750,000 per month per person in new business, while his renewals reps fund well into the 7-figure range per person.
UCS salespeople achieve their results because they have detailed knowledge of the industry, Weitz said. The staff’s understanding of alternative finance doesn’t end with sales but also includes underwriting and finance, he noted. “That’s what makes you a very good and knowledgeable sales rep,” he maintained.
His salespeople don’t just tell a client what he or she wants to hear. They take the time to understand the client’s financial situation. “They know how to read a profit and loss statement, a balance sheet and tax returns,” Weitz said.
ARE THE BEST IN THE INDUSTRY”
While 90% of Weitz’s sales team has a college degree, most of the salespeople have come from outside the industry, he said, noting that one was with Sleepy’s, the mattress company. Another was selling memberships at a gym, one worked for a credit card processing company, two were barbers and one had just graduated from college.
UCS doesn’t make double-digit commissions because the company isn’t over-charging merchants, Weitz maintained. The company does not obtain excess funding that a customer can’t afford or increase the factor rate to dangerous levels, he noted.
“You’re not really helping the merchant” by providing too much capital, Weitz asserted. “You’re sucking the blood out of him before he goes away. That’s not why I’m in business.”
A clean record will also prove beneficial when federal regulation comes to the industry, he said. Integrity in the workplace can also spill over into other parts of a person’s life, Weitz believes.
As UCS grew larger and Weitz grew older, he saw his employees rent their first apartments and then buy their first homes. He learned then that he had taken on more responsibility than was apparent to him at first.
To accommodate the employees he added a human relations department and commissioned a company handbook. He’s also started marketing, finance, operations and other departments.
He’s lost only four employees because he pays them well, respects their time and doesn’t view their youth as a liability.
Meanwhile, talking daily to merchants and hearing about their heartaches and triumphs has humbled and matured Weitz. Seeing how the merchants’ choices panned out or fell short also shaped him and helped him grow up a little, he said.
Weitz has found time in his 70-hour workweek to meet his future bride. They’re planning to wed next year, and he plans to invite his entire staff. “It wouldn’t feel right without them,” he said.
Weitz has skipped the Ferrari, Rolls Royce and mansion because he didn’t feel he needed them. But even without those status symbols, it’s clear that Weitz has avoided settling for a humble fate.
As for what comes next, UCS is said to be developing an online marketplace to take their business to the next level, though Weitz declined to provide specific details about how it will work. “We’re on pace to do more than $100 million worth of deals a year,” Weitz said. “And as far as we’ve come, I feel like this is still just the beginning.”
San Francisco had its gold rush, Oklahoma had its land rush and now Australia is experiencing a rush of alternative funding. After a slow start a few years ago, foreign and domestic companies have been flocking to the market down under in the last 18 months.
As many as 20 new alt-funders are doing business in Australia, but that number could swell to a hundred, said Beau Bertoli, joint CEO of Prospa, a Sydney-based alternative funder. “The market in Australia has been very ripe for alternative finance,” Bertoli, said. “We see an opportunity for the alternative finance segment to be more dominant in Australia than it is in America.”
Recent entrants to the embryotic Australian market include Spotcap, a Berlin-based company partly funded by Germany’s Rocket Internet; Australia’s Kikka Capital, which gets tech backing from U.S.-based Kabbage; America’s Ondeck, which is working with MYOB, a software company; Moula, which began offering funding this year but considers itself ahead of the curve because it formed two years ago; and PayPal, the giant American payments company.
The new entrants are joining ‘pioneers’ that have been around a few years, like Prospa, which has been working for three years with New York-based Strategic Funding Source, and Capify (formerly AUSvance until it was consolidated into the international brand Capify), which came to market in 2008 with merchant cash advances and started offering small-business loans in 2012.
Some don’t take the newcomers that seriously. “There are small players I’ve never heard of,” said John de Bree, managing director of Capify’s Sydney-based office, in a reference to local Australian funders. “The big ones like OnDeck and Kabbage don’t have the local experience.”
But many players view the influx as a good sign. “I think it’s an endorsement of the market,” Bertoli said. “There’s more publicity and more credibility for what we’re doing here in terms of alternative finance.” It’s like the merchant who gets more business when a competing store opens across the street.
Besides, the market remains far from crowded. “I’m not concerned about the arrival of OnDeck and Kabbage because it really does validate our model,” maintained Aris Allegos, who serves as Moula CEO and cofounded the company with Andrew Watt.
The market’s relatively small size – at least compared to the U.S. – doesn’t seem to bother players accustomed to the heavily populated U.S., a development some observers didn’t expect. “I’m very surprised,” de Bree said of the American interest in Australia. “The American market’s 15 times the size of ours.”
Others see nothing but potential in Australia. “This is a market that will evolve over time, and we think the opportunity is enormous,” said Lachlan Heussler, managing director of Spotcap Australia.
Some view the Australian rush to alternative finance not so much as a solitary phenomenon but instead as part of a worldwide explosion of interest in the segment, driven by banks’ reluctance to provide loans since the financial crisis, de Bree said.
Viewed independently or in a larger context, the flurry of activity in Australia is new. “The boom is probably only getting started,” Bertoli maintained in a reference to the Australian market. “Right now, it’s about getting the foundation of the market established.”
To get the business underway in Australia, alternative funders are alerting small-business owners and the media to the fact that alternative funding is becoming available and teaching them how it works, de Bree said. “Half of our job is educating the market,” noted Heussler.
New players are building the track record they need to bring down the cost of funds, according to Allegos. “Our base rate is 2 percent or 3 percent higher than yours,” he said, adding that the cost of funds is more challenging than gearing up the tech side of the business.
Although the alternative-lending business started later in Australia than in the United States and lags behind America in in exposure, it’s maturing rapidly, said de Bree. Aussie funders are benefitting from the lessons their counterparts have learned in the U.S., he said.
But the exchange of information flows both ways. Kabbage, for example, chose to enter the Australian market with a local partner, Kikka. Kabbage learned from its earlier foray into the United Kingdom that it makes sense to work with colleagues who understand the local regulatory system and culture, said Pete Steger, head of business development for Atlanta-based Kabbage.
Such differences mean that risk-assessment platforms that work in the United States or Europe require localization before they can perform effectively in Australia, sources said.
Sydney-based Prospa, for example, got its start three years ago and has been working ever since with New York-based Strategic Funding Source to localize the SFS American risk-assessment platform for Australia, said Bertoli, who shares the company CEO title with Greg Moshal.
Moula, which has headquarters in Melbourne, sees so many differences among markets that it decided to build its own local platform from scratch, according to Allegos.
One key difference between the two markets is that Australia does not have positive credit reporting. “We have nothing that even comes close to a FICO score,” said Allegos. The only credit reporting centers on negative events, he said.
Without credit scores from credit bureaus, funders base their assessments of credit worthiness largely on transaction history. “It’s cash-flow analytics,” said Allegos. “It’s no different from the analysis you’re doing in your part of the world, but it becomes more significant” in the absence of positive credit reporting, he said.
Australia lacks credit scores at least partly because the country’s four main banks control most of the financial sector and choose not to release credit information, sources said. The banks have warded off attacks from all over the world because the regulatory environment supports them and because their management understands how to communicate with and sell to Australian customers, sources said.
The big banks – Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, and National Australia Bank – set their own rules and have kept money tight by requiring secured loans and long waiting periods, Bertoli said. It’s difficult for merchants who don’t fit into a “particular box” to procure funding, he maintained. “It’s almost like an oligarchy,” Allegos said of the banks’ grip on the financial system.
Eventually, the banks may form partnerships with alternative lenders, but that day won’t come soon, in Allegos’ estimation. It could be 12 months or more away, he said.
Even as the financial system evolves, deep-seated differences will remain between Australia and the U.S. Most Americans and Australians speak English and share many views and values, but the cultures of the two countries differ greatly in ways that affect marketing, Bertoli said. “In your face” advertising that can work well with “loud, confident” Americans can offend the more “laid-back” Australian consumers and business owners, he said.
Australians have become tech-savvy and comfortable with online banking, but they guard their privacy and often hesitate to reveal their banking information to a funding company, Allegos said. The entrance of OnDeck and Kabbage should help familiarize potential customers with the practice of sharing data, he predicted.
Cost structures for businesses differ in Australia from the U.S., Bertoli noted. Australian companies pay higher rent and have to pay minimum wages set much higher than in the United States, he said. Published reports set the Australian minimum wage at $13.66 U.S. dollars. The higher costs down under can take a toll on cash flow. “Take an American scorecard and apply it to Australia?” Bertoli asked rhetorically. “You just can’t.”
Distribution’s not the same for commercial enterprises in the two countries, Bertoli maintained. Despite having about the same geographic area as America’s 48 contiguous states, Australia has a population of 23 million, compared with America’s 322 million.
No matter how many people are involved, changing their habits takes time. Australian merchants prefer fixed-term loans or lines of credits instead of merchant cash advances, Bertoli said. In many cases Australian merchants simply aren’t as familiar as Americans are with advances, Allegos said.
Besides, the four big banks in Australia tend to solicit merchants for credit and debit card transactions without the help of the independent sales organizations and sales agents. In the U.S., ISOs and agents play an important role in explaining and promoting advances to merchants, Bertoli said. Advances make sense for merchants because advances adjust to cash flow, and they help funders control risk, but just haven’t caught on in Australia, Bertoli said. Australians resist advances if too many fees are attached, said Allegos.
Pledging a portion of daily card receipts might seem too frequent, too, he said. Besides, advances are limited to merchants who accept debit and credit cards, while any business could conceivably choose to take out a loan, said de Bree.
Advances have to compete with inventory factoring, which has become a massive business in Australia, according to Heussler. The business can become intrusive because funders may have to examine balance sheets and talk to customers, he said.
Australia’s reluctance to turn to advances, leaves most alternative funders promoting loans and lines of credit. Prospa, for example, uses some brokers to that end but also relies on online connections, direct contact with customers, and referrals from companies that buy and sell with small and medium-sized businesses.
“Anyone that touches a small business is a potential partner,” said Heussler, including finance brokers, accountants, lawyers and even credit unions, which have the distribution but not the product.
Moula finds that most of its business comes from well-established companies and that loans average just over $27,000 in U.S. currency and they offer loans of up to more than $77,000 U.S. The company offers straight-line, six- to 12-month amortizing loans.
Using a model that differs from what’s common in the U.S., Moula charges 1 percent every two weeks, collects payments every two weeks and charges no additional fees, Allegos said. A $10,000 (Australian) loan for six months would accrue $714 (Australian) in interest, he noted.
Spotcap Australia offers a three-month unsecured line of credit and doesn’t charge customers for setting it up, Heussler said. If the business owner decided to draw down, it turns into a six-month amortizing business loan for up to $100,000 Australian. Rates vary according to risk, starting at half a percent per month but averaging 1.5% per month.
If companies have all of the necessary information at hand, they can complete an application in 10 minutes, Allegos said. Moula has to research some applications offline if the company’s structure deviates too greatly from the usual examples – much the same as in the U.S., he maintained. The latter requires strong customer-service departments, he said.
Kikka uses a platform based on the Kabbage model, which gives 95 percent of customers a 100-percent automated experience, Steger said. “It goes to show the power of our automation, our algorithms and our platform,” he maintained.
Spotcap prefers to deal with businesses that have been operating for at least six months, Heusler said. The funder examines records for Australia’s value-added tax and other financials, and it likes to connect with the merchant’s bank account. Spotcap can usually gain access to the account information through cloud-based accounting systems and thus doesn’t require most companies to download a lot of financial documents, he noted.
Despite the differences between the two countries, banking regulations bear similarities in Australia and the United States, sources said. In both nations the government tries harder to protect consumers than businesses because they assume business owners are more financially savvy. For consumers, regulators scrutinize length of term and pricing, sources said, and on the commercial side the government is concerned about money laundering and privacy.
Regulation of commercial funding will probably intensify, however, to ward off predatory lending, Bertoli said. Government will consult with businesses before imposing rules, he said. A couple of alternative business funders aren’t transparent with their pricing and they charge several fees – that sort of behavior will encourage regulation, Allegos said.
“I know they’re watching us – and watching us very closely,” he added.
In general, however, the Australian government supports alternative finance, Bertoli said, because they want there to be options other than the four big banks and wants small business to have access to capital. Small businesses account for 46 percent of economic activity in Australia and employ 70 percent of the workforce, he noted, saying that “if small businesses are doing badly, the economy is doing badly.”
Hence the need, many in the industry would say, for more alternative funding options in Australia.
Kristy Kowal, a silver medalist in the 200-meter breast stroke at the 2000 Olympic games in Australia, had recently relocated to Southern California and embarked on a new career when the pandemic shutdown hit in March.
After nearly two decades as a third-grade teacher in Pennsylvania, Kowal was able to take early retirement in 2019 and pursue her dream job. At last, she was self-employed and living in Long Beach where she could now devote herself to putting on swim clinics, training top athletes, and accepting speaking engagements. “I’ve been building up to this for twenty years,” she says.
But fate had a different idea. The coronavirus not only grounded her from travel but closed down most swimming pools. At first, she tried to collect unemployment compensation. But after two months of calling the unemployment office every day, her claim was denied. “‘Have a great day,’ the lady said, and then she hung up,” Kowal reports. “She wasn’t rude; she just hung up.”
Then, in June, the former Olympian heard from friends about Kabbage and the Paycheck Protection Program. Using an app on her smart phone, Kowal says, she was able to upload documents and complete the initial application in fewer than 20 minutes. A subsequent application with a bank followed and within a week she had her money.
“I was down to ten cents in my checking account,” says Kowal, who declined to disclose the amount of PPP money for which she qualified, “and I’d begun dipping into my savings. This gives me the confidence that I need to go back to my fulltime work.”
Kowal is one of 4.9 million small business owners and sole proprietors who, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, has received potentially forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP, a safety-net program designed to pay the wages of employees for small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, is a key component of the $1.76 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Since the U.S. Congress enacted the law on March 27, the PPP has been renewed and amended twice. It’s now in its third round of funding and Congress is weighing what to do next.
Kowal’s experience, meanwhile, is also a wake-up call for the country on the prominent role that both fintechs like Kabbage as well as community and independent banks, credit unions, non-banks and other alternatives to the country’s biggest banks play in supporting small business. Before many in this cohort were deputized by the SBA as full-fledged PPA lenders, a significant chunk of U.S. microbusinesses – especially sole proprietorships — were largely disdained by the brand-name banks.
“After the first round,” notes Karen Mills, former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, “more institutions were approved that focused on smaller borrowers. These included fintechs and I have to say I’ve been very impressed.”
Among the cadre of fintechs making PPP loans – including Funding Circle, Intuit Quickbooks, OnDeck, PayPal, and Sabre — Kabbage stands out. The Atlanta-based fintech ranked third among all U.S. financial institutions in the number of PPP credits issued, its 209,000 loans trailing only Bank of America’s 335,000 credits and J.P. Morgan Chase’s 260,000, according to the SBA and company data. Kabbage also reports processing more than $5.8 billion in PPP loans to small businesses ranging from restaurants, gyms, and retail stores to zoos, shrimp boats, beekeepers, and toy factories.
To reach businesses in rural communities and small towns, Kabbage collaborated with MountainSeed, an Atlanta-based data-services provider, to process claims for 135 independent banks and credit unions around the U.S. The proof of the pudding: Eighty-nine percent of Kabbage’s PPP loans, says Paul Bernardini, director of communications at Atlanta-based Kabbage, were under $50,000, and half were for less than $13,500.
The figures illustrate not only that Kabbage’s PPP customers were mainly composed of the country’s smaller, “most vulnerable” businesses, Bernardini asserts, but the numbers serve as a reminder that “fintechs play a very important, vital role in small business lending,” he says.
The helpfulness of such financial institutions contrasts sharply with what many small businesses have reported as imperious indifference by the megabanks. Gerri Detweiler, education director at Nav, Inc., a Utah-based online company that aggregates data and acts as a financial matchmaker for small businesses, steered deBanked toward critical comments about the big banks made on Nav’s Facebook page. Bank of America, especially, comes in for withering criticism.
“Bank of America wouldn’t even take my application,” one man wrote in a comment edited for brevity. “I have three accounts there. They are always sending me stuff about what an important client I am. But when the going got tough, they wouldn’t even take my application. I’m moving all my business from Bank of America.”
Lamented another Bank of America customer: “I was denied (PPP funding) from Bank of America (where) I have an individual retirement account, personal checking and savings account, two credit cards, a line of credit for $20.000, and a home mortgage. Add in business checking and a business credit card. Yesterday I pulled out my IRA. In the next few days I’m going to change to a credit union.”
Many PPP borrowers who initially got the cold shoulder from multi-billion-dollar conglomerate banks have found refuge with local — often small-town — bankers and financial institutions. Natasha Crosby, a realtor in Richmond, Va., reports that her bank, Capital One, “didn’t have the applications available when the Paycheck Protection Program started” on April 6. And when she finally was able to apply, she notes, “the money ran out.”
Crosby, who is president of Richmond’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, is media savvy and was able to publicize her predicament through television appearances on CNN and CBS, as well as in interviews with such publications as Mother Jones and Huffington Post. A “friendly acquaintance,” she says, referred her to Atlantic Union Bank, a Richmond-based regional bank, where she eventually received a PPP loan “in the high five figures” for her sole proprietorship.
“It took almost two months,” Crosby says. “I was totally frozen out of the program at first.”
Talibah Bayles heads her own firm, TMB Tax and Financial Services, in Birmingham, Ala. where she serves on that city’s Small Business Council and the state’s Black Chamber of Commerce. She told deBanked that she’s seen clients who have similarly been decamping to smaller, less impersonal financial institutions. “I have one client who just left Bank of America and another who’s absolutely done with Wells Fargo,” she says. “They’re going to places like America First Credit Union (based in Ogden, Utah) and Hope Credit Union (headquartered in Jackson, Miss.). I myself,” she adds, “shifted my business from Iberia Bank.”
Main Street bankers acknowledge that they are benefiting from the phenomenon. “In speaking to our industry colleagues,” says Tony DiVita, chief operating officer at Bank of Southern California, an $830 million-asset community bank based in San Diego, “we’ve seen that many of the big banks have slowed down or stopped lending small-dollar amounts that were too low for them to expend resources to process.”
At the same time, DiVita says, his bank had made 2,634 PPP loans through July 17, roughly 80% of which went to non-clients. Of that number, some 30% have either switched accounts or are in the process of doing so. And, he notes, the bank will get a second crack at conversion when the PPP loan-forgiveness process commences in earnest. “Our guiding spirit is to help these businesses for the continuation of their livelihoods,” he says.
Noah Wilcox, chief executive and chairman of two Minnesota banks, reports that both of his financial institutions have been working with non-customers neglected by bigger banks where many had been longtime customers. At Grand Rapids State Bank, he says, 26% of the 198 PPP applicants who were successfully funded were non-customers. Minnesota Lakes Bank in Delano, handled PPP credits for 274 applicants, of whom 66% were non-customers.
“People who had been customers forever at big banks told us that they had been applying for weeks and were flabbergasted that we were turning those applications around in an hour,” says Wilcox, who is also the current chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing community banks.
Noting that one of his Gopher State banks had successfully secured funding for an elderly PPP borrower “who said he had been at another bank for 69 years and could not get a telephone call returned,” Wilcox added: “We’ve had quite a number of those individuals moving their relationships to us.”
For Chris Hurn, executive director at Fountainhead Commercial Capital, a non-bank SBA lender in Lake Mary, Fla., the psychic rewards have helped compensate for the sometimes 16-hour days he and his staff endured processing and funding PPP applications. “It’s been relentless,” he says of the regimen required to funnel loans to more than 1,300 PPP applicants, “but we’ve gotten glowing e-mails and cards telling us that we’ve saved people’s livelihoods.”
Yet even as the Paycheck Protection Program – which only provides funding for two-and-a-half months – is proving to be immensely helpful, albeit temporarily, there is much trepidation among small businesses over what happens when the government’s spigots run dry. The hastily contrived design of the program, which has relied heavily on the country’s largest financial institutions, has contributed mightily to the program’s flaws.
“The underbanked and those who don’t have banking relationships were frozen out in the first round,” says Sarah Crozier, director of communications at Main Street Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization comprising some 100,000 small businesses. “The new updates were incredibly necessary and long overdue,” she adds, “but the changes didn’t solve the problem of equity in access to the program and whom money is flowing to in the community.”
Professor David Audretsch, an economist at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and an expert on small business, says of PPP: “It’s a short-term fix to keep businesses afloat, but it missed in a lot of ways. It was not well-thought-out and a lot of money went to the wrong people.”
The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 11.1% in June, according to the most recent figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three times the rate of February, just before the pandemic hit. The BLS also reported that 47.2% of the U.S. population – nearly half –was jobless in June. Against this backdrop, SBA data on PPP lending released in early July showed that a stunning array of cosseted elite enterprises and organizations, many with close connections to rich and powerful Washington power brokers, have been feasting on the PPP program.
In a stunning number of cases, the program’s recipients have been tony Washington, D.C. law firms, influential lobbyists and think tanks, and even members of Congress. Many businesses with ties to President Trump and Trump donors have also figured prominently on the SBA list of those receiving largesse from the SBA.
Businesses owned by private equity firms, for which the definition of “small business” strains credulity, were also showered with PPP dollars. Bloomberg News reported that upscale health-care businesses in which leveraged-buyout firms held a controlling interest, were impressively adept at accessing PPP money. Among this group were Abry Partners, Silver Oak Service Partners, Gauge Capital, and Heron Capital. (Small businesses are generally defined as enterprises with fewer than 500 employees. The SBA reports that there are 30.7 million small businesses in the U.S. and that they account for roughly 47% of U.S. employment.)
Boston-based Abry Partners, which currently manages more than $5 billion in capital across its active funds, merits special mention. Among other properties, Abry holds the largest stake in Oliver Street Dermatology Management, recipient of between $5 million and $10 million in potentially forgivable PPP loans. Based in Dallas, Oliver Street ranks among the largest dermatology management practices in the U.S. and, according to a company statement, boasts the most extensive such network in Texas, Kansas and Missouri.
Meanwhile, the design of the program and the formula for the looming forgiveness process is proving impractical. As it currently stands, loan forgiveness depends on businesses spending 60% of PPP money on employees’ wages and health insurance with the remaining 40% earmarked for rent, mortgage or utilities.
Many businesses such as restaurants and bars, storefront retailers and boutiques – particularly those that have shut down — are preferring to let their employees collect unemployment compensation. “Business owners had a hard time wrapping their heads around the requirement of keeping employees on the payroll while they’re closed,” notes Detweiler, the education director at Nav. “They have other bills that have to be paid.”
The forgiveness formula remains vexing for businesses where real estate costs are exorbitant, particularly in high-rent cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago. Tyler Balliet, the founder and owner of Rose Mansion, a midtown Manhattan wine-bar promising an extravagant, theme-park experience for wine enthusiasts, says that it took him a month and a half to receive almost $500,000 from Chase Bank. Unfortunately, though, the money isn’t doing him much good.
“I have 100 employees on staff, most of whom are actors,” he says. “We shut down on March 13. I laid off 95 employees and kept just a few people to keep the lights on.”
At the same time, his annual rent tops $1 million and the forgivable amount in the PPP loans won’t even cover a month’s rent. “I haven’t paid rent since March and I’m in default,” Balliet says. “Now I’m just waiting to see what the landlord wants to do.”
Like many business owners, Balliet financed much of his venture with credit card debt, which creates an additional liability concern, notes Crozier of the Main Street Alliance. “It’s very common for borrowers to have signed personal guarantees in their loans using their credit cards,” she says. “As we get closer to the funding cliff and as rent moratoriums end,” she adds, “creditors are coming after borrowers and putting their personal homes at risk.”
Mark Frier is the owner of three restaurants in Vermont ski towns, including The Reservoir — his flagship — in Waterbury. In toto, his eateries chalked up $6.5 million in combined sales in 2019. But 2020 is far different: the restaurants have not been open since mid-March and he’s missed out on the lucrative, end-of-season ski rush.
Consequently, Frier has been reluctant to draw down much of the $750,000 in PPP money he’d secured through local financial institutions. “We could end up with $600,000 in debt even with the new rules,” Frier says, adding: “We live off very thin margins. We need grants not loans.”
As the country recorded 3.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 141,000 deaths as of mid-July, PPP money earmarked by businesses for health-related spending was not deemed forgivable. Yet in order to comply with regulations promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and mandates and ordinances imposed by state and local governments, many establishments will be unable to avoid such expenditures.
“What we really needed was a grant program for companies to pivot to a business environment in a pandemic,” says Crozier. She cites the necessity businesspeople face of “retrofitting their businesses, buying masks, gloves and sanitizers and cleaning supplies, restaurants’ taking out tables and knocking down walls, installing Plexiglass shields, and improving air filtration systems.”
Meanwhile, as Covid-19 was taking its toll in sickness and death, the economic outlook for small business has been looking dire as well. The recent U.S. Census’s “Pulse Survey” of some 885,000 businesses updated on July 2 found that roughly 83% reported that Covid-19 pandemic had a “negative effect on their business. Fully 38% of all small business respondents, moreover, reported a “large negative effect.”
Amid the unabated spikes in the number of coronavirus cases and the country’s grave economic distress, PPP recipients are faced with the unsettling approach of the PPP forgiveness process. As Congress, the SBA, and the U.S. Treasury Department continue to remake and revise the rules and regulations governing the program, businesses are operating in a climate of uncertainty as well. Currently, the law states that the amount of the PPP loan that fails to be forgiven will convert to a five-year, one-percent loan — a relaxation in terms from the original two-year loan which is not necessarily cheering recipients.
“One of the biggest problems with PPP is that the rule book has been unclear,” frets Vermont restaurateur Frier, glumly adding: “This is not even a good loan program.”
Ashley Harrington, senior counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a research and policy group based in Durham, N.C., argued in House committee testimony on June 17, that there ought to be automatic forgiveness for PPP loans under $100,000. Such a policy, she declared, “would likely exempt firms with, on average, 13 or fewer employees and save 71 million hours of small business staff time.”
She also said, “The smallest PPP loans are being provided to microbusinesses and sole proprietors that have the least capacity and resources to engage in a complex (forgiveness) process with their financial institution and the SBA.”
William Phelan, president of Skokie (Ill.)-based PayNet, a credit-data services company for small businesses which recently merged with Equifax, sounded a similar note. Observing that there are some 23 million “non-employer” small businesses in the U.S. with fewer than three employees for whom the forgiveness process will likely be burdensome, he says: “Estimates are that it will cost businesses a few thousand dollars just to get a $100,000 loan forgiven. It’s going to involve mounds of paper work.”
The country’s major challenge now will be to re-boot the economy, Phelan adds, which will require massive financing for small businesses. “The fact is that access to capital for small businesses is still behind the times,” Phelan says. “At the end of the day, it took a massive government program to insure that there’s enough capital available for half of the U.S. economy” during the pandemic.
For his part, Professor Audretsch fervently hopes that the country has learned some profound lessons about the need to prepare for not just a rainy day, but a rainy season. The pandemic, he says, has exposed how decades of political attacks on government spending for disaster-preparedness and safety-net programs have left the U.S. exposed to unforeseen emergencies.
“We’re seeing the consequence of not investing in our infrastructure,” he says. “That’s a vague word but we need a policy apparatus in place so that the calvary can come riding in. This pandemic reminds me a lot of when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans,’ he adds. “The city paid a heavy price because we didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.”
Last year, when Kevin Frederick struck out on his own to form his own catering company in Annapolis, the veteran caterer knew that he’d need a food trailer for his business to succeed.
He reckoned that he had a good case for a $50,000 small-business loan. The Annapolis-based entrepreneur boasted stellar personal credit, $30,000 in the bank, and a track record that included 35 years of experience in his chosen profession. More impressively, his newly minted company—Chesapeake Celebrations Catering—was on a trajectory to haul in $350,000 in revenues over just eight months of operations in 2018. And, after paying himself a salary, he cleared $60,000 in pre-tax profit.
But Frederick’s business-credit profile was so thin that no bank or business funder would talk to him. So woeful was his lack of business credit, Frederick reports, that his only financing option was paying a broker a $2,000 finder’s fee for a high-interest loan.
Luckily, he says, everything changed when he discovered Nav, an online, credit-data aggregator and financial matchmaker.
Based in Utah, Nav had him spiff up his business credit with Dun & Bradstreet, a top rating agency and a Nav business partner. This was accomplished with a bankcard issued to Frederick’s business by megabank J.P. Morgan Chase. Soon afterward, he says, Nav steered him to Kapitus (formerly Strategic Funding Source), a New York-based lender and merchant cash advance firm that provided some $23,000 in funding.
“They led me in the right direction,” Frederick says of Nav. “A lady there (at Nav) helped me with my credit, warning me that the credit card I’d been using had an effect on my personal credit. Then she led me to Kapitus, all probably within a week.”
Now, Frederick has his food trailer. He reports that its total cost—$14,000 for the trailer, which came “with a concession window, mill-finished walls, and flooring” plus $43,000 in renovations—amounted to $57,000. Equipped with a full kitchen—including refrigeration, sinks, ovens, and a stove—the food trailer can be towed to weddings, reunions, and the myriad parties he caters in the Delmarva Peninsula. In addition, Frederick can also park the trailer at fairgrounds and serve seafood, barbeque, and other viands to the lucrative festival market.
Meanwhile, the caterer’s funders are happy to have him as their new customer. The people at Kapitus, to whom he is making daily payments (not counting weekends and holidays), are especially grateful. “Nav provides a valuable service,” says Seth Broman, vice-president of business development at Kapitus. “They know how to turn coal into diamonds,”
Nav does not charge small businesses for its services. As it gathers data from credit reporting services with which it has partnerships—Experian, TransUnion, Dun and Bradstreet, Equifax—and employs additional metrics, such as cashflow gleaned from an entrepreneur’s bank accounts, Nav earns fees from credit card issuers, lenders and MCA firms.
The company has close ties to financial technology companies that include Kabbage and OnDeck, and also collaborates with MCA funders such as National Funding, Rapid Finance, FundBox, and Kapitus. “We give lenders and funders better-qualified merchants at a lower cost of client acquisition,” says Caton Hanson, Nav’s general counsel and co-founder, adding: “They don’t have to spend as much money on leads.”
As banks have increasingly shunned small-business lending in the decade since the financial crisis, and as the economy has snapped back with a prolonged recovery, alternative funders—particularly unlicensed companies offering lightly regulated, high-cost merchant cash advances (MCAs)—have been piling into the business.
And service companies like Nav—which is funded by nearly $100 million in venture capital and which reports aiding more than 500,000 small businesses since it was founded in 2012—are thriving alongside the booming alternative-funding industry.
Over the past five years, the MCA industry’s financings have been growing by 20% annually, according to 2016 projections by Bryant Park Capital, a Manhattan-based, boutique investment bank. BPC’s specialty finance division handles mergers and acquisitions as well as debt-and-equity capital raising across multiple industries and is one of the few Wall Street firms with an MCA-industry practice. By BPC’s estimates, the MCA industry will have more than doubled its small business funding to $19.2 billion by year- end 2019, up from $8.6 billion in 2014.
Bankrolled by a broad assortment of hedge funds, private equity firms, family offices, and assorted multimillionaire and billionaire investors on the qui vive for outsized returns on their liquid assets, the MCA industry promises a 20%-80% profit rate, reports David Roitblat, president of Better Accounting Solutions, a New York accountancy specializing in the MCA industry. Based on doing the books for some 30 MCA firms, Roitblat reports that the range in profit margins depends on the terms of contracts and a funder’s underwriting skills.
The numerical size and growth of the MCA industry is hard to ascertain, reports Sean Murray, editor of deBanked (this publication), which tracks trends in the industry and sponsors several major conferences. “So much is anecdotal,” Murray says.
Even so, the evidence that MCA companies are proliferating—and prospering—is undeniable. Over the past two years, deBanked’s events, which experience substantial attendance from the MCA industry, have consistently sold out, requiring the events to be moved to larger venues. In Miami, attendance in January this year topped 400-plus attendees, Murray reports, roughly double the crowd that packed the Gale Hotel in 2018.
Similarly, the May, 2019, Broker Fair in New York at the Roosevelt Hotel drew more than 700 participants compared with the sellout crowd of roughly 400 last year in Brooklyn. (Despite ample notice that this year’s Broker Fair at the Roosevelt was sold out and advance tickets were required, as many as 40-50 latecomers sought entry and, unfortunately, had to be turned away.)
The upsurge of capital and the swelling number of entrants into the MCA business has all the earmarks of a gold rush. “Everybody and his brother is trying to get a piece of the action,” asserts Roitblat, the New York accountant.
And there are two ways to hit paydirt in a gold rush. One way is to prospect for gold. But another way is to sell picks and shovels, tents, food, and supplies to the prospectors. “If you can find a way to service the gold rush, you can make a lot of money,” says Kathryn Rudie Harrigan, a management professor and business-strategy expert at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. “It’s like profiteering in wartime.”
As Professor Harrigan suggests, cashing in on the gold rush by servicing it has parallels across multiple industries. Consider the case of Charles River Laboratories, which has capitalized on the rapid development of the biotechnology industry over the past few decades.
As scientists searched for biologics to battle diseases like cancer and AIDS, the Boston-area company began producing experimental animals known as “transgenic mice.” Informally known as “smart mice,” Charles River’s test animals are specially designed to carry human genes, aiding investigators in their understanding of gene function and genetic responses to diseases and therapeutic interventions. (The smart mouse’s antibodies can also be harvested. “Seven out of the eleven monoclonal antibody drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration between 2006 and 2011,” according to biotechnology.com, “were derived from transgenic mice.”)
In the MCA version of the gold rush, a bevy of law and accounting firms, debt-collection agencies and credit-approval firms, among other service providers, have either sprung to life to undergird the new breed of alternative funder or added expertise to suit the industry’s wants and needs. (This cohort has been joined, moreover, by a superstructure of Washington, D.C.-based trade associations and lobbyists that have been growing like expansion teams in a professional sports league. But their story will have to wait for another day.)
Rather than being exploitative, supporting companies serve as a vital mainstay in an industry’s ecosystem, notes Alfred Watkins, a former World Bank economist and Washington, D.C.-based consultant: “A gold miner can’t mine,” he says, “unless he has a tent and a pickaxe.”
And in the high-risk, high-reward MCA industry, which can have significant default rates depending on the risk model, many funders can’t fund if they don’t have reliable debt collection. Many of the bigger companies, says Paul Boxer, who works on the funding side of the industry, have the capability of collecting on their own. But for many others—particularly the smaller players in the industry—it’s necessary to hire an outside firm.
One of the more widely known collectors for the MCA industry is Kearns, Brinen & Monaghan where Mark LeFevre is president and chief executive. The Dover (Del.)- based firm, LeFevre says, first added MCA funders to its client roster in 2012; but it has only been since 2014 that “business really took off.”
LeFevre won’t say just how many MCA firms have contracted with him, but he estimates that his firm has scaled up its staff 35%-40% over the past five years to meet the additional MCA workload. The industry, LeFevre adds, “is one of the top-growth industries I’ve seen in the 36 years that I’ve been in business.”
He also says, “People in the MCA industry know a lot about where to put money, but collections are not one of their strong points. They need to get a professional. It gives them the free time to make more money while we go in behind them and collect.”
If repeated dunning fails to elicit a satisfactory response, KBM has several collection strategies that strengthen its hand. The big three, LeFevre says, are “negotiation, identifying assets, and litigation.” He adds: “We have a huge database of attorneys who do nothing but file suit on commercial debt internationally. Then we can enforce a judgment. You don’t want someone who just makes a few phone calls.”
Because business has become so competitive, LeFevre says, he won’t discuss his fee schedule. As to KBM’s success rate, he says no tidy figure is available either, but asserts: “Our checks sent to our clients are more than most agencies because of our proprietary collection process.”
Jordan Fein, chief executive at Greenbox Capital in Miami and a KBM client told deBanked: “We work with them. They’re organized and communicate well and they know to collect. They’re on the expensive side, though. I’ve got other agencies that I use that are cheaper.”
Debt-collection firm Merel Corp, a spinoff from the Tamir Law Group in New York, might be a lower-cost alternative. Formed in just the past 18 months to service the growing MCA industry, Merel typically takes 15%-25% of whatever “obligation” it can collect, says Levi Ainsworth, co-chief operating officer.
A successful collection, Ainsworth asserts, really begins with the underwriting process and attention to detail by the funders. “Instead of coming in at the end,” he says, “we try to prevent problems at the start of the process.”
For an MCA firm dealing with an excessive number of defaults, Merel sometimes places one of its employees with the funder to handle “pre-defaults,” for which it charges a lower fee. The collections firm has also built a reputation for not relying on a “confession of judgment.” Now that COJs have been outlawed for out-of-state collections in New York State, Merel’s skills could be more in demand.
Better Accounting Solutions, which has its offices on Wall Street, is another service-provider promising to lighten the workload of MCA firms by providing back-office support. The company is headed by Roitblat, a 36-year- old former rabbinical student turned tax-and-accounting entrepreneur. Since he founded the company with two part-time employees in 2011, it’s ballooned to some 70 employees.
Roitblat does not have all of his firm’s eggs in one MCA basket. His firm handles tax, accounting and bookkeeping work for law firms, the fashion industry, restaurants and architectural firms. Even so, he says, thirty MCA clients— or more than half his clientele—rely on the firm’s expertise, three of whom were just added in June. His best month was January, 2018, when six funders contracted for his services. “Growth in the MCA industry has been explosive,” he says.
MCA accounting work has its own vagaries and oddities. For example, because of the industry’s high default rate, Roitblat notes, a 10%-slice of every merchant’s payment is funneled into a “default reserve account.” And when an actual default occurs, credits are moved from the receivables account to the default reserve account.
Roitblat takes pride that his firm’s MCA work has passed audits from respected accounting firms like Friedman, Cohen, Taubman and Marcum LLP. Moreover, he has helped clients uncover internal fraud and, in one instance, spotted costly flaws in a business model. An early MCA client, Roitblat says, had no idea that “he was losing close to $100,000 a month by spending on Google ads.”
Better Accounting also keeps its rates low. The firm typically assigns a junior accountant to handle clients’ accounts while a senior manager oversees his or her work. “He (Roitblat) does a fantastic job,” says David Lax, managing partner of Orange Advance, a Lakewood (N.J.)-based MCA firm. “They understand the MCA business. And even if your business is small, they can set up the infrastructure and do the work more economically and efficiently than you can. You’d have to create the position of comptroller or senior-level accountant,” Lax adds, “to equal their work.”
Top-notch competence and low rates, Lax says, are not the only reasons he often refers Roitblat’s firm to fellow MCA companies. “The only thing better than their work,” he says, “is the people themselves.”
Whether it’s oil and gas, banking and real estate, construction, health care or high-technology—you name it—lawyers have an important role across nearly every industry. So too with the MCA industry where, as has been shown, there is an especially high demand for attorneys skilled at winning debt-collection cases.
To hear Greenbox’s Fein tell it, a skilled lawyer handling debt collection can write his or her own ticket. A talented attorney, he says, not only retrieves lost money and prevents losses, but enables the funder to “offer the product cheaper than the competition.
“We use a ton of attorneys in 35 states in the U.S. and in Canada,” Fein adds, “and you have no idea how many attorneys we go through until we find a good one.”
Until recently, much of the MCA industry’s success has resulted from a hands-off, laissez faire legal and regulatory environment—particularly the legal interpretation that a merchant cash advance is not a loan. The industry has also benefited from the fact that most credit regulation focused on consumer credit and not on business and commercial financings.
But now, as the MCA industry is maturing and showing up on the radar screens of state legislatures, Congress, regulatory agencies, and the courts, there is heightening demand for legal counsel. In just the past 12 months, California passed a truth-in-lending statute requiring MCA firms not only to clearly state their terms, but to translate the short-term funding costs of MCAs into an annual percentage rate. The state of New York, as has been noted, passed legislation restricting the use of COJs.
Moreover, notes Mark Dabertin, special counsel at Pepper Hamilton, a top national law firm based in Philadelphia, the state of New Jersey is contemplating licensing MCA practitioners. The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently determined in Anderson v. Koch that, because of a “call provision” in a funding contract, a merchant cash advance was actually a loan.
And, Dabertin warns, the Federal Trade Commission, which has the authority to treat a merchant cash advance as a consumer transaction—replete with the full panoply of consumer disclosures and protections—is training its gunsights on the industry. “On May 23,” Dabertin reports in a memo to clients, “the FTC launched an investigation into potentially unfair or deceptive practices in the small business financing industry, including by merchant cash advance providers.”
These pressures from government and the courts will only make doing business more costly and drive up the industry’s barriers to entry. Failing to stay legal, moreover, could not only result in punitive court judgments, but render an MCA firm vulnerable to legal action by their investors.
“It’s inevitable that the industry will evolve,” Dabertin says, and firms in the industry will have to self-police. “They will need to hire counsel and a compliance staff,” he adds. “You can’t just do it by the seat of your pants.”
union funding source...