Articles by Ed McKinley
It’s nearly impossible to teach fiscal responsibility to most consumers, according to researchers at universities and nonprofit agencies. But alternative small-business funders and brokers often manage to steer clients toward financial prudence, and imparting pecuniary knowledge can become part of a consultative approach to selling.
Still, nobody says it’s easy to convince the public or merchants to handle cash, credit and debt wisely and responsibly. Consider the consumer research cited by Mariel Beasley, principal at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University and co-director of the Common Cents Lab, which works to improve the financial behavior of low- and moderate-income households.
“For the last 30 years in the U.S. there has been a huge emphasis on increasing financial education, financial literacy,” Beasley says. But it hasn’t really worked. “Content-based financial education classes only accounted for .1 percent variation in financial behavior,” she continues. “We like to joke that it’s not zero but it’s very, very close.” And that’s the average. Online and classroom financial education influences lower-income people even less.
The problem stems from trying to teach financial responsibility too late in life, says Noah Grayson, president and founder of Norwalk, Conn.-based South End Capital. He advocates introducing young people to finance at the same time they’re learning history, algebra and other standard subjects in school.
Yet Grayson and others contend that it’s never too late for motivated entrepreneurs to pick up the basics. Even novice small-business owners tend to possess a little more financial acumen than the average person, they say. That makes entrepreneurs easier to teach than the general public but still in need of coaching in the basics of handling money.
Take the example of a shopkeeper who grabs an offer of $50,000 with no idea how he’ll use the funds to grow the business or how he’ll pay the money back, suggests Cheryl Tibbs, general manager of One Stop Commercial Capital, Douglasville, Ga. “The easy access to credit blinds a lot of merchants,” she notes.
Entrepreneurs often make bad decisions simply because they don’t have a background in business, according to Jared Weitz, CEO of New York based United Capital Source. “Many of the people who come to us are trying their hardest,” he observes.
Weitz offers the example of his own close relative who’s a veterinarian. That profession attracts some of the brainiest high-school valedictorians but doesn’t mean they know business. “He’s the best doctor ever and he’s not a great businessman because he doesn’t think about those things first. What he thinks about is helping people. That’s why he got into his profession.”
Entrepreneurs often devote themselves to a vision that isn’t businesses-oriented. “They start a business because they have a great idea or a great product, and that’s what excites them,” Grayson says. “They jump in with both feet and don’t think much about the business side.” The business side isn’t as much fun.
Merchants also attend to so many aspects of an enterprise—everything from sales, production and distribution to hiring, payroll and training—that they can’t afford to devote too much time to any single facet, notes Joe Fiorella, principal at Kansas City, Mo.-based Central Funding. Business owners respond to what’s most urgent, not necessarily what’s most important.
For whatever reason, some business owners spiral downward into financial ruin, bouncing checks, stacking merchant cash advances and continually seeking yet another merchant cash advance to bail them out of a precarious situation, says Jeremy Brown, chairman of Bethesda, Md.-based Rapid Advance.
Weitz advises sitting down with those clients and coming to an understanding of the situation. In some cases, enough cash might be coming in but the incoming autopayments aren’t timed to cover the outgoing autopayments, he says by way of example.
Informing clients of such problems makes a demonstrable difference. “We can see that it works because we have clients renewing with us,” says Weitz. “We’re able to swim them upstream to different products” as their finances gradually improve, he says.
The products in that stream begin with relatively higher-cost vehicles like merchant cash advances and proceed to other less-expensive instruments with better terms, says Brown. Those include term loans, Small Business Administration loans, equipment leasing, receivables factoring and, ultimately the goal for any well-capitalized small business—a relationship with the local bank.
Failing to consider those options and instead simply abetting stackers to make a quick buck can give the industry a “black eye,” and it benefits none of the parties involved, Tibbs observes. But merchants deserve as much blame as funders and brokers, she maintains.
Prospective clients who stack MCAs, don’t care about their credit rating and simply want to staunch their financial bleeding probably account for 35 percent to 40 percent of the applicants Tibbs encounters, she says.
Just the same, alt-funders continue to urge clients to hire accountants, consult attorneys, employ helpful software, shore up credit ratings, keep tabs on cash flow, calculate margins, improve distribution chains and outline plans for growth. It’s what helps the industry rise above the “get-money quick” image that it’s outgrowing, Weitz, says. Many funders and brokers consider providing financial advice an essential aspect of consultative selling. It’s an approach that begins with making sure applicants understand the debt they’re taking on, the terms of the payback and how their businesses will benefit from the influx of capital. It continues with a commitment to helping clients not just with funding but also with other types of business consultation.
“It’s not so much selling as building a rapport with clients—serving as a strategic advisor or financial resource for them, identifying their needs and directing them to the right loan product to meet those needs,” says Grayson. “They should feel they can call you about anything specific to their business, not just their loan requests.” He also cautions against providing information the client will not absorb or will find offensive.
Justin Bakes, CEO of Boston-based Forward Financing also advocates consultative selling. “It’s all about questions and getting information on what’s driving the business owner,” he says. “It’s a process.”
Consultative sales hinges on knowing the customer, agrees Jason Solomon, Forward Financing vice president of sales. “Businesses are never similar in the mind of the business owner,” he notes. “To effectively structure a program best-suited to the merchant’s long-time business needs and set a proper path forward to better and better financial products, you need to know who the business owner is and what his long term goals are.”
“It’s taking an approach of actually being a consultant as opposed to a $7 an hour order taker,” Tibbs says of consultative selling. “I like to teach new reps to think of it as if you were a doctor. Doctors ask questions to arrive at a final diagnosis. So if you’re asking your prospective customer questions about their business, about their cash flow, about their intentions of how they’re planning to get back on track.”
Learning about the clients’ business helps brokers recommend the least-expensive funding instrument, Tibbs says. “I really hate to see someone with a 700 credit score come in to get a merchant cash advance,” she maintains. The consultative approach requires knowing the funding products, knowing how to listen to the customer and combining those two elements to make an informed decision on which product to recommend, she notes.
Consultative sales can greatly benefit clients, Weitz maintains. If a pizzeria proprietor asks for an expensive $50,000 cash advance to buy a new oven, a responsible broker may find the applicant qualifies for an equipment loan with single-digit interest and monthly payments over a five-year period that puts less pressure on daily cash flow.
It’s also about pointing out errors. Brokers and funders see common mistakes when they look at tax returns and financial records, says Brown. “The biggest issue is that small-business owners—because they work so hard— make a profit of X amount of money and then take that out of the business,” he notes. Instead, he advises reinvesting a portion of those funds so that they can build equity in the business and avoid the need to seek outside capital at high rates.
Another common error occurs when entrepreneurs take a short-term approach to their businesses instead of making longer-term plans, Brown says. That longer-term vision includes learning what it takes to improve their businesses enough to qualify for lower-cost financing.
Sometimes, small merchants also make the mistake of blending their personal finances and their business dealings. Some do it out of necessity because they’re launching an enterprise on their personal credit cards, and others act of ignorance. “They don’t necessarily know they’re doing something wrong,” Grayson observes. “There are tax ramifications.”
Some just don’t look at their businesses objectively. Take the example of a company that approached Central Funding for capital to buy inventory in Asia. Fiorella studied the numbers and then informed the merchant that it wasn’t a money problem—it was a margins problem. “You could sell three times what you’re wanting to buy, and you still won’t get to where you want to be,” he reports telling the potential customer.
Consultative selling also means establishing a long-term relationship. Forward Financing uses technology to keep in contact with clients regularly, not just when clients need capital, Bakes notes. That cultivates long-lasting relationships and shows the company cares. As the relationship matures it becomes easier to maintain because the customers want to talk to the company. “They’re running to pick up the phone.”
The conversations that don’t hinge on funding usually center on Forward Financing learning more about the customer’s business, says Solomon. That include the client’s needs and how they’ve used the capital they’ve received.
“We have our own internal cadence and guidelines for when we reach out and how often and what happens,” says Solomon. Customer relationship management technology provides triggers when it’s time for the sales team or the account-servicing team to contact clients by phone or email.
Do small-business owners take advice on their finances? Some need a steady infusion of capital at increasingly higher cost and simply won’t heed the best tips, says Solomon. “It’s certainly a mix,” he says. “Not everybody is going to listen.”
Paradoxically, the business owners most open to advice already have the best-run companies, says Fiorella. Those who are closed to counseling often need it the most, he declares.
Moreover, not everybody is taking the consultative approach. “New brokers are so excited to get a commission check they throw the consultative approach out the window,” Tibbs says.
Yet many alt-funders bring consultative experience from other professions into their work with providing funds to small business. Tibbs, for example, previously helped home buyers find the best mortgage.
Consultative selling came naturally to Central Funding because the company started as a business and analytics consultancy called Blue Sea Services and then transformed itself into an alternative funding firm, says Fiorella. Central Funding reviews clients’ financial statements and operations between rounds of funding, he notes.
Consultations with borrowers reach an especially deep level at PledgeCap, a Long Island-based asset-based lender, because clients who default have to forfeit the valuables they put up as collateral—anything from a yacht to a bulldozer—says Gene Ayzenberg, PledgeCap’s chief operating officer. Conversations cover the value of the assets and the risk of losing them as well as the reasons for seeking capital, he notes.
No matter how salespeople arrive at their belief in the consultative approach, they last much longer in the business than their competitors who are merely seeking a quick payoff, Tibbs says. Others contend that it’s clearly the best way to operate these days.
“The consultative approach is the only one that works,” says Weitz. “Today, everything is about the customer experience. People are making more-educated, better informed decisions.” What’s more, with the consultative approach clients just keep getting smarter, he adds.
The days of the hard sell have ended, Grayson agrees. Customers have access to information on the internet, and brokers and funders can prosper by helping customers, he says. “Our compensation doesn’t vary much depending upon which product we put a client in so we can dig deeper into what will fit the client without thinking about what the economic benefit will be to us.”
Even though the public has become familiar with alternative financing in general, most haven’t learned the nuances. That’s where consultative selling can help by outlining the differing products now available for businesses with nearly any type of credit-worthiness. “It’s for everybody,” Weitz says of today’s alternative small business funding, “not just a bank turn-down.”
Consumer debt has surpassed $4 trillion for the first time, and it’s continuing its ascent into the stratosphere. It’s getting big enough to trigger the next recession, and financial education isn’t changing the underlying consumer behavior.
Personal loan balances shot up $21 billion last year to close 2018 at a record high of $138 billion, according to a TransUnion Industry Insights Report. The average unsecured personal loan debt per borrower was $8,402 as of the end of last year, TransUnion says.
Much of the increase in consumer debt has emerged with the rise of fintechs— such as Personal Capital, Lending Club, Kabbage and Wealthfront—notes Rutger van Faassen, vice president of consumer lending at a U.S. office of London-based Informa Financial Intelligence, a company that advises financial institutions and operates offices in 43 countries.
In fact, Fintech loans now comprise 38% of all unsecured personal loan balances, a larger market share than any of the more traditional institutions, the TransUnion report notes. Banks’ market share has decreased from 40% in 2013 to 28% today, while credit unions’ share has declined from 31% to 21% during the same time period, TransUnion says.
Fintechs are also gaining at the expense of the home- equity market, van Faassen maintains. “They’re eating away at some of the balance that maybe historically was in home-equity loans,” he says. While total debt is increasing, the amount that’s in home equity loans is actually shrinking, he notes.
What’s more, fintechs are changing the way Americans think about credit, van Faassen continues. Until recently, consumers experienced a two step process. First, they identified a need or desire, like a washer and dryer or home renovation. Realizing they didn’t have the cash to fund those dreams, they took the second step by approaching a financial institution for a loan.
If consumers chose a home equity line of credit to procure the cash, they had to wait for something like 40 days from the beginning of the application process to the time they got the money, van Faassen says. “You really had to be sure you wanted something,” or the process wasn’t worth the effort, he says.
Fintechs have removed a lot of the “pain” from that process, van Faassen says. With algorithms helping to assess the risk that an applicant can’t or won’t repay a debt and digitization easing access to financial records, fintechs can quickly evaluate and make a decision on an application. Tech also helps assess applicants with thin or nonexistent credit files, which broadens the clientele while also contributing to total consumer debt.
Meanwhile, mimicking an age old process in the car business, merchants are beginning to make credit available at the point of sale. Walmart, for example, recently signed a deal with Affirm, a Silicon Valley lender, to provide point-of-sale loans of three, six or 12 months to finance purchases ranging from $150 to $2,000. Shoppers apply for the loans by providing basic information on their mobile phones and don’t have to talk to anyone in person about their finances. Affirm’s CEO Max Levchin has called the underwriting process ‘basically instant.”
If that convenience comes at too high a cost, it doesn’t matter much because borrowers can later find another finance vehicle with better terms, van Faassen says. “So if I get the money at the point of sale, which might have been zero for six months and then it steps up to 20-plus percent, there is no problem with refinancing that debt,” he says.
But there’s a downside to the ease of borrowing, van Faassen cautions. It could trigger the next recession, even though unemployment remains low. Despite modest recent gains, wages have remained nearly stagnant for years. That means an increase in interest rates could lessen consumers’ ability to pay off their debts, he says.
Meanwhile, at least some large mortgage lenders have begun running into problems, a situation that bears an eerie resemblance to the beginning of the Great Recession that struck near the end of 2007, notes a report in luckbox magazine, a publication for investors. Stearns Holding, the parent of Sterns Lending, the nation’s 20th largest mortgage lender, filed for bankruptcy protection just after the July 4 holiday, the luckbox article says.
Another worrisome sign with regard to the possibility of recession is emerging as institutional investors buy into the peer to peer lending market. Institutional investors bought batches of sliced and diced home mortgage securities that helped bring about the Great Depression.
Then there’s the nagging notion that the country and the world are becoming ripe for recession simply because no downturns have occurred for a while. Talk to that effect was circulating at the recent LendIt Conference, van Faassen observes. Fintech executives often come from the banking world and thus still find themselves haunted by the specter of the Great Recession. That’s why they’re already beginning to tighten underwriting for consumer credit van Faassen says.
One difference this time around lies in the fact that nothing about the increase in consumer debt appears to be hidden from public view, van Faassen says. Before, investors fell victim to the mistaken impression that risky mortgage-backed securities were rated AAA when they weren’t.
Plus, the increase in peer-to-peer lending could keep the economy going even if big financial institutions freeze the way they did during the Great Recession, van Faassen notes. “Hopefully, with the new structures that are out there, we can keep liquidity going,” he says. That raises key questions for the alternative small- business funding community. The industry came into being partly as a response to banks’ tightened lending policies during the Great Recession, so perhaps a downturn isn’t such a bad thing for the sector. But a downturn for the economy in general could cripple merchants’ ability to pay off debt.
But all bets are off during hard times. In the last recession the conventional wisdom that consumers make their mortgage payment before paying other bills was turned on its head. Instead of making the house payment—because foreclosure would take several months—people were choosing to make their car payments so they could get to work. Nobody really knows ahead of time what will happen in a recession, van Faassen notes.
After all, economics relies to at least some degree upon the often-irrational financial decisions of the general public. And science demonstrates that it’s no easy task to convince consumers to handle their cash, credit and debt responsibly, says Mariel Beasley, principal at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University and Co-Director of the Common Cents Lab (CCL), which works to improve the financial behavior of low- to moderate-income households.
“For the last 30 years in the U.S. there has been a huge emphasis on increasing financial education, financial literacy,” says Beasley. But it hasn’t really worked. “Content-based financial education classes only accounted for .1 percent variation in financial behavior,” she continues. “We like to joke that it’s not zero but it’s very, very close.” And that’s the average. Online and classroom financial education influenced lower-income people even less.
Lots of other factors influence financial behavior, Beasley notes. How much a person saves, for example, depends upon how much they make, what their bank tells them and what practices they encountered at home as children, she says. The CCL has been finding out some other things, too.
In one example of its findings, it discovered that putting an amount for a minimum payment on a credit card decreases how much consumers pay. That happens because listing a minimum payment amount creates an anchor, and borrowers adjust their payment upward from there, Beasley says. If the card carrier doesn’t specify a minimum, consumers tend to adjust downward from the full amount they owe. “It turns out to be incredibly powerful,” she contends.
It’s the kind of problem that shows financial institutions haven’t devised many systems to reduce consumer debt by speeding up repayment, Beasley maintains. In this example, suggesting higher payments would prompt some consumers to pay off their debt more quickly.
In an exception to standard practice, a credit card company called Petal does exactly that by placing a slider on its website to help borrowers determine the amount of their payment, she notes.
Meanwhile, people tend to base financial decisions on the examples they see other people set, Beasley says. Problems arise with that tendency because they may see one neighbor spending money freely to dine in restaurants but don’t see any of the many neighbors eating at home to save money. They see a neighbor driving a new car but don’t know how much that neighbor is setting aside for retirement.
That’s why most people overestimate how much others spend to dine out in restaurants, Beasley says. When shown the error, most reduce their own spending in restaurants, she notes, but within two weeks their behavior returns to its original level, their newfound knowledge “drowned out by the noise in the world,” she says.
That’s not good for consumers or small businesses, but help is on the way, according to John Thompson, chief program officer of the Financial Health Network, a national nonprofit research and consulting firm that works with financial institutions and other companies to improve consumer financial health.
As part of that mission, the Network has formulated procedures to assess the financial health of individuals and small businesses, Thompson says. It’s too early to say whether the tool will help with loan underwriting, he notes, but financial wellness determines the ability to pay back debt, he notes.
The Network also publishes the U.S. Financial Health Pulse, which recently pronounced just 28% of Americans financially healthy, meaning that they have sufficient income, savings and planning to handle an unexpected expense and act on the decisions they make. About 55% are relegated to various stages of coping, and 17% find themselves in a vulnerable state.
So Americans aren’t feeling financially secure, and they’ve borrowed $4 trillion to reach that unenviable state. They’re borrowing more and learning virtually nothing useful about their financial errors. Thompson has a way of summing up the situation. “It’s crazy,” he says.
Most mornings, farmers and ranchers wake up worrying about uncooperative weather and volatile commodity prices. Just the same, they pull themselves out of bed to spend the morning tinkering with crotchety machinery or wrangling uncooperative livestock. When they break for lunch, the kitchen radio alerts them to trade wars with distant countries and the unintended results of federal regulation. As they make their way back outdoors for the afternoon’s work, they can’t help but notice another new house taking shape in the distance as suburban sprawl encroaches on the fields and pastures. By evening, their thoughts have turned to their need for short-term capital and how the local banker seems increasingly wary of providing funds.
It’s that last challenge where the alternative small-business funding industry might be able to help, says Peter Martin, a principal at K-Coe Isom, an accounting and consulting firm focused on the ag industry. “If you as a farmer need operating funds and you can’t get them from a bank, you don’t have a lot of options,” he says. “Historically, nobody outside of banks has had much interest in lending operating money to a farmer.”
The result of that reluctance to provide funding? “I can’t tell you the number of calls I get to say, ‘Hey, I need $100,000 and I need it in a couple of days because of X, Y, Z that’s come up,’” says Martin. “We don’t have a place that we can send those people to. You could make a lot of quick turnaround loans in rural America.” What’s more, it’s a potential clientele that makes a lot of money and prides itself on paying back what they owe.
Martin’s not alone in that assessment. While farmers enjoy abundant long-term credit to buy big-ticket assets, such as land and heavy machinery, they’re struggling to find sources of short-term credit for operating expenses like labor, repairs, fuel, seed, feed, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, notes Mike Gunderson, Purdue University professor of agricultural economics.
But remember that nobody’s saying it would be easy for alt funders to break into the agricultural sector. City folks accustomed to the fast-paced rhythms of New York or San Diego would have to learn a whole new seasonal business cycle. Grain farmers, for example, plant corn and soybeans in April, harvest their crops September or October, and may not sell the grain until the following January, says Nick Stokes, managing director of Conterra Asset Management, an alternative-funding company that places and services rural real estate loans.
That seasonality results in revenue droughts punctuated by floods of revenue – a circumstance far-removed from the more-consistent credit card receipt split that launched the alternative small-business funding industry. Alternative funders seeking customers with consistent monthly cash flow won’t find them in the agricultural sector, Stokes cautions.
And while the unfamiliarity of farm life might begin with wild swings in cash flow, it doesn’t end there. Operating in the agricultural sector would require urbanites to learn the somewhat alien culture of The Heartland – a way of life based on hard physical labor, the fickle whims of the weather, and friendly unhurried conversations, even with strangers.
Even so, the task of mastering the agricultural funding market isn’t hopeless, and help’s available. Experts in agricultural economics profess a willingness to help outsiders learn what they need to know to get involved. “Selfishly, the first place I’d love to have them reach out to is me,” Martin says of alternative funders. “I’ve been writing and thinking for years about the importance of getting some non-traditional lenders into agriculture.” He would have “no qualms” about featuring specific prospective funders in a column he writes for one of the nation’s largest farm publications.
It also requires meet-and-greets. During the winter, when farmers aren’t in the fields, funders could make connections at trade shows, Martin advises. “Word would get around rural America really quick,” he predicts. Networking with advisers such as crop insurance agents, agronomists and ag CPS’s – all of whom deal with farmers daily – would also help funders find their way in agriculture, he contends.
Investors who are curious about extending credit in the agricultural sector could rely upon Conterra to help them locate customers and help them service the loans, says Stokes. He can even help acclimate them to the world of agriculture. “If they’re interested in investing in agricultural assets – whether that be equipment, real estate or providing operating capital – we would enjoy the opportunity to visit with them,” he says.
Alt funders could begin their introduction to the agrarian lifestyle by taking to heart a quotation attributed to President John F. Kennedy: “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale and pays the freight both ways.”
“Agriculture is a very different animal,” Martin notes. He sometimes presents a slide show to compare the difference between a typical farm and a typical manufacturer of the same size. At the factory, revenue ratchets up a bit each year and margins remain about the same over time. On the farm, revenue and margins both fluctuate wildly in huge peaks and valleys from one year to the next.
The volatility makes it difficult to manage the risk of lending, Martin admits, while noting that agriculturally oriented banks still have higher returns than non-ag banks, according to FDIC records. “You have to go back to 2006 to find a time when ag banks didn’t outperform their peers on return on assets,” he says. “What this tells us is that, generally speaking, ag borrowers are better at repaying their loans,” he asserts. Charge-offs and delinquencies in ag portfolios are lower than in other industries, he says.
Many of the nation’s farms have remained in the same family for more than a century – a stretch of time that’s seldom seen in just about any other type of business. Besides making potential creditors comfortable that a particular operation will stay in business, the longevity of farms provides lots of documents to examine – not just tax records but also production history that’s tracked by government agencies. A particular farmer’s crop yields, for example, can be compared with county averages to calculate how good the borrower is at farming.
Debt to asset ratio on the nation’s farms stands at about 14 percent, which Martin views as “insanely low.” But that’s not the case on every farm. Highly leveraged farms have ratios of 60 percent or even 80 percent when farmers have grown their businesses quickly or encountered debt to buy land from their parents, he says. Commodity prices are low now, but farms with 14 percent debt to asset ratios still don’t have a problem, even in hard times. Farmers deeply in debt, however, have little ability to climb out of the hole. The latter are using operating capital to fund losses.
Farmers with debt to asset ratios of 10 percent have little trouble finding credit and aren’t going to pay anything other than bank rates, Martin says. The target audience for non-traditional funding are farmers who are having trouble but will be fine when commodity prices rebound. Another potential client for alternative finance would be farmers who are quickly increasing the size of their operations when opportunities arise to acquire land. Both groups need funders willing to contemplate the future instead of demanding a perfect track record, he maintains.
Farmers generally need loans for operating capital for about 18 months, according to Martin. “Let’s say I borrow that money, get my crop in the ground, harvest that and I may not sell my grain right after harvest,” he says. The whole cycle can easily take 18 months, he says. Shorter-term bridge lending opportunities also arise in situations like needing a little extra cash quickly at harvest time. Farmers usually have something to put up as collateral – like producing 50 titles to vehicles or offering up some real estate, he says.
An unsecured loan – even one with high double-digit interest – could succeed in agriculture because no one is offering that type of funding, Martin says. Small and medium-sized farms would probably benefit from funding of $100,000 or less, while larger farms might sign up for that amount but often require more, he notes.
LAY OF THE LAND
The Farm Credit System, a nationwide quasi-governmental network of borrower-owned lending institutions, provides more than a third of the credit granted in rural America. That comes to more than $304 billion annually in loans, leases and related services to farmers, ranchers, rural homeowners, aquatic producers, timber harvesters, agribusinesses, and agricultural and rural utility cooperatives, according to published reports.
Congress established the Farm Credit System in 1916, and the Farm Credit Administration was established in 1933 to provide regulatory oversight. “All they’re doing is lending money to agriculture,” says Martin.
However, the system can go astray in the eyes of some observers. An arm of the Farm Credit System called CoBank lends to co-operatives and other rural entities. At one point Verizon Wireless became a borrower from CoBank, which angered some observers because the system was supposed to be helping rural America, not corporate America, Martin says.
That anger arises partly because the federal government doesn’t require Farm Credit to pay income tax, which enables it to lend at lower rates, Martin says. “Part of the allure of borrowing from Farm Credit is you can typically borrow cheaper,” he notes. “You’d be very hard pressed to find a farmer who over the years hasn’t had some interaction with Farm Credit.”
Observers sometimes fault the system for what they perceive as a tendency to extend credit only to those who don’t really need it, notes Purdue’s Gunderson. People working for the system believe they’re doing a good job of supporting agriculture, he says, noting that the system is charged with the responsibility of helping new and young farmers.
Another entity, the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corp., also known as Famer Mac, works with lending institutions to provide credit to the agricultural sector. It’s a publicly traded company that serves as a secondary market in agricultural loans, including mortgages. It purchases loans and sells instruments backed by those loans and was chartered in 1988. Conterra, the alternative-funding company mentioned earlier in this article, -works with Farmer Mac and financial institutions to make real estate loans to farmers and ranchers in financial distress. The loans are designed to help borrowers get back on their feet in three to five years so that they would then qualify for regular bank loans.
Then there are the ag lending divisions at the large banks such as Wells Fargo, Chase and the Bank of the West, Martin says. “Lots of these big national banks are doing at least some ag lending,” he says. “Some, obviously, have bigger ag portfolios than others.”
Some regional banks focus on agriculture, Martin continues. “When you get into the middle of the corn belt, there are going to be some regional banks where traditional ag lending’s a huge part of what they do,” he says. Local banks in small towns get involved, too. “Most small community banks are going to have some kind of ag lending portfolio,” Martin notes. Hometown bankers can provide operating capital to some farmers, but only to those who haven’t experienced recent hiccups in revenue or expenses.
“Then you get into the non-bank lenders,” Martin observes. “A really good example of this is John Deere,” the tractor and equipment manufacturer. The company provides a tremendous amount of capital to rural America through equipment lending and also through other credit facilities, he says. In fact some observers estimate that John Deere is the largest lender to agriculture. Even so, the company usually doesn’t provide enough non-equipment credit to become the only lender a farmer would use, he says.
The same holds true with other lenders to agriculture, Martin says. Co-operatives, for example, lend money to agriculture even though they’re not banks. Typically, they begin by extending credit for products like seed, fertilizer or pesticides and then start making additional credit available to farms and ranches. In recent years, a large co-operative called CHS loaned hundreds of millions of dollars in addition to selling products on credit. Some large CHS loans went bad caused a ripple effect throughout the cooperative structure, Martin maintains. Other co-ops have looked at CHS and wondered if they’re moving too far outside their core competency. So now many co-ops are tying funding to products they’re selling.
Some other non-bank lenders have shown up in agriculture, and they fall into two categories, Martin says. One group is making real estate loans in agriculture, so their loan programs are geared to farmers looking to buy land or anything that can be secured by land. Conterra and Ag America are examples. Farmer Mac lends a lot of money against farmland, as well. So farmers who have agricultural land have a lot of access to capital and a lot of lenders who want to provide it, he says.
The second group of non-bank lenders is providing operating capital. “That is a very, very small club,” Martin says. “There’s really not anybody doing this on a regular basis – with just one or two exceptions.” Probably the biggest name among the exceptions is Ag Resource Management, usually known as ARM, he continues. ARM places a value on the potential productivity of a famer’s land. Then it looks at the crop insurance the farmer’s able to buy to protect the investment in that crop. ARM then lends part of the value of that crop insurance.
Let’s say a farmer can grow $10 million worth of crops, according to ARM’s projection,” Martin says. “You can get crop insurance to cover 80 percent,” he continues. “For a total crop failure, you will get $8 million for that crop.” Using a formula based on type of crop, location and type of crop insurance, ARM will lend some amount less than $8 million. “Their collateral is pretty rock solid,” Martin observes.
ARM uses a system to make sure farmers use the funds only for expenses related to growing the crop they’re using as collateral. “Their risk of not getting a crop in the ground that qualifies for the insurance is next to nothing,” Martin says. ARM offers differing interest rates, depending upon risk, in at least the high single digits or double digits, and they also charge fees. “So you’re going to be paying a lot, but they are the lender of last resort in agriculture right now,” he says, adding that ARM operates multiple offices has grown quickly.
Through lenders like ARM, the agricultural sector’s becoming familiar with alternative finance. But much remains to be done if alt fin pioneers want to venture into the sector. Those who do will encounter a complicated credit landscape, but one that offers opportunities for anyone willing to learn about unfamiliar business cycles and lifestyles.
The political, cultural and economic abyss that separates the heartland from the coasts seems to grow deeper and wider with each passing day, and trying to reconcile the disparities can feel nearly hopeless. But differences among geographic locations aren’t nearly so well-defined or as troubling in the alternative small-business funding industry. What’s more, business opportunities can arise when localities differ.
First the lay of the land: Members of the alt finance community agree that funders and brokers are concentrated in just a few geographic locales—Greater New York City, Southern California and South Florida. Those three areas probably generate more than 75 percent of the industry’s volume, according to Jared Weitz, CEO of United Capital Source and one of three co-chairs of the broker council recently formed by the Small Business Finance Association (SBFA).
Sorting out how the industry differs in various regions can prove challenging. The Internet is erasing regional quirks and alleviating the need for physical proximity, says Steve Denis, SBFA executive director. What’s more, every ISO and funder develops a slightly different way of doing business regardless of location, he notes.
However, to a great degree it’s a matter of tweaking a single general outline for navigating the industry no matter where the office or client is based. That’s partially because many members of the industry conduct business in every state or nearly every state.
That said, old-fashioned, small-town ethics can sometimes seem closer to the surface in shops operating far from the coasts. “We’re focused on the values of our organization—like doing what we say we’re going to do, maintains Tim Mages, chief financial officer at Expansion Capital Group, a funder and broker based in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Some of that maybe comes from the Midwest culture or upbringing.”
Outside the major population centers, the industry occasionally seems a little more “laid-back.” In a light-hearted example of a relaxed heartland approach to the alt funding business, Lance Stevens, an attorney who’s a co-founder of Brandon, Miss.-based TransMark Funding, claims he can underwrite a deal while driving his golf cart and listening to Bon Jovi—all while maintaining his under 5 handicap.
Everything can seem a little more slow in the heartland, where people have time to stop and say hello to strangers, says Weitz. “Some folks are like, ‘Hey, my mailbox is three miles from my house, I check my mail once a week. I do not email. I do not fax,’ ” he observes. “It’s a nice change.”
Interactions are often more informal between the coasts. “Being in the Midwest we don’t use a lot of the lingo and terminology from this space, such as ‘stacking,’” says Austin Moss, a managing partner at Strategic Capital in Overland Park, Kan. That lack of jargon may be good or bad, he admits, but instead the staff speaks in a more general, even “holistic,” financial language.
Then there’s the occasional need for the human touch in the heartland. Deals there are sometimes sealed in person, with an office-park conference room substituting for the community bank building on the town square where merchant used to take out loans. “It’s not a widespread trend, but a handful of the ISOs we do business with actually do face-to-face solicitation,” says Mike Ballases, CEO of Houston-based Accord Business Funding.
In line with that mini-trend, an ISO based in Southern California operates a Texas office that specializes in face-to-face encounters, according to Aldo Castro, Accord’s former vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s rather meaningful here,” he says of using the practice in Texas. “You get on the road and shake a hand. They put a face to a name.”
The process can work in reverse, too. A few of the larger local companies seeking funding from Strategic Capital make the journey to the broker-funder’s Overland Park, Kan., offices, Moss says. Bankers who serve as referral partners also like the opportunity to meet in person, he observes.
The personal encounters often strike Moss as “refreshing,” he admits. That’s because the vast majority of the company’s deals occur online and by phone and fax—all without ever seeing the client in person.
Although the desire for personal contact arises from time to time, most heartland deals don’t hinge upon it. “It’s not a big number, but we see it,” Ballases says of face-to-face meetings. “Could it be the wave of the future? Absolutely not.”
Moreover, for some in the industry, the need for face-to-face discussions barely registers. It’s just not about meeting in person, according to Mages. Instead, he cites the importance of other factors. “Speed, convenience and service are the key differentiators, and that’s all driven by data and analytics,” he declares. Partnerships also drive the company’s business, he notes.
Luck outweighs geography, too, in Mages’ view. “It’s more an issue of right place, right time,” he contends. Deals occur primarily when funders manage to attract business owners’ attention at exactly the time when capital’s needed, he contends.
Besides, lots of people tend to think in wide-ranging ways these days instead of in narrow, provincial modes, Mages continues. At Expansion Capital Group, he notes, executives have differing points of view because they come from commercial banking, investment banking, the Small Business Administration lending program and the credit card industry.
At the same time, people tend to take an increasingly cosmopolitan approach to their jobs, according to Mages. He notes that executives at his company maintain contacts across the continent, often forged in earlier chapters of their careers.
Meanwhile, well-trained employees can use a phone call to gather the details they need and establish a consultative relationship without a thought for geography or the need for face-to-face meetings, Mages says.
However, geography can indeed play a role at least once in a while. In a few cases merchants prefer a funder with an address across town or at least in the home state. Sometimes business owners and referral partners choose local brokers or funders simply because their names sound familiar.
Strategic Capital, for example, does more business at home than anywhere else, Moss says. The company’s headquarters is in the portion of greater Kansas City that spills over from Missouri into the state of Kansas, making the location convenient to a major population center.
But despite the massive size of greater Kansas City, Strategic Capital remains the only alternative small-business funding option in the area—there just aren’t any other local providers, Moss says. It’s not like New York, where banks and merchants can choose from among many brokers and funders, he says.
That trend toward being the only game in town or one of just a few can hold true for most companies in the heartland, Moss maintains. A broker or funder based in Denver, for example, would probably have higher volume there than anywhere else, he notes.
Several reasons explain that geographic bias, Moss continues. “The employees live there and have contacts, and we’re part of the local associations and chambers,” he notes. “We work with just about all the banks in the area, and everyone knows who we are.” The company also handles local government bonds and local construction projects, he says.
Mages offers a different perspective. Only a few small-business owners in South Dakota choose Expansion Capital Group because they prefer dealing with a Midwestern company or because they’ve seen local press coverage or heard Expansion’s recruiting ads on the radio, he maintains.
Hometown, home state or regional preferences aside, executives at Accord emphasize the importance of the small-town approach of knowing their customers as well possible. For Ballases—the Accord chairman who started the company with Adam Beebe, who now serves as CEO—that means combining personal and impersonal approaches to underwriting.
Ballases views funders and brokers as falling into three categories. Some choose a personal, hands-on approach and don’t rely upon algorithms. A second category emphasizes automation. A third blends the personal and the automated. His organization falls into the latter, he says
For Accord, the personal comes into play because of what Ballases has learned in his decades in the banking business. He knows margins and growth rates in his applicants’ industries, and those factors aren’t often incorporated into algorithms, he says.
In fact, commercial banks have failed to learn to evaluate small businesses on their true merits, Ballases continues. Banks tend to underwrite small businesses, which he defines as those in need of $100,000 or less, by using a “skinnyed-down” version of how they underwrite big companies, which they base on general financial information. Instead, he counts on discipline, data and his 50 years of experience in commercial banking to evaluate a merchant on an individual basis.
At another company, TransMark Funding, Stevens and his partner draw upon legal and small-business experience to evaluate potential customers’ creditworthiness. “That causes us to focus on an applicant’s business model and their sustainability, which may boil down to personalities,” Stevens says. Transmark combines those factors with “a little bit of credit metrics” to come to decisions on applications.
The company’s mix of objective and subjective reasoning differs starkly from the thought process at most coastal funders, Stevens says. While his company gives most of the weight to the subjective and just a bit to the objective, big-city competitors tend to do the exact opposite, he says.
Of the last five MCA deals that Transmark funded, the merchants averaged 12 checks returned for insufficient funds per month, Stevens says, noting that he can make that statement “with a straight face.” Sometimes it’s been as high as 35 NSF checks per month for successful applicants. “Those people would not even get into the parking lot of a bank and would not get through the door of any MCA funder who’s using any sort of reasonable metrics,” he adds.
An anecdote helps explain the thinking. Suppose a restaurant has been operating for several years in a town of 50,000 and has amassed 2,200 “likes” on its Facebook page, Stevens suggests. “I’m in,” he exclaims, noting that it would take compellingly negative numbers to convince him that the business won’t survive if he helps it obtains capital to improve its positioning in its market.
The vignette illustrates that a business can do well in the community despite the merchant’s financial difficulties, Stevens says. However, the story doesn’t mean Facebook becomes the only determining factor, he continues. Positive factors for success include good location and marketing, he notes.
The principals at many companies funded by TransMark have credit scores in the low 500’s, Stevens continues. “That’s tough,” he says, “because they’re going to have a lot of history of not living up to their financial obligations.” But if someone with that credit score has personally guaranteed a lease on a storefront for the next two years, they may be unlikely to abandon the business. A big bank might look upon that merchant as insufficiently nimble because of the lease, but TransMark takes the opposite view, he says.
Even if a store, restaurant or contractor is “circling the drain” and about to shut down, TransMark may simply believe the owner has the character to make the business work. “Given our minute default rate, we’re right most of the time,” Stevens maintains, adding that banks see applicants as customers, and TransMark sees them as partners.
The business model requires peering into the future to see how the merchants will look after using perhaps $25,000 in capital to make improvements and while dealing with 18 percent holdback for the next six months, Stevens observes. “If they look strong, I need to fund them,” he says of the company’s prognostications.
To find ISOs who appreciate the TransMark model, the company seeks out purveyors of credit card merchant services, Stevens says. They encounter those merchant-services providers at trade shows and through “some general poking around,” he notes.
The merchant-services people often have long-standing relationships with merchants and thus can feed information into the TransMark way of viewing deals. “Tell me what it looks like when you walk into their store at 11 a.m.,” Stevens says to illustrate the kind of conversation he has with ISOs. “How is their signage?”
Besides understanding clients, it also pays to understand markets, and proximity can help with the latter, according to Ballases and Castro in Houston. “We have an affinity for Texas,” Castro says.
Many of the businesses based in Texas are vendors to people—like mechanics who fix cars or restaurants that feed people—not vendors to businesses, Ballases notes. Vendors who cater to people are better candidates for merchant cash advances than business-to-business companies are, he maintains.
“It’s just a huge state,” Castro declares. “We’ve got a thousand new residents moving to Texas every day.” Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s small businesses operate in The Lone Star State, he notes.
“There’s a convergence of the population growth, a low tax rate, low regulations, low cost of running a small business relative to national levels, and a great small-business environment,” Castro says of the Texas scene. “In addition, the healthcare industry is exploding here, and there are the ancillary businesses to healthcare.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Hispanic entrepreneurs remain under-served by alt funding ISOs, which presents a great untapped opportunity, Castro maintains. Funders who cater to those Hispanic merchants will find them loyal, he predicts. In Texas alone, Hispanic consumers spend half a billion dollars annually, he says.
To capitalize on that burgeoning market, Accord has assembled a team that can help Anglo ISOs bridge the cultural and linguistic gap, Castro says. “We do that every day,” he maintains. “We’re jumping on the phone with merchants and helping them get the funding they need to support the growth of their operations.” Those conversations with merchants do not put Accord in competition with ISOs, Castro notes. Accord does not maintain an inside sales staff and does all of its business through ISOs, he says.
Only a few of those ISOs are based in Texas, according to Ballases. Most of Accord’s ISOs operate from offices in the Northeast, with many in the other common geographic spots of South Florida and Southern California, he says. So that makes Accord a national company despite its emphasis on Texas, Ballases says.
Accord’s experience at home, combined with nationwide contacts in the industry, have convinced the company’s leadership that too many brokers remain unaware of the opportunities in Texas.
That’s why Accord is producing ads, videos, infographics, blogs and social media posts to alert those coastal ISOs to opportunities in Texas. The company even offers a tab called “FundTEX” on its website. “We’re getting the word out,” Castro says of the company’s effort to publicize his state.
Besides operating in areas sometimes overlooked on the coasts, heartland brokers and funders sometimes have to reinvent the industry almost from scratch. Brokers can find themselves teaching the business to potential investors outside the Big Three geographic locations, Moss says. In New York, investors already know the industry and use that familiarity to evaluate brokers, he says.
Brokers and funders also have to deal with the heartland’s lack of workers with industry experience. As the lone company in the market, Strategic Capital, for example, can’t find many prospective employees with previous jobs in the business, Moss notes. “There is no OnDeck or Yellowstone or RapidAdvance down the street to provide a talent pool for hiring,” he says.
That’s good and bad, Moss maintains. New hires don’t require re-training to lose habits that don’t fit the Strategic Capital way of working. But it’s difficult to find underwriters, accountants and other prospective employees with the right background. It doesn’t work to put new salespeople on straight commission because the “ramp-up” period takes longer with employees unfamiliar with the industry, he says.
The lack of local experience sometimes prompts brokers in the heartland to tap the Big Three areas for talent. Expansion Capital Group, for example, has a business development director in New York who came from another ISO, Mages says. Besides cultivating relationships in NYC, the business development expert makes frequent trips to Southern California and South Florida.
Meanwhile, members of the industry who tire of the rapid pace on the coasts might want to consider moving inland to fill the vacant jobs, sources suggest. After all, the heartland has its advantages, according to Moss. “Most people here have houses, and the cost of living is lower than in places like New York,” he says. A spacious five-bedroom house in Kansas City might cost less than a cramped apartment in New York, he notes.
To commute to the company’s suburban office, his typical employee jumps into a car in a climate controlled attached garage, cruises for half an hour or so on roads relatively free of traffic and parks in the lot a few steps outside his office building. It’s less stressful than crowding into a subway car, he notes.
The hinterland’s not as culturally barren as some might believe, Moss continues. The public hears “Kansas City” and they think of tornadoes, cows and the Wizard of Oz, he says. But the reality includes a downtown replete with skyscrapers and pro sports, not to mention lots of tech, healthcare and aerospace companies. “It’s like a mini-Chicago,” he notes.
But a retreat from the coasts may not be in the offing. Ballases expects that the majority of ISOs will continue to concentrate on the East Coast and West Coast because that’s where population growth remains strongest and thus provides the most opportunities. “It’s a numbers game,” he observes.
An often-overlooked national network of nearly a thousand Small Business Development Centers has the potential to help alternative funders cement relationships with existing clients and locate new ones. The centers, known as SBDCs, offer free or low-cost training and consultation to established and aspiring merchants and manufacturers.
The earliest SBDCs have been around for four decades. The centers operate in conjunction with the Small Business Administration as public-private partnerships and serve about 1.5 million clients annually.
Centers help small-business owners evaluate ideas, organize companies, find legal assistance and obtain operating capital.
But not everyone knows all that. “The network is underutilized,” says Donna Ettenson, vice president of operations for Washington-based America’s SBDCs, which functions much like a trade association for the centers scattered across the nation. “We’re one of the best-kept secrets in the United States federal government.”
That means alternative funders can assist customers by simply informing them that the centers exist and can offer potentially beneficial services. Providing basic information on the SBDCs could become part of a consultative approach to selling that brings repeat business, especially with merchants who lack business skills or experience, observers suggest.
What’s more, alt funders who want to increase their chances of benefitting from SBDCs can go beyond merely providing clients with a rundown on the centers. The funders can become actively involved with the work of carried out at the centers.
One way of taking part is to contact nearby centers and offer to make presentations at seminars or workshops, Ettenson says. Funders could provide information to fledgling business owners on the instruments available through the alternative-funding industry, such as cash advances, loans and factoring, she suggests.
To get started, alternative funders can visit the America’s SBDC website, where they’ll find a search tool that provides contact information for their nearest centers, Ettenson says. From there, they could discuss possible connections with officials at the local centers, she advises.
That involvement would not only provide exposure to merchants in need of capital but also to center officials who point merchants toward capital sources. If enough members of the alt funding industry took part, their work could eventually give rise to something akin to the lists of attorneys that some centers maintain, Ettenson says.
Centers often tap attorneys—perhaps quarterly—to lecture on a rotating basis on what type of business to form. That could mean organizing as a corporation, limited-liability partnership or some other form. In much the same way, funders could share their knowledge of instruments for obtaining capital.
Funders could emulate the lawyers who use the centers as a forum for soft marketing, Ettenson says. The speaker becomes a familiar face and can leave business cards that students could use to contact them as questions arise. However, speakers must provide general information and are prohibited from using speaking opportunities as blatantly self-promotional unpaid advertisements, she cautions.
What’s more, the centers have to exercise caution to avoid recommending specific attorneys, accountants or sources of capital because they could incur liability if events go sour and a service provider absconds to Bogata, Columbia, Ettenson points out. That keeps the centers “ecumenical,” in that they provide a list of professionals for clients to interview and rather than pointing to a single source.
Alternative funders can explore other ways to become involved with SBDCs, too. The national organization presents an annual trade show and professional development conference for service-center directors and service-center staff members who teach or consult with clients. Alternative funders who have taken booth space on the exhibition floor or made presentations in the accompanying conference include RapidAdvance, Breakout Capital, Kabbage and Newtek Business Services.
When America’s SBDCs issues a call for presentations at the annual conference, it receives approximately 300 applications for about 140 speaking slots. Some of the speakers come from the rosters of presenters at past shows, while companies newer to the trade show can purchase an entry-level sponsorship that includes booth space and the right to conduct a workshop.
The attendees at those annual conferences can tell their clients about the funders they encounter there. Attendees can also find out more about the alternative- funding industry and then pass that information along to merchants.
Some regional centers in states with large populations—such as California—can also hold conventions for their officials, says Patrick Nye, executive director for small business and entrepreneurship at the Los Angeles Regional SBDC Network, which is based at Long Beach City College. His state was planning its second statewide gathering this year and intends to do it again every other year. Alternative funders could participate, he says.
With so much going on at the centers, someone has to front the cash to keep the lights on. Local organizations are funded partly through federal appropriations administered by the SBA. “In order for the federal money to be pulled down, a matching non-federal dollar must be provided as well,” Ettenson says. The federal funds are apportioned based on the amount of matching funds the centers provide.
The matching funds usually flow from colleges, universities and state legislatures. “It’s a mix,” Ettenson says of the sources. Institutions of higher learning often meet part of their matching-fund goals by providing “in kind” resources—such as classrooms, services and instructors—instead of cash.
In the six states that administer the centers through their economic development departments, the state legislatures generally appropriate matching funds. In Texas, the representatives of the state’s four regional programs combine forces to lobby the legislature for matching funds, and that teamwork reduces the cost of their efforts in Austin.
The federal funds and matching funds support local and regional centers that belong to a network based on 62 host institutions. Of the 62, six operate through the economic development departments of state governments. They’re in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia, Minnesota and Colorado. The rest of the host institutions are mostly universities or community colleges. Some are based in economic development agencies.
One can think of the regional centers as something akin to corporate headquarters and the local centers as retailers, says Nye, who administers the Southern California regional center. The local centers under his regional’s jurisdiction are located in only three counties but pull in the sixth-largest share of funding because of Southern California’s huge population, he notes.
The local service centers provide training and consulting for entrepreneurs starting or expanding their enterprises. About 60 percent of the clients are already in business. Of the 40 percent who don’t own a business, about half launch one after receiving assistance from an SBDC, Ettenson says.
The centers don’t charge for consulting services, and the fees for training are just large enough to cover expenses. The training fees usually remain in the centers that provide the instruction where they’re used to cover expenses like buying computers.
In Southern California centers, the business advisors are usually under contract and have knowledge to share from their experience in business, marketing, banking, social media, consulting or other realms, says Nye. Not many college instructors work in the centers, he notes, adding that the centers are monitored to avoid conflicts of interest among advisors.
To track how well advisors are performing, the national organization produces economic impact statements by interviewing thousands of clients. Interviews generally take place two years after consulting sessions. That should provide enough time to get results, Ettenson says
Thus, America’s SBDCs this year surveyed clients who received services in 2016. Those long-term clients received $4.6 billion in financing, while last year the clients surveyed who got underway in 2015 had received $5.6 billion in financing. She could not break down that financing by categories like banks and non-banks.
Discussing those surveys, Ettenson offers some details. “If you talk to us for two minutes, we don’t consider you a client,” she emphasizes. The SBDC definition of what constitutes a client calls for at least one hour of one-to-one consulting or at least one two- hour training session, she says. The organization defines “touches” as people with less exposure, such as those who call on the phone with a question.
When an SBDC client needs funding, officials at the centers have no qualms about including alternative funders in their recommendations to clients who are seeking funds, says Ettenson. “We don’t exclude anybody in any way, shape or form unless there’s some reason to think they’re fraudulent,” she notes.
But malfeasance isn’t the worry it once was, Ettenson asserts, noting that alternative funders have gained credibility in the last five or so years as they began policing their own industry. “They’ve learned to keep track of who’s in their space and how they’re operating,” she says.
Alternative financing has established a niche that benefits small-business people who know how to use it, Ettenson maintains. “They understand that they’re borrowing money for a short period of time and it’s going to cost you a fair amount,” she says. “It’s a short-term bridge to get to whatever your goal is.” Merchants seeking funders should learn the differences among alternative funders—whom she says all operate a little differently from each other—to choose their best option.
And opportunity for alternative funders may abound at the centers in the near future. Nye cites the two biggest goals for his centers as new business starts and capital infusion. Center advisors help develop business plans that aid clients in obtaining financing, he says. Last year, his region received a little over $4 million from the SBA and used it to help start 365 new businesses and raise $148 million in capital infusions. Those efforts created 1,700 jobs, he says.
That bit of intelligence comes from the National Small Business Association‘s 2017 Year End Economic Report, the most recent from the Washington-based trade group. Thirteen percent of the entrepreneurs who responded to the survey received loans from family or friends in the preceding 12 months, while 3 percent obtained funding from online or non-bank lenders, the report says.
But some variables come into play. Shopkeepers and restaurateurs are more likely to rely on friends and family for financing during their first five years in business, says Molly Brogan Day, the NSBA’s vice president of public affairs and a 15-year veteran of the survey. The association’s members, who account for many – but not all – of the respondents tend to have been in business longer than non-members so the actual percentage of all owners receiving funds from family or friends could well be higher than the survey indicates, she notes.
In fact, the average NSBA member started his or her business 11 years ago – a fairly long time for the sector, Day says. The association attracts well-established merchants partly because the trade group concentrates on advocacy and lobbying in the nation’s capital, Day notes. “There’s not a lot of networking, there’s not a ton of resources or educational offerings,” she says of the association. In other words, the organization’s emphasis tends to attract prospective members who have been in business long enough to see the results of laws and regulation instead of newcomers still struggling daily to establish themselves, she observes.
Anyway, it’s also worth noting that small-business owners appear nearly as likely to approach family or friends for cash as to petition large banks for funding, Day says, noting that 13 percent turn to friends and family, while 15 percent manage to obtain loans from large banks. To her, that indicates that banks just aren’t lending to small businesses as frequently as they should – a notion that should sound familiar to anyone in the alternative small-business funding industry.
Unsurprisingly, the association’s research indicates bank lending declined as the Great Recession made itself felt in 2007 and 2008. Before that, nearly 50 percent of merchants responding to the survey reported they had recently qualified for loans from big banks, small banks or credit unions, the research shows. “Now it’s pretty consistently a percentage in the low 30’s,” Day says. “People really need these loans.”
Lending by banks hit another snag in 2012 when new regulation and legislation, including the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, made itself felt. “There was such a massive overcorrection in the banking industry that it’s still really difficult for small businesses to get loans,” Day says.
Moreover, banks were granting fewer “character-based” loans even before the double whammy or recession and regulation, Day observes. Instead of employing the older practice of assessing the intangible virtues of a business owner well-known in the community, bankers began applying a more formulaic approach to evaluating loan applications based on credit scores and other quantifiable variables, she says.
That switch to numbers-oriented decisions proved detrimental for many entrepreneurs. “A lot of small business owners don’t look great on paper,” Day admits. Even a great business plan might not convince bankers to loosen their purse strings these days, she notes.
That’s where the alternative small-business funding industry comes into the picture. NSBA researchers began including the category of online and non-bank lenders in their surveys in 2013 and have seen the percentage of respondents using them grow each year to its current level of 3 percent.
“It’s not huge growth, but it’s notable,” Day says. Notable enough to achieve importance, she continues. “It’s an important opportunity for your readers to fill that void,” she says of the shortfall of adequate small business funding. “They’ve been doing a pretty good job of doing it.”
In fact, the NSBA research indicates that alternative funding and other sources have tended to take up the slack created by the banking industry’s decision to exercise extreme caution when evaluating small business loans. Some 73 percent of small business owners are obtaining enough financing these days, according to the survey.
Yet hiccups have occurred, like the decline to only 59 percent finding adequate funding in 2010, Day points out. And the fact that two-thirds to three fourths are generally securing adequate funding means that a fourth to a third aren’t, she notes, adding that she urges focusing on the latter group. “It’s concerning,” she says.
Inadequate funding can prove especially challenging for newer businesses that don’t have a track record, haven’t stockpiled proceeds from past operations, don’t own stock to leverage and aren’t savvy enough to finesse placement of debt, Day maintains. More-established businesses have greater access to those resources or have honed those skills, she notes.
And much is at stake. Lack of funds not only hurts that significant portion of small-business owner but also prevents hiring workers, stymies economic growth and hinders community development, Day maintains. She points to research that shows the nearly direct correlation between availability of capital and increases in hiring. (See Chart A.)
Other NSBA findings include the fact that in July of 2017 merchants reported having debt that averaged $496,000. Some 73 percent of those reported had at least some debt. Some 40 percent of survey respondents, the largest category have debt of $50,000 or less. (See Chart B.)
Financing most often comes from funds the business has earned, the trade group says. Some 32 percent of merchants cite that source. Yet simply pulling out a credit card remains a common way to make ends meet, with 31 percent saying they did that to meet capital needs in the last 12 months. (See Chart C.)
While most (57 percent) say that lack of capital hasn’t hurt their enterprises recently, 31 percent say a dearth of capital prevented them from expanding their operations, 14 percent report they weren’t able to expand their sales because they lacked funding, and 13 percent admit they laid off employees because it was difficult to find the cash to meet the payroll. (See Chart. D)
The availability of credit hadn’t changed much in the year leading up to the survey, the association says. About 77 percent reported no change in their lines of credit or credit cards, while 18 percent saw their perceived creditworthiness increase and 5 percent saw it decline.
Those results come with a bit of history. The NSBA has been surveying small-business owners since 1993. At first, the trade group hired polling companies to perform the task and cooperated on the report with the Arthur Andersen accounting firm. Computerization enabled the association to take the project in house beginning in 2007. It works on the survey with ZipRecruiter, an online employment marketplace.
Some 1,633 small-business owners participated in the research for the 2017 Year End Economic Report by answering 42 questions online in December 2017 and January 2018. Many of the survey questions have remained the same over the years to facilitate comparisons and tracking.
Small businesses on the list of members and the list of non-members receive two email messages alerting them to the survey and providing an online link to the questions. The surveys take place twice a year.
As mentioned earlier, some survey respondents belong to the association and some don’t, but Day was unable to pinpoint the percentages. In response to a question from deBanked, she said she may begin tallying how many respondents are members and non-members because non-members tend to have been in business for a shorter time than members. Non-members also tend to differ from members because political engagement often brings the former to the association’s attention.
Participating merchants come from every industry and every state, Day says. Manufacturing and professional services are very slightly overrepresented, while mining is the only category that’s scarcely represented, she admits. Not many small businesses operate in the mining sector, she adds.
The best sales reps have a lot in common – they’re smart, honest, likable, well-organized, thick-skinned and hungry for success. They navigate the difficult early days of their careers in the alternative small-business funding community by persevering despite long hours, countless outbound telephone calls and meager commissions.
“Persistency is really, really the key – putting in the time,” says Evan Marmott, CEO of Montreal-based CanaCap and CEO of New York-based CapCall LLC. “It’s not always easy, but you’ve got to stay late, make the phone calls, send the emails and do the follow-ups. It’s a numbers game.”
Being relentless counts not only when pursuing merchants but also when matching merchants with funders, Marmott emphasizes. “If they can’t get an approval one place, they’re going to shop it out until they get approval someplace else so they can monetize everything that comes in,” he says.
“It’s all mindset and work ethic,” in sales, according to Joe Camberato, president at Bohemia, N.Y.-based National Business Capital. His company works to create a culture that supports the right mindset by working with a firm called “Delivering Happiness.” Together, they forge to a set of core values based on integrity, innovation, teamwork, empathy, and respect for fellow employees, clients and clients’ businesses.
National Business Capital employees learn to live those ideals by working and playing together on the company volleyball team, through work with local and national charities, and at company mixers and staff picnics, Camberato maintains. “We adapt and change, and we’re committed to helping small businesses grow,” he says of the company culture, “and we have fun while doing all that.”
Likeability helps build relationships with customers, says Justin Thompson, vice president of sales for San Diego-based National Funding. “People will do business with people they like and trust,” says Thompson. “It’s really about establishing a relationship first and then establishing quality discovery.” From there, presentation and execution become paramount, he says.
Methodology can make the difference between success and failure in sales, observes Justin Bakes, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based Forward Financing LLC. “Have a defined process and stick to it,” he advises. A well-organized approach inspires trust among clients, establishes and maintains a great reputation; and fosters understanding of the customers’ needs, wants and business operations that help the rep choose the right financing option and appropriate funder. Using technology to wrangle multiple leads and high volume counts for a lot, too, he says.
It’s all part of the consultative approach to sales, says Jared Weitz, CEO of Great Neck, N.Y.-based United Capital Source. Long ago, sales reps may have succeeded by mimicking carnival barkers, sideshow pitchman and arm-twisting medicine-show peddlers. Thankfully, those days have ended – if they ever really existed. Most of today’s successful salespeople earn clients’ respect by becoming knowledgeable, trusted business consultants, says Weitz.
THE CONSULTATIVE SALE
“Someone calls, and there are two ways of handling a deal, right?” Weitz asks rhetorically. Using one method, a salesperson can say, “We’ll fund you this much at this rate today – are we good?” he says. The other way calls for understanding the client’s business – how long has it been open, does it make more cash deposits or credit card deposits, would it be best-served by an advance, a loan, an equipment lease or a line of credit, how much can it afford in monthly payments?
Establishing how the merchant intends to use the funding plays a crucial role in the consultative sale, Marmott agrees. Objections can arise when a merchant learns that receiving $100,000 this week will require paying back $150,000 in four or five months, he notes. So it’s essential to demonstrate that using the money productively will more than pay for the deal. A trucking company can realize more income if it deploys two more trucks, or a restaurant can increase revenue by placing another bar outside for the summer, he says by way of example.
“A lot of salespeople ask a business owner what they need the money for,” observes Thompson. “The merchant says, ‘Inventory,’ and the rep stops right there. I train my reps at National Funding to go two or three clicks deeper.” Examples abound. When does the merchant need the inventory? From whom do they order it? How long does it take to ship? How long does it take to turn it over? What are the shipping terms?
The consultative approach can require salespeople to pose a lot of open-ended questions that can’t be answered yes or no, according to Thompson. Ideally, the conversation should adhere to the 80-20 rule, with the client talking 80 percent of the time and the sales rep speaking 20 percent, he asserts, adding that “a lot of times it’s reversed in this industry.”
Sometimes, however, salespeople should set aside the time-consuming consultative approach and instead find funding for a merchant as soon as possible. That’s true when the business owner can make an opportune purchase of inventory or when it’s time to acquire a competitor quickly. More often, however, it pays to take the time to understand the merchant’s needs and search out the best type of funding for that particular case, top sales people maintain.
Much of the alternative small-business finance industry has caught on to the importance of the consultative approach to sales as the array of available alternative financial products has grown beyond the industry’s initial offerings of merchant cash advances, according to Weitz. The days of scripted pitches and preplanned rebuttals to objections have ended, he says. Today, management trains reps for success.
THE RIGHT TRAINING
Are top salespeople born that way? “Some people hit the ground running, but sales can be taught – that’s for sure,” Weitz says. “The tougher thing to teach is integrity.” Much of the training process focuses on learning the products to enable a rep to make a consultative sale and shoulder financial responsibility, he maintains.
Believing that some people are born to sell provides a crutch to avoid learning what really works, according to Bakes. Training can teach a smart, motivated person how to succeed, he maintains. They don’t have to be born that way.
However, some people do seem born to exert influence, which can translate into sales prowess, says Thompson. Still, those born with a strong work-ethic can overcome other deficiencies, he notes. The work ethic drives them to “come in every day,” he notes. “They’re organized and disciplined. They follow the National Funding philosophy, and they make a ton of money.”
National Funding trains salespeople to view their craft as being defined by two broad elements – art and science, Thompson continues. The science proves easier to master and includes asking the right questions to learn about the customer and the deal. The hard part, the art of the sale, consists of getting to know the business owner, building a relationship and demonstrating expertise. In one example, that’s based on learning how many trucks are in the fleet, whether they’re long-haul or short haul and whether they use dumpsters versus box trailers, he says.
Beyond those important basics, training should be ongoing because selling techniques change slightly as new products and systems emerge, according to Weitz. “One of the things I like about being a broker is the ability to pivot and add another arrow to your quiver,” he says.
Salespeople at United Capital Source talk sales among themselves almost nonstop, which amounts to daily sales training, Weitz observes. That can take the form of describing a challenge and explaining how to overcome it, he notes. A particularly good idea merits an email to the group to share the new piece of wisdom. It’s a matter of constantly refining the approach.
Training can help sales reps understand the businesses their clients run, according to Marmott. Knowing the margins in a restaurant, for example, can help the salesperson explain that the increase in revenue from an expansion will quickly pay the cost of capital, he notes.
Training should teach new employees how business works because common elements arise in enterprises ranging from dog grooming to asphalt paving, Thompson notes. There’s inventory, marketing, employee expense, payroll taxes, insurance and 401k’s in almost any business. “We teach all that to the reps,” he says. Then after conversations with thousands of merchants, reps have a solid foundation in the workings of businesses.
National Business Capital’s formal two-week classroom training usually lasts three hours a day, focusing on systems, guidelines, product, general business principles and the company’s processes, says Camberato. Teachers include the sales management team, company culture leaders and the managers of IT and Tech, Marketing, Processing, and Human Resources.
New hires spend much of their time working with mentors for the first six months and a team leader who works with them indefinitely, Camberto continues. The company sometimes hires in groups and sometimes hires individually, he notes.
National Funding provides three eight-hour days of regimented classroom training on the fundamentals to each of the four groups of 12 to 17 hired each year, says Thompson. The classes cover processes, sales strategy, marketing and the lender matrix. Next comes three months of working with a sales manager dedicated to working with the class. After a total of nine to 12 months, management knows which reps will succeed.
Some shops operate on the opener-closer model, with less experienced salespeople qualifying the merchant by asking questions like how long they’re been in business and how much revenue they bring in monthly, Marmott says. If the merchant qualifies, the newer salesperson who’s working as an opener then hands off the call to an experienced closer to complete the deal. Good openers become closers, but opening isn’t easy because it requires lots of calls, he notes.
National Funding doesn’t use the opener-closer approach because the company believes reps should Participate “from cradle to grave,” Thompson says. “They hunt the business down, build the relationship and handle the transaction from A to Z.” East Coast shops often focus on cold calling and use the opener-closer model, while West Coast shops tend to invest more in marketing and reject the opener-closer method, he noted.
But where do these top salespeople come from?
THE RIGHT BACKGROUND
Prospective sales reps who have just finished college should have a grounding in communications or business, Weitz believes. Experience in sales and a familiarity with dealing with merchants helps prepare reps, he notes. Job history doesn’t have to be in the finance industry. Someone who’s sold business services in a Verizon store or worked for a payroll company, for instance, has been dealing with small-business owners and may succeed more quickly than those without that background.
Sales experience in other industries counts, Bakes agrees, especially in businesses that require dealing with a large number of leads. “Organization and process is just as important as being born with the traits of a salesperson,” he opines.
Life experience that breeds a positive attitude can prove vital, says Marmott. That’s especially important in the beginning when a new rep might take home a paltry $300 in the first month. Later, when the rep has a $50,000 month, he or she will see that their optimism wasn’t misplaced, he declares.
GUYS WHO ARE HUNGRY”
“The biggest thing I look for is guys who are hungry,” Marmott maintains. I don’t need somebody with a doctorate or a master’s degree or even a degree,” he says. “I need somebody who is going to put the work in.” Of a roomful of 25 new reps, two or three will succeed and stay on the job, he calculates. “You get to eat what you kill. If you’re not killing anything, you don’t get to eat.”
“We look for potential candidates who come from backgrounds of rejection,” says Thompson. Their previous sales experience has taught them not to take the answer “no” personally. “It’s part of the business and you continue to move on.”
Although most regard the financial services industry as a white-collar pursuit, “it has blue collar written all over it,” Thompson says, referring to the work ethic required for success. But it’s not just the volume of work. Sixty good phone calls generate more business than 300 mediocre calls, he emphasizes.
GETTING UP TO SPEED
Succeeding at sales requires taking the time to form relationships, understand guidelines, become familiar with lenders and acquire a working knowledge of how clients’ businesses operate, Camberato says. How long does it take? “It’s a solid year,” he contends while conceding that most who succeed operate at a fairly high level before then.
Others disagree about what constitutes being up to speed and how much time’s necessary to achieve it. “I’ve seen it take 30 days, and I’ve seen it up to 120 days,” says Weitz. “The hope is that it’s within 60.”
A salesperson should start feeling better after 30 days and should start feeling good after 60 days, Marmott says. Management can usually identify the strong and the week reps within two to three weeks, he says. “You get the lazy ones that drop out, the guys who aren’t making any money, the ones who aren’t putting the effort in,” he says. “The first two weeks are the toughest because you’re learning the product and how to sell it.”
“It depends on the person,” Bakes says of the time needed to begin selling successfully. “It takes time. It is not something that will just happen overnight.” About six months should suffice to become confident as a closer, he estimates.
Even when sales reps hit their stride, some outsell others, Marmott notes, citing the 80-20 rule that 80 percent of the business comes from 20 percent of the salesforce. Outbound sales to merchants who may feel beleaguered by offers of funding requires more effort than when a merchant makes an inbound call to seek funding, he adds.
And even the best salespeople need great marketing and tech support from the their companies, sources agree.
INVESTING IN SALES
A shop just starting out might have a marketing budget as low as $2,500 a month, which won’t do much more than pay for direct mail pieces that might prompt a few potential clients to pick up the phone, Weitz says. With a little more money to spend, a shop can begin buying leads, he notes. “Don’t break the bank before you understand what formula works for you,” he advises.
“The key to sales is marketing,” says Marmott. “You can be the best sales guy but if you don’t have anything qualified to call or follow up with, it’s a waste of time.” Social media doesn’t work as well for business-to-business contact as it does for business-to-consumer marketing, he says. Pay per click and key words have become more expensive and isn’t as cost-effective as it once was, especially for smaller shops, he contends. Mailers can work but require heavy volume and repetition, he says, adding that could mean at least 25,000 pieces and at least three mailings.
Besides allocating marketing dollars, companies can invest in sales by paying new sales staffers a salary instead of forcing them to rely on commissions to eke out subsistence during the tough early days. National Business Capital pays a salary at first and later switches reps to commissions and draw, Camberato says. “An energetic person interested in sales can plug into our platform, get trained and do very well,” he continues. “We believe in you, as long as you believe in us.”
National Funding provides recruits with a salary and commissions so that they have enough income to get by and still reap rewards when they help close a deal, Thompson says.
Investment in technology can help salespeople set priorities, eliminate some of the drudge work in the sale process, measure the sales staff member’s success or lack of success, and provide a consistent experience for customers, notes Bakes. “Because of the way our technology is set up we can hold people accountable,” he adds.
Every salesperson and every shop should organize the workflow by using a lead-management system or customer relationship management tool (CRM) – such as Zoho or Salesforce –instead of operating with just a spreadsheet, Weitz says.
Brokers can invest in sales through syndication, which means putting up some of the funds involved in a deal. Forward Financing favors syndication in some cases because it aligns the salesperson and the funder, thus demonstrating the sales rep’s belief in the validity of the deal and ensuring a willingness to continue servicing that customer, Bakes says.
Some shops offer monthly bonuses for outstanding sales results, but Weitz believes awarding incentives weekly makes more sense. With a monthly cycle, some reps tend to slack off for the first week or so because they believe they can make up for lost time later. With weekly rewards, there’s not much room for downtime, he notes.
Whatever form investment takes, it can help build a sterling reputation and a free-flowing “pipeline.”
THE RIGHT REPUTATION
“Reputation is huge,” especially for repeat business and referrals, Marmott says. Once a merchant has received funding, a blizzard of sales call can follow. Treating customers right by maintaining ethical standards and helping them during hard times can guard against defection to a competitor touing low prices, he says.
Reputation requires differentiation, which usually occurs online, by email or over the phone, notes Bakes. Factors that enhance reputation include referrals by satisfied customers and real-world testimonials from actual customers and good ratings on social media sites, he says.
While it’s still uncertain what role social media plays in the industry’s reputation-building efforts, it appears that text messages elicit quick responses if the client has agreed to communicate with the company via that format, Bakes says. He notes that unwanted text messages won’t work. Email messages provide more information than text messages but seem less likely to prompt response, he says.
THE RIGHT GOAL
So, where does the effort to succeed at sales lead? It’s the foundation for building “the pipeline” – the name given to the flow of renewals, referrals and leads that makes every day not just busy, but busy in a productive and profitable way. As a rep’s pipeline takes shape, the cost of acquiring new business also goes down, Marmott says. “It just grows from there,” he says of the successful salesperson’s endeavors at building a pipeline of business. It’s what successful salespeople seek.
Wayward merchants and outright criminals are continuing to bilk the alternative small-business funding industry out of cash at a dizzying pace. In fact, an estimated 23 percent of the problematic clients that funders reported to an industry database in 2017 appeared to have committed fraud, up from approximately 17 percent in the previous year. That’s according to Scott Williams, managing member of Florida-based Financial Advantage Group LLC, who along with Cody Burgess founded the DataMerch database in 2015. Some 11,000 small businesses now appear in the database because they’ve allegedly failed to honor their commitments to funders, Williams says.
Whether fraudulent or not, defaults remain plentiful enough to keep attorneys busy in funders’ legal departments and at outside law firms funders hire. “I do a lot of collections work on behalf of my cash-advance clients, sending out letters to try to get people to pay,” says Paul Rianda, a California-based attorney. When letters and phone calls don’t succeed, it’s time to file a lawsuit, he says.
Lawsuits become necessary more often than not by the time a funder hires an outside attorney, according to Jamie Polon, a partner at the Great Neck, N.Y.- based law firm of Mavrides Moyal Packman Sadkin LLP and manager of its Creditors’ Rights Group. “Typically, my clients have tried everything to resolve the situation amicably before coming to me,” he observes.
That pursuit of debtors isn’t getting any easier. These days, it’s not just the debtor and the debtor’s attorney that funders and their attorneys must confront. Collections have become more difficult with the recent rise of so-called debt settlement companies that promise to help merchants avoid satisfying their obligations in full, notes Katherine Fisher, who’s a partner in the Maryland office of the law firm of Hudson Cook LLP.
Meanwhile, a consensus among attorneys, consultants and the funders themselves holds that the nature of the fraudulent attacks is changing. On one side of the equation, crooks are hatching increasingly sophisticated schemes to defraud funders, notes Catherine Brennan, who’s also a partner in the Maryland office of Hudson Cook LLP. On the other side, underwriters and software developers are becoming more skilled at detecting and thwarting fraud, she maintains.
Digitalization is fueling those changes, says Jeremy Brown, chairman of Bethesda, Md.-based RapidAdvance. “As the business overall becomes more and more automated and moves more online – with less personal contact with merchants – you have to develop different tools to deal with fraud,” he says.
A few years ago, the industry was buzzing about fake bank statements available on craigslist, Brown recalls. Criminals who didn’t even own businesses used the phony statements to borrow against nonexistent bank accounts, and merchants used the fake documents to inflate their numbers.
Altered or invented bank statements remain one of the industry’s biggest challenges, but now they’ve gone digital. About 85 percent of the cases of fraud submitted to the DataMerch database involve falsified bank documents, nearly all of them manipulated digitally, Williams notes.
Merchants alter their statements to overstate their balances, increase the amount of their monthly deposits, erase overdrafts, or hide automatic payments they’re already making on loans or advances, Williams says. Most use software that helps them reformat and tamper with PDF files that begin as legitimate bank statements, he observes.
To combat false statements, alt funders are demanding online access to applicants’ actual bank accounts. Some funders ask for prospective clients’ usernames and passwords to examine bank records, but applicants often consider such requests an invasion of their privacy, sources agree.
That’s why RapidAdvance has joined the ranks of companies that use electronic tools like DecisionLogic, GIACT or Yodlee to verify a bank balance or the owner of the account and perform test ACH transfers – all without needing to persuade anyone to surrender personally identifiable information, Brown says.
Other third-party systems can use an IP address to view the computing device and computer network that a prospective customer is using to apply for credit, Brown says. RapidAdvance has received applications that those tools have traced to known criminal networks. The systems even know when crooks are masking the identity of the networks they’re using to attempt fraud, he observes.
RapidAdvance has also developed its own software to head off fraud. One program developed in-house cross references every customer who’s contacted the company, even those who haven’t taken out a loan or merchant cash advance. “People who want to defraud you will come back with a different business name on the same bank account,” Brown says. “It’s a quick way to see if this is somebody we don’t want to do business with.”
Sometimes businesses use differing federal tax ID numbers to pull off a hoax, according to Williams at DataMerch. That’s why his company’s database lists all of the ID numbers for a business.
All of those electronic safeguards have come into play only recently, Brown maintains. “We didn’t think about any of this five years ago – certainly not 10 years ago,” he says. In those days, funders were satisfied with just an application and a copy of a driver’s license, he remembers.
Since then, some sage advice has been proven true. When RapidAdvance was founded in 2005, the company had a mentor with experience at Capital One, Brown says. One piece of wisdom the company guru imparted was this: “Watch out when the criminals figure out your business model.” That’s when an industry becomes a target of organized fraud.
As that prediction of fraud has become reality, it hasn’t necessarily gotten any easier to pinpoint the percentage of deals proposed with bad intent. That’s because underwriters and electronic aids prevent most fraudulent potential deals from coming to fruition, Brown notes. The company looks at the loss rates for the deals that it funds, not the deals it turns down.
Brown guesses that as many as 10 percent of applications are tainted by fraudulent intention. “It’s meaningful enough that if you miss a couple of accounts with significant dollar amounts,” he says, “then it can have a pretty negative impact on your bottom line.”
Some perpetrators of fraud merely pretend to operate a small business, and funders can discover their scams if there’s time to make site visits, Rianda notes. Other clients begin as genuine entrepreneurs who then run into hard times and want to keep their doors open at all costs, sources agree.
Applicants sometimes provide false landlord information, something that RapidAdvance checks out on larger loans, Brown notes. Underwriters who call to verify the tenant-landlord relationship have to rely upon common sense to ferret out anything “fishy,” he advises.
Underwriters should ask enough questions in those phone calls to determine whether the supposed landlord really knows the property and the tenant, which could include queries concerning rent per square foot, length of time in business and when the lease terminates, Brown suggests. All of that should match what the applicant has indicated previously.
Lack of a telephone landline may or may not provide a clue that an imposter is posing as a landlord, Brown continues. Be aware of a supposed landlord’s verbal stumbles, realize something’s possibly amiss if a dubious landlord lacks of an online presence, note whether too many calls to the alleged landlord go into voicemail and be suspicious if a phone exchange with a purported landlord simply “feels” residential instead of commercial, he cautions.
Reasonable explanations could exist for any of those concerns, but when in doubt about the validity of a tenant-landlord relationship it pays to request a copy of the lease or other type of verifications, according to Brown. Then there are the cases when the underwriter is talking to the actual landlord, but the applicant has convinced the landlord to lie. It could happen because the landlord might hope to recoup some back rent from a merchant who’s obviously on the verge of closing up shop.
Occasionally, formerly legitimate merchants turn rogue. They take out a loan, immediately withdraw the funds from the bank, stop repaying the loan, close the business and then walk or run away, notes Williams. “We view that as a fraudulent merchant because their mindset all along was qualifying for this loan and not paying it back,” he says.
Collecting on a delinquent account becomes problematic once a business closes its doors, Rianda notes. As long as the merchant remains in business, funders can still hope to collect reduced payments and thus eventually get back most or all of what’s owed, he maintains.
In another scam sometimes merchants whose bank accounts are set up to make automatic transfers to creditors simply change banks to halt the payments, Brown says. That move could either signal desperation or indicate the intent to defraud was there from the start, he says.
Merchants with cash advances that split card revenue could change transaction processors, install an additional card terminal that’s not programmed for the split or offer discounts for paying with cash, but those scams are becoming less prevalent as the industry shifts to ACH, Brown says. Industrywide, only 5 percent to 10 percent of payments are collected through card splits these days, but about 20 percent of RapidAdvance’s payments are made that way.
Merchants occasionally blame their refusal to pay on partners who have absconded with the funds or on spouses who weren’t authorized to apply for a loan or advance, Brown reports. Although that claim might be bogus, such cases do occur, notes Williams of DataMerch. People who own a minority share of a business sometimes manipulate K-1 records to present themselves as majority owners who are empowered to take out a loan, Williams says.
In a phenomenon called “stacking,” merchants take out multiple loans or advances and thus burden themselves with more obligations than they can meet. Whether or not that constitutes fraud remains debatable, Rianda observes. Stacking has increased with greater availability of capital and because some funders purposely pursue such deals, he contends.
Some contracts now contain covenants that bar stacking, notes Brennan of Hudson Cook. As companies come of age in the alt-funding business, they are beginning to employ staff members to detect and guard against practices like stacking, she says.
Moreover, underwriting is improving in general, according to Polon “The vetting is getting better because the industry is getting more mature,” he says. “The underwriting teams have gotten very good at looking at certain data points to see something is wrong with the application – they know when something doesn’t smell right.” They’re better at checking with references, investigating landlords, examining financials and requesting backup documentation, he contends.
Despite more-systematic approaches to foiling the criminal element and protecting against misfortunate merchants, one-of-a-kind attempts at fraud also still drive funders crazy, Brown says. His company found that a merchant once conspired with the broker who brought RapidAdvance the deal. The merchant and the broker set up a dummy business, transferred the funds to it and then withdrew the cash. “The guy came back to us and said, ‘I lost all the money because the broker took it,’” he recounts. “Why is that our problem?” was the RapidAdvance response.
Although such schemes appear rare, some funders are developing methods of auditing their ISOs to prevent problems, notes Brennan. They can search for patterns of irregularities as an early-warning system, she says. It’s also important to terminate relationships with errant brokers and share information about them, she advises, adding that competition has sometimes made funders reluctant to sever ties with brokers.
Although fraud’s clearly a crime, the police rarely choose to involve themselves with it, Brown says. His company has had cases where it lost what it considered large dollar amounts – say $50,000 – and had evidence he felt clearly indicated fraud but the company couldn’t attract the attention of law enforcement, he notes.
Rianda finds working with law enforcement “hit or miss,” whether it’s a matter of defaulting on loans or committing other crimes. In one of his cases an employee forged invoices to steal $100,000 and the police didn’t care. In another, someone collected $3,000 in credit card refunds and went to jail. If the authorities do intervene, they may seek jail time and sometimes compel crooks to make restitution, he notes.
“Engaging law enforcement is generally not appropriate for collections,” according to Fisher from Hudson Cook. However, notifying police agencies of fraud that occurs at the inception of a deal can sometimes be appropriate, says Fisher’s colleague Brennan, particularly when organized gangs of fraudsters are at work.
At the same time, sheriffs and marshals can help collect judgments, Polon says. He works with attorneys, sheriffs and marshals all over the country to enforce judgments he has obtained in New York State, he says. That can include garnishing wages, levying a bank account or clearing a lien before a debtor can sell or refinance property, he notes.
When Rianda files a lawsuit against an individual or company in default, the defendant fails to appear in court about 90 percent of the time, he says. A court judgment against a delinquent debtor serves as a more effective tool for collections than does a letter an attorney sends before litigation begins, Rianda notes.
But even with a judgment in hand, attorneys and their clients have to pursue the debtor, often in another state and sometimes over a long period of time, Rianda continues. “The good news is that in California a judgment is good for 10 years and renewable for 10,” he adds.
So guarding against fraud comes down to matching wits with criminals across the country and around the world. “It makes it hard to do business, but that’s the reality,” Brown concludes. Still, there’s always hope. To combat fraud, funders should work together, Brennan advises. “It’s an industrywide problem … so the industry as a whole has a collective interest in rooting out fraud.”
In a dispute that reflects the nation’s rigid political polarization, a piece of legislation pending before Congress either corrects a judicial error or condones “predatory lending.” It depends upon whom one asks. Either way, the proposed law could affect the alternative small-business funding industry indirectly in the short run and directly in the long term by addressing the interest rates non-banks charge when they take over bank loans.
The easiest way to understand the controversy may be to trace it back to a ruling in 2015 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. The case of Madden v. Midland Funding LLC started as claim by a consumer who was challenging the collection of a debt by a debt buyer, says Catherine Brennan, a partner in the law firm Hudson Cook LLP.
“Debt buyers like Midland are sued on a regular basis,” Brennan notes. “That’s a common occurrence.” What’s uncommon is that the appellate court affirmed the idea that the loan debt that Midland sought to collect from Madden became usurious when Midland bought it. The court ruled that because Midland wasn’t a bank it was not entitled to charge the interest the bank was allowed to charge, she maintains.
Under the ruling, non-banks that buy loans can’t necessarily continue to collect the interest rates banks charged because non-banks are generally subject to the limits of the borrower’s state, according to the Republican Policy Committee, an advisory group established by members of the House of Representatives in 1949. Banks can charge the highest rate allowed in the state where they are chartered, which could be much higher than allowed in the borrower’s state.
“So it undermines the concept that you determine the validity of a loan at the time the loan is made,” Brennan says of the decision in the Madden case. The “valid-when-made” doctrine – a long-established principle of usury law – states that if a loan is not usurious when made it does not become usurious when taken over by a third party, published reports say. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Madden case, which in effect upheld the appellate court ruling.
In response, both houses of Congress are considering bills that would ensure that the interest rate on a loan originated by a bank remains valid if the loan is sold, assigned or transferred to a non-bank third party, the Republican Policy Committee says.
On Feb. 14, 2018, the House passed its version of the proposal, H.R. 3299, the Protecting Consumers’ Access to Credit Act of 2017, or the “Madden fix,” as it’s known colloquially. The vote was 245 to 171, mostly along party lines with 16 Democrats joining 229 Republicans to vote in favor. The Senate version, S. 1642, had not reached a vote by press time.
“It’s not a revolutionary concept,” Brennan says of the proposed law. “It had been understood prior to Madden that you determine usury at the time the loan is originated, and that should be restored.”
As the alternative small-business funding industry continues to mature it could benefit from the legislation, Brennan predicts. In the future, alt funders may begin to buy or sell more debt, which would make it subject to the state caps if the legislation fails to pass, she says.
The proposed law would also benefit partnerships in which banks refer prospective borrowers to alternative funders because it would eliminate uncertainty and would thus improve the stability of the asset, Brennan continues. “I would think anyone in the commercial lending space would want to see the Madden bill pass,” she contends.
Stephen Denis, executive director of the Small Business Finance Association, a trade group for alt funders, agrees. While most of the SBFA’s members don’t work with bank partners, the trade group has supported the lobbying efforts of other associations and coalitions representing financial services companies directly affected, he says. “We are concerned on behalf of the broader industry because we all work closely together and everyone has the same goal of making sure that we’re providing capital to small businesses,” he maintains.
That goal of keeping funds available to entrepreneurs also motivates the sponsor of H.R. 3299, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who’s chief deputy whip of the House and vice chair of the House Financial Services Committee. His interest in crowdfunding, capital formation and disruptive finance is fueled by events he experienced in his childhood, when his father attempted to operate a small business but struggled to find financing, according to the Congressman’s website.
Although H.R. 3299 passed in the House with mostly Republican votes, it attracted bipartisan co-sponsors in that chamber. They are Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.; Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., and Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind. The Senate version of the legislation is sponsored by Sen. Mark R. Warner, D- Va.
But opponents of the proposed law aren’t feeling particularly bipartisan and argue vehemently against it, Brennan contends. “There’s been a lot of misinformation put out there by consumer advocates saying this would somehow embolden payday lending in all 50 states,” she says. “It’s simply not true.”
Payday lenders aren’t banks, so the proposed legislation would not apply to them and thus would not enable them to avoid interest caps imposed by borrowers’ states, Brennan notes, adding that some states don’t even allow payday consumer lending.
Consumer advocates are spreading propaganda because they oppose interest rates they consider high, Brennan continues. Advocates are incorrectly conflating payday lending with marketplace lending, she maintains.
The latter is defined as partnerships where non-banks sometimes work with banks to operate nationwide platforms, mostly online and sometimes peer-to-peer, she says, noting that examples include LendingClub and Prosper.
There’s no evidence marketplace lenders would astronomically increase their interest rates if the president signs into law a bill that resembles those now before Congress, Brennan says. It wasn’t happening before Madden, she notes, and banks involved in those partnerships operate under strict guidance of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) or the Office of the Comptroller of the currency, depending upon their charters.
But consumer advocates haven taken to the warpath, Brennan reports. Opponents of the legislation call partnerships between banks and non-bank lenders by the derogatory term “rent-a-bank schemes.” But it’s lawful to create such relationships because the FDIC oversees them, she asserts.
Just the same, the House is considering H.R. 4439, a bill to ensure that in a bank partnership with a non-bank, the bank remains the “true lender” and can set the interest rate, Brennan notes. If the bill becomes law, it would clear up the conflict that has arisen in inconsistent case law, some of which has defined the non-bank as the true lender, she says.
Meanwhile, opponents of H.R. 3299 and S. 1642 have written a letter to members of Congress, urging them to vote against the bills. The letter, drafted by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) and the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), was signed by 152 local, state, regional and national organizations. Most of the signers belong to a coalition called Stop the Debt Trap, says Cheye-Ann Corona, CRL senior policy associate.
The bills create a loophole that enables predatory lenders to sidestep state interest rate caps, Corona maintains. That’s because non-banks are actually originating the loans when they work in tandem with banks, she says. The non-banks are using banks as a shield against state laws because banks are regulated by the federal government. If the legislation passes, non-banks would not have to observe state caps and could charge triple-digit interest rates, she contends.
“This bill is trying to address the issue of fintech companies, but there is nothing innovative about usury,” Corona says. “They are just repackaging products that we’ve seen before. A loan is a loan. These lenders don’t need this bill if they are obeying state interest-rate caps.”
The lenders disagree. In fact, a trade group formed by OnDeck, Kabbage and Breakout Capital calls itself the Innovative Lending Platform Association, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The article cites the need for small-business capital but questions whether the loans are marketed fairly.
Innovative or not, lenders offering credit with higher interest rates could condemn consumers to a nightmare of debt, according to the letter from the CRL and NCLC to Capitol Hill. “Unaffordable loans have devastating consequences for borrowers – trapping them in a cycle of unaffordable payments and leading to harms such as greater delinquency on other bills,” the letter says.
However, alt funders say their savvy small-business customers understand finance and thus don’t need much government protection from high interest rates. But the CRL doesn’t adhere to that philosophy, Corona counters. “Small businesses are at risk with predatory lending practices,” she says, maintaining that some alt funders charge interest rates of 99 percent.
Small-business owners plunged themselves into hot water by borrowing too much in anecdotal examples provided by Matthew Kravitz, CRL communications manager. In one example, an entrepreneur found himself automatically paying back $331 every day. He overestimated his future income and now says he feels like hiding under the covers every morning.
Corona also dismisses the idea that high risk calls for high interest rates to compensate for high default rates. When interest rates rise to a level that borrowers can’t handle, no one wins, she maintains.
The right to charge higher interest rates could also encourage lenders to loosen their underwriting criteria, Corona warns. That could result in shortcuts reminiscent to the practices that gave rise to the foreclosure crisis and the Great Recession, she says, adding that, “we don’t want to see that happen again.”
The alternative small-business finance industry owes its very existence to banks’ reluctance to lend money to mom-and-pop shopkeepers, tradespeople and restauranteurs, but bankers’ tight fists may be loosening. Small-business owners are reporting better results when they apply for bank loans.
In fact, small entrepreneurs succeeded in landing bank loans 37 percent of the time in the fourth quarter of 2017, up from 29 percent a year earlier, according to the 1,341 merchants surveyed for the most recent quarterly Private Capital Access Index report provided by Dun & Bradstreet and Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management.
“That’s a big change. It’s outside the margin of error and outside normal statistical variation,” Craig R. Everett, assistant professor of finance at Pepperdine and director of the Graziadio and Dun & Bradstreet Private Capital Markets Project, tells deBanked. He’s comparing the shift to patterns established in the nearly six years the quarterly index has pegged small-business trends.
But the effects of bankers’ increased willingness to lend to small businesses may prove a bit muted in the alternative funding industry. That’s partly because Pepperdine and Dun & Bradstreet define small businesses as having up to $5 million in annual revenue. Alt funders often deal with much smaller enterprises that could still fail to capture the attention of bank loan officers, says Noah Grayson, managing director of South End Capital in Encino, Calif. “If you’re making $5 million in gross revenue, that’s a pretty robust business,” he says of his clients.
Then there are the borrowers whose companies seem small in that they employ just a few people but might rake in $5 million on a single contract – like contractors who specialize in heavy construction equipment or have a presence in the aviation business – but aren’t profitable enough to qualify for bank loans, says Gene Ayzenberg, CEO of PledgeCap, a company with offices on Long Island and in Manhattan that specializes in business and personal loans secured by collateral.
Besides, lots of alternative lenders don’t regard gross revenue as the measure of a business. “I would look at what kind of resources and infrastructure the business has to define what is small and medium-sized,” says David Obstfeld, CEO of New York-based SOS Capital. Many alt lenders cite the importance of net over gross.
The size of prospective borrowers aside, banks are probably lending to small merchants more often these days because small businesses are becoming more profitable in today’s relatively healthy business climate and thus stand a better chance of qualifying for credit, Everett says. The recent reduction in corporate taxes will also improve profits and make small businesses more credit-worthy, he says.
The change in bank lending volume seems tied to those financial gains and doesn’t appear to be linked to any shift in policy among bankers, Everett notes. But new policies at the Small Business Administration could prompt the banking community to view small-business loans more favorably, according to Grayson. The SBA is increasing the percentage it guarantees for some loans and reducing the amount required for a down payment on some loans, he notes. That could make life more difficult for some alternative lenders because most of the small-business loans made by major banks, like Wells Fargo and Chase, are SBA loans, he says. The SBA did not provide details regarding the changes by press time.
Regardless of what’s making banks loosen their grip on the purse strings, merchants are feeling more optimistic – or at least less gloomy – about obtaining bank loans in the near term, the study by Pepperdine and Dunn & Bradstreet indicates. In the fourth quarter of last year, 55 percent of small-business owners predicted difficulty in raising financing in the next six months, down from 61 percent a year earlier, the survey shows.
“That’s an improvement, but I still think it’s an alarmingly high number,” Ayzenberg says of those findings. “Before they even start worrying about how their operations are going and how good their product is, one in two businesses is already worrying that their bank is not going to be able to fulfill their needs. They shouldn’t have to have those fears.”
So, banks are becoming a bit more likely to loan to small businesses but still aren’t throwing open the flood gates to create a flood of funding. That’s true of banks that qualify as large and those classified as small.
American banks tend to be either small community institutions or huge national concerns that are swallowing up the remaining mid-sized regional banks, observers agree. Between 80 and 90 banks control assets of $10 billion or more and thus qualify as large, while thousands of small banks have more limited resources, says David O’Connell, an Aite Group senior analyst.
Large and small banks exhibit about the same degree of ambivalence toward small-business loans. Banks can mitigate the downside of the loans because they have funds to hire staffs and buy technology to analyze risk, O’Connell says. Executives at small banks can avoid potential problems with small-business loans because they’re often dealing with prospective borrowers who were their high school or college classmates, he notes.
Whether banks are large or small, they have their reasons to deny loans to small businesses. Perhaps foremost among the rationales for denying loans to small businesses is the cost of underwriting, says O’Connell. Banks simply can’t make enough money on the loans to pay the cost of processing them, he says, adding that, “It’s a long-standing problem.” For example, a bank can make a profit by loaning $2 million at prime plus 2 percent, but can’t cover the underwriting costs of an $80,000 loan that also earns prime plus 2 percent. The underwriting costs would be the same in both cases, he notes.
Banks became even more ambivalent about loaning to small businesses after the Great Recession struck in 2008, O-Connell continues. They didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the freewheeling period that preceded the economic catastrophe. About the same time, private equity and hedge funds began madding more capital available to alternative lenders, he says. Meanwhile, technology and alternative data sets helped the alternative industry understand risk and reduce underwriting costs, he maintains.
Banks also find it more expensive to loan to small businesses these days because the Dodd-Frank Act has increased compliance costs, Everett points out. “Red tape and reserve requirements for the banks have all increased under Dodd-Frank, so making loans to small businesses is less cost-effective than it was before.” Banks now need upwards of $1 billion in assets under management to remain viable, and they feel compelled to expand their staffs to follow all the new rules for lending, he says.
What’s more, bankers still exercise extreme caution when it comes to extending credit to small businesses because stores or restaurants often fail and then the business or the owner defaults on the loan, Everett says. That’s why banks often require business-loan applicants to demonstrate two years of profitability to qualify for credit, he notes. Higher interest that can mitigate that risk, but state usury laws often capping rates at 36 percent or less, Everett notes. New York, for example, limits banks to 16 percent, he says.
State usury laws don’t apply to factoring or merchant cash advances, and that enables alternative funders to charge more for the use of funds, Everett says. “If it’s not called a loan and what the customer is paying is not called interest, then it’s not subject to state usury laws,” he says.
Obstfeld puts it this way: “In would be great to be in a business where nobody defaults. The rates we charge at SOS Capital are necessary to cover our losses and be profitable at the same time.”
The high cost of obtaining funds in the alternative market could eventually prompt the federal government to intervene with regulation but that probably won’t happen anytime soon, Everett predicts. O’Connell agrees, noting that in the current political climate the government has little appetite for new restrictions on a major source of capital for thousands of small businesses.
Because alternative funders have greater flexibility than banks in how much they can charge for access to credit, banks have sometimes formed referral relationships with alt funders to hand off small-business borrowers. “That looks good on paper and makes great headlines, but it’s harder to do in real life,” O’Connell maintains, because the bank loses control of the customer experience. If the alt funder doesn’t manage customers’ expectations effectively, the bank might have to take the blame – at least in some consumers’ minds, he contends. He’s surveyed bankers and found them feeling “really mixed” about such partnerships.
The impact of such partnerships hasn’t been as great as some anticipated. “We were quite nervous when we heard that JPMorgan would be using OnDeck’s platform,” recalls Obstfeld. “However, it’s been quite some time that they’ve been doing that and it hasn’t seemed to make a dent – at all – in alternative lending.”
But alternative funders can provide borrowers with advantages that banks can’t match. Some alternative lenders can approve a client’s application in a few hours and wire funds to the recipient the same day, Grayson says. Steve Hauptman, chief operating officer at SOS Capital, notes that banks can require weeks or even months to respond to an application.
That’s why SOS Capital customers sometimes obtains funding from the company as a bridge to keep operating while they’re waiting for an SBA bank loan or to take advantage of an opportunity that requires a quick response, Obstfeld says.
The advantages of the alternative funding industry don’t end there. SBA bank loans require more paperwork than is needed for a merchant cash advance, which can slow the process even further as the client assembles the documentation, Obstfeld notes.
In addition, banks can simply seem slow to respond to the needs of the market. “Banks are banks – they’re never going to be able to do the things we can do,” says Obstfeld. “If one product becomes an issue, we can pivot and create new product tomorrow. It takes banks years to get approval for something new.”
Then there are cards. Besides an increase in banks’ willingness to lend to small businesses, merchants are finding it easier to obtain business credit cards, the index provided by Pepperdine and Dun & Bradstreet finds. In the fourth quarter of last year, 65 percent of survey respondents applied successfully for cards, compared with 51 percent in the corresponding period a year earlier.
Easier access to credit cards might not make merchants less likely to apply for loans, Everett says. “Usually, credit cards are a backup plan,” he notes. “They’re the poor man’s line of credit. It’s a very high interest rate.” Most businesses would prefer to open a line of credit from a bank with a lower interest rate. Many cardholders use cards only for travel expenses or to ease short-term cash-flow issues, he says.
Finding the right credit card poses a challenge, even for those who are adept at online searches, says Grayson of South End Capital. In addition, many business credit cards carry a low spending limit. A business might qualify for a $5,000 credit limit on the card but could receive a $50,000 loan, he adds. “A card generally doesn’t fill their needs,” he declares.
Others have a slightly different view of business cards. “Once you get approved, it’s easy money,” Obstfeld says of business credit cards. However, cards can’t finance some of the actions that cash from merchant cash advances can cover, such as buying out a partner or opening a second location, he notes.
Moreover, the fact that competitors exist – whether they’re banks, card issuers or other alternative lenders – doesn’t necessarily threaten existing alt funders, according to Hauptman. Remember that banks and alternative lenders aren’t offering the same products, he says. Those products, such as bank loans, factoring and merchant cash advances, each have advantages and disadvantages, which prompt merchants to pursue the vehicles that are right for them, he says.
Having banks and nonbanks in the mix can even prove complementary, too. Pumping more funds into the small-business economy from any source can result in a healthier environment that offers more opportunities for all, Ayzenberg says.
The real danger resides not so much from direct competition but rather from failing to keep pace with the alternative lending industry’s introduction of new products, falling behind in the quest to speed up the decision-making process granting funding or neglecting to obtain technology that eases the application process, Grayson says.
In one recent development, some alternative lenders aren’t reviewing credit histories, he notes. Instead they look just at deposits and can extend credit based just on that, Grayson notes. That’s somewhat like a merchant cash advance, but it’s offered at single-digit rates and on favorable terms, he says. “A lot of lenders are making it very simple for borrowers to get money now,” he continues, concluding that alt funding firms that can’t afford to make such improvements probably can’t remain in business.
Though some players will inevitably disappear, the alternative small-business funding industry in general seems likely to survive so long as banks remain reticent about lending to small businesses – the situation that gave rise to the alternative industry in the first place.
Justice can require sacrifice. Take the example of a decision by the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to stop including some liens and most judgments in their credit reports.
The change makes life a little less unfair for consumers who fell victim to reporting errors. Many invested precious time and large amounts of money trying unsuccessfully to correct their credit histories and restore their reputations.
But for the alternative small-business finance industry, omitting data on liens and judgments increases costs, creates extra work and can even give rise to an unsettled feeling in the pit of the stomach. “You’re not looking at a full credit report anymore, which is kind of scary,” one alt funder admits.
Yellowstone Capital CEO Isaac Stern provides an example to illustrate what’s at issue. “Imagine I’m the Ford Motor Co. and I want to do a lease with you,” he says. “But I don’t have the information that you happen to have judgments from Chrysler, Chevy and BMW, so I approve your lease. Imagine that! Without full information, how do you make accurate decisions?”
Operating without the data could prove dangerous, agrees David Goldin, who sold his U.S. Capify operations to Strategic Funding Source in January but still runs Capify UK and Capify Australia and remains open to U.S. opportunities. “The IRS could come in and seize credit card processing accounts and prevent the lender from getting paid,” he says. “Once you have a judgment a creditor could come in and freeze bank accounts.”
Fears aside, the change in reporting probably won’t dry up alternative small-business credit – even in the short run, Goldin predicts. Alt funders will adjust quickly, he says, noting that they can compare the old and new credit scores of long-time customers to spot patterns and apply those patterns to their calculations. The industry can also tap alternative sources of information.
Even with those reassurances, the transition would have been easier if the industry had more advance notice, alt funders say. “We found out July 31 when a Reuters rep emailed us and said this is going into effect tomorrow,” recalls Stern. “That was really weird – I’ve got to tell you.” Experian didn’t provide a heads-up even though Yellowstone is one of its largest New Jersey customers, he notes. “We were a little bit annoyed, but what are going to do?” Meanwhile, Goldin says he didn’t begin researching the situation until deBanked asked him about it. “I don’t think anyone really knew about it” much in advance, he says.
But the industry is finding out and taking action. Yellowstone, for example, is performing a performing a workaround by integrating the judgments and liens section of the Clear investigative platform into the information underwriters see when they open a file, Stern says. The integration required a couple of weeks of hard work by the Yellowstone tech team, he notes.
Clear, which is provided by Thomson Reuters, amasses public records that can date back 20 years and can fill more than a hundred pages, he says, adding that you have to know where to look for the relevant information. “You have to dig through it,” he says.
In the past, Yellowstone performed a Clear report on most files just before funding them, Stern explains. Now, the Clear report is scrutinized more extensively and earlier in the process – before the file is approved. As a result, Yellowstone underwriters will have all the information they need, but it will take them a little longer to get it, he says.
Yellowstone incurred the expense of obtaining additional user licenses from Clear, which cost it $800 to $900 monthly Stern says. Experian now charges the same price for less information, he notes.
Accommodating the changes didn’t require more underwriters but it became necessary to hire four additional data entry clerks to input information until the integration with Clear was completed, Stern says. Now that Clear and the Yellowstone systems are working together, the four extra clerical workers will shift their attention to inputting data from the increasing number of applications coming into the company, he says.
Most Alt funders won’t need to employ more people in their underwriting departments because changes to their models will be automated, Goldin says. “I don’t think this is as much of a game changer as people think it is,” he says of the credit bureaus’ new approach to reporting.” It’s just one extra step. It’s more of a nuisance issue than a manpower issue.”
However, a challenge arises for underwriters because leaving out the liens and judgments will result in higher credit scores for some loan or advance applicants, Goldin says. That means some alt lenders may need to go to the trouble and expense of tweaking their risk models to compensate for the change in the scores reported by the credit bureaus, he maintains.
The impact may be greatest among alt funders who rely on quick online decision-making, Goldin says. Adding extra steps to the process increases the difficulty of maintaining the speed that provides a selling point and a source of pride for those companies.
While Clear is helping to fill the gap at Yellowstone, it’s not the only company providing much-needed data. LexisNexis Risk Solutions isn’t a credit bureau and will thus continue to disseminate information it gathers from courtrooms on lien and judgments, Goldin notes. Alt lenders who weren’t already using the vendor’s service or were using it only when an application reached a predetermined threshold will face added expense because of the credit bureaus’ decision, he says.
Indeed, LexisNexis Risk Solutions views the credit bureaus’ hiatus on some liens and judgments reporting as a business opportunity to increase its sales by supplying the missing data, according to Ankush Tewari, senior director of marketing planning in the company’s business services section. The company was already selling data on liens and judgments and anticipates selling much more of it, he observes.
For 15 years LexisNexis Risk Solutions has been selling RiskView Solutions, a product that contains liens, judgments and other information not generally found on credit reports, such as the assessed value of a consumer’s home or a list of a consumer’s professional licenses. It offers no data on loan repayment but its other information helps define a consumer’s creditworthiness and character, Tewari says. Lenders can combine that peripheral information with credit scores for a more complete customer profile that outperforms the credit score alone, he suggests.
And there’s more. LexisNexis Risk Solutions has reacted to the credit bureaus’ decision by creating RiskView Liens & Judgments Report, which lists only those two types of records. “The credit bureaus announced these changes a year ago, and we knew there would continue to have a need for that data,” Tewari says. The company prices the RiskView information based upon the transaction volume, he notes, so a lender pays less per transaction as volume increases.
With this emphasis on liens and judgments, one might well wonder who tracks down the information. Companies like LexisNexis Risk Solutions gather and disseminate public records on liens and judgments from courthouses throughout the United States, says Tewari. Over the years the company acquired some of its competitors and eventually was spun off from its sister company, LexisNexis, which built its name partly as an aid for lawyers researching cases, he notes.
For decades, LexisNexis Risk Solutions has been providing the credit bureaus with raw data not only on liens and judgments but also on bankruptcies, Tewari says. The bureaus have then parsed those files electronically and appended the data to credit reports, he continues.
Problems arose because the credit bureaus’ tech systems could not always link the court documents to the right person when the courts provided only a name and address, Tewari maintains. Courts often limit information in their records to those two identifiers because they’re reluctant to divulge additional identification that criminals could intercept and use to commit fraud, he says.
Tewari traces the bureaus’ inaccuracies in matching court records to the right people to what he calls the bureaus’ “DNA.” The bureaus are accustomed to receiving “clean” information from lenders on a regularly scheduled basis. Conversely, some of the LexisNexis Risk Solutions data, gathered from obscure places like county deed offices, may arrive in a form that’s far from clean, he notes.
However, that lack of court information or inconsistencies in the presentation of that information doesn’t pose problems for LexisNexis Risk Solutions because the company cleans the data before analyzing it. Tests indicate its linking methodology works accurately with just a name and address more than 99.9 percent of the time, Tewari contends. Thus, the company can establish that John Smith at 1234 Maple Street is the same person as John A. Smith at 1234 Maple Street, he says. He considers that linking technology the core of the company’s operations.
The information LexisNexis Risk Solutions can supply becomes vital to lenders because studies indicate that people who have a lien or judgment on file are twice as likely as people without them to default on a consumer loan and five times as likely to default on a mortgage, Tewari says. “The data didn’t become less important because the credit bureaus decided not to include it anymore,” he maintains. “It’s still just as predictive as it was.”
Meanwhile, other types of information can also help lenders make decisions, notes Eric Lindeen, vice president of marketing for ID Analytics, a credit risk and fraud risk management company that offers a credit score called Credit Optics, which it bases on a combination of traditional and alternative credit data.
Alternative credit data is defined as anything the credit bureaus don’t include in their reports, Lindeen says. Examples include the bills consumers pay for cell phones, utilities and cable television, he notes, adding that rent is also sometimes considered alternative credit data. The category also encompasses records from marketplace lenders.
A consumer’s tendency to pay those bills on time, late or not at all can reflect on creditworthiness, Lindeen maintains. That history becomes relevant for alt funders because the small businesses they serve constitute a hybrid of consumer and commercial credit, he says.
Using that data, ID Analytics can spot people who are good credit risks when the credit bureaus still consign them to “thin file” status — the limbo where applicants don’t have enough credit history to evaluate their creditworthiness, Lindeen maintains. About 60 percent of near-prime applicants qualify for credit when lenders factor in alternative data, according to an ID Analytics study he says. At the same time, alternative data can also expose weaknesses among individuals with excellent traditional credit scores, he observes.
Combining alternative data with traditional data has become more important with the bureaus’ decision to stop supplying data on liens and judgments, Lindeen says. Leaving out that data will raise some credit scores, and the effect will be strongest among near-prime individuals with good but not great traditional scores, he notes. With those consumers, a 10-point shift could make a big difference in qualifying for credit, he says.
“Even though it’s a small population, it’s a critical population,” Lindeen says of those newly minted prime applicants. They may number only one in a hundred of a particular funder’s portfolio, but they may advance to another risk pool and consequently invalidate a risk model, he suggests. Over time, risk managers will adapt to the change and oversee a “risk migration,” he predicts.
Overall, between 6 percent and 9 percent of consumers will see their credit scores rise because of the bureaus’ new policy, Lindeen estimates. The change usually won’t exceed 20 points, he says. Still, about 700,000 will see an improvement of 40 points or more, he continues. “That’s a significant increase for a nontrivial population,” he says. “It’s likely their performance will stay the same as their score goes up.”
A study by VantageScore Solutions, the company that provides the VantageScore credit scoring model to the credit reporting bureaus, projected scores would increase an average of 10 points for slightly more than 8 percent of the scorable U.S. population.
Those changes are characterized as “minimal” by Francis Creighton, President & CEO of the Consumer Data Industry Association, a trade group that represents the three major credit bureaus as well as about a hundred other companies – mostly smaller credit bureaus around the country, resellers of credit bureau information and background screening companies.
The credit bureaus decided to curtail reporting of judgments and liens as part of the National Consumer Assistance Plan, or NCAP, Creighton says. NCAP is an agreement reached in March 2015 among the three major credit bureaus and the attorneys general of 31 states, who were pressing for fairness in credit reports. Many observers call NCAP a “settlement” but the agreement did not result from a lawsuit, he notes.
Under NCAP, the bureaus will continue to include bankruptcies in their reports because the records meet the standard of providing a name, address, Social Security number and date of birth and because visits to the courthouse to update records occur at least every 90 days. About half of liens don’t meet those standards and will be removed from credit reports, and nearly all judgments fail to adhere to the standard and will no longer appear on the reports.
Although Creighton declines to say how many consumers were victims of credit reporting errors, he emphasizes the severity of the problem for each victim. “If you were one of the people who had a name similar to somebody else or a similar Social Security number, it would impact you a lot,” he maintains. “I don’t know how widespread it was, but it was disruptive enough for individual people that it’s better just not to have it.”
A Federal Trade Commission study released in 2013 reported that a sample of 1,000 credit reports indicated that 25 percent had at least one error that could reduce scores, according to published reports. Such findings prompted state attorneys general to seek remedies that resulted in NCAP.
The bureaus planned to implement another major portion of NCAP in September when they were to begin waiting 180 days before reporting medical debts, Creighton notes. At the same time, debts for medical expenses covered by insurance policies were to be omitted from credit reports, he says.
Changes brought by NCAP represent part of ongoing efforts to improve the system, according to Creighton. “We want accurate information in the reports,” he says. “That’s good for everybody.”
LendingPoint, a consumer lender staffed largely by former CAN Capital employees, may have something to teach the alternative small-business finance industry about creditworthiness. Three-year-old LendingPoint claims to go beyond FICO scores to bring each applicant’s sense of fiscal responsibility into sharper focus.
But first, let’s examine the CAN Capital connection. Four or five members of LendingPoint’s top management team came to the company after lengthy tenures at CAN Capital, a LendingPoint official says. That includes Tom Burnside, LendingPoint’s CEO and founder, and Franck Fatras, the company’s president and chief operating officer. Both worked 13 years for CAN Capital, with Burnside leaving as chief operating officer and Fatras departing as chief technology officer, according to biographies posted online.
All told, about 30 of LendingPoint’s 100 or so employees – a total that includes outsourced positions – formerly labored at CAN Capital, according to Fatras. Many put in considerable time at CAN Capital, holding jobs there in management, corporate governance, legal affairs, risk, sales, operations, IT, marketing, analytics, design, customer service, partner success and success delivery, online reports say.
Geography no doubt encourages CAN Capital employees to consider LendingPoint when it’s time to move on to another job. Both companies maintain headquarters in office parks in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw. In fact, the two companies operate half a mile apart, both of them just off of Cobb Place Boulevard Northwest, according to Google Maps and Directions.
— LPLoans (@LPLoans) March 13, 2017
The way Fatras tells it, LendingPoint hasn’t raided CAN Capital’s workforce. “We post the job, and they end up responding,” he says. “When they’re known quantities and people we have a lot of respect for, we just end up making it work.”
Moreover, LendingPoint’s connections with other companies don’t begin or end with CAN Capital. Some of the people in top management met when they worked at First Data Corp. and Western Union, Fatras recalls. Juan E. Tavares, co-founder and chief strategy officer, and Victor J. Pacheco, chief product officer, came from those relationships, he says.
Regardless of where they became acquainted, Lendingpoint’s leadership team has come together to form a direct balance-sheet consumer lender specializing in what they call a “near prime” clientele. The company defines the phrase “near prime” to include personal-loan applicants with FICO scores from 600 to 700, Fatras says, adding that the segment’s not sub-prime and not prime. The company has even trademarked “NEARPRIME” as a single word in capital letters, and it appears that way on the company website. It regards those consumers as “deserving yet underserved,” Fatras notes.
To qualify those applicants for credit, LendingPoint considers “behavior,” such as work history, education, and timeliness with paying rent, utility bills and cell phone bills, Fatras says. “A lot of what we do is identify patterns,” he says. “It’s all about asking the right questions.” The process requires tapping into multiple sources to collect the data, he observes.
In a blog published online soon after LendingPoint was launched, executives Burnside and Tavares claim that most credit models search for ways to say no to applicants, while their company uses big data to find ways of saying yes. LendingPoint algorithms predict risk with great precision, they say.
In a newspaper opinion piece that ran about the same time, Burnside and Tavares maintain that their model examines cycles in an applicant’s life to pinpoint upward and downward trends. A consumer on the way up deserves a loan, according to the theory.
The company’s willingness to study information that resides outside credit scores did not originate with the CAN Capital connection, Fatras says. “The model is unique and the data structure we are using is unique,” he says. “It’s all about understanding the credit story of the person.”
Latin American lending practices had some influence on LendingPoint, Burnside and Tavares write in one of their editorial pieces. Lenders there review factors other than credit scores because the scores aren’t readily available in some countries, they write.
To analyze that type of non-FICO information, LendingPoint has developed its own internal scoring model and then automated the process, spending a lot of time to develop the technology, Fatras continues. Once again, asking the right questions determines the meaning that the company can extract from the data, he emphasizes. Otherwise, the information’s just not that beneficial, he says.
When consumers come to the LendingPoint website and answer five or six questions, they can receive a firm offer of credit in an average of seven seconds and sometimes as quickly as four seconds, Fatras maintains. The offers are contingent upon the company underwriting department’s validation of income and other figures, ne notes, adding that “we’re pretty happy with the infrastructure we’ve built.”
LendingPoint collects on the loans with automatic payments from customers’ savings or checking accounts twice a month, according to the company website. Deducting the payments twice a month helps customers with budgeting, the site says. Consumers can borrow up to $20,000 and pay it back in 24 to 48 months.
The system was devised by top management with combined experience of more than a century in credit and risk, Fatras says. When those executives with so much commercial lending experience gather around the conference table to talk about the business, the possibility of lending to small businesses occasionally comes up in the conversation.
But Fatras doubts the company will make that move to the commercial side anytime soon because companies in the alternative small-business finance industry are competing for 5 million to 6 million potential customers while the country has 50 million near-prime consumers. “The space is so big where we are,” he says. “The demand could be over a billion dollars a month. We have a lot of room in front of us for growth.”
With that seemingly infinite market, LendingPoint has been growing at a healthy pace, Fatras says. The company, which was self-funded for the first year, made its initial loan in January 2015. In 2016, it did $150 million in business, he notes. By the middle of this year, the company had made a total of $250 million in loans to 25,000 consumers, he says.
It’s a business model that members of the alternative small-business finance community might do well to emulate, Fatras suggests. “There could be a lot of cross-pollination,” between consumer and commercial loans when it comes to going beyond FICO, he says.
LendingPoint executives that were formerly at CAN Capital
Tom Burnside, CEO
formerly a COO and president at CAN
Franck Fatras, President and COO
formerly a CTO at CAN
Mark Lorimer, Chief Marketing Officer
formerly a CMO at CAN
Dave Switzer, Chief Analytics Officer
formerly a VP at CAN
Joe Valeo, EVP of Strategic Development
formerly an EVP at CAN
Automation hasn’t replaced humans yet when it comes to reading bank statements in the alternative small-business finance industry. ISOs, brokers, funders and underwriters still fend off drowsiness and ignore the risk of eye strain as they pore over months of paper or electronic documents.
Many consider the drudgery a necessary part of the business. A merchant’s bank statements can reveal negative balances and commitments to previous loans or previous cash advances – any of which can indicate a bad risk, observers say. Moreover, detecting altered statements can expose fraudulent attempts to obtain credit, they add.
So why not dispense with the tedium and possible tampering of reading paper statements and pdfs? Instead, interested parties could simply obtain the login credentials for a credit or advance applicant’s bank accounts and explore their banking records firsthand. But a mixture of fear, fraud and expense often prevents that direct and relatively simple approach, multiple sources contend.
“Merchants simply don’t want to give up their username and password to enable someone to log into their bank account,” says Sam Bobley, CEO of Ocrolus, a company that specializes in automating the reading of paper statements and statements that have been converted to PDFs. Fear of somehow falling victim to an electronic robbery may be at the root of that reluctance, many in the industry agree.
Whatever the source of the hesitancy to share login information, the wariness usually seems more pronounced at the beginning of the underwriting process than toward the end, notes Arun Narayan, senior vice president of risk and analytics at Strategic Funding Source Inc., a New York City-based direct funder. “I don’t think that’s a problem after the commitment to fund,” he says, “but it is a problem before the commitment to fund.” Funders can try to leverage their market power to urge brokers to obtain a username and password from a merchant, Narayan suggests. But he admits that approach works only some of the time.
Merchants who have had a bad experience applying for loans or advances or are submitting their first application exhibit the most fear of surrendering login credentials, according to John Tucker, managing member at 1st Capital Loans, a broker with headquarters in Troy, Mich. “If they’ve been through the process before, they pretty much know what’s expected of them,” he says.
All too often, applicants balk at presenting their login information because they have something to hide, notes Cheryl Tibbs, owner of One Stop Commercial Capital, an Atlanta-based brokerage that handles deals for multiple ISOs. She says her detective work with bank statements uncovers an average of two fraudulent applications per week.
Attempts at fraud average more than five a day at Elevate Funding, a Gainesville, Fla.-based director funder, says CEO Heather Francis. Her company’s underwriters learn what to look for in bank statements that can indicate a merchant is trying to defraud a funder, she says.
First, an underwriter who’s manually checking bank statements knows that documents bearing the names of certain banks have a higher likelihood of being bogus, Francis says. Apparently, fraudsters find the statements from those banks easier to alter, or perhaps they have the templates for those banks and can plug in false information, sources speculate.
WHETHER PAPER OR PDF BANK STATEMENTS PROVIDE TO BE ON-THE-LEVEL OR NOT, READING THEM MANUALLY TAKES TIME
Besides, anyone hoping to bilk a funder can buy a customized “vanity statement” for $25 or $30 on craigslist, complete with whatever deposits, opening balances and closing balances they choose, Francis notes. That can tempt troubled merchants as well as outright criminals, observers agree.
And some of the more bizarre errors that appear in falsified statements can seem almost comical. Tibbs cites the example of a statement she saw that was supposedly for January but was populated with transactions dated in February. On altered statements the ending balance for one month might not match the beginning balance for the next month, several sources note.
Sometimes the fake numbers that wayward applicants choose to include in their fraudulent statements can send up red flags, Tibbs maintains. If a merchant is seeking $40,000 and presents account documents indicating $80,000 or $90,000 balances at the end of each month, something’s amiss “10 times out of 10,” she says.
Tibbs tells the story or a referral partner from a one-or two-person ISO calling her in a state of near-euphoria in the middle of the night, breathlessly describing a potential customer with monthly sales of $800,000 and a need for $500,000 in capital. Experience told her immediately that something wasn’t right. In the morning, she saw the statement’s ending balances of $300,000 to $400,000, which confirmed her suspicions.
Yet grafting such unlikely numbers to a forged bank statement isn’t as unsophisticated as some of the telltale signs that the industry sees when viewing bank statements manually, notes Francis. Some aspiring crooks doctor genuine statements with white-out correction fluid and then type in new numbers in a mismatched font, she says.
Anyone reading bank statements should also beware of applicants who “shotgun” applications to multiple ISOs, often on the same day, Tibbs warns. She often comes across that scam because numerous partners refer deals to her, she says.
Whether paper or pdf bank statements prove to be on-the-level or not, reading them manually takes time. An experienced underwriter who knows where to look for what he or she needs to find to verify a statement requires 15 to 20 minutes to approve one from a familiar financial institution, Francis says.
It seems that nearly every bank or credit union has its own way of designing statements, so the manual reading process slows down when an underwriter manually reads a document with an unfamiliar layout, Francis notes. Unfamiliar types of statements sometimes come from small, obscure credit unions or remote community banks, observers say.
Familiar or unfamiliar, statements represent a key part of the underwriting process, and some funders accept the time and expense of reading them manually as simply a cost of doing business, according to Francis. But that expense can become a significant portion of the cost of a credit evaluation, according to Narayan.
That’s why Narayan and his colleagues at Strategic Funding Source have been working with Ocrolus, a startup company that automates the reading of paper statements and pdf’s of statements. Ocrolus uses optical character recognition, or OCR, to automate the reading of those statements.
Simply stated, OCR enables a machine to make sense of the characters it perceives in an image, says Bobley, the Ocrolus executive quoted earlier. When the platform can’t make out certain data points, they’re snipped and verified by humans in crowdsourced mini CAPTCHA tests, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing.
They’re those tests that ask computer users to type what they see to prove they’re not robots, Bobley notes. When two of three crowd workers agree on what an image says in the CAPTCHA test, the Ocrolus platform accepts their verdict as correct, he says.
Ocrolus envisions a large market for its new platform among the many funders still reading bank statements manually in the early stages of underwriting, Bobley says. However, in the later stages of underwriting many of those funders already use bank sync companies to verify statements.
Bank sync companies include DecisionLogic, MicroBilt, Yodlee, Plaid and Finicity. They connect directly with some financial institutions to verify statements. Funders often mention the expense when they talk about bank sync companies, and they also note that bank sync companies have not yet established connections with some lesser-known financial institutions.
But late in the funding process, Elevate Funding requires merchants to cooperate with the bank sync company it uses unless extenuating circumstance dictate otherwise, says Francis. The bank sync company can gain direct access to statements using encrypted login information that does not reveal the true username or password to Elevate Funding or the bank sync company, she maintains.
Some of Elevate Funding’s brokers maintain portals that merchants can use to provide their login credentials to get the bank sync process underway, Francis notes. The portal takes merchants to a page with Elevate Funding branding through a white-label program the bank sync company provides.
“IT HAS SAVED US FROM MERCHANTS THAT WOULD HAVE DEFAULTED…IT IS A NECESSARY TOOL – ONE THAT WE HAVE TO USE”
In about 85 percent of Elevate deals, the bank sync company is connected with the merchant’s financial institution and therefore theoretically capable of gaining access to the accounts in question, Francis notes.
Over the past 30 days the Elevate Funding bank sync results included 3 percent bank error and 17 percent merchant error, while 73 percent of the statements were verified, Francis says. Bank error occurs when the bank sync company is connected to the bank but still can’t obtain the account information. Merchant error sometimes happens when the potential client provides an incorrect user name or password, probably after forgetting the right one. Merchant error can also mean that the applicant was plotting fraud and abandoned the bank sync process upon realizing he or she was about to get caught.
The upshot? Some 73 percent of the bank statements submitted are verified, meaning that the information the merchants submitted matches the numbers at the bank, Francis reports. That also means that for whatever reason 7 percent don’t even start the process they’ve requested, she says.
Meanwhile, the bank sync connection also provides real time data that would indicate to the funder whether the merchant has had a decline in sales, an increase in negative activity or the recent addition of a credit provider, Francis says.
The service can pay off. In an average month, the bank sync service detects about 10 or 15 bad deals that Elevate Funding underwriters had accepted, Francis says. “It has saved us from merchants that would have defaulted,” she says. “It is a necessary tool – one that we have to use.”
But what about those cases where the bank sync company can’t connect with the financial institution and the merchant still won’t give up the login for the account? At 1st Capital Loans, Tucker can sometimes handle the situation by getting a bank activity sheet that lists transactions. If that type of sheet’s not available, he arranges a phone call to with a representative of the bank to verify that nothing’s amiss with the applicant’s bank account.
It’s another example of how – even with today’s rampant automation – the human touch sometimes remains indispensable in assuring that merchants deserve the loans or advances they seek.
About a year ago, Cheryl Tibbs, general manager of Douglasville, Ga.-based One Stop Funding, was having trouble getting in touch with one of her clients. The merchant in question runs a lawn care service and is usually out on the job, so he isn’t quick to return phone calls or respond to email messages.
“I just got the idea to send a text,” Tibbs recalls. She typed a message expressing her regret for intruding but letting her client know that he needed to take certain steps to advance the funding process for his loan application. He texted right back.
After that initial success, the texting continued between Tibbs and the lawn care provider. He’s been a customer for us for a while, and that’s just how we communicate,” she says. “It’s easy for him to stop and shoot me a text as opposed to having a full conversation with me.”
Tibbs isn’t alone in her appreciation for text messaging as a part of the sales process. Quick responses to texts are making the medium increasingly important in the alternative small-business funding business, maintains Gil Zapata, CEO of Miami-based Lendinero. “Text messaging is more powerful than emailing nowadays,” he declares.
One reason for that shift is that texts are easy to use, according to Tibbs. “It’s a matter of convenience for the merchant,” she contends. “In this business, any way you can make it easier for the merchant to facilitate the transaction with you is the method you have to use.”
Besides the convenience, there’s the sense of urgency people feel when they receive a text, asserts Jeb Blount, a sales trainer who’s written eight sales-oriented books, including the bestselling Fanatical Prospecting. “When you send a text message you move to the top of a person’s priority list,” he says. In fact, people who are talking face-to-face often disengage from the conversation to respond to a text message, he notes. “It’s treated as something that’s urgent.”
As texting becomes more commonplace in the alternative-finance business, some industry salespeople are beginning to view the medium in the same way they regard email, telephones and fax machines. “I use them as another tool for follow-up communications,” John Tucker, managing member of 1st Capital Loans in Troy, Mich., says of text messages. “In addition to sending them an email, I’ll shoot them a text.”
Texting has become almost standard procedure at Florida-based Financial Advantage Group LLC, according to Scott Williams, the firm’s managing member. He prefers that sales associates make the initial contact by phone to get a sense of what the merchant is looking for in a funding deal. After gathering information and getting approval, it’s best to send the offer by email so the merchant has “all the numbers in black and white” and more details than a text message can hold, he notes. After that, text messages can deliver requests for additional documentation and provide updates on the progress of the funding process. “We can tell them, ‘Hey, everything got cleared this morning – we should be able to do the funding this afternoon,’” he says.
Texting expedites communication regarding renewals, too, Williams observes. “If a merchant is 50 percent paid back, you can check in and see if they need some additional capital right now,” he says. “It’s really good for that.”
Clients can use messaging to convey images of documents needed in the funding process, Tibbs says. “I had a merchant yesterday who sent me over her IRS tax agreement through picture message,” Tibbs says by way of example. Often, funders request color images of both sides of an applicant’s driver’s license, she notes. To fulfill such requirements, it’s generally easier to snap a photo with a phone and send it as a picture message than to scan pages of paper into a computer to create an electronic document and then send the resulting file by email. “We do a lot with picture messaging,” she observes.
But as useful as text messaging can become for contacting phone-shy clients or helping clients share an image to document a key cancelled check, companies should exercise care when using the medium for prospecting, warns Zapata. He and just about everyone else deBanked consulted emphasizes that sending unsolicited text messages can violate Federal Trade Commission regulations. “Just because our industry isn’t regulated doesn’t mean there aren’t regulations out there on the side,” he says.
Most say they learned of the regulations from third-party vendors who specialize in sending batches of text messages simultaneously. The key to sending those groups of messages legally is to get permission from the recipients in advance, notes Ted Guggenheim, CEO of TextUs, a Boulder, Colo., company specializing in multiple-texting services. “If you’re (randomly) contacting people you got off a list somewhere, that’s a pretty bad idea,” he maintains.
The feds heavily regulate five-digit short-code texts but tread lightly with long-code texts – the ones sent from 10-digit phone numbers, Guggenheim says. The latter would apply in alternative finance, and if a text recipient calls back on the phone number associated with a long-code text, someone will answer, he notes.
Citing guidelines from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), Guggenheim stipulates that consumers should have the ability to opt out of additional messages after receiving the first one. Members of the industry who want to send groups of text messages can post conditions on their websites that compel users to grant permission to contact them by text if they submit their contact information, he suggests.
After ensuring everything’s legal, Tucker reports 1st Capital Loans nets a good response when he uses a vendor to blast multiple identical text messages to lists of prospective clients who have already granted permission for his company to contact them by text message. The strategy has helped bring in a reasonable number of deals because the prospects were “already in the pipeline,” he notes.
Remember, though, that cell phone numbers change more often than land line numbers, Tucker cautions. That means a call to a number that’s been reassigned could inadvertently fall into the unsolicited text message category that violates federal rules, he says. “You could be texting a 14-year-old,” instead of a small business, he warns.
When mounting a mass text campaign, marketers are wise to avoid lengthy missives, according to Tibbs. “Keep it simple,” she says. A typical message from her might read: “Looking for funding? Looking for capital? Give us a call,” she notes.
In business texts, avoid acronyms like “LOL” and write in complete sentences with proper punctuation and capitalization, Blount suggests. “Begin by typing out the message somewhere other than in the text box, read it, make sure it makes sense and then send it,” he says. Put your name with the word “from” at the top of the message so the recipient knows who sent it, he emphasizes.
Keep messages conceptual rather than marketing-oriented, Guggenheim advises. Messages should directly address the customer’s situation to avoid seeming they were sent by a robot, he says. As with any response a salesperson receives, getting back to customers quickly pays off in better results, he adds. When sending a batch of texts, vendors of the bulk service can ensure every text bears the same phone number that the sales rep uses to call the client, thus avoiding the possible confusion of using more than one number, says Guggenheim. The system he offers can trigger a pop-up on the computer screen of a specified salesperson when a text recipient responds, he says. It also keeps management informed of the volume of texts and the response rate, he says. That helps managers determine which types of text messages are working, he maintains.
Users can also rely on Guggenheim’s TextUs system to schedule messages for delivery in the future to remind clients of meetings. The system detects land-line numbers and informs the user that the phone will not receive text messages, and it integrates with customer-relationship management systems to exchange information, he says.
So used properly, texting can offer benefits for everyone involved. But some unscrupulous players still insist upon using the medium to mislead prospective clients, says Zapata. His customers have shown him texts from competitors who make initial contact or early contact by sending text messages that might look like offers but are really just marketing letters, says Zapata. That approach, which might tout the availability of $50,000, can cause problems when it turns out that the merchant qualifies for only $25,000, he explains. “Trust me, you’re not going to look like the good guy,” he says of the firms that send what he considers objectionable text messages.
Sensitivity comes into play with text messaging, according to Blount. He and other sources say a great number of people regard email as business-oriented and texts as personal. That leads them to nonchalantly delete unwanted email messages but to become angry when they receive a text they didn’t want, he says. “You can’t send text messages to customers if they don’t know you,” he counsels.
Once a relationship is established, however, text messages can nurture it, Blount maintains. Suppose two businesspeople meet at a networking event and exchange business cards, he says. He advises noting the cell number on the card and sending a LinkedIn invitation immediately after meeting the potential client. Twelve hours later he would send a text message mentioning the encounter. If the salesperson can get the potential client to respond to a text message, that prospect is granting permission to receive texts, he says.
Blount’s example seems to suggest the line between business and personal may be blurring when it comes to texting. People often check their email messages on phones these days – instead of on a laptop or desktop computer – which also minimizes the difference between texting and emailing, says Tibbs. “Everybody does everything with their phone these days,” she notes.
Communicating through a more personal channel such as texting has advantages, too, Williams contends. That’s because some merchants consider their financing to be personal and don’t want to broadcast the details to employees, he says. To protect their privacy, merchants often provide financial institutions with their cell phone number instead of their office number or toll-free line, he notes.
Meanwhile, the world continues to become more comfortable with texting. When Williams and his sales associates began messaging clients about four years ago, they found younger customers receptive and older ones reluctant, he remembers. In the intervening years, however, the 50 plus crowd has warmed to the medium, he observes.
An advantage that accrues with text messaging – compared with email – arises from the fact that spam filters and spam folders don’t seem to have a place in the world of texting. Several sources cite that as a big advantage with using texts. “If you send someone a text message, they’re going to see it,” notes Zapata.
Asked about a downside to the proper use of text messaging in business, most sources could not name one. However, Williams has discovered one area where the mode of communication comes up short. “I would not deliver bad news over text-messaging,” he advises. “If the merchant is upset or frustrated by the news, it would be better-handled in a phone call so you could explain the reason for the negative news. A text message leaves too many things unsaid.”
Alternative-finance industry executives tend to agree on at least two basic rules for building a successful sales team: Hire people who know how to sell and never stop training them. Following the second rule requires knowledge and perseverance. The first one takes a leap of faith.
To obey Rule No. 1, companies have to find ways of determining who possesses that elusive quality known as salesmanship, even among inexperienced job candidates. To that end, most firms make an educated guess based on experience, intuition, common sense, high hopes and the good graces of Lady Luck.
“We look at personality traits,” says Zach Ramirez, a World Business Lenders vice president and manager of the company’s Costa Mesa, Calif., branch. “We’re looking for an outstanding person – the highest-caliber person we can find. They should be hard-working and competitive. You can underline ‘competitive.’ They should have a fire inside them.”
“We want someone who’s hungry for money and is going to be a go-getter, says Chad Otar, CEO and executive funding manager at Excel Capital Management Inc. “It’s a feeling that you get when you talk to them. You can tell when a person is going to sit back and not do anything.” In addition, good candidates aren’t intimidated by the challenge of learning how the industry works, he notes.
“It’s really about how you connect with someone,” according to Amanda Kingsley, who owns Options Capital and also works as a sales training consultant. “Even over the phone, you need to treat people with understanding. You need to inspire the trust that you could provide the advisory help they need.” Small details, like remembering a potential client’s daughter just got married, mean a lot, she says.
“It comes down to drive and personality,” says John Celifarco, sales manager at Sure Funding Solutions. He finds there’s not much room for the thin-skinned and it takes a certain kind of person to succeed. “When you find the right people, it usually clicks pretty quick,” he says. “For the people who don’t work out, it usually falls apart pretty quick.”
“I look for strong personalities,” says Isaac Stern, CEO of Yellowstone Capital. “I don’t believe you can necessarily teach someone to sell,” he asserts. “This isn’t an easy sell, so you have to have a Type A personality. They’re on the phone and they’re confident whether they know the product or not in the beginning.” The interview process can “weed out” candidates who aren’t going to find success, he says.
Don’t expect someone with a background in outside sales to find happiness spending eight hours a day on the phone as an inside salesperson, warns Stephen Halasnik, managing partner at Financing Solutions. As a direct financing company, his firm hires salespeople different from those an ISO or broker employs, he says. His company expects salespeople to act as consultants who are knowledgeable about finance and empathetic to small-business owners.
Nearly every company prefers candidates with selling experience, possibly in telemarketing. Some seek reps with a background in selling financial services, but others prefer prospective employees who are new to the industry. “I don’t want to hire someone else’s problem child,” Stern asserts. “I’d like them to learn the way we do things from start
“Different offices have different cultures, so someone who has worked well in one office might not work well in another,” Celifarco says. People hired from other companies may bring bad habits, he says. They may approach the job in a variety of ways they’ve learned elsewhere and thus prevent the company from presenting a consistent face to the public, he says. “Every company has an identity,” he contends.
Applicants without a sales background sometimes rise to the occasion and succeed, says Ramirez. In fact, one of his top sales managers joined the company with no sales experience. Former entrepreneurs, even those without a sales background, often have a lot in common with other small-business owners and that helps them do well, he notes.
Excel Capital Management seeks salespeople with differing backgrounds for two different types of roles in its sales force, says Otar. Openers work on salary and should have phone sales experience so they’re comfortable on the telephone. Closers, who work for commissions, should have experience at selling financial services products or something closely
related, such as stocks or mortgages, he says.
While good hiring practices bring good employees into the company, they also guard against inviting bad ones into the fold. World Business Lenders uses several third-party companies to perform background checks and pre-employment screening, but most often calls upon ADP, says Alex Gemici, the company’s chief revenue officer. ADP performs evaluations that comply with the laws of the states where the employees are located, he says.
Eliminating unsavory candidates carries special significance in the alternative-finance business, notes Ramirez. “It’s critically important that they have no background issues,” he says. “In this industry there a lot of bad apples out there. It’s important that they don’t infiltrate our organization.”
“It’s very difficult to find loyal guys,” Otar laments. “They come in and utilize all your systems and then you catch them stealing.” In other words, they pass deals along to other companies. Otar has caught three of his closers doing exactly that. “You’ve got to be very careful,” he warns, adding that it’s difficult to spot bad actors because they’re skilled at selling themselves.
Once a company chooses the best candidates, the training can begin. New salespeople always start on Mondays at World Business Lenders, and the company’s corporate headquarters conducts sales training nationwide that day, says Gemici. The full day of instruction originates at headquarters, and new hires at branch locations participate on Skype. Subjects include the industry in general, specific company products and sales tips.
On Tuesdays, the World Business Lenders branches take over the training for a day or more, Gemici notes. That instruction, which lasts as long as the branches decide, can include having the new employees “shadow” more-experienced workers and having crack salespeople listen in on the phone calls of the new staffers as they make their pitches.
In the World Business Lenders office in California, Ramirez continues the training every day of a new employee’s first two weeks on the job. Tuesday and Wednesday of the first week, he spends the full eight-hour day with them. After that, he sets aside at least two or three hours of instruction each day. “I want to err on the side of over-training,” he explains.
From there, education continues as long as employees work for the company, Ramirez says. That can include spot training that he institutes anytime he sees a problem or an opportunity for improvement. Ongoing training also helps salespeople keep up with changes that occur in the industry, he notes.
The sales staff in the California office of World Business Lenders also assembles in a conference room for regular sales meetings. Ramirez picks a rep who’s outstanding at some aspect of the job to deliver a short lecture on the subject at those meetings. A star at prospecting, for example, could explain tricks of that part of the trade and then field questions on the subject. “That way, everybody can learn what everybody else knows,” he says.
For ongoing training at Financing Solutions, Halasnik calls his staff into a “huddle” for 10 minutes every day. They review what deals are pending so that salespeople know what management is seeking and can use that knowledge when they’re gathering data from customers. “We’re looking for reasons to give someone financing that doesn’t fit the cookie cutter approach a bank would use,” he notes. The team also use the huddle to share information about the industry.
At Sure Funding Solutions the sales staff meets every couple of weeks for ongoing training. They talk about some aspect of the sales process, such as opening, closing, dealing with banks, what’s working and what’s not working, says Celifarco. “I’ve been in this business since ’08, and I’m still learning new things,” he notes, adding that changing one phrase in a pitch could get better results.
Ongoing training at Excel hinges on monitoring phone calls to ensure openers are asking the appropriate questions to qualify leads and that closers are working effectively, Otar emphasizes. “It’s a never-ending process to learn what to say at the right time,” he says of his company’s training policies. Salespeople who have mastered the basics can bring their own personalities into their presentations to avoid sounding as though they’re reading from a script and thus foster an organic conversation, he notes. “That’s perfect – it’s golden,” he exclaims.
Kingsley agrees. “Don’t be too ‘salesy,’” she counsels. “That’s the best sales advice I can give.” Nobody enjoys receiving a telemarketing call, she reminds her trainees. Larger companies probably won’t heed that tip because they’re focused on volume, but smaller companies can avoid the “salesy” trap, she says.
Training should also teach originators to avoid industry jargon on their calls because prospects simply may not know the lingo, Kingsley cautions. Closers should learn from their training that knowledge of the customer’s industry can help build a relationship, she says. And knowing the customer’s industry also helps salespeople convey a deeper understanding of creditworthiness to underwriters, she maintains.
Financing Solutions trains salespeople to reveal information to clients through a string of questions instead of merely throwing out statements about the company’s products, Halasnik says. The questions can include how the customer’s business works and how he’ll use the money. That can allow the client to sell himself, and it can help the salesperson explain the client’s situation to the underwriters, he says.
Salespeople should learn to present themselves as professionals and avoid sounding like used car dealers, Halasnik maintains. “They have to understand business,” he notes, adding that training must convey that sensibility because “they don’t really come in that way.” In fact, he maintains that financing Solutions has to persevere in continuing to help the sales staff understand how small-business owners think.
Even though training never ends, it eventually pays off, Halasnik contends. He looks forward to the time – possibly in six months or so – when the roles reverse because his salespeople are picking up so much information that they’re training him. The fact that sales reps are making contact with customers keeps them in touch with the pulse of the industry, he notes.
But problems can arise even with the most persistent training efforts, so it’s also vital to begin the process with employees who are trainable, Kingsley suggests. “Some people listen to you, but then they don’t act on the advice,” she maintains. Others don’t want to expend the effort necessary to research their customers’ industries. “If you’re going to make $10,000 off of a sale, put in the work for it,” she admonishes.
Some companies are hiring lots of salespeople and putting them to work quickly as part an effort to achieve sheer volume, Kingsley says. Instead, she recommends training a smaller number of reps to conduct themselves in a transparent manner that promotes repeat business.
World Business Lenders allows for a 90-day period to determine whether a new salesperson and the company are a good fit, says Gemici. Turnover occurs during that period, often because the company is growing so quickly that it’s necessary to take on a few inexperienced employees, he says. For salespeople who complete the 90 days, the success rate is high, he notes.
“We like to say six weeks,” Otar says of his company’s probationary period. By then, a closer should be making four to seven deals a week, he suggests, noting that openers should generate 15 to 25 leads weekly and five to seven should be getting funded.
Salespeople can require four months to really catch onto their jobs, according to Halasnik. He finds that he can gauge their progress by the quality of the questions they ask, not by what they say. As they learn the business, their questions improve, he notes.
The effort required to find and train salespeople can tempt some companies to steal good employees from their competitors, but the problem’s no more severe in the alternative-finance industry than in other businesses, according to Ramirez. “I never intentionally poach someone else’s employees, although people have tried to recruit mine,” he says. “Most of these people are clients. These competitors of ours send deals to us so I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that relationship nor do I think that’s a good business tactic.”
So where are those prospective employees hiding? World Business Lenders employs a full-time in-house recruiter to ferret them out. Excel finds candidates on industry blogs or through general employment websites. Kingsley urges companies to contact colleges to seek out finance majors. Stern says he puts up a post and receives “tons of resumes.”
Wherever the employees come from, one of the keys to their success lies in understanding the customer’s business, Halasnik maintains. “If you only think of your business as money, it could be a little bit boring,” he says. “If you think about who the clients are and how they got there and who their customers are, that’s the fun part of the job.”
The alternative small-business finance community plans to lobby hard against a far-reaching proposed expansion of the New York state lending license. The proposal calls for any person or company that solicits, arranges or facilitates business and consumer loans – or other types of financing – to obtain a license. That could include MCA companies, business loan brokers and ISOs.
Critics claim the expansion, which Governor Andrew M. Cuomo included in his proposed state budget, could trigger a series of ominous and possibly unintended events in the courts and on Wall Street. “It could destroy the industry if the worst comes to fruition,” declared Robert Cook, a partner at Hudson Cook LLP.
Some opponents also contend that the public hasn’t had a reasonable opportunity to respond. “Sneaking a provision with significant impact like this into the budget and not going through regular order is really disturbing,” said Dan Gans, a Washington lobbyist who also serves as executive director of the the Commercial Finance Coalition. “They should allow all the stakeholders to have their voices heard.”
The industry’s trade groups have been quick to react. The Small Business Finance Association has been in contact with New York state legislators to help them understand the ramifications of the proposal, according to Stephen Denis, the trade group’s executive director. Meanwhile, Gans is recommending that the CFC’s board hire an Albany lobbying firm to help advance the industry’s interests.
New York’s current consumer licensing law is written broadly enough to cover any loan to an individual for less than $25,000, even if it’s made for commercial purposes, said Cook. That means the current law could cover loans to sole proprietorships but would not affect loans to corporations, limited liability companies, partnerships or limited liability partnerships, he noted.
Under the proposal in Governor Cuomo’s budget, any type of commercial loan of up to $50,000 would require a license, Cook said. Today, the state requires a license only if a loan carries a simple interest rate of more than 16 percent. Under the budget proposal, all lending would require a license, even if the interest rate is less than 16 percent. Loans made by alternative funders typically carry interest rates of 36 percent to 100 percent, he said.
New York already has a criminal usury rate of 25 percent, but lenders have two methods of avoiding that cap, according to Cook. Under one method, the parties to the loan can use a provision called the “choice of law clause” and thus agree that the contract is subject to the laws of a state that does not limit commercial usury rates, he said. Or, using the second method, the small-business finance company can solicit the loan and refer it to a bank in a state without a cap. The bank makes the loan but then sells the loan back to the small-business finance company or an affiliate, he noted.
But adopting the changes proposed in the New York budget could possibly stymie both methods of circumventing the state’s usury laws. Consider the choice of law clause, Cook suggested. The courts could interpret the proposed expansion as an effort by the state to gain more control of commercial lending. That could prompt the courts to refuse to enforce choice of law clauses involving New York state because doing so would violate a significant policy in New York, he maintained. The proposal could also gut the second way around the usury law – the bank model – by requiring employees of out-of-state banks to have a license in order to originate loans or by prohibiting rates in excess of New York’s cap, he said. Both outcomes are speculative but constitute distinct possibilities, he added.
Expanding the license would also grant additional regulatory authority to the New York State Department of Financial Services, Cook maintained. Besides requiring the license, the DFS would have the ability to regulate, supervise and examine commercial lenders, he said. In the past the department has imposed some significant regulations on licensees, including fair lending requirements and cyber security requirements, he said. “They’re a very active regulator,” he contended. “They could require commercial lenders to jump through a lot of hoops that aren’t there today.”
What’s more, time would pass while a company negotiates the initial hoops simply to obtain a license. Qualifying for the current New York license, for example, can take up to nine months, Cook said. “It’s a fairly intensive licensing process that requires a lot of information about the company, the officers and directors of the company,” he noted. “The licensing process is tough in New York.”
The expansion could also limit the industry’s access to capital, Cook warned. Some alternative funders raise money by selling loans or interests in loans on the secondary market. Requiring a license to buy those products could prompt Wall Street to look elsewhere for less-burdensome investment opportunities, he said.
The laundry list of potential bad effects has many in the industry wondering about the state’s intentions toward the industry. “It’s not clear whether the people up in Albany understand the potential effect this has,” Cook said.
To help bring about that understanding, the CFC intends to call upon its members and merchants who have benefitted from alternative finance to visit officials in the state capital, Gans said.
Gans finds reason for optimism as the associations coalesce around the issue. The state Senate in Albany tends to be pro-business, and I am confident we will find allies that will stand up to this, he said.
Denis also seems upbeat about the industry’s efforts to make itself heard in Albany. In Illinois, some legislators failed to differentiate between consumer loans and commercial loans when considering legislation last year, he noted. That might be the case in New York, too, and the SBFA might help them make the distinction, he said. As an example of the differences, he pointed out that business loans often carry high interest rates because of high risk. “We have talked to some folks in Albany, and everyone is receptive to the industry,” he said. Small business is a powerful constituency, he maintains.
Gans, Denis and Cook all said they’re not opposed to legislation or regulation that addresses problems caused by bad actors in the industry, but all three oppose government action that they believe unnecessarily limits members of the industry who are operating in good faith.
The proposed license in New York differs in at least one significant way from the California lending license that many alternative funders have obtained, Cook noted. The California license doesn’t impose a cap on interest rates, he said. If the New York proposal imposed licensing requirements but did not limit interest rates, the industry probably would reluctantly accept it, he suggested.
The LendIt Conference was supposed to be a smallish local meetup for New York-based members of the online lending community. But founders Jason Jones and Bo Brustkern soon discovered they had the makings of a big annual industrywide national convention. And before long, they found themselves replicating their successful American show on other continents.
To understand how the trade show was born and how it’s matured, flash back about seven years. In 2010, Jones and Brustkern were putting together venture capital deals when they happened onto the fledgling peer-to-peer lending movement. “Consumer credit was something we weren’t all that knowledgeable about, but we could see the market was large,” recalls Jones. “There was a clear opportunity that was structural in the market, and there were stable, consistent returns.” So the two of them launched one of the first P2P funds.
Their lending business soon took off, but Jones and Brustkern felt they were working in a void. The industry lacked community, and they decided to do something about it. Jones contacted his friend, Dara Albright, who had been organizing a series of crowdfunding conferences for Wall Street starting in mid 2011.
To heighten the credibility of the new confab, Jones, Brustkern and Albright decided to seek the help of Peter Renton. They didn’t know Renton personally but considered him “the voice of the industry,” Jones says. Renton had nurtured and sold off two printing businesses and used the proceeds to take up online lending as a hobby. He had also launched the Lend Academy in 2010 to teach the world about peer-to-peer lending. Somehow, he had also found the time to develop a following for himself as a blogger.
In early January of 2013, Jones and Albright cold-called Renton to gauge his interest in putting on a show. As fate would have it, Renton had just made a New Year’s resolution to launch a conference for lenders and was receptive to joining up. Together, they put a plan in action.
The originators put up their own money and worked together daily from January to June of 2013, when the first show convened. They secured space that would contain 220 people and calculated their break-even point as 200 attendees. “This was never intended to be a profitable enterprise,” Jones says of those early days. “This was something we all wanted to do for the community. We thought that if we wanted it, others would want it.”
More than 400 people registered for that first conference. “We had a line literally out the door,” Jones notes. “We had to shut off registration. We ended up squeezing about 375 people into that first event. It was completely shocking to us.” From the beginning, attendees came from all over the world. “That’s when I learned China had a P2P industry,” Jones says.
After the initial event, Jones, Brustkern and Renton formed a unified company. Renton brought in Lend Academy, while Jones and Brustkern added their investment fund. The conference also became part of the united company. Ever since, a holding company has owned all three businesses. Dara went on to launch Fintech Revolution TV and continues to support LendIt.
From the initial attendance of 375, the U.S. conference grew to 975 attendees in 2014, 2,500 in 2015, 3,500 in 2016 and a projected 5,000 for this year. About 33 percent of attendees come from the fintech industry, 23 percent are investors, 23 percent are service providers, 14 percent are banks and 2 percent come from government, the media and other backgrounds, Jones says. At first, many of the attendees come from the ranks of CEOs and managing partners, but that’s changing as the industry comes to view the conference as an annual convention where lower-ranking members of an organization can learn about the business, he notes.
Meanwhile, the exhibition floor is becoming an increasingly important component of the show. The gathering attracted 18 exhibitors in 2013, followed by 47 in 2014, 112 in 2015, 177 last year and an expected 210 this year. “We’re transforming from a conference-led event to an expo-led event,” Jones says. This year, exhibitor booths will occupy a 120,000 square-foot hall in New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
The U.S. LendIt conferences alternate between San Francisco and New York City, renting larger spaces as the show has grown, Jones explains. Two years ago, the gathering seemed cramped in the gigantic New York Marriott Marquis near Times Square, he says, necessitating this year’s move to the Javits Center. Javits is designed for conventions with at least 10,000 attendees so the show is a little small for that venue, he admits. But the facility could become LendIt’s long-time New York home as growth continues, he predicts.
Jones traces some of the growth in exhibitors to the expansion of the fintech industry. “You have a meeting of the start-ups with the more traditional players who are rethinking their businesses and how to apply the new technology that’s being developed into their businesses,” he says.
Conferences that compete with LendIt in the fintech category are proliferating because of the nature of industry, in Jones’ view. As soon as fintech companies are launched, the internet quickly makes them national or even international in scope, he says. At the same time, the anonymity of cyberspace creates a need for gatherings that provide face-to-face meetings, he maintains. “They live online,” he says. “The spend their year online so there is a need for a convention to meet with their peers, their clients, their service-providers, their customers, their suppliers. There is a need for that physical connection.”
The increase in fintech conferences is also driven by content-related companies that provide articles on fintech innovation. Those sites have regarded conferences as money-makers that complement their journalistic endeavors, Jones says. For example, TechCrunch, an online publisher of technology industry news, puts on the TechCrunch Disrupt conferences in San Francisco, New York City, London and Beijing. In another example, Business Insider conducts the IGNITION conference.
Those forces – the internet, globalization and web-based publishing – are making themselves felt in the convention business in general, not just in fintech, Jones notes. Event-related companies trade at roughly 12 times EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization), he says, characterizing the convention business as “a very healthy category of our economy.”
Still, the fintech field’s crowded with more than 30 conferences, but LendIt is succeeding because of its early start and an emphasis on community, according to Jones. “We come from the industry,” he contends. “People are happy with what we can produce. They love our content so they come to learn.” Because the conference has become established, the media outlets focus on covering it, which encourages businesses to use it as a stage for introducing products or announcing mergers and acquisitions, he maintains.
Jones views LendIt and Money20/20 as the largest pure-play fintech conferences. The latter, which attracts 11,000 attendees, focuses on payments and contains a “layer” of fintech, while LendIt specializes in lending and likewise offers a “layer” of fintech, he says. Payments and lending represent the two biggest categories in fintech, so the structure of the shows makes sense, he suggests. By chance, Money20/20 occurs in the fall and LendIt takes place in spring, creating what he considers a “nice balance” that encourages prospective attendees to go to both shows.
Finovate holds a rival fintech conference that focuses more narrowly on innovation than do the LendIt and Money20/20 shows, Jones says. A competing bank securitization conference offers information on lending but doesn’t address fintech in great detail, he says.
While LendIt has been coming of age in the U.S., it’s also gained siblings in Shanghai and London. The Chinese edition of the show, which made its debut in 2014, ranks as the largest fintech show in Asia. The Chinese fintech market has grown to at least five times the size of any other market in the world, and it’s home to four of the world’s five largest fintech companies, Jones says. “We were completely blown away,” he says of learning about the industry during a visit to China.
Despite the language barrier and the challenges of dealing with an unfamiliar culture, LendIt has managed to prosper in China. Through a joint venture with a local financial think tank, LendIt helped produce annual Chinese events known as the Bund Summit for two years with attendance capped at 500. For the third year, LendIt parted ways with its partner and recast the show as a larger event. After the change, the confab, now called the Lang Di Fintech Conference, attracted 1,200 attendees, making it China’s largest. “There’s a ton of future opportunity,” Jones predicts of the China endeavor. “We want to be the annual convention for the Chinese fintech industry.”
Although it’s difficult to set up operations in China, cooperation has prevailed there in at least some areas. “The government has been quite supportive,” Jones says of of Chinese officials. “They appreciate what we’re trying to do there.” In January, LendIt launched its Chinese language daily news feed.
Thousands of miles away, the European-based LendIt confab ranks second in size on that continent only to the European version of Money20/20, Jones says. Attendance at the London-based LendIt show numbered 450 in 2014, which was its initial year. It climbed to 800 in 2015 and reached 925 last year.
Putting on the European event requires much less effort than the Asian version because it’s almost an extension of the U.S. original, he says. It’s dominated by firms from the United Kingdom but draws a smattering of companies from other European nations. Crossing borders presents challenges for European fintech companies, which keeps the industry’s companies smaller there than in the U.S. and China, but that may change, he believes. “There’s a lot of innovation there, but they still have a ways to go,” he says.
To handle its far-flung operations, LendIt relies on 20 full-time employees, 11 contractors and 10 people working in a joint venture in China for a total of 41 staff members. “These events are incredibly large shows, and we constantly feel understaffed,” Jones says. That feeling prevails despite recent additions to the staff, he notes.
And additional opportunity beckons in myriad locations. “The challenge is, do you have a bunch of conferences all over the world, or do you do a beachhead and pull people to those three events?” Jones wonders aloud when asked about the future. “For the moment, we have made the strategic decision to stick with these three events and go deeper with them. But there are so many opportunities all around the world. We’re constantly being asked to come to different countries.” Then, too, LendIt could convene smaller, one-day events around the glove as feeders to the three main conventions, he allows. “That’s something we’re batting around now.”
The established two-day conferences could also grow into three-day affairs – but not right away, Jones suggests. “We’re totally running out of time,” he says of trying to cram in all the speakers and exhibitors that LendIt would like to present. Stretching the format could create conflicts because some participants attend other events immediately before or after LendIt.
Notable LendIt speakers have included Larry Summers, who’s served as Harvard president and U.S. Treasury Secretary; Karen Mills, former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration; John Williams, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; and Peter Thiel, venture capitalist and member of the Trump transition team. This year, attendees can look forward to meeting the robot that represents Watson, the IBM computer. Watson will take the stage to field questions about fintech. For Jones, however, creating a conference isn’t just about the big-name speakers be they human or mechanical. “People who are lesser-known can be really fascinating,” he says.
Whoever handles the speaking duties, the LendIt Conference executives vow that they’re in it for the long run as the fintech industry’s annual convention during both boom times and economic slumps. As Jones puts it: “We want to be a reflection of our industry.”
In the 1999 film “Any Given Sunday,” Al Pacino plays a pro football coach whose obsession with winning has torn apart his family. He’s also plagued by a meddlesome team owner, challenged by an offensive coordinator who’s after his job, and vexed by a talented but narcissistic backup quarterback. But none of that stops the coach from reaching deep inside to deliver a stirring halftime pep talk to his dispirited losing team. Assuring his players that life and football are both games of inches, he beseeches them to look into the eyes of the men around them. “You’re going to see a guy who will go that inch with you,” he declares. “Either we heal now as a team or we will die as individuals.” The players rally and explode onto the field.
It’s a scenario the sales staff can’t get enough of at RapidAdvance, a Bethesda, Md.-based alternative small-business finance company with more than 200 employees. Mark Cerminaro has screened a clip of the scene countless times in a company conference room to fire up his crew. Salespeople emerged from those meetings eager to make that extra phone call, provide the telling detail on an application or do whatever else it would take to taste the victory of making the sale. For Cerminaro, the movie and the sales meetings embodied his penchant for winning ethically through teamwork, dogged persistence and great customer experience. That credo has helped propel him to top management at RapidAdvance and has earned him accolades from once-skeptical financial services peers.
Cerminaro’s story begins in his hometown of Highland Park, N.J., where he experienced a small-town vibe but enjoyed easy access to New York City, Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore. He graduated in a class of 85 students from the local public high school, playing varsity football, basketball and baseball. Summers, he worked construction, did landscaping, delivered flowers and umpired Little League. “It was a great place to grow up,” he says.
In high school, Cerminaro sometimes went along for the ride when his sister, who was five years older, was choosing a college. On a visit to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Cerminaro stood in the student center and gazed out at the campus. “I’m going to come here and play football,” he told himself.
He made good on that vow when his high school football team made a reputation for itself, and Georgetown was among the schools that recruited him. Besides, it made sense to go there because he was interested in studying politics and going to law school. Growing up with a father who was chairman of the local Democratic Party, Cerminaro had his eye on eventually becoming governor of New Jersey.
Playing for the NFL on the way to the governor’s mansion seemed like a good idea, too. But Cerminaro, a quarterback, blew out his throwing arm two years into his collegiate football career. His dreams of making the pros died, but that left more time for academics. He plunged into a series of four rigorous internships, three of them in politics. He served two in the Clinton White House and one on Capitol Hill with Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J. He fondly recalls talking to President Bill Clinton for five minutes before a state dinner. Then two hours later, after spending time with heads of state, the President called out, “There’s Mark, my fellow Hoya.” Cerminaro will never forget it.
In the end, however, the fourth internship won out. Although Cerminaro hadn’t studied business or finance too much, he landed an internship in the local Washington, D.C., office of Morgan Stanley. If nothing else, it would help him manage his investments some day, he reasoned. However, he soon approached the operations manager and some senior brokers and offered to take on duties they didn’t want to fulfill. He had decided to learn about operations, and taking on extra work without additional compensation was in line with his new habit of figuring out what steps would take him where he wanted to go in life.
Cerminaro earned his managerial license with Morgan Stanley and accepted a job as associate branch manager in the Washington, D.C., office, managing and training new financial advisors. He considered the position great exposure to sales, management, operations and compliance – “elements that have paid dividends in the growth of my career,” he notes.
Early in Cerminaro’s tenure at Morgan Stanley, the company sent him for training with about 300 other new employees at 2 World Trade Center in Manhattan. The date was Sept. 10, 2001. When the trainees reported to the office the next day, they were in a 64th-floor conference room when they heard an explosion and saw shreds of paper floating past the windows. They didn’t realize yet that a terrorist-controlled jetliner had hit next door at 1 World Trade Center.
As they evacuated down a stairwell, the trainees heard and felt the concussion of the second plane that hit their building. “I’m 22 years old and I may be about to die,” Cerminaro remembers thinking. “Make sure my family knows I love them,” he prayed. He made it out and was greeted with smoke, debris, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and panic in the streets. He walked to a restaurant some family friends operated in Little Italy and borrowed a working phone to call his family in New Jersey and let them know he was OK.
Returning to the D.C. office of Morgan Stanley, Cerminaro got back to work. He loved the entrepreneurial spirit at the company, but as the years passed he realized he was unlikely to amass enough power in the giant firm to dictate how it would operate, grow and change. So he was interested when someone he knew at Morgan Stanley told him about RapidAdvance, then a two-year-old company with about 20 employees. “I saw the opportunity to be part of building a company – that’s what drew me to RapidAdvance,” he recalls.
In 2007, Cerminaro interviewed with Jeremy Brown, who was RapidAdvance’s CEO at the time and has since advanced to chairman. “It was apparent that Mark had a well thought-out, well-articulated plan for sales,” Brown says of his first impression. “He had a presence about him, a command that said this guy a real leader – somebody who could make a long term component of the company.”
Cerminaro joined RapidAdvance as national sales director and began building a sales structure and team based on some of the elements of Morgan Stanley’s sales model. Developing KPIs, or key performance indicators, helped him measure progress. “You had to roll up your sleeves and get involved in every aspect of things,” he said of working for a startup in a fledgling industry. The company’s outbound call center came up with sales leads, and he cut and pasted them from an Excel spread sheet and divvied them up among the five or six account executives.
Cerminaro wanted to teach that handful of salespeople to function as business advisors and help them become the single point of contact for clients. His salespeople guided small-business owners through the application process and stayed in contact with them after the sale. He emphasized doing right by customers, teammates and the company as a whole. It was a vision that inspired the team.
“Mark was a great mentor and provided me a lot of guidance and tutelage over the years,” says Devin Delany, who started as an account executive at RapidAdvance and has moved up to director of sales. “His real mission was to create a sense of family and he executed on that to the fullest extent, creating a close knit team of upward of 40 folks who really care about one another.”
That sales “family” used dialogue marketing to refocus attention on prospects who had fallen out of the sales cycle. In those days they used a product-driven sales pitch based on merchant cash advances. Third-party partners included credit card processors and credit card ISOs. Brokers came onto the scene later.
Soon after Cerminaro arrived at RapidAdvance, the financial crisis struck. The company managed to navigate the troubled times and emerged with improved underwriting skills, a better understanding of leading indicators and a truer grasp of how its portfolio performs. Something else happened, too.
As traditional lines of credit dried up during the recession, small businesses that didn’t accept credit cards began to search for working capital. In response, Cerminaro, Brown and Joseph Looney, RapidAdvance’s chief operations officer and general counsel, sat down and outlined a plan to offer small-business loans as well as MCAs. “That effort really redefined who RapidAdvance was,” Cerminaro says of the new loans. “We went from a single-product company to now being more of a solutions-based company,” he maintains. “We were able to shift from selling a product to doing needs-based analysis with our clients and focusing on what was the right solution for them.”
Cerminaro found it exciting to develop the loan program and oversee sales, but he was looking for more. He turned part of his attention to business development and even expanded his purview to include marketing. The company was thinking along the same lines. In 2010, RapidAdvance promoted him to senior vice president, sales and marketing. “As the company has grown we have had different needs, and we leaned on Mark and his skill set every time we made a change,” Brown says. “Every time we made a change he has stepped up and done what’s asked of him.”
Producing one of the industry’s first national television ad campaigns highlighted Cerminaro’s period as senior vice president. “We were the pioneers in being able to market through that medium,” he says. “It was absolutely scary at the same time. It was a massive investment for us and we had no idea whether it would pan out.” The sales staff were waiting in anticipation when the phones began ringing after the public saw the commercial. “The original spot we put together still tests well and drives a lot of traffic,” he notes. Viewers find a tune featured in the ad sticks in their minds and can’t help humming it – sometimes when they’d prefer they didn’t, he adds.
Then came another promotion. In 2013, just before Detroit-based Rockbridge Growth Equity LLC acquired RapidAdvance, Cerminaro was named chief revenue officer and became responsible for all revenue-generating activities and all of the company’s front end efforts. The company had grown significantly over the years, but the merger increased financial backing and thus accelerated growth, he says. For him, that meant pursuing a new type of partner company – asset-based lenders and factoring companies. It wouldn’t be easy. “The traditional lending market had a lot of misconceptions about our industry,” Cerminaro admits. “A lot of people in that business were very critical.”
But Cerminaro made the rounds of trade shows and visited conference rooms until he succeeded in winning the hearts of bankers, according to Will Tumulty, RapidAdvance’s CEO. “Mark and his team have developed partnerships in the commercial lending space,” Tumulty says. “There are a number of companies that have historically viewed working-capital funding as a competitor. We don’t see ourselves competing with those companies. Mark and his team have worked with those companies to get merchants what they need.”
As a testament to Cerminaro’s success in that quest, the Commercial Finance Association named him to its 2016 list of “40 under 40” achievers. He was the only person from alternative small-business funding to make that venerable list of prominent young lending executives. He helped spur his company on to other awards, too. The RapidAdvance Bethesda office was chosen for The Washington Post Top Workplaces 2016 list, and the RapidAdvance Detroit office made the list of 101 firms recognized as Metro Detroit’s 2016 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For.
Meanwhile, Cerminaro was successfully courting mega retailers, says Brown. When the possibility of becoming a partner with Office Depot arose, Brown felt hopeful but remained skeptical because of the long lead time required to convince so many executives in such a large corporation. “But mark was dogged,” he says. “It took him probably a year to land and close the deal and negotiate the agreement and sign the account. He went to countless meetings down in Florida. He participated in endless conference calls, but mark got the deal done. It’s a relationship we’re proud of, and he is singularly responsible for closing that deal.”
In those encounters with Office Depot execs, Cerminaro displayed savvy and professionalism, Brown says. They’re traits that will continue to pay off not only for RapidAdvance but for the entire industry, maintains RapidAdvance’s Looney. “He’s out there with lots of big banks and other potential partners,” says Looney. “He’s a good face for the industry.”
For Cerminaro, it’s satisfying to see RapidAdvance become all he dreamed it could be. But that still comes in second for him and differentiates him from the coach played by Al Pacino. Cerminaro’s the kind of guy who asked his father to be his best man and now has a wife and two sons of his own. “Your family and your loved ones are by far more important than anything else in your life,” he says.
Lots of small businesses need capital in Puerto Rico and not many companies are trying to provide it. Combine that with the island’s tax incentives, tourist attractions and gaggle of ambitious entrepreneurs, and America’s largest unincorporated territory can seem like an archipelago of opportunity for the alternative small-business finance community – a virtual paradise.
But for alt funders, the sunshine, sandy beaches, swaying palms, picturesque rocky outcroppings, rich history and renowned cuisine can’t change two nagging facts about this tropical commonwealth that 3.4 million people call home. Alternative finance remains largely unknown on the island, and it’s difficult if not impossible to split credit card receipts there.
Let’s start with the good part. “If you call a restaurant in Los Angeles at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, you’re the 15th person to call them that day, but if you’re calling a business in Puerto Rico, you might be the only one,” says Andrew Roberts, director of partnership development for Merchant Cash Group, which funds some deals on the island. “So it’s not the same cutthroat competitiveness that we have here.”
But consumers in Puerto Rico’s tourist areas rely on PIN debit cards, which don’t qualify for split funding between merchants and finance providers because the cards don’t have Visa or MasterCard logos and thus merchants can’t run them as credit transactions, Roberts says. Besides, processors on the island don’t want to split the revenue from credit card transactions between funders and merchants, either, Roberts notes. “If there’s a processor in Puerto Rico that will split fund, I haven’t been unable to find them,” he says. “Believe me, I have looked.”
The two main processing platforms on the island, Global and First Data, require ISOs to carry 100 percent of the risk on a split, according to Elevate Funding CEO Heather Francis, who was involved in the island market at another company before taking her current job. That’s why split remittance “remains almost nil” in Puerto Rico, she says.
Splitting funds by using a “lockbox” – which works like an escrow account and distributes a certain percentage of receipts to the merchant and the rest to the funder – doesn’t provide a solution because banks in Puerto Rico decline to use the option, Roberts maintains. That’s why he advises that it’s easier to offer ACH-based products on the island.
Merchants on the island have to meet the same requirements for ACH that apply on the mainland, Roberts notes. That includes a reasonable number of checks returned for non-sufficient funds and a reasonable number of negative days. “The underwriting procedure on the island is pretty much the same as it is here,” he says.
Perhaps the difficulties of setting up the split in Puerto Rico shouldn’t cause any uneasiness about entering the market because the bulk of alternative funding on the island relies on daily debits—just as it does on the mainland, Roberts says. Still, he notes that some merchants in both places may qualify for split funding but fail to measure up for daily debit.
Though merchants and funders have those commonalities, the banking systems differ on the mainland and on the island. Banco Popular, which has held sway in Puerto Rico for nearly 120 years, controls much of the island’s banking and inhibits the growth of alternative funding for small businesses there, Francis says. Still, Puerto Rican merchants should have some familiarity with alternative finance or high-fee products because of the island’s high concentration of title loan companies, she notes.
Similarities and and differences aside, the Puerto Rican market provides a little business to some mainland alternative finance companies. United Capital Source LLC, for example, has completed five deals for small businesses on the island, says CEO Jared Weitz. Companies can provide accounts receivable factoring there, he says.
Alternative funding has yet to post runaway growth in Puerto Rico, Weitz says, because it’s not marketed strongly there, only a few mainland funders are willing to do business in Puerto Rico, the range of products offered there is limited, and small business remains less prevalent there than on the mainland.
But a handful of mainland-based companies have been willing to take on the uncertainties of the Puerto Rican market, and Connecticut-based Latin Financial LLC serves as an example of an ISO that has enthusiastically embraced the challenge. The company got its start in 2013 by offering funding to Hispanic business people on the mainland and began concentrating on Puerto Rico early in 2015, says Sonia Alvelo, company president.
Alvelo built a strong enough portfolio of business on the mainland that funders were willing to take a chance on her and her customers in Puerto Rico. Latin Financial now maintains a satellite office on the island, and the company generates 90 percent of its business there and 10 percent on the mainland.
Latin Financial has a sister company called Sharpe Capital LLC that operates on the mainland, says Brendan P. Lynch, Sharpe’s president. Alvelo describes Lynch as her business partner, and he says he’s started several successful ISOs. He credits her with helping Puerto Rican customers learn to qualify for credit by keeping daily balances high and avoiding negative days.
“It’s a small company with a big heart,” Alvelo says of Latin Financial. She was born in Puerto Rico and came to Connecticut at the age of 17. “For me it’s home,” she says of the island. She’s realizing a dream of bringing financial opportunity to business owners there.
To accomplish that goal, Alvelo spends much of her time teaching the details of alternative finance to Puerto Rico’s small-business owners, their families, their accountants and their attorneys. “You want to make sure they understand,” she says, adding that the hard work pays off. “My clientele is fantastic,” she says. “I get a lot of referrals.”
Latin Financial started small in Puerto Rico when a pharmacy there contacted them to seek financing, Alvelo says. It wasn’t easy to get underway, she recalls, noting that it required a lot of phone calls to find funding. Soon, however, one pharmacy became three pharmacies and the business kept growing, branching out to restaurants and gas stations. Already, some merchants there are renewing their deals.
Growth is occurring because of the need for funding there. Puerto Rican merchants have had the same difficulties obtaining credit from banks as their peers on the mainland since the beginning of the Great Recession, Alvelo says. “It’s the same story in a different language,” she notes.
Speaking of language, Alvelo considers her fluency in Spanish essential to her company’s success in Puerto Rico. “You have to speak the language,” she insists. “They have to feel secure and know that you will be there for them,” she says of her clients. Roberts agrees that it’s sound business practice to conduct discussions in the language the customer prefers, and his company uses applications and contracts printed in Spanish. At the same time, he maintains that it’s perfectly acceptable to conduct business in English on the island because both languages are officially recognized.
People in Puerto Rico have been speaking Spanish since colonists arrived in the 15th Century, and English has had a place there since the American occupation that resulted from the Spanish-American War in 1898. Still, more than 70 percent of the residents of Puerto Rico speak English “less than well,” according to the 2000 Census, but that’s changing, Alvelo says.
Whatever the linguistic restraints, the products Latin Financial offers in Puerto Rico have been short-term, most with a minimum of six-month payback and a maximum of 12 months, but Alvelo hopes to begin offering longer duration funding. She also believes that split funding will come to Puerto Rico. “It’s in the works,” she asserts, noting that she is campaigning for it with the banks and processors.
At the same time, mainland alternative finance companies are learning that the threat of Puerto Rican government default does not mean merchants there don’t deserve credit, notes Lynch. “Just because the government is having trouble paying its bills,” he says, “doesn’t mean these merchants aren’t successful. The island is full of entrepreneurs.” In fact, many of Puerto Rico’s merchants use accountants and keep their business affairs in better order than their mainland counterparts do with their homemade bookkeeping.
Alvelo also knows many merchants there are worthy of time and investment. She strives to listen to her customers when they express their needs and then help them fill those needs. “I’m very, very proud to be doing this in Puerto Rico now,” she says.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Uber is paying the alternative small-business finance industry a high compliment. The San Francisco based ride-sharing company is offering its drivers some programs that closely resemble merchant cash advances.
New drivers receive part of the advance before they pick up their first fare and the rest soon after that initial ride. Clearbanc, which bills itself as a financial services provider for “the self-employed, freelancers, independent contractors and entrepreneurs,” is putting up the money. As with a merchant cash advance, drivers can choose to pay back the Advance Pay funds by directing a portion of their weekly earnings to Clearbanc, according to a blog by Rachel Holt, an Uber regional manager. In the test the companies are limiting the automatic deductions to no more than 50% of the driver’s weekly paycheck, she said. Participating drivers can still work whatever hours they choose.
If $1,000 isn’t enough to put an aspiring Uber driver on the road, the company has another plan. Through the XChange Leasing program Uber automatically deducts car lease payments from drivers’ weekly income, a company spokesperson said. A number of financial institutions work with the ride-sharing company in the program, according to the Uber website.
Applicants have to agree to what the company calls “a routine screening.” If they’re approved they receive a list of participating local car dealers. The leases are up to three years for new cars valued at as much as $20,000 and used cars worth up to $18,500. Cars can’t be more than seven years old or have more than 75,000 miles. They have to have four doors and five seat belts. Drivers put up a $250 security deposit when they receive the leased car. Typically, they might have 156 payments of $115 each for a 2013 Toyota Corolla or 156 payments of $143 each for a 2016 Corolla. California requires rideshare insurance, and Uber provides it through Farmers Insurance or Mercury Insurance.
Unlike many standard automobile leases, XChange Leasing does not have mileage caps, and drivers can exit the program by giving two weeks notice and paying a $250 “disposition fee,” essentially forfeiting their security deposit, the Uber spokesperson said. For drivers who prefer to own their vehicles, Uber has negotiated fleet discounts with a long list of car manufacturers, the company said. The deals can reportedly bring drivers thousands of dollars in savings over the sticker price of a car. Meanwhile, Uber is testing another foray into financial services. Drivers can use “Instant Pay,” an Uber debit card from Green Dot’s GoBank division, to collect the cash immediately after finishing a ride, according to Holt. The cards don’t require a minimum bank balance and don’t carry any fees, she said.
The company seemed upbeat about its new offerings. “We look forward to seeing how these pilots progress and to making innovative payment solutions more widely available to drivers soon,” Holt said in her blog of Advance Pay and Instant Pay.
But some Uber drivers don’t share that optimistic view. In fact, Advance Pay and XChange Leasing have both come under fire for what critics view as disadvantages for drivers and for the economy as a whole. Some have gone so far as to label the lease terms practices as predatory.
Uber offers Advance Pay only to new drivers, and they could receive just about as much as a signup bonus, according to a blog on UberPeople.net, a website for drivers. The author of the blog speculated that the company is using Advance Pay to eliminate the signup bonus and also to do away with its bonus for referring new drivers.
Drivers have to pay off the advance in 15 weeks, according to the UberPeople blogger. At the rate of 30 cents per mile that drivers receive in Detroit, paying back the $1,000 would require logging 3,333 miles, approximately the distance from New York to California, the blogger lamented. However, Uber pays a lower rate in Detroit than in most cities, according to statements from other drivers.
And although Advance Pay carries no interest, Clearbanc charges drivers a fee of up to $50 if they fail to pay off the advance in 15 weeks, according to published reports.
Complaints also arise with XChange Leasing, according to a website called therideshareguy.com. Dealers sometimes refuse to provide used cars for the program because they can make more money with new cars, according to the site.
If the dealers are willing to provide used cars, problems sometimes surface because XChange Leasing prohibits leasing a used vehicle for more than 105% of its book value, the site said. Cars with a reputation for reliability, such as Toyotas and Hondas, often sell for more than book value, according to the site.
Drivers have reported elsewhere that they feel trapped by the leases, many of them continuing to work for Uber just to make the payments. However, the Uber spokesperson maintained that drivers can leave the program anytime after the first 30 days. Some critics bemoan the spread of subprime auto leases, which they have compared to the subprime mortgage debacle that contributed to the Great Recession that struck in 2008. Uber prefers comparisons to Amazon, a company that has expanded by continuing to enter new businesses.
In general, Uber has met resistance repeatedly from traditional taxi drivers who find their livelihood threatened by the ride-sharing service. Taxi drivers around the world have chided Uber for failing to pay taxes, obtain taxi licenses and uphold safety standards.
Complaints aside, Uber continues to grow prodigiously and now serves riders in more than 400 cities in 70 countries, according to metrics supplied by the Uber spokesperson. Seventy-five percent of Americans live in counties where Uber operates, the spokesperson added. Globally, Uber employs 7,000 workers and 1 million drivers, the company said.
The word “uber” is defined as “denoting an outstanding or supreme example of a particular kind of person or thing, according to a dictionary entry the company sometimes cites. In German, “uber” means “across” or “above.” Many potential riders know the word “uber” from the phrase “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles,” a line from the German national anthem that translates as “Germany, Germany above all else.” The words to the song were written during Germany’s unification, and the lyrics refer to the idea that allegiance to the nation should trump loyalty to local kingdoms. Maybe Uber should stick with its own definition of “uber.”