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On Deck Capital IPO, An Insider’s Perspective

August 16, 2014
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It was August 23, 2011, the day the Virginia Earthquake could be felt all the way up in New York City. The four of us were enjoying outdoor seating at a restaurant on the Upper East Side. The ground shook, my drink spilled and Ace looked at each one of us and said, “Okay so I’m putting you down for five deals this month.” OnDeck Capital’s relationship managers were aggressive. If you were a small Independent Sales Organization (ISO), they didn’t expect to get all of your dealflow so they roped you in little by little. It was hard to say no. If five deals was too much, Ace would say three and if three was too much, then he’d put you down for three anyway. Zero was not in the cards. OnDeck owned a specific niche and if you didn’t send your premium credit clients to them, then any ISOs you were competing against would. That was a death knell in those days. Just a few years earlier I would’ve shrugged them off, but public sentiment was changing. Merchants were embracing the fixed daily payment methodology and the merchant cash advance industry would never be the same.

OnDeck Capital is now going public. Will you buy stock?

ondeck capital ipoI’m in a unique position to discuss OnDeck. I started my career in this industry before they even existed. I’ve competed against them as an underwriter at a rival firm, worked with them as a referral partner when I was in sales, and covered them in my capacity as Chief Editor of an industry trade publication.

I left my post as Merchant Cash & Capital’s Director of Underwriting in late 2008. I was 25, about a year or two older than the average employee in the industry. Several of MCC’s rivals got demolished in the financial crisis but OnDeck wasn’t one of them. They also weren’t much of a competitor either. Struggling to define themselves as the anti-merchant cash advance, their product ran counter to the spirit of the industry’s rise. The single biggest allure of a merchant cash advance wasn’t that it was easy to obtain but that there was no fixed repayment term. The funds came with a pre-determined net cost but no specific date on when the delivery of future sales would be due.

Outsiders like the news media aren’t exactly sure what separates merchant cash advance from OnDeck except for maybe the cost of funds. Cash advance just sounds expensive, doesn’t it?

Outsiders identify the company by three characteristics.

1. They’re a non-bank business lender
2. They’re more expensive than a bank
3. They’re a tech company

These bullet points gloss over the fact that OnDeck’s loans require payments to be made every day. Can you imagine a credit card company forcing you to send a payment every day of the month? Or your landlord asking for rent on the 1st of the month, the 2nd, the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and so on every day until your lease is up?

This is not to say that this system is necessarily bad for borrowers, but that it is quite possibly the most unique and important part of what makes OnDeck different. It’s their secret sauce. It is why OnDeck gets lumped in with merchant cash advance companies in many conversations. OnDeck and the legion of copycats they have spawned are part of a broader industry that includes merchant cash advance companies. I call them daily funders. Daily funders provide financing on the condition that payments are made daily. I don’t call them daily lenders because traditional merchant cash advance products are not made by lenders, but by a unique group of investors that purchase future revenue streams.

Transition

Under company founder Mitch Jacobs, OnDeck had established themselves as the de facto loan option.

The merchant’s not biting on merchant cash advance? Send it to OnDeck. The merchant doesn’t accept credit cards? Send it to OnDeck.

They were every merchant cash advance ISO’s frenemy. They’d solicit you for your deals and then throw you under the bus to journalists as evil purveyors of expensive financing. They needed us to source dealflow and we needed them to maximize closing ratios but neither was quite satisfied with the arrangement.

When the company’s first employee took over as CEO in June 2012, the rhetoric changed. While still happy to be portrayed as the anti-merchant cash advance, OnDeck transformed their image from a niche Wall Street lender to a Silicon Valley-esque tech company. Noah Breslow was a curious choice. He has a BS from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He’s tall, charismatic, and he introduced vocabulary words such as algorithm to an industry that relied entirely on manual human underwriting.

At a recent lending conference, the younger crowd characterized Breslow as the Steve Jobs of business loans. He commands a cult-like following inside and outside the company, and in 2013 was embraced by New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg.

Breslow fast tracked OnDeck. With only $43 million raised in the first 5 years, the company went on to raise more than $300 million in the first 24 months under Breslow’s leadership.

This was their plan all along

In November 2012, OnDeck entertained a buyout offer from UK-based payday lender Wonga in which they reportedly received a $250 million valuation. The deal fell apart in the late stages but at the time I believed the negotiations were all a ploy for OnDeck to get a true market valuation. With a solid offer on the table, they knew both where they stood and where they needed to go. Last week the WSJ reported that preliminary IPO discussions valued them at $1.5 billion, six times higher than where they were two years ago.

With stock options being offered to new employees at least as far back as 2012, the plan to go public should come as no surprise. Later this year, those employees may actually get to do something very few startup workers ever get to do, convert those options into real shares.

So will OnDeck ride off into the sunset of billion dollar bliss? Not so fast say several industry insiders, some of whom are itching to short the stock on the first day they can.

smoke and mirrorsSmoke and mirrors?

As OnDeck took advantage of the swing in public consensus (that fixed terms were better and lower costs increased the attactiveness ), insiders began to ask an important question. Why weren’t merchant cash advance companies collectively countering with lower prices to remain competitive? Greed was fingered by journalists especially in the wake of the financial crisis. But greed is a weak prerogative if you consider that merchant cash advance companies were filing for bankruptcy left and right in 2009.

And oddly or perhaps even ominously, an entire segment of merchant cash advance companies began to raise their prices just as OnDeck was lowering theirs. When I wrote The Fork in the Merchant Cash Advance Road in April 2011, I said:

While the margins earned on high credit accounts shrank, funding providers were dealing with another challenge simultaneously, defaults. Whether the business owner intentionally interfered with their credit card processing or the store went out of business altogether, bad debt in the MCA world was mounting…FAST!

Risk was and still is the number one reason that merchant cash advances cost so much. While it’s true that OnDeck serviced higher credit businesses, insiders speculated that the spreads were too thin. For years, OnDeck’s merchant cash advance competitors have doubted the soundness of their model.

long vs. shortIt’s a debate that continues even to this day and yet OnDeck has secured hundreds of millions in investments from companies like Google Ventures, Goldman Sachs, Peter Thiel, and Fortress Investment Group. Their notes got an investment grade rating from DBRS. And as far as volume is concerned, they have likely eclipsed the industry’s all time reigning giant CAN Capital. If they had reached none of these milestones, OnDeck would have little credibility to convince critics of their sanity.

With a mountain of circumstantial evidence through big name backing in OnDeck’s favor, it seems to be indicative that the skeptics are wrong. But maybe they’re not. Could their model be both seriously flawed and superior at the same time?

It’s all about eyeballs

Going back to the 1990s, Internet companies have been judged, valued, and made famous by the price of eyeballs and the number of site visits. It’s a measure that’s never disappeared and according to USA Today is making a comeback. And while OnDeck Capital has always been based in New York City, true to their Silicon Valley form, their model has been to conquer market share first eyeballsand take on profitability second. In their case, it’s not eyeballs or site visits, it’s loan origination volume.

Five months ago Breslow was quoted in the WSJ as saying OnDeck is “imminently profitable“. With seven years in business, it’s proof that their critics have been right all along, that their model doesn’t make money.

What scares their competitors though, is that this strategy has been intentional. Very few if any players in the industry have had the luxury, guts, or the purse to lose money for seven years as part of a coup to conquer the market. Disbelievers in this long term wildly risky strategy are salivating at the opportunity to inspect the company’s financial statements in the IPO.

In When Will the Bubble Burst?, RapidAdvance CEO Jeremy Brown, whose company became part of the Quicken Loans family last winter, fired shots at OnDeck, “To accomplish high growth rates, which may be driven by a desire or need for an IPO or to raise investment or to sell to private equity, assets are being overpaid for through higher than economically justified commissions (I’ve heard 12-15 points upfront from the more aggressive companies) and stretch the repayment term of the MCA or loan even further (On Deck24, I am talking about you).”

Insiders testify that OnDeck’s strategy has not so much been about lower costs but about growth at all costs. Among the evidence is the sudden removal of an industry-wide practice of verifying the business owner is current on their rent. Repayment terms are getting stretched out, commissions have shot up, and for a while they ran a program that allowed applicants to get funding with the submission of just a single bank statement.

Merchant cash advance companies look at their own default figures and scoff at the notion that OnDeck’s aggressive practices could produce low single digit defaults as they’ve publicly claimed.

Imminent

imminentThrough it all, there remains the fact that OnDeck has never claimed their methodologies to be profitable, at least not yet. Red ink at IPO time might reward their detractors with a certain delicious satisfaction, but what will they say if and when they become profitable?

I’m reminded of The 20 Smartest Things Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos ever said. Below is a few of them.

  • “There are two kinds of companies: Those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less. We will be the second.”
  • “Your margin is my opportunity.”
  • “We’ve done price elasticity studies, and the answer is always that we should raise prices. We don’t do that, because we believe — and we have to take this as an article of faith — that by keeping our prices very, very low, we earn trust with customers over time, and that that actually does maximize free cash flow over the long term.”
  • “If you never want to be criticized, for goodness’ sake don’t do anything new.”
  • “Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood. You do something that you genuinely believe in, that you have conviction about, but for a long period of time, well-meaning people may criticize that effort. When you receive criticism from well-meaning people, it pays to ask, ‘Are they right?’ And if they are, you need to adapt what they’re doing. If they’re not right, if you really have conviction that they’re not right, you need to have that long-term willingness to be misunderstood. It’s a key part of invention.”

I wonder if the executive team at OnDeck would share these philosophies.

They’ve always claimed themselves to be a tech company, much to the bewilderment of their competitors. Will technology come through for them?

The data available on businesses has changed. Bank statements and a credit report might’ve been all there was to go on when the company first started, but in Automated Intelligence Breslow said, “the fact is most businesses operating today, in 2014, are already technology focused to one degree or another. They have computers, they have online banking, they use credit card processors, their customers are reviewing them online, there are public records, etc. All this electronic data helps paint a deeper and more accurate picture of the health of a business.”

OnDeck Capital featured on a PBS Special

With such easy access to important data, it might be possible that through the use of 2,000 data points, OnDeck doesn’t need to do all the manual investigations that their competitors still place high values on. The available data might be able to predict loan repayment success just as well as a human analyst.

And if that’s true, then they can reduce the cost of overhead as they scale. As their predictive algorithms get fed more data, they might be able to eliminate humans altogether. At the May 2014 LendIt conference, Breslow admitted that 30% of their loans were still manually underwritten but said that “if customers want full automation, we are prepared to deliver it.”

By that charge, a sustainable model should not be that far out of reach. Through advanced data analysis and decreasing fixed costs, profitability may indeed be imminent.

Winner

If the story of the merchant cash advance industry has been a race to the top, then OnDeck might be declared the winner in a successful IPO. It would be an ironic achievement for the company that positioned itself as the anti-merchant cash advance. In their wake today are hundreds of daily funders offering fixed payment products.

everybody wins?OnDeck’s critics are in a paradoxical position because a successful IPO is good for them too. They want to believe OnDeck’s model never worked, can’t work, and have it be proven a failure. But if it goes the other way, the legitimacy of the daily funder universe will be solidified in the mainstream. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

As AmeriMerchant CEO David Goldin said to Inc, “the OnDeck IPO shows that Wall Street is now taking this industry seriously.”

So does that mean he’d buy stock? Somewhere out there at a restaurant in New York City, an OnDeck relationship manager is probably putting Goldin down for five shares.

Cue the earthquake, the industry will never be the same.


Curious how it will change it exactly? Read my magazine published prediction, The Retail Investor.

Industry Survey Results

July 6, 2014
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Curious what the general consensus is on a variety of issues? DailyFunder® polled business lending industry insiders and analyzed the results. Click below to expand the graph, check out the image, or scan the text beneath it:

DailyFunder Survey Results


Text version


#1 What’s a Merchant Cash Advance?
61% consider it to be strictly a purchase of future revenue.

32% believe it’s an ambiguous term that could be used to describe a purchase transaction or a loan


How much are you earning?
62% reported making at least $100,000 per year

Almost half of the respondents in that group claimed to be making more than $200,000 per year


Stacking
62% said stacking is OK in the right circumstances

19% said stacking is not OK

16% said stacking is the bane of the industry


Who’s earning more?
57% of respondents that were in favor of stacking make at least $100,000 per year

73% of respondents that were against stacking make more than $100,000 per year.


Trade show anyone?
78% would attend an alternative business lending/merchant cash advance conference.

4% flat out said they wouldn’t.


Do you have skin in the game?
58% of respondents have invested funds in a merchant cash advance directly or through syndication


Top influencer?
A substantial portion of respondents wrote in OnDeck Capital CEO Noah Breslow as the most influential person in alternative business lending or merchant cash advance


Is government friend or foe?
49% fear future regulations could hurt their business

25% do not fear future regulations


What do insiders want to read more about?

  • Regulatory issues
  • Ethics, best practices
  • Lead sources, lead generation, marketing strategies, sales guides
  • The future, evolving products, trends

This graph appears in the July/August print issue of DailyFunder® magazine. Not subscribed? Get it free!

Access to Capital – A Dose of Reality

June 15, 2014
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So much for a lack of transparency… While sitting directly next to Maria Contreras-Sweet, the head of the Small Business Administration, OnDeck Capital’s CEO corrected U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s comments about the APR of their loans. High teens? Not so, said Noah Breslow who explained their average 6 month loan has an APR of 60% even while costing only 15 cents on the dollar.

Why is access to capital so expensive? Rob Frohwein, the CEO of Kabbage said that up until recently his company was borrowing funds at a net rate of more than 20% APR. In order to turn a profit, they had to lend at a rate much higher than that.


The Access to Capital small business panel included:
Maria Contreras-Sweet – Head of the U.S. Small Business Administration
Noah Breslow – CEO, OnDeck Capital
Rohit Arora – CEO, Biz2Credit
David Nayor – CEO, BoeFly
Rob Frohwein – CEO, Kabbage
Paul Quintero – CEO, Accion East
Rohan Matthew – CEO, Intersect Fund
Jonny Price – Senior Director, Kiva Zip
Jeff Bogan – SVP, LendingClub
Steve Allocca – Global Head of Credit, PayPal
Jay Savulich – Managing Director of Programs, Rising Tide Capital

Do Opportunities Abound?

June 8, 2014
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Are there opportunities left?Just recently I found myself in an office surrounded by some folks who had each worked in the merchant cash advance business for more than 10 years. The first generation of MCA pioneers are still out there of course but it’s rare to be in the presence of so many at one time. It was weird. Weirder still was the realization that no matter how much things have changed, some things continue to be exactly the same.

Me: You guys looking to recruit ISOs?
Them: Damn right

As far as the industry is concerned, these guys might as well have fought in ‘Nam. They’re from another generation where life was hard and men were still men. When businesses couldn’t get bank loans, these guys were splitting payments with their bare hands and reprogramming credit card machines with nothing more than a paper clip and a ball of twine. Funding a deal wasn’t a product of technology, it was one of sweat, tears, and blood. Have you ever bled for your deals?

This August I celebrate my 8th year in the industry. Next month marks the 4 year anniversary of this blog. I enjoy reading some of my posts from back then, particularly since most of them discuss the ordeals of credit card processing. A lot of what I’ve written no longer applies and some of what I’m writing these days will be outdated years from now. As I approach 600 articles and blog posts on this subject matter, I’ve had to stop and ask myself if everything has already been written. What more can possibly be said about this business? Perhaps the tale of the industry has already been told and I am on my way to retelling exaggerated stories to anyone who will listen. I don’t want to be that wrinkled up old man swaying back and forth in a rocking chair talking about how ISOs got it so easy these days.

olden daysSadly, even the name of the website is reflective of a previous era. This is the Merchant Processing Resource, not exactly what you’d expect a top destination to be called on the subject of alternative business lending.

But the story’s not finished. Every passing month is filled with events that inspire a dozen new chapters, which is more than one man can keep up with. Last month at the LendIt conference, I got a glimpse of just how many opportunities still lie ahead.

Some alternative business financing companies such as Funding Circle and DealStruck are diverging away from merchant cash advance and going back to the traditional roots of term lending. Funding Circle is doing it with a 21st century twist, by making their system peer-to-peer based.

Still other firms have sprung up around LendingClub’s and Prosper’s APIs and offer their users ways to make better loan investment decisions.

And even among the players we’re all familiar with, there is innovation, growth, and new ideas. Just recently CAN Capital launched CAN Connect, a software application that can be integrated with any other company’s software. According to CAN’s release,

Through CAN Connect™, merchants will be able to receive a CAN Instant Quote™ based solely on data provided by the partner. Once the merchant elects to proceed, they are taken through a simple online application process and can obtain access to working capital without ever leaving the partner’s platform.

Indeed technology has even allowed me to become a lender myself,

Net Annualized Return

My LendingClub portfolio, which is still very young and made up by hundreds of $25 consumer loan contributions has a current Net Annualized Return of more than 10%. Contrast that against the average U.S. savings account that pays out less than 1%.

While it’s certainly not the 54% yield that OnDeck Capital enjoys, there are levels of risk and markets set up for just about anyone interested in alternative lending.

And what might come next may not all be broker/funder related. As the industry flies in a thousand different directions, entire new industries and services are going to grow up around them. That brings me back full circle. Has everything already been written? 4 years of blogging here and this might as well be my first day.

Some things haven’t changed a bit, but the rest of it, well… we must soldier on in this strange new world.

Do you see opportunities ahead? Discuss with industry insiders on DailyFunder.

Throw Out the 5 Cs?

May 19, 2014
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the credit struggleThe 5 C’s of lending? “Throw that book out” says Darrell Esch, VP of SMB Lending for Paypal. At the Federal Reserve Bank’s New York Small Business Summit last week, critics hammered away at the high rates being charged by some alternative business lenders.

In the first video below, PayPal’s small business loan program (which is a textbook merchant cash advance) is characterized as too expensive and not transparent.

APRs? Business owners don’t think that way, says Esch:

The transparency debate is a hot topic in alternative business lending. Merchant cash advance industry hater Ami Kassar pressed me on the transparency issue just last week over twitter, to which I conceded transactions structured as loans should clearly state an APR, even if that metric is not the most relevant or helpful.

What confuses me is Kassar’s belief that an APR represents the “real cost.” It is nothing more than an annualized metric. Many people understand APRs, but many do not. My point is that an APR is a mathematical formula that may or may not be relevant and may or may not be understood.

In fact, Bankrate.com’s loan calculator helps borrowers ascertain the true cost of their loans by helping them calculate what they really need to know, the total dollar amount to be repaid. And with that reality, alternative business lenders and their merchant cash advance counterparts are speaking the language of their clientele by making the dollar for dollar cost as transparent as possible.

After all, business owners regularly borrow at rates that exceed 3,500% APR via overdrafts.

Kassar claims that more than 50% of borrowers substitute MCAs for something else once they’ve learned the “real cost” of such financing. This implies that all of his clients have better options, a circumstance which generally isn’t true of small businesses that use merchant cash advances or high cost business loans. Deficiencies in Credit Score, Capital, or Collateral tend to disqualify them in the real world.

This debate leads us down the same road every time. Should businesses rejected by low rate lenders be banned from accessing credit because the options available to them now are too expensive? “No,” a critic would say. “They should just be charged a lower rate.” But considering the risk, could a lender survive drastic price cuts? With all the competition in today’s market, alternative business lenders have been slashing rates to as low as they can possibly get them… for now.

But to critics like Kassar, things like profitability are an afterthought. What’s profitability got to do with the price of a loan?

I wonder if his clients who have exhausted all their options choose a low rate SBA loan that they can’t get once he has educated them about the high cost of a merchant cash advance. Oh wait…

Esch suggested throwing out the 5 Cs. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s leeway that’s needed, not discarding the book altogether. That leeway comes at a cost.

Questioning the costs that alternative business lenders charge is a beautiful example of the free market at work. They’re an easy target for criticism, yet a badly needed component of the American economy. No harm can come from keeping them honest. But as Esch commented on how he feels about what he does, “I feel blessed to be serving this higher need.”

A Look at Data Security

May 17, 2014
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Data SecurityIn the latest issue of DailyFunder, Cheryl Conner explored data security in the alternative business lending industry. Its basis was rooted in the ETA’s 2008 Merchant Cash Advance White Paper that stated Merchant Cash Advance companies must be PCI compliant.

That white paper was drafted in a different era, particularly when 99% of all transactions required a payment processing split rather than ACH debits. It’s true also that it specified companies “that handle sensitive payment related information”, namely cardholder data as part of its regular business operation.

Credit card processors that engage directly in issuing merchant cash advances are naturally already subject to PCI compliance, but for the funding companies that aren’t in the processing business, they’re basically off the hook. Indeed a spokesperson for the PCI Security Standards Organization informed Conner that “PCI standards apply to payment card data branded by one of the five founding brands, which means any entity that accepts, processes, transmits or stores account data from a PCI branded payment card should be applying PCI DSS for the protection of that data.” She went on to say that PCI DSS doesn’t apply to bank account data.

Data PrivacySo while PCI compliance does not have a place in alternative business lending, it raised the question as to whether or not there were other privacy regulations that do, particularly the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (“GLBA”) of 1999. According to the FTC, the GLBA “requires financial institutions – companies that offer consumers financial products or services like loans, financial or investment advice, or insurance – to explain their information-sharing practices to their customers and to safeguard sensitive data.” The law is broad enough to cover any financial institution that is engaging in activities that are financial in nature.

The GLBA imposes a host of requirements on these financial institutions, including the need to establish an information security program to protect customer information.

But as is the recurring theme in alternative business lending, such rules do not govern institutions that engage in business-to-business transactions. On the FTC’s website, it states:

Under the Rule, a “consumer” is someone who obtains or has obtained a financial product or service from a financial institution that is to be used primarily for personal, family, or household purposes, or that person’s legal representative. The term “consumer” does not apply to commercial clients, like sole proprietorships. Therefore, where your client is not an individual, or is an individual seeking your product or service for a business purpose, the Privacy Rule does not apply to you.

Similarly, I’ve been told that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau does not have jurisdiction over business-to-business transactions, even if one party is a sole proprietor. In a business-to-consumer transaction, there’s an assumption that the consumer may not be as sophisticated as the business and thus deserving of protections. In the course of two businesses engaging in business, it would be extremely difficult to draft rules that only protected one side as both are free market equals.

While there may not necessarily be any laws that regulate security or privacy in commercial transactions, there are plenty of benefits to following GBLA-like guidelines. For one, it could be used to build goodwill with clients. Additionally, security and privacy are sure to be examined during the course of a due diligence audit by potential investors. In this day and age, a breach of privacy or security could permanently disrupt a business’s ability to maintain the good faith of the public.

Do you feel that alternative business lenders are doing a good job?
—-

Note: I am not a lawyer and this post should not be considered legal advice.

Would an APR Help?

May 14, 2014
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Merchant cash advance industry hater Ami Kassar added to his collection of rants today in the Wall Street Journal by writing about the True Costs of Cash-Advance Loans.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek writer Pat Clark, knowing full well that Kassar and I have sparred online, tweeted:

merchant cash advance APRMy response:

Do I think merchant cash advances when structured as loans should include a prominently displayed APR on the contract?: Yes, though I believe this is less helpful than the dollar for dollar cost explanations that are already presented. But in the name of maximum transparency, it would be a good thing to have on there.

Do I think less business owners would use such loans if the APR was prominently displayed?: No

If DealStruck can make their model work, then great. What I want to know is, what happens to the businesses they won’t approve?

Alternative Lending: Big Government and Big Data

May 7, 2014
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“Who wants to fill out financial paperwork? We’d rather go pick out a pair of sunglasses”
Professor Michael Barr at LendIt 2014

man and machineOne of the clear themes of the LendIt 2014 conference was that borrowers are willing to pay extra for speed and convenience. Regulators have taken note of this trend but they’re still supportive of the alternative lending phenomenon anyway. Truth be told, the government is acting like a weight has been lifted off its shoulders. Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, the feds have prodded banks to lend more, but they’ve barely budged, especially with small businesses. Non-bank lenders have relieved them of the stress and all they need do now is make sure everybody plays nice.

Professor Michael Barr, a former US Treasury official, key architect of the Dodd-Frank Act, and Rhodes Scholar, believes the best way forward is to empower consumers. That’s something lenders can accomplish through education and transparency. On transparency, he cited many of the commendable practices that credit card companies and mortgage companies have implemented, but did not fail to note that these were forcibly instituted through regulation (Hint hint…).

federal reserve credit card rules
Credit card transparency regulations that went into effect 4 years ago

When a LendIt attendee asked Barr to name someone in the alternative lending industry that is a great role model for transparency, Barr answered by saying, “I haven’t seen anyone in the industry doing things the way I would do them in regards to education and disclosure.” On the path towards transparency, “the potential is not yet realized,” he added.

While it sounded as if he favored eventual regulation of alternative lending, he offered all in attendance advice to prevent it. “Take the high road to prevent regulatory interest,” he said.

Barr’s sobering presentation also covered the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the role they might play in alternative lending, if any. Payday lenders and debt collectors were their primary supervisory targets he said, but added the “the CFPB has the flexibility in the marketplace to address problems before they occur.” That flexibility essentially gives them jurisdiction over whatever they decide they want to be in their jurisdiction.

Sophie Raseman, the Director of Smart Disclosure in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Consumer Policy appealed to the industry in a different manner. “Small businesses are at the heart of the economy. We want to serve you [alternative lenders] better so that we can better serve them,” Raseman pleaded. As part of that, she came bearing gifts, a reminder that the federal government had loads of data available via APIs at http://finance.data.gov. The government wants to make sure we have access to as many tools as possible, most likely to help drive borrowing costs down. If you need to verify someone’s income, Raseman recommended the IRS’s Income Verification Express Service.

The Income Verification Express Service program is used by mortgage lenders and others within the financial community to confirm the income of a borrower during the processing of a loan application. The IRS provides return transcript, W-2 transcript and 1099 transcript information generally within 2 business days (business day equals 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. local IVES site time) to a third party with the consent of the taxpayer.

The irony with this service is the two business day timeline, though I haven’t confirmed if that’s still the case. Delays and archaic data aggregation methods are the exact things alternative lenders are trying to overcome. Kabbage comes to mind as the length of time it takes for them to go from application to funding can be as quick as 7 minutes, a time frame I found to be reality after watching the demonstration by Kabbage’s COO, Kathryn Petralia.

Kababge’s blazing speed is made possible by access to big data, which made Petralia an excellent choice to have on the Big Data Credit Decisioning Panel. She was joined by Noah Breslow of OnDeck Capital, Jeff Stewart of Lenddo, and Paul Gu of Upstart.

Stewart, whose company lends internationally presented the idea of mining not just data on social networks, but the photographs on them. One possibility was measuring whether or not borrowers appeared in photographs with other borrowers known to be bad, or whether or not they hung out with undesirables such as ex-convicts. He was a big believer in association risk, speculating that friends of bad borrowers also made them more likely to be bad borrowers themselves.

big dataBreslow of course said you have to be careful with the noise of social media as there can be a lot of false signals. Does that mean there are big data problems then? Upstart’s Paul Gu said, “we have small data problems” in reference to why there seems to be so much trouble evaluating applicants that have little to no credit history. Gu believes that basic information such as where a borrower went to college, their major, and their grades can be used as an accurate predictor of payment performance and his company has acquired the data to back that up.

Somewhere along in the discussion though the meaning of automation got twisted. OnDeck for instance has an automated process, yet humans play a role in 30% of the loan decision making. Does that mean they are not actually automated? Breslow clarified that aggregating data from many different sources using APIs and computers was automation and that there was still a role for humans. The goal is to make sure that humans aren’t doing the same things that the computers are doing.

algorithm“The world’s greatest chess human can beat the world’s greatest chess algorithm,” said Lenddo’s Stewart. “Humans should be pulling what the algorithms can’t think of,” added Breslow. He presented an example of an applicant satisfying all of an algorithm’s criteria but sending up a red flag at the human level. “Why would the owner of a New York restaurant live in California?” Breslow asked. That’s something an algorithm might get confused about. It might mean nothing or it might mean something.

“Algorithms are probabilistic,” Stewart reminded the audience. They spell out the likelihood of repayment, they don’t guarantee it.

For Kabbage, algorithms and automation have been instrumental in allowing them to scale. “I don’t need to hire a lot more people to serve a lot more customers,” Petralia explained.

“Let the data speak for itself,” Breslow proclaimed. And there is a lot of statistically interesting data. “People with middle names perform better than people without them,” added Breslow.

For Gu, borrowers with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fare better than their academic peers, though he wouldn’t reveal which major is #1. That information, while probably available to OnDeck, likely plays little or no role. “There is a lot more data to analyze on the business side than the consumer side which is why [things like] the social graph is a little less relevant,” Breslow said.

In the end, lenders don’t need to go on a wild data goose chase to learn all about their prospective clients. Kabbage applicants for instance are asked to provide their online banking credentials in the very first step of the applications. “A lot of people would be surprised as to the amount of data borrowers are willing to share,” Petralia proclaimed. Indeed, many alternative business lenders and merchant cash advance companies are analyzing historical cash flow activity using third party aggregating services like Yodlee, something that requires the client’s credentials.

During Kabbage’s earlier demonstration, some members in the audience worried that factors such as deposit activity could be gamed. Petralia assured them that their algorithm was sophisticated enough to detect manipulation and at the same time explained that they analyzed far more than just deposit and balance history.

Perhaps all this technology though has gone overboard. Is it possible to predict performance just based on what the applicant says? Believe it or not, “the language someone uses is an indicator of default probability,” Stewart said. But even that kind of detection has become automated. “Lenddo uses semantic analysis. People tend to use different words when they’re desperate.”

Who knows, a year from now getting a loan might be as easy as picking up your phone and saying, “Siri, send money.” Just make sure to delete all the photos of you hanging out with criminals off your phone first. A lender might use them against you.

LendIt Conference: The State of Alternative Business Lending

May 6, 2014
Article by:

LendIt 2014Have you heard? Banks aren’t lending. Nobody at LendIt seems to mind though. Ron Suber, the President of Prosper Marketplace, said earlier today that banks are not the competition. That’s an interesting theory to digest when contemplating the future of alternative lending. If banks are not the competition, then who is everyone at LendIt competing against? I think the obvious answer is each other, but much deeper than that, the competition is the traditional mindset of borrowers.

The biggest challenge the wider alternative lending industry faces is awareness and understanding. Those happen to also be two of Suber’s three edicts for growth. The third is education. Just because alternatives are available today doesn’t mean that potential borrowers know about them or feel comfortable enough to use them. Today we are competing against the old way of thinking.

Revolution?
Other products in the new “share economy” have encountered a similar struggle. Several presenters today cited Uber as having revolutionized the way people use taxis. “A long time ago, people used to stand on corners and hold out their hand to get a cab, but that’s all changed,” was the oft-paraphrased proof that age-old industries were falling like dominoes. But as a New York City resident, I hadn’t quite noticed a change at all. Hailing cabs off the street is still very much the norm. It is only by sheer coincidence that I used Uber for the very first time to travel to JFK airport on my way to this conference.

I first encountered Uber a year ago when an acquaintance dazzled me with his ability to summon a car using an app on his phone. It was then that I became aware, but I did not understand how it worked. It took me 12 months to get comfortable enough to try it myself, and the experience was okay I guess if you discount the fact that my driver went through the E-ZPass lane without actually having an E-ZPass. Needless to say, that led to a major holdup that caused me to almost miss my flight.

If it took me a year to get past the confusion of hailing a cab from my phone, I can only imagine what potential borrowers must think when told they can raise money from their peers, the crowd, or a lender that requires payments to be made every single day.

Perhaps most telling about the awareness challenge, is that many people I’ve spoken to at LendIt had never heard of a 16 year old product known as merchant cash advance. That speaks volumes about how much more work merchant cash companies still have to do in order to gain mainstream awareness.

Even those fully aware were not entirely certain about how to define the product. In the Online Lending Institutional Investors Panel, merchant cash advance was briefly discussed as a topic but it was almost entirely spoken in the context of being something that OnDeck Capital does. That would come as disheartening news to OnDeck since they have spent considerable resources in positioning themselves as anything but a merchant cash advance company. Confusion over what somebody is or isn’t will probably increase especially as alternative lenders from different industries start to compete for the same clients.

Funding businesses instead of people
Brendan Ross, the President of Direct Lending Investments, and the moderator of the Short Term Business Lending panel pointed out that a dentist could pursue two different loan options and get completely different results. With excellent credit a dentist could expect to land a 3-5 year personal loan at 7-8% APR on a P2P platform. If he were to apply for the loan using his dental practice though, he could expect to incur costs over 25% and get nothing longer than 2 years.

Ross, who was a very active moderator, subscribes to the belief that businesses are overpaying for credit. Unlike the consumer loan space, there hasn’t been price compression. The cost of business capital remains high, perhaps higher than what is necessary to turn a reasonable profit. Ross argued that the padded cost serves as a hedge against defaults and economic downturns. “The asset class works even when the collection process doesn’t,” Ross said. “The model works with no legal recovery.”

Building on that premise, Ross asked the panelists if an increase in defaults were simply the cost of doing business towards automating the underwriting process.

Stephen Sheinbaum, the CEO of Merchant Cash and Capital argued that just the opposite had occurred, that automation had led to a decrease in defaults. Others on the panel confirmed a similar outcome, though Rob Frohwein of Kabbage admitted they could potentially weather higher defaults through automation by offsetting it against decreased infrastructure costs.

Noah Breslow of OnDeck echoed something similar to Frohwein in the Small Business Term Lending Panel. He asked this question, “Do underwriters add value or not?” and followed up by saying that 30% of their deals were still manually underwritten, usually the deals that are larger.

LendIt Panel

Is full automation right around the corner?
The debate between humans and computers in risk analysis is a featured segment in the third issue of DailyFunder that is being mailed out this week, but there is another angle that is seldom discussed, whether or not customers want automation. Breslow said today that, “if customers want full automation, we are prepared to deliver it.” They’ve learned over time that “many customers want someone to talk to at some point in the transaction.” Rohit Arora, the CEO of biz2credit expressed much of the same in a recent interview with DailyFunder’s Managing Editor Michael Giusti.

The only dissenting voice was Gary Chodes, the CEO of Raiseworks who seemed to be of the belief that human involvement in underwriting was nothing short of ridiculous. He stated that, “if you look back over the last 20 years, the loss rates on business loans under 24 months has been really low.” To him, that data seemed to be proof enough that complete automation could and should be achieved, though he admitted to performing back-end checks such as landlord verifications. They currently have no physical underwriters however.

Is there a transparency problem?
Tom Green, a VP of LendingClub shared an interesting tale. While trying to convince potential borrowers to ditch a merchant cash advance in favor of a LendingClub business loan, they get pushback on the cost of their money. The reason being? Some borrowers think they’ve already got a great deal or at least a better deal than what LendingClub is offering. The problem stems from the borrower’s belief that the holdback percentage set up in their future revenue sale (the most common way a merchant cash advance is set up) is the APR.

DailyFunder LendItMerchant Cash Advance Companies pay cash upfront in return for a specified amount of a businesses’s future sales. They collect these sales by withholding a percentage of each credit card transaction or bank account deposit until the agreement is satisfied in full. On a dollar for dollar basis, the cost of these programs typically range from 20%-49%, but on an APR basis, substantially higher. The holdback % is not even a factor in the APR. Green said they’ve learned that some small business owners are not sophisticated when it comes to finance.

Ethan Senturia, the co-founder of Dealstruck would probably agree. Earlier today he said, “you need to speak the borrower’s language.” Some understand APR, some don’t. “Dealstruck offers more than just APR comparisons to borrowers,” Senturia said. “Whatever helps them understand.”

When the OnDeck Capital model and merchant cash advance model were questioned as possibly being bad for borrowers, Tom Green was quick to clarify. “There are different capital needs that small businesses have,” he said. And “there is a trade-off between the length of the term and the risk.”

OnDeck Capital’s clients are not entrepreneurs born yesterday. “The typical customer has been in business for 10 years,” Breslow said. Their deals are “structured to protect through daily and weekly payments in addition to the interest rates we charge,” something he reminded everyone was “not single digits.”

Still, transparency issues remain in business lending. Sam Hodges, the Managing Director of Funding Circle explained that when he was previously a small business owner, there were hardly any lenders willing to provide him with an amortization schedule. Ashees Jain, a managing partner of Blue Elephant Capital Management admitted he would find it hard to justify the high rates of merchant cash advance if asked by a regulator, so he’d rather not invest in that market. When it comes to those types of transactions, they “don’t want to have to explain themselves” at some point in the future.

Scott Ryles, the managing member of Echelon Capital Strategies, LLC commented on OnDeck capital’s model as unbelievable. “The arbitrage is huge,” Ryles said. And Eric Thurber the managing director of Three Bridge Wealth Advisors believes that alternative business lenders are at odds with themselves. “They always talk about their risk management,” Thurber said, but he feels that players in that industry are concerned with how much market share they have. That conflicts with risk management in his opinion.

They pay or they don’t
At the end of the day Ashees Jain said as far as unsecured loans go, “borrowers pay or they don’t.” The recovery process on secured loans can be 12-18 months Jain said, a statistic cited by Brendan Ross earlier in the day.

It’s clear at LendIt that there are a lot of products available, but Ryles summed it up nicely. In the consumer space, all the volume is in the 36 month installment loans, he reckoned. For businesses it’s merchant cash advance. “It’s an awareness thing,” Ethan Senturia said in regards to getting businesses to use alternative lending sources.

It is indeed. Awareness, education, and understanding…

CAN Capital Still King – $4 Billion Funded

April 29, 2014
Article by:

While college kids across the country are creating alternative lending platforms in their dorm rooms, industry king CAN Capital announced today that they have provided small businesses with more than $4 billion. That puts them on pace to be funding approximately $1 billion a year. ($3 billion milestone back in March 2013).

Word apparently leaked out on DailyFunder ahead of time, drawing several members to tip their hats on the achievement.

As of March 31, Lending Club had also surpassed the $4 billion mark, but with a major distinction, it was almost entirely consumer loans. In the business space, CAN Capital remains on top after 16 years, which sadly makes them older than some of the kids writing code in this industry.

In a lot of ways, code has become the new focal point of alternative lending. There’s sex appeal in having a NASA-worthy underwriting algorithm right now and everybody’s getting caught up in it, some at their own peril.Why stop at a hundred data points when you can have a thousand? Screw it, why not TEN THOUSAND?!

hadron underwriting

While strong on technology, CAN originates like a boss, having funded over 55,000 small businesses. The tech side is challenging enough for some companies, but it’s the difficulty in marketing that catches many entrepreneurs off guard. In Alex Binkley’s requiem of a defunct startup, Funding Community, he detailed the challenge in generating interest. Who you attract is not always who you’re looking to fund in business lending.

In 2014, there’s no shortage of sexy buzzwords dazzling investors, yet it’s a 1990’s era funding company that continues to dominate. Three out of four eligible customers return to them for additional funds according to their report. Having survived Y2K, the dot com bust, and the financial crisis, they are proof that it takes a lot more than fancy code and a catchy name to master the risky world of business lending. With 16 years worth of data, it may take until 2030 for this year’s new entrants to truly know what they know. $4 billion says a lot but it’s standing tall through both the good times and bad that makes all the difference.

erlich silicon valley

—–
Photos borrowed from HBO’s Silicon Valley series.

What if there were Trigger Leads?

April 27, 2014
Article by:

Just recently, a user in DailyFunder’s forum complained that a deal of his had been poached by a competitor. There’s nothing new about that story, but it is what followed that drew interest. He was in the process of renewing his client for additional funds, when out of the blue popped up a competitor that called his client to tell them not to sign the contract they had in their hands until they heard his better offer.

As it was suspiciously timed and curiously specific, he decided to reach out to the alternative lending community for their thoughts. One possible conclusion offered was that the competitor was being fed trigger leads.

Trigger leads?????????????????

Forget UCCs folks. UCCs detail transactions that have already happened and we’ve all seen what they’ve done to the merchant cash advance and alternative business lending industry. Companies are scared to file them now. But what if all of your competitors were notified every time one of your deals was submitted to underwriting? You get the app signed, you submit the file, and the next day 10 companies have called your client to offer them a better deal on funding than whatever terms you were about to offer. What gives?

Popular in the mortgage industry, the credit bureaus can actually sell credit inquiry data to lenders. So imagine every time credit gets pulled on a deal, the merchant’s info is sent out to your competitors for a fee.

Dave Sullivan explains Trigger leads below:

There was no way to tell for sure if that was what happened in this situation, and I’ve yet to hear of trigger leads being used in the alternative business lending industry but if someone was getting them, I’m sure they’d want to keep their source top secret.

Can you imagine what kind of chaos would ensue if this became commonplace in our industry?

😉

Alternative Lending Took Over Transact 14 (PHOTOS)

April 13, 2014
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Think the payments industry is just about banks and hardware companies? Think again! The ETA conference continuously hosts the largest gathering of alternative lenders and merchant cash advance companies year after year. Below are some photos from the Transact 14 show:

The Money Team AKA Merchant Cash Group were out in force.
merchant cash group

Noah Breslow and Paul Rosen of OnDeck Capital
ondeck capital

American Finance Solutions having fun at their booth:



Seth Broman of Merchant Cash and Capital showing off CAMS
Seth Broman MCC

Renier showing off Swift Capital’s 1 hour funding program
swift capital

Seth Broman (MCC), myself (deBanked), Matthew Washington (Fora), Michael Hollander (NLF), and Andrew Mallinger (Fora) roughing the frozen tundra of Minus5 Ice Bar
minus5 bar

Mitch Levy (AmeriMerchant) and myself.
mitch levy

Strategic Funding Source is all business…



I spy RetailCapital

Everyone’s shoes were shiny thanks to IOU Central



CAN Capital went big as usual



CAN Capital Transact 14


Attendees were all like
Transact 14

There were sweet views from the parties hosted by North American Bancard and Priority Payments, but what happened at them stayed in Vegas. 😉
View from Mix Las Vegas

Foundation Room view Las Vegas


Want to be included? Send me your photos or links to your photos! e-mail me at sean@merchantprocessingresource.com.

Would You Fund This Business?

April 12, 2014
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Burned down businessIs the site inspection dead?
One of the strangest byproducts of the automation age is that underwriting tools once deemed absolutely essential are being replaced with APIs, digital verifications, and algorithmic scoring. Speed is everything, but why?

Faster speed through automation allows for scaleability. The promise of speed to a potential customer also encourages them to apply. Working capital can be an impulse decision now. You don’t even need to leave your chair to get $80,000 for your small business. But who’s making sure these businesses are sound… or more importantly, that they even exist?

I learned through conversations at Transact 14 that there is a growing dependency on Google Earth for site verification, more specifically Street View. Really??? Street View?!

While tech heavy funding companies laud real-time data through hundreds of APIs, it’s amusing to think that something like Street View, which might not be updated for months or years at a time, suffices as a site verification. Indeed, Street View still shows Christmas decorations in my home town.

Google Earth can pinpoint the obvious things like showing you something is located in the middle of nowhere:

antarctica

But can it show you this sign located inside?

lost our lease

And how would you know if the writing was literally on the wall if it just went up yesterday?

Going out of business

Or that everything is completely on the up and up except that the business will be:

closed for winter

If you had the chance to speak with Jason Fullen or Joe Volk at NVMS during Transact 14, you’d know that site inspections performed by real live humans can be done in the same day they’re ordered. Or if you were getting wild at the Quiktrak party, you’d know that many of the older merchant cash advance companies still rely on site inspections, particularly on large deals.

How dumb would you feel if the $150,000 deal you funded looked like this on the inside?

burned out

Investigate a little
Who better to know the scoop on the business than the locals? I am reminded of the time a $100,000 deal I worked on where the site inspector commented that a restaurant was actually a front for a brothel that was likely going to get shut down.

I also recall almost funding a $100,000+ supermarket until the site inspection revealed that all of the shelves in the store were empty. I guess that merchant wasn’t lying when they said they needed the money to buy inventory!

And there was my own personal trip to a Brazilian Steakhouse for the final approval on an MCA deal based on credit card transactions. The server politely informed me at the end of my meal that the establishment no longer accepted credit cards as of a few days ago. How convenient…

Can social media be our eyes?
In the social media era, it’s almost as if a million site inspections are being conducted every minute. Can reviewer data be our eyes?

burned store


closing down


flooded store

If there are too few reviews or they’re aged, can you rely on all your other data points? Can you trust that the available reviews are from real customers?

Speed is king these days, but ignorance is never in style. One has to consider if they can trust external data versus what they see with their own two eyes. We’ve all seen deals that looked great on paper, but turned out to be complete

shit

After further review of the deal:

jurassic park

Should we fund businesses we never see? It’s your call.

Regulatory Paranoia and the Industry Civil War

April 11, 2014
Article by:

Stacking is on everyone’s minds in the merchant cash advance (MCA) industry but that war is little more than smoke compared to the fire burning in our own backyard. One of the major topics of debate at Transact 14 has been Operation Choke Point, a federal campaign against banks and payment processors to kill off the payday lending industry and protect consumer bank accounts. Caught in the mix are law abiding financial institutions, some of which if affected, could potentially disrupt the merchant cash advance and alternative lending industries. Both have become heavily dependent on ACH processing. Could their strength become their Achilles heel?

Indeed, there was a rumor circulating around the conference that a popular ACH processor in the MCA industry is no longer accepting new funding companies. I know the name but was not able to confirm it as fact. There is a two-fold threat on the horizon:

1. The probability that ACH processors in this industry are also processing payments for payday lenders or other high risk businesses.

2. The likelihood that a bank or ACH processor would take preemptive action and terminate relationships with merchant cash advance companies and alternative business lenders, not because it’s illegal but as a way to make their books squeaky clean.

The sentiment at the conference however was that MCA providers and alternative business lenders had little need to worry. While Operation Choke Point specifies online lenders, they are narrowly defined as businesses making loans to consumers. MCA and their counterparts do not fall under that scope, even if they themselves lend exclusively online.

Regulation
Is regulation coming?
There seems to be both a call for and paranoia about regulation, especially in the context of stacking merchant cash advances and daily repayment business loans. On the popular online forum DailyFunder, several opponents of stacking are under the impression that regulators will be busting down doors any day now to put an end to businesses utilizing multiple sources of expensive capital simultaneously. Many insiders who have had their merchants stacked on view the issue as both a legal and a moral one. Opponents get worked up about it for many reasons. They believe any one or multiple of the following:

  • The merchant can’t sell something which has already been contractually sold to another party.
  • That the merchant ends up borrowing and selling their future revenues at their own peril, endangering their cash flow and their business.
  • That the stackers endanger the first lender or funder’s ability to collect.
  • That the merchant taking on stacks won’t be eligible for additional funds with the first company, hurting the retention rate.

Stacking is not illegal, but it may be tortious interference. That allegation is the one that gets thrown around the most, but it’s important to recognize that actual damages are an integral part of any such case. If I stack on your merchant and the deal performs as expected for you, then what damages would you have suffered? But if I stack on your deal and it defaults 3 weeks later, you might be able to allege that I was the cause of it.

Insiders on DailyFunder’s forum that wonder how they might be able to get stacking to stop, only need to follow the example of what a few select funders are already doing, going on the offensive. The first thing one west coast MCA company does when they have a merchant default is find out if there was a stack that came on top of them. If they find out who it was, they send the offending funder a bill for the outstanding balance. That may sound cheesy, but given their industry prowess and litigious nature, they said that some stackers quietly mail them a check, rather than risk things escalating to the next level. The threats only hold weight of course if you’re actually prepared to bring the case to court.

I’ve spoken with dozens of proponents for stacking, many of sound character, high intelligence, and business acumen. They buck the stereotype of stackers as sleazy wall street guys with pinky rings. Few of these proponents believe that future revenue is a precise asset. It’s been said that, “future revenues are unknowable and possibly infinite. A business should be able to sell infinite amounts of these future revenues if there are investors out there that will buy them.” The general consensus on this side of the aisle is that a 2nd position stack, or “seconds” are here to stay. There’s a sense of calm and conviction, as if seconds were a boring subject of little contention. Many are okay with thirds “if the math works” but discomfort sets in on fourths, fifths and beyond. If they believe it’ll be a good investment, they’ll do the deal. They scoff at the notion that they’d willingly chance putting a merchant out of business since that would jeopardize their own investment.

To date, I’ve seen no data to support that stacking causes merchants to go out of business. I would not be surprised if there was a correlation between defaults and stacks, but that would not imply causation. A business that is on its way towards bankruptcy regardless may be able to obtain a few stacks in the process as a last ditch effort to stave it off. When the business finally fails, it may appear to look like the stacks caused it, even if they didn’t.

For those that don’t want to play cat and mouse with threats and lawsuits, there’s a growing call for regulation, both self-regulation and federal. That call feeds off the paranoia that regulators are knocking at the industry’s door already anyway.

NAMAA
In regards to self-regulation, insiders have been looking to the North American Merchant Advance Association (NAMAA) to create rules and become an enforcer. It’s no secret that their members are opponents of stacking, but as a powerful body of industry leaders, they’re up against a threat of their own, antitrust laws. Creating rules and enforcing them could be construed as anti-competitive. In truth, a lot of the MCA industry’s growth over the last 2 years can be attributed to stacking. A private association of the largest players actively working to establish rules to squash the fast growing segment of new entrants could indeed be perceived as anti-competitive.

But that doesn’t mean NAMAA is powerless to promote their views. Following in the footsteps of the Electronic Transactions Association, they could create a set of best practices, host workshops, and offer courses and sessions to train newcomers on these best practices. Such benefits and opportunities are a standard in the payments industry, but nothing like it is available in MCA or alternative business lending.

But is it too late for self regulation?
With all the government enforcement occurring in the rest of the financial sphere, fears of imminent federal involvement in MCA and alternative business lending are not unfounded… or are they?

In the wake of the financial crisis, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was formed to protect consumers in financial markets. The CFPB was instrumental in Operation Choke Point and they would be the most likely federal agency to field complaints about stacking. Unlike the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency which has jurisdiction over banks, the CFPB’s oversight extends to non-bank financial institutions. They’re the wild card agency that has financial companies across the nation on their heels.

I had the opportunity to speak with a former lead attorney of the CFPB off the record today about the definition of consumer. Could a small business be construed as a consumer? The short answer was no. The long answer was that there is no specific definition of consumer at the CFPB but it was meant to represent individuals. Although businesses at the end of the day are run by individuals, I got a pretty confident response that the CFPB would not have jurisdiction over a business lending money to a business, even if it was a very small 1 or 2 man operation. If they were acting in a commercial capacity, then they’re no longer consumers.

The other side of her argument was that it would take up too much resources to take on a case where the victim class was basically outside of their scope. The CFPB already has enough on their plate.

Is the government busy?
I also spoke with a few lobbyists and payments industry attorneys off the record and the unilateral response was that MCA and alternative business lending were not on any agenda, nor does the government have the resources to juggle something that is basically…insignificant in their eyes.

In the grand scheme of financial issues, a few billion year in small business-to-business financing transactions isn’t worth anyone’s breath. “A business acting in a business capacity was unhappy with a business contract they entered into? Take it up in civil court,” I imagine a regulator might say.

Regulators aren’t completely in the dark about MCA. Just a month or two ago, several industry captains and myself included were contacted by the Federal Reserve as part of a research mission to basically find out what this industry even was. The feds appear to have stumbled upon the MCA industry as part of their research into peer-to-peer lending. Who would’ve thought a 16 year old industry could be so stealthy?

If the big PR machines like Kabbage, Lending Club, and OnDeck Capital didn’t exist, I’m inclined to believe no one in the government would’ve heard of MCA for at least another 10 years. In 2014, they’re just now discovering it.

My gut tells me we’re a long way from any kind of regulatory enforcement. In a session I attended at Transact 14 today, a former member of the Department of Justice and a current member of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency both offered examples of cases that took 3-8 years before there was an enforcement action. In each scenario, they alerted the parties there was a problem and they were given time to correct it. They had to show progress along the way and eventually when no such progress was made after years of warnings, they acted.

In the conversation of regulation, alternative business lending and MCA are relatively tiny. Lending Club does more in loan volume each year than the entire MCA industry combined. So long as there’s no fraud involved, small business-to-business financing transactions are not likely to make it on the agenda for federal regulators for a long time. That doesn’t mean it won’t be there some day in the future.

I think it was Brian Mooney, the CEO of Bank America Merchant Services that said in the Transact 14 roundtable discussion that if something feels wrong in your gut, don’t do it. Debra Rossi, the head of Wells Fargo Merchant Services added that you can’t tell a regulator, “I didn’t know.” Keep those suggestions in the front of your mind.

No police
For the foreseeable future it’s on us as an industry to find a resolution to stacking. There’s no such thing as the cash advance police. On one side is tort law. On the other is creating best practices and actively educating newcomers. That’s where the blood boiling debates need to turn to. After all, there’s already a large crowd that yawns over seconds, a group that wholeheartedly believes a stack is just as legitimate as a first position deal.

Instead of waiting for a referee to call foul on somebody, I think 2014 is the year to realize that you might be stuck in the room with the person you hate. Could you bring yourself to tolerate them for years to come?

Blind spot
We should consider that the greatest threat to the industry may not come from within, but from outside. More than 50% of MCA/alternative business lending transactions are repaid via ACH. Government action on ACH providers or the banks that sponsor them could end up hitting this industry as collateral damage.

One metric that banks and regulators consider is the return rate of ACHs, namely the percentage of ACHs rejected for insufficient funds or rejected because the transactions weren’t authorized. Daily fixed debits run the risk of rejects and boost the return rate. Could the frequency of your rejects eventually scare the processor into terminating the relationship? With the pressure they’re getting from the Department of Justice, there’s always the possibility.

Data security is another sleeping giant to consider. Do you keep merchant data safe? Are you protected from hackers?

Know your merchant. The push towards automated underwriting seems dead set on eliminating humans from the analysis. But what if the algorithm misses something and loans get approved to facilitate a money laundering scheme? Or what if it approves a known terrorist?

Paranoia
If you’re paranoid you’re doing something wrong, then maybe you are doing something wrong even if there’s no current law against it. Follow your gut, create value, and work together. Who knows, maybe one day there will be an ETA-like organization for MCA and alternative business lending. Now is a good time to be proactive.

Is Alternative Lending a Game of Thrones?

April 8, 2014
Article by:

Funding KingsIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

This blog has been many things over the years, all of it relative to who the reader was. It has encouraged and deterred, informed and confused, made people laugh or stoked their anger. The merchant cash advance industry it spoke of had been small. Annual funding volume was a billion or two or three, a blip of a blip on nobody’s radar. There was a sense of unity, a shared objective amongst competitors. They were guided by one dictum, “grow, but don’t rock the boat.”

But opportunity enticed everyone, the good, the bad, and the unexpected, and it brought a relatively peaceful chapter to an end. Winter is coming, Eddard Stark would likely say of the uncertainty that hangs in the air. Merchant cash advance has become a spoke in the alternative lending wheel that is spinning forward uncontrollably. Non-bank financing has become a worldwide phenomenon virtually overnight, setting the stage for the lords of funding to play a game of thrones. Investors with bottomless pockets are emptying them, government agencies are assessing the landscape or crafting responses, and journalists stand ready to shape public opinion.

This is a transformational moment in human history, perhaps bigger than what Facebook did for social media. Individuals are taking control of the monetary supply. Strangers pay each other in bitcoins, neighbors are bypassing banks for loans and lending to each other instead, and businesses are rising and falling with the funding they get from other private businesses. Winter is coming for traditional banking. The realm calls for a new king.

Wonga’s epic rise is being countered by both regulatory and religious resistance, and the man who dared the world to lend algorithmically has admitted defeat. Peer-to-peer lenders have encountered massive regulatory setbacks on their road to stardom and merchant cash advance companies are currently engaged in a civil war over best practices. Winter is coming indeed.



The Kings


funding battleLending Club
In what is perhaps their first step towards an IPO this year, Lending Club is reducing transparency over its loan volume. Up until April 3rd, anyone could see how many loans they issued on a daily basis. Now this information will only be available quarterly. Peter Renton in his Lend Academy blog shared his belief that the move was entirely tied to the impending IPO. “Without this daily loan volume information their stock price will be less volatile and they will be able to “manage the message” with Wall Street every quarter,” Renton wrote.

OnDeck Capital
OnDeck Capital is also in contention for an IPO this year. A year ago a company executive hinted that becoming a public company would not be on the agenda for consideration until 2015, yet I am hearing rumors that they may make a late 2014 go at it. Such rumors hold weight in light of reports that they are cleaning up their ISO channel. Insiders on DailyFunder are saying that resellers with abnormally high default rates are in jeopardy of being cut off.

OnDeck Capital is unique in that outsiders chastise them for their rates being too high while insiders argue their rates are too low to be profitable. It’s a classic example of how tough the court of public opinion can be on a lender even if they are not getting rich off their loans.

Kabbage
Kabbage came and conquered the entire online space before anyone had a chance to blink. PayPal, ebay, Amazon, Etsy, Yahoo, Square, they claimed those territories for themselves and then launched an attack into the brick and mortar space. Kabbage’s secret value is their patents. They are a serious player on a serious path.

CAN Capital
CAN Capital’s greatest weakness is their lifespan. They’ve managed to stay on top after 16 years in the business but that makes them old enough to be Kabbage’s grandfather by today’s tech standards. As a pre-dot com era business, it’s impossible to argue against their sustainability. If anyone has alternative lending figured out for both the good times and the bad, it’s CAN Capital.



The Lords


The Government
alternative lenders fightPeer-to-peer lending has already been under strong scrutiny from the Federal Government. Lending Club and Prosper are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission these days, but they may never be free of oversight. Just two months ago, the Federal Reserve published a report on trends in peer-to-peer business lending. They hinted at further regulation.

As small business owners are increasingly turning to this alternative source of money to fund their businesses, policy makers may wish to keep a close eye on both levels and terms of such lending. Because such loans require less paperwork than traditional loans, they may be considered relatively attractive. However, given the relatively higher rate paid on such loans, it may be in the best interest of the business owner to pursue more formal options. More research is required to understand the long-term impact of such loans on the longevity of the firm and more education to potential borrowers is likely in order.
– a 2014 Federal Reserve study

The Merchants
Once upon a time nobody talked about alternative lending online except for the companies offering it. Merchants didn’t talk about it with each other or there were too few businesses to give rise to centralized discussions. Today, merchants communicate and compare notes:

Merchants discuss PayPal’s working Capital program: http://community.ebay.com/t5/PayPal/PayPal-Working-Capital-Loan-DONT-SIGN-UP/td-p/17630207

Merchants discuss Square’s merchant cash advance program: http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/forum/welcome-to-the-forum/square-to-offer-small-business-loans-at-exorbitant-interest-rates/

Merchants discuss Kabbage: http://community.ebay.com/t5/Part-time-eBay-Sellers/Kabbage-quot-loans-quot/td-p/3002329

OnDeck Capital’s 30+ Yelp Reviews: http://www.yelp.com/not_recommended_reviews/FOndxpkaBRP6LVIlOv6Dfw

Potential Lending Club borrowers make their cases: http://www.lendacademy.com/forum/index.php?board=3.0

The Machines
Are computers better predictors of performance than humans? Some people think so. This debate will play a pivotal role in the future of alternative lending.

The Media
Public opinion will be at their mercy.



The Vulnerabilities


funding battleCommissions
The bigger alternative lending gets, the juicier the stories become. Just last week, Patrick Clark of BusinessWeek dove head first into the reseller model, revealing insider commissions, the truth about buy rates, and the alleged antiquated practice of enlisting a broker to secure funding. On trial was a documented 17% commission, an example I believed to be an extreme case. For a long time commissions ranged between 5% and 10% on average. But there are some big names paying up to 12 points and others boasting of 14. All were topped by the mass solicitation I received a few days ago that promised a 20% commission. These kind of figures if they continue will become an easy target for journalists looking to portray the industry in a negative light.

Stacking
There is a raging civil war within the merchant cash advance community specifically over stacking. This is the instance that a merchant sells their future revenues to two or more parties at the same time, leading to multiple daily deductions from their sales. This debate is bound to spill out into the mainstream if it cannot be resolved on its own.

Technology
Some funding companies intend to license their automated underwriting technology to banks, potentially handing the keys of alternative lending’s greatest asset (speed) to traditional bankers. It is unlikely that banks would engage in some of the high risk deals that alternative lenders target but they could recapture the top credit tier borrowers that have been flocking away from them.

Also at stake here is the sustainability of algorithmic underwriting. There are critics that believe computers appear to make great decisions during good economic periods but suffer during downturns. Do the technology based funding companies have enough data to weather a future economic storm?


So many things are happening at once, that it’s impossible to know what fate awaits the realm. Will there be a new king or will alternative lending fall apart like a house of cards?

For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.
-Frank Underwood

May the best man win.

Join Me at Transact 14

April 1, 2014
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Electronic Transactions AssociationI’ll be at the ETA’s Transact 14 Conference in Las Vegas next week (Apr 8 – 10) wearing my journalist hat for DailyFunder. DailyFunder is currently the only publication dedicated to merchant cash advance and alternative lending and is a media sponsor of this year’s event. All attendees will be able to pick up a free copy of the latest issue of the magazine at designated distributions bins.

If you’re on the fence about going, allow me to convince you. The Annual ETA hosted conference is more than a social event or meet and greet. It’s a chance to ink deals, forge partnerships, and learn about opportunities that you’ll never hear about from the comfort of your office. Of course you’ll only get out of it what you put into it. The Who’s Who of payments and financing will be all in one place. Are you one of them?

CNBC will be broadcasting the event live. It’s been reported that this year’s show has enlisted a record amount of exhibitors.

I’ll be taking photos and jotting down notes for both the live blog and post show recap for the May/June issue of the magazine. So if you’ve got something cool to show off, email me at sean@merchantprocessingresource.com or sean@dailyfunder.com and I’ll be happy to come pay you a visit.

pre-registration for the event closes in less than 5 hours but you’ll be to get tickets on site.

And of course if you’re planning to bring your wolf pack to Vegas, you might want to read DailyFunder’s helpful tips on how to keep your wolf pack in check. 😉

Hope to see you there.

Yellowstone Capital Matures With New Executive Team

March 30, 2014
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yellowstone capital newsIn an email newsletter that went out this morning, NYC-based Yellowstone Capital announced changes and additions to their executive team.

  • Managing Partner Isaac Stern who has long been the public face of the firm is now the Chief Executive Officer.
  • Marwan Salem is now the Chief Financial Officer.
  • Josh Karp has been named the Chief Operating Officer.

Stern’s partner David Glass will keep his stake in the firm and continue to play an operational role.

The newsletter states, “Gangbuster growth hardly describes what Yellowstone Capital has experienced in the last 12 months. Deal flow has simply been huge.”

Yellowstone Capital was dubbed by DailyFunder to be one of the three most talked about funding companies of 2013. In perhaps recognition of the adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the newsletter states, “Yellowstone Capital will continue to pursue less-drastic changes in its capital structure that preserve the winning formula.”

Merchant Cash Advance Syndication: Crowdfunding?

March 28, 2014
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merchant cash advance syndicationYou might not have known this, but one of the most lucrative opportunities in merchant cash advance is the ability to participate in deals. It’s a phenomenon Paul A. Rianda, Esq addressed in DailyFunder’s March/April issue with his piece, So You Want to Participate?

Syndication is industry jargon of course. You probably know the concept by its sexier pop culture name, crowdfunding. For all the shadowy rumors and misinformation that circulates out there about merchant cash advance companies, they’re similar to the trendy financial tech companies that have become darlings of the mainstream media.

Did you know that many merchant cash advances are crowdfunded? To date, no online marketplace has been able to gain traction in the public domain aside from perhaps FundersCloud, so crowdfunding in this industry happens almost entirely behind the scenes. There is so much crowdfunding taking place that it’s becoming something of a novelty for one party to bear 100% of the risk in a merchant cash advance transaction. Big broker shops chip in their own funds as do underwriters, account reps, specialty finance firms, hedge funds, lenders, and even friends and family members of the aforementioned.

Merchant cash advance companies find themselves playing the role of servicer quite often, which is coincidentally the model that Lending Club is built on. A $25,000 advance to an auto repair shop could be collectively funded by 10 parties, but serviced by only 1. Each participant is referred to as a syndicate. This is not quite the same system as peer-to-peer lending because syndicates are not random strangers. Syndication is typically only open to businesses, and most often ones that are familiar with the transaction such as the company brokering the deal itself.

In the immediate aftermath of the ’08-’09 financial crisis, some merchant cash advance companies became very mistrusting of brokers and deal pipelines were going nowhere. Underwriters had a list of solid rebuttals for deals they weren’t comfortable with. “If you want us to approve this deal so bad, why don’t you fund it yourself!,” underwriters would say. Such language was intended to put a broker’s objections over a declined deal to bed. But with all the money being spent to originate these deals, it wasn’t long until brokers stumbled upon a solution to put anxious merchant cash advance companies at ease. “Fund it myself? I’d love to, but I just can’t put up ALL of the cash.

And so some brokers started off by reinvesting their commissions into the deals they made happen. That earned them a nice return, which in turn got reinvested into additional deals. Fast forward a few years later and deals are being parceled out by the truckload to brokers, underwriters, investors, lenders, and friends. There’s a lot of money to be made in commissions but anybody who’s anybody in this business has a syndication portfolio. The appetite for it is heavy. Wealthy individuals and investors spend their days cold calling merchant cash advance companies, brokers, and even me, trying to get their money into these deals. They know the ROI is high and they want in.

crowdfundingThat’s the interesting twist about crowdfunding in the merchant cash advance industry. You can’t get in on it unless you know somebody. There are no online exchanges for anonymous investors to sign up and pay in. It requires back door meetings, contracts, and typically advice from sound legal counsel. A certain level of business acumen and financial prowess are needed to be considered. These transactions are fraught with risk.

In Lending Club’s peer-to-peer model, investors can participate in a “note” with an investment as small as $25. This is a world apart from merchant cash advance where it is commonplace to contribute a minimum of $500 per deal but can range up to well over $100,000.

Lending Club defines diversification as the possession of more than 100 notes. At $25 a pop, an investor would only need to spend $2,500. With merchant cash advance, 100 deals could be $50,000 or $10,000,000. By that measure, syndication is crowdfunding at the grownup’s table, a table that doesn’t care about sexy labels to appease silicon valley, only yield.

Strange merchant cash advance jargon keeps the industry shrouded in mystery. Did you know that split-funding and split-processing are terms often used interchangeably? Or that they have a different meaning than splitting? Or that the split refers to something else entirely?

Do you know what a holdback is or a withhold? How about a stack, a 2nd, a grasshopper, an ISO, an ACH deal, a junk, a reup, a batch, a residual, a purchase price, a factor rate, or a UCC lead?

Paul Rianda did a great job detailing the risks of syndication, but there is one thing he left unsaid, and that’s if you’re going to participate in merchant cash advances, you better be able to keep up with the conversation.

At face value, syndication is nothing more than crowdfunding. But if your reup blows up because some random UCC hunting ISO stacked an ACH on top of your split while junking him hard and upping the factor with a shorter turn, you just might curse the hopper that ignored your holdback and did a 2nd. And on that note, perhaps it’s better that the industry refrain from adopting mainstream terminology. We wouldn’t want everybody to think this business is easy. Because it’s not.

One factor to consider is the actual product being crowdfunded. In equity crowfunding, participants pool funds together to buy shares of a business. In crowdlending, participants pool funds together to make a loan. But in merchant cash advance syndication, participants pool capital to purchase future revenues of a business. An assessment is made to predict the pace of future income and a discounted price is paid to the business owner upfront. That purchase price is commonly known as the advance amount.

Syndication has more in common with equity crowdfunding than crowdlending. If you buy future revenues and the business fails, then your purchase becomes worthless. There is typically no recourse against the business owner personally unless they purposely interfere with the revenue stream and breach the agreement. Sound a bit complicated? It is, but crowdfunding in this space is prevalent nonetheless. To get in on it, you need to know someone, and to do it intelligently, you better know what the risks are.

If you want to sit at the grownup’s table and syndicate, consult with an attorney first. There’s a reason this industry hasn’t adopted sexy labels. It isn’t like anything else.

General Solicitation or Crowdfunding?

The Best Free Lead Source

March 25, 2014
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In what is likely a Knowledge Graph hiccup, Google is giving New York-based AmeriMerchant a wonderfully free source of advertising. Merchant Cash Advance is a product in a multi-billion dollar a year industry. What is a merchant cash advance, you ask? Why it’s something that only AmeriMerchant invented and offers apparently.

what is a merchant cash advance?

What’s perhaps more ironic is that AmeriMerchant is famous for overturning another company’s patented claim to merchant cash advances. In the mid-2000s, AmeriMerchant led a charge against the alleged merchant cash advance inventor AdvanceMe. In a landmark case that overturned AdvanceMe’s patent and put AmeriMerchant’s CEO on the front page of the New York Times, merchant cash advance became the property of no single company. Today, merchant cash advances are offered directly or indirectly by more than a thousand companies nationwide.

I wonder how much AmeriMerchant is banking off this…

Fund it and Ask Questions Later

March 25, 2014
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foaming at the mouthEver since OnDeck Capital stopped doing verbal landlord references, the underwriting landscape of alternative lending has changed dramatically. Kabbage will supposedly fund applicants in just 7 minutes. Everybody’s under the gun to streamline their process, fund deals faster, and produce record breaking numbers month after month.

And why shouldn’t they? Investors are practically foaming at the mouth to get in on any and all kinds of alternative lending. Even Lending Club has thrown in the towel by no longer allowing investors to ask applicants questions. Prior to March 19th, applicants on Lending Club’s platform had the option to answer standardized questions about themselves and their purpose for seeking out a loan. This was set up to help investors feel more informed and comfortable. Once the loan was posted, prospective investors could ask the applicant additional questions of their own to help them decide if it was a deal they wanted to participate in. For example, “what are the interest rates on the credit cards you claim you want to consolidate?” That’s a fair question to ask someone seeking a debt consolidation loan.

Lending Club did away with the Q&A in the name of privacy but conceded in their blog that people are funding deals so fast that no one cares what applicants have to say.

We know that in the past some investors enjoyed reading these descriptions and answers, but as the platform has grown, fewer and fewer investors are using this approach to inform their decisions. Fewer than 3% of investors currently ask questions and only 13% of posted loans have answers provided by borrowers. Furthermore, loans are currently funding in as little as a few hours – well before borrower answers and descriptions can be reviewed and posted.

Loans are being fully funded by institutional investors and mom & pop investors before the applicant can even finish filling out the questionnaire.

raging bullThe demand to invest outpaces the amount of loans that Lending Club can originate. In a call I had with Lending Club today as a potential investor, I was told that businesses were not even allowed to invest on their platform at this time because they’ll take up all the loans and leave nothing for the average mom & pop investors, the ones which have made their peer-to-peer fame possible.

In the Lend Academy blog forum, mom & pop investors debated the usefulness of the Q&A system. Some argued that responses from applicants allowed them to weed out folks with poor spelling and grammar. Others believed that a poorly worded response was better than someone who didn’t respond at all because it showed that they actually cared about the loan they were applying for.

There were folks that analyzed the applicants language on a scientific level, with one going so far as to cite this study: Peer-to-Peer Lending The Relationship Between Language Features, Trustworthiness, and Persuasion Success.

I am reminded of my underwriting days conducting merchant interviews prior to a final decision. There were applicants that looked good on paper that came across as completely clueless about their business over the phone. Like beyond clueless. And then there were applicants that looked ugly on paper that really impressed me with their command of business subject matter. What shocked me were the former and it’s a testament to how tricky business lending is. Those phone calls impacted my final decision all the time.

But in today’s world where funders are dealing in kilos of cash instead of nickels and dimes, there’s a growing impatience over non-automated things like interacting with the applicant. Fund the deal and ask questions later!

FUND!!!The vast majority of merchant cash advance companies still conduct applicant phone interviews and there’s a part of me that hopes that never changes. As investors grow restless for new pools of loans or advances to participate in, I fear there will be more underwriting sacrifices to satisfy that demand.

It was only a year ago that I laughed at my friend in commercial banking when he told me a small business loan application begins with lunch and a few rounds of golf. “It’s about relationships,” he said. That couldn’t be less true in peer-to-peer lending where the goal is to know as little as possible about where the money is going. I see that mentality creeping into merchant cash advance as well. Sure, there are folks that point to thousands of data points aggregated through online sources but it only takes a 5 minute phone call to determine that an applicant is completely full of crap.

Maybe Jeremy Brown of RapidAdvance was on to something. When Will the Bubble Burst?

Join the discussion about this on DailyFunder.