CircleUp, a fintech company that’s raised more than $250M between debt and equity, saw a change in leadership last week, with more than a fair share of transition drama. Co-founder and CEO Ryan Caldbeck stepped down, giving way to President Nick Talwar.
After stepping down, Caldback took to Twitter and Medium, opening up in a 41 tweet story about why he chose to leave. A scathing private letter from Caldbeck to an unknown investor and chair of the board at CircleUp also circulated social media.
“I made many mistakes during this time, thinking I could just grit it out alone,” Caldbeck wrote. “I thought keeping everything to myself would allow me to handle the professional challenges more effectively. My approach was wrong.”
CircleUp is a tech-driven entrepreneurial investment company, known for supplying funding to consumer firms like Halo Top Ice cream. Caldbeck founded the firm in 2012 with Roy Eakin, as a platform to connect entrepreneurs to investors.
On Twitter, Caldbeck shared his internal hardships during the C Series pivot. Facing immense stress at work while his company pivoted, fertility troubles at home, and cancer diagnoses beginning around 2017 and continuing into the present, Caldbeck went from burnout to drawn-out depression.
“There’s no doubt my mental health was suffering during that period,” Caldbeck wrote. “Some think they have no choice but to ‘tough it out’ in front of the teams, customers or investors, despite what’s going on inside their heads because doubt isn’t respected in venture.”
Caldbeck said that the “normal level” of CEO exhaustion was something he thrived on, including catching sleep in the restroom in the spare minutes he had before board meetings. But when his fertility testing found cancer, and his stress brought headaches that were feared to be brain cancer, Caldbeck said even a papercut would set him off.
Simultaneously, a board member at CircleUp was acting so disruptive that Caldbeck later complained that he was throwing the entire team off. Just this past week, Caldbeck sent an email that got shared all over the internet to that board member as advice, and in part retribution for how the investor acted.
According to Caldbeck’s letter, the disrupter invested their way onto the team and treated the rest of the board with disrespect. They talked down clients, disrupted meetings, projected insecurity and paranoia, and forced the sales team to market their stake when they wanted out.
“The data suggests that venting doesn’t actually help mental health- it hurts,” Caldbeck said. “I’m not writing this to vent, I am writing this because I am hopeful it will help future entrepreneurs you invest in.”
While Caldbeck was facing cancer, the board member was reportedly putting down the entire company. Caldbeck said he should have seen a red flag that he didn’t even meet the investor before they were sitting on the board and that many other executives share his negative opinion.
“Your involvement was incredibly difficult for all of CircleUp and our board,” Caldbeck said. “My hope is that over time you can process some of this information below and make the necessary changes if you decide to stay in venture.”
Luckily, his brain scans came back negative, and his cancer was removed by operation, and Caldbeck and his wife had a secound child. However, the 12 to 18 month period of exhaustion had taken its toll. Caldbeck had reached the end of his rope, signified when his five-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, you always look sad.”
In 2019, Caldbeck sent a letter to his board explaining his intent to step down, after serving as CEO since founding in 2012.
After a long transitionary period waiting for a replacement, Caldbeck finally shared his story, hoping to inspire other leaders to be open about their struggles and feel less alone. Nick Talwar, a 20-year industry vet, was hired as president of CircleUp in July. Caldbeck wrote that he is excited for the CircleUp team despite his time of struggle as he becomes the Executive Chairman.
“I feel immensely proud of what we have built at CircleUp,” Caldbeck wrote. “The team is truly extraordinary, and I think the technology (Helio) will transform consumer and private investing. We’ve helped hundreds of entrepreneurs to thrive, and we will help thousands more.”
After three years of litigation, in August, the Colorado “true lender” case settled with an agreement between the fintech lenders, bank partners, and the state regulators. Along with lending restrictions above a 36% APR, the fintech lenders will have to maintain a state lending license and comply with other regulatory practices.
The decision has been called unfair regulation and a bad precedent for other similar regulatory disputes across the country.
But James Paris, the CEO of Avant, sees the decision as a victory for fintech lenders. Paris said the decision was an excellent framework for fintech/bank partnerships across the nation and a sign that regulators are finally taking the benefits of alternative finance seriously.
“For us, the case also involved being able to continue to provide these good credit products to deserving customers who maybe weren’t being served as well through some of the legacy providers,” Paris said.
Paris called back to the Madden vs. Midland Funding case in the US Court of Appeals Second Circuit decided in 2015. That case called into question if loans made in fintech bank partnerships in the state of New York were valid at the time of origination. Regulators charged that though national banks can create loans higher than state regulations allow, fintech partners buying those loans to take advantage of higher rates were skirting state regulations.
“The ruling was essentially that the loan would not continue to be valid,” Paris said. “Because the individual state in question, which was New York’s local usury law, would apply because it was no longer a national bank that held that loan after it had been sold.”
The decision called into question loans made in the fintech space. Paris said that the Colorado true lender Case was not about whether the banks were even making loans. Instead, fintech lenders were called the true originators and therefore didn’t have a license that allowed them to make loans at higher rates than the state allowed.
Paris said the decision showed confidence that fintech bank partnerships were not exporting rates, and that by limiting lending to under 36%, regulators were protecting bank fintech partnerships and consumers.
“All of the lending Avant does is under 36%, and that’s been the case for years,” Paris said. “In the space where we do play, from 9% to just under 35%, through our partnership with WebBank, we are confident in running a portfolio extremely focused on regulatory compliance.”
Colorado went from not allowing partnerships at all, to working with fintech companies to developing a set of terms that allowed partnerships to function, Paris said. He added that Avant’s products have always been to customers below nonprime credit, from 550 to 680 Fico scores, serviced by up to 36% APRs.
Paris said he does not know about customers outside of this range, or how they are affected by limiting APR to 36%, but he cited a study done by economist Dr. Michael Turner. Turner is the CEO and founder of the Policy and Economic Research Council (PERC), a non-profit research center.
The study compared lending after the Madden case in New York with how customers can be served after the Colorado true lender case. In the credit market Avant serves, Turner found that customers are better off with access to regulated fintech loans, as opposed to not having access at all.
The study looked at the average borrower credit score, APR, and loan size of Avant and WebBank borrowers, and found that if WebBank loans through Avant were prohibited, borrowers would be forced to access other means of credit, through much higher rates.
“Should WebBank loans be prohibited in Colorado, then we can reasonably expect that some non-trivial portion of the WebBank loan borrower population, as well as prospective future borrowers, will be forced to meet their credit needs with higher cost products,” Turner wrote. “This outcome is financially detrimental for this borrower population, most of whom have no access to more affordable mainstream alternatives.”
Given this data, Paris is happy to comply with the regulation. Without the framework Colorado has provided, Paris said borrowers would be worse off. Paris hopes that this decision will precede other state frameworks because what fintech bank partnerships need the most are consistent regulatory practices.
“I’m hopeful that to the extent there are ongoing concerns around bank models across other states, that this type of safe harbor model that Colorado helped develop is something that others could look to as a precedent or a model. Because I think the more that we can have consistency across the relevant jurisdictions, the better.”
Americans are worried about paying their bills. DailyPay, a payment flexibility platform, gives businesses the ability to let workers access their paycheck early. For customers using the platform— no more waiting for payday.
DailyPay has offered flexible payment since being founded in 2015. Recently, Fortune 500 companies have begun to slowly offer services like it. Last month, Square allowed a select few businesses to let employees cash out using their payment platform, but Vice President of Public Policy Matt Kopko said DailyPay stands apart, offering a payday loan-and-overdraft-killer for just $2-$3.
“We’ve created this industry that’s called the on-demand pay industry,” Kopko said, “which is essentially a technology that allows workers to get paid whenever they want without having to disrupt the employer’s payroll schedule.”
The system works as an employer-sponsored benefit; with business permission, the service collects time clock data, payroll data, and accounting data. DailyPay uses that data to estimate how much money a worker can collect after every shift, or in some cases, every hour worked Kopko said. If a worker is getting paid $2,000 a week, but after withholding gets a $1,300 direct deposit, DailyPay will be able to calculate it.
“So our technology essentially integrates all those systems, allows you to monitor your balance on a constant basis,” Kopko said. “To say: ‘Well, my work yesterday actually accumulated net of all my tax withholdings $123’ and then it’s essentially an ATM for your paycheck.”
Kopko said the product is geared toward the two out of three people in America that are only paid once or twice a month. If the first of the month comes around, but it’s a week to payday, that’s when an employee needs DailyPay- to pay rent when they have no other option.
With pandemic unemployment and state closures, the team at DailyPay has seen an increased interest in the platform. At the beginning of the shutdowns in March, DailyPay saw a 400% increase in users in just three days.
Without using a service like DailyPay, the way these consumers make payments is through overdraft on bank accounts or payday lending, Kopko said. Surveys of DailyPay customers show one in four overdraft two to four times a month. After using the service, that number went down from 25% to 5%. Kopko shared that after using DailyPay, the number of customers relying on overdraft went down 40%.
“We’ve estimated that [customer] financial savings are approximately $1,200 a year,” Kopko said. “It’s not just about a tool for convenience; it’s about putting hundreds of dollars back into people’s pockets, the most vulnerable among them.”
Overdrafts have long been used as evidence toward claims that traditional banking harbors abusive, predatory practices toward the lowest-income working families. In 2017, the CFPB found that nearly 80% of overdrafts originated from the lowest 8% of account holders. That year Americans paid $34 billion in overdraft fees, according to MarketWatch.
Kopko said the platform is not just good for consumers, but businesses as well. He said DailyPay stats show an average of 40% increase in employee retention.
“For employees, we’re seeing tons of financial benefits, and for the employers, we’re seeing financial benefits,” Kopko said. “And it’s all because essentially we created the ability to have new control over your pay.”
The LendIt Fintech digital conference last week was a sign of the times. This year, millions of average businesses and consumers have had to go virtual: they had no choice. 2020 has been a year of struggle and survival, and a time of great fintech adoption.
Some firms have been more successful than others. Going full digital, LendIt introduced virtual networking at the conference- the first day alone saw 2,171 meetings. Zoom meetings and virtual greetings took the place of handshakes and elevator pitches that would regularly accompany the convention.
On day three, LendIt hosted a panel of SMB lending leaders from Stripe, Shopify, Square, and Quickbooks Capital. Bryan Lee, Senior Director of Financial Services for Salesforce, served as moderator and he focused the discussion on “How the leading fintech brands are adapting.”
Lee began the talk by asking Eddie Serrill, Business Lead from Stripe Capital, about how the industry has pivoted.
Serrill talked about how Stripe was powering online interactions and saw an influx of traditionally offline businesses switching over to their platforms. Stripe also saw an increased demand for online purchases and payment.
“We’ve been trying to find that right balance between supporting users that have been doing incredibly well,” Serrill said. “While trying to support our users who are seeing a bit of a setback.”
Stripe introduced a lending product in September of last year and now SMBs can borrow from Stripe and pay back by diverting a percentage of their sales, much like the other panelists’ companies offer.
Jessica Jiang, Head of Capital Markets at Square Capital, talked about how her firm adjusted. Square reacted to fill the niche of their underserved customers by introducing a main street lending fund, serving industries hard hit by the pandemic, Jiang said. Small buinesess that relied on in-person action like coffee shops and retail community businesses were given preferential lending options.
Product Lead at Shopify, Richard Shaw, said that this year his firm learned to be prepared for anything. Everything that Shopify was potentially going to do or planning on implementing in the coming years suddenly became a here-and-now necessity.
“We tore up our existing plans,” Shaw said. “It was like the commerce world of 2030 turned up in 2020. You need to do ten years of work, but you need to do it today.”
Shopify, the Canadian e-commerce giant has doubled in value this year. The firm launched Shopify Capital in the US and Canada in 2016 and has originated $1.2 billion in funding to small businesses since that time.
Luke Voiles, the VP of Intuits QuickBooks Capital, talked about how his team handled pandemic conservatively.
“Five years of digital shift has happened instantaneously due to COVID,” Voiles said. “Intuit is pretty recession-resistant in the sense that you have to do taxes, you have to do your accounting, and the shift to digital helps a lot.”
Business lending was different, Voiles said, as soon as his team saw COVID coming, they battened down the hatches, slowed lending, and pivoted to facilitating PPP.
Voiles said the craziest thing he has seen in his career was what Quickbooks did to deploy PPP aid.
Within about two weeks, almost 500 people from across Intuit came together to shift all the data they carried on customers to aid applications.
“We were uniquely positioned to help solve and deploy that capital,” Voiles said. “We have a payroll business where 1.4 billion business use us, we have a tax business where we have Schedule C tax filings, and we have a lending business. We were able to pivot and put the pieces together quickly.”
QuickBooks Capital deployed $1.2 billion to 31,000 business in a process that Voiles said was 90% automated. Now customers are awaiting other rounds of government aid.
Square’s Jiang said the initial shutdown weeks in March and April saw hundreds of Square team members working on PPP facilitation through the night and weekends. As the funds dried up those first two weeks, it was clear to Jiang the program was favoring larger firms and higher loan amounts, leaving out small businesses.
“That’s typical of investment bankers, but not very typical of tech,” Jiang said. “PPP is a perfect example of how small businesses are continuing to be underserved by banks.”
THE SHAKEOUT AND THE FUTURE
2020 has been a major shock to the lending marketplace. Voiles from Quickbooks said the amount of work it took to make it through the first wave was a significant shakeout.
“You’ve seen what’s happening with Kabbage and OnDeck and other transactions with people getting sold; there is a shakeout happening in the space,” Voiles said. “The bigger players will make it through and will continue to help small businesses get access to capital that they need.”
When asked about the future roadmap of QuickBooks Capital, Voiles said it wasn’t just about automating banking. Using Intuit’s resources to build an automated system is only half of the picture- the firm believes in an expert-driven platform. After the automated process, customers will be able to talk to an expert to review the data, and “check their work.” Voiles said Quickbooks wants to offer a service that is equivalent to the replacement of a CFO.
“These small businesses that have less than ten employees, they can’t afford to hire a pro,” Voiles said. “They need automated support to show them the dashboard and picture of what their business is.”
Pointing to Stripe’s online infrastructure, Serrill exemplified what successful lenders will offer next year: a platform that combines many needs of SMBs in one place.
“I think it’s really about linking all of this data, making it super intuitive and anticipating the need for their users, so they don’t need a team of business school grads to manage their finances,” Serrill said. “So they can get back to building the core of their business, not figuring out whether they have enough cash flow tomorrow.”
Jiang said the future of small business would be written in data, contactless payments, and digital banking. She sees consolidation in the Fintech space and has a positive outlook on bank-fintech partnerships.
The FDIC granted Square a conditional approval for the issuance of an Industrial Loan Company ILC in March this year. Jiang outlined plans on launching an online SMB lending and banking service next year called Square Financial Services if the conditional charter remains in place.
For Shopify’s future, Shaw was excited to look forward to the launching of Shopify balance- a cash flow management system, and Shopify installment payments. He reiterated that the success of Shopify’s lending division was due in part because making loans was not the entire business.
“Shopify Capital is one piece of a wider ecosystem,” Shaw said. “All these things together are more powerful than individual parts.”
Harvest fills a unique role in the fintech world. The platform is an automatic banking advocation software that fights on behalf of users for the best deals possible.
Connect your bank information and the Harvest AI will fight late fees and overdraft fees. Customers are only charged a portion of funds returned, and if the program does not succeed at getting money back, it doesn’t cost the user a cent.
Automatically arguing for better deals, the platform last year saved customers a collective $2 million, and manages $500 million in debt to date.
The brainchild of CEO and founder Nami Baral, Harvest released a new “PRO Index” that builds a credit profile for each customer to pair with information from FICO scores. Harvest created the index to help lenders get better information and for customers to track their financial health. Baral hopes the data will help lenders find a reason to continue credit flowing to those who have hit hard times but still can make their payments.
“In the post-COVID recessionary environment, the creditworthiness of customers continues to plummet,” Baral said. “[Harvest] saw that traditional credit scores do not provide enough of a picture about a customer’s actual worthiness and potential.”
This announcement is not just a press release, but a continuation of the founding premise of Harvest: to help the average American overcome debt and build financial health.
Baral, a Nepali native, came to America during the last financial crisis on a scholarship to study ovarian cancer at Harvard medical school. Expecting the country to be a utopic economic powerhouse, Baral instead saw lost jobs, defaulting mortgages, and debt.
“In many ways, America is one of the most wonderful places in the world,” Baral said. “But at the time it was a complete departure from what I’d hoped the US to be, because what I saw was, people were losing their jobs, losing their homes in the financial crisis.”
She decided to work toward fixing the problems she saw, pivoting to study finance. Graduating with an applied math and economics degree, Baral then trained in investment banking. She worked on an auto-advocation software for a digital advertisement startup that was eventually bought by Twitter.
She had seen a company’s growth from IPO to merger and stayed at Twitter for four years. When she left, she began market research, talking to everyday Americans about what they needed to improve their finances.
“In those conversations with people from all over the US, Alaska, Oklahoma, San Francisco, New York everywhere,” Baral said, “I realized that the issues plaguing Americans in the last financial crisis had not gone away.”
Baral said these issues had intensified over this past decade. Incomes were volatile and stagnating, student loans had risen, and the people Baral talked too were getting more and more into debt.
“So I thought what the average American needs today is not another savings product, not yet another investment product,” Baral said. “But something that can help them reduce the debt that they have in their lives. That’s the genesis of Harvest.”
With the addition of the PRO Index, Baral is excited to offer another way Americans can maintain their financial health. She said that during the pandemic, every day could be a challenge for the average American, but the new platform can act as a barometer and compass.
“A lot can change between the time you extend a loan to the customer versus when they have to pay,” Baral said. “We call that Ability-to-pay as-a-service, and that’s where the PRO Index is used, determining: ‘is this customer still healthy? is my overall portfolio still healthy?'”
If the customer is no longer healthy, the info gathered to form the PRO Index, like transactional cash flow data, can supply lenders with information on improving their health. Baral says the platform encourages lenders to keep customers and shows borrowers how to improve their credit standing.
When Prashant Fuloria joined Fundbox as Chief Operations Officer in 2016, the San Franciscan firm was a three-year-old startup with less than eighty employees. By the time Fuloria moved into the office of CEO this July, the small business credit and invoice financing company had grown exponentially, with more than $430 million in raised capital to date and triple the number of employees.
At the height of the pandemic, many firms halted funding or shuttered their doors for good. Meanwhile Fundbox kept lending, and outperformed the market, Fuloria said.
“It’s become very clear to us that we have greatly outperformed the market,” Fuloria said. “In terms of delivering value to customers, and also in terms of our business performance.”
In the toughest weeks of the pandemic, he said that Fundbox’s loan delinquency rose to 8-9%, up from a “low single-digit number” pre-pandemic. In comparison, the industry standard according to Fuloria, was a delinquency rate of 30-40%, including from larger firms and more traditional lenders like big banks.
“I think we’ve performed extremely well during COVID; the numbers just validate the investment we’ve made, especially in data,” Fuloria said. “That puts us in a very good position because a number of folks have exited the market and the need, the demand has not gone away.”
The number one thing you can do to perform well in a recession is to have a strong business going into it, Fuloria explained. Fundbox attributes part of its strength to its data. Nearly a fourth of Fundbox’s capital goes toward data assets, Fuloria said.
“If you add it all up, we’ve invested a little over $100 million in our data asset,” Fuloria said. “It’s a big investment for anybody- particularly a big investment for a mid-sized company.”
Fuloria said this money goes toward collecting customer information, which is processed by in-house tech and a talented team of engineers who can turn data into valuable information for serving SMBs.
“Small businesses,” Fuloria said, “they have the complexity of enterprises but the scale of consumers.”
Coming from twenty years of tech and product managerial experience at firms like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, Fuloria knows a thing or two about scale. He said he found his roots at Google, working when it was just a small team- by the time he left six and a half years later, Google had 35,000 employees.
When it came to joining Fundbox in 2016, Fuloria said he was attracted by the company’s mission, the talented team there, and how in just three years, the small firm had demonstrated how it could help SMBs.
“Fundbox as a company said ‘We are a financial services platform that is powering the small business economy with new credit and payment solutions,'” Fuloria said. “And that mission was very strong: it made sense to me, and it resonated with me.”
“Our news is really about improving and enhancing our platform to use real-time business data to uncover and align qualifications for small business owners to the best financing options available to them,” said Nav CEO Greg Ott about a recent announcement.
Nav is a small business information service that connects borrowers to lenders across the entire finance industry, from SBA loans, major credit cards, to nonbank lenders, and more. This new enhancement streamlines the finance process for both sides of the transaction, Ott explained.
“Historically, the model is inverted disproportionately against the small business owner, in that they can’t see what they’re qualified for until after they apply,” Ott said. “By using real-time business analysis and dynamic financing profiles, Nav is the only place that can show them what they can qualify for before they apply.”
Nav is also adding a new service team that connects to small businesses through the digital platform, offering a more personalized experience; someone will be on the line to help borrowers find their way. The platform uses cash flow, revenue, credit, and behavioral data to match SMBs with loan offers.
Nav is expanding its service because Ott said this year, many businesses could not find financing at all. Nav began helping customers find lenders for PPP loans, facilitating 70k applications in all and built an online community of 18k businesses going through the process this year alone.
Ott said it became clear during the rounds of PPP and government stimulus that banks gave preferential treatment to some of their customers and left out small businesses.
“Many banking options aren’t available to the vast majority of small businesses,” Ott said. “The traditional financial system is not always available or not the best option for a small business owner. Small business owners know this in spades, It’s just now that in the growth of this fintech ecosystem that it’s becoming clear how big that addressable market is.”
Smarter Loans, a Canadian loan comparison site, announced they are expanding their services to new categories- including “Everyday Banking, Insurance, Investing Money Transfers, and Debt relief.”
The additions are part of the Smarter Loans’ mission to become the go-to place for Canada’s online financial options. Founders Vlad Sherbatov and Rafael Rositsan founded the company to bring together information on the top financial companies all in one place. They started with information on personal and business financing but have expanded to auto loans, mortgages, equipment financing, and information on all kinds of financial products.
“We wanted to bring additional financial services and products that people can now access online,” Vlad Sherbatov, the president said. “And to do that, we partnered with some of the leading companies that offer these financial services.”
The addition is the latest resource for their 40,000 monthly user base, who access a database of top banks, credit unions, and innovative fintech leaders. Rafael Rositsan, the CEO, said as a trusted industry voice, the firm is adding this new info to update consumers on new opportunities firms provide.
“There’s a rise of companies that are now offering innovative products online,” Rositsan said. “Canadians might not be aware of some of the services that are out there.”
Sherbatov said that Canadians have been gravitating toward conducting business on the go at an accelerated rate this year. The firm listened to the customer base and learned they’re not going online for just financing.
“Entrepreneurs are running their businesses online,” Sherbatov said. “People that used to just shop for household items online are now looking for ways to handle investments and everyday financial errands because the old way of doing things is not available.”
He said that many areas of the financial space have evolved. Customers can obtain life insurance, get a line of credit, and a bank account funded in less than 24 hours, all from the comfort of their home.
“This move is to both bring more services relevant to our existing user base that use Smarter Loans,” Sherbatov said. “But also for all Canadians that are looking for these types of products. We want Smarter Loans to be the go-to place for them to learn about [these offerings], and to learn about the companies behind these products.”
How does real estate loan signing work in a contactless world? One company offers a solution.
Stavvy, a platform that empowers businesses and lenders to close real estate loans digitally, has seen a dramatic change in their business landscape since the launch of their E-signing platform in March.
“Over the course of literally a couple of weeks, [states] realized that they had to empower people to be able to do business as usual, despite what was going on,” Co-Founder Kosta Ligris said. “We were able to put all the necessary tools in one platform to empower these title companies, law firms, notaries to have identity solutions when we went live in March.”
Right when the platform came live, contactless signing became a necessity. Kosta Ligris, a co-founder of Stavvy, said his team worked hard to include emergency digital notarization options in states that had not allowed it yet before. The market went from about 20 states with legalized digital signing to 48 that had legalized or created a temporary law.
Stavvy also reached out to engineers and employees who were losing their jobs during the first wave and picked up new hires while many firms were downsizing.
“The pandemic is a once in a lifecycle opportunity,” Kosta said. “I hope that we don’t see anything that resembles COVID again. But this opportunity has given us the chance to get in front of people that we otherwise would not have been able to hire.”
Unlike competitors, Stavvy does not get involved in signing or notarizing themselves, but instead offer a digital platform for both lenders, signers, and state compliance checking. The platform is somewhat like the Uber app Ligris said- they don’t bring a car to you, but they give you a digital way to connect to people who can pick you up.
In many states, especially in New York and New Jersey, complete digital signing is still not allowed. Instead, Stavvy encrypts film of the “wet signing” -ink pen on a document- and sends the encrypted data and other identification guarantees in a live “Zoom-like experience” to the county registry.
Ligris said Stavvy is very passionate about empowering both lenders and signers. As an MIT entrepreneurship resident who looks at student companies and ideas every year, he knows about barriers to entry. He said one such barrier to digitalized innovation is a simple fear of change.
“Change in and of itself is always frustrating and scary, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad,” Ligris said. “In so many industries where people regard technology, they look at it as this is the next thing that’s going to take my job away from me.”
That’s the concept Stavvy is fighting- that digital innovation is not automating away livelihood, but further connecting people. Ligris said that the one thing technology could not replace: broker buyer relationships.
“When it comes down to making one of the largest financial decisions of their life, they want a trusted professional,” Ligris said. “If we’re going to provide the technology, we want to empower the stakeholders that know best to be more efficient and better at what they do.”
Upstart, an AI lending platform, welcomed longtime industry advocate Nat Hoopes to the team this week, to lead as Head of Government Policy and Regulatory affairs. Hoopes previously served as the Marketplace Lending Association executive director (MLA), where he grew the trade group and advocated on behalf of its members.
“My hope is to bring the energy that I did in growing the organization [MLA] and also just in tackling a lot of different workstreams to Upstart,” Hoopes said. “But also, deepen their ties with the DC policy community.”
Hoopes is excited to join the Upstart team and advocate for the company to state and federal legislators. Hoopes intends to address the development of two main issues as he enters his new office: facilitating better credit reporting with the help of AI, and using better credit to bring financing options to disenfranchised minority communities.
Upstart uses non-traditional data like a college education, job history, and residency to evaluate borrowers for personal loans. The company recently introduced an AI-powered Credit Decision API to deliver instant credit decisions. Upstart added auto loans to the platform in June, so the new API works with personal, student, and auto loans.
Hoopes said he and Upstart shared a similar motivation: to provide credit to people and improve financial futures, especially to people unfairly blocked from receiving credit.
“I think because of the structural inequality that we have in our society, a lot of minority groups get really left behind and stuck in a low credit score environment,” Hoopes said. “By using more data, and using it in new ways with artificial intelligence we can really level the playing field.”
Hoopes said that he has already seen Federal regulators in the FDIC and the OCC, and the CFPB working on using AI learning in credit underwriting. He said the Fed is planning out how to help banks adopt more of these models to approve more people.
“I think that’s a key initiative,” Hoopes said. “A key area where I’ll be working for Upstart: Engaging with regulators on how to help banks get more comfortable in serving more customers,”
While advocating for banks to use the credit capabilities of partners like Upstart, Hoopes said he would be devoted to ensuring decisions are made with equality and inclusion in mind. Hoopes will stay on as a member of the MLA board, and working in concert with his responsibilities advocating at Upstart.
“At MLA, I helped develop the diversity and inclusion strategies for our part of the fintech industry,” Hoopes said. “I’ll remain active on those issues at Upstart both collectively with other members of the industry as a member of the MLA.”
Hoopes referred to the Diversity and Inclusion strategy released by MLA last month. Board members signed off on the paper, written with the help of the National Urban Leauge. League president and CEO Marc Morial and Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY) to create a vision of an inclusive fintech industry.
Hoopes addressed what he said was the failure of the American credit scoring system. For instance, according to Upstart’s study in 2019, 80% of Americans have never defaulted, yet only half have a prime credit score. It’s a problem he says disproportionately affects minority borrowers.
According to a Federal Reserve study, more than three times as many Black consumers (53%) and nearly two times as many Hispanic consumers (30%) as White consumers (16%) are in the lowest percentiles of credit scores.
Hoopes said Upstart does not collect racial data from applicants but cites a CFPB test that found Upstart’s platform increased access to credit across race and ethnicity by 23-29% while decreasing annual interest rates by 15%-17%.
The University of Delaware recently received a $9 million tax incentive to construct a new Fintech Center on its premier Science, Technology, and Advanced Research (STAR) campus, with help from a community-building company Cinnaire. Slated for completion in 2021, the building marks yet another fintech-focused resource for higher education.
Financial technology programs have long been offered at prominent business schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia, international schools such as Oxford, and research institutions like MIT since the late 2000s.
Now that fintech has become a long term value creator in the financial world, other institutions such as the University of Michigan, Fordham, and Delaware are excited to implement fintech opportunities on campus for undergraduate and graduate students alike.
Discover Bank and Cinnaire jointly funded the building, a $39 million project. According to Delaware plans, it will create a space on the Delaware STAR campus to host a new Financial Services Incubator to encourage research and collaboration between students and industry leaders.
“The FinTech building will bring together computer science, engineering and business experts in cybersecurity, human-machine learning, data analysis, and other emerging financial technologies,” said Levi Thompson, Dean of the College of Engineering. “These collaborations will allow us to provide our students with a very unique experience that prepares them to excel in the workforce. Furthermore, our Fintech discoveries will benefit people throughout Delaware and the world.”
Cinnaire is a national nonprofit that focuses on improving communities’ financial health by creating capital solutions to revitalization projects: lending funds, managing, and building housing structures.
Funding communities is what Cinnaire does best: in this case, utilizing a New Markets Tax Credit to fund an addition to the Delaware campus.
The nearby University of Fordham at Lincoln Center has also been trending toward preparing students for a fintech world. Undergrad and graduate students pursuing an MBA through the Gabelli School have the option of a fintech concentration.
The course work not only incorporates data science and machine learning skills into the worlds of credit lending and risk management but facilitates relationships between students and a wealth of industry partners.
Sudip Gupta, professor, and Director of the MS Quantitative Finance program, spoke about the courses’ popularity there. The program is ranked in the top 20 of its kind in the world by Risk Magazine.
He has seen a revolution in fintech in the past few years that has recently received a big push by pandemic forces, introducing the wholesale adoption of fintech techniques into traditional financial institutions.
“The fintech revolution in the industry- big data, machine learning techniques, storage capacity, and cloud computing has been going on for the last couple of years,” Gupta said. “The pandemic provided the big push to move toward that direction.”
Gupta has been following the development of alternative credit closely, recently publishing an award-winning paper studying machine learning to create alternative consumer credit scores using mobile phone and social media data.
“The idea of my research- let’s look at people who do not have a credit history or enough traditional credit you could get from a FICO score,” Gupta said. “Using this data, it turns out they are better predictors, and better to judge than FICO, and can reach out to more people.”
Gupta is excited for the adoption of big data techniques into alternative and traditional consumer loans because it offers a win-win for consumers and institutions alike, he said. Echoing the findings of many successful alternative finance companies, Gupta said his research showed that collected data could offer better insight for lending than “stale FICO scores.”
Up north at the Univerisity of Michigan, Professor Robert Dittmar at the Ross School of Business heads the Fintech Initiative. He is working on adding even more fintech classes. Recently, through a partnership with PEAK, a Chicago fintech lending company, Michigan launched a fintech initiative that incorporates undergrad and grad classes, faculty research, and a fintech entrepreneurial club that connects students to industry leaders.
Michigan Ross is adding fintech classes for a variety of reasons.
“The simplest reason: students are interested in learning more about this kind of space,” Dittmar said. “And we’re seeing more demand from the industry side for students that know more.”
For years Dittmar said tech companies and startups in silicon valley were pioneering innovations in the industry. Through talking with alumni and contacts in the industry, Michigan found that fintech has gotten to the place where there is an excellent supply of data engineers. Still, there is a demand for professionals with the financial business expertise to implement these technologies.
“What we are trying to do at Ross is fill in that gap,” Dittmar said. “what we’d like is for [students] to know enough about the technology that they can provide the insights of finance and business to the people that are doing that technical work.”
At Ross, they are organizing what will one day be like a fellowship program. The program will feature a combined learning experience: students will learn data analytic finance, apply their computing skills in credit decision making classes, and then connect with the industry in experiential learning classes.
“In the last couple of years, I have been taking students to London to work at fintech startups in the UK,” Dittmar said. “And we are hoping to expand that program so that most or all graduate students have the opportunity to participate in something like that.”
Last year Ross hosted a “Fintech Challenge” competition to design a banking service to reach customers in a “banking desert” in rural Michigan. The program is hoping to host another challenge this year, despite complications of COVID-19.
I‘ve heard of SaaS, but now there’s LaaS, Lending as a Service. I recently spoke with Timothy Li, CEO of Alchemy, a fintech infrastructure company that offers that and more. You can check it out below!
Ocrolus, a document analytics company, was recently named Inc.’s #1 fastest growing fintech company in the US and #1 fastest growing software company in NYC. The rating is based on percentage revenue growth between 2016 and 2019. Ocrolus placed as the #30 fastest-growing private company in America overall.
Ocrolus was founded in 2014 and has grown by 8,000% to become an industry-leading document scanning platform. Automating document applications for partners like BlueVine, Cross River, and Square, Ocrolus recently facilitated 761,455 small business applications for PPP loans.
So what sets Ocrolus apart? CEO and Co-Founder Sam Bobley credits the growth factor on just how fast and accurate the Ocrous API is.
“Lenders who were not using Ocrolus were not able to get to underwriting decisions as fast as lenders that were using Ocrolus- we saw a domino effect,” Bobley said. “Once we got a few big consumers on the platform, we were able to quickly onboard more and more funders and help them increase speed in their underwriting process.”
Bobley also said that while competitor document applications struggle with the accuracy at which they can read documents, landing somewhere in the 70-85% accuracy area, Ocrolus boasts more than 99% accuracy.
Success snowballed, and Ocrolus was helping grow businesses. The API directly addresses many financial institutions’ problems with scale- typically, more applications require more manpower to sift through paperwork.
“Typically, when a customer starts using our platform, within one year of using our platform, they double their volume, and within two years they quadruple,” Bobley said. “One of the reasons for that is they no longer have to staff up and deal with the operational complexities of handling the fluctuating volume of loans.”
With Ocrolus plugged in, customers were free from a major operating cost, and could go all out taking on new clients- which would mean more paperwork to process with Ocrolus.
Today, the company employs more than 900 team members across four offices but was founded in New York City. And like Seinfeld, Bobley loves the city, especially as a thriving hub for fintech activity.
“There’s no better place to do it than in the heart of the financial center of the US here in New York City,” Bobley said. “We’re right near where a lot of our lender customers are operating.”
On the news of recent acquisitions and reports that companies like PayPal and Intuit are ramping up their involvement in small business lending, Bobley said he sees larger entities in fintech as an opportunity for pricing transparency and better access to capital.
“I think the headline here is that financial services firms are recognizing that there’s a significant amount of businesses that used to be underserved,” Bobley said. “The bigger players are raising their eyebrows and want to get more involved, which in my opinion will be ultimately good for small business.”
And when it came time for Ocrolus to do its part for small business, Bobley said that more than 430,000 PPP applications of the 761,455 that were made using their partner network got approved, saving an estimated 1.5 million jobs.
“It’s always great when you know you can connect your work to a greater purpose for the community, so it’s really just a cool rewarding experience,” Bobley said. “It’s been fantastic, but we think we’re still in the early innings in terms of what we can do as a company- not just in small business lending but also in consumer mortgage and auto.”
Here’s where fintech and online lending rank on the Inc 5000 list for 2020:
|351||Direct Funding Now||1,297%|
|647||Fund That Flip||724%|
|1229||Smart Business Funding||365%|
|1282||Global Lending Services||349%|
|1502||Fountainhead Commercial Capital||293%|
|1933||Choice Merchant Solutions||218%|
|2466||Bankers Healthcare Group||167%|
|2537||Central Diligence Group||162%|
|3062||Shore Funding Solutions||127%|
|4344||Yalber & Got Capital||76%|
|4509||Expansion Capital Group||70%|
Like never before, the ways in which people and data are employed are overlapping more in a post-covid economy. Nearly three months of slow-down and, in some cases, complete economic shutdown have forced brokers and funders alike to view businesses differently than before. New documents, metrics, and terms are being incorporated into underwriting with the belief that it will provide a much more comprehensive picture of each business applying for funding.
Broker Fair Virtual took the chance to explore these new perspectives in The Aftermath, a panel featuring Moshe Kazimirsky, VP of Strategic Partnerships and Business Development at Become; Heather Francis, CEO of Elevate Funding; and David Snitkof, Head of Analytics at Ocrolus. Here, the industry experts discussed what the future of data and people may look like, what the new things that funders are looking out for are, and how the coronavirus has changed consumer and merchant behavior.
First up was Heather Francis, who gave a run down of how Elevate has adapted to the constantly shifting environment created by covid-19. “There were slim pickings on what we could fund,” Francis noted of the early lockdown period. Explaining that many businesses didn’t fit their criteria in the early days of lockdown, Elevate began the process of including new metrics and lenses through which to ascertain if businesses were financially viable.
National, state, and local restrictions became a daily check-in, rather than monthly; with one person being assigned to cover changes in local and even county regulations. As well as this, Francis explained that the company shifted its focus from underwriting the business owner’s activity to underwriting the consumers’ activity. This meant that foot traffic was constantly reviewed via FourSquare, trends that showed which industries were seeing upticks and downturns were monitored, and what customers in varying geographies were comfortable with was gauged.
“There are some areas in our country that were not heavily impacted,” Francis explained, commenting on the discrepancies between locations, particularly for bars and restaurants. “I know some of us have our optics on what’s going on in our daily lives, and a lot of people in our space are located in New York or California, and these were the very heavily regulated areas where everything was shut down and there was not much to do. Here in Florida, it was easier, with open-seating dining.”
David Snitkof echoed Francis’s points, saying that “the old way of businesses underwriting credit is no longer sufficient … If you were to only look at people’s repayment histories, their credit profiles, and things like that, you wouldn’t get all the data you need to make the right decision. Generally there’s this idea that the past is prologue and the greatest predictor of future results is past behavior, and this type of pandemic makes that no longer the case … we need to think beyond the traditional data sets that people have used to underwrite credit.”
According to Snitkof, the old models for underwriting and funding have been overturned, with funders adhering to three principals going forward as they chart new methods: more data, more time, more detail. This means incorporating more data and analytics than before, pushing for more data-driven strategies; requesting information and data from merchants that cover longer periods of time, with the hope of gaining further insight into the pattern of the business; and upping the thoroughness with which each merchant is scrutinized, recording more information that is unique to their industry, location, and business management.
“Lenders will realize that in order to make a credit decision, we need to have access to very deep, detailed, and wide time-framed data of our customers; and we need to be able to process it in an automated and efficient way,” Snitkof asserted.
Still, while it looks like data is due to play a larger role in the future, Heather Francis took care to mention that important data is currently missing from their metrics. Credit and delinquency reporting are on hold, just as rent is paused for many tenants; meaning that in two or three months, many funders could be in for a surprise when they realize their merchant is having trouble.
Speaking on the Paycheck Protection Program as well as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, both Snitkof and Francis expressed that while it is good to see deposits for the government programs, questions must be asked regarding them. They can’t be viewed as revenue, since they do not reflect a business’s ability to generate revenue, said Snitkof, but rather they offer a chance to view how a company manages its cash-flow, with how they spread out PPP and EIDL funds being a key insight.
Looking forward, the panelists noted that the experiences of economic shutdown; PPP; EIDL; and how many business owners’ banks supported, or did not support, them could lead to a shift in how non-banks are viewed.
“It’s definitely a time and place for us to really highlight how our industry is placed to assist small businesses,” Francis stated. “We should really take this opportunity to expand on what we can do and how we can help. I think it’s our moment to shine because a lot of banks have pulled back on what they’re able to do in this time.”
This pulling back by banks became clear during the peak of the PPP application period, when many business owners complained of a lack of or poor communication between themselves and the bank they applied to. Highlighting the importance of the customer experience, Snitkof pointed out that this aspect of alternative finance may only become more important as time goes on.
“We have this golden age of customer service. Customers are going to demand good funding, on the right terms, with full transparency, with good speed of decisioning, with a good relationship, and if they can get that from someone who is not a bank, but is an alternative finance provider, then that’s a great funding scenario for them.”
More generally though, the panel ended on a note of ambiguity over the future, with the speakers agreeing that what comes next will be uncertain and challenging, as Francis reminded the audience of what 2020 has in store: a presidential election and a possible second wave of the novel coronavirus.
But there may also be opportunity for those who are there to take it, according to Snitkof, who finished off by saying that “the silver lining of what we’ve just been through as a country, as a world, as an industry, is that all those things that were good enough, they were on pause. So it’s given people the time and space to reimagine what they could do and actually look at the capabilities that we’ve available to us and say ‘maybe we can provide a great personalized customer experience to every small business and customer out there. Maybe we can be more automated and data-driven in our decisions. Maybe we can actually extend better terms on financing to people because we’re able to determine risk better, and optimize our market spend and cost of capital better.’ One of the good things about a disruption is it takes away a lot of the stuff that was good enough; a lot of those sacred cows are now ready to be disrupted and maybe in a few years we’ll see rapid innovation along those lines.”
The SBA finally released an individual PPP lender application for Non-Bank and Non-Insured Depository Institution Lenders on Wednesday.
Note that it doesn’t actually say “fintech” anywhere on it but that’s because fintech is a colloquial term. This Non-bank designation and the requirements therein are similar to the SBA guidance published on April 3rd that was widely believed to encompass fintech lenders.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the economy and affect small businesses as well as funders, deBanked will keep up with how various figures from the alternative finance sector are managing under the stresses of covid-19. Ranging from funders, to brokers, to those figures on the periphery of the industry, this series aims to highlight a variety of voices and we encourage you to reach out to deBanked to discuss how your business is doing.
One such voice this week was Shawn Smith, CEO of Dedicated Commercial Recovery. Specializing in debt recovery and legal enforcement, Smith told deBanked that his business has already seen a jump in demand, but that he reckons, for now, most demand will be for modifications on existing deals. According to Smith, many of his clients have explained to him that merchants have been requesting changes to the terms of the financing, either by tweaking the rates or length of repayment.
“Just in two weeks we can see an uptick, but by and large, it hasn’t majorly spiked. I think it’s spiking with the funders or the creditors right now. And we’ll be next on that … a major thing I’m hearing is a dramatic increase in inbound calls to our clients for modifications.”
In Smith’s view, this back and forth between merchants and funders is a better scenario than the alternative, making clear that honest communication is necessary in a crisis like this.
“Hopefully everybody’s working together through this, which does seem to be the case right now. I honestly think we’re past the point of some people calling this a hoax, or it’s not to be taken seriously. And I’m seeing a lot of rallying around the idea of ‘we’re in this together even though we can’t stand next to each other.’ A kind of American spirit of we’re going to beat this, we’re going to get through it.”
For Idea Financial, the idea of working together has manifested, just as it has for many companies across the world, digitally. CEO Justin Leto and President Larry Bassuk explained to deBanked that since their entire company is working remotely, the communication app Slack has stepped in for continual conversation between employees and Zoom is being used to check in with the team multiple times throughout the day.
“In many ways, our teams interact more now than they did when they were in the office together. We hold competitions, share personal stories, and really support one another. At Idea, the sentiment that we feel is that everyone appreciated each other more now than before, and we all look forward to seeing each other again in person soon.”
On Thursday, industry leaders took part in a webinar hosted by LendIt Co-Founder and Chairman Peter Renton. Various subjects relating to Covid-19 were up for discussion by Lendio’s Brock Blake, Kabbage’s Kathryn Petralia, and Luz Urrutia of Opportunity Fund, with the $2 trillion government bill being foremost among them.
Blake, who had been in touch with Senators Romney and Rubio, explained that most small businesses will be eligible for a loan out of the $350 billion fund that would be allotted to the SBA under the $2 trillion bill, saying that “a tsunami of loan applications is coming because almost all small business owners in America will qualify for this product.” The Lendio CEO also noted that business can expect to pay an interest rate of 3.75% on these loans, only a portion of each individual loan may be forgivable, and the max amount loaned out will be two and a half times the business’s monthly payroll, rent, and utilities combined.
Beyond the specifics of the 7(a) loan program, Blake expressed concern over the SBA’s bandwidth, saying that he was unsure whether or not the organization and the banks that it will partner with to deliver these loans will have the capacity to process them, a point echoed by Urrutia. “We’re talking about businesses that are going to need a ton of support,” the Opportunity Fund CEO said. “With these programs, the money doesn’t really get down to the bottom of the pyramid.”
Collectively, the group hoped that the SBA would open up their channels and allow non-bank lenders to use some of the $350 billion to fund small businesses, citing that neither government agencies nor banks have the technology nor processes to hastily deal with the amount of applications that will come. In other words, the SBA is working with “dinosaur technology,” as Blake called it.
One point of concern that continually arose during the conversation was the situation lenders will find themselves in as the pandemic continues. With Blake saying that an estimated 50% of non-bank lenders on his platform have hit the pause button on new loans, each of the other participants expressed worry about lenders being wiped off the map during and in the aftermath of this crisis.
As well as this, Petralia explained that funders can expect to encounter increased rates of fraud during this time: “In times like this, the bad guys come out in force … criminals are very creative and smart, so I promise you they’ll come up with new ways to fraud the system.” Discussing how they are dealing with this, the group mentioned that they were incorporating additional revenue and cash balance checks, as well as social media checks to see whether the business announced that it had closed due to the coronavirus.
Altogether, the conversation was one of uncertainty, but also one of hope to keep the wheels of the industry turning as more and more small business owners look for financing to keep their payroll flowing. As Renton said closing the session, “This is our time to shine, this is fintech’s time to show what it’s been working on for the last decade.”
As the market cheers the upcoming passage of a $2 Trillion stimulus bill that is intended to provide much needed support to small businesses, industry insiders are beginning to raise concerns about the SBA’s infrastructural ability to process applications in a timely manner.
In a webinar hosted by LendIt Fintech yesterday, Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia estimated that conservatively, it could take the SBA up to two months to even begin disbursing loans offered by the bill. Kabbage President Kathryn Petralia offered the most optimistic estimate of 10 days, while Lendio CEO Brock Blake thinks that perhaps it could take around 3 weeks.
Blake followed up the webinar by sharing a post on LinkedIn that said that small businesses were reporting that the SBA’s website was so slow, so riddled with crashes, that the SBA had to temporarily take their site offline.
Most skeptics raising alarms are not referring to the SBA’s staff as being unprepared, but rather the systems the SBA has in place.
A March 25th tweet by the SBA reported that the site was undergoing “scheduled” improvements and maintenance.
— SBA (@SBAgov) March 25, 2020
This all while the demand for capital is surging. Blake reported in the webinar that loan applications had just recently increased by 5x at the same time that around 50% of non-bank lenders they work with have suspended lending.
Some informal surveying by deBanked of non-bank small business finance companies is finding that among many that still claim to be operating, origination volumes have dropped by more than 80% in recent weeks, mainly driven by stay-at-home and essential-business-only orders issued by state governments.
It’s a circular loop that puts further pressure on the SBA to come through, none of which is made easier by the manual application process they’re advising eager borrowers to take on. The SBA’s website asks that borrowers seeking Economic Injury Disaster Loan Assistance download an application to fill out by hand, upload that into their system and then await further instructions from an SBA officer about additional documentation they should physically mail in.
Perhaps there’s another way, according to letters sent to members of Congress by online lenders. 22 Fintech companies recently made the case that they are equipped to advance the capital provided for in the stimulus bill.
“We seek no gain from this crisis. Our only aim is to protect the millions of small businesses that we are proud to call our customers,” the letter states.
Members of the Small Business Finance Association made a similar appeal in a letter dated March 18th to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza. “In this time of need, we want to leverage the experience and expertise we have with our companies to help provide efficient funding to those impacted in this tough economic climate. We want to serve as a resource to governments as they build up underwriting models to ensure emergency funding will be the most impactful.”
How fast things come together next will be key. The House is scheduled to vote on the Senate Bill today. If a plan to distribute the capital cannot be expedited and the crisis drags on, the consequences could be dire.
“Hundreds of thousands of businesses are going to be out of business,” Urrutia warned in the webinar.
The Canadian Lenders Association has announced its establishment of a covid-19 working group to support its members’ response against the coronavirus. The group will act as an advisory committee and resource for CLA members, while also serving as a lobbyist group to various government entities.
“We presently are in an unprecedented period in Canadian business,” CLA President Gary Schwartz said in a statement. “In the weeks and months ahead, CLA members will have an important role to play in supporting small business and in providing much needed credit to consumers across Canada. The goal of this initiative is to engage with and advocate on behalf of all stakeholders across the innovative lending ecosystem to help mitigate the disruption that covid-19 create in Canada.”
The working group will engage Canadian policy makers on key issues relating to small business lenders and small businesses. In a call, CLA Board Member and Merchant Growth Partner CEO David Gens said that “there’s a lot that governments can do to bridge businesses through this, so that once this virus is over, life resembles, as much as possible, what it looked like pre-virus … I don’t think we have seen enough yet in terms of the government response as it relates specifically to mom and pop small businesses … And I think that those businesses, those local storefronts really do make up the fabric of communities.”
With the doors to 2019 firmly closed, alternative financing industry executives are excited about the new decade and the prospects that lie ahead. There are new products to showcase, new competitors to contend with and new customers to pursue as alternative financing continues to gain traction.
Executives reading the tea leaves are overwhelming bullish on the alternative financing industry—and for good reasons. In 2019, merchant cash advances and daily payment small business loan products alone exceeded more than $20 billion a year in originations, deBanked’s reporting shows.
Confidence in the industry is only slightly curtailed by certain regulatory, political competitive and economic unknowns lurking in the background—adding an element of intrigue to what could be an exciting new year.
Here, then, are a few things to look out for in 2020 and beyond.
There are a number of different items that could be on the regulatory agenda this year, both on the state and federal level. Major areas to watch include:
- Broker licensing. There’s a movement afoot to crack down on rogue brokers by instituting licensing requirements. New York, for example, has proposed legislation that would cover small business lenders, merchant cash advance companies, factors, and leasing companies for transactions under $500,000. California has a licensing law in place, but it only pertains to loans, says Steve Denis, executive director of the Small Business Finance Association. Many funders are generally in favor of broader licensing requirements, citing perceived benefits to brokers, funders, customers and the industry overall. The devil, of course, will be in the details.
- Interest rate caps. Congress is weighing legislation that would set a national interest rate cap of 36%, including fees, for most personal loans, in an effort to stamp out predatory lending practices. A fair number of states already have enacted interest rate caps for consumer loans, with California recently joining the pack, but thus far there has been no national standard. While it is too early to tell the bill’s fate, proponents say it will provide needed protections against gouging, while critics, such as Lend Academy’s Peter Renton, contend it will have the “opposite impact on the consumers it seeks to protect.”
- Loan information and rate disclosures. There continues to be ample debate around exactly what firms should be required to disclose to customers and what metrics are most appropriate for consumers and businesses to use when comparing offerings. This year could be the one in which multiple states move ahead with efforts to clamp down on disclosures so borrowers can more easily compare offerings, industry watchers say. Notably, a recent Federal Reserve study on non-bank small business finance providers indicates that the likelihood of approval and speed are more important than cost in motivating borrowers, though this may not defer policymakers from moving ahead with disclosure requirements.
“THIS WILL DRIVE COMMISSION DOWN FOR THE INDUSTRY”
If these types of requirements go forward, Jared Weitz, chief executive of United Capital generally expects to see commissions take a hit. “This will drive commission down for the industry, but some companies may not be as impacted, depending on their product mix, cost per lead and cost per acquisition and overall company structure,” he says.
- Madden aftermath. The FDIC and OCC recently proposed rules to counteract the negative effects of the 2015 Madden v. Midland Funding LLC case, which wreaked havoc in the consumer and business loan markets in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. “These proposals would clarify that the loan continues to be ‘valid’ even after it is sold to a nonbank, meaning that the nonbank can collect the rates and fees as initially contracted by the bank,” says Catherine Brennan, partner in the Hanover, Maryland office of law firm Hudson Cook. With the comments due at the end of January, “2020 is going to be a very important year for bank and nonbank partnerships,” she says.
- Possible changes to the accredited investor definition. In December 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to propose amendments to the accredited investor definition. Some industry players see expanding the definition as a positive step, but are hesitant to crack open the champagne just yet since nothing’s been finalized. “I would like to see it broadened even further than they are proposed right now,” says Brett Crosby, co-founder and chief operating officer at PeerStreet, a platform for investing in real estate-backed loans. The proposals “are a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure they go far enough,” he says.
Precisely how various regulatory initiatives will play out in 2020 remains to be seen. Some states, for example, may decide to be more aggressive with respect to policy-making, while others might take more of a wait-and-see approach.
“I think states are still piecing together exactly what they want to accomplish. There are too many missing pieces to the puzzle,” says Chad Otar, founder and chief executive at Lending Valley Inc.
As different initiatives work their way through the legislative process, funders are hoping for consistency rather than a patchwork of metrics applied unevenly by different states. The latter could have significant repercussions for firms that do business in multiple states and could eventually cause some of them to pare back operations, industry watchers say.
“While we commend the state-level activity, we hope that there will be uniformity across the country when it comes to legislation to avoid confusion and create consistency” for borrowers, says Darren Schulman, president of 6th Avenue Capital.
The outcome of this year’s presidential election could have a profound effect on the regulatory climate for alternative lenders. Alternative financing and fintech charters could move higher on the docket if there’s a shift in the top brass (which, of course, could bring a new Treasury Secretary and/or CFPB head) or if the Senate flips to Democratic control.
If a White House changing of the guard does occur, the impact could be even more profound depending on which Democratic candidate secures the top spot. It’s all speculation now, but alternative financers will likely be sticking to the election polls like glue in an attempt to gain more clarity.
Election-year uncertainty also needs to be factored into underwriting risk. Some industries and companies may be more susceptible to this risk, and funders have to plan accordingly in their projections. It’s not a reason to make wholesale underwriting changes, but it’s something to be mindful of, says Heather Francis, chief executive of Elevate Funding in Gainesville, Florida.
“Any election year is going to be a little bit volatile in terms of how you operate your business,” she says.
The competitive landscape continues to shift for alternative lenders and funders, with technology giants such as PayPal, Amazon and Square now counted among the largest small business funders in the marketplace. This is a notable shift from several years ago when their footprint had not yet made a dent.
This growth is expected to continue driving competition in 2020. Larger companies with strong technology have a competitive advantage in making loans and cash advances because they already have the customer and information about the customer, says industry attorney Paul Rianda, who heads a law firm in Irvine, Calif.
It’s also harder for merchants to default because these companies are providing them payment processing services and paying them on a daily or monthly basis. This is in contrast to an MCA provider that’s using ACH to take payments out of the merchant’s bank account, which can be blocked by the merchant at any time. “Because of that lower risk factor, they’re able to give a better deal to merchants,” Rianda says.
Increased competition has been driving rates down, especially for merchants with strong credit, which means high-quality merchants are getting especially good deals—at much less expensive rates than a business credit card could offer, says Nathan Abadi, president of Excel Capital Management. “The prime market is expanding tremendously,” he says.
Certain funders are willing to go out two years now on first positions, he says, which was never done before.
Even for non-prime clients, funders are getting more creative in how they structure deals. For instance, funders are offering longer terms—12 to 15 months—on a second position or nine to 12 months on a third position, he says. “People would think you were out of your mind to do that a year ago,” he says.
Because there’s so much money funneling into the industry, competition is more fierce, but firms still have to be smart about how they do business, Abadi says.
Meanwhile, heightened competition means it’s a brokers market, says Weitz of United Capital. A lot of lenders and funders have similar rates and terms, so it comes down to which firms have the best relationship with brokers. “Brokers are going to send the deals to whoever is treating their files the best and giving them the best pricing,” he says.
Profitability, access to capital and business-related shifts
Executives are confident that despite increased competition from deep-pocket players, there’s enough business to go around. But for firms that want to excel in 2020, there’s work to be done.
Funders in 2020 should focus on profitability and access to capital—the most important factors for firms that want to grow, says David Goldin, principal at Lender Capital Partners and president and chief executive of Capify. This year could also be one in which funders more seriously consider consolidation. There hasn’t been a lot in the industry as of yet, but Goldin predicts it’s only a matter of time.
“A lot of MCA providers could benefit from economies of scale. I think the day is coming,” he says.
He also says 2020 should be a year when firms try new things to distinguish themselves. He contends there are too many copycats in the industry. Most firms acquire leads the same way and aren’t doing enough to differentiate. To stand out, funders should start specializing and become known for certain industries, “instead of trying to be all things to all businesses,” he says.
Some alternative financing companies might consider expanding their business models to become more of a one-stop shop—following in the footsteps of Intuit, Square and others that have shown the concept to be sound.
Sam Taussig, global head of policy at Kabbage, predicts that alternative funding platforms will increasingly shift toward providing more unified services so the customer doesn’t have to leave the environment to do banking and other types of financial transactions. It’s a direction Kabbage is going by expanding into payment processing as part of its new suite of cash-flow management solutions for small businesses.
“Customers have seen and experienced how seamless and simple and easy it is to work with some of the nontraditional funders,” he says. “Small businesses want holistic solutions—they prefer to work with one provider as opposed to multiple ones,” he says.
This year could be a “pivotal” year for open banking in the U.S., says Taussig of Kabbage. “This issue will come to the forefront, and I think we will have more clarity about how customers can permission their data, to whom and when,” he says.
Open banking refers to the use of open APIs (application program interfaces) that enable third-party developers to build applications and services around a financial institution. The U.K. was a forerunner in implementing open banking, and the movement has been making inroads in other countries as well, which is helping U.S. regulators warm up to the idea. “Open banking is going to be a lively debate in Washington in 2020. It’ll be about finding the balance between policymakers and customers and banks,” Taussig says.
The funding environment
While there has been some chatter about a looming recession and there are various regulatory and competitive headwinds facing the industry, funding and lending executives are mostly optimistic for the year ahead.
“If December 2019 is an early indicator of 2020, we’re off to a good start. I think it’s going to be a great year for our industry,” says Abadi of Excel Capital.