merchant funding

What if there were Trigger Leads?

April 27, 2014
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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?

😉

Regulatory Paranoia and the Industry Civil War

April 11, 2014
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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
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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.

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?

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.

Kabbage Has Leverage With Patents

March 23, 2014
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kabbage PatentsIf you’re planning on introducing new technology to the merchant cash advance or alternative business lending space, you might want to start filing a patent, or else end up violating someone elses.

I’ve brought up Kabbage and patents before, but another one of theirs caught my attention. In their invention named, Method and Apparatus to Evaluate and Provide Funds in Online Environments, they claim the right to an automated application, scoring, approval, and funding model for online businesses.

Will their claim interfere with what the rest of the industry is already doing or has set their sights on?

Kabbage CEO Rob Frohwein is no amateur to the intellectual property game. With more than 30 patents to his name, Intellectual Asset Magazine once referred to him as one of the world’s top intellectual property strategists. That makes Kabbage a rather dangerous foe in the booming world of alternative lending.

The above referenced patent is summarized as:

(a) receiving mandatory information about a user and storing the mandatory information in an electronic computer database; (b) allowing a user to choose whether to enter optional information about the user, and upon receiving the optional information, storing the optional personal information in the electronic computer database; (c) computing a score using the mandatory information and optional information if provided; and (d) determining whether to approve a transfer of funds using the score, and upon approval initiating an electronic transfer of funds from a cash server to an account associated with the user, (e) wherein upon the user entering the optional information the user receives an incentive.

If you read through the entire description of the patent and scan through the photos, you’ll notice they included an option for applicants to submit additional data that could reward them with a higher approval. Such data includes sharing all their LinkedIn and Facebook friends with Kabbage, which Kabbage says it will use to systematically evaluate, determine the ones that are business owners, and solicit them.

Additionally, it outlines how such optional data could be used in their assessment of the applicant:

TABLE III
site metric significance
FACEBOOK user has more friends favorable
FACEBOOK user has less friends unfavorable
FACEBOOK fan page existsf or user favorable
FACEBOOK no fan page for user unfavorable
FACEBOOK more people like user’s fan page favorable
FACEBOOK less people like user’s fan page unfavorable
FACEBOOK more people comment on user’s fan page favorable
FACEBOOK less people comment on user’s fan page unfavorable
FACEBOOK new articles posted more frequently on user’s favorable fan page
FACEBOOK new articles posted less frequently on user’s unfavorable fan page
TWITTER user has more followers favorable
TWITTER user has less followers unfavorable
TWITTER user’s followers have more followers favorable
TWITTER user’s followers have less followers unfavorable
LINKEDIN user’s company has more employees favorable
LINKEDIN user’s company has less employees unfavorable
LINKEDIN user’s profile has more views favorable
LINKEDIN user’s profile has less views unfavorable

In their filing they also submitted what they believe to be the definition of a merchant cash advance.

A merchant account advance is an advance by an advancing party that uses a seller’s merchant account in order to receive payments by the seller for the amount advanced. For example, a seller uses their merchant account to receive payments by credit card (e.g., VISA, MASTERCARD). Once payments are processed the amounts go directly into the seller’s merchant account. When a merchant account advance (or “merchant cash advance”) is made, when a payment is processed, instead of it going directly into the seller’s account the payment may go directly into an account of the advancing party. There are alternative ways to implement merchant cash advance, including a simple advance against future receivables, but when these receivables are received they still go into the existing payment account.

That last line totally acknowledges the ACH payment phenomenon. Hopefully they didn’t file for a patent on that too. Then there might really be trouble.

Whether or not your inventions or technology is patentable or conflicts with a Kabbage held patent would best be determined by consulting with an attorney. Let this be a reminder or notice though that the battle taking place in alternative lending is happening on many levels. As the industry matures, patents could become an Ace in the hole.

Lending Club Threatens The Status Quo

March 20, 2014
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3 billion pound gorillaIn late 2013, consumer peer-to-peer lender Lending Club announced their plans to start offering small business loans. That caused a stir in the merchant cash advance world for a few weeks, but the hype died down. The general consensus was that there would be little to no overlap between the applicants each target.

To this day, I continue to doubt that the overlap will be anything less than substantial. Nik Milanovic of Funding Circle would probably disagree with me. The main argument has been that Lending Club will only target small business owners with good credit, which assumes that businesses with anything less are the only users of merchant cash advances. Not to give anyone’s figures away, but I have seen data to suggest that a large segment of merchant cash advance users have FICO scores in excess of 660. Somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves that merchant cash advances were for businesses with really bad credit. That was never the purpose it was intended for, though it’s true that many applicants have low scores.

Historically, merchant cash advances were for businesses that posed a cash flow risk to banks. Split-processing eliminated that risk by withholding a percentage of card sales automatically through the payment company processing the business’s transactions. Funders today that rely on bank debits for repayment don’t have that safeguard, but they make up for the risk they take by doing something banks don’t do, require payments to be made daily instead of monthly. This allows businesses to manage their cash flow throughout the month and enables the funder to compound their earnings daily. It’s a phenomenon I wrote about in the March/April issue of DailyFunder (Razzle Dazzle Debits & Splits: Daily is the Secret Sauce)

According to the Wall Street Journal, Lending Club will require a minimum of 2 years in business and participation will initially only be open to institutional investors.

Lending Club’s website states that they will recoup funds on a monthly basis via ACH and that interest rates range from 5.9% APR to 29.9% APR + an origination fee. Terms range from 1 to 5 years and there are no early payment penalties.

TechCrunch openly pegs CAN Capital and OnDeck Capital as chief rivals for Lending Club in the space. CAN has enjoyed frontrunner status in the industry since 1998 and while they have been tested in the last 2 years, they haven’t come up against something like this.

In the same Wall Street Journal story, Lending Club’s CEO, Renaud Laplanche lays out who his competitors are with his quote, “The rates provide an alternative to short-term lenders and cash-advance companies that sometimes charge more than the equivalent of 50% annually.”

But will the impact be felt right away? In Laplanche’s interview with Fortune, he claims that it’s very likely they’ll focus on the 750+ FICO segment first, where institutional investors will be comfortable. But make no mistake about it, that will change quick, especially with a probable IPO in the next 8 months.

Is Lending Club really all that big? To draw a comparison, RapidAdvance got a $100 million enterprise valuation when they got bought out by Rockbridge Growth Equity about 6 months ago. Lending Club on the other hand was valued at around $2.3 billion at that time. It took OnDeck Capital 7 years to fund $1 Billion in loans. Lending Club is funding a billion dollars in loans every 3 and a half months. Granted, they’ve all been consumer loans, but let’s not kid ourselves about their capabilities.

Lending Club is funding more consumer loans than the entire merchant cash advance industry is doing combined. Thanks to the peer-to-peer model, they have infinity capital at their disposal. We can pretend that no one with good credit ever applied for a merchant cash advance or we can acknowledge the 3 billion pound gorilla in the room.

Lending Club and other peer-to-peer lenders that follow them will disrupt the alternative business lending status quo.

Previous articles on this subject:
Will Peer-to-Peer Lending Burn the Alternative Lending Market?

Lending Club Business Loans are Here

Peer-to-Peer Lending will Meet MCA Financing

Merchant Cash Advance Term Used Before Congress

Merchant Cash Advance and Crowdlending