Plastiq raises $75M to help small businesses use credit cards more

When Eliot Buchanan tried to use his credit card to pay his Harvard tuition bill, the payment was rejected because the university said it doesn’t accept credit. Realizing the same problem exists for thousands of different transactions like board, rent and vendor payments, he launched Plastiq. Plastiq helps people use credit cards to pay, or get paid, for anything

Plastiq today announced that it has raised $75 million in venture capital in a Series D round led by B Capital Group. Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, Accomplice and Top Tier Capital Partners also participated in the round. The round brings the company’s total known venture capital raised to more than $140 million.

To use Plastiq, users enter their credit card information on Plastiq’s platform. In return, Plastiq will charge you a 2.5% fee and get your bills paid. While Plastiq was started with consumers in mind, SMBs have now accounted for 90% of the revenue, according to Buchanan. The new financing round will invest in building out features to give SMBs faster services around payments and processing. 

Plastiq provides a way for SMBs and consumers to pay their bills and make sure they have reliable cash flow. For example, restaurants sometimes have a drop in revenue due to seasonality or, as we’re experiencing now with COVID-19, pandemic lockdowns. Or tourism companies for cities that are struggling to attract visitors. Those companies still need cash flow, and using Plastiq’s service, they can use credit cards to pay suppliers even in an off season. 

There is no shortage of competition from other companies also trying to solve pain points in small-business cash flow. According to Buchanan, Plastiq’s biggest competitors are traditional lenders, as well as companies like Kabbage and Fundbox. Similar claims could be made about Brex, which offers a credit card for startups to access capital faster. 

Kabbage provides funding to SMBs through automated business loans. The SoftBank-backed company landed $200 million in a revolving credit line back in July, fresh off of landing strong partnerships with banks and giants like Alibaba to access more customers. Kabbage loans out roughly $2-3 billion to SMBs every year. 

Plastiq, according to its release, is also on track to make more than $2 billion in transactions. But unlike Kabagge, Plastiq doesn’t issue loans or credit, it just unlocks a payment opportunity.

“SMBs don’t need to be burdened with additional debt or additional loans,” Buchanan said. “So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, let’s use a behavior they have already earned.” 

Buchanan would not disclose Plastiq’s current valuation or revenue, but he did say that it’s not too far away from $100 million in revenue run rate. The company’s revenue has grown 150% from 2018 to 2019. 

The company also noted that it has surpassed “well over 1 million users,” up 150% in unique new users from 2018 to 2019.

In terms of profitability, Buchanan said that “we could be profitable if we wanted to be,” noting that Plastiq’s revenue and margins could lead them toward profitability if they wanted to focus less on growth. But he added they don’t plan to “slow down” the growth engine any time soon — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because the Series D round closed at the end of 2019, Buchanan said the pandemic did not impact the deal. However, the company had planned to time the announcement with tax season. Now, as small businesses struggle to secure capital and stay afloat due to lockdowns across the country, Plastiq’s new raise feels more fitting. 

“Our customers are more thankful for solutions like ours as traditional sources of lending are drying up and not as easy to access” Buchanan said. “Hopefully, we can measure how many businesses make it through this because of us.” 

The 140-person company is currently hiring across product and engineering roles.

Here’s how to help restaurants while socially distancing yourself

The restaurant industry might look a lot different once we come out of this pandemic. As social distancing and lockdowns ripple across the nation in an attempt to fight COVID-19, some restaurants won’t be able to handle the lack of income and might tip into bankruptcy. Some might never reopen again. Earlier today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo implemented a 90-day moratorium, or temporary prohibition, on evictions for residents and businesses such as restaurants.

Ayr Muir, the owner of Clover, a chain of veggie-friendly fast food joints, filed for unemployment recently. Clover is on hiatus but is working to connect its farmers and suppliers directly to customers to help them stay afloat. 

“It’s easy to say ‘there’s unemployment benefits’ or ‘there are SBA loans,’ but when you get down to the details it’s a lot more nuanced,” Muir said. “I have staff who are scared to apply for government benefits, some fear it will impact their legal status, like if you’re here on a student visa. And the process can be really confusing.”

He says he filled out his own unemployment application the other day but isn’t sure he did it correctly. “This just adds to the feeling of uncertainty and stress.”

Entrepreneurs from all over the country are trying to unlock different ways to help vulnerable local restaurants buy themselves some time. It’s often in the form of purchasing gift cards from your favorite neighborhood spots.

The trend, much like other ways big tech is helping others out during this pandemic through free promos or access to services, can be looked at in two ways. First, it’s a way to make this transition less stressful. Second, and perhaps more cynically thanks to capitalism, offering free services is a way to pipeline eventual customers down the road. 

Let’s focus on the former, because it is Friday, I miss writing about good news and these efforts deserve a fist bump for being a net positive for local shops.

SaveOurFaves

Started by Kaitlyn Krieger and her husband, Mike Krieger, the co-founder of Instagram, SaveOurFaves wants to help Bay Area residents buy gift cards for nearby restaurants. You can divide by neighborhood and region, like San Francisco, East Bay, Marin or South Bay, and pick a local business.

For what it’s worth, some San Francisco restaurants have already temporarily closed, even though they could stay open and sell take out. La Taqueria, one of the city’s most famous burrito spots, is one high-profile example. 

On the site, the duo notes that restaurants have tons of fixed costs, like rent, labor, loan repayments, insurance, supplies, repairs — the list goes on. Even “successful restaurants have razor thin margins of 3-5%, and a third have struggled to pay employees at least once.”  

Help Main Street

Lunchbox, Eniac Ventures and a group of volunteers started Help Main Street so residents around the country could buy gift cards for their favorite businesses. The goal is to help local businesses recover lost revenue, and businesses range from Abettor Brewing Company in Winchester, Ky. to 45 Surfside in Nantucket, Mass. We wrote about it when it launched a couple days ago, and Eniac’s Nihal Mehta said there will be a Patreon-of-sorts option coming soon. It has roughly 14,000 listings on the website so far. 

Open Table

Open Table, a company that lets you book reservations at restaurants, has a feature that lets users buy gift cards from restaurants. 

Rally for Restaurants

Boston-based unicorn Toast created Rally for Restaurants to help people buy gift cards for businesses and challenge their friends to do the same. This covers restaurants across the nation. 

Support Local

USA Today’s Support Local does the same as the sites above, with more pickings from San Francisco and Austin than other cities. 

Help Your Hood

Help Your Hood is another marketplace for people to buy gift cards. On the website, it notes that if you don’t already have a gift card system set up in your business, the Gift Up App has agreed to waive its fees for the first $5,000 in vouchers for each business that comes through Help Your Hood. 

List your restaurant

Arteen Arabshahi, an investor at WndrCo, created a Google Form so restaurants could sign up to be featured on these services in one fell swoop. 

I worked at a local coffee shop during my last year of college right down the street from a Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and a Caffe Nero. The owners lived a five-minute walk, one-minute sprint away. The cook, Brandon, came in at 4 a.m. to make fresh cranberry scones. If you brought a crying baby in, Ali, the previous owner, couldn’t resist giving you kind eyes and a fresh espresso brownie for free. And one customer came in every morning to grab four coffees to go, and came back every afternoon to return the tray so we could reuse it the next day.

That coffee shop is closed indefinitely, and like many restaurants, it is donating its inventory to people who might need it. The charm can’t be remanufactured, and I hope it opens again soon.

I’ll end with a note from Clover’s Muir. He said that gift cards are a “nice expression of good will but they’re not going to halt the giant wave that threatens to wipe out restaurants everywhere.”

So, let’s start small and give back. And then let’s hope that we see more government officials show up to help restaurants on a larger scale. 

Here’s why so many fintech startups are loaning to small businesses

Everyone wants to lend to small businesses, as the fintech boom continues to bring constituent players closer together in feature-terms. Thinking broadly, the rising focus on small-business lending amongst B2B fintech and finservices companies feels directionally similar to the rise of consumer-oriented fintech startups adding banking-like features last year.

This week, several stories underscored the growing appetite for lending to small companies, including news that Goldman Sachs is “close to a deal with Amazon to offer loans to the e-commerce giant’s merchants,” according to CNBC. Amazon has a host of data concerning its merchant-partners and Goldman has a pile of money; by combining their powers, they can probably make some money loaning out capital.

The Goldman news is merely an amuse-bouche, however. What we care about are the startups working to loan out money to other concerns. This week, Divvy announced a neat program that brings it into the space, while Kabbage, a Vision Fund-backed venture, made its small business loans even more flexible.

So many loans

Jenfi wants to solve small business lending in Southeast Asia

Small business lending is a huge market that has attracted massive attention from VC investors in recent years. Startups like Kabbage have raised more than a billion dollars in venture capital and debt to create lending platforms for businesses, and others in the space like Fundbox for lending and BlueVine for banking are trying to build new, digital-first models for helping SMB owners grow their businesses.

While startups targeting the U.S. and European markets have proliferated, other international markets have seen less attention. Portal Finance raised $200 million to help businesses with lending in Latin America, and First Circle raised a $26 million round to do the same in the Philippines.

Now Jenfi wants to enter the mix. The company, founded by Jeffrey Liu, who sold his past startup GuavaPass to ClassPass for a few million, and Justin Louie, who was one of the first employees at GuavaPass, wants to expand access to small and medium business loans for owners in Southeast Asia, starting with their first base of operations in Singapore.

“Even in a market like Singapore which is quite well-established … half of these companies are still underbanked, [and] they don’t have access to credit,” Liu explained to me in an interview. “We realized there was a big problem there.”

The company raised a USD$1 million angel round of debt and equity, and is currently going through YC’s accelerator program. So far, the startup has 50 borrowers on its platform according to Liu, and has lent SGD$600,000 so far since launch last year.

In terms of its product, the company either lends directly to a small business, or offers a virtual Jenfi MasterCard that can be used for purchases.

What’s more interesting right now though is Jenfi’s model, which is something that you don’t see all the time in the lending space. The company is approaching SMB lending purely from a growth perspective. The startup wants to help owners invest in the growth of their businesses primarily through digital marketing, and takes a small percentage of future revenue in lieu of a fixed repayment schedule.

Liu says that “part of the value-add is that we can help them be more effective in their alternative marketing channels…” He said that the startup doesn’t want to become a service provider, but has been building partnerships with other marketing agencies and services that can help owners find the right growth strategies for them, and then execute on them funded by Jenfi capital. “Our goal is to be able to build a network,” Liu says. “Marketing growth is our initial product focus for this company.”

The timing could be propitious. A study by Google and Bain late last year pegged Southeast Asia as a massive opportunity for digital services, with deep smartphone penetration but still a relatively limited array of digital services across a range of categories. Online marketing channels exist, but are under-optimized, particularly in comparison to the large sums devoted to them in countries like the U.S.

Over the next two years, Liu and Louie hope to expand to more geographies, build out their product offering, and continually build long-term partnerships with business owners.

US regulators need to catch up with Europe on fintech innovation 

Fintech companies are fundamentally changing how the financial services ecosystem operates, giving consumers powerful tools to help with savings, budgeting, investing, insurance, electronic payments and many other offerings. This industry is growing rapidly, filling gaps where traditional banks and financial institutions have failed to meet customer needs.

Yet progress has been uneven. Notably, consumer fintech adoption in the United States lags well behind much of Europe, where forward-thinking regulation has sparked an outpouring of innovation in digital banking services — as well as the backend infrastructure onto which products are built and operated.

That might seem counterintuitive, as regulation is often blamed for stifling innovation. Instead, European regulators have focused on reducing barriers to fintech growth rather than protecting the status quo. For example, the U.K.’s Open Banking regulation requires the country’s nine big high-street banks to share customer data with authorized fintech providers.

The EU’s PSD2 (Payment Services Directive 2) obliges banks to create application programming interfaces (APIs) and related tools that let customers share data with third parties. This creates standards that level the playing field and nurture fintech innovation. And the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority supports new fintech entrants by running a “sandbox” for software testing that helps speed new products into service.

Regulations, if implemented effectively as demonstrated by those in Europe, will lead to a net positive to consumers. While it is inevitable that regulations will come, if fintech entrepreneurs take the action to engage early and often with regulators, it will ensure that the regulations put in place support innovation and ultimately benefit the consumer.

Where are US fintech’s next billion-dollar startups?

As fintech investments soar to new heights, investors are looking at the bottom and top levels of the services stack to find the next billion-dollar startups.

That’s the word from seasoned investors like Andreessen Horowitz’s managing director, Angela Strange, who has invested in a number of successful financial services technology companies. For Strange and Chris Britt, co-founder and chief executive of financial services startup Chime Bank, the best opportunities are in customer-facing financial services and specific infrastructure opportunities that can support those  businesses.

For many large companies, financial services are already entering a twilight period. Markets like consumer and student lending, banking and financial management and business lending are becoming more crowded, and companies like Affirm, Betterment, Brex, Chime Bank, CommonBond, Kabbage, Robinhood, SoFi, Wealthfront and many others have raised hundreds of millions so they can take on established players in banking and finance.

Investments into financial technology companies in the U.S. exploded in 2019 with at least $12.7 billion flowing in the first half of the year alone. That figure — a 60% jump in dollars committed — came even as the number of deals remained relatively steady, according to data from Accenture.

Increasing capital commitments were even more pronounced in Europe and the United Kingdom, where a fintech boom has nearly doubled the amount of money committed to startups over the first half of 2019 from a year-ago period.

Kabbage acquires Radius Intelligence, the marketing tech firm with a database of 20M small businesses

Data is the new oil, as the saying goes, and today Kabbage — a fintech startup backed by SoftBank that has built a business around lending up to $250,000 to small and medium enterprises, using AI-based algorithms to help determine the terms of the loan — is picking up an asset to expand its own data trove as it looks to expand into further SMB financial services. The company has acquired Radius Intelligence, the marketing technology firm that has built a database of information on some 20 million small and medium businesses in the US.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but notably, it comes on the heels of a sightly tumultuous period for Radius. Last year, the company announced a merger with its big competitor Leadspace, only to quietly cancel the deal three months later. Then two months after that, it replaced its longtime CEO.

Radius — which is backed by some $120 million from investors that include Founders Fund, David Sacks, Salesforce Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures and the actor Jared Leto among others — last had a valuation of around $200 million according to PitchBook, but that was prior to these events. Kabbage, meanwhile, has raised hundreds of millions in equity and debt and is valued at over $1 billion. The deal will be financed off Kabbage’s own balance sheet and will not require the company to raise more funds, I understand.

Rob Frohwein, Kabbage’s co-founder and CEO, said in an interview that the plan is to integrate Radius’ tech and IP into the Kabbage platform — the task will be overseen by Radius’ current CEO, Joel Carusone — as well as Radius’ tech team of 20 engineers, who will work for the Atlanta-based startup out of its office in San Francisco.

He also added that Radius’ current products — which include market intelligence and contact information for employees at SMBs in the US, along with a host of related solutions, which up to now had been gathered both via public sources and the businesses updating the information themselves; as well as the technology for merging disparate sources of data and ferreting out the “valid” pieces that are worth retaining and throwing out what is out of date — will not be sold any longer via Radius. From now on, there will be only one customer for all that data: Kabbage itself.

To note: the company had already been a user of Radius’ data to help its own marketing team connect with new and and existing customers.

“We have known the company for a long time,” said Frohwein. Other customers that Radius lists on its site include Square, American Express, LendingTree, FirstData, MetLife, Sam’s Club, Yahoo and more.

This doesn’t mean that Kabbage might not offer the SMB intelligence in a format to businesses directly via its own platform at some point, but it also means that as Kabbage expands into services that might compete with some of Radius’ now-former customers — payments and merchant acquirer services, as well as tools to help SMBs grow their own customer funnels are some that are on the cards for the coming months — it will have an edge on them because of the data on users that it will now own.

The deal underscores two bigger trends among startups that focus on enterprise customers. First, it points to  ongoing consolidation in the world of marketing tech, in part as businesses look for ways to better compete against the likes of Microsoft and Salesforce, which are also continually building out their stacks of services. And we will likely see more activity from stronger fintech companies keen to expand their platforms to provide more touchpoints and revenue streams from existing customers, as well as more services to expand the customer base overall.

“We’re thrilled to join the Kabbage team. As a company dedicated to small business analytics and data management, we’ve always had a deep respect for Kabbage’s data-driven technology and focus,” Radius CEO Carusone said in a statement. “Our companies have complementary technical architectures and domain experience for decision making. With Kabbage, we can build a more sophisticated analytics solution to identify, reach and serve small businesses.”

Kabbage itself is not looking for new funding at the moment, Frohwein said, but he added also that it is on a fast trajectory at the moment but still a ways away from an IPO, so I wouldn’t discount more raises in the future. The company is currently on track to see revenues up 40% versus last year, with customers up 60%.

“We’re always looking to grow,” he said.

How should B2B startups think about growth? Not like B2C

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of B2B companies apply ineffective demand generation strategies to their startup. If you’re a B2B founder trying to grow your business, this guide is for you.

Rule #1: B2B is not B2C. We are often dealing with considered purchases, multiple stakeholders, long decision cycles, and massive LTVs. These unique attributes matter when developing a growth strategy. We’ll share B2B best practices we’ve employed while working with awesome B2B companies like Zenefits, Crunchbase, Segment, OnDeck, Yelp, Kabbage, Farmers Business Network, and many more. Topics covered include:

  • Descriptions of growth stages you can use to determine your company’s status
  • Tactics for each stage with specific examples
  • Which advertising channels work best
  • Optimization of your ad copy to maximize CTR and conversions
  • Optimization of your sales funnel
  • Measuring the ROI of your advertising spend

We often crack growth for companies that didn’t think it was possible, based on their prior experience with agencies and/or internal resources. There are many misconceptions out there about B2B growth, rooted in the misapplication of B2C strategies and leading to poor performance. Study the differences and you’ll develop a filter for all the advice you get that’s good for one context (ex: B2C) but bad for another (ex: B2B). This guide will get you off on the right foot.

Table of Contents

What growth stage is your B2B startup?

The best growth strategy for your company ultimately depends on whether you’re in an incubation, iteration, or scale stage. One of the most common mistakes we see is a company acting like they’re in the scale phase when they’re actually in the iteration phase. As a result, many of them end up developing inefficient growth strategies that lead to exorbitant monthly ad spends, extraneous acquisition channels, hiring (and later firing) ineffective team members, and de-emphasizing critical customer feedback. There is often an intense pressure to grow, but believing your own hype before it’s real can kill early-stage ventures. Here’s a breakdown of each stage:

designer key details 22

Incubation is when you are building your minimum viable product (MVP). This should be done in close partnership with potential customers to ensure you are solving a real problem with a credible solution. Typically a founder is a voice of the customer, as someone who experienced the problem and sought out the solution s/he is now building. Other times, founders enter a new space and build a panel of prospective buyers to participate in the product development process. The endpoint of this phase is a working MVP.

Iteration is when you have customers using your MVP and you are rapidly improving the product. Success at this stage is rooted in customer insights – both qualitative and quantitative – not marketing excellence. It’s valuable to include in this iterative process customers with whom the founder(s) have no prior relationship. You want to test the product’s appeal, not friends’ willingness to help you out. We want a customer set that is an accurate sample of a much larger population you will later sell to. The endpoint of the iteration phase is product/market fit.

Scale is when you have product/market fit and are trying to grow your customer base. The goal of this phase is to build a portfolio of tactics that maximize market penetration with minimal – or at least profitable – cost. Success is rooted in growing lifetime value through retention and margin, maximizing funnel conversion to efficiently convert leads to customers, and finding repeatable tactics to drive prospective buyers’ awareness and consideration of your product. The endpoint of this phase is ultimately market saturation, leading to the incubation and iteration of new features, customer segments, and geographies.

How do you find B2B customers? 

Here’s a list of B2B customer acquisition tactics we commonly employ and recommend. Later in this article, we’ll connect each channel to the growth stage it’s best used in. This list is generally sorted by early stage to later stage:

1. Leveraging your network. This is particularly valuable for founders who are building a product based on their own past experience.

  • Reach out to old colleagues you know have the same problem you had (and are solving).
  • Leverage the startup ecosystem. If your startup is in YCombinator, for instance, other companies in your batch may be prospects, along with alumni who will take your call simply because of your affiliation.
  • Example: If you’re building an app for marketers, ask past marketing colleagues you’ve worked with to try out your product is a no brainer.

Kabbage secures $200M to fuel its AI-based loans platform for small businesses

Kabbage, the AI-based small business loans platform backed by Softbank and others, is adding more firepower to its lending machine: the Atlanta-based startup has secured an additional $200 million in the form of a revolving credit facility from an unnamed subsidiary of a large life insurance company, managed and administered by 20 Gates Management, and Atalaya Capital Management.

The money comes on the heels of a $700 million securitization Kabbage secured just three months ago and it is notable not just for its size but its terms: it’s a four-year facility, a length of time that underscores a level of confidence in the company’s performance.

Kabbage, which loans up to $250,000 in a single deal to small and medium businesses, has built a platform that harnesses the long tail of big data from across the web. It uses not just indicators from a company’s own public activities, but it also sources comparative information from across a wider group of similar companies, with “2 million live data connections” currently helping to feed its algorithm.

Together, these help Kabbage determine whether to provide the loans, and at what rates. Notably, the whole process takes mere minutes, making Kabbage disruptive to the traditional route of applying for loans from banks, which can come at higher rates, often take longer to close and may never get approved.

The company was last valued at $1.2 billion in its most recent equity round from the Vision Fund in 2017, with about $500 million raised in equity to date from it and other investors including BlueRun Ventures, Mohr Davidow Ventures. Rob Frohwein, the co-founder and CEO, confirmed to me via email that there are “no plans on the equity side right now.” We’ve asked about IPO plans and will update if we learn anything more on that front.

More importantly, alongside its equity story is the company’s business story: Kabbage has to date loaned out $7 billion in capital — amassed through securitizations and other facilities alongside that — to 185,000 businesses, and the company has seen an acceleration of business activity over the last two years. Nearly $700 million was loaned out in Q2 of this year, passing the record in Q1 of $600 million. This puts Kabbage on track to loan out between $2.4 billion and $3 billion this year.

“This transaction further diversifies Kabbage’s committed sources of funding and prepares us to meet the escalating demand for capital access among small businesses,” said Kabbage Head of Capital Markets, Deepesh Jain, in a statement. “2019 has proven to be a tide-shifting year as customers accessed more than $670 million from Kabbage in Q2 2019, well surpassing our previously set record last quarter.”

While a lot of Kabbage’s business has come out of its direct consumer relationships, it’s also been expanding by way of more third-party relationships. It has white-label partnerships with banks to power their own loans offerings for SMBs, and earlier this year it was also tapped by e-commerce giant Alibaba to provide loans to its small business customers of up to $150,000 to help finance purchases, part of the latter company’s redoubled efforts to build out its business in the US by way of its quiet acquisition of OpenSky.

Market map: the 200+ innovative startups transforming affordable housing

In this section of my exploration into innovation in inclusive housing, I am digging into the 200+ companies impacting the key phases of developing and managing housing.

Innovations have reduced costs in the most expensive phases of the housing development and management process. I explore innovations in each of these phases, including construction, land, regulatory, financing, and operational costs.

Reducing Construction Costs

This is one of the top three challenges developers face, exacerbated by rising building material costs and labor shortages.