PayPal joins the ‘buy now, pay later’ race with new ‘Pay in 4’ installment program

PayPal today introduced a new installment credit option for PayPal users called “Pay in 4.” The name itself explains what the service offers — basically, it’s the ability for customers to pay for purchases, interest-free, over four separate payments. The service is an expansion on PayPal’s existing lineup of Pay Later solutions, which also includes PayPal Credit’s revolving credit line and its Easy Payments.

With Pay in 4, customers can choose to pay for purchases between $30 and $600 over a six-week period. Because it’s included with the merchant’s existing PayPal pricing, they won’t have to pay more fees to offer the option to their customers — as they do with several competitive “buy now, pay later” services.

For customers, the short-term payment option allows U.S. customers to pay for a purchase over time, without fees or interest. After their initial payment, the remaining three payments are automated. The feature will also appear in the customer’s PayPal wallet, where the payments can be managed.

Pay in 4 builds on PayPal’s tests with Easy Payments. The company says it learned that, at some price points, customers preferred the option to pay over a six-week period.

The service clearly is meant to compete with rival fintech services like Klarna, AfterPay, Affirm and others, which may or may not charge fees or interest up front, but do often tack on late fees when consumers can’t pay. Klarna, for example, even offers a direct competitor with its program offering four interest-free payments charged to your card every two weeks.

Because PayPal is tied to a customer’s payment card or bank account, it reduces the chance of a forgotten payment. But if the customer can’t pay, there will be fees involved. These will vary by state, as each state has its own late fee structure which PayPal will abide by, the company says.

“In today’s challenging retail and economic environment, merchants are looking for trusted ways to help drive average order values and conversion, without taking on additional costs. At the same time, consumers are looking for more flexible and responsible ways to pay, especially online,” said Doug Bland, SVP, Global Credit at PayPal, in a statement about the launch. “With Pay in 4, we’re building on our history as the originator in the buy now, pay later space, coupled with PayPal’s trust and ubiquity, to enable a responsible and flexible way for consumers to shop while providing merchants with a tool that helps drive sales, loyalty and customer choice,” he added.

In a post-NDA world, does transparency help founders identify conflicts of interest?

Once upon a time, fintech founders could pitch 10 investors before closing a round in a relatively hushed way. Entrepreneurs could even ask VCs to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) to keep their information confidential. Today, everyone is a fintech investor and no one signs NDAs.

This changed dynamic puts founders in a difficult position.

Nabeel Alamgir, CEO and founder of Lunchbox, struggled to raise his first institutional check for his restaurant tech startup. After searching for more than a year, Alamgir found an investor who understood his vision. Better yet, the investor had connections to restaurants in New York City that Alamgir wanted to land. So, Alamgir shared everything about Lunchbox, from the financials, to the product integration road map and go-to-market strategy.

After a month of due diligence, the investor ghosted Alamgir. Four months later, that same investor’s portfolio company launched a product mimicking Lunchbox.

“I did not do due diligence on them as they were doing on me,” he said. “And I forgot all my rules. Most rules go out the window as cash is running out.”

Alamgir’s experience is a classic case of back-channeling, a sometimes unfortunate yet uncommon occurrence for founders in Silicon Valley. It’s not a secret that investors share intel with each other as a competitive advantage; but as venture capital grows as an asset class and more investors break into the industry, the way information disseminates will become even more elusive and broad.

Alamgir advises early-stage founders who are looking to raise their first check to “contain excitement.”

Banks aren’t as stupid as enterprise AI and fintech entrepreneurs think

Announcements like Selina Finance’s $53 million raise and another $64.7 million raise the next day for a different banking startup spark enterprise artificial intelligence and fintech evangelists to rejoin the debate over how banks are stupid and need help or competition.

The complaint is banks are seemingly too slow to adopt fintech’s bright ideas. They don’t seem to grasp where the industry is headed. Some technologists, tired of marketing their wares to banks, have instead decided to go ahead and launch their own challenger banks.

But old-school financiers aren’t dumb. Most know the “buy versus build” choice in fintech is a false choice. The right question is almost never whether to buy software or build it internally. Instead, banks have often worked to walk the difficult but smarter path right down the middle — and that’s accelerating.

Two reasons why banks are smarter

That’s not to say banks haven’t made horrendous mistakes. Critics complain about banks spending billions trying to be software companies, creating huge IT businesses with huge redundancies in cost and longevity challenges, and investing into ineffectual innovation and “intrapreneurial” endeavors. But overall, banks know their business way better than the entrepreneurial markets that seek to influence them.

First, banks have something most technologists don’t have enough of: Banks have domain expertise. Technologists tend to discount the exchange value of domain knowledge. And that’s a mistake. So much abstract technology, without critical discussion, deep product management alignment and crisp, clear and business-usefulness, makes too much technology abstract from the material value it seeks to create.

Second, banks are not reluctant to buy because they don’t value enterprise artificial intelligence and other fintech. They’re reluctant because they value it too much. They know enterprise AI gives a competitive edge, so why should they get it from the same platform everyone else is attached to, drawing from the same data lake?

Competitiveness, differentiation, alpha, risk transparency and operational productivity will be defined by how highly productive, high-performance cognitive tools are deployed at scale in the incredibly near future. The combination of NLP, ML, AI and cloud will accelerate competitive ideation in order of magnitude. The question is, how do you own the key elements of competitiveness? It’s a tough question for many enterprises to answer.

If they get it right, banks can obtain the true value of their domain expertise and develop a differentiated edge where they don’t just float along with every other bank on someone’s platform. They can define the future of their industry and keep the value. AI is a force multiplier for business knowledge and creativity. If you don’t know your business well, you’re wasting your money. Same goes for the entrepreneur. If you can’t make your portfolio absolutely business relevant, you end up being a consulting business pretending to be a product innovator.

Who’s afraid of who?

So are banks at best cautious, and at worst afraid? They don’t want to invest in the next big thing only to have it flop. They can’t distinguish what’s real from hype in the fintech space. And that’s understandable. After all, they have spent a fortune on AI. Or have they?

It seems they have spent a fortune on stuff called AI — internal projects with not a snowball’s chance in hell to scale to the volume and concurrency demands of the firm. Or they have become enmeshed in huge consulting projects staggering toward some lofty objective that everyone knows deep down is not possible.

This perceived trepidation may or may not be good for banking, but it certainly has helped foster the new industry of the challenger bank.

Challenger banks are widely accepted to have come around because traditional banks are too stuck in the past to adopt their new ideas. Investors too easily agree. In recent weeks, American challenger banks Chime unveiled a credit card, U.S.-based Point launched and German challenger bank Vivid launched with the help of Solarisbank, a fintech company.

What’s going on behind the curtain

Traditional banks are spending resources on hiring data scientists too — sometimes in numbers that dwarf the challenger bankers. Legacy bankers want to listen to their data scientists on questions and challenges rather than pay more for an external fintech vendor to answer or solve them.

This arguably is the smart play. Traditional bankers are asking themselves why should they pay for fintech services that they can’t 100% own, or how can they buy the right bits, and retain the parts that amount to a competitive edge? They don’t want that competitive edge floating around in a data lake somewhere.

From banks’ perspective, it’s better to “fintech” internally or else there’s no competitive advantage; the business case is always compelling. The problem is a bank is not designed to stimulate creativity in design. JPMC’s COIN project is a rare and fantastically successful project. Though, this is an example of a super alignment between creative fintech and the bank being able to articulate a clear, crisp business problem — a Product Requirements Document for want of a better term. Most internal development is playing games with open source, with the shine of the alchemy wearing off as budgets are looked at hard in respect to return on investment.

A lot of people are going to talk about setting new standards in the coming years as banks onboard these services and buy new companies. Ultimately, fintech firms and banks are going to join together and make the new standard as new options in banking proliferate.

Don’t incur too much technical debt

So, there’s a danger to spending too much time learning how to do it yourself and missing the boat as everyone else moves ahead.

Engineers will tell you that untutored management can fail to steer a consistent course. The result is an accumulation of technical debt as development-level requirements keep zigzagging. Laying too much pressure on your data scientists and engineers can also lead to technical debt piling up faster. A bug or an inefficiency is left in place. New features are built as workarounds.

This is one reason why in-house-built software has a reputation for not scaling. The same problem shows up in consultant-developed software. Old problems in the system hide underneath new ones and the cracks begin to show in the new applications built on top of low-quality code.

So how to fix this? What’s the right model?

It’s a bit of a dull answer, but success comes from humility. It needs an understanding that big problems are solved with creative teams, each understanding what they bring, each being respected as equals and managed in a completely clear articulation on what needs to be solved and what success looks like.

Throw in some Stalinist project management and your probability of success goes up an order of magnitude. So, the successes of the future will see banks having fewer but way more trusted fintech partners that jointly value the intellectual property they are creating. They’ll have to respect that neither can succeed without the other. It’s a tough code to crack. But without it, banks are in trouble, and so are the entrepreneurs that seek to work with them.

Our 11 favorite companies from Y Combinator’s S20 Demo Day: Part I

Startup incubator and investment group Y Combinator today held the first of two demo days for founders in its Summer 2020 batch.

So far, this cohort contains the usual mix of bold, impressive and, at times, slightly wacky ideas young companies so often show off.

This was Y Combinator’s second online demo day, its first all-virtual class and the first time that it held live, remote pitches. The event largely went well, with founders dialing in from around the globe to share a few paragraphs of notes and a single slide. There were few technical hiccups, given the sheer number of startups presenting.

But if you are not in the mood to parse through dozens (and dozens) of entries detailing each startup that showed off its problem, solution and growth, the TechCrunch crew has collected our own favorites based on how likely a company seems to succeed and how impressed we were with the creativity of their vision. For each entry, one staffer made the call that the startup in question was among their favorites.

We’re not investors, so we’re not pretending to sort the unicorns from the goats. But if what you need is a digest of some of the day’s best companies to get a good taste of what founders are building, we have your back.

ZipSchool and Hellosaurus

Natasha Mascarenhas

The next wave of edtech startups is entering a market that demands a better remote-learning solution for younger learners. But that’s the obvious product gap, one that is already being tackled by the biggest names in the booming category.

The non-obvious product-market deficit is how teachers, also impacted by the pandemic, are searching for new ways to interact with students. Teachers are collaborating and cross-pollinating on successful lesson plans that work across stale Zoom screens, so why not monetize that same content?

Max Levchin is looking ahead to fintech’s next big opportunities

Max Levchin needs little introduction in the world of tech. As an entrepreneur, he’s been the co-founder of PayPal (now public), Slide (acquired by Google) and Affirm (reportedly about to go public), some of the hottest startups to have come out of Silicon Valley. And as an investor, he’s applied his power of observation and execution also towards helping many others build huge technology businesses.

We sat down with Levchin for a recent session of Extra Crunch Live, where he spoke at length about what he sees as some of the big opportunities in fintech. Here’s an edited version of the conversation. You can watch and listen to the whole discussion — which includes stories about Levchin’s coffee and cycling habits, and how many times he’s seen “The Seven Samurai” (hint: more than once) — here, also embedded below, and you can check out the rest of the pretty cool ECL program here.

How e-commerce failed to evolve since his days at PayPal

Even going as far back as PayPal I think the industry has devolved. I think fintech had the promise of really bringing simplicity, honesty and transparency to the customer. Instead, we ended up putting a really nice user interface on products that are not designed with the user’s best interest in mind. I’m a big fan of throwing shade on credit cards, because I think fundamentally, their business model is remarkably similar to that of payday loans. You are allowed to borrow some money and don’t really know exactly what the terms are. It’s all in the fine print, don’t worry about it and then you just make the minimum payments and you stay in debt. Potentially forever.

A stampede of unicorn news

With a hot IPO market and a world accelerating its shift to digital technologies amidst a pandemic, it’s a busy time for late-stage startups. Happily, the current moment is generating a wave of leaks and news. So much so, it’s actually been pretty hard to keep up.

In honor of the somewhat crazy week we’ve had, I’ve compiled the biggest and best bits of unicorn news, with two final items concerning companies that are not quite unicorns. Our goal is to get caught up so we can start next week sufficiently informed.


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As always with this sort of work, we’ll have to handle each entry quickly. But if you want to know what’s up lately with the most valuable private companies, this should provide a working summary.

We’ll start with the Gong round, talk Palantir, peek at Stripe, chat about Airbnb’s results, detail a few other revenue milestones that were new to us, discuss Robinhood trading volume, gander at some Coinbase product news and a few other items, wrapping with a note on recent funding rounds from Parsable and Coda.

The theme, in case you were hoping for a unifying thread, is that the good times that took temporary flight in March and April, are back.

Today, it’s nearly hard to recall the fear that took over startup-land; sure, there are warning signs about cloud growth rates, but for many unicorns, we still live in boom times.

Let’s begin.

A  blessing of unicorns

As promised, we’re starting with the Gong round, which my dear friend Ron Miller covered for TechCrunch. The salestech software company put together a $200 million round at a $2.2 billion valuation after raising several other rounds in recent quarters. As Ron reports, the company’s growth has been torrid, with 1,300 customers and 2.5x revenue growth “this year alone.” But most critically, Gong’s CEO Amit Bendov said that “there’s a lot of liquidity in the market.” Yep.

Google signs up six more partners for its digital banking platform coming to Google Pay

Google is expanding its plans to offer digital banking services in the U.S. The company announced today it’s partnering with half a dozen more banks to offer digital checking and savings accounts to Google Pay users in the U.S., starting sometime next year. The new partners include Bank Mobile, BBVA USA, BMO Harris, Coastal Community Bank, First Independence Bank and SEFCU. They join Google’s existing partners Citi and SFCU, announced earlier, for a total of now eight banks lined up for the project.

News of Google’s big move into banking and personal finance through an effort known internally as “Project Cache” was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in November. Much like the mobile banking services offered today by a number of startups, Google will provide the consumer-facing front-end to the digital banking services it makes available, while the accounts themselves will be held by the FDIC-backed partner institutions.

However, unlike with mobile banking startups, which tend to note their banking partners only in the fine print, Google is giving the banks a co-branded experience. In addition, Google explains that by working with a range of partners from large, global banks down to smaller credit unions with deep community ties, it will be able to do a better job building products that meet its customers’ diverse set of needs.

“We had confirmed earlier that we are exploring how we can partner with banks and credit unions in the U.S. to offer digital bank accounts through Google Pay, helping their customers benefit from useful insights and budgeting tools, while keeping their money in an FDIC or NCUA-insured account,” a Google spokesperson says. “We are excited that six new banks have signed up to offer digital checking and savings.”

The company says it plans to add even more U.S. financial institutions over time.

Google today operates its digital payments service Google Pay and complementary Google Wallet product to serve its customers’ financial needs. But today, more consumers — and particularly younger people — are moving away from brick-and-mortar banking institutions to instead manage their money online. Apple already tapped into consumer demand for digital banking with the launch of its co-branded Apple Card credit card with Goldman Sachs. But it has not yet offered a full banking service, only Apple Cash — a service where you store your “cashback” credits from Apple Card use, payments from friends or the cash you transfer in from a connected bank.

Google’s plans are more extensive. Though it won’t host the bank accounts, it will be able to draw on data to offer customers financial insights and other budgeting tools. For the partners, the service gives them a way to market their brand to consumers in an increasingly mobile-first, online-only market.

“Being able to support our customers’ financial lives in more places where they’re spending their digital time is important to helping them be successful,” said Brett Pitts, chief digital officer for BMO Financial Group, in a statement about BMO’s partnership with Google. “Collaborating to launch this new BMO digital product accelerates our ability to deliver financial advice to our customers and is an innovative step in the evolution of how we serve them.”

For BBVA, the collaboration is another step forward for its BBVA Open Platform, which allows the bank to acquire customers by embedding its financial products within other apps and services.

“BBVA has focused for decades on how it could use digital to advance the financial industry, and in so doing, create more and better opportunities for customers to manage their financial health,” said BBVA USA President and CEO Javier Rodriguez Soler. “Collaborations with companies like Google represent the future of banking,” he added.

The accounts are expected to launch in 2021, several banks said in their announcements. Google has not provided a more specific time frame for the launch.

Is the 2020 SPAC boom an echo of the 2017 ICO craze?

I wanted to write an essay about Microsoft and TikTok today, because I was effectively a full-time reporter covering the software giant when it hired Satya Nadella in 2014. But, everyone else has already done that and, frankly, there’s a more pressing financial topic for us to parse.

Let’s take a minute to take stock of SPAC (special purpose acquisition companies) which have risen sharply to fresh prominence in recent months. Also known as blank-check companies, SPACS are firms that are sent public with a bunch of cash and the reputation of their backers. Then, they combine with a private company, effectively allowing yet-private firms to go public with far less hassle than with a traditional IPO.


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And less scrutiny, which is why historically SPACs haven’t been the path forward for companies of the highest-quality; a look at the historical data doesn’t paint a great picture of post-IPO performance.

But that historical stigma isn’t stopping a flow of SPACs taking private companies public this year. A host of SPACs have already happened, something we should have remarked on more in Q1 and Q2.

Still, better late than never. This morning, let’s peek at two new pieces of SPAC news: electric truck company Lordstown Motors merging with a SPAC to go public, and fintech company Paya going public via FinTech III, another SPAC.

We’ll see that in hot sectors there’s ample capital hunting for deals of any stripe. How the boom in alt-liquidity will fare long-term isn’t clear, but what is plain today is that where caution is lacking, yield-hunting is more than willing to step in.

Electric vehicles as SPAC nirvana

The boom in the value of Tesla shares has lifted all electric vehicle (EV) boats. The value of historically-struggling public EV companies like NIO have come back, and private companies in the space have been hot for SPACs as a way to go public in a hurry and cash in on investor interest.

Working to understand Affirm’s reported IPO pricing hopes

News broke last night that Affirm, a well-known fintech unicorn, could approach the public markets at a valuation of $5 to $10 billion. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news, said that Affirm could begin trading this year and that its IPO options include debuting via a special purpose acquisition company, also known as a SPAC.

That Affirm is considering listing is not a surprise. The company is around eight years old and has raised north of $1 billion, meaning it has locked up investor cash during its life as a private company. And liquidity has become an increasingly attractive possibility in 2020, when new offerings of all quality levels are enjoying strong reception from investors and traders who are hungry for equity in growing companies.


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But $10 billion? That price tag is a multiple of what Affirm was worth last year when it added $300 million to its coffer at a post-money price of $2.9 billion. There were rumors that the firm was hunting a far larger round later in 2019, though it doesn’t appear — per PitchBook records — that Affirm raised more capital since its Series F.

This morning let’s chat about the company’s possible IPO valuation. The Journal noted the strong public performance of Afterpay as a possible cognate for Affirm — the Australian buy-now, pay-later firm saw its value dip to $8.01 per share inside the last year before soaring to around $68 today. But given the firm’s reporting cycle, it’s a hard company to use as a comp.

Happily, we have another option to lean on that is domestically listed, meaning it has more regular and recent financial disclosures. So let’s how learn much revenue it takes to earn an eleven-figure valuation on the public markets by offering consumers credit.

Affirm’s business

Affirm loans consumers funds at the point of sale that are repaid on a schedule at a certain cost of capital. Affirm customers can select different repayment periods, raising or lowering their regular payments, and total interest cost.

Synchrony offers similar installment loans to consumers, along with other forms of capital access, including privately-branded credit cards. (Verizon, TechCrunch’s parent company, recent offered a card with the company, I should note.)  Synchrony is worth $13.5 billion as of this morning, making it a company of similar-ish value compared to the top end of the possible Affirm valuation range.

Opportunities (and challenges) in church tech

Americans are rapidly becoming less religious. Weekly church attendance is falling, congregations are getting smaller or even closing and the percentage of Americans identifying as “religiously unaffiliated” has spiked.

Despite all this, now might be the perfect time for church tech companies to thrive.

A combination of COVID-19-induced adoption, underrated demographic trends and pressure to innovate is setting the stage for new successes in the previously sleepy church tech space. Venture dollars are flowing in, and Silicon Valley is slowly showing serious interest in the sector. Hot new startups are finding creative growth hacks to penetrate a difficult market. Major challenges remain for companies in this space, but their odds seem better than ever.

Less religion, more spirituality

Yes, Americans are going to church less often, but that doesn’t mean they’re not staying spiritual. In fact, the percentage of Americans identifying as “spiritual but not religious” has grown faster than any other group in this Pew survey on religiosity. This fact is reflected in other data. For example, the percentage of Americans that pray daily or weekly has stayed fairly flat even as overall religiosity declined. This opens up two distinct opportunities, as well as two challenges.

Opportunities:

  • What tools do the growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd need?
  • Churches are realizing they need to innovate or die. What tools do they need to reach out to their members and gain new congregants?

Challenges:

  • Two demographics: young, tech-savvy and more willing to try a new product, but less involved in church tradition versus older, not as tech-savvy and harder to reach.
  • Very byzantine market: as documented in part one of this series, the market is dominated by small companies waging a turf war with one another. In addition, because churches are so local and hard to sell to, all of the companies to date have been smaller land-grabs rather than anything with scale or accumulating advantage.

Rapidly growing startups in the space are deftly navigating this landscape and taking advantage of these trends.