BY SAM GRAZIANO
The growth and evolution of “alternative lending” has been a windy road. Like any so-called “disruptive” industry, the eventual successful business model (or business models) evolves through a series of “pivots” (in entrepreneur-speak). It would appear that we are on the cusp of another major pivot for the industry, or, more likely, a few distinct pivots that will be taken by a few distinct groups of businesses, furthering their evolution toward business models that are scalable, profitable and part of the long-term financial services ecosystem. Perhaps, in so doing, clarifying for the outside world whether these companies are technology-enabled financial services companies or technology companies addressing the financial services industry (true “FinTech” companies).
What’s clear is that the industry continues to suffer from an identity crisis, evidenced by the terms used to describe it. It was initially labeled as “Peer to Peer Lending,” at times uses the term “Online Lending,” morphed into “Marketplace Lending,” and now, at least some are using a term I am proud to have coined, “Digitally Enabled Lending” (or its abbreviated version “Digital Lending”), a term more suitable to the broad array of businesses within the industry. The industry terminology never seems to quite catch up to changes in business models or draw enough clear distinctions between the various business models.
For purposes of this article, let’s use my preferred term, “Digitally Enabled Lenders”, (or DELs for short). A DEL is distinctly different than the Alternative Lenders of years ago — the factors, asset-based lenders and equipment financing companies that were the original fabric of the non-bank lending ecosystem. DELs leverage the “Triple As” (aggregation, automation and analytics) to run their lending models. Aggregation, enabled by technology, is the process of a DEL capturing data from third parties in real-time. Automation, enabled by technology, in this context is the process of applying software to running business logic (credit algorithms) or redundant business processes. Analytics, enabled by technology, in this context is the process by which DELs turn that aggregated data into statistical probabilities – probability being the key word. The “Triple As” are the common denominator of the industry, an industry built to underwrite, originate and service small-balance credit to consumers and small businesses more efficiently than the traditional bank models ever have. Perhaps after another credit cycle DELs will prove to have developed better risk models as well.
Undoubtedly this tech-enabled method of lending is and will be a driving force in the evolution of small-balance lending. Yet, the “Triple As” don’t equal triple the profits. As it turns out, customers don’t just show up at your doorstep asking for the “tech-enabled loan.” And, more recently, the capital markets are suggesting it might not flood every prospective industry participant with cash forever. Meanwhile, the banks still have two major competitive advantages: 1) their low cost and stable funding, and 2) a structural advantage to the customer through the deposit relationship.
Small-balance lending, technology or not, is a tough business. Few, if any, DELs have delivered the level of profits that the private and public markets will require to justify the valuations they still command. As high profits still elude the DELs, they are starting to pivot, or, at least signal a pivot is in the making. The bank dis-intermediators are talking about bank partnerships, the brand builders are talking about providing platform solutions and the “marketplaces” are moving toward leveraging permanent capital vehicles. None of which is a criticism of any kind (I run a DEL after all!). If only Blockbuster had pivoted faster when Netflix launched their disruptive concept of mailing people their DVDs.
The nature of the pivots differs based on product line. To date, DELs largely exist in four markets, student lending, unsecured consumer lending, nonconforming mortgage lending and small business lending. Some DELs are pursuing new product lines to sustain their growth rates and capture more of the customer’s wallet. Others are pursuing bank partnerships. A select few are intent on becoming software companies (not lending at all), enabling digital lending for the banks and other non tech-enabled lenders. And, lastly, others who have already proven their ability to drive strong unit economics by marketing directly to a consumer (or a business) are intent on becoming a lasting brand within the U.S. financial services ecosystem.
What is rather clear is that the players in the DEL market are choosing to pivot and pursue pathways that will result in profitable and sustainable business models. My wager is that the result will bring clarity to the DEL identity crisis through the creation of multiple new business models and multiple new identities.
Sam Graziano is the chief executive officer of Fundation, a New York City-based small business direct lender and solutions provider that utilizes a sophisticated software platform to streamline the lending process. Graziano is a highly experienced financial services professional and entrepreneur. Graziano graduated from Bucknell University with honors with a degree in Computer Science & Engineering.
Fundation combines the benefits of a bank loan with the ease and efficiency of an online lender. We offer conventional loans with competitive rates to businesses with varying credit profiles. Our technology allows us to deliver capital in as few as 3 business days through streamlining the collection and evaluation of customer information and conducting the majority of the lending process electronically. As a direct lender, we use our own capital to originate and hold the loans we make, so that we can focus on building relationships with our customers. Our dedicated customer relationship model enables us to understand each unique borrower’s business. This level of service, coupled with our best-in-class products, is why many of our customers come back to us repeatedly for more capital.