New Ventures in Financial Services

Focus on Payments and Mobile

SquareUp – Take 4

with 3 comments

27 January 2010 (updated 4March)

www.squareup.com

Venture Beat – SquareUp

New note from VentureBeat yesterday. Jack has certainly assembled a who’s who of angels. Given that these investors are proven winners I’m trying to guess whether they have “bet on the right horse” or have a plan that I’m not privy to (ex PayPal buyout). If it is the later, my educated guess is that prospects will let this bake for a few years before getting serious. There are too many issues which must be addressed for serious acquisition money to chase a customer convenience play.  Some of which I attempt describe below.

I understand that Jack’s vision for the company is to provide payment services to “craigslist” customers as the market place which will drive volume (an attempt to mimic the paypal/eBay synergy). His story is that everyone has a card in their pocket.. and merchants want to leverage this instrument without the burden of becoming a merchant in the network sense.

Of course Jack is competing with Cash and Checks in this pattern.. much different than the remote Card Not Present (CNP) world which PayPal attacked. I must say that many of my colleagues do not share my negative views on Square, and it has led to some very good conversations.  I certainly agree that issuers want SquareUp to succeed (read: interchange), and Square does have a very nice application, however my strong views are:

  1. There is no compelling consumer or merchant driver. Square will find that changing consumer payment behavior is much more challenging than social networking,
  2. Third party payment aggregation at POS is a moving out of favor with respect to network rules
  3. Fraud rates will be very high (see skimming video below) and bank issuers have ability to shut them down through authorization
  4. Volume will be low (merchant costs, competing methods of payment, charge back rules, …) and business will take at least 4 years to build (with sustained marketing).
  5. Competing bank/MNO sponsored “handset based” payments will overtake this approach in 2-3 years.

PayPal excelled because it addressed a clear gap in payments in a new marketplace where a 4 party system (merchant, consumer, merchant bank, issuing bank) could NOT adapt. This 4 party group, combined with the network and regulators, proved to be ineffective in responding to the “change” presented by online marketplaces.  PayPal did much heavy lifting, building “new rails” to manage merchants.  These eBay merchants were a well organized community which collaborated (generally speaking) and shared best practice. There was a REAL business problem in these pre-PayPal days..

Comparatively Square’s “Craigslist community” is not well organized, and the square payment method is competing with well entrenched behavior (check/cash, a 2 party system) in a person-person sale dominated by checks and cash. What is the problem that Square is attempting to address? My belief is that it is a convenience play, which will have  a much different adoption (and profitability model) then PayPal’s.

Top card issuers would love to see SquareUp succeed in order to drive cards (interchange revenue) further into cash replacement. However network rules (like PCI and merchant agreements) exist for a reason. Square’s approach to lowering the barrier for merchants (a valid market need) risks payment system integrity. In other words, the existing card merchant agreement process represents the rules by which the 4 party system has agreed to. If we take the SquareUp model to the extreme, what will stop every business from ditching their merchant agreement and start using square?  What benefits do acquirers/issuers and network have in supporting this model? Is the potential revenue upside for interchange (in cash replacement) vs. downside in fraud and lost revenue (merchant fees)?

SquareUp is acting as a third party payment aggregator (TPPA), a model which banks have adapted to since their experience with Paypal creating significant new rules and constraints (both ACH and Card). The network PCI rules (and certification process) for devices storing card information are also quite cumbersome, and require sponsor for certification. Perhaps this is why Square’s current customer agreement states:

You are responsible for all electronic communications sent to us or to any third party containing Account Data.

The acquirer that takes this on will likely have a few headaches when the first major craigslist merchant starts using the device to skim and resell card information (among other things). There is a reason for PCI compliance and for my “securing” my physical card and CVV. I can’t wait to see Square’s Payment Services Agreement (PSA). Operationally, the issuer’s have control over card authorization through systems like HNC’s Falcon or SAS Raptor. This means that if SquareUp is found to have contributed to a data loss, or has a high number of fraudulent transactions (see link) customer would see their card transaction declined, or the network (Visa/MC) would shut SquareUp down.

The great thing about the PayPal model is that the customer funded the account after agreeing to terms. In Square’s model, consumers are unregistered, Square is acting as an agent of the merchant. For Square’s investors, there is atypical risk which they will see through “unique” bonding/insurance requirements from the acquirer.  Just as with any company, Square will face unlimited liability associated with loss of consumer information (think TJX). To get an idea for potential mis-use see you tube video below.. crooks invest quite a bit in technology here… will SquareUp make it easier for every iPhone owner to become a skimmer?

The challenge any analyst has in assessing strategy is information. Given Square’s potential to drive electronic payments, either a card acquirer or PayPal interested … certainly a partner capable of managing the remote risk. If I were interested in acquiring, I would certainly let Square burn money gaining adoption,  changing consumer behavior, gaining approval from the networks, finding an acquirer and learning to manage the fraud issue… then if they are successful join in. At GartnerGroup we would call this approach  a  “late follower”. There is no revenue in this business for 3-5 years… my guess is that competing technologies like NFC will step all over this by that time… at least I HOPE SO!

Previous/Related Posts

https://finventures.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/squareup/

http://tomnoyes.wordpress.com/2010/01/26/usregs/

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Written by tomnoyes

March 2, 2010 at 6:23 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Hey Tom,

    Thanks for the very informative blog and article. Its good to hear a negative review of Square (not too many out there) because I too think it is enabling primitive technology instead of building upon new ones.

    I, however, disagree about some of the reasoning behind why it may not be a great idea (just my humble opinion, I am a university student and from your blog I can tell you have experience). I see the primitive technology as being the card itself. I realize that it would be great if we could bypass Visa/mastercard and its 3.5% but people are used to spending money on credit and the Visa/mastercard infrastructure is already in place. So, i see a future for Visa/MC in mobiles but i dont see a need for a card and therefore a card reader in this future.

    Cheers,
    Dan

    dan M

    May 20, 2010 at 9:05 am

    • Thanks for the thoughtful note. Cards may indeed be a “bridge”.. remember there are many non tech savy card holders. Pretend you are having a garage sale… which would you rather take as payment? card or check? There are use cases.. but certainly nothing to build a sustainable business out of. Me? If I banked with Chase I would take the check and use their new image app (QuickDeposit) to make sure check was good prior to the buyer leaving..

      tomnoyes

      September 3, 2010 at 12:48 am


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