There has been a lot of activity in the market for peer-to-peer (P2P) payments lately. While the concept of P2P payments is not new (one could argue it started once upon a time with the barter system), multiple products are trying to capture a share of this market today in the world of mobile. PayPal’s latest quarterly earnings report notes that $2.1 billion of payments were processed through Venmo in Q3–2015, growing at the rate of 200% a year! Venmo is just one of the products, although arguably the most popular, and competes with many other products such as Square Cash, Google Wallet, Facebook Messenger and PayPal itself. Apple is also planning to launch a P2P payment service, according to the New York Times.

The objective of this post is to analyze

  1. Whether P2P payments is a winner-takes-all market and
  2. Brief strategies that both larger incumbents and newer entrants can pursue to succeed in this market.

This post does not cover the market size, different features and nuances of the various products (unless they’re relevant to the above objectives), various stakeholders involved in building such products and their incentives (e.g. banks, credit card network operators etc.) and other considerations such as security and privacy.

Is P2P payments a winner-takes-all market? ?

To evaluate the extent to which this is a winner-takes-all market, we can evaluate the following:

  1. Strength of network effects

    In a P2P payment transaction, by definition, there is a ‘payer’ and a ‘receiver’. The products above clearly exhibit network effects in these terms because more payers in a network attract more receivers and vice versa. A user can play the role of both ‘payer’ and ‘receiver’ across different transactions and, hence, each additional user increases the value of the network to the other users too.

    But how strong are these network effects? In P2P payments, a user could potentially want to use this service with multiple other people (including friends, family, colleagues at work, an acquitance at a party etc.). It is also not easy to predict in advance when or with whom a user will transact. However, there is not much value in the ability to transact with a ‘random’ person (unlike the ability to check the profile of or connect with a ‘random’ new person on Facebook). Hence, on a scale from 0 (none) to 5 (high), I would rate the strength of network effects in this market as 4.

  2. Multi-homing costs

    Multi-homing means the ability to check multiple products offering the same functionality in parallel (which product the user ultimately decides to use depends on various other factors such as cost, user experience and so on). The process of homing has 1 to 2 steps in this case: installing the product and signing up for it (if not already done) and making a transaction.

    How high are the multi-homing costs? I would argue that the first step of installing a product and signing up is costly. While some products allow signing up through a debit or credit card, they may charge fees in making P2P payments (especially when using a credit card). The one mode of payment that is mostly free across several products is transacting through a bank account. However, signing up through a bank account takes time: the user needs to recall the bank account number, routing number and wait for a day or two to verify the account (usually done through a debit and credit of random amounts less than $1).

    However, once a user has signed up for another product, multi-homing is not as costly. It depends primarily on the user experience (e.g. details the user would need to enter to make a transaction and the ease of use).

    Overall, on a scale of 0 (none) to 5 (high), I would rate multi-homing costs in this market as 3.5.

  3. Demand for differentiated products

    While the core functionality may not be different across products, users would appreciate differentiation of the products in terms of the user experience (e.g. ability to start a transaction even without signing up, a feature of Square Cash and Google Wallet), platforms it is available on (e.g. mobile-only or both mobile and desktop) and other related features such as tracking, security and so on.

Overall, while there are strong network effects and strong (although less so) multi-homing costs, there is also a demand for differentiated products. Hence, the P2P payments market is not likely to be winner-takes-all and will likely have multiple products competing in the long-term. At the same time, due to the network effects and multi-homing costs, I would not expect more than 3–4 players competing in the long run.

Strategies to succeed

Given the above drivers of the extent to which this market is winner-takes-all, both large incumbents and new entrants can follow different strategies to succeed. A few of the strategies (certainly not exhaustive) are very briefly discussed below:

  1. Reduce ‘friction’ in signing up and using the functionality for the first time

    This is especially important for new entrants so that they reduce multi-homing costs, but this is not easy. Companies like Apple may have an advantage on this front: If P2P payment is added to Apple Pay, existing Apple Pay users are signed up by default. Companies like Facebook and Google are also making it relatively simpler by adding ‘$’ buttons to Facebook Messenger and Gmail respectively which already have large user bases.

  2. Provide a superior user experience when making transactions

    This is one of the definite ways to differentiate the product. For example, Apple Pay can have a mechanism where the user double-taps the home button, scans the fingerprint and pays/requests another iPhone nearby, all this without even unlocking the phone! Of course, not all better user experiences are necessarily appreciated by the users. Careful attention should be paid to user experiences that actually solve a pain point. For example, is the ability to pay/request a nearby iPhone without unlocking the phone actually valuable to users?

  3. Develop a differentiated and valuable offering, perhaps for a specific niche in the market

    One of the differentiating factors of these products is cost. For example, some of the big incumbents may not necessarily aim to make money through this ‘feature’ and hence have a lower charge. Their aim may be to increase usage and engagement of their products and monetize through exisiting or other means. New entrants may also start by serving specific niches and developing a differentiated offering for them. For example, one specific niche could be an offering optimized for payments and settlement between users in a large group.

Finding good strategies and executing them is easier said than done, but it would be fun to see how this market plays out.

What do you think?

By: Shankar Vellal


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Internet Payment Processing for Online Businesses

Internet-payments monolith PayPal (responsible for about $5.5 billion of eBay’s $14 billion net revenues in 2012) recently acquired Braintree, an internet payment-solutions provider, for $800 million in cash. [1, 2] This is bad news for entrepreneurs and developers in the online economy.

Online Payment Processing Market
Software for processing payments on the internet enables much of e-commerce, and thus much of online business, today. It is a fast-growing and highly fragmented industry. PayPal’s parent company eBay was responsible for about 24% of revenues for online payment processing software in the United States in 2012, far and away the largest market share. [3] Several other big companies are active in the space, including Visa, through its subsidiary Authorize.net, and Google, through its Google Checkout product, but both of these have low single-digit market share.

Logistical Difficulties in Payments
Payments is a tricky space for several logistical reasons. The most significant are the regulatory and industry hurdles that have to be cleared in order to enter the market. Established payments companies, including those in the payment-card industry, have encouraged and established rules that raise the barriers to entry for online payments. In most cases, these rules are designed to protect users’ data and financial security. But such rules—ranging from the compliance guidelines established by the payment-card industry (PCI), known as the data security standard (DSS), to money-transmitting licensure requirements imposed by state governments—create significant burdens on small new entrants and have allowed the dominant players to remain on top.

New Startups Improve Online Payments
Several young companies have braved the hurdle over the last few years to enter online payments. The new entrants have all distinguished themselves by the ease with which they enable online businesses to engage the complicated payments ecosystem. Most frequently, this means the creation of a simple three-step process: 1) a website sends the user a script from an internet-payments software company, 2) the script creates a direct connection between the user and the company whenever payments need to be processed, 3) the company reports those payments to the website. In this way, the website itself is never privy to any of the user’s financial information. Not only does this add a layer of safety and security for the user, but it means that the website does not need to worry about the licensing and compliance requirements for payments processing. Many other additional features can then supplement this basic offering, including interfaces for reviewing and refunding charges; keeping track of customers and their orders; or implementing subscriptions, discounts, and coupons.

These companies, such as Braintree, Stripe, WePay, and Recurly (for recurring payments), operate to make payments easy for online businesses to integrate and seamless for customers to use. Pricing is nearly identical between the companies, and each has tried to distinguish itself in some way—Stripe with ease of use, WePay with fraud prevention, Recurly with subscription billing—because attracting users (businesses) is such a challenge. Braintree has distinguished itself with excellent customer service. Paypal’s president noted in an interview about the acquisition that “[Braintree’s] obsession with removing friction for next-generation commerce matched our own.”[4] The deep irony here is that PayPal is notorious, to the extent it even has functionality available to compete with these younger companies, for having outdated, inefficient, and expensive interfaces coupled with terrible customer service.

Shifting Between Providers
Up-front development costs and small variations in product make it hard to convince websites to switch services once they have implemented a payments processing solution. Many of the websites that these companies serve are websites that were developed after the companies were founded, suggesting that the switching costs away from a service, even one as reviled as PayPal, are a significant barrier. This is an important factor in online payments, because businesses do not receive notable network effects for using a particular payments company. In that way, the market exhibits a large first-mover advantage: once a website has been coded to integrate with a particular payments company, it is costly to change that decision.

Looking Forward
Braintree will certainly be able to take advantage of the additional resources and regulatory benefits that come from PayPal’s existing presence in online-payments processing and other payments markets. But it remains to be seen whether PayPal will allow Braintree to continue innovating. That would be the best outcome the online-payments community could hope for, and younger competitors such as Stripe will continue to push to keep the industry moving forward. But PayPal’s track record on innovation over the past few years is lackluster at best. There is a real risk that Braintree, which has played a significant role in the recent revolution in internet-payments provision for online business, will be dragged into a similar stasis now that it is part of the dominant market player. For this reason, entrepreneurs and developers should be worried about the implications of this acquisition.


[1] Form 10-K 2012. eBay, Inc. <http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1065088/000106508813000004/ebay2012_10k.htm>

[2] “EBay’s PayPal Acquires Payments Gateway Braintree For $800M In Cash.” TechCrunch. Sept. 26, 2013. <http://techcrunch.com/2013/09/26/paypal-acquires-payments-gateway-braintree-for-800m-in-cash/>

[3] “Online Payment Processing Software Developers in the US.” IBISWorld Industry Report OD4521. July 2012.

[4] “EBay Buys Braintree, a Payments Start-Up.” New York Times. Sept. 26, 2013. <http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/26/paypal-buys-braintree-a-payments-start-up/>


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Payment platforms for online and mobile businesses – current and future landscape

While most of the press around mobile payments has focused around B2C solutions such as Square and LevelUp, online payment platforms such as Zuora, Stripe and Braintree are also seeing robust growth, riding the tremendous growth in e-commerce and P2P mobile payments. Example client include Uber, LivingSocial and AirBnB (Braintree), box.net and zendesk (Zuora) and shopify and edmodo (Stripe).  Such platforms have a few key elements that all competitors in this space try to replicate:

  • A robust, reliable and scalable solution
  • Simple developer-friendly APIs
  • Excellent customer service
  • Quick (and in some cases “instant”) set up, including setting up a new merchant account for the client

A robust, reliable and scalable solution

Accepting payments for a new high-growth startup can be a very painful process if attempted on your own, but companies such as Braintree, Stripe and Zuora attempt to simplify the process as much as possible. The goal is to provide a solution that scales as your startup scales – from facilitating 100 transactions a week to a 1000 transactions a minute, all the while providing a reliable, secure and affordable service. Key to this space is supporting both desktop and mobile transactions, as a growing number of e-transactions occur on mobile devices. A number of startups also make international expansion a very early priority, as they attempt to be the first-mover in several markets. Payment providers try to stay one step ahead of the curve by expanding internationally and having a deep understanding of foreign legal and financial frameworks.

Simple developer-friendly APIs

Stripe is perhaps the best poster-child for having developer-friendly payment APIs. Stripe boasts having APIs “that get of your way” and also pioneered the “instant” setup features that were replicated by Braintree – which allow you to get started with a payment solution in under a day. The key here is to have API wrappers for various languages such as Ruby, PHP, Python and many more to make it incredibly easy to get started and integrate with your service.

Excellent customer service

Braintree seems to be leading here, and promises to always have a real person answer a customer service call. Customer service is key in this business, which is based on having reliable, trustworthy service with quick turnarounds if something goes wrong. Parts of the payments process remain tedious and high-touch. For example, setting up a new merchant can often involve multiple long-threads between the payment-solution provider and the client, where the payment-solution provider acts as the middleman (and underwriter) between the client and the bank. The client wants to have the account set up as soon as possible, while the bank wants to make sure that a proper risk assessment as done – companies like Braintree try to simplify the process by having excellent customer service and quick turnaround times.

Instant set-up

Now that Stripe and Braintree have instant setup (by eliminating the waiting period for a new merchant account or underwriting approval), startups can have a quick headstart in facilitating e-commerce transactions.  Through this process, companies such as Braintree also get more insight about the client’s business model and growth plans, and try to ensure that clients’ accounts are never frozen or shut down because of unanticipated activity.

Disruption and future landscape

While there are certainly scale benefits to serving many clients, I do not see any network effects associated with providing online payments. However, this could change as some of these providers attempt to get into the mobile P2P payments space, such as Braintree’s acquisition of Venmo.

On the other hand, the companies in this space are addressing an unmet need. For many high-growth startups, solutions such as PayPal, authorize.net are too expensive, slow, outdated and too hard to integrate with. I see solutions by Braintree and Stripe taking away a lot of business from PayPal. Switching costs are also high – it is usually hard to migrate customer payment information from one platform to another.

Although payment providers are seeing tremendous growth just because of the amount of growth in e-commerce and online/mobile transactions, all these solutions (except for Braintree’s Venmo business) are still reliant on the infrastructure provided by the credit-card networks. All the startups in this space seem to be playing the puppy-dog strategy – posing as small players who are friendly with the credit-card networks and are doing little to disintermediate them.

Competition is tough in the payment space, and more and more players (both large and small) are getting into this space everyday. Braintree, Stripe and Zuora seem to have carved out a niche, but need to remain innovative and competitive to stay relevant going forward. I’m looking forward to seeing many more innovate solutions come out of these companies to make payments for young, high-growth startups even easier.

 


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 Mobile technology is driving towards an all-encompassing device that will consolidate your communicator, payment system, house key, car key and identification.  We aren’t there yet, but there is a lot of the effort focused on enabling payments from a smartphone; worldwide mobile payments is a $172B business and is expected to grow to $617B by 2016.[1]

There are dozens of companies already chasing after this market and every few months, a new entity seems to jump in – each with its own business model, proprietary technology and merchants.  What are the key requirements of a successful mobile payment platform? At the risk of over-simplifying, the four critical ingredients are:

  1. Security to protect access and transaction payments – often executed with a password, PIN number, photo or distance limit.
  2. Financial institution support – access to finances, whether it be a bank account, credit card or something else.
  3. Communication technology between the customers’ mobile device and the merchants’ transaction device – could be physical, radio or cloud-based.
  4. Widespread merchant acceptance – customers need to be able to use their mobile payment platform at a sufficient number of stores and services.

 There is lots of sprinting to grab first mover status because this is an industry with network effects that is destined to tip towards one platform, at least in the United States.[2]  The real challenge of winning the platform war is to execute especially well on points three and four: Communication Technology and Merchants.  (Note: that is not to say that the first two points are less important, but rather they are table-stakes to even be at the Mobile Payments table).  Surveying the leading platforms, it appears that there are two major customer-focused paradigms that mobile payment entrants consider:

  1. Hardware play – require customers to buy the device with the special hardware that enables payments.
  2. Software play – require customers to download the app that enables payments.

The hardware paradigm typically refers to the NFC chip (near field communication) inside of a smartphone as the authentication and security mechanism.  The benefit of NFC is that it is quick to process a sale and works only within a few inches of the sensor, so it is safer.  This is the system that has been adopted by Google Wallet[3] (via Android phones) and Isis[4] (the recently announced joint venture between AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon).  The main downside for consumers is that the most popular handset does not include an NFC chip; the iPhone is 33.4% of all smartphones compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S3 representing significantly less than 25.6% of the market.[5]

The software paradigm traditionally just requires the customer to open an app and display a barcode of sorts for the merchant to scan or capture.  The benefit of this system is that it can work on any smartphone as long as the customer downloads the app.  This is the payment system that has been adopted by Square, Paypal, LevelUp, and perhaps one day: Apple’s Passbook.

With both paradigms, there is also a merchant-side challenge: it is expensive to install NFC terminals and barcode scanners – even if it is just an iPad – into every checkout counter of every McDonalds (14,000 US restaurants), Gap (2,550 stores) and Walmart (4,300 US locations).

 It is premature to predict which paradigm will win out – much less which company’s platform – but if I had to guess, it would be the software paradigm.  The reason: it is challenging enough to convince merchants to adopt this new payment system (even if the terminals were given away for free), but it may be even more difficult to sell customers an NFC-enabled smartphone.

In this highly competitive battle for market share, there have been many interesting strategies to onboard customers and merchants alike:

  • LevelUp – attracts merchants with their 0% payment processing (as opposed to 3-4% for standard credit cards)[6].  They also have built both NFC and QR-code scanners into their merchant hardware.[7]  LevelUp claims it has 3,600 merchants as of September 2012.
  • Square – got deeply intimate with Starbucks by taking in $25m in strategic financing and adding Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to its board of directors.[8]  No surprise, before Christmas 2012, Square will be accepted in all 7,000 US Starbucks locations.[9]  As of August 2012, Square boasted 2M merchants.[10]
  • PayPal – recently invested in a national TV campaign – starring the endearingly-paranoid Jeff Goldblum – to raise awareness of its availability  (watch the commercial here).  This past May, the company announced 15 new merchants including Toys R Us, Abercrombie & Fitch, Barnes & Noble and Home Depot.[11] PayPal claims it reaches 40m point-of-sale systems as a result of a partnership with Ingenico payment terminals.
  •  Apple Passbook – just launched as part of iOS6 and the iPhone 5.  Passbook enables barcode scanning for loyalty cards and airplane tickets, but no mobile payments yet.  If that day comes, the tens of millions of iPhone owners will be an influential buying force.

The race to be the ubiquitous mobile payment platform will explode in the coming months and years.  We will likely see bitter rivalries, confused customers, frustrated merchants, and tumultuous failures before a winner is finally crowned.


[1] “Gartner Says Worldwide Mobile Payment Transaction Value to Surpass $171.5 Billion.”  Gartner Research.  May 29, 2012. http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=2028315

[2] The two sides of the platform are consumers and merchants.  While there are somewhat low multi-homing costs for consumers (at the app level), the costs for merchants are considerably higher: multiple hardware apparatuses, accounts receivable to manage, etc.  As such, the market will tip because merchants do not want to simultaneously support multiple technologies.

[3] Google Wallet FAQ.  October 24, 2012. http://www.google.com/wallet/faq.html

[4] “Isis Announces Its Pilot Programs Are Now Up and Running.”  Mobile Payments Today.  October 22, 2012. http://www.mobilepaymentstoday.com/article/202491/Isis-announces-its-pilot-programs-are-now-up-and-running

[5] “One in Three U.S. Smartphone Subscribers Use Apple’s iPhone.”  Apple Insider.  September 27, 2012. http://appleinsider.com/articles/12/09/27/one-in-three-us-smartphone-subscribers-use-apples-iphone

[6] “LevelUp for Businesses.”  Website.  October 26, 2012. https://www.thelevelup.com/interchange-zero

[7] Empson, Rip.  “On a Mission to Be Mobile Payment Agnostic, LevelUp to Roll Out NFC-Capable Terminals.”  TechCrunch.  September 6, 2012. http://techcrunch.com/2012/09/06/on-a-mission-to-be-mobile-payment-agnostic-levelup-to-roll-out-nfc-capable-terminals/

[8] Ha, Peter.  “Square Partners with Starbucks, Raises $25M for Series D.”  TechCrunch.  August 7, 2012. http://techcrunch.com/2012/08/07/square-partnershi/

[9] Perez, Sarah.  “Starbucks’ Square Rollout Gets a Launch Date.” TechCrunch.  October 5, 2012. http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/05/starbucks-square-rollout-gets-a-launch-date-no-loyalty-card-integration-yet/

[10] Kim, Ryan.  “Why Starbucks is Betting on Square.”  Gigaom. http://gigaom.com/2012/08/08/why-starbucks-is-betting-on-square/

[11] Perez, Sarah.  “PayPal Rolls Out to 15 More National Retailers.”  TechCrunch.  May 25, 2012. http://techcrunch.com/2012/05/25/paypal-rolls-out-to-15-more-national-retailers-announces-deals-with-6-top-pos-software-terminal-makers/

 


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I like getting stuff for free. I think most people also like free stuff. To paraphrase Professor Edelman, if you want people to use your product, make it look free. The internet has made it even easier to get stuff for free, as consumers. Some companies make money by giving away free products and services to customers and then charging some customers for add-on features, advanced functionality, virtual goods and/or premium services. This business model has been dubbed “freemium” – a term combining “free” and “premium” – by Fred Wilson, a notable venture capitalist and blogger in 2006. Many of us now associate this business model with companies like LinkedIn, which charges customers for premium accounts or additional features such as messaging un-connected contacts. Another notable example is dropbox, which gives users a limited amount of free storage and then charges for additional storage. While this business model has become very popular in the most recent generation of internet companies, it has been in use in the software industry since the 80’s, when “lite” software (limited feature) was given away on floppy disk (or preinstalled on computers) for free to promote advanced paid versions. This is not to be confused with free-to-try business model where full versions are given away for a limited period of time and then require payment to continue to use.

Freemium has been a successful business model for software for a number of key reasons. First, the marginal cost of serving an additional customer is equal to or near zero. Because infrastructure costs (storage, computing, bandwidth, etc.) have decreased significantly, once a product has been developed or new features released, there is very little marginal cost. Secondly, customers are fundamentally attracted to the idea of free and will try nearly anything because they have “nothing to lose”, which does not account for the value of time. Assuming the product is actually useful and creates value for the customer, adopting a freemium model can greatly accelerate user growth. Specifically in software applications, integrating data and being compatible / integrated with other applications increases switching costs for the customer, making the app even more sticky. For these reasons, many companies have successfully adopted the freemium model as a strategy for quick growth and user adoption. Dropbox grew from 0 to 50 million users in less than 3 years.

To the extent that the economics work out profitably varies dramatically across companies, products and customers. One thing is certain, to be sustainable, the free to paid conversion rate and lifetime value of the customer must be greater than the cost to serve all customers. On its surface, the relatively straightforward economic formula should be very clear for any entrepreneur, executive or investor to understand the sustainability of a freemium business. How one thinks about a few key questions will define whether freemium really works:

  1. Who is the buyer? It’s not uncommon for the person making the decision to pay or not to be a different person than the end user. For example, enterprise software where the buyers are IT professionals, but the users are other workers in the company.  Understanding both the user and the buyer is critical.
  2. What is features will be free and what will be paid for? Seems simple, but there’s a delicate balance between creating value for the user, the costs associated with developing and delivering each product / feature and providing significant value for the buyer.
  3. How much do you charge? Not to be confused with how much you can charge. Maximizing the value you create and capture depends greatly on how much value customers derive from the product and how sensitive they are to paying for it.

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