There’s an episode in the latest season of the Hulu original series Casual, where the main character, Alex, tries his hand at dating in virtual reality. He quickly meets a woman and develops a big, adrenaline-inducing crush only to realize she’s a scammer out for his credit card information.
The season takes place around 2021 or 2022, when technological advances have made dating in VR both possible and socially acceptable. We’re not there yet, and we probably won’t be there as soon as the writers of the show think, but it’s time to imagine and plan for a future when entire relationships exist in and as a result of virtual reality.
Sextech entrepreneur and advocate Bryony Cole has built a career around the assumption that a full pivot to VR will happen in our lifetimes.
She’s the chief executive officer of Future of Sex, a podcast-turned-media company and sextech accelerator. Future of Sex has just released its inaugural report on virtual intimacy and plans to produce content on other topics at the intersection of technology and sex.
Today, most people are more interested in Magic Leap’s new Angry Birds VR game than the ways in which VR can aid struggling relationships, but the report is full of interesting nuggets on how tech, like teledildonics (Internet-connected sex toys), is transforming intimacy.
There’s a whole class of startups named in the report embracing the notion that human experiences can be improved when powered by apps and devices. No, they aren’t advocating for you to bring your smartphone to the bedroom, but rather claiming that customizable tech can heighten the senses or create new avenues for exploration.
Kissenger, for example, has a mobile app that lets you exchange a kiss over the Internet. Fleshlight and Lovense sell Bluetooth-connected vibrators. And CamasutraVR streams virtual versions of real-life porn stars.
VR is the future of couples therapy
VR, Cole says, is a the forefront of the sextech industry’s transformation and if used correctly, can bolster relationships.
“It’s a new way for couples or thruples, or whatever relationship you’re in, to bond,” Cole told TechCrunch. “The ability to empathize with another person is enriched in this context, which is great, especially for understanding a lover.”
VR can facilitate more meaningful interactions for couples in long-distance relationships. If used right, it can fill the “intimacy gap,” or the space between a couple’s shared happiness and an individual’s personal happiness that, when too big, leads to many couple’s demise.
As a safe space for experimentation, two people can explore fantasies, engage with educational content and even visit a couple’s therapist in VR.
The release of the report is hot off the heels of Future of Sex’s fourth sextech hackathon. In New York, the company asked participants to create tech-enabled solutions to reinvent sex education for teenage boys, among other prompts.
Women in sextech
Future of Sex partnered with porn site YouPorn to co-host the event and asked hackers to come up with ways to leverage YouPorn’s content, which includes VR porn, to improve the sex lives of viewers. VR porn is not a new phenomenon and while it can allow for more personal sexual experiences, researchers have warned that blurring the line between the real and the virtual could lead to ethical issues. How, for example, do you give consent in VR?
Women, who are often exploited for the purposes of sexual entertainment, need to be at the table while this content and other sextech are in development. Fortunately, Cole says, women are entering the sextech community in droves.
“[It’s] exploding at the moment and more and more women entrepreneurs are having a go at building a company,” she said. “It’s Important to highlight why women are getting involved in sextech especially in the current climate of #MeToo.”
On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, Unbound, which makes fashion-forward vibrators and other sex toys for women, took home the second-place prize.
“Our dream at Unbound is for female sexual health to be viewed through the same lens as male sexuality — as a part of our overall health that deserves a conversation, platform, and shopping experience that doesn’t feel like a flaming pile of garbage,” Unbound founder Polly Rodriguez told TechCrunch’s John Biggs.
Rodriguez is a close friend of Cole’s — the community is still small — and she’s appeared on the Future of Sex podcast.
The podcast, hackathons and the 12-week accelerator program for sextech startups are part of Cole’s effort to expand the dialogue around VR & sextech, invite new voices into the movement and remove the stigma around having open and honest conversations about sex and intimacy.
“There has to be a way to invite more people into this conversation,” she said. “If we can normalize the conversation, we can raise the standards around talking about sex.”
A draft executive order circulating around the White House “is not the result of an official White House policymaking process,” according to deputy White House press secretary, Lindsay Walters.
According to a report in The Washington Post, Walters denied that White House staff had worked on a draft executive order that would require every federal agency to study how social media platforms moderate user behavior and refer any instances of perceived bias to the Justice Department for further study and potential legal action.
Here’s the relevant text of the draft (from Business Insider):
Section 2. Agency Responsibilities. (a) Executive departments and agencies with authorities that could be used to enhance competition among online platforms (agencies) shall, where consistent with other laws, use those authorities to promote competition and ensure that no online platform exercises market power in a way that harms consumers, including through the exercise of bias.
(b) Agencies with authority to investigate anticompetitive conduct shall thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws, as defined in subsection (a) of the first section of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 12, or any other law intended to protect competition.
(c) Should an agency learn of possible or actual anticompetitive conduct by a platform that the agency lacks the authority to investigate and/or prosecute, the matter should be referred to the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Competition of the Federal Trade Commission.
While there are several reasonable arguments to be made for and against the regulation of social media platforms, “bias” is probably the least among them.
That hasn’t stopped the steady drumbeat of accusations of bias under the guise of “anticompetitive regulation” against platforms like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter from increasing in volume and tempo in recent months.
Bias was the key concern Republican lawmakers brought up when Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress earlier this year. And bias was front and center in Republican lawmakers’ questioning of Jack Dorsey, Sheryl Sandberg, and Google’s empty chair when they were called before Congress earlier this month to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The Justice Department has even called in the attorneys general of several states to review the legality of the moderation policies of social media platforms later this month (spoiler alert: they’re totally legal).
With all of this activity focused on tech companies, it’s no surprise that the administration would turn to the Executive Order — a preferred weapon of choice for Presidents who find their agenda stalled in the face of an uncooperative legislature (or prevailing rule of law).
However, as the Post reported, aides in the White House said there’s little chance of this becoming actual policy.
… three White House aides soon insisted they didn’t write the draft order, didn’t know where it came from, and generally found it to be unworkable policy anyway. One senior White House official confirmed the document had been floating around the White House but had not gone through the formal process, which is controlled by the staff secretary.
Written, directed, and starring Tommy Wiseau, The Room belongs in the same category as Plan 9, and Coven (which was immortalized in the 1999 documentary American Movie) as a paean to moviemaking by people who have no idea how to make a movie.
The combination of passion and ineptitude is what made The Room a cult classic after its release, and what made The Disaster Artist — the James Franco film it inspired so compelling (Ed Wood, the biopic from Tim Burton about the director behind Plan 9 is also amazing).
Writer, actor, and director Tommy Wiseau in a still from “The Room”
In “The Room” Wiseau plays Johnny, an investment banker caught in a bizarre love triangle with his best friend, Mark, played by Greg Sestero, and his fiancee, Lisa, played by Juliette Danielle.
It was Sestero’s book on the making of the film, “The Disaster Artist”, that inspired the eponymous movie directed by Franco and starring his brother Dave and Seth Rogen.
According to The Daily Dot, Sestero and Wiseau are now promoting a straight-to-digital follow-up to their feature debut — a two-part black comedy called “Best F(r)iends”.
Viewers might just be better off watching the original contender for best worst movies, Plan 9, which is also available on YouTube (and below).
Comcast has outbid Twenty-First Century Fox for the UK’s Sky, a final step in what’s been a years-long takeover battle between the two media conglomerates.
Comcast’s final offer gives Sky a roughly $39 billion price tag.
The acquisition of Sky, which has 23 million subscribers in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy, will give Comcast a much stronger foothold in the international market and much-needed ammo to compete with Amazon and Netflix in the streaming wars.
Both companies upped their offers for Sky at the settlement auction Saturday, with Comcast offering £17.28 per Sky ordinary share and Fox offering £15.67 per share. Comcast initially priced Sky’s shares at £14.75 apiece. Fox’s original offer was £14 per share.
Both companies will reveal their revised bids on Monday. Sky’s board will make its official recommendation by October 11.
Sky operates several brands including Sky News, Sky Sports and Sky Cinema.
Many corporations are pinning their futures on their venture investment portfolios. If you can’t beat startups at the innovation game, go into business with them as financial partners.
Though many technology companies have robust venture investment initiatives—Alphabet’s venture funding universe and Intel Capital’s prolific approach to startup investment come to mind—other corporations are just now doubling down on venture investments.
Over the past several months, several big corporations committed additional capital to corporate investments. For example, defense firm Lockheed Martin added an additional $200 million to its in-house venture group back in June. Duck-represented insurance firm Aflac just bumped its corporate venture fund from $100 million to $250 million, and Cigna lust launched a $250 million fund of its own. This is to say nothing of financial vehicles like SoftBank’s truly enormous Vision Fund, into which the Japanese telecom giant invested $28 billion of its own capital.
And 2018 is on track to set a record for U.S. corporate involvement in venture deals. We come to this conclusion after analyzing corporate venture investment patterns of the top 100 publicly traded, U.S.-based companies (as ranked by market capitalizations at time of writing). The chart below shows that investing activity, broken out by stage, for each year since 2007.
A few things stick out in this chart.
The number of rounds these big corporations invest in is on track to set a new record in 2018. Keep in mind that there’s a little over one full quarter left in the year. And although the holidays tend to bring a modest slowdown in venture activity over time, there’s probably sufficient momentum to break prior records.
The other thing to note is that our subset of corporate investors have, over time, made more investments in seed and early-stage companies. In 2018 to date, seed and early-stage rounds account for over 60 percent of corporate venture deal flow, which may creep up as more rounds get reported. (There’s a documented reporting lag in angel, seed, and Series A deals in particular.) This is in line with the past couple of years.
Finally, we can view this chart as a kind of microcosm for blue-chip corporate risk attitudes over the past decade. It’s possible to see the fear and uncertainty of the 2008 financial crisis causing a pullback in risk capital investment.
Even though the crisis started in 2008, the stock market didn’t bottom out until 2009. You can see that bottom reflected in the low point of corporate venture investment activity. The economic recovery that followed, bolstered by cheap interest rates that ultimately yielded the slightly bloated and strung-out market for both public and private investors? We’re in the thick of it now.
Whereas most traditional venture firms are beholden to their limited partners, that investor base is often spread rather thinly between different pension funds, endowments, funds-of-funds, and high-net-worth family offices. With rare exception, corporate venture firms have just one investor: the corporation itself.
More often than not, that results in corporate venture investments being directionally aligned with corporate strategy. But corporations also invest in startups for the same reason garden-variety venture capitalists and angels do: to own a piece of the future.
Our goal here was to develop as full a picture as possible of a corporation’s investing activity, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
We started with a somewhat constrained dataset: the top 100 U.S.-based publicly traded companies, ranked by market capitalization at time of writing. We then traversed through each corporation’s network of sub-organizations as represented in Crunchbase data. This allowed us to collect not just the direct investments made by a given corporation, but investments made by its in-house venture funds and other subsidiaries as well.
It’s a similar method to what we did when investigating Alphabet’s investing universe. Using Alphabet as an example, we were able to capture its direct investments, plus the investments associated with its sub-organizations, and their sub-organizations in turn. Except instead of doing that for just one company, we did it for a list of 100.
This is by no means a perfect approach. It’s possible that corporations have venture arms listed in Crunchbase, but for one reason or another, the venture arm isn’t listed as a sub-organization of its corporate parent. Additionally, since most of the corporations on this list have a global presence despite being based in the United States, it’s likely that some of them make investments in foreign markets that don’t get reported.
Singapore Blockchain Week happened this past week. While there have been a few announcements from companies, some of the most interesting updates have come from regulators, and specifically, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). The financial regulator openly discussed its views on cryptocurrency and plans to develop blockchain technology locally.
For those who are unfamiliar, Singapore historically has been a financial hub in Southeast Asia, but now has also gradually become the crypto hub of Asia. Compared to the rest of Asia and the rest of the world, the regulators in Singapore are well-informed and more transparent about their views on blockchain and cryptocurrency. While regulatory uncertainties still loom over Korea and Japan, in Southeast Asia, the MAS has already released its opinion “A Guide to Digital Token Offering” that illustrates the application of securities laws to digital token offerings and issuances. Singaporean regulators have arguably been pioneering economic and regulatory standards in Asia since the early days of the country’s founding by Lee Kuan Yew in 1965.
In the past, I’ve said that Thailand is one of the most interesting countries in crypto in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, for any Western or foreign company looking to establish a footing in Asia, or even for any local company in any Asian country looking to establish a presence outside of their own country, Singapore should be the first stop. It has become the go-to crypto sandbox of Asia.
There are a number of companies all over Asia, as well as in the West, that have already made moves into the country. And the types of cryptocurrency projects and exchanges that go to Singapore vary widely.
A few months ago, a Korean team called MVL introduced Tada, or the equivalent of “Uber” on the blockchain, in Singapore. Tada is an on-demand car sharing service that utilizes MVL’s technology. The Tada app is built on MVL’s blockchain ecosystem, which is specifically designed to serve the automotive industry, adjacent service industries, and their customers. In this case, MVL was looking to test out its blockchain projects in a progressive, friendly jurisdiction outside of Korea, but still close enough to its headquarters. Singapore fulfilled most of these requirements.
Relatedly, Didi, China’s ride-sharing company, has also looked to build out its own blockchain-based ride-sharing program, called VVgo. VVgo’s launch is pending, and its home is intended to be in Toronto, Singapore, Hong Kong or San Francisco. Given Singapore’s geographic proximity and the transparency of its regulators, it would likely be a good testing ground for Didi as well.
This week, exchanges such as Binance and Upbit from Korea have also announced their plans to enter the Singaporean market. A few days ago, Changpeng Zhao, CEO of Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, announced the launch of a fiat currency exchange that will be based in Singapore. He also mentioned his company’s plan to launch five to ten fiat-to-crypto exchanges in the next year, with ideally two per continent. Dunamu, the parent company of South Korea’s largest crypto exchange Upbit, also just announced the launch of Upbit Singapore, which will be fully operational by October.
The team at Dunamu mentions how they are encouraged by MAS’s attitude towards cryptocurrency regulation and the vision of the country’s government to establish a strong crypto and blockchain sector. They also believe Singapore could be a bridge between Korea and the global cryptocurrency exchange market.
From a high level, the supply of crypto projects and trading volume in Singapore is certainly strong, and the demand also appears abundant. Following China’s ICO ban in late 2017, Singapore has become home to many financial institutions that can serve as potential investors for ICOs.
As recently featured on the China Money Network, Li Dongmei wrote that:
What is supporting such optimism is the quiet preparation of capital on a massive scale getting ready to act the “All In Crypto” mantra. “In recent months, there have been over a thousand foundations being established in Singapore by Chinese nationals,” said Chen Xianhui, an agent specialized in helping Chinese clients to register foundations in Singapore. Most of these newly established foundations are used setting up various token investments funds.
Singapore has become the first choice when crypto companies from both the West and the East are initially scoping out their market strategies in Asia, and companies want an overarching idea of what’s going on in the cryptocurrency world in the region.
In fact, it’s often the case that Southeast Asian crypto companies and leaders gather in Singapore before they go off and do crypto businesses in their own countries. It’s the place for one wants to tap all of the Asian crypto markets in one single physical location. The proof is in the data: in 2017, Singapore ascended to the number three market for ICO issuance based on the number of funds raised, trailing the United States and Switzerland.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) takes a very practical approach to crypto. Currently, MAS divides digital tokens into utility tokens, payments tokens, and securities. In Asia, only Singapore and Thailand currently have such detailed classifications.
While speaking at Consensus Singapore this week, Damien Pang, Singapore’s Technology Infrastructure Office under the FinTech & Innovation Group (FTIG), said that “[MAS does] not regulate technology itself but purpose,” when in conversation discussing ICOs in Singapore. “The MAS takes a close look at the characteristics of the tokens, in the past, at the present, and in the future, instead of just the technology built on”.
Additionally, Pang mentioned that MAS does not intend to regulate utility tokens. Nevertheless, they are looking to regulate payment tokens that have a store of value and payment properties by passing a service bill by the end of the year. They are also paying attention to any utility or payment tokens with security features (i.e. a promise of future earnings, which will be regulated as such).
On the technology front, since 2017, Singapore authorities have been looking to use distributed ledger technology to boost the efficiency of settling cross-bank financial transactions. They believe that blockchain technology offers the potential to make trade finance safer and more efficient.
When compared to other Asia crypto hubs like Hong Kong, Seoul, or Shanghai, Singapore can expose one to the Southeast Asia market significantly more. I believe market activity will likely continue to thrive in the region as the country continues to act as the springboard for cryptocurrency companies and investors, and until countries like Korea and Japan establish a clear regulatory stance.
Fintech promises to be one of the hottest topics at Disrupt Berlin 2018, and you can take that to the bank — see what we did there? On 29-30 November thousands of attendees will descend on Berlin, and what better way to get your fintech business in front of them than to exhibit in Startup Alley?
Oh wait, we know a better way — apply to be a TechCrunch Top Pick and exhibit at Disrupt Berlin for FREE! Our highly discerning editors will review every application and choose up to five of the absolute best early-stage fintech startups. Each TC Top Pick receives one free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package along with prime real estate in Startup Alley where they can strut their stuff in front of influential technologists and investors, potential collaborators and customers. It’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss, so don’t wait — apply before the 28 September deadline.
Here’s what you get with a Startup Alley Exhibitor Package.
Exhibiting in Startup Alley can help you build connections and relationships you might not otherwise make. Consider Zeroqode, a company that exhibited in Startup Alley at Disrupt Berlin 2017.
Startup Alley attendees chose Zeroqode as a Wild Card company on day three, which earned them a five-minute interview with TechCrunch editor John Biggs on the Startup Alley Showcase Stage. What’s more, TechCrunch shot that interview and promoted it, along with an article penned by Biggs, across its social media platforms.
Here’s what Vlad Larin, the company’s co-founder, had to say about the experience.
“Exhibiting in Startup Alley was a massively positive experience. It gave us the chance to show our technology to the world and have meaningful conversations with investors, accelerators, incubators, solo founders and developers. The publicity we received from the on-stage interview brought a lot of people to our website. We had a huge spike in traffic, and we’re still feeling the positive business effects of that interview.”
You’ll also have the opportunity to hear some of Europe’s fintech movers and shakers speak from the Main Stage. People like Anne Boden, the founder and CEO of Starling Bank and Ricky Knox, the CEO and co-founder of Tandem Bank.
Disrupt Berlin 2018 takes place on 29-30 November. If you want a shot at being one of the fintech TC Top Picks and exhibiting for free in Startup Alley, then apply here before 28 Sept. We can’t wait to see you in Berlin!
Insert your [dad dancing GIF of choice] right here.
Facebook getting into dating looks very much like a mid-life crisis — as a veteran social network desperately seeks a new strategy to stay relevant in an age when app users have largely moved on from social network ‘lifecasting’ to more bounded forms of sharing, via private messaging and/or friend groups inside dedicated messaging and sharing apps.
The erstwhile Facebook status update has long been usurped by the Snapchat (and now Instagram) Story as the social currency of choice for younger app users. Of course Facebook owns the latter product too, and has mercilessly cloned Stories. But it hardly wants its flagship service to just fade away into the background like the old fart it actually is in Internet age terms.
Not if it can reinvigorate the product with a new purpose — and so we arrive at online dating.
Facebook — or should that be ‘Datebook’ now?! — is starting its dating experiment in Colombia, as its beta market. But the company clearly has ambitious designs on becoming a major global force in the increasingly popular online dating arena — to challenge dedicated longtime players like eHarmony and OkCupid, as well as the newer breed of more specialized dating startups, such as female-led app, Bumble.
Zuckerberg is not trying to compete with online dating behemoth Tinder, though. Which Facebook dismisses as a mere ‘hook up’ app — a sub category it claims it wants nothing to do with.
Rather it’s hoping to build something more along the lines of ‘get together with friends of your friends who’re also into soap carving/competitive dog grooming/extreme ironing’ than, for e.g., the raw spank in the face shock of ‘Bang with Friends‘. (The latter being the experimental startup which tried, some six years ago, to combine Facebook and sex — before eventually exiting to a Singapore-based dating app player, Paktor, never to be heard of again. Or, well, not until Facebook decided to get into the dating game and reminded us all how we lol’d about it.)
Mark Zuckerberg’s company doesn’t want to get into anything smutty, though. Oh no, no, NO! No sex please, we’re Facebook!
Facebook Dating has been carefully positioned to avoid sounding like a sex app. It’s being flogged as a tasteful take on the online dating game, with — for instance — the app explicitly architected not to push existing friends together via suggestive matching (though you’ll just have to hope you don’t end up being algorithmically paired with any exes, which judging by Facebook’s penchant for showing users ‘photo memories’ of past stuff with exes may not pan out so well… ). And no ability to swap photo messages with mutual matches in case, well, something pornographic were to pass through.
Facebook is famously no fan of nudes. Unsurprisingly, then, nor is its buttoned up dating app. Only ‘good, old-fashioned wholesome’ text-based chat-up lines (related to ‘good clean pieces of Facebook content’) here please.
If you feel moved to text an up-front marriage proposal — feeling 100% confident in Facebook’s data scientists’ prowess in reading the social media tea leaves and plucking your future life partner out of the mix — its algorithms will probably smile on that though.
The company’s line is that dating will help fulfil its new mission of encouraging ‘time well spent’ — by helping people forge more meaningful (new) relationships thanks to the power of its network (and the data it sucks out of it).
This mission is certainly an upgrade on Facebook’s earlier and baser interest in just trying to connect every human on planet Earth to every other human on planet Earth in some kind of mass data-swinging orgy — regardless of the ethical and/or moral consequences (as Boz memorably penned it), as if it was trying to channel the horror-loving spirit of Pasolini’s Salò. Or, well, a human centipede.
But that was then. These days, in its mid teens, Facebook wants to be seen as grown up and a bit worth. So its take on dating looks a lot more ‘marriage material’ than ‘casual encounters’. Though, well, products don’t always pan out how their makers intend. So it might need to screw its courage to the sticking place and hope things don’t go south.
From the user perspective, there’s a whole other side here too though. Because given how much baggage inevitably comes with Facebook nowadays, the really burning question is whether any sensible person should be letting Mark Zuckerberg fire cupid’s arrows on their behalf?
He famously couldn’t tell malicious Kremlin propaganda from business as usual social networking like latte photos and baby pics — so what makes you think he’s going to be attuned to the subtle nuances of human chemistry?!
Here are just a few reasons why we think you should stay as far away from Facebook’s dalliance with dating as you possibly can…
Renaud Laplanche spent ten years building LendingClub. In the process, he created an industry from scratch. Circumventing conventional banking channels for consumer credit began in 1996 when Chris Larsen started E-LOAN, which ultimately led to Prosper Marketplace. But LendingClub, which Laplanche founded in 2007, was and remains the poster child for the business of marketplace lending. The industry’s short history has been volatile, characterized by both triumphant hype and utter lack of confidence.
History of the Marketplace Lending Industry, CB Insights
While LendingClub has struggled in the public markets since their late 2014 IPO, they have managed to propel their industry into significance, while rapidly expanding their share of the personal loan market to 10%.
After his well-publicized departure in May 2016, Laplanche got started on his next venture in a hurry. Just a few months later he started Credify, ultimately renamed to Upgrade, a company that bears a striking resemblance to LendingClub. In just two years Upgrade has raised $142 million in funding, while originating more than $1 billion in loans since August 2017.
With Upgrade, Laplanche has the opportunity to start fresh with the benefit of hindsight. The initial promise of LendingClub and their competitors was unbundling the banks. Now, to persist and grow, marketplace lenders have realized they need to rebundle, providing an array of bank-like services to better serve their end customers. This post explores what Laplanche is doing differently this time with Upgrade.
There has been a general recognition across many fintech businesses that marketplace business models aren’t enough. The mutually-beneficial arrangement of marketplace lending is a perfect example. Superior customer experience, expedited loan decision, quick receipt of funds, and lower operational costs without legacy infrastructure were the selling points. Charles Moldow famously called it a “trillion-dollar opportunity” in 2014.
He may still be right, but in order to realize the opportunity, marketplace lenders need to capture a larger, more regular share of borrower’s attention. Loans may be high-volume purchases, but they’re not high-frequency transactions. So when a platform like LendingClub facilitates a loan so someone can refinance their outstanding credit card debt, is there really a relationship with the customer there? Capital is provided, customer service is available, and monthly payments are made. That’s all there is to it.
Total addressable market (TAM) is frequently used to assess opportunity. A critical part of the TAM estimation process might have been overlooked in the early assessments of the alternative lending industry. The large numbers in the figure below reflect an alluring market that LendingClub, Prosper, Avant, Upstart, OneMain, Best Egg and others have attempted to capitalize upon.
The notion of a replacement cycle, which I’ll borrow from Michael Mauboussin, is an important consideration here, particularly in a high volume, low frequency transaction relationship such as consumer lending. Just because a borrower refinances their credit card debt with a loan from LendingClub, there’s little guarantee that all of the money spent on acquiring that customer will lead to future transactions with that customer. Yet, in order for these companies to succeed, the average revenue per user (ARPU) is going to have to rise through some combination of repeat customers and complementary services to deepen the relationship and create new revenue channels.
The market opportunity for marketplace Lenders, LendingClub Investor Day 2017
With this realization in mind, fintech players across the board have focused on deepening relationships with customers to drive sales and lower SG&A costs. Customer acquisition is a major component of the income statement for these companies. The more engagement a lender has with their end customer, the greater the chance they stand to not only be called upon when a borrower needs to borrow again, but ultimately pinpoint opportunities for product recommendations.
And that’s exactly what Upgrade is doing. In many ways, they’re quite similar to LendingClub. Upgrade offers personal loans between $1,000 and $50,000 over three-to-five-year repayment periods at rates competitive with major banks. LendingClub varies a bit in the principal amount offerings and APRs, but they essentially do the same thing. Loans are originated through WebBank, the partner bank that also works with LendingClub. Operationally, there’s a blockchain component for data remediation and security purposes. However, the extent and value of this application are unclear.
The notion of financial wellness is increasingly popular among consumer fintech companies, as well as incumbent financial institutions. It reflects a transition away from a purely transactional relationship to a fiduciary one, as we’ve also seen in the wealth management industry. The tricky thing about this is that although it may be the right thing to do, late fees and overdraft penalties make up a sizeable portion of traditional bank revenue.
Where Upgrade differs from LendingClub is in their customer engagement model. Upgrade provides several features to customers that resemble a conventional personal financial management (PFM) app. Their Credit Health service offers free advice and monitoring tools, personalized recommendations, and customized updates for individual credit scores and underlying rationale. Additionally, they offer a financial education tool open to the public called Credit Health Insights, which offers tips and tricks for debt management and financial wellness. At the surface, there’s little differentiation here. A free credit score is becoming table stakes for any financial institution, and personalized insights are to be expected.
Upgrade’s borrower value proposition, LendIt 2018 Conference
In Upgrade’s case, however, the framing of the dual service is compelling. Typically, online lenders only approve 10-15% of applicants. While the credit underwriting models are looking for the most compelling borrower profiles who will pay back their loans, the majority of interested borrowers are sent back to the drawing board.
A major focus of Upgrade is to build the credit of the other 85-90% of applicants who are typically rejected so that they improve their profile and obtain a loan in the future. Credit repair and financial wellness are underserved markets today, although companies like Bloom Credit are working to change the record. This product combination helps to unify the interests of Upgrade and borrowers, both approved and rejected.
At the LendIt Conference in 2017, Laplanche concluded his presentation with a reference to the Wright Brothers. He discussed how he was enamored with their ability to combine two things to create something entirely new, which in their case was “wheeling and flying.” A year later, he returned to LendIt with a new product release that borrowed from the innovation strategy of Orville and Wilbur.
Upgrade launched a first of its kind product, a Personal Credit Line, a hybrid of a credit card and an unsecured loan. Here’s how it works: customers get approved for up to $50,000 in credit, from which they can draw down as needed. They only pay interest on what’s borrowed, over the course of a 12-60-month timeframe. The interest rate is also fixed over the term of the loan.
Upgrade’s Personal Credit Line, a hybrid of a personal loan and a credit card, Upgrade
The product is built on the premise that the level of innovation in the origination of consumer credit has been somewhat limited. Laplanche attempted to reinvent it once with the creation of LendingClub. In some ways, it worked. Personal loans originated by fintech lenders account for roughly a third of outstanding consumer loans according to Transunion. Now he’s trying to do it again.
When I first read the press release for the Personal Credit Line, I thought it was a very compelling way to expand the menu of options to qualified consumers. It puts more control in the hands of the borrower, so they can avoid the vicious cycle of consumer debt. I was also reminded of a comment made by Josh Brown, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, after Wealthfront released their “Portfolio Line of Credit” product in April 2017. He said that while it might sound flashy, there’s nothing holding Schwab or Fidelity back from offering the same product tomorrow.
What’s so challenging about consumer-facing fintech companies is that customers are expensive to acquire, they’re difficult to keep, and products are easy to replicate. Providing a free credit score is easily accessible through a partnership with Equifax or Experian. It’s commoditized. The situation is similar with personal financial management tools. This Personal Credit Line seems awfully similar. What’s to stop Chase or Goldman’s Marcus from offering an identical product, perhaps with even better rates? U.S. Bank just launched a similar product, albeit for a different use case, called Simple Loan. It’s a $100 to $1,000 loan marketed as a payday lending alternative, with a roughly 20% lower interest rate than typical payday lender offers.
There is something to be said for being first to market, but ease of replication limits the defensibility of that position. There is a clear interest in an expansion into new products, which will continue to help Upgrade to differentiate the value proposition to consumers, and maybe one day small businesses. The unfortunate reality is that bigger players with an existing customer base and a lower cost of capital are on their tail.
Renaud Laplanche rings the bell with his team at LendingClub (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
The real insight that distinguishes Upgrade from LendingClub is the profile of the users. On the supply side of the marketplace, Upgrade only welcomes institutional investors. LendingClub was, and still is, marketed to individuals and institutions.
The peer-to-peer model turned out to be a little too idealistic to serve as the foundation for a business. The concept of a marketplace is really attractive – the ability to invest in others, as cliché as that may sound, has a philanthropic twist to it that even implies a social good. Or, at the very least, an alignment of interests. Except interests aren’t aligned because of the mercurial nature of retail investors, which makes for unstable sources of capital.
LendingClub’s original business model, in the pure P2P form, was reliant on the ability to create a new asset class. The notion of investing in consumer credit may sound compelling, and return prospects may be even more appealing. But, you can’t bootstrap an asset class and base a business model around retail adoption. LendingClub had to solve for distribution of their service, as well as the dissemination of the broader concept of unsecured consumer lending as an asset class.
On Laplanche’s second go around with Upgrade, there’s no more promise of democratization of a new asset class. Instead, large multi-billion-dollar credit investors own the supply side of the marketplace. As a result, there’s a more stable capital base of institutional investors who know what they’re investing in and the reason why they’re investing in it.
What Laplanche did this time around was base his business model around stability. In this market it can pay to be a follower. LendingClub touts the notion that they have “brought a new asset class to investors,” but that education campaign came at a serious cost. It also invited boiler room-like sales behavior from competitors. Upgrade is stepping in after a decade of marketing to scale an untested industry to the masses. Fortunately, a lot of the work has already been done for them.
Upgrade is led by as experienced and forward-thinking of a leader as they come in the marketplace lending industry. They expect to originate over $2 billion loans in 2018 and hit profitability by year-end as well. They’re redefining convention when it comes to consumer credit products.
The question, however, remains: how long can the novelty last? Consumer fintech is fiercely competitive. It’s also increasingly occupied by incumbents with far lower costs of capital, large existing customer bases, and the ability to experiment in a way that a startup cannot. The unsecured consumer lending space has attracted mountains of capital in the past five years, but the opportunity is clearly defined. The number of lenders issuing more than 10,000 personal loans per year has more than doubled since 2011.
There’s a network effect component to marketplace lending businesses, particularly as lenders are able to maintain more connected relationships with consumers. But when it comes to standing apart from the rest of the pack, a differentiated product offering isn’t a very wide moat.