Small and medium businesses regularly face cashflow problems. But if that's an already inconvenient predicament, it has been exacerbated to the breaking point for too many during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a U.K. startup called MarketFinance -- which has built a loans platform to help SMBs stay afloat through those leaner times -- is announcing a big funding infusion of £280 million ($383 million) as it gears up for a new wave of lending requests.
"It's a good time to lend, at the start of the economic cycle," CEO and founder Anil Stocker said in an interview.
The funding is coming mostly in the form of debt -- money loaned to MarketFinance to in turn loan out to its customers as an approved partner of the U.K. government's Recovery Loan Scheme; and £10 million ($14 million) of it is equity that MarketInvoice will be using to continue enhancing its platform.
Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo S.p.A. and an unnamed "global investment firm" are providing the debt, while the equity portion is being led by Black River Ventures (which has also backed Marqeta, Upgrade, Coursera and Digital Ocean) with participation from existing backer, Barclays Bank PLC. Barclays is a strategic investor: MarketFinance powers the bank's online SMB loans service. Other investors in the startup include Northzone.
We understand that the company's valuation is somewhere in the region of less than $500 million, but more than $250 million, although officially it is not disclosing any numbers.
Stocker said that MarketFinance has been profitable since 2018, one reason why it didn't give up much equity in this current tranche of funding.
"We are building a sustainable business, and the equity we did raise was to unlock better debt at better prices," he said. "It can help to post more equity on the balance sheet." He said the money will be "going into our reserves" and used for new product development, marketing and to continue building out its API connectivity.
That last development is important: it taps into the big wave of "embedded finance" plays we are seeing today, where third parties offer, on their own platforms, loans to customers -- with the loan product powered by MarketFinance, similar to what Barclays does currently. The range of companies tapping into this is potentially as vast as the internet itself. The promise of embedded finance is that any online brand that already does business with SMEs could potentially offer those SMEs loans to... do more business together.
MarketFinance began life several years ago as MarketInvoice, with its basic business model focused on providing short-term loans to a given SMB against the value of its unpaid invoices -- a practice typically described as invoice finance. The idea at the time was to solve the most immediate cashflow issue faced by SMBs by leveraging the thing (unpaid invoices, which typically would eventually get paid, just not immediately) that caused the cashflow issue in the first place.
A lot of the financing that SMBs get against invoices, though, is mainly in the realm of working capital, helping companies make payroll and pay their own monthly bills. But Stocker said that over time, the startup could see a larger opportunity in providing financing that was of bigger sums and covered more ambitious business expansion goals. That was two years ago, so after its last equity round MarketInvoice rebranded accordingly to MarketFinance. (It still very much offers the invoice-based product.)
The timing turned out to be fortuitous, even if the reason definitely has not been lucky: COVID-19 came along and completely overturned how much of the world works. SMEs have been at the thin edge of that wedge not least because of those cashflow issues and the fact that they simply are less geared to diversification and pivoting due to shifting market forces because of their size.
This presented a big opportunity for MarketInvoice, it turned out.
Stocker said that the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic saw the bulk of loans being taken out to manage business interruptions due to COVID-19. Interruptions could mean business closures, or they could mean simply customers no longer coming as they did before, and so on. "The big theme was frictionless access to funding," he said, using technology to better and more quickly assess applications digitally with "no meetings with bank managers" and reducing the response time to days from the typical 4-6 weeks that SMBs would have traditionally expected.
If last year was more about "panicking, shoring up or pivoting," in Stocker's words, "now what we’re seeing are a bunch of them struggling with supply chain issues, Brexit exacerbations and labor shortages. It’s really hard for them to manage all that."
He said that the number of loan applications has been through the roof, so no shortage of demand. He estimates that monthly loan requests have been as high as $500 million, a huge sum for one small startup in the U.K. It's selective in what it lends: "We choose to support those we thought will return the money," he said.