Paypal Is About To Get A Bruising From Facebook And Square

Editor’s note: Guest author Ohad Samet is an expert in managing fraud and other risks in payments systems. He is a cofounder of Signifyd, and years ago was a senior manager at PayPal and blogs at As Risky As It Gets and Tweets at @ohadsamet.

2011 is going to be a big year for payments, with more startups and mature companies getting funded in the space than almost ever before. It’s important to make the distinction between the headline chasers, the slow moving giants struggling for a piece of the pie and the companies that have a chance at real disruption. For my money Facebook and Square are both very interesting companies to follow in this space.

In my last post on TechCrunch I discussed Google and Apple and their efforts around payments, and explained why I don’t yet think they are serious players for the whole payments pie. The post ended with some ideas around what serious contenders could look like, and who are other potential large companies that could step into user-to-user payments. I’d like to expand on that, looking at how the companies above might take advantage of chinks in Paypal’s armor (disclosure: my consulting company, Analyzd, has done a project with Square in the past).

Paypal’s Weaknesses

Paypal (eBay’s growth engine) is demonstrating strong growth and evidently still enjoys network effects—in many territories its service sells itself to small and medium merchants. Moreover, much like with banks and other financial services companies, people like to complain (about fees, user experience and customer service) but will not easily migrate to another company just by virtue of marginal improvements. But Paypal is far from untouchable; it has a few flaws that make room for some fierce competition. What are they?

First and foremost, Paypal’s service has matured over the last ten years. Product and policy decisions that made a lot of sense in the era of “The Paypal Wars” became structural issues, accompanied by limitations gathered in an attempt to improve profitability and revenue. Concepts such as a full redirection to Paypal’s website to make a payment which is still widely required in its most popular small merchant products and the limitations it places on businesses it deems risky (such as rolling reserves, 10-20% of your volume being held for up to 120 days) create whole segments that are underserved and can be tempted by a new service.

Second, the company is heavily reliant on the existing card association and banking infrastructure. Despite having acquired Bill Me Later (offering credit on the spot to approved buyers), its payment volume is still noticeably a mix of card and direct bank payments (here’s an old yet still relevant explanation). This creates a boundary both on the level of fraud and credit losses it can sustain and (more importantly) on its pricing. Paypal is left struggling with getting more people to pay with a bank account (and, given Bill Me Later, more and more using credit products) or it’s forced to skim a few basis points on top of card fees. This is one main reason why small merchants start with Paypal, but then graduate out of the system and move to a full merchant account where they can work directly with card products and other, lower fee payment options.

Third, Paypal is very much U.S.-centered in both infrastructure and process. It has definitely gone global, with good presence in Europe and Asia, but its hold of the market is much less obvious in these territories. Other countries have significantly different regulatory challenges and sometimes completely different payment processes and preferences (Germany is a good example); a few ongoing issues (most recently in India) have demonstrated that being based in the U.S. is not always an advantage. Becoming a truly international organization, with a distributed work force adapting or (in some cases) rebuilding the product creatively to match the local market is a daunting challenge for many companies.

Finally, with size comes the innovator’s dilemma which hinders Paypal’s ability to bet on small and evolving markets, resulting in the company being late to the game. We need to take this one with a grain of salt, though—Paypal is investing in user experience and technology, and through sheer size can reclaim market share even when it is a late entry. However, a wide consumer base is not as large an advantage as it once was when new consumer (web or mobile) products gain immense amounts of traction within weeks and months and other innovative consumer companies with a shorter history are eyeing the space.

And so, competition for Paypal’s lead position can come from two types of players: the first and obvious one is a consumer brand that has a trusted relationship with a massive user base; the second is a company rooted in an underserved segment of the market, preferably out of the U.S., and does not build on the usual card-and-bank infrastructure (or worse, on carrier billing or some other secondary derivative).

Facebook’s Social Advantage

Facebook is a good example of the first type of player. Why them and not Google or Apple, which I’ve discussed in my previous post? All three have a wide user base, have experience with some sort of payments, and are faced by the same challenges. Why is Facebook different? First, Facebook signaled it wants to play, at least to some extent, with its new Facebook payments subsidiary.

Second, of all the large companies it not only has the largest, most diverse and global user base, it also has a rather clear identity strategy that extends beyond their website and is based on real information. This is a critical element in payments today. The ability to control identity isn’t the be-all and end-all of payments (spam, abuse and fake accounts on Facebook prove that) but if enforced properly it will provide a good enough basis for seller and consumer risk management.

Third, while Google and Apple have built their ecosystems and added payments to them to facilitate the type of commerce they required, nothing is a more natural extension of social interaction than adding payments to the mix. Payments and commerce are by their very nature social transactions.  From the user perspective, Facebook moving into payments is an easy to comprehend progression, and the social graph can easily add relevant reputation to boost the feeling of trust.

Where is Facebook aiming to be and where can it fit? While currently it is clear that the company is aiming at social games—a high margin industry it understands and could use as a classroom to learn about payments—it can go way beyond that. As I noted above, Paypal has a merchant graduation issue that is clear from its fee structure; when you grow beyond a certain point, a merchant account is better than a Paypal account if only for the costs, even given the need to manage risk management yourself.

While Facebook may not be able to solve the cost problem that’s limiting Paypal, it can provide large merchants with a different incentive—a huge, diverse, captured audience—which translates into conversion heaven. With its growing experience in ad targeting and more users moving to Facebook messages, Facebook can create unique marketing opportunities for merchants that integrate Connect.  Payments are the next logical step—all through one simple integration. Getting those merchants on board and using Facebook Credits as a universal form of payment will drive enough users to attach cards and bank accounts to their Facebook account.  That could pose a huge threat to Paypal, and strongly limit its opportunity.

Square: Going For The Mobile Wallet

Square comes to mind as a good example of the second type of player, however its case requires some explaining. Square seems to be a consumer-mobile-focused payment system for offline payments using cards, kind of a well-designed poor man’s POS (point of sale system). But look deeper: what I find super interesting is not the payments small sellers and retailers are receiving through credit cards. This is a necessary evil. What’s interesting to me is what these users then do with this money they have in Square’s system—currently deposited to their bank accounts, but which can potentially stay with Square and be used as a low cost funding source.

It’s a little farfetched, but Square may be onto a very creative way to tap into payrolls—effectively becoming the one real mobile wallet—by meeting the money spent by consumers at the point of sale and providing better ways to spend it directly from your Square account. The result will be an ecosystem which you enter with a credit card payment, but then never use that card again.

If everyone has a mobile phone with a Square app, wide payment acceptance is just one tap (or bump) away, and with fees more befitting cash than cards. This direction can also explain why removing the fixed portion from their card fees makes sense—a loss leader used to pump huge amounts of cash from small retailers into their Square balances. This is the power of going after payroll. From the financial perspective, if Square keeps its current fee structure, it remains competitive with merchant accounts for anything under $15-20 (see Feefighters’ handy calculator here) and with Paypal on even larger average transaction sizes (anything under $35, even for Paypal’s most competitive fees).

While Square needs to drive down costs further to become more interesting for the larger retailers, it’s definitely compelling for exactly the population that might then spend money directly from its Square balance and build its wide user base, namely the small retailers and occasional sellers. To those people, Square is also offering a quick way to accept credit payments that may not have been paid otherwise and a superior user experience, both strong drivers for adoption that can be more important than fees in the short term.

Photo credit: Flickr/Aaron Nace