Square Puck: sounds dangerous, right? I think it is.
There’s a famous/trite expression, commonly cited in the venture business, about how you want to skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is right now. As I watch the payments industry grapple to deal with the phenomenon of Square’s micro-merchant processing business, I’m reminded of this truism, and increasingly convinced that all the incumbents are skating in the wrong direction. This doesn’t mean that Square will achieve the kind of world domination that their valuation implies, but it does mean that lots of other folks are wasting vast resources and time pursuing the wrong goals.
In just the last week, Bank of America announced a micro-merchant offering, and TSYS bought ProPay, a vertically focused Square clone. In the past year, we’ve seen a steady drumbeat of product announcements from Verifone, Intuit, PayPal, NCR, WorldPay* and PayAnywhere*, all directly focused on competing with Square’s dongle-based merchant payments service. Meanwhile, in the investment community, there is a lot of self-satisfied sniggering about Square’s business model, in which it is assumed that given pricing and risk, Square loses money on every swipe. Their recent move to undercut Starbuck’s already razor thin processing costs, even though they aren’t the low cost provider, reinforces this view … there’s no way that is profitable business for Square. If Square is entirely dependent on merchant processing revenues, they are not only overvalued, they are in fact worthless … that business will never produce meaningful cash or be strategic to anyone.
But that’s irrelevant, as it is increasingly obvious that the merchant side of Square’s business is somewhere they had to start, but nowhere near where they plan to land. At the end of the day, Square is a consumer-facing company; that is their DNA, their culture and their IP. The entire merchant processing effort is a loss leader, a necessary evil on the way to building up sufficient retail coverage to make their mobile app useful to consumers. It’s not too different from what LevelUp is doing, but Square’s approach, both in terms of pricing and design, is far more elegant and nuanced, probably because they control their own payments infrastructure and LevelUp outsources to Braintree. All of the incumbent merchant processing and terminal infrastructure players who are freaking out about this and building direct rivals are totally missing the point, and are lunging to compete in a segment that will ultimately have a negative profit pool.
Typically in this blog, and more generally in life, I avoid making explicit recommendations and predictions. I’ve just been humbled too many times by the world’s unpredictability. But I’m going to make an exception in this case.
The recommendation is that Verifone should swallow their pride and do a comprehensive business development deal with Square, where they enable their entire existing merchant base to accept Pay With Square in exchange for essentially taking over Square’s merchant processing hardware business. Given Verifone’s bluster and defensiveness regarding Square, I think this is unlikely, but it would be a master stroke. Square doesn’t think hardware is strategic and is increasingly just trying to build their merchant base (see: Starbucks deal) and they are only messing with Verifone as an accidental byproduct of their initial go to market strategy. Square would do this deal if Verifone could convince them that they would take good care of their customers.
The prediction is that in six to twelve months, the conventional wisdom on Square will have changed to reflect the growing reality that Square isn’t primarily a merchant acquirer, but instead a mobile wallet provider. Pay With Square, just like Google Wallet, PayPal and the other wallet providers, creates a unified merchant-facing cardholder application, which aggregates the user’s existing payment accounts behind the scenes, and layers on offers and enhanced information.
At that point, someone (probably not Verifone, unfortunately for them; my bet is Heartland or Global Payments, with Chase Paymentech as a long shot) will do the business development deal I describe above and PayPal, Verifone, BAMS,TSYS et al will be left holding their dongles. The whole merchant processing community will then lurch toward some kind of cardholder side functionality, directly or through partnerships, and an unbelievable amount of time will be wasted essentially recreating the current Visa/MC merchant-issuer network in a Balkanized and therefore useless way. Discover will get bought by Google for $35B and Amex stock will go up 30%.
Unfortunately, by that point, the puck will have moved again, and Square will have abandoned the mobile wallet play in favor of their actual ultimate goal, which is to become a new tender type, disintermediating payment cards altogether. He shoots…he scores!
*For the record, I think WorldPay and PayAnywhere, with their focus on the SMB segment vs. the true micro-merchant segment, have it right. NB: my firm is an investor in WorldPay.