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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

Innovation in Small Business Lending:  Sam Hodges of Funding Circle

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Innovation in Small Business Lending: Sam Hodges of Funding Circle

Jo Ann Barefoot

Welcome to our first conversation with an innovator in small business lending – my guest is Sam Hodges, Co-founder and U.S. Managing Director of Funding Circle.

Funding Circle was founded in 2012 and is the world’s leading marketplace lender that’s exclusively focused on small businesses. It has made more than $2.5 billion in loans to 20,000 businesses in the U.S., Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK (where it is based). It customers borrow directly from a wide range of investors, including more than 50,000 people, the UK Government, and divers entities like local councils, a university and various financial organizations.

Funding Circle was created because the founders were small business owners themselves and learned how hard it is to access finance, even for a successful business. Even when a loan was approved, they found the process difficult, or the terms unattractive. Sometimes they even felt misled. After opening their 96th loan rejection letter, they decided this was a systemic failure – that the traditional bank loan system was broken – and they set out to build a new solution. The financial crisis created fertile ground for them, as so many business suddenly had trouble accessing capital (the number of small businesses has dropped every year for the past 8-10 years). And their timing fit with the emergence of marketplace lending as a new model.

As Funding Circle’s Co–Founder and U.S. Managing Director, Sam oversees the company’s overall strategic direction and its day–to–day operation in the U.S. He was previously Vice President of Business Development at SecondMarket, the leading marketplace for alternative investments, where he was responsible for corporate and business development and the company’s geographic expansion efforts. Sam was also part of the investment team at Pequot Capital, an $8 billion global fund manager, covering investments in financial technology and information services. He started  his career as a strategy consultant at Katzenbach Partners, advising financial services and technology companies. He currently serves on the boards of two private companies. He received his MBA and MS from Stanford University and graduated magna cum laude from Brown University.

Sam points to three key Funding Circle innovations:

  • One is delivering a superior borrower experience. They can on-board and evaluate customers sometimes in minutes, or a few days, for situations where a bank might need 30 man-hours to reach a decision.
  • Second, they’ve re-architected how they do credit evaluation. Sam says it’s not a silver bullet, but they’ve have created their own rigorous data-driven approach to understanding risk, and they’re using new data, in new ways, to serve more borrowers.
  • And third, he argues that the marketplace model can be more scalable and profitable than the traditional bank approach, enabling them to grow a global business.

In our conversation, Sam expresses his continued confidence in the marketplace model. He discusses Funding Circle’s risk analytics (he says they hire world class risk officers from world-class institutions). He explains the role of alternative data in driving more sound and inclusive lending.

I was especially interested in how Sam contrasts the U.S. regulatory model with the U.K.’s efforts, especially on P2P lending. He thinks the fragmented American structure makes innovation here difficult. He also has suggestions for regulatory innovation, including sandboxes and a graduated scale of coverage that would allow small innovators to get up and running more easily.  He emphasizes the need for interagency coordination and consistency. He says transparency needs to undergird the whole industry, and that requires smart, sound regulation that everyone understands. (To listen to our previous episode about the “Regulatory Sandbox” with Nitish Pandey of BMO, click here.)

Sam welcomes smart customer protection regulation – he discusses his involvement in creating the Small Business Borrower’s Bill of Rights we discussed in an earlier episode with Brian Graham of BancAlliance.  See also this Harvard research paper by former Small Business Administration head Karen Mills on small business lending.

I hear increasing discussion about more regulation of small business lending. It’s partly because the online lenders are transforming the market, and partly because the “1099 economy” is producing more little businesses that arguably are functionally-equivalent to consumer borrowers.  The sector is covered by some of the federal laws on consumer protection, but not by most of them.  My own view is that regulation will probably need to come, but that we should NOT transplant the existing consumer protection rules into it without first updating them for the digital age. Speaking as someone who helped develop some of these rules, I will say they have a mixed record, at best, of protecting consumers. And complying with them costs a fortune. If we’re going to bring new regulation into the small business sector, let’s use the chance to take a fresh look, and apply some RegTech thinking.

Other notes:

Newsletter:

I also want to share an announcement -- this month we’re launching a newsletter. It will be pithy and punchy and useful, highlighting the most interesting things that have happened, the most exciting things coming up. It will be a way to share some of the fascinating things I’ve been getting involved with. One example is that, this summer, I joined the Netherlands’ Queen Maxima (who leads the UN’s work on global financial inclusion) on her trip to Silicon Valley. Another is that I just returned from a week in Fiji at the global policy forum of the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, which represents the financial regulators of more than 90 countries in the developing world. I’m also working on ideas for promoting regulatory sandboxes in the United States. And in November, I’ll be speaking in Singapore at Asia’s first RegTech conference. And I’m doing a lot of work on RegTech. In fact, in Fiji I heard a new term – “SuperTech.” It’s a branch of RegTech that means technology-driven solutions for bank supervision.

The newsletter will share some of the intriguing things that are going on, outside our poccasts.


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Coming guests:

And look for some amazing guests coming up. We have none other than the leaders of Varo, Ripple, LendUp, and Loot (from London)!

We have two amazing, mold-breaking innovators from the developing world – eCurrency and OneDollarCellPhone, as well as the head of AFI, the Alliance for Financial Inclusion.

And back in the US, we’ll have the community bank perspective on innovation.

But first, next up, we have Harvard professor and behavioral economics expert, Brigitte Madrian.

So, enjoy my conversation with Funding Circle’s Sam Hodges … and come back soon!