As Mobile-Payment Giants Bicker, Startups Step Up

The mobile payments industry is stuck in neutral. The ability to pay for your goods and services at brick-and-mortar locations from your smartphone is a dream of technologist and financial companies, but the realities of a complicated industry with billions of dollars at stake and too many moving parts has stymied progress. 

Well, almost.

No Momentum For Big Mobile Payments Players

The companies with the biggest vested interests in mobile payments are all multi-billion-dollar, publicly traded behemoths. This group includes the payment processors like Visa, MasterCard and American Express as well as giant technology companies like Apple, Google and PayPal. The banks of the world do not want to be left out in the cold to become the “dumb pipes” of the payment industry (places where money is merely stored and transferred). And the mobile carriers - Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile - want their slice of the mobile payments pie. Every one of those companies has some derivation of a mobile payments system that could be seen as ill-conceived (PayPal), immature and un-deployed (Isis from the carriers), stuck in the maelstrom of competing interests (Isis as well as Google Wallet) or illogical (various mobile payments systems from the payment processors). When it comes to the top of the so-called mobile payments market, there are too many moving parts, too many squabbles and not enough infrastructure or actual solutions. 

But the very mess being created by the big boys in mobile payments is opening opportunities for fast- moving startups that understand that the best way to make mobile payments work is to place their services inside as many physical retail spaces as possible. Right now. Not preparing for some theoretical future where everything is all of a sudden ripe for success.

The leaders in the mobile payments space are not MasterCard or Google. The real leaders are little startups like Square, ShopKeep, Dwolla and LevelUp. These companies see an opportunity and are rushing to fill it, leaving behind the big bureaucracy and striking real partnerships with real business.

LevelUp's Small-Time Approach

LevelUp is a good example of a small mobile payments provider creating traction at the bottom of the market. The Boston-based startup (which is a derivative of social location app SCVNGR) provides QR-code-based payments for local merchants by providing businesses with Android-smartphones to act as scanners that process payments from the LevelUp smartphone app. It now has 500,000 users and just completed its first 2 million transactions. Those numbers are small potatoes compared to the big payment processors, but in many ways LevelUp is the bellwether for the progress of the mobile payments industry in the United States. 

LevelUp thinks outside the box, thinks big thoughts, makes significant partnerships, and perhaps most importantly, actually finds its way into actual businesses. LevelUp has expanded to several cities in the U.S. and its growth is accelerating. It took LevelUp 424 days to reach its first million transactions and about 100 days to reach the next million. Unlike the big payment processors (or even startups like Square), LevelUp does not charge an interchange fee (taking a percentage of each transaction) for every payment it makes. LevelUp makes money by offering deals to consumers within the app. For instance, the app will take $3 off your burger the first time you visit a restaurant and pay with LevelUp. You come back enough times and pay with the app and you get better rewards. Fundamentally, it is an advertising and data business model that LevelUp believes will be central to the future of mobile payments.  

LevelUp has gone from an app that makes payments to a platform that provides payment capabilities. In addition to its apps on iOS, Android and the mobile Web, it also partners with companies that wish to have a mobile payments presence themselves. These custom-branded mobile payments apps can be used by merchants to provide deals to its customers as well as process the transactions themselves. LevelUp says that it has sold many of these custom-branded mobile payments apps but so far it has announced only one, with Washington, DC-based eatery Sweetgreen

The startup is now looking to expand, announcing on Wednesday a partnership with a mid-tier bank – First Trade Union Bank – to create a mobile payments app for its customers. The app will integrate First Trade Union banking features with LevelUp’s payment and loyalty functions to provide an app that will likely be able to check your balance and make a payment at the same time.

At first blush, this may seem like a shrug-worthy event for both LevelUp and First Trade Union. A middling startup and a middling bank just made an app. Great. So what?

Tackling Mobile Payments Without The Innovators Dilemma

The fact of the matter is that LevelUp and its kin (Square, ShopKeep etc.) are going after a key segment of the American retail market – small businesses and small banks that make up a giant swath of the American economy. One bank or one eatery chain may seem small compared to Visa or MasterCard’s footprint, but when you put all of those pieces together they can become a powerful force. And one that the biggest so-called players are not penetrating while they argue amongst themselves and wait for inertia to begin moving in their direction.

“In my opinion it's not just that they're big and thus slow, it's that they have the mother of all innovator's dilemma's. They all make money in the wrong ways (and huge sums of it) so taking advantage of this new market is really tricky. My belief is that mobile payments and the next-gen of [point-of-sale systems] are all driven by data and advertising,” said SCVNGR and LevelUp founder Seth Priebatsch. 

The innovator’s dilemma, as far as the payment processors go, is a big one. American Express, Visa and MasterCard want to move aggressively into the emerging mobile payments industry - but cannot do so without significantly disrupting their existing business models. That's why they seem to drag their feet - and force the rest of the payments industry get down on their knees and crawl with them. Companies like Google are blocked because they are forced to deal other companies’ innovators dilemma and do not have the resources or motivation to attack the bottom of the retail industry piecemeal the way Square or LevelUp do. 

“It's easy for me, ShopKeep, CloverOS to go after that because we don't make any money off of anything else and so forgoing those other rev streams is easy. But for [American Express], giving up $10 billion in interchange is too tough a pill to swallow on a gamble that data/advertising is a bigger market. For Isis, their parents make money off of data and wireless plans, so it's just not a key priority or easy thing to shift the model to be competitive in the new mobile payments space,” Priebatsch said. 

Eventually, the large companies will get their act together and make a concerted push towards actual, ubiquitous mobile-payment solutions on the ground level. But that process is taking longer than many pundits and consumers hoped it would. In the meantime, the startups of the mobile payments world are taking advantage. 

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.