Credit Card Processing as a Commodity Business

I wanted to expand on my post from yesterday after some great feedback. When I said that credit card processing is a commodity business, I was not saying that it was a bad business. It is just a hard market to be in exactly because processors need to get to a huge processing volume to generate meaningful revenue. In the credit card processing business, volume is the only metric that matters.

Companies that operate well in credit card processing are to be praised and any industry that is producing multiple companies with multi-hundred-million-dollar valuations is a very healthy one.

Having said that, many companies create something that is heavily differentiated from their competitors and are able to charge for that differentiation. Apple creates laptops that are 10x better than PCs running Windows, so many folks are willing to pay 2-3x as much for their laptops. Apple is able to take their differentiation and convert that into increased revenue and better margins.

In the world of credit card processing one cannot charge more if one says they are in the card processing business. Even if someone created an idealized solution for dealing with the payments system, once a user reaches sufficient scale they will be more concerned with the variable components of the processor’s cost than the lower fixed costs of development and set up.

That makes perfect sense. Most business wants to commoditize all of their inputs and differentiate their outputs. Technology businesses, and big businesses that rely on contractors or system integrators, will eat a month’s worth of horrifically painful engineering as it is much cheaper over the long-term than paying even an extra few basis points (hundredths of a percentage point) on each transaction. That is, if a business is doing enough processing that even small increases in marginal cost matter then increased upfront fixed costs won’t.

To succeed in credit card processing, a processor can succeed in one of two ways.[1]

The first is to clearly be in the credit card processing market, have razor thin margins, drives toward massive volume, and create a much better product so folks use the product at all. Businesses will not pay the processor more for a better product though. The processor will invest more and more money in their product but with margins that get more and more squeezed on the one hand by knowledgeable large enterprises, the processor’s most valuable customers, that want things like an interchange plus basis points pricing. And, on the other hand, processors will get squeezed by the absolute fixed costs of what the banks and card networks charge the processor. Adding insult to injury, as the processor gets better known fraudsters pay more attention to it, increasing the cost of simply operating

That is a hard place to be. That is the place that Braintree, Stripe, WePay, and Balanced operate in as well as a ton of companies that we are not as fortunate enough to have heard of. Ultimately, Square is there too — although their situation is slightly more complicated. It is not necessarily a bad business to be in: any entrepreneur would be happy to be added to the list of successful processing companies.

The other way to succeed in credit card processing is to figure out how to be a payments company without appearing to be one so you can just charge much more. That is what most marketplace companies succeed at doing. They have built a better and better product experience, whose heart is credit card processing, and they can charge for that something better. What they have done commoditize their input — credit card processing — and differentiated their output into “booking blackcars” or whatever it might be. Ultimately, their core business is having their customer pay with credit card and then paying it out to a wide set of merchants, e.g. drivers, via electronic checks (ACH). That’s Airbnb, Eventbrite and others. Whether or not those companies go on to use Braintree or Stripe as their payments gateway does not matter because they are making such a large percentage of every transaction.

Addendum: Braintree’s Revenue

Braintree is actually a gateway, rather than a full-stack processor, for many of their best known and largest customers. That is a high-margin game with little risk. In this world, they make $49/month and $.10/transaction from those customers. That might make their margins higher than I suggested yesterday. It is actually hard to calculate the precise difference or relative value of those different business models without knowing how much they would make on a percentage basis, the average ticket size for those customers, and how much risk the company’s processors take on.

If this is all mumbo jumbo to you, dear reader, then keep your eyes peeled for future posts explaining various parts of the payments system.

[1] This is a model for argument. I think it’s useful but I also know that I’m simplifying important and complex businesses into gross categories.

Thank you to Daniel Kimerling, Jim Brusster, Brent Goldman, and Spencer Sugarman for suggestions and edits.