Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why Venmo wants us to send money by text

The Center City start-up views cash as a "thing of the past" and the cellphone text as the payment system of the future.

Why Venmo wants us to send money by text

In an era of online bill-payment services, I largely remain a paper-check and 44-cent-stamp guy. When someone in my family needs to borrow $10, it comes from a worn leather wallet.

I’m not a technology hermit. I have used PayPal on occasion. But having had my identity stolen once (driver’s license scam) has made me very cautious when it comes to embracing payment options that sound terrifyingly simple.

On Monday at the Spark entrepreneurial conference at the Hub conference center in the Cira Centre building, Venmo Inc. presented its service that uses your cell phone to make payments. Its website asserts that “cash is a thing of the past.”

The Venmo system, which is in beta testing, works with any cell phone that can send and receive text messages. If you want to pay the babysitter, you text something like “Pay 50 for babysitting” and include the cell-phone number of your babysitter. Of course, your babysitter needs to have a Venmo account to get the $50 you told Venmo to take from you and give to her.

Besides PayPal, there are many other electronic payment systems available, including the big credit-card companies. Much of that convenience comes at a cost from the fees involved. Venmo doesn’t charge fees to send to or receive money from personal accounts. Fees are levied on businesses.

Venmo is counting on its users to define how its service will evolve. As Venmo’s Jameel Farruk put it, “There is a new social dynamic to the way money is being spent.”

He makes it sound almost fun to text $10 to your son to pay for the school field trip he forgot to tell you about that he needed the money for yesterday. Or the $5 your coworker borrows to buy coffee on the way to a sales call.

Safety and privacy are obviously paramount in this kind of a business. On its website, Venmo’s user agreement says it may limit someone to withdrawing no more than $500 per month. Farruk also said Venmo will monitor accounts to guard against unusual activity.

Maybe some people will have fun texting money to their friends and family. But as an often-poor texter, I would foresee the fun evaporating the first time I texted $500 to the babysitter rather than $50.

Still, I consider my cellphone essential, and there are 267 million of them in use in the U.S. So there would seem to be a ready market for texting cash.

However, Farruk was frustratingly vague on Venmo’s vital statistics. He would not say how many people or businesses were using its service.

Good thing Venmo wasn’t looking to raise funding, because I don’t know too many venture capitalists who’d text, “Pay $10 million to Venmo,” without seeing some hard numbers.

Got capital?

Other start-ups at the 2d annual Spark networking event were looking for investment capital.

Throughout the spring, you can find an entrepreneurial beauty contest going on somewhere nearly every week.

Sometimes they’re rough-and-ready business plan competitions on college campuses. Sometimes they are invitation- and high-net- worth-only catered affairs. Spark, organized by Maven Communications L.L.C. , a public-relations firm, and Brolik Productions, an interactive marketing agency, was somewhere in between.

Besides Venmo, nine other firms made 3-minute pitches to a panel of advisers, who then deconstructed assumptions the entrepreneurs were making.

Michael Riordan of Lifepages, which is producing online versions of college and high school yearbooks, may have had the line of the day in response to a query about teens’ willingness to spring for a digital version of a book that many won’t look at for years.

“When it comes to freshmen and sophomores, I think we can agree they’re buying a lot of things they don’t need,” Riordan said.

Inquirer Columnist
About this blog
Mike Armstrong blogs about Philadelphia corporations and business-related topics. Contact him at 215-854-2980. Reach Mike at marmstrong@phillynews.com.

Mike Armstrong Inquirer Columnist
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