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Investors have become skeptical about online lending since early pioneers flamed out

Eugene Kim
Greg Baker | AFP | Getty Images. Bluevine CEO Eyal Lifshitz says every investor asks how your online lending startup is different from public market peers like Lending Club and OnDeck.

Online lending startups looking to raise money now have to answer one important question that didn't get asked much in the past: how do avoid the fate of early pioneers like Lending Club (LC) or On Deck, (ONDK) which have lost nearly 80 percent of their value since going public in 2014.

At least that's what Bluevine CEO Eyal Lifshitz has experienced in his meetings with venture capitalists in recent years. Bluevine, an online lender that focuses on small businesses, last did an external round in 2016 and has raised a total of $188 million since its founding in 2013.

"I absolutely needed to have a very compelling story on why we're not the same as our public market comparables," Lifshitz said. "That is not something I needed to deal with three years ago."

Investment in online lending startups exploded on the backs of the success of early pioneers like Lending Club and OnDeck. But Lending Club saw its value sink after failing to meet compliance requirements, which led to the resignation of its star CEO Renaud Laplaunche. OnDeck has been hammered due to concerns around its growth and default rates. Although both companies saw their stock jump on strong earnings this month, they're still valued at a fraction of what they were at their IPOs in 2014.

Their declines have weighed down online lending startups, pressuring them to show how exactly they're different from their predecessors.

Meanwhile, investment in the space is slwoing. According to CB Insights, the number of funding rounds in the online lending space is on pace to hit a 5-year low in 2017. The dollar amount is also expected to drop to $2 billion in 2017, less than half of the $4.4 billion the sector saw in 2015.

Lifshitz said investors are questioning the general "viability of the overall lending model," and it will have a polarizing effect, eventually pushing out the underperforming ones.

For example, Kabbage raised $250 million at a reportedly higher valuation than its last round, while Prosper is reported to be raising at a valuation that's 70 percent below its previous round. Both companies last raised in 2015.

"There's going to be some big winners in this space, but some companies are just sub-scale and will eventually die out," he said.

Lifshitz declined to disclose Bluevine's revenue or valuation numbers.

More acquisitions

For Schwark Satyavolu, general partner at Trinity Ventures, the online lending space was never an attractive market. Although he primarily invests in the financial technology space, Satyavolu has not made a single investment in the online lending industry.

He says there are a lot of question marks around exactly how good the startups' underwriting technology is compared to bigger financial services, and how they would all scale to the level of bigger players.

"I'm very bearish about online lending. I don't expect it to come back," he said.

Instead, Satyavolu expects more acquisitions to take place in the coming years. It's not hard to see big banks like Wells Fargo or Capital One buying one of these startups to make their small business lending faster and more efficient, he says. He pointed to PayPal's acquisition of Swift Financial last week as an early sign of this trend.

To Lifshitz, the PayPal deal is validation of Swift Financial's underwriting technology. And he believes there are plenty of startups with equally valuable technology.

"PayPal's buying Swift because they know something they do not know," he said.



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