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How Two Start-ups Made a Fortune in Fees on P.P.P. Loans

Also in late February, Blueacorn and Womply got an unexpected tailwind from a major rule change by the Small Business Administration, which oversaw the loan program. Concerned that women and minority-led businesses were being disproportionately left out, the Biden administration overhauled the loan formula to award sole proprietors — a group that includes contractors and gig workers — loans based on their reported revenue rather than profit. Overnight, millions more qualified for help. Drawn in by the marketing campaigns, they stampeded toward the two companies.

By early March, “we were overrun with demand,” said Blueacorn’s Mr. Calhoun, a private equity veteran who joined the company that month to help manage its growth. “We had a 24-hour period where we went from 15,000 new customer service tickets to 27,000,” he recalled. “Those are Amazon-like levels.”

Blueacorn rented call centers and trained hundreds of temporary workers to troubleshoot. Womply redeployed nearly all of its 200 employees to work on loan issues. Both companies still struggled to keep up. On Reddit groups and social media sites, thousands of borrowers complained about delays, poor communication and problems resolving errors.

Louis Glatthorn, an Uber driver in Boone, N.C., who goes by Bob, applied on Womply’s website on April 7 and signed the paperwork two weeks later for a $7,818 loan. But the money — which is listed in government records as approved — has not been paid by Benworth Capital, one of Womply’s partners. Mr. Glatthorn’s attempts to reach Womply for help have been unsuccessful.

“You can never talk to a person or actually make contact,” he said. A Womply representative declined to comment on Mr. Glatthorn’s experience.

Others had a smoother run. Dan Bourque, an Uber driver in San Francisco, saw Womply’s ads and applied for a loan in mid-April. Seventeen days later, he had a $10,477 deposit — funded by Fountainhead SBF, another of Womply’s partner lenders — in his bank account. For that loan, the process “was flawless,” he said.

The millions of tiny loans the two tech companies enabled, coupled with Congress’s decision to make small loans more lucrative, led to gigantic payouts for small lenders. Last year, Prestamos made $1.3 million for its lending. This year, it will collect nearly $1.2 billion, according to a New York Times calculation of lenders’ fees based on government data.

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