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U.S retail sales slow to bounce back as COVID winter approaches

(BUSINESS FINANCE) U.S. retail sales aren’t coming back as many had expected, as the nation braces for wintertime with COVID-19.

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Discount signs over retail sales and clothing

To some of us, buying anything except essentials during this time seems insane. To others, who’ve been padding their savings account with money that might have otherwise been spent on going out to eat, travel, concerts, etc., shopping in retail sales has been a source of therapy.

Regardless of what side of the fence you’re on, U.S. retail sales as a whole increased less than expected in October – and, as COVID-19 hits its third wave in the States, it could slow even further. As of now, the number of national cases has surpassed 11 million.

Economists polled by Reuters predicted that retail sales in October would raise by 0.5%, though they only rose by 0.3%, according to the Commerce Department.

Pandemic-related unemployment benefits will expire at the end of the year, and it’s unlikely that Congress will agree on a second relief package before Biden takes office in January. Additionally, the federal ban on evictions will expire at the end of the year.

To top it off, the winter is approaching meaning that many restaurants and businesses in colder states will be forced to close – and, subsequently, Americans who work at those establishments will face unemployment.

Needless to say, many Americans aren’t focused on shopping; they’re focused on surviving. Especially in states with more COVID cases, there has been a broad decline in spending through November 9th, apart from automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services.

The economy bounced back at a 33.1% rate in the late summer and early fall after contracting at 31.4% pace in the second quarter, when COVID completely sank the economy. This was the most drastic market fluxaution since the government started keeping records in 1947.

There is a strong link between households with a disposable income and spending patterns – people typically don’t spend money they don’t have, especially during a pandemic. If the U.S. wants to get the retail economy back to where it once was, it seems like additional government relief is a sure-fire way to get there.

When stimulus checks went out in April, we saw a momentary resurgence in the economy almost instantly, which was good for everyone. Until the job market allows for all of the unemployed Americans to safely get back in the game, the government needs to assist its people – the economy depends on it.

Anaïs DerSimonian is a writer, filmmaker, and educator interested in media, culture and the arts. She is Clark University Alumni with a degree in Culture Studies and Screen Studies. She has produced various documentary and narrative projects, including a profile on an NGO in Yerevan, Armenia that provides micro-loans to cottage industries and entrepreneurs based in rural regions to help create jobs, self-sufficiency, and to stimulate the post-Soviet economy. She is currently based in Boston. Besides filmmaking, Anaïs enjoys reading good fiction and watching sketch and stand-up comedy.

Business Finance

6 questions to ask when considering a startup accelerator

(BUSINESS FINANCE) Accelerators can help change startups from unknowns to leaders in the industry, but does your startup need one? And if so, which one?

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accelerator pitch

When I’m advising startups, I often hear the question: “which accelerator is the best fit for me?” (Besides the obvious YC or Techstars.)

First off, I’ll ask if your company would benefit from an accelerator, or if you need to pursue something for early early stage companies before you achieve more market validation, like an incubator. (Side note: If you’re curious about incubators, here is a comparison of the two.)

If you’re new to these terms, here’s a brief recap on startup accelerators:

Startup accelerators are for companies with established co-founders and market validation – companies can be anywhere from pre-revenue/self-funded, or even have raised at least $1M.

Most programs can last anywhere from 10 weeks to 3-4 months. With many top accelerators like YC and Techstars, you’ll be expected to move to the city where it’s hosted and spend 40+ hours a week minimum in their dedicated coworking space, and several accelerators will often offer housing stipends to make the move easier. These programs typically conclude with a demo day to pitch your product to a variety of community leaders, angel, and institutional investors.

If your product has achieved market validation and is in a place where you’re ready to scale, congrats!

Before you commit to an accelerator, ask yourself and the program these six questions:

1. What kind of mentorship is available?

By and large, one of the most valuable portions of an accelerator is the networking with peers and mentors. Ask what kind of mentors are available to you as a part of a program, and ask their specific involvement and the opportunities to connect. These mentors will be crucial in guiding your company’s growth. Even if they aren’t in the same industry or have solved a similar problem that your company is trying to achieve, their advice and connections could prove to be invaluable.

2. What are the perks?

You’re giving up a lot of equity to be in a program, but it doesn’t come without its perks. Many programs offer not only a cash investment or stipend for housing or other growth costs, but programs like Techstars offer free services such as web hosting costs (an upwards of ~250k), legal and accounting services, and other credits and perks that can be worth 6-7 figures. Make sure you know what you’re getting before you say yes to a program.

3. Do I want an industry-specific or industry-agnostic program?

This one is important and is directly related to #2. If your company sells CPG products, web hosting credits may not be valuable to your business, but a CPG-specific accelerator like SKU or The Brandery with direct connections to Sephora, Target, and Whole Foods may make more sense.

4. How much equity am I willing to give up?

Try not to make this a guessing game and make as many data-driven decisions on this as you can. Create a revenue and valuation model and see how much your company would benefit from the networking, fundraising opportunities, and perks offered, and see what the ROI would potentially be.

5. What are the funding and exit numbers?

This is an objective way to view the success of an accelerator: # of funding raised and exits. Of course, younger accelerators will have smaller numbers, but it’s worth looking to see if a company has raised $ after. Seed-DB is a great resource to view these numbers for hundreds of accelerators globally.

6. What do alumni think?

All accelerators are going to tout the transformative experience that is their program, and program mentors will likely have a similar narrative.

The best resource to learn the real experience of an accelerator: ask its alumni, and they’ll give you the truth. Make sure to survey both recent and more experienced alumni, as they’ll be able to speak to both the short term and long term benefits.

Personal experience: the night before I was set to hear from an accelerator on my application status, two alumni stressed to me that the time and equity investment wasn’t worth it. I consider this providence!

Finally, two items to note:

Choosing an accelerator is all about finding the right fit between you and the organization. Sadly, not all accelerators are created equal, and try to view a potential relationship with an accelerator as an investor relationship, or better yet, dating. There’s a reason the phrase “no money is better than bad money” is prevalent in the startup community.

Make sure to do your due diligence and ask the right questions to make sure a specific program is worth the investment of time, energy, and equity.

And sometimes? That may not mean an accelerator is a right fit right now or at any point, and that’s okay.

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Business Finance

Under-representation of women in fintech: Let’s talk about it

(BUSINESS FINANCE) Representation of women in fintech remains scarce despite a prevalent population of interest. Why is this the case, and what can we do about it?

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Woman reading a document in front of her computer, one of the women in fintech.

Women are 50% of the population – so why are there only 9 of us on the 2020 Forbes Fintech 50?

I’m personally shocked by how underrepresented women are in such a lucrative industry. By 2022, it’s predicted that fintech, or financial tech, will be worth $26.5 trillion, and we cannot afford to miss out.

And I’m serious when I say fintech is truly taking over. This includes payment processing, online and mobile banking, person-to-person payments (think Venmo or Cash App), financial software, to name a few. For some perspective, half of consumers use digital banking services as the primary way to manage their money. That’s a big deal.

So why does it matter that women are drastically underrepresented in leading roles at these companies?

  • Women CEOs receive only 2.7% of all VC funding – that is astonishingly low, considering that the remaining 97.3% is secured by their male counterparts.
  • While a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review on leadership skills found that women scored higher than men in 17 out of 19 categories (I could’ve told you that), women founders make up only 17% of fintech companies. Some of the categories tested on were:
    • Bold leadership
    • Taking initiative
    • Resilience
    • High integrity & honesty
    • Collaboration and teamwork (this is a big one!)
    • Inspiring & motivating others

If you’re a woman interested in business, tech, or entrepreneurship looking to break into the big leagues, here’s some exclusive advice from lady CEOs, founders, and COOs:

  • Stay Passionate
    Suneera Madhani, Founder + CEO of Fattmerchant, says: “…remember why you started and hold that close to your heart when times get tough.”
  • Be Open to Learning
    “Never behave as the smartest person in the room because you may miss some of the best ideas.” Says Snejina, Co-founder + CEO of Insurify.
  • Trust Your Intuition
    As the Founder + CEO of Tala, Shivani Siroya urges us to: “Stay excited, focused on results and be incredibly optimist. It’s okay to really believe in your gut – just make sure that you see the results with it.”

2021 is a new year full of opportunity – even though the odds are (and always have been) stacked against us, let’s have this be the year where women techies and business owners capitalize on their leadership skills. We have lost time – and profit – to account for.

Author’s Note: Thank you to CreditRepair for the linked infographic!

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Business Finance

Is the convenience of payment apps worth the risk of fraud?

(FINANCE) Peer-to-peer payment apps like CashApp and Venmo are quick and convenient – for users and scammers alike. What are Square and PayPal doing to help?

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CashApp open on phone one of payment apps susceptible to fraud.

More and more people are using peer-to-peer payment services, like Square’s Cash App and PayPal’s Venmo, to make purchases, handle their banking, or just to pitch in on the pizza you and your friends had delivered last night. These payment apps have been particularly useful for folks who may not be able to afford bank fees or have other barriers preventing them from accessing a bank account.

That’s because they are very easy to set up, requiring nothing more than an email address or phone number. Even folks with bank accounts are using these payment apps more as folks are trying to stay home and reduce their in-person contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of daily users on Venmo has grown 26% since last year.

While these apps bring a lot of convenience to our lives, they have also made running scams more convenient for cybercriminals. According to experts, the rate of fraud on Venmo and Cash App is three to four times higher than with credit or debit cards. While PayPal and Square don’t provide statistics about scams, there are some telling signs. The New York Times and Apptopia, a mobile services tracking firm, found that the number of users mentioning frauds or scams in Venmo customer reviews had increased by four times in the past year.

It seems that Cash App has the most fraudulent activity, with the Better Business Bureau reporting twice as many complaints about Cash App as Venmo, even though Venmo has more users. Zelle has a better track record when it comes to fraud, most likely because it requires a more thorough authentication process when setting up an account. It also has better legal protections for folks who have been scammed.

Some of the things that make these payment apps so quick and easy are exactly the reasons it’s so easy to scam users. The instantaneous payments mean that there’s not much of a vetting process, and not much time to catch a fraudulent transaction before it’s too late. Because you only need an email address or phone number to set up an account, it’s easy for criminals to set up dummy accounts for running scams.

Other scams have been facilitated by the marketing choices of the companies. For example, Cash App regularly runs a Cash App Friday promotion, in which users are rewarded for sharing their username, or $Cashtag, on social media. Unfortunately, this has essentially created a Rolodex of potential victims for criminals.

Square and PayPal are doing what they can to address the problem. Lena Anderson of Square says that they are “aware that there has been a recent rise in scammers trying to take advantage of customers using financial products, including Cash App. We’ve taken a number of proactive steps and made it our top priority.”

One “proactive step” Square has taken is to roll out a customer service phoneline, not only to make it faster and easier for customers to vet potentially fraudulent transactions or report scams, but also because scammers have been creating fake customer service phonelines to target users and collect their personal information. The phoneline is currently available to only some customers, but Square plans to scale it up to be available for all users over time.

Until these companies come up with more robust security systems, there are several things you can do to avoid scams. While you might get a cash bonus from Cash App, it’s probably not worth it to share your $Cashtag on social media. Only share your username with people you know. Never share your personal or banking information with strangers. Examine all transactions carefully. Some scammers are stealing money by making a payment request from an account that looks legitimate, but may have a slightly different spelling or one-letter change in the name.

No legitimate agents of these services should ever ask you for your sign-in code, or to download software, and you shouldn’t click on any links in messages promising cash prizes. Never send small payments in exchange for a promised reward – if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam. Don’t use digital payment apps to pay for or receive payment from sales on Craigslist, Offer Up, or Facebook Marketplace.

If you think you’ve been scammed, changed your PIN number immediately and contact the company and/or the FTC.

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