MBA Mondays: Revenue Models – Transaction Processing

Transaction Processing is not a "net native" business model. There have been businesses built up around processing transactions for a long time. But the Internet and Mobile present some challenges in processing transactions and therefore there are opportunities to build substantial businesses around helping companies process transactions.

If you look at the Revenue Model Hackpad, you will see that there are a number of different kinds of transaction processing businesses:

The first four examples in the hackpad are related to credit card processing, the next three are related to banking transactions, then there is fulfillment which is physical logistics, then the next three relate to the world of telephony, and the last one is related to internet and mobile platforms.

So you can see that transaction processing is a business model that can be applied to a number of different types of transactions. And certainly our revenue model hackpad is not comprehensive. So I am sure there are many other forms of transaction processing businesses in the online world.

The thing that all of these forms of transaction processing have in common is the processor handles a transaction that was generated by another product or service and provides some form of completion service and charges a fee for doing so. That could be processing a credit card transaction, handling a banking transaction, shipping something to someone, completing a call originated on another network, or distributing a third party app on an internet or mobile platform.

For financial transactions, the fees are generally small, typically in the 2-4% range. For banking transactions, the fees are often much smaller than that because the credit and fraud risks are lower.  For logistics (shipping and handling), the fees vary but relate to the costs of providing the service. For telephony, the fees are generally expressed per minute or per message and are generally low but can be high in certain markets. Platform distribution fees are the outlier as they are often very significant, Apple charges a 30% cut in its app store.

For the most part, the transaction processing business model is all about scale. You process billions of transactions and take a few percent of the total transaction value. PayPal processed $145bn of transactions in 2012 and generated $5.6bn in revenue. Out of that $5.6bn, PayPal has to cover all its costs including processing fees to other transaction processors, customer service, fraud prevention, fraud losses, technology and development, and several others. I am certain that PayPal makes a very nice profit off of that $5.6bn of revenue but it is probably on the order of $1-2bn, which is in the range of 1% of the total transaction volume. This is a business model of pennies on the dollar, literally.

One of the challenges of this business model is that the fixed costs required to process transcations can be significant and you will operate a loss until you can get to scale. You can see that by looking at how much capital Square has raised to date. Crunchbase has it at $341mm. Now Square is one of the most exciting new companies created in the past five years and is executing incredibly well. But it has taken hundreds of millions of dollars to get where it is today. That's what I am talking about. You had better be prepared to fund the costs of ramping to scale if you want to be in this kind of business.

In general, I like these kinds of businesses a lot once they reach scale, but am cognizant of the costs of building them. They are not for the faint of heart.