It Took Three Tries, But This Entrepreneur Transformed His Struggling Startup Into A $2B Unicorn


n the spring of 2015, Jason Gardner, the founding father of Marqeta, a funds processor, left a grim board assembly and went for a stroll together with his lead investor, Arnon Dinur of 83North. Facebook had pulled the plug on a joint initiative, and Marqeta had fallen far in need of its income goal. 

Walking the streets of Emeryville, California, a small city between Berkeley and Oakland, Gardner advised Dinur that Marqeta wouldn’t final lengthy with the money it had. He wanted to purchase time. The firm moved to a weekly funds, and Gardner volunteered to chop his personal wage by 40%. “Ninety out of one hundred entrepreneurs would have asked for more money,” Dinur says. 

“I wanted to show my commitment to not only the board but the company, that I’m willing to do anything to get to the next step through determination,” Gardner says. “It’s almost like inflicting pain on yourself. . . . It gets you to understand what’s at stake here.” Two different executives additionally volunteered to slash their salaries by 40%, and the startup didn’t lay anybody off.

Four years later traders have been assembly once more at Marqeta’s workplace, now a 16-story constructing in Oakland with the corporate’s identify on it. This time the assembly’s tone was completely different. Revenue had doubled yearly since 2016, reaching near $150 million in 2018, a supply tells us. Marqeta was finalizing plans to boost not less than $250 million at a valuation of about $2 billion, almost quadrupling its worth from two years in the past.

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Jason Gardner, Marqeta’s founder, within the firm’s headquarters in Oakland. Over the previous two years, the corporate has grown from 75 to 275 staff.Timothy Archibald

Despite a tough begin, Marqeta has had the precise concept since its founding in 2010. It pursued a distinct segment within the payments-processing enterprise that had seen little innovation in over a decade: card issuing and processing, which includes deciding whether or not a debit card transaction ought to be accepted. It iterated by means of three enterprise fashions, staying frugal alongside the way in which and in the end touchdown on an open-software platform that outdoors engineers might simply plug into. It recognized Square and Instacart as future winners, recruiting them as prospects and latching on for the journey. 

Gardner, 49, is hardly the sort you’d count on to turn out to be a profitable Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Growing up in a middle-class household in New Jersey, the son of a stockbroker father and a authorized mediator mom, he had a motley assortment of jobs in highschool, from working at a thrift store to promoting tie-dyed shirts on New Jersey trains on his approach to a few of the 80 Grateful Dead live shows he attended. Although he wasn’t a coder, he preferred hanging round Radio Shack and taking aside radios and TVs. In school at Arizona State, he labored as an assistant to Senator John McCain in his early 20s however determined politics wasn’t for him. 

Later he labored in gross sales at analysis firms like Gartner, finally founding a funds startup in 2004 that allowed folks to pay hire electronically. Gardner was so brief on money over the subsequent few years that he generally put mortgage funds on his bank card. In 2007 he bought the corporate to MoneyGram for $28 million and stayed on as an govt for 2 years.

Then he began to consider new makes use of for debit playing cards. His first concept was a pay as you go loyalty card bought at grocery shops the place you may pay $50 for $55 value of things from retailers like Jamba Juice. Gardner known as it Marqeta (after a lady he and a good friend had traveled with in Prague), disregarding the truth that a advertising agency was already utilizing the identify Marketo. He raised $6 million from traders just like the Israeli VC agency 83North. 

It took him virtually two years to launch the product, as a result of he’d constructed a wholly new cost processor alongside the way in which. He opted to not companion with one of many large firms that had been doing issuing and processing for many years, like First Data or FIS, as a result of he thought going solo would give him pace and adaptability. But the loyalty card flopped. Gardner realized that it took an excessive amount of capital to scale a client retail product and that he wasn’t good at consumer-facing design. “I like the complexity of building infrastructure,” he says.

Gardner’s second enterprise product was commissioned by Facebook: a present card that you may ship to associates and was redeemable at locations like Target and Olive Garden. Facebook launched it in January 2013 however was upset within the gross sales and shut down the cardboard a few yr later.

Around this time, firms just like the communications software program maker Twilio have been beginning to let purchasers entry their expertise and customise it through utility programming interfaces, or APIs. Gardner selected that method for Marqeta’s third product and introduced it in late 2014. 

Revenue had doubled yearly since 2016, and Marqeta was finalizing plans to boost not less than $250 million at a valuation of about $2 billion, almost quadrupling its worth from two years in the past.

With Marqeta’s API, firms that wished to problem debit playing cards might authorize transactions themselves and set the factors for accepting them. “We move the system of record or ledger to our customer,” Gardner says. And firms now not wanted to individually solicit relationships with a card community (like Visa), a financial institution, a transaction processor and a plastic card producer. Marqeta had constructed these partnerships and wrapped them up in a single package deal. 

Once prospects have been arrange, Marqeta would become profitable the identical approach Visa and Mastercard do, by taking a reduce of each transaction. How a lot? Marqeta is mum, however we’re advised the common price is roughly 1% earlier than rebates to purchasers.

One of its first purchasers was DoorDash, the San Francisco meals supply firm whose hundreds of “Dashers” retrieve takeout meals from eating places on behalf of shoppers. With Marqeta, DoorDash has issued debit playing cards that don’t work until a Dasher is on the appropriate restaurant, and it received’t authorize transactions for values that exceed the shopper’s order quantity. Over the previous two years, Marqeta’s expertise has helped supply firms reduce fraud in half, to five% or much less. 

Marqeta’s Money Moves

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In 2016, Marqeta’s trajectory tilted upward. Instacart let Marqeta energy the debit playing cards its freelance supply folks used to purchase groceries. When Square determined to problem a digital debit card paired with its fast-growing money-transfer app, Square Cash, Marqeta helped it construct the product inside six weeks, moderately than the months a standard issuer-processor would have taken. Square additionally used Marqeta to create the plastic debit card it launched the next yr. 

Kabbage, a small-business lender, signed on, issuing a Marqeta-powered debit card that permit prospects spend a few of their loaned funds at retail retailers. It took Kabbage “months versus quarters” to launch the playing cards, says Kathryn Petralia, Kabbage’s president. “All traditional providers remain cumbersome.”

Two insights drove Marqeta’s success. First, as an alternative of specializing in banks as prospects—as Fiserv, Tsys and FIS have executed profitably for ­many years—it regarded sideways, instantly focusing on tech-enabled service suppliers within the new financial system. Second, by taking an API method, Marqeta sped up the setup course of and catered to firms that wish to management how digital funds are ­approved. 

In 2017 Alipay, the Chinese cost app that has greater than 900 million world customers, signed on to allow Chinese nationals to make use of the app at U.S. retailers whereas touring. Brex, the bank card startup, turned a buyer. Marqeta raised $25 million that yr from traders like Visa, Granite Ventures and 83North, whereas bringing in $70 million of income, we estimate. It doubled its workers to 160 staff.

“Payments is deceptively complex,” says Omri Dahan, Marqeta’s chief income officer. “There are a range of varied interests in the ecosystem who need to be balanced just to produce one card swipe that’s successful. . . . You have to get used to getting punched in the face every day.”

It helps to have wholesome purchasers. Square went from a $four billion market worth in 2016 to $32 billion immediately, changing into Marqeta’s largest buyer and processing greater than $5 billion in quantity by means of Marqeta final yr, estimates Brett Winton at Ark Investment Management, a big Square investor. In three years, DoorDash’s valuation has gone up tenfold to $7 billion and Instacart’s fourfold to $eight billion.

Marqeta recognized Square and Instacart as future winners, recruiting them as prospects and latching on for the journey. 

Dahan says Marqeta hunts for purchasers in massive markets which might be being disrupted. And it thinks like a enterprise capitalist. “What do we think of the company? Is it well funded? Well led? How are their engineers?”

Marqeta expects to double income once more this yr. Dahan says its purchasers are evenly unfold throughout a handful of industries, which embody lending, supply, e-commerce, journey and one he thinks is probably the most promising: digital banking. In addition to Square, which has 15 million month-to-month customers for its Cash app and is trying increasingly like a financial institution, Marqeta is working with (as but unnamed) digital-first “challenger banks” in Europe.  

What might go fallacious? FIS has APIs with options which might be much like what Marqeta provides and will make them higher if its financial institution prospects need extra. Stripe, the funds large that’s value $22.5 billion, launched a card-issuing service final yr at what’s rumored to be half Marqeta’s value.

“You can put 50 engineers on something and maybe move five times faster,” Dahan says. “But being in-market, scaling programs, learning from those programs? That is not something that can be fast-forwarded.”

For now, Marqeta has one thing else in its favor: its purchasers’ belief, which is moderately necessary in a money-handling enterprise. But there’s nothing everlasting about even this benefit, so Jason Gardner goes to be trying over his shoulder. He’s had some follow with that.

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