Philippines SME lending startup First Circle raises $26M ahead of regional expansion

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    This year has been a breakout one for micro-financing startups in Southeast Asia, which are becoming among the most funded within the region’s fintech space. Next in line to raise capital is First Circle, an SME-lending service that’s based in the Philippines which has pulled in $26 million as it begins to consider regional expansion options.

    The new financing is led by Venturra Capital with participation from Insignia Ventures Partners, Hong Kong’s Silverhorn Investment Advisors, and Tryb Group. First Circle has previously raised $2.5 million, including a $1.3 million seed round 18 months ago.

    The company was founded by Irish duo CEO Patrick Lynch, formerly of CompareAsia Group and CTO Tony Ennis, previously with WebSummit, and the goal is to help small businesses scale by offering them short-term loans. The Philippines is an impact market since SMEs account for 99.6 percent of the country’s business, 65 percent of its workforce and a staggering 35 percent of national GDP. Yet, there’s no formal credit scoring system and existing loan coverage is patchy at best.

    Most of First Circle’s loans are often transaction or working capital, such as financing to take on a new deal for a client with a guaranteed financial return that requires a fairly brutal wait of 90-120 days, Lynch told TechCrunch in an interview.

    “A lack of access to capital is a problem that faces tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of businesses in the Philippines,” he explained. “Emerging markets are not capital developed, and our business model is quite different from the p2p lender model in that we do share risk with the investors.”

    First Circle sources capital from third parties, including asset managers and family offices, who take half of the loan book. Unlike the P2P model, which is going through a spectacular crash in China, First Circle is invested in all deals and as such it does thorough due diligence before committing. However, after processing over $100 million in deals to “thousands” of businesses, Lynch said that the company has built up data on a number of suppliers and business partners to the point that a “significant” chunk of applications can be processed without human involvement.

    For example, if a loan application is seeking financing in order to do a dealing with Multinational X, First Circle can move quickly if it has dealt with the application before or it has issued loans to other partners who have done business with Multinational X.

    “Over time, as we acquire more customers, the degrees of separation are collapsing over time,” Lynch said.

    First Circle’s executive team including co-founders Tony Ennis (third from left) and Patrick Lynch (middle)

    The fact that there is little data available via a credit bureau makes things challenging. The need to built a solution from the ground up necessitates great time, cost and other resources but it can have major benefits, as First Circle is beginning to enjoy.

    “Many new providers of financial services are rating customer for the first time. In 80 percent of the time in our case, it’s the first time our customer will have had a formal relationship” with a financial organization, Lynch explained. “That provides an opportunity, if done correctly, to provide a strong relationship and be a part of their future success for a long time.”

    Indeed, the First Circle CEO said that, to date, customers will typically take a loan of around $10,000, but the average will balance is $30,000 — meaning that there are three loans active. That reflects the transactional nature of the loans the startup is issuing, but of course more business means more data, stronger relationships and a higher chance of word-of-mouth recommendations.

    First Circle is staying focused on the Philippines for now, but Lynch revealed that there are plans to expand to other parts of Southeast Asia, the region of nearly 650 million consumers. This round may help the company “put a foot in a second market,” Lynch said, but it is likely to go out and raise more money to push its regional expansion plan next year.



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