Editor’s Note: This story contains one of our Best Business Lessons of 2014. Check out the full list here.
Merchant service providers have earned a bad rap in recent years.
A brief browse of the Better Business Bureau’s website reveals a wide variety of complaints against leading credit card providers, often accused of overcharging, adding hidden fees, binding customers to long-term contracts, and commanding hefty fines when they try to escape.
Suneera Madhani had been working for one such company for more than two years when she began noticing a high volume of complaints. “I wrote down every time a customer had a complaint,” she says. “It was always about transparency and simplicity, and even just consistency in what they were being charged.”
But when Madhani brought these complaints to her superiors and suggested changes that might improve customer service, they expressed no interest in changing their tactics.
Madhani says she went back to the board with this request. “I want to launch a product; I want to do it within my territory and do a flat-rate plan where we open up costs to every merchant–whether they do $1 in processing or $5 million in processing,” she says. “We’ll never make any money on the percentage markup, and I don’t want to charge any ancillary fees–I just want to charge them $100 a month for the service.”
“They looked at me and told me that it was probably the stupidest idea they’ve ever heard,” she adds.
Madhani decided to quit her job in November 2013 and launched Fattmerchant in early 2014, founded on the principals of a straightforward pricing model with a flat monthly rate and no additional fees. Though her clients are not required to sign long-term contracts, no customers have left the company so far.
Since its launch, the Orlando, Florida-based company has been growing by 50% to 75% month-over-month, earning a top-three ranking by Top Credit Card Processors in November 2014, at a time when the company only had two employees.
Madhani explains customers are usually surprised to discover that the face that’s challenging the male-dominated industry belongs to a 27-year-old woman who barely stands above 5 feet tall.
“When I tell customers I’m the founder and this is my company, they look at me with deer eyes, and say: ‘Really, this is your company?” she says. “It encourages me.”
According to a 2013 Catalyst Census, women comprise only 17.6% of executive officers in Fortune 500 finance and insurance companies, but Madhani says she believes the discrepancy can’t be entirely blamed on men.
“I think women should be stepping up hundredfold,” she says. “Women are challenged–we’re not looked at the same; we’re not paid the same . . . but women need to be confident in the fact that they can do it.”
The merchant services industry is notorious for hidden fees and long-term contracts, much like the phone and insurance industries. Madhani says she believes she is ushering in a new era.
“I 100% believe the industry is changing,” she says. “If they’re not going to change they’re not going to survive.”
In the current model, a majority of providers charge a standard interchange fee on behalf of the credit card company, as well as a markup that takes a percentage of the transaction.
“Then on top of that there’s always ancillary fees, $10 statement fees, $5 IRS fees, $25 monthly minimum, equipment fees, leasing fees–you name it,” Madhani explains. “I’ve seen countless line-item fees that sometimes doesn’t even make sense.”
Fattmerchant charges the standard interchange fee from Visa and MasterCard, but offers three monthly subscription options with a transaction fee that isn’t tied to sales. Customers can choose between a $59 monthly subscription for 15¢ per transaction, a $79 plan for 10¢ per transaction, and a $99 plan for only 6¢ per transaction.
As a result, Fattmerchant is able to save its customers an average of 40% on their monthly bills.
Though she looks different than the average financial services CEO, and her company’s pricing model is different from other merchant services providers, Madhani says she has found that “different” is what many customers have been waiting for.
“She’s very knowledgeable–when you talk to her, you can see the passion she has for her business,” says Junior Smizmaul, the director of operations for Orlando-based VoIP phone service provider VOXtell. Smizmaul says VOXtell has worked with three other merchant service providers before switching to Fattmerchant.
“We could never understand all the charges, and it was never clear when they tried to explain it to us,” he says. “We were in the dark. To get our account canceled was a nightmare.”
Smizmaul explains his company has saved nearly 40% on its monthly merchant services bill since making the switch.
“It’s a great company to work with, and they’re doing a great job,” he says. “I hope they change the way the big companies work.”
Madhani says she doesn’t only want to change the merchant services industry’s pricing model. She is also determined to be a role model for women who are afraid to challenge the status quo in male-dominated fields.
“There are not a lot of women in this industry that are actually the owners of the company, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be,” she says. “The owners of my last company–both male–told me it was a stupid idea; they did not want to support it. I went and did it on my own, and I’m 100% sure they regret that decision now.”
—Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised, and residing in Toronto, covering technology, small business, automotive, and music news for every major Canadian publication you’ve never heard of. When he’s not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs, or traveling across the continent to music festivals and tech conferences, you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.