Three years ago Aaron Greenspan had a hot mobile payments startup on his hands that was poised to take a bite out of the entrenched card networks.
Launched in April 2010, FaceCash signed up 25 Bay Area merchants and 500 consumers to use its novel technology, which combined mobile bar code scanning and photo identification. A Subway franchise in Palo Alto tested the service. Some suggested FaceCash could become the next blockbuster payments innovator after Jack Dorsey's Square.
Then regulators put Greenspan out of business.
In 2011, a new state law took effect that put fledgling payments companies at the mercy of the California Department of Financial Institutions. That April, the department notified Greenspan that FaceCash required a domestic money transmitter license under the new law. After a discouraging meeting with regulators in mid-June, Greenspan says, he spent weeks trying to get clear answers from the state: What steps did FaceCash have to take to get licensed? How much capital did it need?
No guidance was forthcoming. Instead, Greenspan says, a state examiner warned him to give up.
"I was literally told, 'You will go to federal prison if you don't shut down,' " he says.
While an extreme example, Greenspan's story highlights a broader problem, one that threatens to constrain innovation in financial services at a time when the industry desperately needs to catch up with changes in technology and consumer preferences.
Across the country, state money transmitter licensing requirements are potentially barring or at least slowing young businesses from entering the payments field. But the issue is especially salient in California, which is home to one of the country's biggest clusters of startups, in Silicon Valley, and has one of the toughest laws. Its requirements are opaque, outdated and inapplicable to emerging business models, the process expensive and time-consuming, critics argue.
Greenspan (no relation to Alan) is hardly the ideal poster child. With a history of making sensational claims (he's alleged that his Harvard classmate, Mark Zuckerberg, stole his ideas for Facebook) and filing lawsuits (naming more than a dozen Silicon Valley investors and money services businesses in the last 12 months), he has acquired a reputation as a crank.
But when it comes to the effects of California's money transmitter law, cooler heads say Greenspan has a point.
"Is it stopping innovation? Certainly," says Bradley Leimer, the head of digital strategy at Mechanics Bank in Richmond, Calif. "Is it stopping competition to be able to provide smaller startups with the ability to move money? Absolutely."
State money transmitter regulations in general are unduly onerous for companies that pose little risk to the consumers they are ostensibly designed to protect, critics say. "You are not talking about people who are trying to set up a bank, or people that are trying to set up complex derivatives," says Dave Birch, the founding director of Consult Hyperion in the U.K. "It's really just people that are trying to send 10 bucks from Place A to Place B."
The burdens are stifling creativity at a pivotal moment for payments, warns Birch, who focuses on payments technology.
"This is a time where we need more experimentation," he says. "You have tremendously innovative people, especially in the mobile space, that need to be freed up to come up with new solutions."
California has long required licenses for foreign money transmission, but didn't require domestic money movers to obtain a license until then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Money Transmission Act, or MTA, in 2010. The law, which took effect in the beginning of 2011, also collapsed three different licenses — one for travelers check issuers, another for money order sellers and a third for foreign money transmitters — into one.
PayPal and others that already had the old kinds of licenses didn't need to reapply for the new ones. But new entrants were left to navigate a set of befuddling guidelines.
For instance, applicants must schedule interviews with California regulators before they can even put in the paperwork. And the law gives the commissioner of the Department of Business Oversight (successor to the agency that foiled Greenspan) great leeway in deciding who does, and does not, get a license. The minimum net worth for licensees is $500,000, but the exact amount required of any applicant is left to the commissioner's discretion.
If rejected, an applicant can appeal the commissioner's decision to a judge. But the appeal process can begin only if the commissioner makes a decision one way or the other. There is no rule saying a commissioner has to make a decision, though a judge can force her to.
Of the 45 applications that were filed between 2011 and the end of July, 31 licenses were issued. But a company is unlikely to apply unless it is fairly certain of success.
FaceCash never formally applied for a license. Without a clear sense of the prerequisite requirements, Greenspan says, he feared losing the nonrefundable $5,000 application fee. After shuttering FaceCash in mid-2011, he sued the state, claiming, among other things, that the department violated his right to due process by refusing to provide the information he needed to apply for a license "with a reasonable chance of approval."