Samantha Ettus, the founder of Park Place Payments, is disrupting the credit card processing industry while remaining laser focused on giving women a path to financial independence, offering those who have left the workforce an entryway back in. And investors are taking notice. In a year where VC funding for women-led companies suffered a 27% decrease, Ettus was able to raise a $1.5 Million Seed round. Now, she’s looking ahead not just to raising her Series A later this year, but to building an entirely new industry that’s more inclusive, customer-service oriented, and essentially, more enjoyable.
Amy Shoenthal: Sam, you did the thing all founders want to do. You found an industry that’s been largely ignored, and disrupted it! Tell me how you decided to build your business.
Samantha Ettus: I was doing a lot of public speaking in the first 10 years of my career, and I spoke at a conference for the top sales organizations in the credit card processing industry, an industry that at the time I literally knew nothing about.
I got to the conference, where it seemed like every single person had arrived on a private plane except for me. And I said to someone, where are all the women? Where are the people of color? They laughed at me.
When I was on the book tour for my last book, The Pie Life, which was basically a positive framework for how to think about work life balance, I spoke everywhere from Target to Twitter, Google to General Mills. But the one group of women I could not seem to find ways to speak to were the women who had left the workforce, wanted to get back in, and had little opportunities to do so. Out of desperation, a lot of them had started selling makeup and skincare and clothing and essential oils to their friends through multi-level-marketing schemes and they weren’t even making much money.
I started wondering, why can’t these educated, really impressive people get access to real revenue generating opportunities? Then I thought back to that credit card processing industry. For those who don’t know, basically any business that accepts credit cards, whether it’s a yoga studio or a retail store, has a middleman between Amex, MasterCard, Visa, and the business. If you’ve talked to any business owner, they’re still frustrated by their payment processor. So I thought, okay, what if I could disrupt this industry with a different kind of sales force and exceptional customer service?
It clicked for me that maybe I could train this group of educated, impressive women to sell credit card processing to their local businesses — their kids’ pediatricians, their hair salon, and their favorite restaurant. So I spent 2018 going to six different cities to test the model to see if people with zero background in financial services could actually be successful selling it.
We now have 700 account executives across the country and will increase to 1200 by year’s end.
Shoenthal: Do you have to spend a lot of time explaining to people exactly what your company does?
Ettus: People always ask if we’re like Square. And we are, kind of. When you’re a small business owner, something always happens. A machine breaks, and if you can’t get a live person on the phone, you go insane. You just want it fixed right away, you’re not on your computer all day. No one is happy with a help desk that’s only online. You really need a live customer support number. Square doesn’t have that.
Reaching small businesses has been the Holy Grail, and few companies have figured out how to do it. It requires a boots on the street sales force. Park Place is a Sales-Force-as-a-Service company, taking a population of women and other demoralized groups who have been cast to the sidelines, and training them to sell to their local main street businesses and provide exceptional customer service.
Shoenthal: Where did you come up with the name Park Place? Is it a Monopoly reference?
Ettus: Yes it is, the coveted card with Park Place. Plus, I love alliteration. In our industry, the names are typically really boring. They’re like American Merchant Service, generic merchant service names. Most of our competitors will hide because they don’t want you to know their name. They offer you something, sell you something and then run away. You’ll never hear from Rick again after he’s sold you the processing.
We’re very committed to being an ethical brand with exceptional customer service. We want everyone to know our name. When we go to industry conferences, we stick out like a sore thumb. Everyone else is male, and they’re wearing button downs with gold chains. They’re definitely very different. Our account executives are former teachers, flight attendants, doctors and newscasters. We have people coming to us from every field you could imagine, who decided that they want to be trained to sell financial services to their local communities. They chose it because it’s flexible and it’s all recurring revenue.
Shoenthal: How do you do recruiting?
Ettus: We do a lot of online advertising through Google, Facebook, and Instagram. We also do a ton of regional press in different areas. We’re in 49 states, actually I think we’re now finally in our last state. We also do outreach to online universities. The thing we love about online universities is they’re filled with people who typically want to better themselves, and they just need an opportunity. They’re also super diverse in terms of population, and they’re geographically dispersed, which we really like.
Shoenthal: You also co-host a podcast with Amy Nelson, What’s Her Story, which I’m a huge fan of. How many side projects do you take on?
Ettus: What’s Her Story is co-owned by Park Place Payments and The Riveter (Nelson’s company.) Nothing I do is a side project. People are always like, what’s your next book, but my only focus right now is making this company a billion dollar company. Until that happens, I’m not working on another book. Right now I just have to stay focused on building this. What’s Her Story really helped us in many ways, for example, with recruiting. Lots of people find us through the podcast and want to sign up. So that’s been exciting. It’s been really great, because it allows us to profile all these female leaders, and it allows us to expand the network for Park Place and The Riveter. So it’s been a really synergistic brand extension for us.
Shoenthal: You just closed a $1.5 Million Seed Round. Tell me about your experience fundraising in a pandemic.
Ettus: I am so off the charts extroverted, my superpower is my networking. So when I realized I’d be fundraising from my bedroom instead of on the road or from my office, that was a scary thought. Not being able to see people in person, not being able to connect face to face, taking that tool away from me made the process incredibly difficult. It definitely made the fundraising process take so much longer than it would have, because I couldn’t just hop on a plane to San Francisco and have seven meetings in one day or go to New York and have two days of meetings. Frankly, it was harder to connect with people over Zoom and over the phone.
We were fortunate for two reasons. First, our clients are a lot of medical offices and HVAC companies and not too many in hospitality. So our sectors were not as hit hard as others were. And second, nobody wanted to touch a credit card anymore so contactless payments and online payments became a necessity for businesses, meaning they needed to upgrade, so might as well upgrade to a company that also boasted honest pricing and great service like ours.
I was concerned for the survival of small businesses and I was also concerned for my team. We were used to being together every day and had no experience working remotely but we needed to shift gears fast. My team adapted by having daily 9:30 Zoom meetings that really have changed our culture for the better. It is a great way to start the day and we have made them more efficient over time. Last, our Account Executives had to adjust to selling from home. Meaning they were no longer going door to door. They were selling via email and text and phone. That was a huge and challenging adjustment for them.
Shoenthal: What’s next for Park Place?
Ettus: Our Series A raise later this year, which I’m looking forward to doing in person. We’ll also grow to meet the 1,000 Account Executive mark later this month. We’re just growing steadily.
Shoenthal: What do you see as the future of your industry?
Ettus: The user experience. We spend so much time talking about the technology in credit card processing and that is super important, but we need to focus on the business’ experience with their payment provider. That’s why we exist, to transform an aspect of the business from one that has been a notorious pain in the ass to one that is actually enjoyable.
From a workplace perspective, things need to remain flexible. Flexible workplaces are so essential to the future of the economy and to our mental health. Being a good leader means trusting your employees and being a good employee means being trustworthy.