‘We built accounting systems from scratch’: ForwardAI wants lenders to do away with PDFs and Excel
- Lenders struggle to get at accounting information that resides in PDFs and Excel.
- A new fintech data player wants to replace that old model with real time and forward looking accounting data.
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In the early days of founding expense management software firm, SlickPie, Nick Chandi fielded calls from customers. A particular customer called in one day. She had a bill coming up but no money in the bank. She ran a small business with lots of customers, but this time a series of unfortunate events happened. A couple of customers were late paying and she had to take a big expense. Now, she was in a position where she would miss a payment.
This customer turned to Chandi. She didn't need much -- she was short less than $20,000. But she was stuck. Banks didn't want to lend to her because her needs were modest. It costs a financial institution the same amount to underwrite a $20,000 loan as it would a $250,000. She told Chandi that because she uses his accounting software, he knew her situation better than anyone. She joked, would he lend her some money?
That interaction inspired Chandi's newest venture, ForwardAI. Recognizing the power of accounting data in lending decisions, he started working on building an initial product, a cash flow planning tool. He talked to lenders about what they could do with this data. ForwardAI offers FIs easier and cleaner access to their customers' data sitting in QuickBooks or Xero. They can get this data themselves, sure -- when a customer applies for a loan, banks and non-bank lenders primarily use PDFs and Excel to build their credit models asynchronously from accounting data. The difference is that ForwardAI provides real time and forward looking data so lenders can make decisions on the fly.
"Lenders always have checkboxes," Chandi said. "They typically ask for sales numbers and how long a business has been in business. But they look in PDF or Excel for this data and try to reconcile that with bank statements -- it’s manual and time consuming. We automate it so that the funding can be faster."
The company was only incorporated in February of this year, but already Chandi says there's interest in real time and forward looking accounting data. One lender he spoke to had recently declined a loan for a specific borrower. During their conversation, the lender remarked that the borrower was close to qualifying. If the lender had ongoing access to data, it possibly could have helped them eventually issue a loan.
For now, ForwardAI has integrations with Quickbooks, Xero, Freshbooks and Sage. It plans on offering 50 more such integrations with accounting software in the future.
Fundbox was one of a few lenders that didn't entirely turn off the lending spigot during the throes of the pandemic in 2020. While other firms were groping in the dark, struggling to understand the impact COVID-19 had on their borrowers, Fundbox kept lending because it had access to accounting data.
"Our technology is the same tech Fundbox uses -- we’re trying to make it available to banks," he said. "We bring deep data and customer analytics that others aren’t doing."
Lenders have a couple of challenges working with accounting data. One is that it requires a business to manually input their data. That leads to garbage in, garbage out. And then there's fraud, outright manipulation of accounting data. So, lenders typically cross-reference accounting data with banking data to verify the numbers. ForwardAI has that built in to its data platform.
"It's common for a business to have a single primary account with a top 5 bank and then have a smaller account with another FI or Stripe or Square. We can corroborate between everything -- underwriters do this manually with PDFs, OCR and then Excel. We automate it."
With a previous exit under Chandi's belt, he's self funding the company for now. He believes ForwardAI has what it takes to get to $1 million in sales this way. He eventually plans to bring in institutional investors later this year.
The company has a pilot underway with an asset based lender. For that type of lending, accounts receivables are a major input in the underwriting decision, particularly how AR ages over time, which ForwardAI provides in its software. This pilot customer also licenses its own technology to other big lenders. ForwardAI could be used in those institutions, as well.
ForwardAI's pricing model is straight forward like other SaaS firms. It charges customers a fee based on the number of borrowers they connect to the software. For firms that don't want to use ForwardAI's APIs, there's also a self-standing data portal they can use.
For now, Chandi and ForwardAI are reaching out to financial institutions to pitch them on the story and the value of real time and forward looking accounting data.
"Anyone can build an integration to accounting systems," he said. "But every platform is different -- they use different naming conventions for their fields and format data differently. We built accounting systems from scratch -- we know how they work and how businesses use them. We know the challenges."