Episode 12

Neon Founder Megha Agarwal On Simplifying Buy Now Pay Later

In this episode of Rise of the Next, she explains her approach to scoring customers looking for ease of pay and interest-free loans.
Megha Agarwal

Picture courtesy of Neon

Shereen Abdulla

Podcast Host

Published

27.05.22

Megha Agarwal came to the U.S. in 2014 from India to attend the University of Chicago Booth School of Business before working in fintech and founding Neon at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Her company allows users to “buy now pay later” for essential recurring bills, such as rent, utilities, and insurance on one platform. It also lets consumers make payments in installments and free of interest. 

In this episode of Rise of the Next, Megha explains how she’s able to take on that risk. Her customer base is split between those who want the convenience of making bill payments in one place, and the other half signing up for a credit line. 

While she’s focused now on the U.S., she has her sights set on India and other countries as well. 

Megha, who coded Neon’s website in the early days with her co-founder Aveedibya Dey, wants to encourage more women to code and join her team. 

Subscribe here to episodes of Rise of the Next on major streaming platforms.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Shereen Abdulla

Megha, it’s wonderful to have you on Rise of the Next. Welcome on the show!

Megha Agarwal

It’s great to be here, Shereen. Thanks for having me.

Shereen Abdulla

My absolute pleasure. Megha, tell us a little bit about yourself and describe what Neon does.

MEGHA INTRODUCES HERSELF AND NEON

Megha Agarwal

Quick background on me, I am an engineer and MBA, by education. I grew up in India. I completed my Bachelor’s back in India, and then I moved to the US about, I would say, around 2014. Here, I went to Chicago Booth for a full-time MBA program. Mostly, in terms of work experience, I have been working in FinTech ever since. I have worked for a company that was in the payments processing space and then I have worked for a lending company, a lending startup. I’ve been mostly building lending products, like credit cards and personal loans, before I decided to build Neon — which brings me to Neon. So, Neon is the buy-now-pay later for essential, recurring bill payments, such as rent, utilities, and insurance. We enable consumers to make payments and installments free of interest. 

HOW MEGHA CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR NEON

Shereen Abdulla

How did you come up with the idea?

Megha Agarwal

We are solving a very fundamental problem, that of bill payments being stressful. If you want to buy a pair of headphones, today, you can simply go to Amazon, click a button and have these headphones be delivered to your doorstep. On the other hand, we do not have this simplified, one-click experience for bills that we have to pay every single month, for a lifetime. So for instance, if I forget to pay my rent, I would be charged $50 in late fees, and this tends to be really stressful for me. And, if you think about it, an average consumer, they just want to pay their bill and not be charged any fees or interest. That doesn’t happen today. So, we started looking at the typical lending products that consumers were using and we noticed that most consumers would use an app, maybe, to keep track of their bills in one place, and combine that with a payment method, something to actually make that payment. That could be a debit card, or a bank account, or a credit card. However, when it comes to credit cards, typical lending products, there is a lot of jargon associated with them. When you look at these products, it almost starts feeling like you have a very stressful problem.

HOW NEON COMPARES TO ITS COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE

Shereen Abdulla

How is Neon different than these existing apps that consumers are using right now?

Megha Agarwal

The one thing that is different here is that we are doing it all for you on a single platform. So, you don’t have to be using different products or different apps. You can come to Neon, you can set your bills with us, and you can just forget about it. So, when a user comes into Neon, we ask them to sign up for Neon and if they get approved for a credit line, it’s very simple for them. In that, we say: just connect all the bills that you want to pay with us, and from that point onwards we will go into their utility portals and rent portals, and we will just pick up the relevant details. So, we will show you what your rent amounts are, or what your bill amounts are, what your payment due dates are, so that you don’t have to log into these different portals. And then, because you get this credit line built into the system where you don’t have to worry about, “Okay, now I can keep track of my bills, but how do I actually pay them.” We do that for you too. Let’s say you were approved for a $1,000 credit line at the beginning of the month, you pay us back $500 at the end of the month and then $500 on the 15th of the next month. It’s, kind of, replacing that complicated structure where if you were to use a credit card, you want to understand a lot more about the minimum balance, and then there is a statement balance, and what happens if you pay  a minimum balance. And more essentially, I think, we’re giving users this platform where they can just set it and forget it.

NEON’S VALUE PROPOSITION

Shereen Abdulla

So, in terms of the forgetting about them part, is there any type of a late payment that the consumers would incur if, let’s say, the funds were not there in their bank accounts?

Megha Agarwal

We have been on the other side of these things as consumers and we have not really liked that experience. Maybe if you just forgot about it, maybe if you didn’t know about it, it was just a mistake, we don’t want to charge you fees. So, in some ways, we have been more, I would say, preventative there in that we would check your bank account balance. Even though we put your bills on auto pay, we never just debit the amount on the payment due date, we go and we check your bank account balance. If we feel like you don’t have the money that we need from you, we will not make a debit, we will send you an email or a text message and then we will notify you of that and we will give you the opportunity to maybe move funds from your bank account, if that was the case. 

Shereen Abdulla

If then the consumer is not able to make the payment do you then charge them a fee?

Megha Agarwal

We do charge a fee if you’re late on your payments. Although the fee is, I would say, typically one-fifth of what you would get hit with if you were using a regular credit card and/ or just making that payment yourself. Let’s say if you forgot a rent payment, like I said, it’s $50 in the lease. Sometimes, that’s $100, or more. 

There’s an interesting story behind it — when we started out, we didn’t have a fee. We didn’t want to put a fee, and we had no late fees. Even in the cases where people didn’t have sufficient balances, we wouldn’t charge them a fee, we’d just give them time. However, we recognized that, in some days, we were creating a moral hazard for consumers. If there’s no penalty for you, you may have no incentive at all to pay us back. Maybe you have competing priorities, and maybe because we are the only ones out there that don’t charge you a fee. Maybe this is a payment that gets deprioritized. And then, if you think about it, we, as a business, we are essentially lending money. We have a debt facility that is just a big loan that we have, from which we are giving out loans to users. For us, the loan doesn’t come free, either. So, we had to think about what is the right way that we can make the unit economics work for the business, but still not come out as predatory to the users or impose unnecessary fees [on] them. And, in that sense, what we do is we try to go out — we send you payment reminders, we tell you, “Hey, you have a payment due.” Even on the payment due date, if you cannot complete your payment, we will give you the opportunity to come back and to complete those payments. Maybe add another bank account, you can automatically reschedule payments. But, if it is really one of those situations where you need more time, then we do take a small fee from you, and our experience so far has been really amazing. When you know that you were otherwise going to get hit with $100 in fees, you’re not going to really mind. It’s a small fee that you might have to pay one time because you understand that we have tried everything that we could in our capacity.

NEON’S UNDERWRITING METHODOLOGY

Shereen Abdulla

Megha, you mentioned that when a customer first comes onto your platform that they would first need to be approved by Neon. I’m curious, what are the criteria you use to evaluate whether a customer can get on your platform, or otherwise? 

Megha Agarwal

This is where, again, we are taking a very different approach. Typically, the word — the industry term — for having a criteria that you use to evaluate customers is underwriting. You have, basically, underwriting models in place. It’s one way to say that users are like companies.

Financial institutions, they’re looking at user data. Traditionally, this user data used to be credit scores. Again, we have worked in the legacy financial institutions and I think credit scores or credit history, which is the number of factors that go into determining your credit scores, that is where most financial institutions, the legacy ones, would start getting information on the users and trying to screen them. However, we realized that data alone is not sufficient. So, a lot of users like us — we are immigrants from a different country, they come to the US — don’t have a credit history. There could be other users that are thin file.

Shereen Abdulla 

Megha, what does thin file mean? Are you referring to people with no credit history who may not be immigrants?

Megha Agarwal

Yeah, so no or very little credit history. So, thin file just means — you think about it like a file, where you have a lot of credit data for certain users, that file is really thin. So, essentially when you’re just starting out, you have no credit history. Just getting started, you want to get your first credit card, you haven’t taken out credit. So, there is not much data that lenders can use for you in order to determine whether or not they want to approve you for a credit line.

Part of the reason is, also, that there is tons of untapped data. We are living in a world where we have access to so much more data. The things that we do, in [the] case of Neon, and really, again, I try to differentiate this — make it a little bit more holistic and inclusive — is that we’re bringing in data from bank accounts. Again, I wouldn’t say that this is very revolutionary — companies have been doing that for the last 5 to 10 years.

Shereen Abdulla

What type of companies?

NEON ON OTHER PLAYERS IN THE ALTERNATIVE CREDIT UNDERWRITING SPACE 

Megha Agarwal  

I would say, the newer lending companies. You may see them use a typical Plaid connection to just connect to users’ bank accounts and just get information on their income expenses and savings.

Shereen Abdulla

Beyond the credit score, or in conjunction to the credit score? 

Megha Agarwal  

It depends; it could be both, or it could be just certain companies want to do away with credit scores and they just want to look into the bank account data. However, the one thing that I feel we are in a very unique position to do — apart from just looking at the credit scores or just looking at the bank account data — we do connect to their bank accounts, we do get those bank account data, we can also get data on their utility bill payments.

You remember when I was telling you, you come into our platform, and you connect your utility accounts with us — that’s a unique, I would say, opportunity for the user to share that data with us. They can say, “Oh, you know what, I don’t have enough traditional credit data but I still have good habits.” Ultimately, what you’re trying to determine is that you’re responsible, that you can pay us back in time. If we can get that data on, your utility bill payments, maybe your rent payments that you have been making on time (possibly for months or for years), we can use that data in order to qualify these users. The reason that this data has not been used is because it’s very messy and complicated. There is no easy way to just fetch this data, especially if you’re thinking from the perspective of how do people use data when they’re building credit screening models. They need data that is uniform, maybe you need to clean up a lot of data. Everyone has that data. Maybe it’s incomplete, maybe it’s in different formats, maybe it’s not easy to access. So, we are in this unique position where we can get this data from the users and then we can use it in conjunction with other data points. And then, that allows us to approve users who may typically not have enough credit history and they may not be able to get approved, otherwise. So, in that sense, it allows us to be a little bit more holistic, in some ways.

We have more data, than traditionally players would have. So, we can still make really good decisions. In fact, I would say better decisions than an average player would be able to make, because we have more data now to feed into a model — an underwriting model.

Shereen Abdulla  

An average player meaning a traditional bank?

Megha Agarwal  

Yes.

Shereen Abdulla

The incumbents — what about other buy-now-pay-later platforms? How’s the way Neon screens different than the way, let’s say, affirm would screen? Or if they screen at all — I don’t think they do, right?

Megha Agarwal

I feel, as I said, again — depends on the specific players that you’re talking about. But, I think, this was under a lot of scrutiny last year where people realized that a lot of these players that did not have an underwriting model at all — or, even if they did have something, to the best of my knowledge, it was very preliminary. It wasn’t a lot of data that they’re looking into or doing the deep dive.

I’ve applied for products where I didn’t have to really provide any data at all, and I was approved for a product.

MEGHA ON THE BUY-NOW-PAY-LATER INDUSTRY

Shereen Abdulla  

A lot of these buy-now-pay-later companies have become unicorns over the last couple of years, particularly since the onset of covid; so, why is it then that, in spite of this, people are using them, and investors are investing in them, and they’re becoming quite a popular model for payments? 

Megha Agarwal

I think the reason consumers are using these newer players is because they’re removing that friction that I was talking about. I’m biased to think that when you’re thinking about the traditional lending products, there could also be higher barriers to entry. For the same reason that lending companies have a credit model in the first place — which, again, mind you, it’s not a bad thing to have a credit model, but it’s a bad thing to have a credit model that hasn’t really been changed in the last few years, where the approach hasn’t been, I would say, revolutionized. Maybe there have been changes. Credit models tend to be iterative, you keep on changing them over the lifetime of your product, it’s not something that you set. But, if you’re not getting more data into the system, I feel it’s hard to have a better credit screening model. So, again, if you’re just talking from a data perspective, maybe the incumbents have actually dealt with their credit models for a longer time. Maybe they have a better credit model in place because they have gone through so many iterations. But, as far as you’re feeding the same data, you cannot get drastically different results. And so, I think, in some ways, the reasons that consumers wanted to adopt these products, the buy-now-pay-later products, was because: one, they could very easily access something, they didn’t have to go through a long process of an application or even just waiting for something to be approved for them. It was available at the point of checkout. I think it’s a real thing — that’s what we feel doesn’t exist for bill payments for you. There is no one click or no click option for bill payments. Obviously, people want something that’s easier to use and more simplified, and I think that’s what these companies did.

Shereen Abdulla

I’m curious, Megha, you founded Neon during the pandemic — how much did that play a role?

Megha Agarwal 

It just coincided, if I’m being honest. We were getting ready for a launch and then a pandemic hit. It was almost out of nowhere and what we saw was a very high demand for our product, and then we [had] thousands of users on a waitlist, mostly because, I think, users wanted some sort of a safety net. Certain people that were laid off, maybe they lost their jobs — that was a really bad position to be in, if you didn’t have enough in savings. Also, I think, it really changed the mindset for an average consumer and that really helped us because people just wanted some sort of a safety net. Even if you’re responsible, even if you have made all your bill payments on time, it wasn’t bad to have something like Neon be in your arsenal of how you make payments because then you could get smooth payments. So, rather than seeing some fluctuations or paying for bills at different points in the month, we really simplified the process for them and we said, “Just plan to have money; hopefully, synced with your paycheck.” [We] have two payments, these are really simple to plan for and it helps users plan for this. So, over time they get a hang of, “Oh, this is what my payments are going to look like and this is the amount of money that I need to have in my bank account.”

We like to say that credit is the reason that a lot of consumers like to start trying Neon, it’s the reason why they put their foot in the door. But, we also have a lot of users that really don’t need credit. They have their credit cards and they’re good to go; they have a lot of savings and bill payments are still not very convenient for them. And there are lots of users who would just say, “Hey, I forgot this bill payment.”

NEON’S TARGET CUSTOMERS

Shereen Abdulla

You know, on that note, I was actually about to ask — everyone’s got bills to pay, but I was wondering if there was a certain demographic that you were targeting? 

Megha Agarwal

We get this a lot. People think that — well, I would not say everyone, but there are definitely some people who may think that, “Okay, so the users that are coming, they possibly don’t have the money to pay for their bills.” That’s not how lending products work; if you’re building a lending product, you should know that people — if they don’t have money at all to pay for this product, you’re not helping them, you’re just putting them into a cycle of debt.

But, going back to your question, we actually have users — I would say, we have a good mix of users. More than 50%, or 50%, that are just into this for the value proposition of Neon, that are saying, “Bill payments is stressful. I just want to never have to do this again for myself.” What we are delivering is almost a no-click experience; it’s not even one click, really — you come, you set your bills with us, and everything is taken care of for you. We’ll tell you as we pay your bills.

So, half of our users are typically just for the convenience piece of it. I would say, they’re too busy to worry about their bills and they just want someone to take care of their bills. And the other half of the users, obviously, they’re in for the credit line. They can benefit from having a little bit of that cash infusion in case their paycheck arrives late, or in case there is some sort of fluctuation that happens in the amount of money that comes into their bank account, or goes out of their bank account from month-to-month. We do have those users, still. But, again, even for those users — I feel some of these things are very temporary. Maybe, people losing jobs during the pandemic, it was very temporary. And so, launching at that time, we were thinking are these people going to stay or are they just going to leave us? And are they going to say, “Thank you for helping me during this time, but I don’t need to use you anymore?” I’m glad to tell you that almost didn’t happen for us, people stayed for the value, for the convenience or the simplicity that we offer, and we deliver.

Shereen Abdulla

And how do you hedge your risk, when it comes to the worst? Let’s say, people not being able to pay back what they owe Neon.

Megha Agarwal

Another great question. So, I think, this is where us having worked in the lending industry and having seen this before really helps us, Because, we can go into this process, a little bit more confident and knowing that we can deal with this. There are two ways, I would say, that companies can look at this  risk problems, or think about how not to lose out money when they are lending money to the users. I think, your top-line defense should be just good underwriting models. So, [if] you have a lot of data today, you should be able to leverage that data in order to make a determination on whether or not the credit line amount that you’re approving this user for — whether or not they can pay you back. But, there are also a lot of things that you can do once the user starts using your product. It’s not a problem, generally, if you’re building lending products, that users go late. Defaults are not always bad and you shouldn’t be thinking about, “Oh, what if this person defaults?” Defaults are fine; what you’re trying to avoid, really, is a situation where a consumer just never pays you back. I think,  the industry term for it is, “charges off.” So that means, what happens if a consumer goes late? And I think that, again —  Avee and I, we have both worked extensively —

Shereen Abdulla

Avee being the Co-founder, right?

MEGHA ON LEVERAGING HER AND HER CO-FOUNDER’S EXPERIENCEs TO BUILD NEON

Megha Agarwal

Yeah, my Co-founder. So, Avee has actually worked at Capital One and Discover, the biggest banks in the US. We have been part of teams that think about how we can help the consumers when they go late on their bill payments. Can we help them reschedule their payment to a later time? Can we give them some sort of payment plan? Typically, when you have products where — you have, maybe, some sort of interest, there are various levers that you can pull. You can give them more time, you can reduce their payments, you can pull these levers in any direction. I think we have been always thinking about this from the consumer perspective. We want to think about, “Hey, really what helps the consumer in this case?” Generally, you will notice [that] if you provide the right things to the consumers, they will come back and they will pay you back.

There’s always going to be someone who would not pay you back, that’s just part of the game. Before you start doing this, you should know it. But, I think there’s a little bit of an iterative process where you can go back and you can correct your models, and you can say, “Hey, what is it that we didn’t see and can we get better data into the funnel in order to be able to just not get into this loop again?”

I think the other thing is, you have, basically, a model where you want to account for those losses and you want to make sure that you’re still able to be profitable. Then, in that sense, we have not just thought about the traditional sources of how we make money, we have also thought about, can we get creative? Can we do things that other financial products don’t do?

Shereen Abdulla

Such as?

Megha Agarwal

We partner with a company that lowers bills for the users, that would actually go and talk to your utility company, or telecom, or your internet providers and they will negotiate your bills for you. They can save you money on the bills. So, again, consumers on our platform, they don’t have to lift a finger, we will just show you, once you have these bills connected with us, what kind of bills can you pay with us or what are the kinds of bills that you can get savings on. You can click a button [and] we will go do all the negotiations for you; and, if we save you money, we keep a portion of the savings that we get you for the first year on all your bills. Otherwise, you don’t have to pay us anything.

MEGHA ON DIVERSITY

Shereen Abdulla 

Megha, what are some of the other challenges that you faced building Neon?

Megha Agarwal 

Startups are all about growing fast and one of the things that I feel we have been doing a lot for the last few months, I would count it as a challenge and maybe more like an ongoing challenge, is hiring. So, for us, it’s important that we are able to attract and retain the best talent. The market has changed drastically over the last few months, or years, with the likes of covid coming into the picture — preferences changing, people wanting to work remote versus people not wanting to work remote. So, we have thought about what we can provide from our end to the workforce, such that they feel that they’re happy and productive, and the answer for us, it seems, is having remote teams and giving our teams the flexibility to choose maybe not just where they work from but also when they want to work.

I think it’s very important, especially, because it also allows us to hire and retain a more diverse workforce. And that’s the other thing that I think is more of an ongoing challenge for me, personally, because I have not — me and my co-founder, we have thought a lot about what building a diverse workforce means. When you say diverse, maybe you’re thinking about can I get people to have equal representation, and you’re thinking in terms of cultural backgrounds, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation. However, I think, one of the things that’s very close to my heart is not just having equal representation, but also having equal representation across functions.

I haven’t seen as many women in technical roles as I have seen men in technical roles, but I’m a technical Co-founder. In the early days, during the Pre-seed stage where it was just  me and my Co-founder, we sat and we actually coded the website ourselves. I have, since then, been really trying to get more and more women who want to code, who are coding, to come be a part of our team. I’ve even spoken to graduates — I would say, people who are doing their masters, women who are doing their masters — they were telling me these stories about how even though they might be starting in a technical field, they might just pivot somewhere in their careers because they don’t see the path. It happens iteratively for girls who are into technical fields — they go into work, and they’re like, “I can’t see the VP of Engineering being a woman.” If I’m being honest, I haven’t seen the VP of Engineering be a woman for a Seed-stage startup. From the limited data that I have, of course, but I have never seen that.

NEON’S INTERNATIONAL EXPANSION PLANS

Shereen Abdulla 

It’s wonderful that Neon wants to make an impact on this ESG front. Now on the point of remote and diverse teams, do you plan on launching in any other markets? 

Megha Agarwal  

Yes, we do.

Shereen Abdulla

Which ones?

Megha Agarwal

Right now, we are focused on just capitalizing on this demand in the US market. Hopefully, not too far in the future, once we can cater to the demand and there is a huge demand in the US market. Right now, I think, especially at the stage where we are at, we think focus is a great thing. And so, we are focused on just expanding here and being a prominent major player in the US, first. But, once we do that, there are a couple of markets really that are on the top of my mind. It comes from two sources, we already have users that find us on Google, and they come to us and they ask us, “Hey, are you already available in this country?”

Shereen Abdulla

Where are they coming from? Which countries?

Megha Agarwal

We got a lot of requests from Australia.

Shereen Abdulla 

That’s interesting. Is that random to you, or does Australia make sense, somehow?

Megha Agarwal 

It does feel a little bit random, but I feel it’s because, maybe, the bill payment process is still a little bit more manual there. There are, in fact, one or two players in Australia around Seed or Series A stage that offer this; but, to the best of my knowledge, they still have this process where people have to snap a bill and then they have to upload that. And then, maybe, they can get a buy-now-pay-later product.

Shereen Abdulla  

Interesting. Any other countries?

Megha Agarwal

I would love to launch in India, someday, because we are originally from India. We already have a team in India and, every time I hire someone, there are these people who tell me, “Hey, I would love to use something like this, when are you launching in India?”

Shereen Abdulla 

Megha, with that, I want to say thank you so much for coming on Rise of the Next.

Megha Agarwal

Thank you for having me.

 

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Shereen Abdulla

Podcast Host

Shereen Abdulla has more than 12 years of experience in innovation management and entrepreneurship in the financial and tech industries. She has helped foster startup ecosystems across the Middle East to bring together founders, investors, corporations and government entities, and consulted on corporate innovation. Shereen holds a BSc from the London School of Economics and an Executive MSc from Columbia University.

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Meet the companies presenting at our 500 Global Flagship Accelerator Fall 2022 Demo Day taking place virtually on September 29 2022 at 10am PT. Register below to secure your spots!
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Ankita Vashistha
Podcast
Episode 18

StrongHer Ventures’ Ankita Vashistha Is On A Mission To Back Women Entrepreneurs

With funding for female founders still dismally low, female investors aim to make a difference.
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