No More Hustleporn: What I Learned From an Income Share Agreement

Tweet by Sean Linehan

CEO @placement – on a mission to unlock human potential. Seeking coherence.

Previously VP of Product @flexport, @Cal alum

I launched an Income Share Agreement (ISA) company in 2019.

Our company survived, but our use of ISAs did not.

Overall, I think the ISA experiment has failed and is not the revolution we hoped would transform training and education.

Here's what I learned 👇

ISAs tend to have significant adverse selection problems, stemming from two sources.

First, the lack of skin in the game leads to very poor participant behavior.

Participants haven't put anything down so it's easier to not complete the program.

Also, participants judge educational success in many ways that don't trivially reduce to "make more money".

Generally, ISAs narrowly align the organization with this one specific outcome.

This new misalignment tends to cause problems for both the participant and the program.

Second, credit scores were the most predictive variable of good participant behavior for us.

But people with high credit scores tend to have better, cheaper options than ISAs.

Also, using credit scores for ISAs is... largely missing the point.

Furterhmore, consumers were consistently confused by ISAs and had a vague sense they were exploitative.

I think ISAs are less complicated than debt, but consumers don't have experience with then.

Educating the market on a new financial instrument is a big, expensive job.

The lack of legal infrastructure around ISAs leads to difficult collections-related issues.

You can't ding somebody's credit score and there aren't easy legal paths for collecting.

Are you really prepared to go to small claims court? We weren't.

On the regulatory side, there is currently a gap between the level of regulation for consumer debt & ISAs.

It is easier to offer ISAs today. But there's no reason to believe regulators will (or should) treat ISAs any different than consumer debt.

The regulatory arb will close.

Largely due to the regulatory risk, there are not mature capital markets for ISA programs to tap.

The large capital markets for credit & securitized debt packages drive costs down.

But the small number of players interested in ISA assets results in _very_ high capital costs.

Getting access to capital markets is very important to grow becuase ISA programs have an awful cash conversion cycle.

You outlay a bunch of cash upfront and get paid back over time.

If you are cash-poor like most startups, this is hard to make work without capital markets.

To recap:

1. Consumers are confused by ISAs
2. And when they take the deal, they often behave poorly
3. And when they behave poorly, you don't have great recourse
4. And there's a looming regulatory threat
5. And the financial markets aren't supportive

All of these things can be fixed. But in fixing them, we might as well just use debt instruments rather than a brand new thing.

Better than an ISA is an income-dependent loan with some minimum amount that must be paid back regardless of the program outcome.

With this setup:

1. You concede and comply with the existing regulation
2. You get access to the existing capital markets so financing costs come down
3. You can use credit reports as a way to enforce the contract so collection rates go up
4. Consumers already understand debt

And, most importantly, the consumer gets a better deal than a classical loan.

In sum, we can build better outcome alignment in our financial tools without totally throwing out the tools we already have.

Of course, there will be >0 companies that succeed using ISAs. The model isn't hopeless.

But providers of debt and fee-for-service education/training do not need to be worried about their future.

ISAs aren't the revolution we thought they would be.

@placement we wound up changing our business model completely, so none of this is really relevant to us today.

I'm sharing my lessons here so future entrepreneurs can short-circuit their learning process.

Good luck!

BTW – we now offer 1:1 career, leadership, life, and job search coaching @placement.

No ISAs because "success" looks totally different in 1:1 coaching. But our C-SAT is 99%, so it seems our customers are happy with their investment!

Check us out: