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Rob Khazzam, CEO and co-founder of Float, joined the company in March after leading Uber’s expansion in several European markets and Canada.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

U.S. private capital giant Tiger Global Management is making a big bet on one of Canada’s fastest-growing startups, Float Financial Solutions, a Toronto company aiming to change how Canadian small and medium-sized businesses spend their money.

Tiger Global is leading a US$30-million investment into Float Financial just five months after the startup raised US$2.8-million in a seed financing equity deal. It’s at least the sixth Canadian investment this year by Tiger, which is renowned for offering fast-growing tech companies big dollars at rich valuations, and a willingness to close deals rapidly.

“We were impressed by how rapidly the Float team delivered a product that customers love after launching earlier this year and believe the company is well positioned” for years of growth, Tiger Global partner Alex Cook said in a statement.

Float Financial is leading a pack of new entrants trying to bring financial alternatives to Canadian small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that say they are underserved by big banks. They are following the lead of more established U.S. upstarts including Brex Inc., Ramp Business Corp. and DivvyPay LLC, which have achieved valuations into the billions of dollars by offering their SMB clients corporate credit and charge cards, backed by software to manage spending.

Other startups betting Canada also has a similar potential include Toronto’s Caary Capital Ltd., and Jeeves Inc. of New York, which launched in Canada last week. Corporate cards are useful for smaller enterprises, but can be hard to get from traditional lenders because of difficulties underwriting credit risk of unproven companies.

Fintechs challenge big banks’ grip on credit-card market

Float Financial is off to a fast start. It had five customers in March, processing less than US$10,000 in payments that month. Now, the company says, it has hundreds of customers and processes US$1-million-plus weekly.

The new funding reflects that torrid expansion, valuing the 15-person company at 10 times the level it achieved in June. “The traction we’re having is pretty explosive,” said Rob Khazzam, Float Financial’s chief executive officer. Mr. Khazzam joined the company in March after leading Uber’s expansion in several European markets and Canada. “At Uber I saw really fast growth. But this has blown away my expectations.”

Joining Tiger Global in the round are several big-name Canadian tech founders including past Float Financial backers Michael Hyatt, Michael Katchen and Kirk Simpson; private equity stalwart Brent Belzberg; Russ Jones, former chief financial officer at Shopify Inc.; and Golden Ventures, Garage Capital, Susa Ventures and Tiny Capital.

“It’s one of the fastest growing companies we’ve ever seen,” said Chad Byers, general partner with San Francisco-based Susa, a backer of U.S. online trading startup Robinhood Markets Inc.

Float has “nailed product market fit,” said Mr. Hyatt, one of Float’s first investors. “They have a product that everybody wants and their client acquisition is extremely fast.

A major selling point: The cards Float Financial and its rivals offer do not require personal guarantees from business owners. To sidestep the underwriting risk banks face, Float uses a prepaid model: Clients fund an account upfront and can create, control or destroy any number of physical and virtual cards, including single-use cards for specific purchases. Its software makes it possible to set automatic spending controls and receipt collection, and integrates with accounting programs.

Caary Capital also offers corporate cards and similar software, but with a key difference: It offers credit based on a client’s perceived risk level at interest rates in the low- to mid-teens. Caary, which raised $4.6-million in seed funding last summer, partners with data aggregator Flinks to access clients’ transaction data and combine it with other information sources to make credit decisions. Caary plans to bring on up to 100 new clients over the coming months and fully launch in early 2022. “For us, the strategy is really more building that longer-term credit relationship,” Caary CEO John MacKinlay said.

The model Float Financial and Caary Capital are emulating has worked south of the border: Last week, TechCrunch reported that Brex had signed a deal to raise US$300-million, valuing the four-year-old company at US$12.3-billion. Brex last raised US$425-million in April. Tiger Global was the lead investor.

While many Canadian startups look to global markets to expand, Mr. Khazzam and Mr. MacKinlay believe there is enough of a market at home to grow larger, with hundreds of thousands of potential clients. Their research suggests up to 80 per cent of smaller businesses would like to use corporate credit cards, but only a fraction do.

Dan Park, a former Uber colleague of Mr. Khazzam’s who runs online auto sales startup Clutch Canada Inc., said since his company added Float Financial it has issued cards to three-quarters of its 160-person staff. They collectively run about 100 transactions a day through the system. “We can create a card for each different expense item and have that seamlessly integrate with our expense and reporting systems,” said Mr. Park, who is also a Float Financial investor.

So far, Float Financial and its peers are filling a niche rather than disrupting a segment of traditional lenders. But they plan to expand their offerings to areas such as instalment lending, and Mr. MacKinlay said Caary Capital is open to partnering with big financial institutions.

As competition increases, these companies could also become acquisition targets for U.S. rivals or Canadian banks. “Do we see a takeout, potentially? For sure we’re open to anything,” Mr. MacKinlay said. “Right now we’re focused on building a great business.”

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