With Apple Pay Cash, Google Pay, Facebook Messenger, and Snapcash, tech industry leaders have made it easier than ever to exchange money online by integrating money transfer services with personal devices, and social media. For a time, it looked as though smartphones would become the new wallets — and then came Venmo.

Key Takeaways

  • Venmo has emerged as one of the most popular apps for electronically transferring funds, from one party to another.
  • Unlike its competitors, Venmo doesn’t charge users to send or receive more money.
  • The company, which is owned by, PayPal has issued its own plastic debit card to expand compete with other upstarts like Acorns and Zelle.

What Is Venmo?

Venmo is the mobile application that turned personal financing into a social platform.

Acquired by e-commerce company Braintree for $26.2 million in 2012 and then by PayPal for $800 million just one year later, Venmo has become one of the most popular mobile applications for “person-to-person” (P2P) payments among millennials in the United States. Of the 65% of 20-to-30 year olds who use payment apps, more than two-thirds (68%) of them use Venmo, compared to the 22% using their own bank’s mobile app.

Despite Venmo’s popularity among mobile users, the company announced in June that it would be introducing its own debit card in partnership with Mastercard MA. While the debit card is almost certainly PayPal’s most recent attempt to generate revenue from Venmo, the news comes as a big win for users, who can now use their Venmo balance to make in-person purchases anywhere MasterCard is accepted in the United States.

The move to take money transfers online, only to return to plastic a decade later, may seem surprising until you consider that Venmo’s competition has changed dramatically since launching in 2009. The contemporary Venmo competes for users with the nation’s leading banks, social media giants, and start-ups, who are in a mad scramble for the next generation of customers.

Why Venmo is Returning to Plastic

Venmo’s debit card release comes amid growing competition in the digital payment sector over the past two years. In June 2017, Apple integrated peer-to-peer payment into iMessage in the form of Apple Pay. Less than a year later in February 2018, Google responded with Google Pay, which allows for online purchases and money transfers over Gmail. Most threatening to Venmo, however, is likely Zelle.

Last September, a consortium of United States banks teamed up to launch Zelle, a money transfer app that allows customers to exchange funds between bank accounts instantly. Zelle is backed by some of the nation’s largest banks, including Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan, and Bank of America.

Zelle’s average transaction value is around $300, according to Business Insider Intelligence, and that volume spikes at the beginning of each month. (Venmo’s, by comparison, is around $10.) This may indicate that Zelle is used more often for transfers related to rent or utility payments, whereas Venmo is popular for lower-value, social purchases.

It may also be that Venmo and Zelle service different customer demographics. According to Lou Anne Alexander, group president of payment solutions at Early Warning, Gen-X and baby boomers may less inclined to use a money transfer service that pairs finances with social media and a public record of transactions. However, using a service that’s promoted by their bank might increase comfort with digital currency and high-value transfers.

With Zelle positioned to reach 27.4 million users by the end of this year, compared to Venmo’s current 22.9 million, PayPal launched what may prove to be its most aggressive response to the banking industry yet: a colorful, Mastercard-branded debit card.

According to Rachel Huber, payments analyst at Javelin Strategy and Research, nine out of 10 transactions are still carried out at the physical point of sale. By expanding into this market, PayPal can begin to bridge the gap between physical and online transactions.

“A card familiarizes [Venmo’s] brand with merchants as a payment mechanism – and merchants are going to be the biggest factor in Venmo achieving profitability,” Huber said. “Think marketing and loyalty tie-ins, integration fees, and promotional deals. Venmo has access to an extremely desirable consumer segment – expect them to use that to their advantage.”

In a second-quarter conference call, PayPal CEO Dan Schulman reported that news of its Mastercard-branded debit card had accelerated growth in user engagement. Account holders on Venmo and PayPal are now using the apps to facilitate 35.7 transactions per year, a 9% increase over Q2 2017.

“We are quite pleased with the surge of initial demand for the Venmo card,” Schulman said.

Venmo processed $12 billion in payments in the first quarter of this year, while more than $25 billion moved through Zelle's network in the same period. Business Insider Intelligence reports that Venmo may be catching up, however, as its 97% annual growth in processed payments last year is more than double Zelle’s.

The Venmo debit card is currently on limited release, with many users having to “get in line” using a digital waiting list. Unlike the beta version of Venmo’s debit card, which had partnered with Visa VA, the final release can be used to withdraw up to $400 per day at ATMs displaying the MasterCard, Cirrus, PULSE, or MoneyPass acceptance marks.

Although the card may someday take the place of a credit card in millennial wallets after its full release, it is unlikely to replace their bank cards. As of now, there is no way to deposit cash or checks to your Venmo account without going through your bank.

Wish you could use your Venmo balance in more places, like restaurants? Bars? Clothing stores? Now, you can. Introducing Venmo card. Save your spot in line today: https://t.co/5tuLUwzE1O pic.twitter.com/Desogsk96D
— Venmo (@venmo) June 25, 2018

Venmo Makes Splitting Bills “Less Awkward” for Millennials

Millennials in particular have reaped the rewards of digital financing and are reported to access their financial information via mobile device eight and half more times a month than other generations. In fact, according to a study by Scratch, each of the four leading banks is among the 10 least-loved brands by millennials, with 71% reporting that they would rather visit the dentist than go to their bank.

Venmo’s reach among millennials can be credited in part to the app’s integration of social media and personal financing. When users pay rent, split their bar tab, or go out to eat, payments are logged in a public news feed not unlike Facebook’s.

According to Venmo Spokesperson Josh Criscoe, Venmo’s transparency makes asking for money a little less awkward for the nation’s poorest generation.

“Sending your friends a note and including an emoji takes the awkwardness out of asking your friend to pay you back for their portion of the bar tab last night,” said Criscoe. “Venmo has married the social element and the financial element, which no one else has been able to crack, and that’s what really sets us apart.”

Although Venmo does not release user data, Verto Analytics estimates the application has more than 7 million active monthly users. In 2017, Venmo processed roughly $34.6 billion in P2P payments according to Business Insider Intelligence, up 92% from $18 billion the previous year. In the first quarter of 2018 alone, Venmo has seen more than $12 billion go through its application.

However, these numbers should not mislead. Venmo allows users to withdraw and receive money from any bank or credit card account free of charge, but that comes at the expense of the company’s revenue.

“We always say that paying your friend back for pizza shouldn’t cost more than your slice [in fees], and Venmo bears the weight of those costs to make it really easy and simple for you to get your money,” Criscoe said.

In order to account for those costs, Venmo has accelerated its growth through partnerships with e-commerce brands over the last year. In October 2017, Venmo launched the Pay with Venmo program, which allowed customers to use Venmo as a checkout option for more than 2 million online retailers, including Target, Lulu Lemon, and Forever 21. This spring, Grubhub announced that it would be adding Venmo to its platform of more than 80,000 restaurant partners across the United States, as well.

The relationship between online retailers and Venmo is largely symbiotic. Venmo earns a cut from each online transaction, while businesses gain exposure through Venmo’s news feed.

“These brands see Venmo as one of the best ways to connect with the millennial demographic,” Venmo COO Bill Ready said. “From a social side, a lot of these merchants are coming because they can see the conversations that are happening [on Venmo] and know that users are there engaging.”

With the release of Venmo’s debit card, which also logs purchase locations on the Venmo news feed, the draw for small businesses and online retailers may be even higher, according to a report from Morningstar analyst Jim Sinegal.

“The unique social aspects of Venmo could provide a path to advertising revenue,” Sinegal said. “Few other payment platforms make it fun for users to share their payment activity with friends.”

Venmo’s Debit Card Joins Square Inc., Acorns

PayPal and Venmo appear to have taken a card out of Square Inc.’s SQ book when they plotted their expansion into physical point of sale. In May of 2017, the mobile payment company released its Cash Card with the hope of increasing user engagement.

By June 2018, payment volume had tripled and users were spending more than $3 billion monthly through Square Cash, the company’s peer-to-peer money transfer service. In the second quarter, Square’s Cash App was the most downloaded financial app.

Square Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey credits the company’s card for driving their platform’s growth. "It's early, but we're seeing a lot of resonance that gets us pretty excited about its future,” CEO Jack Dorsey said in second-quarter conference call about the Cash Card.

Investment strategies and software company Acorns Grow, Inc. also has plans to launch a debit card on limited release, called Acorns Spend. The Spend card will link with Acorns customers’ bank accounts, effectively allowing them make digital direct deposits, mobile check deposits, free bank-to-bank transfers, and unlimited free or fee-reimbursed ATM withdrawals— services, it should be added, not sponsored by Venmo or Square.

According to chief executive Noah Kerner, the company has already received 10,000 pre-orders for the card, which is made of tungsten steel. Only 100,000 cards will be available initially, with the first cards being mailed November 1.