Park Place Payments Raises a $1.5M Seed Round to Offer Gig Work in Payment Processing

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

Since her time at Harvard (undergrad and then MBA), Samantha Ettus has made a career out of motivating women to achieve a better work/life balance through her five bestselling books, hundreds of TV appearances and corporate speaking gigs.

But in 2018, she decided she wanted to do more than talk and write. She wanted to give women a chance to re-enter the workforce and put money in their pockets. And she would do that through an unlikely route: payments processing.


"There were just so many people that were seeking financial opportunities and there was only so much motivational speaking I could do," Ettus said.

Ettus is the founder and CEO of Park Place Payments, which she calls a sales-force-as-a-service business, a play on the plethora of software-as-a-service startups.

The Woodland Hills-based startup, which dot.LA learned has closed a $1.5 million seed round, is trying to bring a friendlier and not coincidentally, female face to the cutthroat commission-based world of payment processing, which is dominated by decades-old incumbents such as FIS, Chase and First Data.

"Any business from a yoga studio to a hair salon to a pediatrician's office has an intermediary between their business and American Express, MasterCard and Visa," Ettus explained. "Until now, that intermediator is pretty much 30,000 white men, a lot of whom came from used car sales. And so the sales tactics in the industry have stuck and everyone's constantly haggling."

Black Clover, a Draper, Utah-based apparel brand switched to Park Place a year and a half ago because it took a lower cut of sales and also offered better customer service, according to Philip J Hardy, Black Clover's financial operators manager.

"They are definitely hands on," Hardy said. "I'll at least get an email or text message at least on a monthly basis, if not every three weeks."

Park Place's greatest asset is decidedly low tech – a network of 693 account executives in cities from Raleigh to Cincinnati to Rochester. And 95% of them are women.

Account executives receive a 50% cut of processing fees for the lifetime of the account, which for a typical business would net them $720 in income a year.

"At the end of five years, that's suddenly four thousand dollars from that one account and they're constantly building their portfolio so next month they could bring in the yoga studio and next month it's the cafe on the corner," Ettus said. "Our intention is that it's like life insurance for these people. We want it to be something they can count on."

Ettus sees her company as especially important now as millions of women have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic. The women's labor force participation rate has fallen to 57% — the lowest level in more than two decades, according to the National Women's Law Center.

She views Park Place as a more modern and ethical side hustle than some of the multi-level marketing schemes like Mary Kay and Herbalife that offer the allure of flexible work but often do not deliver.

"They were selling it to their friends and they weren't even making martini money," Ettus said. "But a lot of them enjoyed the fact that they were doing something that felt productive and got them back into the working world outside of their home. And I thought, well, what if they could use that time selling something that actually earned them recurring revenue?"

All the initial training is online and takes as little as two hours. Everyone from former newscasters to flight attendants to doctors have signed up to make extra cash.

"The beauty of Park Place is it's so flexible that I can continue at whatever pace I want," said Jen Mogan, a Rochester, New York -based anesthesiologist who became an account executive a year ago after COVID left her wary about being in hospitals. "I took a step back from medicine and needed something to fill the void."

Mogan admits she had never heard of credit card processing before she joined and said it was a "steep learning curve." After getting vaccinated in March she returned to medicine, but she says she plans to continue Park Place on the side.

"It is a great supplement for me," she said. "And once you earn an account, the residuals continue to come in without you having to do anything."

Park Place's $1.5 million seed round was led by Curate Capital, a Houston-based VC firm that backs female founders. The funding will be used to nearly double the number of account executives by the end of the year.

Ettus acknowledges the round size is small by today's standards, which she says is mostly a function of not needing millions of dollars because she is not running a capital-intensive business. But she also says her pitch was not always well-received in tech-obsessed Silicon Valley.

"We are innovating in the sales process and the user experience and Silicon Valley really likes people to innovate in technology only," Ettus said. "That was definitely our biggest obstacle in raising the money."

In contrast to the growing number of fintech companies, Ettus sees her company's greatest strength as decidedly low tech - legions of salespeople knocking on the doors of doctor's offices, barbers and hardware stores in small towns across America.

"I do not need to hire a team of engineers because we use existing technology and will always represent whatever the best technology is," Ettus explained. "But when you talk to anyone who deals with small businesses, reaching small businesses is the Holy Grail. It's very, very difficult to reach them and the only way to do it is a boots-to-the-street sales force. And that's where we've innovated."

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Cadence

Here's How Much Tech Companies Made From LA Unified School District During the Pandemic

Sarah Favot

Favot is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She previously was an investigative and data reporter at national education news site The 74 and local news site LA School Report. She's also worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. She was a Livingston Award finalist in 2011 and holds a Master's degree in journalism from Boston University and BA from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a mad dash to get technology and broadband internet service into students' homes. About 1 in 3 Los Angeles Unified School District families didn't have a desktop or laptop computer or high-speed internet, according to an April 2020 study by USC Annenberg.

To improve tech access and to make other COVID-related purchases, the Board of Education granted authority to then-Superintendent Austin Beutner to spend "any dollar amount necessary" to respond to the crisis. In 13 months, the district spent $390.5 million.

Over the course of the 13 months of data, the single largest purchase — $51.3 million — went to SummerBio, a Silicon Valley COVID testing company.

All told, $227.6 million went to tech companies or 58% of the district's total spending in that time frame.

The spending went to tech companies like Apple, T-Mobile, Verizon and a COVID testing company, records obtained by dot.LA through a Public Records Act request show.

Los Angeles school district spending from March 2020 through April 2021 show that money was spent on line items from iPads and broadband to food for students and families, and masks and sanitizing supplies for schools.

In March 2020 alone, 94% of the $72.3 million the district spent using emergency funds went to tech companies.

"It took a procurement team working around the clock to scour the globe and find devices and a technology team to make sure the devices had the proper software installed and every student was connected to the internet," Beutner said in May 2020.

It also began purchasing COVID-19 supplies, including 100,000 N95 masks and 300,000 surgical masks, for $2.4 million, and food for the district's "Grab n Go" meal program, like $450,000 on cases of chicken tenders and drumsticks.

John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA, said the district took decisive action to get necessary technology into student's hands.

"It was a herculean task to shift in-person instruction to remote learning in a district that serves many families who previously did not own a computing device or had regular access to the internet," he said. "Many other districts around the county lagged behind LAUSD in their efforts to provide a baseline of access to learning."

Here are the total amounts large tech companies were paid:

Apple

$51.3 million

Apple was paid virtually the same amount as SummerBio in total, just $9,000 less. It is unclear from the data exactly how many iPads and other devices were purchased and distributed, as a $37.8 million purchase for iPads doesn't list a quantity of items.

Arey Jones

$49.2 million

San Diego-based Arey Jones, which has relationships with Microsoft, Google, Intel, HP and other companies, is a conduit for school districts to procure technology equipment and software. LAUSD purchased Dell, Samsung and HP Chromebooks, monitors and iPad integration services and cases. In March 2020 alone, the company received $22 million.

CDW Government, LLC

$8.6 million

LAUSD purchased 1,000 video conferencing bars from CDW Government, LLC, a technology provider for state and local governments, for $8.5 million.

Amazon

$2.0 million

As online learning extended beyond the few weeks that many were expecting, it became clear that some households had multiple students and adults working at home. Headphones were a solution to help students block out the noise of a busy home to focus on their studies. About a month into the pandemic, LAUSD purchased 131,000 pairs of headphones for $1.9 million.

Mergent

$8.1 million

In December, the district spent $8.1 million for 490,000 headphones, enough for a pair for every student.

Edgenuity

$6.7 million

LAUSD opened up summer school to all students for enrichment courses, like guitar lessons and language classes, in addition to classes where students can make up credits. About 100,000 or about a quarter of the district's students enrolled in summer school. The district paid for a platform called Edgenuity for credit recovery for 30,000 high school courses and 40,000 middle school courses, according to the data. It's a software program that the district has used for years. The district also used the program as classes turned online and continues to use it in its online independent study program.

Verizon

$6.1 million

The district agreed to pay Verizon up to $4.6 million in March 2020 for mobile broadband services and devices. It later paid another $1.5 million for additional service and devices.

IVCi

$4.3 million

Audio visual company IVCi sold 5,000 video conferencing bars for $4.3 million.

T-Mobile

$3.7 million

The first purchase the district made was to increase its contract with T-Mobile for mobile broadband and devices by $500,000 to $750,000. In March 2020, it paid a total of $2.4 million and later made an additional $1.3 million payment.

Discovery

$3.1 million

The district purchased a districtwide licensing agreement.

Reading Horizons

$3 million

The district bought a license for the training and curriculum tool software for teachers teaching science.

Rosetta Stone

$3 million

The district bought licenses for 100,000 students from the language software company.

Microsoft

$2.3 million

The district described this purchase as "various applications." Microsoft developed an app called the Daily Pass that must be scanned for each student and staff that enters a campus. That contract was for gratuitous services.

Nearpod

$2 million

The district purchased a license for the instructional platform for teachers.

Crayon Software Experts

$1.7 million

LAUSD paid Crayon Software Experts, a software asset management managed services company, for Microsoft Power Apps licenses to implement its COVID vaccination program.

IXL Learning

$1.7 million

The district bought site licenses for 300,000 students from the integrated learning platform that supports personalized learning in math, English language arts, science, social studies and Spanish.

Blackboard

$1.2 million

The district purchased a districtwide enterprise license for the online learning platform for additional teacher to student notification functions.

Zoom

$1 million

The tool that many of us became familiar with during the pandemic, the district spent about a half million on software licenses for 66,500 employees, 500,000 students and 2,000 others.

Newsela

$995,000

Elementary schools purchased licenses for Newsela, a literacy-focused startup with content in English and Spanish.

Renaissance Learning

$995,000

The district bought licenses for Renaissance Learning, a math and reading software.

Edpuzzle

$730,000

LAUSD bought a districtwide license for Edpuzzle, which teachers can use to make interactive videos.

HopSkipDrive

$500,000

Pasadena start-up HopSkipDrive, an ridesharing company for students, was paid $500,000 to take students to and from COVID-19 testing sites.

Hollywood Crews, Studios Reach Tentative Deal to Avoid a Strike

Harrison Weber

Do you know something we should know about L.A. tech or venture capital? Reach out securely via Signal: +1 917 434 4978.

Harrison is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. They previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find them on Twitter: @harrisonweber. Send tips on L.A. deals to harrison@dot.la. Pronouns: they/them.

It appears the show will go on.

The union representing Hollywood production crews announced it has struck a tentative deal with the alliance representing major studios and giants in tech.

The move averts what would have been the first walkout for Hollywood crews since World War II as well as the union's first national strike since it was formed more than a century ago. However, union members must still decide on whether to ratify the agreement in an upcoming vote. In the meantime, all work will "continue without interruption," the union said.

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Q&A: Bobacino CEO Darian Ahler Makes His Case for Food Automation

Decerry Donato
Decerry Donato is an editorial intern at dot.LA. She received her bachelor’s degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, Decerry can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

After a year and a half of the pandemic, the robots have arrived—at least in restaurants.

A new report from market research firm Global Industry Analysts (GIA) found that the global food automation market grew to $9.7 billion in 2020, spurred in part by a desire to offer customers contactless service. The GIA researchers projected the market would swell to $13.6 billion by 2026.

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