Can iConsumer really deliver cash + shares? My interview with iConsumer’s founder.

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A new cash back portal, iConsumer, made a big splash last month by offering some of the best cash back rates around.  Some examples include: 8% cash back for Ebay (briefly 16%!) and 32% cash back for 1800Flowers. Many of those great rates were due to a Double Cash Back promotion (which I wrote about here) that ended January 30th.

iConsumer

Beyond a few excellent cash back rates, the really interesting thing about iConsumer is that they give consumers company shares in addition to cash back.  When you click through the iConsumer portal and earn cash, you are given the estimated equivalent in shares.  For example, suppose you click through iConsumer to a merchant offering 5% cash back.  To keep things simple, lets say you buy $100 worth of stuff.  In that case, from iConsumer, you should get $5 in cash and $5 worth of stock shares.  Once iConsumer goes public, the stock value will be determined by the market.  Until then, shares are given out based on the expected initial sale price of 9 cents per share.  So, for now, $5 worth of stock translates into 5 / .09 = 55.56 shares.

As with most portals, cash back earned from shopping is not payable immediately.  The same is true of the shares.  Both are considered “pending” for 90 days.  Once the cash back moves from pending to paid, you can withdraw it as long as you have at least $25 saved up.  As to the stock shares, you can sell them or keep them with the hope that they appreciate in value.

Is iConsumer too good to be true?

If iConsumer really goes public as advertised, and if the stock ends up being worth something close to the estimated value, then the rebates earned from iConsumer are effectively double the displayed cash back rate.  If iConsumer does well and you hold onto your shares, you have a chance of profiting handsomely.

What’s the catch?

I think the biggest catch here is the risk.  iConsumer is a start up company.  As such, it could fail.  If the SEC doesn’t give iConsumer approval for their unique stock sharing approach, they might shut down altogether.  If that happens, the shares will be worth nothing and pending cash back may or may not be paid out.  To be clear, I don’t expect this to happen, but it is possible.

Another risk is the volatility of share prices.  In the 90 days from the time you make a purchase until your new stock shares become payable, the value of that stock could plummet.  On the other hand, it could go up.  It’s a gamble.  That’s why I recommend using iConsumer only when they offer the best, or close to the best, cash back rates.  That way, your risk is extremely small.  Chances are high that you’ll eventually get your cash back.  Whether the stock shares end up with value, though, is anyone’s guess.

iConsumer has an easy to read FAQ that explains their stock approach (found here).  Here’s a snippet from the FAQ:

Is This Risky?

Yes. You could lose all of the cash you paid for your stock. You cannot lose more than that. Be sure you are comfortable with this.

How Much Did I Pay for My Stock?

Great question. You paid something, for sure. Just not in cash. You paid with your time. You took a bit of time to become a member. You’ll take a little more time (very little we hope – we’ve an app for that) to decide to use iConsumer when you shop. You’ll take a couple of moments to tell your friends.

We can’t tell you what you think your time is worth, but we can tell you how we value it. If you’re one of the first people to get iConsumer stock for becoming a member, we’re valuing it at $.09 per share.

My interview with iConsumer founder Robert Grosshandler

Robert Grosshandler founder of iConsumer
Robert Grosshandler, founder of iConsumer

I reached out to iConsumer to see if I could speak with someone about their unique business model.  Company founder Rob Grosshandler contacted me directly, and we spoke for about an hour over the phone.  I didn’t take precise enough notes to quote him (except in a couple of examples).  Instead, here’s a summary of what I learned…

“The most widely held company in history”

Here’s one quote that I think I wrote down verbatim: “We think we’ll be the most widely held company in history.”  Given that shares of stock are essentially free (you get stock for referring friends or for shopping through the portal), I’m inclined to agree with him.  According to Rob, SEC rule changes (known as Regulation A+) implemented in 2015 made this possible.  I don’t want to bog down this post with SEC ruling information.  Instead, here are some links for those interested:

iGive

iGive GirlBefore starting iConsumer, Rob founded another shopping portal in 1997: iGive.  iGive works just like any other portal except that cash rewards are given to the consumer’s charity of choice rather than to the consumer.

I asked Rob about the overlap between the two companies.  He told me that the iGive technology was already setup to have multiple public brands, so they use the same technology to run iConsumer.  From a technical point of view, iConsumer is simply treated as another brand.  Similarly, many employees work across brands.  One exception Rob noted is that iConsumer has its own marketing team.

My take: This is a good thing.  By using well established technology, iConsumer has a huge leg up over new portals that start from scratch.

What percent is passed along to consumers?

Portals get paid to send traffic to merchants.  Usually, payments are a fixed percentage of the completed sales.  Cash back portals, then, take that money and give some of it to the consumer.  A competing portal, TopCashback, says that they give 100% of each store’s commissions to the consumer.  So, I asked Rob what percent iConsumer passes along.

Here’s what I learned:

  • For each merchant, they look at the market (e.g. how much are other portal’s offering) and decide whether they can make money by matching a competitive rate.
  • In some cases they may choose to lose money on a particular store in order to attract new business and to keep iConsumer members coming back.  I believe the current Ebay 4% cash back offer is an example of this.  They’ve capped Ebay cash back to $20 per month per customer in order to limit their exposure.

As an aside, Rob and I didn’t talk about this, but I know that there are situations where portals like iConsumer can get better deals from merchants by driving more sales.  It can be well worth losing money in the short term in order to secure higher cash back rates in the future.

Improvements?

One of the things I don’t like about iConsumer is the requirement to amass $25 cash back before you can get your money.  Rob explained that mailing a check is currently their only option for sending money.  All-in, he said that it costs iConsumer about $5 to process a check, so they need that $25 minimum in place for check payments.  He guessed that they would add the ability to transfer money by ACH and PayPal in about 6 months.  At that time, they will (hopefully) reduce the $25 minimum for those types of payments.

I also asked whether they had plans to reduce the time until cash back becomes payable.  I pointed out, for example, that Top Cashback has a number of fast-track merchants in which cash back becomes payable quickly.  Rob said that this is something on their radar to look at, but they didn’t have any set plans.  He pointed out that the 90 window is necessary because people may return items.  When that happens, merchants don’t usually pay portals for those sales.  If iConsumer paid consumers early in those situations, they might not have any way to get the money back.

Ebay story?

In the past few weeks, iConsumer has changed their Ebay offer repeatedly.  Here’s the story as told by Doctor of Credit:

I asked Rob what happened.  He said that somebody on staff made a mistake and published too high of a number.  The 16% number you mean?  “No, the 8% number.”

The following quote is not verbatim, but it’s the best I can do with my limited notes and even more limited memory:

16% was another mistake, on top of the original.  We implemented a $20 limit so as to stay true to our word. At the time that we implemented the limit, nobody yet had exceeded $20 in earned cash back from Ebay.  Without the cap, even 4% is not a sustainable number.

I asked why not just drop Ebay to a sustainable rate and remove the cap?  The answer was that this mistake turned out to be good for business.  They believe that people are discovering iConsumer because of this high rate, and they’re hoping that it will encourage people to return to iConsumer regularly.

Wrap Up

Personally, I really like the cash back plus stock shares model.  It offers a fairly safe approach to earning cash back, and a possibility of much more through stock shares.  I’m looking forward to seeing if they really manage to take the company public in this unique way.  And, if so, it will be interesting to see how the stock performs.  Will anyone want to buy this stock when they can sign up and get stock essentially for free instead?  I don’t know.  Hopefully we’ll see soon.

Name / LinkOfferFrequent Miler Notes:
iConsumerEarn free shares shares of iConsumer stock (promotion details vary over time)With this portal you earn both cash back and shares in the iConsumer business. Requires $25 payable before they'll pay out the cash back.
TopCashBackBonus rates vary.TopCashBack is one of our two favorite portals because it almost always offers the best cash back rates. Our other favorite is Rakuten.
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