Small business owners are always looking for opportunities in overlooked places.

And that's the case for Stockpile.com, a startup based in Palo Alto, California, that wants to make purchasing stock as easy as buying a gift card. Starting last Friday, you'd be able to find the company's gift cards near the registers of Kmart, and in the coming weeks you'll seem them at retailers inlcuding Toys "R" Us, Kmart, Safeway, and Office Max. But instead of electronic items or books, Stockpile's gift cards are redeemable for stock, from more than 1,000 well-known public companies, including Apple, Facebook, and Tesla.

Founded in 2010 by former attorney Avi Lele, and Sanjeev Kulkarni, who is currently the dean of the graduate school at Princeton University, the duo hopes to simplify online brokerages and stock picking for the masses.

Stockpile is yet another example of the innovation happening in the financial services industry, particularly around stock ownership and brokerage accounts, says Javier Paz, senior analyst of financial research company Aite Group. It's also a potential sign that more companies are trying to capitalize on a pent-up desire from a broader base of consumers who'd like to share in the gains of what's been, until recently, a five-year bull run on stocks. This summer, markets fell on concerns of worsening prospect of the global economy, and on news that China had devalued its currency the renminbi. Today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has decreased 6 percent to 17,239, from 18,272 in May.

"We wanted to start a brokerage with products that would be affordable for everyone," says Lele.

Stockpile isn't the only startup getting in on the action. As back office costs have fallen to facilitate stock purchases, online brokerages, many of which charge between $7 and $10 a trade, are facing a host of no-fee competitors. These allow retail investors to trade at no cost, with nothing more than an app. Paz counts at least half a dozen startups in the space, including Robinhood, an app targeted at Millennials, which allows users to trade stocks at no cost.

Yet Stockpile's gift card spin is different. The cards come in denominations of $25, $50, and $100. While those amounts wouldn't buy you a single share of Google or Tesla today, which are trading at $650 and $213 respectively, the cards allow consumers to purchase fractional share amounts. Customers redeem their cards by going to the Stockpile.com website and entering their email addresses, and answering a short form of questions that asks for the customer's name, date of birth, address, and social security number. That's all that's required to set up an account, as opposed to the somewhat more time-consuming security checkpoints at most brokerages today.

Customers can also purchase up to $1,000 worth of stock online, and email digital gift cards to recipients. And recipients can swap their gifts for other stocks if they don't like what they've gotten, Lele says. Customers can similarly set up a brokerage account of their own, and buy or sell shares for 99 cents a trade.

Besides the product's nuts and bolts, the genius is its target market, say financial industry analysts. Rather than selling to those who are already familiar with buying stock, Stockpile's product is geared to a broad swath of consumers who don't own stock and might be intimidated about setting up a brokerage account. That's a potentially huge market, says Brian Riley, principal executive advisor at CEB TowerGroup.

Half of U.S. consumers may own stocks through fund baskets in retirement accounts, while only 13.8 percent own individual stock directly, according to a 2014 report on family finances produced by the Federal Reserve Board. While the latter figure represents a decrease of 1.3 percentage points since 2010, there's obviously a huge base with a potential interest in an inexpensive way to own stocks, says Paz.

In addition to consumers, banks that want to offer stock but can't afford their own brokerages might be interested in the product. So too might employers who want an easy way to offer workers stocks at other companies--or at their own, should they go public--as incentives, both Riley and Paz say. 

Lele and Kulkarni founded Stockpile after observing the disconnect between brokerages and the broad base of consumers. At the same time, they noticed the wastefulness inherent in gift cards, Lele says. Typically consumers make purchases for things they soon discard or grow tired of, like the latest electronic item or pop songs, he adds. By contrast, Stockpile could sell a product that encourages customers to take a longer view of what they're buying.

"We thought a gift card for stocks would be a neat thing," says Lele.

As the duo have joint expertise in legal matters and engineering--Lele has a Harvard law degree and was most recently a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, and Kulkarni is also an electrical engineer--they wanted to set up their own online brokerage platform, rather than rely on a third party's. That process, plus the time it took to get the appropriate regulatory approval, from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, occupied much of the time between startup and launch.

Flash forward to the present.

Stockpile has created a product that is pretty straightforward and easy to use, and meant to minimize complexity. What's more, Dan Schatt, Stockpile's chief commercial officer and a former PayPal general manager of financial innovations, says Stockpile doesn't scrimp on security. It does the same due diligence as brokerages, including complying with post-911 Know Your Customer rules and other federal regulations. The company claims that its verification process, which must be conducted online by the final gift card owner, is quicker than more traditional brokerages, however. Lele says a stock owner can be in and out in just under two minutes thanks to the company's proprietary technology. 

"We've developed a pretty sophisticated...authentication capability that assesses many attributes in real-time, based on the identity and actions of our customers," Schatt says. By that, Schatt means the company can verify your identity based on the device you use to set up an account, your location and IP address, and the circumstances under which the gift card is purchased.

Meanwhile, big investors have taken note too. Stockpile received $15 million in a Series A round in October, led by Mayfield Fund. Ashton Kutcher, a frequent investor in financial services startups, is also among the funders as an angel. Sequoia Capital was also an early investor.

While Lele would not say how many customers have bought stock so far, he says the company has orders for more than a million cards from distributors. And Lele isn't worried that the recent fluctuations in the market might chase would-be customers away.

"Down markets historically have presented some of the most compelling buying opportunities for investors," Lele says.

Published on: Oct 21, 2015