For anyone with a handful of gift cards stacking up in a desk drawer--you're in luck. Raise, the online gift card marketplace, wants to help users make money off of unwanted cards. 

Last week, the Chicago-based company announced it had acquired Slide, another gift card startup, as part of its expansion into New York. (Terms of the deal were not disclosed, though it's worth noting that Raise paid for Slide in stock, as opposed to in cash.)

Raise is a platform where users can sell their unwanted credits for a discount,  pocketing a small profit in the process. It also tracks customer behavior (i.e., brands they're most likely to buy and sell, and when they're likely to sell,) which it sells back to some stores for a fee. Slide is a digital wallet for gift cards. In addition to buying and selling cards, Slide users can also get rewards for buying new cards in the app.  

"There were a ton of interesting things that they [Slide] were working on that went really well with our team," said Raise founder and CEO George Bousis. Slide's technology allows retailers to interact directly with consumers, through features like a chat mechanism and geo-location tool.

While plastic gift cards sound like a thing of the past (can you even remember the last time you paid for a latté with an actual Starbucks gift card?), consumer activity suggests otherwise. Retailers see roughly $130 billion in annual gift card sales, as of 2015--an all-time high, according to research firm CEB

But with the roughly $973 million that still gets left on the table each year, there's plenty of space for Raise to grow and benefit. 

Ambitious goals for a three-year-old startup

Bousis hopes the acquisition will help Raise to one day operate on its own currency, of store credit. The on-boarding of new expertise, via Slide, will play a valuable role; The startups co-founders were formerly at American Express, where they worked with emerging payment companies like Apple Pay. 

Raise says more of its users buy cards on the platform for personal use, rather than for gifts. Increasingly, retailers are partnering with Raise as a form of direct marketing. For example, a brand might be able to detect when a customer is walking in front of their boutique, and push out a discount on sweaters, say.  As this continues, the credit can (in theory) become its own form of currency between the retailer and the customer. 

"Raise users have a high probability of spending their card right away--and spending more money than at the point of sale," explains Bousis, meaning users buying a gift card through Raise are more likely to actually take advantage of it, and spend more. "Ultimately, if the retailers own and operate their own currency, it allows them to have a one-to-one relationship with the consumer," he added.

Of course, with just 2 million users (and Slide's 100,000), Raise is still an growing company -- and winning over retailers hasn't been easy. It currently counts 71 such partners, though they include "the largest" beauty brand and office supplier, Bousis hints. (One would infer: Olay and Office Depot). Although Raise is not yet profitable, it does clock a new transaction every second, from which it takes a hefty 15 percent commission.

The path ahead

Raise could be up against increased regulation in the financial technology sector. A recent report from PwC found that 86 percent of financial services CEOs say they're worried about the impact of being too heavily regulated. (To wit, while fintech investment hit an all-time high in 2015, the first quarter of 2016 showed a 41 percent decline compared to the previous year, and payments processing companies such as Square saw massive stock drops after reporting disappointing earnings.)

Bousis acknowledges these waves, but doesn't seem too concerned for his startup. 

"I think it's inevitable that something like that will happen," he said, referring to regulatory hurdles. He chalks it up to the price one pays for innovation in any sector.

"In any new business, and anything that's changing behavior, there's always risk associated, and there's going to be pushback because of the lack of understanding," he added.

From a security perspective, he flags that Raise will require additional checks -- such as a social security number, or a copy of their driver's license -- in the event that a user is asking to sell off an inordinately large sum through gift cards on the platform.  

It helps, too, that Raise has pulled in $81 million in venture capital funding, from investors including NEA (New Enterprise Associates,) and Bessemer Venture Partners' Jeremy Levine. The startup could be poised for a "unicorn" valuation in the not-too-distant future, as The New York Times has noted. 

Published on: Jun 27, 2016