A Startup That Promised Cash to Engaged Couples Breaks Hearts With an Abrupt Pivot
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After six years together, Matt Milsap popped the big question to his girlfriend Amanda Cambra on Sept. 21 at their home in Bethel, Conn. The couple plans to wed in October 2017.
Planning the wedding got complicated. Venues that could accommodate Cambra’s large family -- Milsap estimates she has 90 aunts, uncles and cousins -- easily cost $30,000, a figure that didn’t include accommodations such as centerpieces, a photographer or a DJ.
“We had begun looking at wedding venues and were very discouraged by the cost to include not only her family, but mine as well,” Milsap told Entrepreneur in late January. “It’s not about having a wedding that’s out of our means. I think it’s the opposite. We just want to have people we love there with us.”
The 31-year-old information technology worker added: “After getting some quotes for wedding packages, our options became limited to either eloping -- and not being able to invite important people in our lives -- or hope for SwanLuv to select us for this opportunity.”
SwanLuv, a startup that launched on Valentine’s Day this year, had gotten attention from the press for its intriguing business model: the company said it would provide a loan of up to $10,000 for engaged couples to use toward their wedding costs. The funds did not have to be repaid as long as the couple stayed together. If they divorced, however, the exes would have to pay back the money they’d borrowed, plus the interest that had accrued during each year of their marriage.
Milsap, confident that he and Cambra would stay together forever, signed up for what he considered free money. But then SwanLuv dashed his hopes by abandoning its initial business model.
“It looks like SwanLuv was just one big bait and switch," Milsap recently wrote to Entrepreneur. "Their actual product is their own version of GoFundMe, except for weddings. We could have just asked our family from the get-go.”
SwanLuv’s abrupt pivot has prompted Milsap and his fiancee to possibly alter their wedding plans. “What we’re considering now is a backyard wedding at her parents’ house,” he says. He said that the cost of renting tents and a dance floor for his future in-laws’ property are about $7,500 -- far less than what a catering hall would require.
Before launch, the buzz on SwanLuv was that it was taking an old problem -- the well-known inflated cost of weddings -- and figuring out a new solution by letting engaged couples borrow cash without having to repay the sum, as long as they stayed married. But the company's recent announcement that it has switched its business model to a crowdfunding platform left prospective applicants angry and blue.
Many applicants took to social media to lament over what they see as false advertising -- Twitter user Michael Tursi compared SwanLuv founder Scott Avy, 24, to reviled “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli -- and public reaction on the company’s Facebook page is equally harsh.
Yet, not everyone was surprised by the news. A woman using the handle “almostmrsb” wrote on WeddingWire, “I work in lending, and based on discrimination laws, never understood how a company could make what is considered a loan decision based off marital status. Not only that, but without clear loan terms, this type of loan could only report as a balloon payment, and in my opinion would be a generally poor credit decision. I just don't see how their process was legal. So to me, [SwanLuv] was never a legitimate lending company.”
This begs the question: Is the change simply a pivot, or something more sinister?
Milsap suspects the latter. “I question the intentions [of the company] and how long they knew it wasn’t going to work," he says. “It almost seems like it was a marketing ploy, a way to get the press involved.”
According to a statement given to Geekwire, Avy apologized and says the shift was necessary due to the “unprecedented demand ... and unanticipated legal rules/restrictions in the lending space.” Speaking to CNN, he said that with this new, legally simpler crowdfunding model, his company would be able to help more people receive financial support because not everyone who applied for a loan under the company’s original iteration would get one.
While SwanLuv’s CEO maintains in his statements to the press that his customers supported the change, Milsap said he’d never received any survey and that he saw comments on Facebook from other applicants that they’d also never been notified.
Avy had told Geekwire in December that investors were interested in SwanLuv and that the funds needed to be finalized before prospective applicants for the loans were selected beginning in February. He reiterated his claim of interest from angel investors and venture capitalists to CNN but would not release details on the amount of money raised or the investors involved to support his statements.
Entrepreneur has reached out to Avy repeatedly for comment, with no response, on the change and answers to some unanswered questions, including: Does the company still plan to provide free counseling to couples who use the service? Do backers collect interest on any paid back funds, and if so, is a couple’s interest rate still based on a proprietary computer algorithm?
Here’s what we know now: the idea of paying back the money in the event of a divorce has not changed. Couples who raise money on the platform will have to repay their benefactors in the event of a split. Avy admits that he has not figured out how to monetize the platform yet.
Before Swanluv's pivot, Entrepreneur had asked several professionals about the company's original business model. Divorce attorney Todd Spodek, a managing partner at the Spodek Law Group, said that the company likely had good intentions but that the money would probably hurt couples more than help them.
“It appears that it’s somewhat altruistic more than predatory lending, which was a relief to see, but my honest opinion that the commingling of third parties in marriages is usually a bad situation,” he says. “Marriage is complicated to begin with."