Two years ago, when the crowdfunding app Tilt had just scored a key partnership to be the default payment system for ESPN’s fantasy football and basketball leagues, co-founder and CEO James Beshara said in a Fortune interview that Tilt wasn’t really competing with the red-hot payments app Venmo, since Tilt was aimed at collecting money from a group. He also argued Tilt felt more social.
“Venmo works for one-to-one, but when you really want a social product,” he said, “it’s like the difference between e-mail and Facebook.” The suggestion: Venmo can do its friend-to-friend thing, while Tilt will stay in its lane of group payments.
Now, four years after Tilt’s founding, it is finally going straight after Venmo, as any user could have foreseen. Tilt announced on Tuesday it is adding a 1:1 payments option, “making it easier for users to automatically send and request money on a more bite-sized scale,” a spokesperson says, “from sending money to a friend for rent or a round of drinks, to requesting money for a movie ticket or last night’s Uber.”
Tilt launched in 2012, has raised a fat $62 million in venture funding from the likes of Marc Andreessen, Ron Conway, Sean Parker, and the rapper Nas, and it is seeing 41% growth each month on college campuses, where the app has caught on thanks to a student ambassador program. But this will be Tilt’s true coming out party.
Tilt originally worked like this: You are holding an event (one of the most popular uses: kegger), or buying a gift, or ordering merchandise, and need to collect money from a group of people. You set a minimum target amount, and when the group hits the target (when it “tilts,” get it?) everyone gets charged. It isn’t unlike a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign, but more utilitarian than artistic (though some brands have used Tilt to gauge interest in a new product). Some have called Tilt “micro-crowdfunding.” The funding can take place on Tilt’s web site or its mobile app.
The group focus helped Tilt gain steam among millennials. The service is in nine countries and won’t share users or revenue, but says it is growing its user base 4x year over year.
If you haven’t heard of Tilt, it is likely because you don’t often have a need to solicit money from a group, or when you do, you use a more traditional method. (Office NCAA pool? Collect cash from everyone in person.) Or you could be using Venmo, which, even though it operates on one-to-one transactions, allows you to enter an amount and then charge multiple friends the same amount at the same time. This couldn’t have helped Tilt much.
Adding the Venmo-like feature will elevate Tilt to the next level of utility. But competing with Venmo, which is owned by PayPal (after PayPal acquired Venmo parent company Braintree in 2013), will be no picnic. Venmo’s transaction volume grew 154% in the Q1 of this year to $3.2 billion. As Re/code pointed out, Venmo is “growing ridiculously fast.“
But if Tilt can convert its college students away from Venmo, it could become a one-to-one payments player quickly. As Tilt began to launch into more international markets, “We kept getting the request from our users to add in 1:1 payments,” says Beshara, who avoids naming Venmo specifically. “Then we looked at the data, and almost 20% of our usage in the UK was due to people bending Tilt, an app built for more social and group-oriented activity, for 1:1 payments.” That is: Tilt users were already trying to use Tilt as a Venmo anyway. Tilt began testing a 1:1 option in January, and among the testers, it led to a 34% increase in group Tilts.
Venmo isn’t the only competitor in the peer-to-peer mobile payments game. There’s Xoom (also owned by Venmo), Square Cash, Google Wallet, TransFast, Dwolla, Circle (which uses the bitcoin blockchain), and TransferWise (for sending money internationally only), to name a few.
Tilt’s version of 1:1 payments has some distinguishing twists: Tilt automatically transfers funds to your bank account each day, rather than holding them in your Tilt wallet; Tilt allows both domestic (US to US) and international (abroad to US, but not US to abroad) payments, while Venmo is only for US to US; payments are free if using a Visa or MasterCard debit card, Tilt gets a 3% fee if you use a credit card.
Beshara doesn’t see mobile apps as his competition anyway—or he isn’t saying so. He lists Tilt’s competition as: “Cash, checks, and bank transfers globally.” The bank transfers move through giants like Western Union, Wells Fargo and Citi, still the top dogs in money transfers for now. “The world,” he says, “is still just beginning to wake up to digital payments.”
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.