Your new credit card arrives in the mail. No more swiping for you. You’ve entered a new era with your chip card and for some reason, you feel more technologically savvy, like you belong in a younger generation. But what happens inside that little chip? Do any of us know? We just trust that it’s better than swiping. We trust. We trust credit card companies and all the players in between who take our money for the luxury of the trust built into that chip. Should we be so trusting? Do we really understand what happens behind the confusing curtains of credit card processing? In a multi-trillion dollar industry, does anyone care about the small-business owner?
Pause for a moment and imagine something crazy.
Imagine personally knowing the people who handle your money.
Imagine understanding the credit card transactions of your small business and when you don’t, picking up the phone, dialing one number, and speaking with a human, a patient and kind person who views you not as a pesky customer with a problem, but as an equal with a soul. Imagine a company who gives away “trade secrets” for the sake of transparency, for the sake of respecting your customers and your financial security. Enter San-Francisco based B Corp, Dharma Merchant Services.
Before the B Corp model established itself, Jeff Marcous and his daughter Alexia Marcous shared the intention of using Dharma Merchant Services to build community. After several years of leading other credit card processing companies—including one he founded that sold for $90 million on the public market and made him an instant millionaire—J. Marcous left it all behind. He never wanted to work for a Wall Street-owned company again.
“I realized that just because you have money doesn’t mean you have a sense of abundance,” Marcous told me. “I left the industry to start a merchant processing company with a heart, a set of values.”
Transparency defines the Dharma culture.
With a commitment to fair interchange-plus pricing, customers know exactly how much money is paid to the card-issuing banks, how much went to the card associations and how much went to Dharma—a 25 percent fee for storefront purchases and 35 percent for online compared to the industry standard of 52 percent. Dharma adds one constant flat margin on top of the interchange. They only operate with the interchange-plus pricing, which ensures lowest rates. They also eliminated monthly minimums, long-term contracts, and offer reduced rates for nonprofits. Most traditional merchant processing companies don’t disclose their processing fees. Dharma’s flat margin empowers small businesses regardless of volume or minimum amounts.
At first, Dharma was making less money with this approach. But that was fine by J. Marcous and A. Marcous. It was part of a culture they were building at Dharma, a culture that I quickly fell in love with after spending 20 minutes in the office. Where do I begin? First, J. Marcous’s salary is less than four times that of the starting employee. His CEO-level peers make 200 times these starting salaries. Secondly, Dharma pays a minimum salary of $70,000. Even for San Fran standards, this is high. Thirdly, in 2015 Dharma gave $100,000 to charities chosen by employees. Shall I keep going? Dharma sources only from fellow B Corps and fair trade suppliers and maintains a low-carbon footprint. In fact, they publish a Green Card that transparently outlines all sourcing. Employees enjoy full health benefits, fully paid gym memberships, and fully paid public transportation. Why? Why would a business make so much effort?
The word dharma, I’ve learned has many meanings: virtue, one’s path, the path of the middle way, truth according to Buddha. The Marcous team knew they wanted the business to be a vehicle of awakening, part of the way in which they know themselves. And a way in which to honor and love all of those with whom they come in contact. In fact, Dharma has an entire section on their website that describes who they view as a stakeholder. Everyone they come in contact with, including their competitors, is part of the Dharma community. J. Marcous writes:
“For me, even an exchanged pleasantry in the elevator means that the other person has automatically become enrolled as a stakeholder of Dharma (and of me personally) as this new connection may be the result of "how we are being" at our company. And how are we being? We are being loving, we are being inclusive, we are being grateful, and we are being abundant. In fact, this way of seeing begs the question, "Who isn't a stakeholder?"
Dharma adopted elements of the Buddhist, Eightfold path, which guides one to enlightenment as part of their cultural core: right intention, right action, right speech, right effort, and right livelihood. They operationalize these values by offering excellent quality, building community, and living in service to their customers. They remain available to customers by phone, share their profits, and keep their processes simple. Often, Dharma can have a new customer set up and processing credit cards with them in 48 hours or less. 25 years and 3,000 customers later, they’ve built an incredible reputation, a community, and a loving culture.
“We always look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need from the bottom up as physical, safety, emotional, and self-actualization. But what if this was done backward with self-actualization as the starting point? If you do the right thing, treat others with love and respect and compassion, you will be a magnet for people. You will experience plenty of abundance,” says Marcous.
Business as a force for good: the B Corp motto. But maybe there’s a richer place to start. Perhaps if we shifted our paradigm and first saw our businesses as a tool for awakening, enlightenment, and abundance, consequentially goodness would follow. And in this, we may discover dharma. We may discover ourselves. Business as a force for personal enlightenment. Selah.