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What Is a Third-Party Payment Processor?



A third-party payment processor is a provider that allows a business to accept payments without opening its own merchant account, a bank account needed for holding money earned from card payments. These processors generally offer fast setups, charge flat-rate fees and process transactions from several merchants into shared merchant accounts to reduce operational costs.

How a third-party payment processor works

After a third-party payment processor processes a card payment, it deposits the funds into an aggregate merchant account, an account that’s shared among several merchants. The processor then deducts processing fees and transfers the remaining funds to the small business’s bank account.

The primary difference between a third-party processor and a merchant account provider is how quickly funds are available to the business. With third-party payment processors, funds can take a few days to transfer, whereas businesses with their own merchant accounts have faster access.

How many merchants share a third-party payment processor’s merchant account is up to the processor. Some can have thousands of merchants sharing a single account. Regardless of the number, reputable third-party payment processors track your funds and ensure you’re paid correctly for each transaction.

Third-party processors vs. merchant account providers

While third-party payment processors aggregate merchants’ funds into a larger account, merchant account providers set up individual accounts for each merchant. These different options create distinct experiences for small businesses and affect aspects like the approval process and pricing structures.

Here’s how the two options compare in several areas:

Payment service provider

Merchant account

Merchant account setup

Hundreds or thousands of merchants share a single merchant account.

One dedicated merchant per account.

Approval process

Typically instant approval.

Involves verification and compliance process that may take weeks.

Account stability

Higher risk of sudden holds, freezes or termination.

Stable with little risk of termination, holds or freezes.

Typically fixed, some custom plans available.

Typically more flexible and customized to your business needs.

Processing volume

Strict limits on transaction size and processing volume.

Negotiable limits on transaction size and processing volume.

Pros of using a third-party processor

Third-party payment processors can offer businesses several benefits, including:

  • Easy setup. With no merchant account to worry about, all a business needs to do is set up an account with the third-party payment processor, which is often a simple process.

  • Fewer fees. Unlike individual merchant accounts, third-party processors generally don’t charge setup fees or set monthly minimums.

  • Flexible terms. While merchant service providers often require contracts — sometimes month-to-month or even a few years — third-party processors often have better terms or require no contract.

  • All-in-one solution. Many third-party payment processors offer businesses the technology to accept payments in person and online and point-of-sale software to get going quickly.

Cons of using a third-party processor

Potential issues with using third-party payment processors include:

  • Higher costs, in some cases. Because third-party payment processors are paying other fees on your behalf, they often come with higher transaction fees than having your own merchant account.

  • Limited device choice. Many third-party payment processors have their own credit card readers and don’t work with other brands’ devices.

  • Higher risk of frozen accounts. If a third-party payment processor suspects you have fraudulent transactions, it can freeze your account and hold your funds while it performs an investigation — and you’re stuck without your funds in the meantime.

Best third-party processors


Square offers competitive pricing with a variety of hardware and a feature-packed POS, making it a good option for small businesses. Transaction fees start at 2.6% plus 10 cents for in-person swipes, taps and dips. You won’t pay a monthly fee to use its basic services, which include POS features for reporting options and inventory management. The hardware options include hand-held readers and countertop registers.


Designed for restaurants, Toast’s hardware makes it easy for servers to enter orders and take payment at customers’ tables and includes self-ordering kiosks for less traditional formats. There’s also an integrated kitchen display system. With online ordering options and a robust POS, it stands out as a great option for restaurants and cafes. The platform has starter kits available if you don’t want to build your own setup and tiered pricing for tacking on extra hardware or additional locations.

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When to Give Employees Access to Data and Analytics



As business leaders strive to get the most out of their analytics investments, democratized data science often appears to offer the perfect solution. Using analytics software with no-code and low-code tools can put data science techniques into virtually anyone’s hands. In the best scenarios, this leads to better decision making and greater self-reliance and self-service in data analysis — particularly as demand for data scientists far outstrips their supply. Add to that reduced talent costs (with fewer high-cost data scientists) and more scalable customization to tailor analysis to a particular business need and context.

However, amid all the discussion around whether and how to democratize data science and analytics, a crucial point has been overlooked. The conversation needs to define when to democratize data and analytics, even to the point of redefining what democratization should mean.

Fully democratized data science and analytics presents many risks. As Reid Blackman and Tamara Sipes wrote in a recent article, data science is difficult and an untrained “expert” cannot necessarily solve hard problems, even with good software. The ease of clicking a button that produces results provides no assurance that the answer is good — in fact, it could be very flawed and only a trained data scientist would know.

It’s Only a Matter of Time

Even with these reservations, however, democratization of data science is here to stay, as evidenced by the proliferation of software and analytics tools. Thomas Redman and Thomas Davenport are among those who advocate for the development of “citizen data scientists,” even screening for basic data science skills and aptitudes in every position hired.

Democratization of data science, however, should not be taken to the extreme. Analytics need not be at everyone’s fingertips for an organization to flourish. How many outrageously talented people wouldn’t be hired simply because they lack “basic data science skills?” It’s unrealistic and overly limiting.

As business leaders look to democratize data and analysis within their organizations, the real question they should be asking is “when” it makes the most sense. This starts by acknowledging that not every “citizen” in an organization is comparably skilled to be a citizen data scientist. As Nick Elprin, CEO and co-founder of Domino Data Labs, which provides data science and machine learning tools to organizations, told me in a recent conversation, “As soon as you get into modeling, more complicated statistical issues are often lurking under the surface.”

The Challenge of Data Democratization

Consider a grocery chain that recently used advanced predictive methods to right-size its demand planning, in an attempt to avoid having too much inventory (resulting in spoilage) or too little (resulting in lost sales). The losses due to spoilage and stockouts were not enormous, but the problem of curtailing them was very hard to solve — given all the variables of demand, seasonality, and consumer behaviors. The complexity of the problem meant that the grocery chain could not leave it to citizen data scientists to figure it out, but rather leverage a team of bona fide, well-trained, data scientists.

Data citizenry requires a “representative democracy,” as Elprin and I discussed. Just as U.S. citizens elect politicians to represent them in Congress (presumably to act in their best interests in legislative matters), so too organizations need the right representation by data scientists and analysts to weigh in on issues that others simply don’t have the expertise to address.

In short, it’s knowing when and to what degree to democratize data. I suggest the following five criteria:

Think about the “citizen’s” skill level: The citizen data scientist, in some shape and form, is here to stay. As stated earlier, there simply aren’t enough data scientists to go around, and using this scarce talent to address every data issue isn’t sustainable. More to the point, democratization of data is key to inculcating analytical thinking across the organization. A well-recognized example is Coca-Cola, which has rolled out a digital academy to train managers and team leaders, producing graduates of the program who are credited with about 20 digital, automation, and analytics initiatives at several sites in the company’s manufacturing operations.

However, when it comes to engaging in predictive modeling and advanced data analysis that could fundamentally change a company’s operations, it’s crucial to consider the skill level of the “citizen.” A sophisticated tool in the hands of a data scientist is additive and valuable; the same tool in the hands of someone who is merely “playing around in data” can lead to errors, incorrect assumptions, questionable results, and misinterpretation of outcomes and conclusions.

Measure the importance of the problem: The more important a problem is to the company, the more imperative it is to have an expert handling the data analysis. For example, generating a simple graphic of historical purchasing trends can probably be accomplished by someone with a dashboard that displays data in a visually appealing form. But a strategic decision that has meaningful impact on a company’s operations requires expertise and reliable accuracy. For example, how much an insurance company should charge for a policy is so deeply foundational to the business model itself that it would be unwise to relegate this task to a non-expert.

Determine the problem’s complexity: Solving complex problems is beyond the capacity of the typical citizen data scientist. Consider the difference between comparing customer satisfaction scores across customer segments (simple, well-defined metrics and lower-risk) versus using deep learning to detect cancer in a patient (complex and high-risk). Such complexity cannot be left to a non-expert making cavalier decisions — and potentially the wrong decisions. When complexity and stakes are low, democratizing data makes sense.

An example is a Fortune 500 company I work with, which runs on data throughout its operations. A few years ago, I ran a training program in which more than 4,500 managers were divided into small teams, each of which was asked to articulate an important business problem that could be solved with analytics. Teams were empowered to solve simple problems with available software tools, but most problems surfaced precisely because they were difficult to solve. Importantly, these managers were not charged with actually solving those difficult problems, but rather collaborating with the data science team. Notably, these 1,000 teams identified no less than 1,000 business opportunities and 1,000 ways that analytics could help the organization.

Empower those with domain expertise: If a company is seeking some “directional” insights — customer X is more likely to buy a product than customer Y — then democratization of data and some lower-level citizen data science will probably suffice. In fact, tackling these types of lower-level analyses can be a great way to empower those with domain expertise (i.e., being closest to the customers) with some simplified data tools. Greater precision (such as with high-stakes and complex issues) requires expertise.

The most compelling case for precision is when there are high-stakes decisions to be made based on some threshold. If an aggressive cancer treatment plan with significant side effects were to be undertaken at, for instance, greater than 30% likelihood of cancer, it would be important to differentiate between 29.9% and 30.1%. Precision matters — especially in medicine, clinical operations, technical operations, and for financial institutions that navigate markets and risk, often to capture very small margins at scale.

Challenge experts to scout for bias: Advanced analytics and AI can easily lead to decisions that are considered “biased.”  This is challenging in part because the point of analytics is to discriminate — that is, to base choices and decisions on certain variables. (Send this offer to this older male, but not to this younger female because we think they will exhibit different purchasing behaviors in response.) The big question, therefore, is when such discrimination is actually acceptable and even good — and when it is inherently problematic, unfair, and dangerous to a company’s reputation.

Consider the example of Goldman Sachs, which was accused of discriminating by offering less credit on an Apple credit card to women than to men. In response, Goldman Sachs said it did not use gender in its model, only factors such as credit history and income. However, one could argue that credit history and income are correlated to gender and using those variables punishes women who tend to make less money on average and historically have had less opportunity to build credit. When using output that discriminates, decision-makers and data professionals alike need to understand how the data were generated and the interconnectedness of the data, as well as how to measure such things as differential treatment and much more. A company should never put its reputation on the line by having a citizen data scientist alone determine whether a model is biased.

Democratizing data has its merits, but it comes with challenges. Giving the keys to everyone doesn’t make them an expert, and gathering the wrong insights can be catastrophic. New software tools can allow everyone to use data, but don’t mistake that widespread access for genuine expertise.


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Business Software

Accion Business Loans: 2022 Review



Our Take

The bottom line: Accion loans are a good option for borrowers who’ve been in business for three months or more and have been turned down by other lenders.

Pros and Cons


  • A broad range of loan amounts from $5,000 to $100,000.

  • Loans are available to businesses in operation for as little as three months.

  • Expanded credit guidelines for borrowers.

  • Customized loan terms.

  • No prepayment penalty.


  • It can’t be used to get a business off the ground.

  • Shorter loan repayment periods of one to five years.

  • Slow processing speed compared to online lenders.

  • Not available in all U.S. states.

Full Review

Accion Opportunity Fund is a nonprofit community lender offering customized loans to small business owners throughout most of the U.S.

Over 80% of Accion clients identify as women, people of color or immigrants. In addition to small business loans, educational resources and coaching support in English and Spanish are also provided.

Accion is best for borrowers who:

  • Prefer customized options. Loan terms are structured based on your business needs.

  • Don’t have perfect credit. Factors other than your credit score can be used to determine qualification.

  • Have new businesses and can’t get funding elsewhere. Businesses only need to be in operation for three months to apply.

Accion loan features

Loan amount

From $5,000 to $100,000.

Interest rates

5.99% to 14.99% for Small Business Progress loans.

4% subsidized rate for Southern Opportunity And Resilience, or SOAR, loans for businesses located in certain southern states.

Origination fees

3.99% to 6.99%.

12, 24, 36 or 60 months.
(No penalty for repaying early.)

Repayment schedule

Funding speed

5-7 days for loan application to be processed.

Where Accion stands out

Expanded credit guidelines for borrowers

Accion says that most of its borrowers have not been able to get loans with traditional lenders because they have poor credit, no credit history or require a small loan amount. Accion can use more than a borrower’s credit score to determine qualification for a business loan.

Customized loan terms

Accion can structure a loan to meet your specific business needs. After submitting an application, you may be able to choose from several loan options with different term lengths, interest rates and payment amounts. In addition, if Accion can’t provide a loan, it will refer you to one of its partners or provide other financing options for you to explore.

Additional services offered

Accion does more to help small businesses than just offering loans. Business coaching and mentoring are also available. You can set up an appointment for one-on-one assistance provided by a business expert. Your coach can also help you enroll in training programs to enhance your leadership skills. In addition, its resource center offers videos, articles, and interactive learning materials.

Where Accion falls short

Funds can’t be used to start a business

Accion loans are designed to support existing small business owners. But, again, your business must be in operation for a minimum of three months to qualify for an Accion loan. That means you won’t be able to use loan funds to start a business.

Loan programs aren’t available in all U.S. states

Accion loans are available in most U.S. states, but you won’t be eligible if your business is located in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee or Vermont. Also, Southern Opportunity and Resilience (SOAR) funding is limited to businesses located in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, or Washington, D.C.

Accion loan requirements

  • Credit score: No minimum required.

  • Time in business: Minimum of 3 months in business.

  • Annual revenue: Varies depending on the loan program.

How to apply for a loan from Accion

After completing an application online, you’ll receive a quote. Accion says that the quote won’t affect your credit score. You will need to provide some basic information about your business, including revenue and expenses. Accion will then review your loan options with you, including interest rates, repayment amounts and the repayment period. If there are no options that work for you, Accion can refer you to other resources.

If you decide to move forward with the loan offer, you’ll be asked to provide documents that Accion can use to verify the information you provided on your application. After that, your loan will be finalized; you’ll sign loan documents and then receive funds.

Alternatives to Accion

SBA loan

An SBA loan is another option to consider. These loans are offered through banks but partially guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. This can make it easier to qualify because the lender takes on less risk. In addition, funds from an SBA loan can be used to start a business. This differs from an Accion loan, which requires your business to operate for a minimum of three months to qualify. SBA loans also offer flexibility when a borrower has less-than-perfect credit.

Kiva U.S.

Kiva is another nonprofit that is an option to ponder. You can get up to $15,000 at 0% interest if you qualify. Kiva loans don’t require a minimum credit score or collateral. Still, there are other eligibility requirements, such as the business must be based in the U.S. and you can’t currently be in foreclosure, bankruptcy or under any liens. One unique Kiva provision is that borrowers are asked to demonstrate their strength of character by having friends and family make loans to them.

Compare business loans

If you’d like to compare loan options, NerdWallet has a list of best small-business loans. All of our recommendations are based on the lender’s market scope and track record, the needs of business owners, rates, and other factors so that you can make the right financing decision.

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Business Software

Best Merchant Services of 2022



Merchant services allow a business to accept credit and debit card transactions by transmitting the customer information to the card network and issuing bank and giving businesses access to the payments received.

The companies that offer merchant services vary in the related products and services they offer, and in their pricing models (flat rate, interchange-plus, membership). Here’s our list of the best merchant services and what sets them apart.

Helcim: Best overall option

Payment processing: In addition to the interchange rate — which is set by the card issuer and generally ranges from 1% to 3% — you also pay a processing fee (hence the term “interchange plus”). For a monthly card processing volume of up to $25,000, the markup is 0.3% plus 8 cents per in-person transaction and 0.5% plus 25 cents per keyed and online transactions. Lower rates are available for higher volume levels.

Software: Free.

Hardware: Card reader is $109. Stands, printers and other equipment available through Helcim Shop.

  • Low processing fees.

  • Transparent pricing.

  • Volume discounts.

  • No contracts.

  • No monthly fees.

  • No cancellation fees.

  • Free virtual terminal.

  • Fully hosted online store options.

  • Customer support isn’t available 24/7.

  • No free card reader.

Why we like it: Helcim’s transparent pricing, lack of monthly fees and volume discounts are what pushes it to the top of the list. It’s easy to sign up for an account online by providing some basic information. And without a contract or cancellation fees, there’s no penalty to close your account. Funds from your transactions are deposited within one to two business days. Customer support is available weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time and on the weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time. You can sync data with both QuickBooks Desktop and Online. Other integrations include WooCommerce, Magento and Zone 4.

Square: Best flat-rate option

Payment processing: Flat-rate pricing model that charges 2.6% plus 10 cents per in-person transaction, 3.5% plus 15 cents per keyed transaction and 2.9% plus 30 cents per online transaction.

Software: Free option.

Hardware: Free card reader. A register costs $799 or $39 a month for 24 months.

  • No monthly fee.

  • Low transaction rates.

  • No long-term contracts.

  • Quick setup.

  • Free card reader.

  • Free virtual terminal.

  • Free dispute management services for chargebacks.

  • No processing fees on customer refunds.

  • 24/7 live phone support is not available for payments.

  • Readers are not compatible with Windows devices.

Why we like it: Square is our top pick for flat-rate pricing with no monthly fees, low transaction rates and free virtual terminal. It can accommodate all types of credit card transactions. You receive your funds as fast as the next business day for free, or you can pay a fee to receive funds instantly. Square offers free dispute management for chargebacks and doesn’t charge processing fees for customer refunds. Free phone support is available during the week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific time. Square integrates with QuickBooks, Xero, Stitch Labs and other popular apps.

Accept payments without worry

See our payment provider recommendations that fit your business.

Dharma: Best for e-commerce

Payment processing: In addition to the interchange rate, a processing fee is charged. For Visa, Mastercard and Discover, that’s 0.15% plus 8 cents per in-person transaction. Rates for American Express in-person transactions are 0.30% plus 11 cents. And you’ll pay 0.2% plus 11 cents for keyed and online transactions.

Software: $25 monthly fee.

Hardware: Terminals start at $229 and a Clover Mini standalone device can be purchased for $749.

  • Low processing rates.

  • Pricing transparency.

  • Specializes in e-commerce.

  • Reduced rates for large monthly processing volume.

  • 24-hour help lines.

  • Virtual terminal included.

  • Monthly fee.

  • Account closure fee of $49.

Why we like it: Dharma specializes in helping e-commerce businesses and has one of the lowest rates for card-not-present transactions. Businesses with monthly card sales over $100,000 or more than 5,000 transactions may qualify for volume discounts, as well as restaurants with average ticket amounts of less than $25. Funding is guaranteed in two business days. Customer support to process your card transactions is available 24 hours a day. You can export data into an Excel file to import into QuickBooks.

Stripe: Best flat rate for online sales

Payment processing: Flat-rate pricing model that charges 2.7% plus 5 cents per in-person transaction and 2.9% plus 30 cents per online transaction.

Software: Free option.

Hardware: Card readers cost $59 and up. A POS register is $249.

  • No monthly fees.

  • Low transaction rates.

  • Supports over 135 currencies.

  • Your account can be terminated at any time.

  • Developer platform.

  • Support is available 24/7 by phone request, chat and email.

  • Tools to customize payment flows on your website.

  • No free reader.

  • Virtual terminal allows the customer to enter card information, but not the merchant.

Why we like it: Stripe is best for online sales because it supports processing payments in multiple currencies, allowing customers to charge in their native currency and businesses to receive funds in theirs. Payments are typically processed in two business days. Stripe integrates with a large number of apps and automatically syncs with QuickBooks and NetSuite. You can use the developer tools in Stripe Terminal and pre-certified card readers to build your own in-person checkout system.

Payment Depot: Best for large transaction amounts

Payment processing: In addition to the interchange rate, 15 cents per transaction is charged. This could be less depending on the plan selected.

Software: Plans starting at $79 per month.

Hardware: Free and up. Terminals and POS systems from Clover, Ingenico and other brands available for purchase.

  • Simple and transparent pricing model.

  • Custom plans are available.

  • Free virtual terminal.

  • Satisfaction guarantee with option for refund of membership fee.

  • Customer support is available 24/7.

  • Monthly membership fees.

  • A 20% restocking fee for returned terminals.

Why we like it: Payment Depot offers membership plans that give businesses access to wholesale interchange rates at a set fee per transaction. It’s an independent sales organization that handles merchant accounts for Wells Fargo Bank. You can get access to next-day deposits based on the membership plan you select. Support is available 24/7 through the bank. Payment Depot integrates with Shopify, OpenCart, QuickBooks, PrestaShop, Shift4Shop, BigCommerce, WooCommerce, Magento, Zen Cart, Revel, NCR and

PaymentCloud: Best for high-risk businesses

Payment processing: Rates determined on a case-by-case basis.

Software: $10 and up monthly.

Hardware: A card reader and terminal included with the account. Mobile POS systems, terminals, POS registers, kitchen printers, kiosks and other devices can be purchased.

  • Specializes in high-risk merchant accounts.

  • Card reader and terminal included with account.

  • Cancellation fees are waived.

  • Free rate review and analysis.

  • 24/7 customer support.

  • Chargeback prevention tools.

  • Processing rates and hardware costs not available on the website.

  • Monthly volume limit may apply.

Why we like it: PaymentCloud specializes in services for high risk industries, although they also offer services to low and medium risk businesses. Payment processing is available for in-person, online, mobile, keyed and cryptocurrency transactions. It has over 10 banking relationships that can be used to secure a merchant account for your business. Next-day payment processing is offered as part of retail POS services. The platform integrates with QuickBooks and most shopping carts including BigCommerce, WooCommerce, Shopify and Magento.

National Processing: Best for customized rates

Payment processing: In addition to the interchange rate, fees based on business type are charged. For example, 0.14% plus 7 cents per transaction for restaurants, 0.18% plus 10 cents per transaction for retail businesses and 0.29% plus 15 cents per transaction for e-commerce business are applied.

Software: $9.95 per month or more based on industry.

Hardware: A mobile reader is included with most plans at no additional cost. Based on the plan you select, a terminal and PIN pad may also be included. A large number of POS devices are available including Clover hardware.

  • Customized rates based on industry.

  • No monthly minimum fees.

  • High-risk payment processor.

  • 24/7 phone support.

  • Offers a virtual terminal.

  • Monthly fees.

  • Contract with possible early termination and restocking fees.

Why we like it: National Processing customizes its fees based on industry and risk. For example, the rate a restaurant pays is less than that of a retail organization. Also, processing services are offered for some high-risk businesses. You can expect to receive your funds in two days with an opportunity for next-day deposits. Phone support is available 24/7. Integrations are offered for popular business apps including QuickBooks, WooCommerce, Ecwid, Zendesk, BigCommerce, OpenCart and Shopify.

QuickBooks Payments: Best for QuickBooks loyalists

Payment processing: Pricing varies. QuickBooks Online users pay 2.4% plus 25 cents per in-person transactions; 3.4% plus 25 cents per keyed transactions; and 2.9% plus 25 cents for invoiced transactions.

Software: Free and up.

Hardware: A PIN pad costs $389 and a hardware bundle that includes a cash drawer, receipt printer, wired barcode and PIN pad is $900. Additional devices available.

  • No contract.

  • No cancellation fees.

  • Competitive pricing.

  • Instant deposits are available for an extra 1% fee.

  • Invoice formatting lets customers pay online.

  • QuickBooks Desktop users and new customers may pay higher fees.

  • 24/7 phone support is not available.

Why we like it: For loyal QuickBooks users, QuickBooks Payments can process online, in-person and invoiced transactions. Payment for the next business day is typically available when the cutoff time of 3 p.m. Pacific time is met. Phone support is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time. QuickBooks Payments integrates with Shopify, Amazon, eBay, WooCommerce, Magento, BigCommerce, Walmart and Etsy shopping carts.

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