Currency, as well as how it is used for financial transactions, has evolved considerably over time – and it has only accelerated in recent years.

While coins have been around for thousands of years, the notion of paper money only arrived in the West in the 1600s (about 700 years after it was invented in China). It wasn’t until the 1960s that you could take notes from an ATM, which is when automation really started to take off in the banking sector.

In 1994, a CD was sold on a website called NetMarket marking the first official Internet purchase (although there are rumours that students at MIT and Stanford were using the Internet to sell marijuana from the 1970s…).

The story of payment processors begins in 1998 when Confinity (later X.com, but you probably know it as PayPal) was released. This early payment processor did very little and wasn’t all that important to global commerce.

But with the rise of ecommerce, the adoption of credit card companies, new digital wallets and apps, payment software and gateways, and even cryptocurrencies, payment processing has become big business and the payment processors an indispensable part of the global economy.

That history might be interesting to some, but the real questions are:

  • What are payment processors?
  • How should I choose a payment processor?
  • Which payment processor is best for my SaaS business?
  • How can I get the most out of my processor?

Well stick around, and let’s see if we can answer these questions and more.

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What is a payment processor?

A payment processor is a third-party company chosen by a merchant to handle transactions from various payment channels, such as credit card and debit cards.

There are two basic types of payment processors: front-end and back-end.

  • Front-end processors are connected to various card associations and provide authorization and settlement services to the merchant banks’ merchants.

  • Back-end processors take the settlements from front-end processors and, using, e.g., the Federal Reserve Bank, move the money from the issuing bank to the merchant bank.

In providing this service, payment processors take the information from the purchaser, verify it, and use the information to gauge the probability of the transaction being improved. This includes various anti-fraud measures.

The payment processor relays via the payment gateway all of this information to the merchant, who will then either complete the transaction or deny the transaction based on the results of the verification.

Let’s take a look at the two other essential parts of the payment process to make things a bit clearer: payment gateways and merchant accounts.

Payment gateways vs. payment processors vs. merchant accounts

While payment processors are a huge part of the online payment ecosystem, they are not the only component that matters. There are also the payment gateways and merchant accounts.

1. What is a payment gateway?

The payment gateway works as a middleman between the payment processor and credit card company as well as between the merchant and credit card company.

It performs all the technical work of transferring credit card information securely. The payment gateway is an essential component of every transaction so without one commerce cannot take place.

2. What is a merchant account?

A merchant account is a special bank account that can accept credit card and debit card payments. Payments sit here for a defined period of time before being transferred to a company’s bank account. When setting up your business, you will need a merchant account to be able to accept payments.

Whatever payment gateways or processors you choose, use Baremetrics to monitor your sales data.

Baremetrics makes it easy to collect and visualize all of your sales data. Your SaaS company likely uses a CRM in addition to payment processing software, and the data required to compute your core revenue metrics can be all over the place. Integrating innovative software that can cull MRR values from CRM and payment processing systems is a valuable shortcut. Baremetrics can do this all for you.

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How does the payment process work?

The modern payment ecosystem is a lot more confusing than passing around metal coins, with payment gateways, payment processors, merchant accounts, credit card companies, and all their tasks designed to confirm the legitimacy and legality of the transactions.

Here is a step-by-step breakdown of the end-to-end process:

  1. The customer opens their shopping card, clicks checkout, selects to pay by credit card, and submits their credit card info.

  2. The merchant sends the financial information, including the cardholder details, to the payment gateway.

  3. After receiving the transaction details, the payment gateway further sends the information to the third-party payment processor used by the merchant.

  4. The payment processor sends the transaction information to the card network (e.g., MasterCard or Visa).

  5. The card network next sends the transaction information to the customer’s bank, which checks whether the customer has the credit limit space available to complete the purchase.

  6. The bank then sends their response to the card network, i.e. whether the transaction has been approved or declined.

  7. This response is then relayed by the card network to the payment processor and then by the payment processor to the payment gateway, which informs the merchant and customer of the response.

  8. Finally, assuming the transaction has been approved, the funds are deposited by the customer’s bank into the merchant account, where they must sit for an agreed upon period of time before being paid into the business’s bank account.

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How to choose a payment processor

There are many payment processors out there, and sometimes it feels like they are all the same. In addition to the obvious things—price and price structure (percentage and/or per transaction fees), throughput (how many transactions per minute they can handle), needed features (ability to automate your recurring subscription revenue), and usability (how easy it is for you and your customers to process payments)—here are a couple key factors you should confirm:

  • Compatibility: You probably use a shopfront, payment gateways, and software to collect and analyze your sales data, so you should be finding a payment processor compatible with all of these other key tools.

  • PCI compliance: Credit card information needs to be stored and transferred securely so look for a PCI-compliant payment processor.

  • Fraud: Fraud is rampant, and you need a payment processor that will perform multiple different fraud checks to reduce the chances of payments being refunded and the lost revenue that entails.

  • Customer base: Some payment processors have amassed a huge number of monthly users, and these users may be more inclined to use your service if they can use the payment processors they trust.

Top Payment Processing Companies for Small Businesses

While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some of the payment processors available. They range from newer to long established, famous to less well known.

1. 2Checkout

2Checkout has provided mobile and desktop-based payment services in 196 countries for over 15 years. This PCI-compliant platform can process credit cards, debit cards, and even PayPal payments. It has low transaction fees as well as no recurring monthly or setup fees.

2. Payline Data

Payline Data offers good anti-fraud solutions, among many other tools, and it can be used on smartphones as well as websites and ecommerce shops.

3. GoCardless

GoCardless can be set up easily and provides automated payment tracking. They are also cheaper than PayPal.

4. Paynova

Paynova offers 21 payment options. Paynova is best suited for startups and small ecommerce businesses.

5. PayPal

PayPal offers customers convenient digital wallets, among other services. This provides PayPal with over 300 million active users.

Its transparent pricing and simple setup make it an obvious choice for many business owners.

6. Amazon Pay, Google Pay, and Apple Pay

All of the Internet giants are getting into the payment processing space. These companies have the infrastructure to power even the busiest sites and come with built in customer bases that could help drive more sales.

The convenience and perceived security of a big brand name make customers confident that they can shop easily and securely using these systems.

Similar to PayPal, often the higher fees come with increased sales volume.

7. Stripe

Stripe is often considered the most convenient for SaaS businesses because it comes with loads of features specific to the market. You can take a look at our article comparing Stripe to PayPal to see why.

For example, Stripe allows you to save all of the credit card information to make returning customers easier to process. Stripe also has the option for automated payments, which is crucial for recurring revenue.

Whatever payment processor you choose, be sure that it works with your analytics tools. If you aren’t utilizing your sales data, then you aren’t getting the most out of your payment processor.

Baremetrics is a business metrics tool that provides 26 metrics about your business, such as MRR, ARR, LTV, total customers, and more.

Baremetrics integrates directly with your payment gateways, so information about your customers is automatically piped into the Baremetrics dashboards.

You should sign up for the Baremetrics free trial, and start monitoring your subscription revenue accurately and easily.