Question: What steps should I take before applying for a loan to open a small business? I’d like to maximize my chances of getting a good response.
Answer: Getting a small business bank loan is never easy, and it’s been especially difficult since the financial crash of 2008 and the lingering credit crunch. Even though small business lending is rebounding somewhat, it is still virtually impossible to get a loan to open a new business.
That’s because lenders want to see a financial track record for your business that demonstrates your ability to repay the money they’re lending you. Without that kind of history, the lender has no way to know if your venture will be successful enough to make good on your obligation. Banks are lenders, not investors, and they’re not interested in knowingly making equity investments in businesses, as an industry representative told me in 2011.
So what are your options? Most entrepreneurs start their businesses with savings; they put startup costs on credit cards; or they get loans from friends and family. There are also more creative ways to raise startup capital, such as babysitting or renting out a room in your apartment.
The void in bank lending has spurred the growth of alternative lending, which can be costly but gets money to entrepreneurs quickly and without a lot of hassle. Another new option is crowdfunding through websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
Some niche alternatives that have sprung up are less well-known. For instance, culinary businesses can apply to the Whole Foods Local Producer loan program, which the company says has lent $10 million to businesses making local food products since its inception in 2007. Interest rates range from 5 percent to 9 percent, and it helps if your company is already a Whole Foods supplier, though it’s not mandatory.
Or maybe you need a loan to buy a franchise business. Many franchisers started to recognize that they’d need to help prospective franchisees with financing after home equity—once a common source of startup cash—plunged in many parts of the country. Matco Tools, which has been selling tools to auto mechanics via independent distributors since 1979, ramped up its in-house financing program in 2008, says John Green, vice president for marketing and e-commerce at Matco Tools. The program can cover up to 100 percent of initial inventory and working capital costs for qualified prospects who want to buy Matco franchises, which range between $89,000 and $144,000.
Perhaps a more realistic option for you is connecting with a nonprofit microlender. Caitlin McShane, communications director of Opportunity Fund, a California microlender, says her organization is making several times as many loans as it did five years ago. “We lend between $1 million and $2 million a month and do over 1,000 loans a year,” she says. The organization has offices in San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles. It is currently running a startup funding challenge that aims to provide loans of up to $50,000 at 7.5 percent interest.
When you do get your business to the point that a bank loan is a more realistic possibility, after two to three years of operations, here are some tips from Laurie Pettinella Zona, a partner in early-stage startup accelerator K5Launch.
Make the loan officer’s job easier by “clearly illustrating why your business is a less risky investment,” she says. Be clear-eyed about what the risks are, however, as pretending to be risk-free is a bad idea. “Show that your business has a proven business model” with steady, paying customers, she says. And “put your best foot forward and sell yourself: your résumé, background, references, prior successful businesses, and history of paying back loans or investors.” Paying down your personal debt and getting your credit score as high as possible are also good ideas.