When Mike Shapiro quit his job as a corporate lawyer to launch a group of community news web sites in 2008, he relied on savings he’d frugally socked away for years. “I wasn’t an Armani suit guy at my firm,” says Shapiro, CEO and publisher of TAPInto.net, a five-employee franchise chain, based in New Providence, N.J., that now has 37 locations.
But self-funding the business turned out to be stressful. During the first two and a half years, he poured about $250,000 into his startup, taking no salary while he and his family lived on their savings. And as he was launching the business, his son, then an infant, had to have open heart surgery, and his wife stayed home to care for the baby.
“I put all of my money into the company,” says Shapiro. “I had to work to bring in enough revenue so we could survive as a family. It was pretty high pressure.” And it didn’t help that he was launching the business while the global economy was collapsing.
So Shapiro took another approach in 2012, when he was looking for a $150,000 cash infusion. He raised the money in a transaction known as a private placement, selling equity in the business to supporters in the community who bought a stake in the company in $25,000 increments.
His efforts have paid off, enabling him to keep growing the business and invest in technology that keeps his sites visible. This year he projects that revenues at the profitable business will be in the range of $650,000 to $1 million.
As many entrepreneurs discover, raising money to fund a small business isn’t for the faint of heart. Only 46% of small firms received some or all of the financing they sought in 2014, according to a 10-state survey by the Federal Reserve Banks of New York, Atlanta, Cleveland and Philadelphia. More than half of the applicants sought credit of $100,000 or less.
But fortunately, new options for small business owners on a money hunt are fast evolving. Here are five that first-time entrepreneurs often overlook.
1) Private placements
To raise the $150,000 he needed, Shapiro offered to sell equity directly to handpicked individuals on TAPInto’s advisory boards for various towns. “They were business and community leaders in those towns,” he says. That’s one way to do it, but it’s now possible to find such investors through online platforms, such as AngelList, CircleUp, and EquityNet, notes Richard Swart, crowdfunding and alternative finance researcher and scholar-in-residence in the Institute for Business and Social Impact at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “There are dozens of platforms to connect entrepreneurs to accredited investors,” says Swart. When you do a private placement through these online platforms, it is called equity crowdfunding.
Pro: You can potentially raise millions this way.
Con: You will have to share ownership of the business with your investors who may not agree with how you are running it.
2) Community banks
It can be tough to win a bank loan, but given that banks generally offer the lowest interest rates on loans, they’re worth approaching. That’s especially true if you’ve logged a few years in business during which you showed steady growth and profitability—qualities that bankers want to see.
Even so, big banks can be tough to interest early on, so your best shot at finding a lender may be at a community bank. According to Biz2Credit, an online matchmaker between borrowers and lenders, lending approval rates at small banks were 49.6% in April, compared to 21.7% at big banks with more than $10 billion in assets.
“I would say between the two, if you have the option of going to a smaller bank, you should do that,” says Rohit Arora, CEO of Biz2Credit. “They are better in terms of approval. They understand your business better.”
When exploring your options, keep in mind that loans backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration aren’t your only option, and many entrepreneurs prefer standard bank loans that don’t come with a government guarantee. “SBA loans require a lot more paperwork,” says Arora. Capital One’s Spark Small Business Barometer, a survey released in May 2014 found that only 9% of small business owners have applied for SBA-guaranteed loans, even though 79% of respondents were aware of them. Among those who had applied, 73% said the process is somewhat or very complicated.
Pro: Banks generally offer the best interest rates—and you don’t have to give up equity to get a bank loan.
Con: It’s often hard to get a bank to lend to a startup.
3) Online financing sites
If you can’t qualify for a bank loan, check out the growing number of internet-based financing companies that offer short-term cash infusions via the web. “There are online funding platforms that can provide very substantial amounts of money, sometimes in the millions,” says Swart. These sources range from peer-to-peer lenders like Prosper and Lending Club, where individuals and institutional investors lend you money through the platform, to merchant cash advance providers, which offer an immediate cash infusion in exchange for a share of your future revenues.
Pro: What these platforms have in their favor is speed. They tend to approve or reject applicants quickly. “In the small business space, interest rate is one thing, but timing is important, too,” says Arora, CEO of Biz2Credit.
Con: The catch is that they’re usually not cheap. “Depending on what type of product you get, your APR can be anywhere from the low teens all the way to extremely high, probably 100% or 200%,” says Swart. The fine print on some alternative financing arrangements can be hard to understand, so if you’re not clear on what effective annual percentage rate you're actually paying, ask your accountant before you sign any agreements.
4) Hedge funds, endowment funds, and family offices
In the past few years, these types of large investment pools have been looking for new ways to enhance their returns by lending to small businesses, says Arora. “These pools of money have never been available for small businesses,” he says. These lenders behave more like banks than online financing companies, and often are willing to make longer-term loans.
So how do you get access to their money? As a small business owner, you probably won’t get anywhere by cold-calling a hedge fund. But several online platforms such as Biz2Credit, Funding Circle, and Lending Club provide such loans.
Pros: Many entrepreneurs don’t know about this type of financing, so the pool of those competing for it hasn’t maxed out.
Cons: The interest rates can be higher than for bank loans. Typically, they range from 8% to 22% a year, says Arora. In comparison, the maximum interest rate for an SBA-backed back 7(a) loan—the kind used for working capital—is lower, currently ranging from 5.5% to 8%.
5) Third-party loan guarantees
With banks more eager to lend to small business but still using stringent lending criteria, third-party loan guarantees are becoming more popular in recent years, says attorney Andrew Sherman, a partner at Jones Day in Washington, D.C. who advises businesses of all sizes. In these deals, an entrepreneur teams up with private investor, known as an angel, to get a bank loan that the angel personally guarantees. In return for doing so, the angel gets equity in the business.
“The person that is picking up the equity is using their personal balance sheet to earn equity and not have to write a check,” says Sherman. “The bank gets more comfortable and gets to do the small business lending, and the entrepreneur gets access to the capital with minimal dilutions.”
Pro: Third-party loan guarantees can help you get a loan a bank might otherwise be leery of making.
Con: You have to give up an equity stake to get the loan.