How to Cure Entrepreneurial Brain Freeze

Some entrepreneurs spend months trying to raise more money than they actually need to achieve proof of concept.  Many get stuck on the grand vision of their company’s future instead of deploying the resources and assets at their disposal.  I call this entrepreneurial brain freeze.  When I started my first venture, it took me six months to get a meeting with angel investors.  I was so excited that I spent 72 hours straight marathon writing a business plan and financial forecast in order to convince the investors why I needed $2 million to start my company.

I showed up in a fancy suit and tie, and the first thing that the investors did was rip up my forecast and asked me what I could do with just $200,000.  I was initially shocked that they would lowball me like that, but in the end, realized they were right.  This experience taught me, in retrospect, that if I had just tried to raise $200,000 instead of $2 million months earlier, I would have reached the starting line much faster.  I had to cure my own case of entrepreneurial brain freeze.

At my loan-advisory office, we speak with business owners who show the common symptoms of brain freeze: they’re stuck within the confines of their company vision and unwilling to stray from their buttoned up business plans.  Before discussing funding options, we first ask them what they need the money for and why.  The reality is that usually there is a way to meet their objectives with much less money.

The business owner might be foregoing short-term profits by seeking less startup capital, but they are moving commerce sooner, and that is what’s important.  The best proof of a viable business is active commerce, not funding.

A few weeks ago, I met an entrepreneur who wanted to start a golf simulator business.  He wanted to raise money for his own facility, with two owned or leased machines, and also wanted more capital to market his business.  At the time of the call, though, he didn’t even have a proof of concept, no customers on the horizon and yet wanted to borrow or raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars in equity.  I had to take a step back with this entrepreneur instead of pushing him toward a loan that he would later regret.  A better option was to partner with local golf stores by installing his simulators in their shops.  By piggybacking off of the store’s existing customer base, the entrepreneur was drastically cutting his marketing dollars while also achieving a proof of concept in exchange for profit sharing with the existing golf store.

Instead of seeking $500,000 to launch his business, the entrepreneur only needed $50,000 to get started.  This is a much more reasonable goal.

If you’re trying to borrow money before you’ve gotten one customer, you’re likely going to give away more equity than you have to, or it’s going to cost you way too much to borrow money.  There can be huge benefit in shrinking a grandiose vision, shaking off the entrepreneurial brain freeze and proceeding with calculated baby steps rather than rushing a new business the the finish line.

Five Questions to Ask an Alternative Lender

Finding the right alternative lender can make a huge difference for small business.

A good alternative lender is one who is cognizant of their role within the small business industry–a means to an end.  Alternative lenders should act as a bridge for small businesses to get them out of a financial hole and back into a positive cash flow.  A good alternative lender lends the borrower just what they need to achieve this goal, not the max amount that the borrower qualifies for in order to increase payments and interest.

Because we don’t know a lot about alternative lending industry activities–how much they lend each quarter, the terms of all loans, or even who all of the lenders are–what distinguishes a “good” alternative lender from a “bad” alternative lender is a bit of a gray line.

However, there are some definitive things to think about when seeking capital from an alternative lender to decide if they have you and your businesses best interest in mind, or if they are solely focused on collecting payments.  Here are some questions to ask when pursuing an alternative lender for financing:

1.  What percentage of the time do the borrowers need to come back to the lender for more money?  Knowing the renewal rate of the lender will help you determine if it’s likely your business will get trapped in a debt cycle.

2.  What are the prepayment penalties?  Can a customer get out of the loan at anytime with little to no prepayment penalty?  Or are they locked in to paying the balance of the loan for the length of the loan?

3.  What percentage of clients graduate to bank financing?  If this stat is relatively high, it’s a good indicator that the alternative lender is interested in helping business move into loan products that are more affordable with longer amortization periods.

4.  What is the lien structure for the alternative lender?  Do they take blanket liens on all assets of the company, which can make it difficult to borrow money in the future from other lenders?  Or do they take liens on specific assets that they are borrowing against?

5.  Does the lender offer counseling or advice?  Lenders that loan money without any counseling generally don’t have the borrower’s best interest in mind.  A good lender will offer the borrower counseling regarding cash flow impact and making sure that there is a clear plan for the borrower to be able to afford the loan and make the business better with the loan.

The Absolutely Best Time to Borrow Money, as published by Inc.

Consider taking out a business loan when you least expect you’ll need it.  Here’s what I mean.

At my loan brokerage firm, I receive calls from small business owners everyday who are desperate for loans–not only to save their businesses, but just to keep the roofs over their heads.  If they had called me a few months earlier, when financial needs were just emerging, securing a loan or line of credit would have been much easier.

It’s common sense, but many small business owners ignore the fact that it’s easier to get a loan when you don’t need one than when the situation is dire.

The High-Interest Treadmill to Avoid

Imagine a scenario in which it’s the middle of the summer and your air conditioner blows up on you.  It’s going to cost $25,000 to replace it and you need to do it quickly.  There is not much time to think, or your business is at risk.  If you have a line of credit in place for an emergency like this, you can write a check and pay a low interest rate of 5 percent to 6 percent until you figure out a longer-term plan.  If you don’t make that contingency plan, and you don’t have the cash on hand, you could be forced to call a quick short-term lender who will charge 60 percent to 80 percent interest.  This is what you don’t want to do.

Small business owners tend to have short-term memories and wind up concentrating on present victories and defeats.  If things are going well, you probably think that they’ll continue that way.  But if the recession made anything clear, it’s that the world can change quickly and unexpectedly.  No one is immune.

Just as people take out life insurance plans to help take care of their affairs in case of unforeseen death, so should owners have lifelines for their businesses.  The most successful entrepreneurs anticipate potential problems down the road and plan accordingly before hitting them.

You Know You’re in a Good Position to Borrow When…

If your business is doing well, now is the right time to evaluate your contingency plan options.  When cash flow is steady and building, banks will line up to give you money at the best rate possible.  A line of credit can be a lifesaver in case of an unforeseen emergency or during a slow season.  While there might be some small expenses to get a line of credit set up, once you have it, you only pay for it if you use it.

If you have accounts receivable, your industry is showing growth, and you have good credit, you’re in a good position to take a loan or a high line of credit at a good rate.  With business that is turning profits, you can be confident that you’ll also be able to pay back the loan, which is something that helps all small business owners and entrepreneurs sleep better at night.

You Know You’re in the Worst Position to Borrow When…

On the flip side, if you wait until you aren’t able to make your payroll or aren’t able to pay your lease, it will be more difficult to get any sort of loan because banks and alternative lenders are hesitant to lend money to a business that is at risk of shutting down or going bankrupt.

When you get desperate, your choices dwindle and you may be stuck with a high interest loan with short amortization period that will leave you right back where you started after a few months.  This is when businesses can get sucked into the trap of short-term loan renewals that they have trouble getting out of and rates that they struggle to pay.

For many businesses, a call for a lifesaver loan is completely avoidable if a loan or line of credit is taken a little earlier in the game.

Are you prepared to weather potential storms looming on the horizon?  Do you have a small business contingency plan?  Let me know in the comments section below.

Can You Be a “Mensch” in Business?

The balancing act between profits and ethics.

Running and building a business is a tricky balancing act.  Top that challenge off with building a reputation as being a fair and honorable entrepreneur and everything is all the more difficult.  I’ve recently struggled with the question about what makes an entrepreneur a good person in business.  Or to use a common Yiddish word, what makes a person a “Mensch” — a person of integrity and honor.

I like to think that I aspire to be a “mensch” in business, but if I really am or not is a subjective judgment.  Some might argue that because I run a for-profit business that it would be impossible for me to do really honorable things.  And while there is plenty I am proud of in how we go about our business, there are many instances where I wonder if I made the best decision.

There are so many shades of grey in the balancing act of maximizing your profits and value and doing “the right thing.”  Often the right thing is subjective.  I know of some business owners who bring few ethics to their business practices and compensate for it by donating a fortune of money to charity.  Others run “social entrepreneurship ventures” where they are focused on doing good but sometimes can’t sustain themselves.

What is the “right” amount of profit to make and at what cost?  How do you answer this question?

Ultimately I think that every entrepreneur can only answer the “mensch” question for his or herself.  To answer a question with some more questions, here are some things to think about.

I think it’s fair to say that if you can positively answer these questions, you are a “mensch” in business:

  1. Do your employees love to come to work?  Have you created a work environment and compensation structure that makes people want to get up in the morning?
  2. Do your suppliers like to do business with you?  Are you considered fair and are they able to operate their business fairly while they work with yours?  If you were in their shoes, would you be happy to have your deal with them?
  3. Would you refer your best friend to your company as a customer?  Do you have the confidence in your product or service that you wouldn’t think twice about referring people you know to your company?

If you can answer all these questions positively, you’re acting as a mensch in business.  If your answers are all affirmative and you’re profitable and business is thriving–you’re in a lucky and fortunate situation.  You’ve managed the ultimate balancing act.

And if your answers to one or more of the questions are NO–it might be time for some soul searching.  Short term profits could give way to long term problems before you know it.

 

 

A New Group of Alternative Lenders: Investment Lenders

How we refer to lenders helps shape the industry.

Over the past year there has been an important shift in the alternative lending landscape for small business owners and entrepreneurs. A new group of non-bank lenders have entered the market and are willing to lend to businesses at amortizations that spread three to five years at interest rates that are typically in the mid to high teens. Some of the primary players in this category include Lending Club, DealStruck, Fundation and Funding Circle.

These new players create a big and important shift from the short-term cash advance or on-line daily ACH lenders who typically lend money at six-month amortizations with APR’s that can range from 30-200 percent. Some of the big players in this market include OnDeck and CanCapital, among others.

In my opinion, any entrepreneur who is looking for an alternative loan should consider one of these new players first, before considering a cash advance.  While their credit standards are tougher, if you are lucky enough to get one of these loans, your rates will be a fraction of the price of the cash advance lenders, you will have reasonable monthly payments vs. daily debits from your checking account, and you will have no or minimal prepayment penalties.

That being said, many entrepreneurs still don’t know about the new players–and a big reason for this is there is not a name for their category of lending.

“Alternative Lenders” is a broad term that often refers to many of the big names in the space and encompasses a lot of types of loans, including cash advance merchants. These new lenders are not short-term cash advance lenders, so it would be unfair to pigeonhole them into this grouping.

I would like to suggest that we call the new group of lenders “investment lenders”. The reasoning behind the nomenclature is that these types of loans give businesses enough time to take a loan to make an investment in their company, let the loan improve their business, and pay it back over a reasonable period of time. This is in sharp contrast to the cash advance lenders whose short-term loans often force the borrowers into multiple renewals and increased rates.

If we can all agree on a term, it will be a good thing for the lending industry and entrepreneurs. I think the term “investment lenders” provides an important contrast and distinction between the two products and I plan to use it in my talking and writing about the industry going forward.

Improving Transparency in Online Small-Business Lending

Website launch tackles issue of lending transparency.

Writing and talking about improving transparency in small-business lending is easy.  Actually doing something about it can prove difficult.  I hope that my company has taken one step in helping in this mission today with the launch of VisibleLending.

Visible lending is an open directory of short-term online business capital providers.  We have scoured the internet and found roughly 200 companies that exclusively promote short-term lending products, either in the form of loans or cash advances.  Recognizing that there was no obvious spot on the web where all these companies were compiled, we felt the need to create the VisibleLending site.

Now, these companies located in one place and users have the opportunity to write about their experiences with these lenders or brokers, and to add new companies that we either missed or that have recently entered the market.  Lenders have the opportunity to become more transparent by adding the names of their principles if they don’t include them on their website, as well as add their physical addresses.

We hope that the site will help to raise awareness about both the macro and micro economic issues created by these loans.  And we also hope that some borrowers, who are considering these short-term options, will come to MultiFunding and use our services to hopefully help them find better loan options for their businesses.

Hopefully, as the site grows organically and gains some traction, cream of the crop lenders in this category will raise to the top and if it’s the most appropriate loan for a borrower to make, this will serve as a guide and a resource to help point them in the best possible direction.  In addition, we hope that the site will help bring overall attention to this category of lending, and the companies involved in will begin to self-regulate.

So how do short-term online capital providers work?  Sometimes their products come in the form of a loan, where the lender withdrawals daily fixed debits from the customer’s accounts over some months.  In other instances there is a cash advance, where the lender buys a future piece of the company’s receivables and debits a percentage of their credit card sales daily.

These loans and advances are expensive, and are typically required to be paid back quickly.  In a traditional loan, borrowers make monthly payments, which gives them more time to use the money.  But with these short-term, unregulated loans, the payments are made daily and automatically withdrawn from a borrower’s account.  The compounding effect of these rapid, frequent payments make the interest rates higher.  It’s not uncommon to see APR’s ranging from 40–200%.

As often happens, the cash advances that eventually lead borrowers into a cycle of renewals.  In order to keep up with the rapid payments schedules, the borrower either renews his or her first advance or loan, and/or adds a second more expensive loan on top of the original.

As a largely unregulated industry, we are not aware of any one source that can accurately report on the amount of money being lent or advanced annually.  We also don’t have information regarding how many small businesses are taking up these loans.  That being said, anecdotally we do know that it’s a big business, with  some billions of dollars being transacted yearly.  And from our experience, as loan brokers, we visibly see the pain that these transactions can create.

As in any directory, we had to make choices about what companies to include and exclude.  In this initial launch, we picked companies that exclusively focus on short-term loans or advances.  We choose not to include companies that promote these loans as one of multiple offerings.  For instance, we did not include merchant processing companies that promote these advances as one of their options.

I suspect that some of my critics will call me a hypocrite for launching this site when sometimes in our loan brokerage we place clients in these short-term loans.  The fact is that we do, and that 3.86% of all the loan volume we have done in the last 12 months is in these short term loans.  I am not suggesting that there is not a place for them in the market.  I am suggesting that they be used carefully and thoughtfully.

Please join us in helping make www.visiblelending.com a viable tool for small-business owners.  If you’ve had experience with one of these lenders, please comment on it.  If you know of a lender that is not included in the list, please add them to the site.  And if you’re a lender who chooses not to list your principles or your address on the site, please include this information also.  We all need to help in the effort to improve transparency.