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.

Applying for a Loan? You Need to Know This One Thing

Understanding debt obligations is the most important thing when applying for a loan.

There are many things a borrower needs to consider when thinking about a loan, but one outweighs all others by a landslide: what the monthly payment on the loan will be and whether that borrower can or cannot afford the payments.

I don’t want to minimize the other things that borrowers need to consider–liens, prepayment penalties, etc.–but this one fundamental tops the list.  Borrowers must understand what their monthly debt obligation will be and validate this versus current income and potential income from the proceeds of the loan under consideration.

When weighing the idea of any loan, the borrower should be confident that he or she can comfortably afford it.  If the monthly payments take too much of a bite out of your cash flow, you’re probably going to find yourself having to add more and more debt to keep afloat.

Taking out a loan that you are not confident you can pay back is too often the final nail in the coffin for suffering businesses–or the force that pushes a business over the edge into a perpetual debt cycle.

Sit down and carefully consider your current financials and projected financials over the next fiscal year.  If a loan doesn’t comfortably fit into the equation, it may not be the best time to seek financing or may be an indicator that there are bigger problems in the business that need to be dealt with before a loan is considered.

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.

A Loan Broker’s Responsibility to Small Business

Helping small businesses get into bank loan financing should be the driving force for brokers.

At my loan brokerage office, our mission is clear–we want every company we work with to get to a point where they are bankable through an SBA-backed loan or another traditional bank loan.  If a company is considered “bankable “, that is, they meet all of the criteria necessary to receive financing through an FDIC-insured bank, they’ve earned the right to get the cheapest loans that will allow them the best opportunities to grow and create jobs.

This being said, we’re not naive to think that every company is bankable: in fact, most are not.

In cases when we work with these non-bankable companies, our driving force is always to help them get to the point where their chances of being approved for a traditional loan are greatest.  While small businesses work towards this goal, it’s likely that they will pay more for capital through alternative loans.  However, we don’t want them to get stuck in the land mines of alternative lending or be forced into endless renewals.  We guide them and help them maneuver the lending landscape, identifying the lenders who will work with them and celebrate when they graduate to a bank loan.

We attack this challenge on a micro and macro level.  On a micro level, we treat each company and entrepreneur we work with care and concern for the longevity of their business, and do our very best to help them find financing that works for their unique company.  We also speak out for the need of reform and transparency within the alternative lending space.  These high-cost loans as a last resort recommendation for small business owners.

On a macro level, we have created tools like Banking Grades which has evolved to Entrepreneur Bank Search to help companies we don’t have the opportunity to help.

I also personally take my position as an advocate for small businesses within the lending industry as a serious endeavor.  My published work, in addition to speaking engagements at conventions and lobbying our government, is all aimed at helping create a path to bankability for entrepreneurs.

It’s time to step up as loan brokers and accept the responsibility that we have to act on behalf of entrepreneurs in order to help them receive smart money for their businesses.  Brokers who act with their best interests in mind at the expense of small business owners are doing a great disservice to the small business industry and the economy as a whole.

As a loan broker, it’s vitally important that we always treat borrowed money for a client as a means to an end.  The “end” for some businesses will be to pay off a loan.  In many cases, however, the “end” is becoming bankable and entering into an affordable, FDIC-insured bank loan.

 

MultiFunding Turns 5

Dear Friends,
On January 1, in addition to celebrating the New Year, MultiFunding will turn five.
On one hand, I want to slow down, take a breathe and celebrate. After all, it is an accomplishment. I want to jump up and down with the team and discuss the victories along the way towards this milestone.
And on the other hand, the five-year mark is just another day on the long journey of building a business. I’m sure it won’t really feel any different.
As so many of us know, being an entrepreneur is tough and can be extremely lonely. I can’t really compare the last five years to anything I’ve ever been through or done before. Those who haven’t traveled this journey simply wouldn’t understand it.
Entrepreneurs are a club of sorts. When we get together, we understand each other. Some people dream about being an entrepreneur one day-but fantasizing and doing are very different things.
In my mind, entrepreneurs are heroes and our entire economy is driven by the success of those who choose to join this club. As I’ve fully realized how tough it is to build a company over the past few years, I’ve become more resolute and determined than ever to help entrepreneurs connect with the resources they need to help feel safe and protected on their journey to success.
Can you think of a brand or a company that truly stands for helping entrepreneurs and small-business owners? Some like to make that promise-but if you dig under the covers you will find lots of concerns.
My focus for MultiFunding, as we continue to grow, is to really, truly help other entrepreneurs. We will treat other entrepreneurs as we would hope to be treated, and consider every client we work with to be the hero that they are.
For those of you who have joined us and helped us in our adventure over the past five years, I am forever grateful. And to those who want to be a part of the mission going forward, we welcome you with open arms.
From our family to yours, we wish you a Happy Holiday season and a prosperous and healthy 2015.
Best,
Ami & The Team

The Missing Ingredient in “Shark Tank”

Adding a lender to the panel of sharks would give the show more depth and educational value.

In the past week’s episode of Shark Tank, Curt Campbell, an entrepreneur from the tiny town of Fish Creek, Wisconsin pitched his company www.oilerie.com to the sharks for an investment.

In his pitch, Mr. Campbell talked about putting it all on the line for his company, and told stories of having his power and cable shut off at earlier stages in the business.

While Mark Cuban did make an investment, I thought his response to Mr. Campbell was genuine.  He thanked him for telling his story of his ups and downs candidly, and spoke about how he taught more to budding entrepreneurs watching the show then any of the sharks could.

As I reflect on Mr. Cuban’s comments–it reaffirmed my thoughts that there is a key component missing in the show–one of the sharks should be a lender, not an investor.

After all, every time an entrepreneur needs money for their business–they should consider debt and equity options.  Sometimes the choice is very black and white–because in some cases there isn’t a lender or an investor who would do a particular deal.  But in plenty of cases, the choice is gray, and this should be highlighted on Shark Tank.

I would love to see a lender on the show, sitting side-by-side with investors, asking the entrepreneur questions about their cash flow, collateral, and credit.  Entrepreneurs should know that these issues matter.  Additionally, I would like to see the sharks sharpen their value proposition to an entrepreneur, when and if there is a viable lending option on the table.

It would be fascinating to watch an entrepreneur have to make a decision in front of millions of watchers between taking a loan and keeping control of their company but have to risk their house a collateral or taking an investment.  That’s a far tougher decision between giving “x” percent of your company up to on shark or “y” to another.

It might even be juicier to watch an entrepreneur decide between a 6 percent interest loan that requires them to put their house on the line versus a 30 percent loan that does not.  Or, it could be compelling to watch an entrepreneur realize they have forfeited a loan option because they previously took on an investor who is not willing to personally guarantee a loan.

These debates would add a compelling component to the show, add to its drama, as well as its educational value.  I hope the producers consider it.

Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants and Financial Planners Get Taken Over by the Net

Can technology replace professions where human touch is needed?

Recently, I gave a talk at the AltLend Conference in Las Vegas where discussions about innovative finance options for small businesses were center stage.  Speakers including members of the U.S. Small Business Administration alongside presidents and CEO’s of lending sources that span the gamut from traditional bank loans to alternative lending.

One panel member, Brock Blake CEO of www.Lendio.com, stated during the conference that loan brokers are akin to travel agents–and should be phased out and replaced by technology.  In my opinion, this is not, and should not, be the case.

Financial advisers, accountants and loan brokers fall into a category of professions where human touch and real-world experience factors heavily into decision making when it comes to situations that affect another person’s life and livelihood.  While there is most certainly a place for technology to improve and expand the lending industry, I think its true purpose is to supplement the work that loan brokers do.

In the same way that you would contact a lawyer if you were served a lawsuit or visit a dermatologist if you had a bad rash, you would want to work with an experienced loan broker to receive expert advice and help in securing a business loan.  While the Internet can help you research and learn about any given topic, there is no true replacement for personal, expert assistance.

I think we need to be careful in viewing the Internet and technology as the sole answer for problems in the small-business lending world.  When a business is looking for good, solid advice for loan options and enters into the phase of preparing their business for a loan application, technology should take a backseat to an experienced loan broker who can walk the small-business owner through the process in order to achieve the desired results.

We hear often that switching to a more autonomous lending process on the web is what will turn business lending on its head and revolutionize the industry, but we don’t often hear the flip-side of this argument.  While the net can provide speed and convenience in lending, it often times comes with an incredible price in terms of interest and factor rates and short amortization periods.

Technology can solve for many things and changed industries forever, but if the premise is false about the ability to properly and responsibly do this, it will ultimately cause more problems then it tries to solve.

Are You a Venture or a Debt Entrepreneur?

This decision is far more personal and emotional than rational.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the Inc. 5000 conference in Phoenix where I participated on a panel called “Where’s the Money!”  As a part of the panel, I spoke about debt options and alternatives and another colleague represented the venture and angel community.  Our advice to the audience seemed to be bi-polar.  “Only borrow as much money as you need,” I said.  “You’re going to sign on the line personally and have to pay it back.”  “Raise as much money as you can as fast as you can, ” replied the venture capitalist.  From his perspective, entrepreneurs should build businesses aggressively and quickly.

As I looked out at the audience I perceived some legitimate confusion.  I told the audience the story about my very first Inc.com column where I asked the question, “Are you a tortoise or a hare entrepreneur?”  How you choose to build your business will often be directly connected to how you decide to fiance it.  This decision is  far more personal and emotional than rational.

There was part of me that wanted to snap back at the venture capitalist and suggest that “venture entrepreneurs” are not really entrepreneurs after all because they’re always betting with somebody else’s money.  I wanted to align myself with the folks in the room who still owned 100 percent of their fast-growing companies.  After all, I thought to myself, no one has really “been there and done that” if they haven’t put their house on the line.

The truth, though, is that this is not a black and white issue.  Venture entrepreneurs take on a kind of risk all their own.  They risk building a company that they don’t have control of.  And they sometimes risk moving so fast that they can miss important and subtle changes in their business models that you only find when sweating it out.

On the other hand, debt entrepreneurs take different risks.  They put their necks and their houses on the line, and they risk being swept away by well-funded venture outfits who might choose to pursue similar business models to their own.

Both the debt and the venture entrepreneur are risking their time, which is after all the one personal asset we all share.  So once you’ve decided to invest the time, think carefully about which finding approach you feel most comfortable with and stick with it.  It’s almost like the old Apple and IBM debate–the answer to which machine or approach you prefer is completely up to you.

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.