Every year, thousands of business owners look for financing to either start or grow a company. Getting small business financing is difficult and often requires entrepreneurs to try several alternatives before they find the right solution.
This short guide addresses the most common ways to finance your business, along with some important caveats to keep in mind. It is written specifically for small and mid-sized business owners who have no desire to become financial experts but just want the facts – the “bottom line.”
The basics – Debt vs. Equity
There are two basic ways to finance a small business: debt and equity.
Debt – a loan or line of credit that provides you a set amount of money that has to be repaid within a period of time. Most loans are secured by assets, which means that the lender can take the assets away if you don’t pay. A loan can also be unsecured, with no specific asset securing the loan. However, unsecured loans are usually not available to new and small businesses.
Equity – selling a part of your business (also known as selling an equity stake). In this case, you don’t usually have to pay back the investment because the new owner of the equity gets all benefits, voting rights, and cash flow associated with that equity stake.
Regardless of the product name, all financing solutions consist of either debt, equity, or a hybrid combination of both. Keep in mind that there are no “good” or “bad” solutions. The best solution for you depends on your specific circumstances and requirements.
Here is an overview of some of the more common methods of financing a business:
Perhaps the easiest way to finance a business is to use your own money. In an ideal world, you should save money for a period of time and use this money to fund your business. This method is probably the wisest, most conservative, and safest way to start a company. However, an obvious problem with this type of financing is that you are limited by the amount of money you can save.
Some entrepreneurs take this approach a step further and take money out of their homes (through a home equity line of credit), their retirement plans, or insurance policies and use those funds to run their businesses. This strategy is very risky because, if the business fails, you stand to lose your house, retirement, and your insurance. And, given that many small businesses fail in the first five years, the odds are stacked against you.
Our take on this: Saving money to start or operate a business is a great idea. However, we oppose using retirement savings, home loans, insurance loans, and similar sources to finance risky business ventures. If you plan to use any of these sources, consider speaking to a qualified financial advisor.
2. Credit cards
Credit cards can provide an effective way to finance a business and extend your cash flow. You can use them to pay suppliers and often earn discounts, certain protections, or other rewards. The downside of credit cards is that they are tied directly to your credit score.
Credit card cash advances are another source of funds. Most credit card companies impose limits on their cash advances and charge high rates for them. As such, using cash advances can be expensive, but they can also be useful as a last resort.
Our take on this: Credit cards can be very helpful in extending your working capital and alleviating cash flow problems, especially if you use them to pay suppliers. Be careful not to overextend yourself, and remember that your credit score is affected by how you use the card.
3. Friends and family
Many entrepreneurs fund their small businesses by getting friends and family to invest in them. You can ask your friends and family to make an equity investment – in effect “selling” them a part of your company, or you can ask them for a business loan.
There are two problems with using friends and family as a source of business financing. The first one is that if the business fails, you risk affecting the relationship. Understandably, people are often very touchy when it comes to the possibility of losing money. You have to ask yourself if you are willing to risk your relationship for the sake of your business.
The second problem is that you will most likely gain a business partner even if you don’t want one. You can count on the fact that your friend or family member will want to be involved in your business decisions. Once their money is at stake, even so-called “silent partners” can become very talkative and opinionated. This dynamic can affect the relationship, especially if you choose to ignore their advice.
Our take on this: Asking friends and family to make an equity investment can be a good way to finance your company if you are very careful. Be sure to get the agreement in writing and have a lawyer draft it for you. Also, spend a lot of time educating your investors about the risks of your business. Lastly, consider reminding them to only invest money that they can afford to lose.
4. SBA Microloan Program
The SBA has a little-known but extremely helpful microloan program. They provide business loans for up to $50,000 to small businesses. They don’t provide loans directly; instead, they use intermediaries to fund the loans (get the list here). Many of these intermediaries also provide management assistance and may require training as a condition for a loan. The advantage of this program is that their training and assistance often increase your chances of success.
Our take on this: The SBA’s microloan program is a great offering aimed at entrepreneurs who need money to start and operate their businesses. The technical assistance they provide makes this program a great alternative for small business owners.
Accion is one of the largest microfinance and small business lending networks in the US and has offices in every state. In a sense, their offerings are similar to an SBA microloan. They provide startup financing, and they also fund ongoing concerns. To qualify for general funding, you need to have been in business for six months, and you must have sufficient cash flow to repay the debt, among other requirements. Accion also offers startup loans of up to $10,000.
Our take on this: Accion is a great source of funding for small companies, especially those with strong local roots within their communities.
6. Angel investors
Angel investors are private individuals or small groups of executives who invest in businesses, usually by making an equity purchase. They can provide money, expertise, and guidance to help start and grow a business. Getting an angel investment can be very difficult because the investor needs to see growth potential and a viable business plan with a reasonable exit strategy. An exit strategy is a liquidity event that allows investors to recover their investments and take their profits. Most angel investments have a time horizon of three to five years.
Our take on this: Angel investors can be a good option if you find an angel who can provide industry experience and contacts along with funding. It is very important that you retain a specialized attorney and possibly a CPA to help you understand how to structure the equity sale; otherwise, you could end up with a substantially diluted ownership stake at subsequent fundings. You can find angel investors at the Angel Capital Association.
7. Clients and suppliers
Clients and suppliers can help finance your business if you use the right strategies. Suppliers usually ask for an upfront payment before shipping the goods. This request places a heavy strain on your cash flow. You can improve this situation by asking suppliers to give you 30 to 60 days to pay. Note that getting net-30 to net-60 days to pay an invoice may require that you build a track record with your supplier. However, this can usually be done in a few months.
If you work with large commercial clients, they may ask you to offer 30-day terms to them. This scenario can create cash flow problems for your company. You can improve your cash flow by offering early payment discounts to them. These offerings provide a 1% to 2% discount to clients who pay within ten days.
In most cases, retail clients pay when they receive the service. However, you can also ask clients who place large orders to provide a deposit. This strategy helps defray supplier costs.
Our take on this: Leveraging your suppliers and clients is one of the best ways to finance your business. It does not rely on lenders and can be implemented relatively quickly. Many small businesses have used this strategy successfully.
Factoring can provide a reliable source of funding if your company has cash flow problems because clients pay their invoices in net-30 to net-60 days. The factoring line allows you to improve your cash flow by leveraging your slow-playing invoices from good clients.
However, you can use factoring only if you work with commercial and government clients with good credit. When used correctly, the line can improve your cash flow and enable you to take on new clients. You can see how it works and get a quote here.
Our take on this: Factoring can be a great option for companies with high gross margins and whose only problem is poor cash flow because of slow-paying clients. Getting factoring is comparatively easy, and the line is usually very flexible.
9. Accounts receivable line of credit
Companies that have outgrown factoring lines and invoice a minimum of $250,000 should consider an accounts receivable line of credit solution such as sales ledger financing. Sales ledger financing allows you to tap into your accounts receivable, up to your credit limit. Sales ledger financing is similar to a commercial line of credit, though they are underwritten differently. Lines have flexible limits, fewer covenants than bank lines, and are easier to get than business loans.
Our take on this: Sales ledger financing is a great option for companies that have at least $250,000 tied in accounts receivables. It is cheaper than conventional factoring, more user-friendly, and serves as a stepping stone to bank financing.
10. Merchant cash advances
A merchant cash advance (MCA) provides financing based on your future sales. Also called “cash advances,” these solutions are easy to get and often can be funded within a few days of requesting them. However, they are very expensive. They also have a high rate of default, so use them carefully.
Our take on this: We prefer to steer clear of this solution due to its high cost and high risk of default. If you choose to work with an MCA, consider getting advice from a CPA. They can help you determine if it is the right solution for your company.
11. Business loans and lines of credit
These well-known products involve a bank providing financing to run your business. With a loan, the bank lends you a set amount of money that is repaid over a period of years. A line of credit provides a revolving facility that can be used when needed and paid back on a regular basis – much like a credit card.
Getting a loan or a business line of credit can be difficult. The bank’s main interest is in getting paid back. And their preferred way of getting paid is through the cash flow that your business already generates. As a result, banks provide financing only if your company has a proven track record of generating cash and has substantial assets.
Our take on this: Loans and lines of credit are a great way to finance a business. Lines of credit are particularly helpful to handle cash flow shortages. However, getting this type of financing is difficult and is seldom an option for small companies with limited experience.
12. Purchase order funding
Like receivable factoring, purchase order (PO) funding helps companies that resell goods at a markup and need funds to pay their suppliers. The finance company pays your supplier directly, which allows you to fulfill large orders.
This solution can be very effective for small companies that have received a large order and need funds to cover supplier costs. Given its cost and qualification parameters, it works only for transactions that have high margins and do not require product customization (learn how it works).
Our take on this: Purchase order funding works only if the transaction is for the resale of finished goods and if gross profit margins are 30% or higher. However, if your transaction qualifies, it’s a great tool to handle large transactions without giving up equity. Like factoring, qualifying for PO funding is relatively simple.
13. Supplier financing
Supplier financing is a type of funding that helps manufacturing companies and distributors pay their suppliers. It works by having a finance company intermediate the transaction and resell the goods to the client with up to 90-day terms. To qualify for supplier financing, a company must have minimum annual revenues of $5,000,000 and have a good track record.
Our take on this: Supplier financing is a great option for manufacturing companies that need funds to pay suppliers. In many cases, these facilities can operate alongside existing financing solutions. This flexibility gives them an edge over other solutions because they can be used on an “as-needed” basis.
Disclaimer: We provide factoring and purchase order funding, so our view on these products may be biased. You should always consult legal and financial experts before engaging in a business financing transaction.