Breaking the Small-Biz Lending Barrier

By Joanna L. KrotzBusiness on Main

In today’s risk-averse credit climate, small businesses are having a tough time finding loans and growth capital. These alternatives can help lower the burdensome bar.

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It’s a challenge that won’t seem to let up. Despite all the initiatives designed to jump-start lending for small businesses — and rev up the job engine — banks are still sitting on cash and tighter lending standards for small enterprises.

Outstanding loans to small businesses totaled $609 billion at the end of 2010, according to a report from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, down from the pre-recession peak of $712 billion in 2008. Banks had generally cut back on loans at that time, of course. But lending to small businesses declined the most. Earlier in 2011, small-biz lending dropped another $15 billion, though some big lenders are showing modest loan increases as the year winds down.

No surprise, then, that out-of-the-big-bank-box ideas are surfacing, often with a local focus. If you’re looking for a loan, check out these other options.

Beyond traditional big bank lenders

Tap community banks. The nation’s 7,000-plus community banks account for more than half of all small-business loans of $100,000 or less, and nearly a third of small-business loans under $1 million, according to the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).

Community banks focus on local development, whether the locale is a region, an urban neighborhood, a suburb or a small town. For instance, Cross River Bank, based in Teaneck, New Jersey, has a loan portfolio that stretches from Bergen County, New Jersey, to Long Island, New York. Spokesman Stan Steinreich says, “Even during the height of the recession, the bank was closing five or six deals a week for businesses.” Most community banks offer both conventional and SBA loans.

As part of the 2010 Small Business Jobs Act, Congress earmarked $30 billion in low-cost capital (as low as 1 percent) for smaller community banks if the banks upped the ante on their small-business lending from 2009 levels. The fund, overseen by the Treasury Department, has been criticized for moving slowly. However, lately, the purse strings have loosened. So, some community banks now have an incentive to talk to you.

To apply for a loan, find the community bank closest to your business (find member banks on the ICBA site).

Leverage your social media network. Many entrepreneurs launch with seed money from friends and family. But once the company is up and running, they think growth money should come from somewhere else. Why? Step back and look around. You likely have a Facebook-filled roster of possibilities for financing options. If you go this route, be smart about it. Draft a written agreement with a formalized repayment schedule and the going interest rate, so no one has unpleasant surprises down the line.

Apply for a microloan. Microloans used to be only for needy people in developing countries. Nowadays, with about 275 U.S. microlenders — about half funded by the SBA — it’s mainstream. For example, the ACCION Network issued its first microloan in 1973 in Brazil. Today, ACCION is the largest nonprofit microfinance network in the U.S., with thousands of clients and more than $275 million in outstanding loans.

A microlender typically has more flexible credit requirements and lower interest terms than banks, and accepts applicants that banks label as “risky.” While the SBA defines a microloan as $50,000 or less, many microlenders will loan up to $100,000.

To find one, ask for referrals among small-business industry associations and networking groups — or search the Web. Then get references, because this arena has drawn many scammers. Choosing a microlender with SBA-backed, nonprofit intermediaries is a good way to go.

Join a credit union. Not-for-profit financial cooperatives such as credit unions are all about member needs and services. They serve communities and groups with shared interests. Since credit unions don’t focus on profit, you’ll get better terms on loans than with commercial packages.

For now, credit union loans to businesses are legally capped at $50,000. But members of Congress are working on legislation to raise the ceiling to $250,000.

Hire a loan hunter. The ongoing credit crunch has spawned some new sorts of loan advisors. MultiFunding, based in Broad Axe, Pennsylvania, offers advice about different lenders and the rates or loans for which you’re best qualified. Similarly, New York-based BoeFly, an online marketplace, uses proprietary technology to match small-business clients with its universe of member banks. Usually, fees for such services are a small percentage of the loan and based on results. No loan, no charge.

The Association of Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC) is partnering with BoeFly to launch an online application that lets users create bank-ready financing applications that can be matched to lenders (info at the ASBDC Loan Center).

Look for lender neighbors. Many experienced financial pros, baffled by the big banks’ intense caution, are seeing opportunity — again, usually in a regional or sector-driven way. For instance, Roger Goldman, a retired banker, launched the Berkshire Opportunity Fund in 2008. Funded by private investors who have business backgrounds, the BOF provides both loans and hands-on expertise to growing businesses within a 50-mile radius of its Lenox, Massachusetts, headquarters.

Says Goldman: “The BOF approach leverages the best ideas of three successful ways to invest in growth companies. That is, the long-term, hands-on approach of angel investing, the ‘buy and hold’ approach of value investing for better returns, and the double bottom line of social investing. We want to earn profits, create jobs and build communities as much as we want to grow companies.”

Similarly, in Canada, iFund Diversified Lending offers personal and business support services along with loans to help its borrowers. “We also build flexibility into the plan so businesses can generate profit and business expansion and delay repayment until they have sustainable increased revenues,” says sales manager R. Brent Lang.

Until the big banks decide to reboot their lending programs, these alternatives can get you a better deal.

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