Michael Best delves into the world of financing and how to fund your business through good times and bad
It takes cash (also known as ‘capital’) to launch a business. And once it’s launched, it takes cash to sustain it for the rest of its life. If the cash isn’t generated from within – by profits earned – then it has to be topped up by external sources. Cash is to a business what blood is to a body. If a body’s blood level drops below a critical level (based on its size) or stops flowing – even for a short while – it’s game over. This may sound cold, but you won’t find a better metaphor for what cashflow means to your small business’s survival.
Unless you’re in a more fortunate position than most small business owners, you will have to confront the conundrum of how you’re going to raise cash almost certainly at the start-up stage, and possibly at points during your business’s life, particularly if it grows rapidly: one of the great ironies of rapid business growth is that it can result in business failure due to insufficient cash flow. Ultimately, the answer will lie with a financier of some sort – an investor, lender or donor. But before seeking a financier, you have homework to do.
The purpose of a cash-raising strategy is to identify the right target and select the right ammunition. It comes down to presenting a persuasive argument for why a targeted investor, lender or donor should turn money over to your small business. So, what’s involved in designing a cash- raising strategy? There are four steps.
Step 1. Figure out how much cash you’re going to need and when. This should be the easy part. It’s a product of the cash-flow projection of your budget package.
Step 2. Determine which of the various types of financiers are best suited to your small business (more about this shortly).
Step 3. Prepare the pitch. Frame your initial pitch like a story. Everyone likes stories, even hard-nosed investors, lenders and donors. If your target expresses interest then expect to bring out the detailed narrative and spreadsheets.
Step 4. Deliver the pitch to the targeted prospect. Make it informative and eye-catching, but keep it brief. If you use visual aids such as flip charts or a laptop and projector, support them with something that can be taken away. A one-page document or flyer should be enough.
It’s a little different if you’re dealing with a bureaucracy, such as a bank, with rigid procedures and reams of forms. But I’d still recommend presenting a flyer with graphics to summarise the purpose of your loan application. Now, what type of financier should you be targeting? (For the purposes of our discussion, a ‘financier’ is a person or institution who controls a large amount of money and can give or lend it to businesses via an equity investment, loan financing or donated funds.)
Heidi Scrimgeour’s Telegraph article ‘How to finance a growing business’ [imagesmag.uk/finance] provides a good thumbnail explanation of equity investment: “Equity funding entails giving up a slice of your business in return for investment. Venture capital and angel investment networks are the two main equity funding routes open to small businesses, but require a clear plan for delivering a return to investors within an agreed timeframe.”
Investors can be found through networking events, community organisations, professional associations, trade organisations, business conferences, networking platforms such as LinkedIn and mutual contacts. If you (and your advisors) determine that an equity investor is the best option for your small business, then select your target and make your pitch. But this won’t be the financing route for most run-of-the-mill small businesses. These businesses won’t likely arouse any interest among venture capitalists or angel investors.
What else drives many small business owners to favour loan financing over equity financing (aside from failure to interest venture capitalists and angel investors)? An independent spirit. Equity financing requires giving up at least some ownership. And, quite often, it also involves sharing management control. Information on the various types of lenders and their lending methods could be a book on its own, so I’m just going to touch on the more common options: financial institutions, private lenders, business incubators, factors, and family and friends. Whichever you choose, you must consult with your accountant or another qualified independent resource about any borrowing facility you’re considering.
Financial institutions are the most common source of loans for small businesses. They offer financing options such as short-term debt, long- term debt, lines of credit and credit cards. Financial institutions also offer specifically tailored forms of financing, such as commercial mortgages (for acquiring buildings) and lease financing (for vehicles and equipment). A private lender is usually a wealthy individual who will lend your small business money for a higher rate of interest than he or she could expect from a lower-risk conventional investment in, say, a financial institution or blue-chip stock. Sometimes the individual will be a successful business person willing to offer advice, expertise and useful contacts, similar to a mentor. Factors can address immediate cashflow needs by providing cash in exchange for uncollected accounts. Generally, they’ll buy your accounts for about 90% of their face value and assume the risk of collecting them.
‘Donation’ might conjure up an image of someone handing over a bag of cash to a small business with no expectation of repayment and no strings attached. This would, of course, be the ultimate in cash-raising, but it’s the stuff of fantasies. The term ‘donation’ here takes on a broader meaning to include any payment that doesn’t have to be repaid – for instance, government grants and subsidies. These are usually sums of money granted by governments for specific purposes (research and development, attendance at trade shows and conferences, marketing expenses, etc). The nature and amount of these grants will vary, but they will inevitably be conditional on compliance with government priorities, such as creating jobs or developing a particular industry. It’s a potential source of funds worth exploring. Another form of donation is crowdfunding. As the term implies, crowdfunding involves appealing to the population at large for cash. In return, participants are usually offered rewards (based on a tiered system) and the satisfaction of funding something worthwhile. These campaigns are controlled by rules and standards. Be clear on them. There’s a lot of research material on the topic.
Unconventional funding sources
So far, we’ve discussed conventional cash sources. But there are certainly creative, unconventional ways to finance small businesses. One of my company’s early objectives was to capture the ink business of the bigger Canadian textile printers. But there was a big stumbling block: delivering screen printing ink to all points of Canada in a timely manner. Our solution was to offer the larger printers we were targeting an Ink On Tap (IOT) programme. Essentially, we placed an inventory of ink on the customer’s floor and monitored it monthly. Most of our targeted printers bought in mainly because it solved one of their biggest headaches – anticipating ink requirements.
The concept worked so well that my small business almost became a victim of its success – the IOT inventories and receivables required funding over and above our regular business. My start-up needed to raise additional cash to fund about 12 IOT programmes. The solution was an investment programme whereby investors could joint venture with my business on individual IOT programmes. The invested amount – usually about £12,000-£18,000 (CA$20-CA$30,000) and a return based on a share of the profit was repaid according to a predetermined schedule. The investors received a good rate of return and my business benefitted from capturing a share of the market it would otherwise have been hard-pressed to finance. The IOT programme is an example of the old ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ wisdom. If you’re faced with necessity, some creative thinking might turn up unconventional but feasible ways to raise cash.
Sources to avoid
Even when it proves difficult to raise cash, there are sources you should avoid. Some are obvious, such as Three-Toes Tony with his beige raincoat, cauliflower ears, black-and-white brogues and violin case. Some are less obvious, and may even seem like good sources, such as family and friends. No matter how tempting, don’t do it. It’s high risk and the potential victim is family peace. Few things can destroy family ties and friendships as a dispute over money, particularly if it’s been lost. This is why I believe in third-party, arm’s-length funding for small businesses. Long after a business has failed and disappeared, the family will still exist. I’ve also seen credit cards recommended as a source of borrowing for small business start- ups. I caution against this as well. Not only is it an expensive form of borrowing, but also the outstanding balance can quickly accumulate until it becomes difficult to repay. Mark Zwilling lists eight other types of investors to avoid in his Startup Professionals Musings blog; I encourage you to read it: www. imagesmag.uk/InvestorsToAvoid.
Research and perseverance
Small business financing is a vast topic. Research it thoroughly and never lose sight of the importance of cash in the survival of your small business. If you’re turned down, it’s normal to feel discouraged briefly. But get over it and don’t give up. Believe in your business and its prospects, keep refining your strategy and keep knocking on doors until you find the right financier for your small business. In my office is a handwritten poster of unknown origin; its wonderful message seems appropriate here: “Your value does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth”.
This is an edited excerpt from Characters Who Can Make Or Break Your Small Business by Michael Best. Through 39 characters, Michael covers all aspects most small business owners can expect to encounter in the life of a business from inception to disposition. It can be read linearly or used a reference book to be consulted when confronted with a particular issue. Real life examples and anecdotes presented conversationally means it’s not your average, boring business book. It is available from: