Alternative Lending Helps Small Businesses

Small businesses rely on capital to fuel business growth. Some are able to generate working capital from operations. Others, however, are forced to consider taking on debt or new stockholders because they can’t. Since most entrepreneurs would prefer to avoid giving up voting rights and/or access to profits, debt is the preferred path among those whose businesses don’t self-fund. With the recession of the past few years, however, small business lending became  much harder to secure. Ami Kassar, who founded Multifunding, published a blogpost yesterday in the New York Times, discussing the current status of small business lending in the United States.

small business lendingKassar studied numerous reports from organizations like the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). He noted that SBA loan data, even when combined with bank lending data, fails to tell the whole story since there are so many alternative lenders who don’t aggregate and report their business activities. Kassar related his own experience as a loan broker to fill in some of the knowledge gaps resulting from the (un)reported numbers. Below are excerpts from his comments:

If you’re trying to start a business today, you can almost forget about going to a bank for financing. This situation hasn’t changed much in the past year, and we don’t see it changing any time soon — with a few exceptions. If you are opening a franchise outlet that is on the approved S.B.A. list or if you have solid personal collateral outside of your new business, you’ve got a shot.

In 2012, frustrations about the difficulties involved in financing start-ups resulted in a lot of political capital being focused on one possible solution, crowdfunding. Unfortunately, crowdfunding hasn’t taken off yet, and I don’t think it will in 2013. It will take time to iron out the kinks and figure out how to make it work — how to strike the right balance between helping companies and protecting investors.

On a happier note, things have definitely gotten better for companies that are clearly creditworthy. In 2012, if you owned an existing business and you had collateral, cash flow and good credit scores, it was a good time to borrow money at low rates. And I think that will continue for some time. Banks are now hunting eagerly for these borrowers.

The problem is that there are not nearly enough of them. And that’s why a group of alternative lenders — including factors and merchant-cash advance lenders — are lined up and ready to supply money to most of the rest of us. The challenge is that these borrowers face high rates that make it tough to grow and expand as much as they would like.

The alternative financing industry is growing rapidly and, I believe, will continue to grow in 2013. These lenders are extremely entrepreneurial and are leaving the banks behind with their speed and use of technology. Many are backed by premier investment banks and Silicon Valley venture capital powerhouses — investors who understand that entrepreneurs and small-business owners are throwing up their hands in frustration over how long it can take to get a loan from a bank, especially if the loan is backed by the S.B.A. More and more businesses are willing to pay the price of the alternative lenders just to be able to get their capital and move on.

There are some indications that the price of alternative lending may be coming down a bit as the industry gets more competitive. I expect this to continue in 2013. That said, there is still a wide discrepancy in pricing between bank loans and alternative loans.

Educate yourself on alternative lending in your area. I attend meetings of the local chapter of the Commercial Finance Association and have met some folks who are staunch supporters of small businesses through their practices rather than the mere words that we often hear from politicians or some of the large banks who really have a poor track record with small business. It very well may be that your capital needs could best be served by this emerging category of providers!

 

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Traffic Schmaffic – Get Conversions

In the course of advising startups (and some existing clients) on how to gain traction with their business proposition, I ultimately have a conversation about target buyers. Notice the word “buyer” –it is a different word altogether than “shopper” and “viewer.” When we obsess on trying to get web traffic, foot traffic, and the like–but not on conversion–we have lost sight of what is ultimately most important.

If given the choice between 100 website visitors of whom 20 become buyers or 1000 of whom only 15 become buyers, most would actually choose the 1000. Their reasoning would likely be that 1000 impressions is better than 100 and that they hope that the other 985 could be targeted for future conversion or word of mouth marketing. Yet, your business would have 5 fewer sales and a significantly lower conversion rate (1.5% vs 20%). Better, we would argue, to have a high conversion rate, more revenues, enhanced cash flow, and the opportunity to build relationships with five more people.

So much effort is wasted among entrepreneurs to get traffic–and not just in an online sense–that very little is left to think through conversions. Conversions are a better predictor of long term success than impressions. Get this thought into your psyche. It can make the absolute difference between success an failure.

Matthew Toren, founder of Young Entrepreneur, offers the following 5 tips for lead nurturing:

1. Be a problem solver. You have to admit that at least part of business success has to do with the timeliness of your products or services. You must answer people’s needs. The key is settling into a business that has problems you really love to solve, with customers whose pressing needs you are very good at addressing. When you’re able to identify your niche, you don’t only go out there to earn, you have a unique passion and an offering that suits the needs of those people.

2. Get into your customers’ psyche. People buy not only because they need things, they often buy to satisfy something deeper in them. It’s often the feeling they associate with a product that they finally make the decision to buy. Everybody needs a pair of shoes, but not just any shoes can satisfy that need. This is when branding, reputation and customer service come into play. In fact, this is why there is marketing in the first place. Get into what excites and interests your target market. This is the only way you can tailor-fit your campaign to the people who would not think twice of paying for what you have to offer.

3. Where are your customers? In online marketing, determining how your market interacts with the Internet is very important. It gives you leads to “where” they are online. Online behavior can point you to what sites they frequent, the social-media networks they prefer, the news they’re more likely to read and so on. If you know where they are, you can be sure to focus on places you need to have a commanding presence. This assures you of a steady stream of traffic of ready-to-pay customers, and it prevents you from effectively barking up the wrong tree. We all know how costly and time consuming that can be.

4. Do you really know them? To really pinpoint who your target customer is, you’ll want to dig in deep… find out how they tick, if you will. The key is to learn about them, even change with them over time. So basically, this means you can’t just buy one customer list and operate off that in perpetuity. You’ll need to continuously find out about your target audience. Are they reading things you should be reading? Do they shop at stores you’ve never heard of? All of these puzzle pieces could fit together and help you identify the bigger customer picture, if you’re willing to spend time accumulating them.

5. Close in on the deal. Once you know your customers and understanding where they are and how they think, you can specifically design an online marketing campaign that appeals to those people who would love to pay for your products or services. By being a problem solver, you’re forced to know yourself and understand your brand’s strengths and weaknesses. But understanding who you want to engage with online really seals the success of your business.

Discovering Financial Keys to Higher Profits

Keeping a finger on the pulse of the company is essential; financial reports and management information provide vital signs of business performance. The accuracy and timeliness of financial and management information is, therefore, critical for maximizing profits. 

Systems Management

The person managing your company’s management information systems is a key ally for the business owner. With responsibilities encompassing data collection, entry and analysis, this employee must have a solid grounding in accounting and information technology. In addition, the manager must be able to implement solutions to problems discovered during review and analysis of the information generated. 

Reporting Systems

Three areas affect the way reports can be used to enhance company profitability:

  1. how information is entered and maintained
  2. how results are read, and
  3. how the reports are used to influence business decisions.

The daily tasks of information entry and data maintenance are the building blocks of any management information system. Since it does not accurately reflect the true operating and financial conditions of the business, incorrectly entered or antiquated information can lead a company to ruin if used to make important decisions. The systems manager should employ systems, then, that are relatively easy to use and allow for daily but controlled data entry; menu-driven systems are easiest to use. The system should be selected based on designed checks and balances of the data to prevent reliance on incorrect information. Review of information to catch any errors or omissions and make corrections is a best practice.

Be sure that management team members all know how to use the system. If only the systems manager can use the system, it is useless because one person begins to wield too much  influence and indirect control over the company’s direction. Take care not to fall into a trap of the system driving the company rather than the other way around. 

Reading reports requires more than a casual glance; a thorough study of a report’s essential indicators gives the owner and other key executives in-depth knowledge of operating performance. The figure below is an example of such a report:

 

An effective system must be able to generate this kind of information. For example, reading Figure A prepares an executive to question issues of timeliness in production scheduling, loan advances, and interest rates.

 

Figure B is a job costing report. The way in which the report is read and interpreted will affect every decision made–or not made–with regard to the job listed. Comparing this report with a similar report for a project either in progress or completed, the relationship between the materials and labor for specific designs can be determined. The goal of the report is to establish standards for purposes of comparison; current projects are compared to the standards to analyze their performance.

Figure C shows a sample income statement for a growing small business ($3-5 million in sales). The income statement reports prior activity and should therefore be used to modify future business operations to maximize profits.  The statement needs to be even more detailed than the sample below to help determine how the profits or losses are being generated. One can be profitable and still not have cash. Cash flow projections, incorporating actual expenses, show the sources and uses of cash and are a good complement to the income statement and balance sheet.

 

The ability to read and understand reports and statements prepares the executive team member to use the information to influence business decisions. After reviewing Figure B, you should be equipped to establish workable production schedules. Subsequent production meetings should highlight areas to reduce costs and improve production deadlines.

Figure B should be discussed with all managers, who in turn implement  the schedules and budgets with subs and vendors. The resulting scheduling and budgeting systems ensure timely, cost-efficient job completion. Managers also need to assist in keeping the information current.

In Figure C, data is presented comparing the current year to the prior year in order to analyze trends and ratios. Tracking composite numbers such as gross profit takes on meaning when it serves as a basis for comparison, rather than being viewed in isolation. Deviations from the norm should be discussed in management meetings. So, if sales and profits are lagging,  the group should investigate any underlying causes and develop alternative production and sales methods–and implement them immediately.

Keeping Costs Under Control

If expenses are simply allowed to fluctuate, with no way of monitoring where they will be, optimal profitability will be hard to come by. Cut out as much fat as possible and keep the company lean. Clearly, certain expenditures are necessary and unavoidable. There are ways, however, to limit their influence on company profitability. For example, taking advantage  of any offered cost savings an creating efficient procedures to save time and project financing overruns will cut costs significantly. A purchasing requirements program is a start for reducing many hard costs. Most soft costs, however, can be decreased through effective scheduling.

An effective requirements program includes the following steps:

  • using purchase orders 
  • inspecting all deliveries
  • taking advantage of discount incentives
  • implementing invoice verification procedures
  • scheduling efficiently

Using Purchase Orders

Purchase orders are seen as a relic of old business practices by some. Others view them as an indispensable management tool. Somewhere in between the extremes there is a fit for every organization. Their usefulness is in getting reliable quotes upon which invoices can be checked later.

Inspecting all Deliveries

Inspecting all deliveries is essential to make sure orders are shipped according to the quantities and quality specifications provided on the purchase orders. Many managers complain that they do not have the time to physically inspect every item delivered to a work place. Inasmuch as doing so would require a huge time commitment, they are right.  However, for containing cost overruns, these same managers could not be more wrong in their assumptions.  Inspecting samples  from every delivery when delivered and figuring quantities by up close, visual inspection are necessary steps to ensure that suppliers are responding to the company’s needs.

Taking Advantage of Discounted Materials Prices

When suppliers make discounts available on purchases, your team should try to make the most of them. In addition, verify all invoices against delivery inspection reports, checking  the invoiced amount against the total amount delivered, and unit prices against the purchase order. This procedure will help ensure that a supplier’s negligence is not costing the company money.

Scheduling Efficiently

Time constraints are of utmost importance in eliminating inventory carrying costs–whether your business produces goods or services. If a product line or project is slow to be completed, many extra costs begin to accumulate. Alternative uses of profit margins are foregone. Had your team been able to finish sooner and collect within a finance cycle closer to the one in which work began, there would have been profit margin to discuss how to allocate. With margins, choices exist that don’t otherwise–suppliers can be kept happy and bankers and investors can too! If yours is a business that uses work in process assets, insuring those assets is an ongoing cost for the company. Theft and obsolescence of design and features due to carrying raw inputs too long further eat away at margins. The cost to repair items damaged over time also rings up expenses. All of these combine to make inventory (due to delayed delivery) costly.

Proper scheduling is not limited to getting one work team to immediately follow another onto the job. By ordering raw inputs in bulk through purchase orders, trips to supply houses are reduced, resulting in cost savings through lower fuel costs and less time away from actual work. As these employees spend more time on the job and less time running around town picking up materials, their projects are completed faster. Getting teams to succeed one another promptly with slight overlaps can also tighten production schedules and help reduce costs.

By tying your project financing to interest rates in a market where rates are rising, you and your team can make the most of prompt completion of projects. If you operate efficiently, you can move before rates rise consistently. Finally, scheduling vacations with as little overlap as possible will help with your production efficiency, and thereby improve margins.

 

Too Many Houses Are Us

Most businesses face unforeseen circumstances while in pursuit of their sales and other goals. The way these situations are handled will quite often determine the degree to which the company’s efforts are successful. A useful method to see what others have tried and what principles we can learn from their experience is the case study. When your business produces products, it creates inventory. When the inventory is too large for the demand, it becomes a problem. Let’s take a look:

A speculative home builder on the West Coast discovered to his chagrin that the market in his local area was inundated with homes very similar in style and price to those he was building in large numbers. There was both a general glut, and a specific one related to this company. As his lender began to point out, an inventory level that has escalated out of control presents severe cash flow problems among a variety of other concerns. The lender was also quick to point out that the builder was in jeopardy of defaulting on construction loan interest payments a couple of months down the road if he did not begin selling some of his inventory–and soon.

How could this builder (and others in a similar situation) end this problem of increasing inventory? First, the problem can normally be attributed to one or more of the following factors:

  • an overbuilt market in the builder’s product offering
  • incorrect, incomplete, or absent market research
  • an inability to revise product in terms of plans, elevations, and prices to meet buyer demands.

Once a builder has determined the existence of increasing inventory levels–and their cause–it is time to stabilize the situation. Selling off an old unit for every new unit constructed is a bare minimum requirement. It is not wise to continue building simply to try to fund aging inventory interest payments out of new construction loan draws. As older homes are sold, new construction can be considered. Due consideration includes understanding the problems that led to former inventory level increases well enough to avoid the same errors in the future.

In addition, an inventory reduction plan should be initiated immediately, making sure to target the oldest inventory with the worst gross margins first in any type of incentive offer. The use of incentives can be gradually lessened as the builder moves through the oldest inventory into newer inventory with better margins. Sales staff can be of great help in determining what may help to move homes. If qualified buyers are hard to come by, it may be advantageous to work with local mortgage lenders and offer a program for qualifying buyers at lower monthly payment levels in the early years of a home purchase. Also, it is always helpful to walk all inventory and make lists of all items that need to be repaired, replaced, or cleaned up.

Finally, a builder can prevent uncontrolled increases in inventory levels by performing more careful, thoughtful research, making revisions to product as soon as buyer tastes are known to have changed, and offering ongoing, automatic incentives for aging inventory to be sold. It is often helpful to “re-research” current projects to make sure that the original research findings remain valid and informative. Periodic product updates and revisions are necessary even in a stable, conservative market. Buyers are always looking for small things that make one home purchase better than another. By catering to buyers’ particular tastes and requests, a builder can offer a better home and still make money.

Even if you are not in the homebuilding business, but in some other business that has inventory, these principles are important to observe. Think through ways to reduce inventories–better yet how to prevent them from ever becoming a problem!