The risky options for Main Street cash, credit, when banks say no to lending


Under current banking and credit conditions, many small businesses are likely being bombarded with pitches for online loans and cash advances. Some of these offers, however, could lead the business down — or further down — the rabbit hole of debt.

Certainly, online lending platforms can make it easier for small businesses to obtain financing, and they serve a key need in a market that has long struggled to get the attention of traditional banks. The recent CNBC|Momentive Small Business Survey found owners saying they had lost confidence in banks as a result of the regional banking crisis, and even more to the point, almost half said it isn’t easy for them to access capital to operate. The debt ceiling fight has introduced another element of economic uncertainty that has small business owners on edge.

Compared with a bank loan, online loan providers typically require fewer hoops for borrowers to go through, more relaxed underwriting standards and a quicker turnaround. The challenge is finding a reputable provider, at a reasonable cost, and with terms that won’t undermine the business’s long-term prospects.

“Some people say you shouldn’t have a credit card, but it’s not the credit card. It’s how you use the credit card. The same is true with online financing,” said Nicole Davis, founder and principal of Butler-Davis Tax & Accounting LLC.

Here are five things small businesses need to know when considering an online financing offer:

Online loans

An online loan can be used to fund various business expenses. It’s generally easier to apply and qualify for than a traditional bank loan, and options may exist even if you have less-than-stellar credit. The loan amount can vary, with many ranging between $100,000 and $500,000. Some online loans are 12 months or less, but longer-term options may also be available. These loans generally carry higher interest rates than might be available from a traditional bank or the U.S. Small Business Administration, with annual percentage rates often in the range of 6% to 99%, according to a NerdWallet analysis. Terms are based on the owner’s credit profile, how long the business has been operating, its financials and the amount borrowed, said Travis Miskowitz, a partner in the CFO advisory services group at the accounting and advisory firm Wiss.

Pay attention to fees that could make the loan more costly, Miskowitz said. These could include an application fee, a good-standing fee to see whether the business is in compliance with local laws, and a credit check fee.

Many lenders may also require a personal guarantee, which can be debilitating in a default and can also impact the owner’s ability to qualify for a personal loan, such as a mortgage. A secured loan could be more advantageous because the rate will likely be lower and the lender might not require a personal guarantee, Miskowitz said.

Merchant cash advance

With a merchant cash advance, companies borrow money against their future sales and pay it back as these sales are generated, often over three to 18 months. A merchant cash advance can be particularly attractive when a small business needs cash fast, generally within a few days, said Alan Wink, managing director of Eisner Advisory Group. This type of funding can also be more accessible to owners with bad credit.

But there are caveats. Terms vary widely by provider and the cost of capital typically isn’t expressed as an APR, making it harder for businesses to understand. Funders charge their fees as a factor rate, generally 1.1 to 1.5, according to NerdWallet.

The advance amount multiplied by the factor rate is what needs to be paid back. But knowing that total doesn’t necessarily help the owner understand how expensive the cash advance is since owners are generally more familiar with APR. Doing a conversion can be useful for comparison purposes.

A cash advance can be quite costly — in the triple digits when expressed as an APR, according to NerdWallet.

Fixed vs. variable rate debt

Beyond the type of financing, businesses need to consider whether the rate is fixed or variable, the duration, the business’s ability to pay it back on time, costs, including underwriting and late fees, if any, whether personal or business guarantees are required, and what happens if a payment is missed.

“This is not a scroll-down-and-accept-the-terms-situation,” said Will Luckert, president of small business solutions at Corpay, a corporate payments company. “There can be a number of tricky things buried in the terms and conditions,” Luckert said.

Especially with merchant cash advance, owners get into trouble because they don’t understand what they are signing up for. Start by crunching the numbers on your own. To illustrate, Luckert offers the example of a $10,000 advance where $12,000 needs to be repaid in 30 days. To determine the APR, take $12,000 and divide by $10,000. Then subtract one and multiply by 100. Take that answer, 20 percent, and multiple by 12 to get an APR of 240%. Owners can also use this NerdWallet calculator to help determine what their effective APR would be.

Also consider the repayment frequency — daily, weekly or monthly — especially if you are already in a cash crunch, Davis said. She doesn’t recommend daily repayments, for example, saying, “It’s a quick fix to a problem that can become a ruinous cycle. “

In an attempt to protect small businesses, California now requires certain cost disclosures to merchants. New York is also implementing disclosure rules, even as the California regulations are being challenged in court. In the meantime, it’s still a buyer-beware market. “People need to do the math themselves, especially on a cash advance, and see if there’s anything you can do that would be less expensive,” said Paul A. Rianda, an attorney in Irvine, Calif., who specializes in serving the bankcard industry.

How to find a reputable business loan provider

To help avoid a bad actor, it’s a good idea to vet potential providers through your CPA or attorney since they likely deal with online providers frequently, Wink said.

Also look at online customer reviews and browse for regulatory actions against the funding company, said Waseem Daher, chief executive and cofounder of Pilot, which specializes in bookkeeping, tax, and CFO services for high-growth technology startups.

Owners can also check in with the Small Business Finance Association, an industry organization whose 25 members are mostly online lenders and funders. Members of the SBFA have to agree to follow certain best practices related to pricing and term transparency, access to customer service and fair collection, among other things. A small business can contact the SBFA to see if a particular financing company is a member or to ask specific questions about the industry, said Steve Denis, the organization’s executive director.

Additionally, the SBFA has a relatively new certification for industry professionals to help ensure they are properly trained. A database of certified professionals is planned for the future, but in the meantime, owners can contact the SBFA for this information, Denis said.

Other alternative lending options

Depending on the circumstances, another form of funding might be a better option. This could include family and friends, investor equity or credit cards. Businesses should also think about what can potentially be done to prop up the business without relying on third-parties, Daher said.

Can you get your customers to prepay in exchange for a discount, for example? Can you get longer payment terms from your vendors? Can you do anything else to reduce your costs?

These efforts won’t cost you anything and can help avoid the need to rely on a third-party for funding, Daher said.