Focus on borrowing

Borrowing money has never been easy for many small businesses, especially when they're in the startup stage. It's gotten even tougher in the aftermath of the mortgage and credit crisis, with lenders more worried about taking on the risks associated with business loans.

Glen Boehmer has owned a printing company for more than 20 years, and taken out a number of mortgages and lines of credit over the years. His company, Sentinel Printing Co., in Hempstead, N.Y., has a good track record but he said of his latest trip to the bank, "it's been a challenge this time."

Boehmer applied for a $1 million loan before the credit crisis began last summer.

"We seemed to get to September and it just became very complicated, more paperwork all the time," he said. "It was almost like they didn't believe the information we were sending in."

The loan finally closed last month, with the terms having changed from what Boehmer originally expected to get.

"All told, it was over a year that this was on the table," he said.

Raising capital, whether it's from bank loans or investors, has long been a hurdle for small business owners. Many people starting companies dip into personal credit cards, home equity or retirement funds to get their enterprises going. If they get loans, the money often comes from family or friends. And even after they've been in business for some time, loans can still be hard to get.

Surveys of small companies' sentiment by the National Federation of Independent Business have found little change in the general availability of credit. The NFIB said in its latest analysis that while the number of business owners reporting that loans were hard to obtain ticked up in March, overall, "measures of credit tightness have not changed much for a decade."

But many small business owners nonetheless are finding it might take several tries, and a change of prospective lenders, to get the money they want.

Valerie Johnson was recently turned down for a $100,000 business line of credit by a big national bank, and was shocked because of her good personal credit and the fact that her company has $500,000 on deposit at the bank. Moreover, she said, her three-year-old company, Las Vegas-based Big Feet Pajama Co., now has annual revenues of $1.3 million and is turning a profit.

One of the reasons the bank cited in its rejection letter was a single 30-day late utility payment from 1997, Johnson said. She said the bank also claimed that her personal credit score was too low, although it was 740, a number many borrowers wish they had. It also said she had too much debt outstanding; Johnson said she has no credit cards, and 50 percent equity in two homes.

The bank's branch manager was equally surprised, according to Johnson: "She said, 'this should be a slam-dunk.'"

Johnson is now following the route that many small business owners decide to take, by applying to a community or regional bank. With a big bank, "I'm a minnow. With a community bank, I'd be a much bigger fish in a smaller pond," she said.

"They're dying for me to move over there," she said of the local bank.

Many small business owners advocate using local or regional banks because they are less bureaucratic than big national banks, and therefore easier to deal with. They also can be a great networking tool — bank officers often refer new business to their customers, knowing they'll get referrals in return.

There are other ways a small business owner can help make the borrowing process less of an ordeal. Boehmer got help from a lawyer, who did some of the legwork for him and helped him understand what was going on.

"It keeps the frustration level down," he said, noting that he was also able to focus on running the business while she dealt with the bankers.

Understanding all your financing options before you apply for a loan will help relieve some of the uncertainty and probably save you some time. For example, while a bank might turn you down for a regular business loan, you might be able to get one guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. Visit the SBA Web site,, to learn more about these loans.

The Web site for SCORE, the organization of retired executives who dispense free advice to small businesses, has a primer on financing that explains options such as venture capital and equipment leasing. Visit; the site can also match you with a SCORE counselor who can help you determine your options.

Accountants and business consultants also can help, and there are plenty of books on financing in the library or bookstore.

But given the current uneasy environment, business owners are likely to find that money is harder to come by, no matter what kind of financing they seek.

Spongecell, an Internet marketing company with offices in San Francisco and New York, has worked mostly with venture capitalists.

"We are finding that there is much scrutiny in the kinds of deals they're interested in," CEO Ben Kartzman said. "They're getting deeper into the due diligence process."

Kartzman said his company has been able to raise venture capital, but it takes longer to do than it did 18 months ago.

"I expected it just because of what's happening with the overall economy," he said.

Spongecell, which is less than two years old, is also seeking a bank loan. Kartzman, noting that his is a young company, said that process is also "proving to be quite challenging."

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