Steady cash flow is a business' life blood, especially when that business is a startup. Cash offers the potential for future market growth and expansion. Without it, the best product ideas go nowhere but back to the dining room table where ramen noodles are served (yet again) for dinner.
Getting enough money to launch a business is possibly the most difficult obstacle any entrepreneur will face. Yet thanks to widespread web-based markets, access to working capital has greatly increased while the costs of obtaining it have decreased.
Here are six options that could take an entrepreneur from ramen to Dim Sum.
#1: Bootstrapping with a Twist
Defined as starting a business with little or no startup funding, bootstrapping typically means a new business' life blood depends on your personal credit cards, savings accounts or even retirement accounts.
Realizing that there had to be more than one way to bootstrap, Sally Outlaw, co-founder of Peerbackers, decided to take the 'crowdfunding' approach.
In crowdfunding, multiple donors give money to a startup without the paypack obligation. Instead, the business uses the cash to launch the new product or service.
'You really get funding, customer acquisition and marketing all rolled into one,' says Outlaw. 'Those who 'back' you often become evangelists for your business. Since they contributed, they feel a part of your venture so they often help spread the word about you and want to see you succeed.'
In short, 'peerbackers' use crowdfunding to help entrepreneurs kill three birds with one stone.
#2: An Investment Portfolio That Is 'All in the Family'
When it comes to bootstrapping, don't overlook the people right in front of you. 'Often, the easiest money to get is from family members who believe in you and who trust you, but it's the money with the most emotional strings attached,' says Grant DiCianni, President of Tapestry Productions.
One way to approach this potential minefield is to propose the startup as a private investment portfolio. For example, a $15,000 equity ownership will net a participating family member 'X' percent of the startup's gross sales over the next four years.
Still, business and family can get sticky. 'Never forget you are playing with other people's money,' DiCianni warns. 'You have to prove you are responsible, make them feel comfortable. But as a small startup business, you cannot guarantee anything -- the percentage, the installments or the repayments. You must explain to them in painful detail how this relationship will work. Then you outline it and have [your investors] sign off on it.'
#3: Accelerator Labs
Small angel investors such as Y Combinator build on the premise that large technology companies are no longer on the forefront of innovation. Instead, they prefer to buy their way forward through savvy startup acquisitions rather than pursue costly internal development.
Offering intense, entrepreneurial mentoring boot camps, these angels provide seed money, guidance and direction to a select number of tech startups for winning the ultimate graduation day present -- the chance to pitch their product to a room full of willing investors.
'It's almost like getting a mini-MBA,' says Ethan Austin, co-founder of GiveForward.com, a company that won funding through Excelerate Labs. 'There were days when we had seven mentoring meetings in a row. It's a frenetic pace but you get to meet with executives who have been there and have experienced what you are going through.'
Lowered capital costs also mean that accelerator labs aren't just for techie innovators anymore, although Austin does note that most accelerators prefer web based applications or cloud businesses. 'There are niche ones out there for healthcare startups, branding and consumer based products,' he says, although he notes that companies with heavier capital costs within the $5-$10 million range might be better off looking elsewhere.
'Accelerator labs are not perfect for everyone, but there are a lot of them out there.'
#4: Royalty-Based Financing
Also known as revenue-based financing, royalty-based financing works for established companies that don't have the big market share to attract venture capitalists or the traditional real estate and equipment collateral traditional bank financing demands.
Royalty-based financing from companies like CIT lends against future income. Loan terms can range from a simple percentage of monthly revenues to principal and interest and a percentage of the revenue stream to all the above, plus a small equity position. There's a certain return on investment for the investor while the business owner relinquishes only minimal control.
'For us, it came down to our long term goals. Unlike many tech startups, we are not necessarily interested in just a big exit [and] most angel and venture capital investors will drive the company in this direction,' says David Friedman, CEO of Inhabi.com.
Every small company could hook a big fish client -- that's the good news. The bad news is that these larger clients (like Fortune 100 companies or local and federal government contracts) can take forever to pay their receivables. Big name clients are great for building brand appeal but slower payment cycles crimp valuable working capital, stunting desperately needed company growth. This is where factoring can free locked up cash flow.
Factoring is when a company sells its commercial accounts receivable invoices to a buyer (or factor) at a discount. The business walks away with cash (albeit a reduced amount than what it would have received if the client had paid the invoice in full) while the buyer takes on the responsibility for collecting the outstanding payments.
#6: Traditional Bank Financing
Banks have always been stringent in their business lending practices but the past few years have made them downright acidic when it came to helping small businesses succeed -- even for those with healthy profit margins and solid historical track records.
Bank financing is a last resort that might be changing. According to CNBC, Citigroup and Wells Fargo reported a small but growing increase in business loans and new loan commitments over the past 14 months. While startups are still better off seeking funds elsewhere, established businesses might want to take a second look at whether it's worth a trip to their local bank.
The Investing Answer: Entrepreneurs shouldn't limit their innovative thinking to just their product or service. Thanks to lowered capital costs and increased access to working capital funds, small business owners should realize that non-traditional financing routes might be the most logical path to smoother cash flow.