From the April 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

In what could be considered the lending equivalent of a drive-thru window, the SBA Express program has guaranteed loans to thousands of entrepreneurs attracted by the program's fast application process. But it may shortchange some businesses: Despite the $250,000 lending cap, Express loans average about $45,000. Charlie Thomas, SBA's director of program development, says the modest loan values signal a strain of caution among SBA lenders adjusting to a new program. "Hopefully, lenders will look at the longer term success of the business to forecast financial need," he says.

Tightfisted lenders haven't dampened entrepreneurs' enthusiasm for the program. Some 37,000 SBA Express loans were approved in fiscal year 2003, about half the SBA's total loans for the year. The program was created as an affordable lending resource for startups. The SBA defines eligible businesses as retailers with gross sales of $6 million or less, wholesalers with 100 employees or less, and manufacturers with 500 employees or less. Banks can charge up to 6.5 percent above the prime rate for SBA Express loans, compared with a maximum 4.75 percent for SBA's 7(a) loans.

"It's a win-win situation, as this market used to have to employ credit cards to meet financing [needs]," says Alice Magos, writer and analyst with CCH Inc., a Chicago publisher specializing in business finance. An SBA Express loan helped Mike Robillard, president of San Antonio Clippers in San Antonio, when he expanded his Sport Clips haircut franchise by two locations. "We had to start laying out money quickly to lock down those spaces," he says.

But Mark Deion, president of Deion Associates & Strategies Inc., a consulting firm in Warwick, Rhode Island, warns companies not to underestimate capital requirements to avoid the bureaucratic burden of a conventional SBA loan. "If companies take a shortcut," he says, "they may find themselves undercapitalized."