When Lissa D'Aquanni created a gourmet chocolate business in her Albany, New York, basement in 1998, she had not only a passion for candy-making, but also a knack for spurring citizen involvement. The former nonprofit executive had worked for women's advocacy groups, most recently promoting breast cancer awareness. If there was one thing she knew, it was how to rally community support.
Her ability to leverage local resources would be invaluable as she made her business a fixture of her Albany neighborhood. And in no area were those skills as critical as in financing. Last year, when D'Aquanni wanted to move her business, The Chocolate Gecko, to an abandoned building three blocks away, she needed $25,000 in owner's equity for the $260,000 renovation project. So she mailed letters to area residents soliciting financial support for her revitalization plan. "Within a month," she recalls, "we had raised the $25,000." Volunteers also helped renovate the building, cutting project costs from an estimated $300,000.
Check out D'Aquanni's unorthodox and creative financing plan: An economic development group, the Albany Local Development Corp., loaned her $95,000 to buy the building. D'Aquanni obtained a $100,000 government-guaranteed loan from a local credit union to renovate the structure. Facade improvements were funded through a matching grant program to encourage commercial development in Albany. A local community development financial institution used a state program to fund energy-efficient upgrades, including new windows, light fixtures, furnaces and siding. Says D'Aquanni, "There were lots of different pieces of the puzzle to identify and figure out how to access."
Conventional financing wasn't an option. "I was looking at a business that did about $44,000 in sales doing a $260,000 project, and the traditional funders were apprehensive," explains D'Aquanni, 37. They urged her to rent a storefront rather than buy the rundown building. Undeterred, D'Aquanni met with a neighborhood group to develop her expansion plan. It wasn't the first time the community had helped out. In 1999, the cash-strapped chocolatier needed molds and a temperer for the Christmas rush. Recalling a strategy she had seen in a magazine, she sold discounted gift certificates to raise capital. D'Aquanni offered customers $25 in free chocolates for every $100 in gift certificates purchased. Within two weeks, she had $5,000 for the equipment purchase. "A lot of folks mailed them as gifts to friends, family and co-workers," D'Aquanni says. "And most of those people ordered chocolates. My customer base exploded."
Indeed, many entrepreneurs successfully launch a business only to encounter funding hardships as they attempt to grow. The ability to think outside the box, experts say, is critical for firms short on funding.
"There are pockets of money out there, whether it be municipalities, counties, chambers of commerce," says Bill Brigham, director of the Small Business Development Center in Albany. "Those are the loan programs that no one seems to have information about. A lot of these programs will not require the collateral and cash that is typical of traditional [loans]. They may be a little more lenient as far as credit history goes. That's one of the key roles we can play--what entrepreneur is going to think [he or she] can qualify for HUD money?"