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The Post-Banking Loan

Factoring--an expensive way to get cash fast--is on the rise. But before you take the money, take a hard look at the deal.
April 15, 2010

Say you're a young startup--growing fast, but with little-to-zero positive cash flow--and you're straining to reach the next level or just to get through the end of the month. The bank-financing drought is showing no sign of letting up, and of course credit lines are reeled in tight.

What's the answer? For a growing number of startups, it is factoring. The practice involves a financing company, or "factor," advancing you money based on its buying your receivables at a discount; your customers pay the factor the full value later, when the bill is due. Factoring gets you cash in hand immediately--but at a steep price. Factoring fees are much higher than interest rates charged by a commercial bank. Fees are quoted by the month, so a typical 3 percent fee is actually the equivalent of a 36 percent annual interest rate.

Dealing with a factor can also be much more difficult than with a commercial bank. Banks are highly regulated, offer competitive rates and commoditized lending services, so entrepreneurs can, with few exceptions, easily anticipate the cost and terms of their loan. But factoring is very fragmented. Most factor financing is provided by smaller, unconventional lenders. It is much less regulated and the quality, reliability and integrity of factors vary widely.

The reason more startups are turning to this more expensive, risky alternative is simple: It is often the only way to get cash. And if it is the route you decide to pursue, due diligence is the single most important step. Investigate how long the factor has been in business, where its offices and headquarters are and the background of its management team. Ask for referrals from current clients, and research complaints or lawsuits using web searches, the Better Business Bureau and the state's Attorney General's Office. Also, trust your gut: If you feel you can't build trust with the factor, don't pursue the loan.

If you go forward, review your contract with a magnifying glass, particularly these points:

Finally, always keep the end in sight. The real goal with factoring is to improve your cash flow, increase liquidity and rebuild net worth to qualify for commercial bank financing. Commercial bankers can help you figure out the financial targets that can help you re-qualify, but it is up to you to create the plan.

As a commercial lender, I have seen businesses resort to factor financing for one or two years at the most. If the company still didn't qualify for bank financing at that point, chances are, it was already out of business.

Neil Berdiev has been in the financial services industry for 12 years, most recently with Boston Private Bank.