Taking Advantage of Government Venture Capital

The SBA doesn't just guarantee loans. It backs venture capital funds, too.

What it is: Since 1959, the Small Business Adminsitration has licensed and regulated a network of private Small Business Investment Companies (SBICs) that supply equity capital, long-term loans and management assistance to small businesses.

This is basically government-sponsored venture capital. The SBA does not directly provide cash to the SBICs. Instead, the SBA guarantees loans that the SBICs take out in order to boost the amount of capital they are able to provide to businesses.

There are presently more than 300 SBICs licensed across the United States, with around a billion dollars invested annually in hundreds of companies. The program's success stories include major players like Apple, Costco, Intel, FedEx and Jenny Craig, to name a few.

How it works: Find an SBIC, preferably in your area, and go in and pitch. Do your research because SBICs vary when it comes to size of financing offered, mix of equity investments and loans, preferred industries, and geographic preference.

Related: 10 Questions to Answer Before Pitching Investors

Regulations also limit an SBIC to only invest in a business with a tangible net worth of less than $18 million and an average $6 million in net income over the two years prior to the investment. The Small Business Investor Alliance, however, says it is also possible for a business to qualify if it meets an employment or annual sales standard, which are different depending on the business' industry.

The Small Business Investor Alliance says its members are often quick to make a call on whether a business is a good fit for an investment, but SBICs still must undertake a few weeks of thorough study before making a final decision.

Upside: Because they have capital guaranteed by the federal government, SBICs are less risk averse than a typical venture capital outfit. So they might be worth a shot for a business already seeking VC.

Before they receive an SBA license, Small Business Investment Companies need to prove their management and directors have a broad range of business and professional talents, which make them well-suited to become advisors to your business.

SBIC investments can also leverage additional coverage. The Small Business Investor Alliance says industry averages show that for every dollar invested in a business by one of its members, another two become available from commercial banks and other sources.

Downside: As with venture capital in general, you're giving up control of your business to others. Trusted mentors could decide you are not up to snuff, and quickly become your boss.

SBICs also receive debt capital through the program with a 10-year maturity and semi-annual interest payments. This motivates them to primarily focus on companies that are mature enough to make current interest payments on the investment. This leaves earlier stage companies out in the cold.

How to get it: The SBA website lists three places to go to look up an SBIC. There's the SBA's own SBIC directory, the Small Business Investor Alliance site [http://www.sbia.org/], and the National Association of Investment Companies.

The SBA advises businesses to consider the types of investments SBICs make, stage of investments, industry focus and geographic concentration before seeking them out.

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