How to Pick the Right Debt Provider for Your Business
There are many options in the market you can choose from to decide which suits your business the best.
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When founders think of raising debt, they often imagine going to a bank. In my three years advising companies on debt financing options, I frequently remind founders that banks are certainly an option — but not the only one. Founders exploring debt should familiarize themselves with all of the options in the market, from traditional asset-based loans to more innovative venture debt and revenue-based financing solutions.
These various lenders don't just have distinctive structures and terms for their capital, they also each have a particular set of criteria to qualify for a loan. By acquainting yourself with the entire market upfront, you can focus on the lenders that suit your business the best, maximize the number of term sheets you receive and spend less time chasing dead ends.
Related: Why Founders Should Embrace Debt Alongside Equity
Banks themselves come in various shapes and sizes. When it comes to business loans, you have your regional community banks, large multinational banks and specialized venture debt banks. Sometimes one large bank may roll up all of these divisions under one roof, providing a range of options from revolving lines of credit, term loans, warehouse lines and more.
Oftentimes these banks have access to the cheapest available capital and therefore can offer you the lowest interest rate. But bear in mind that while this is usually the cheapest option, banks also have a high bar to qualify for their capital. They may include covenants or other performance requirements to ensure the business continues to meet their benchmarks throughout the duration of the loan.
For many small businesses, taking a loan from a local community bank can be a simple low-cost option. But be aware that they may have minimum asset or cash flow requirements to qualify or even ask for a personal guarantee.
Venture debt banks, on the other hand, specialize in VC-backed cash-burning businesses that show huge growth potential. Oftentimes, getting a loan from one of these banks requires several rounds of equity from brand-name venture capital funds, providing up to 25-35% of your most recent equity raise amount.
Eventually, once your business is generating several millions of dollars in cash flow, an even wider spectrum of bank options opens up including some of the largest multinational banks.
Venture debt funds
More traditional venture debt offerings are very similar to those one would find at a bank. A three- to four-term loan structure is standard, though generally, rates are more expensive than banks with the flipside of a greater quantum of capital.
Similarly, venture debt funds look for VC-backed companies or at least some form of institutional backing, rapid growth and high LTV/CAC. More bespoke options do exist as well, oftentimes branded as growth debt rather than venture debt, since they can provide capital to angel-backed or even fully bootstrapped businesses.
Both of these options typically come at a cost of capital in the teens with interest-only periods and can be quite creative in structure. Founders should be aware that for both venture debt banks and funds, loan packages often come with warrants — effectively an option to purchase shares of the company in the future at a fixed price. Meaning, a small amount of dilution should be expected, though some lenders in this space pride themselves on being fully non-dilutive.
Related: When is the Best Time to Raise Venture Debt – Here's the Key
Revenue-based financing (RBF)
An increasingly popular non-dilutive financing solution for early-stage companies is technically not debt. Revenue-based financing functions more akin to a cash advance. Capital injections are repaid as a percentage of monthly revenues, as opposed to a fixed principal repayment schedule.
If you're looking for the fastest path to receiving capital, revenue-based financing is the solution. Many firms that use API integrations to your accounting and commerce data are able to aggregate that data through their underwriting systems and offer terms in 24-48 hours.
While this capital tends to be on the more expensive side, speed and flexibility make up for it. Unlike other lenders, RBF facilities usually don't require collateral or impose restrictive covenants that may limit your ability to grow.
In terms of qualifying for an RBF, monthly revenue minimums can be as low as $10K with at least six months of operating history. The crucial requirement is to show evidence of recurring revenue. This usually means SaaS revenue with low churn, but can also be applied to most subscription-style businesses or even transactional ecommerce businesses that show a strong history of sticky customers.
Non-bank cash flow lending
Traditional private credit funds lend to established companies that have several years of traction under their belts. They generally are EBITDA or cash flow positive, some starting at as low as $3M annual EBITDA while others require $10M+. Businesses can be founder or sponsor-owned, and range from fast-growing later-stage tech companies to more traditional businesses and even turnaround financing for distressed situations.
Use of capital covers a huge spectrum from funding leveraged buyouts or asset purchases to growth capital. Funding structures run the gamut, from senior secured to mezzanine debt (below senior lenders but above equity-holders) or even preferred equity in the capital stack. Rates are typically higher than banks from single digits to mid-teens, with three- to five-year terms. Closing fees and exit fees are common, as are covenants, and loan sizes are derived either holistically on the business fundamentals or as a function of cash flow.
Non-bank asset-based lending (ABL)
An ABL facility allows borrowers to use an asset as collateral for a line of credit or term loan. The asset can be as liquid as accounts receivable and inventory or as illiquid as real estate or a specific piece of equipment. Some of these loans can be secured with just one asset. For instance, a company needs a new warehouse and gets ABL financing for that, or it could be a combination like A/R and inventory.
Asset-based lenders will often focus on a specific industry and require a minimum amount of whichever asset(s) they specialize in (accounts receivable, inventory, capital equipment, real estate or even intellectual property). Those assets can be held on the books as collateral or in some cases purchased outright at a discount (receivables factoring, for example).
Unlike the other debt facilities covered, ABLs normally carve out a specific asset rather than taking a security interest on the entire company. This lowers the risk for borrowers and provides some flexibility to stack on additional debt, provided they can cover it. The advance rate (the amount of cash you get up-front) is usually between 50% and 90% of the value of the pledged assets.
Related: The Old-School Solution to Cash Flow Problems Hiding in Your Receivables
Questions to ask yourself
As you consider which debt provider to approach, you need to think about the characteristics of the funding vehicle that will unlock the long-term potential of your business — while covering your short-term cash flow needs. Don't forget that each lender has its own unique criteria. Fundraising without a clear plan of action can become a huge time suck for founders, pulling them away from operating the business. By strategizing upfront and learning the market, you can ensure that you only spend valuable time with lenders that can provide a real offer.
Once the term sheets are in hand, you can now leverage them and pick the terms that are best for you. I'll discuss that in my next article.