For small businesses struggling to get financial backing from banks, help may be on the way.

ZipCap, based in San Diego, is testing out a new type of loan that attempts to turn customers into collateral. Called "loyalty capital," the new lending model may be ideal for small retailers, restaurant owners and service providers who don't necessarily have any collateral in the traditional sense. They may not even be profitable. Instead, these businesses often have really loyal customers who ZipCap thinks are as good as money in the bank. 

"By using customer loyalty as collateral and an asset, we're creating an accounts receivable stream for the kinds of businesses that otherwise have none," Evan Malter, ZipCap's founder and chief executive, told the New York Times.

While the company is still in the testing stage, ZipCap is already working with small business customers such Katie's Pie Shop & Record Store, a "Rockford, Illinois original;" Curl Up & Dye, an environmentally-friendly hair salon in Detroit and Beezy's Cafe, a restaurant in eastern Michigan.

Here's how it works: After first signing up for ZipCap, companies are asked to invite their customers to join ZipCap's "Inner Circle" program. To do so, they need to spend a certain amount of money at the business within a certain time period. Customers who fulfill their Inner Circle pledge also get perks and rewards from the business. Once a shop owner has signed at least 100 Inner Circle members, it is then approved for a low-interest ZipCap loan.

Bee Roll, the owner of Beezy's Cafe, says she's the ideal ZipCap client. Her restaurant has stayed in business for six years, however most of the money she makes goes right back into the business. She also rents her home and has a lease on the business's location--making it difficult to secure a loan from a bank. She does have plenty of loyal customers, however.

Beezy's was able to lasso 130 Inner Circle members--each willing to commit to spending $475 a year at the restaurant. In March, Beezy's owner Bee Roll told the Times that she took out a $10,000 loan with a 12-month repayment schedule and an annual percentage rate of 3.99 percent.

"When a customer feels as though they have contributed to the success of a business, they have a greater bond to that business and are more compelled to visit," Malter told the Times

But the big question mark behind ZipCap's model is whether or not members will stick to their word. According to Roll, one Inner Circle member chose to leave the program, and leave his or her pledge unfulfilled, and another 12 are currently not on track toward meeting their pledges.

With a message of small-business empowerment, ZipCap is moving ahead with its loan-financing program. It has signed up 10 more Michigan businesses as part of a pilot program.

While the long-term sustainability of ZipCap's model is yet to be seen, its experience so far should prove that small businesses don't have to be unicorns to command rabid loyalty from customers. 

Published on: May 21, 2015