Small-business owners across the U.S. on Friday rushed to submit loan applications for the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which is providing government-backed loans that could eventually be partially or fully forgiven.

The upshot: Chaos and confusion reigned on the first day business owners could apply, leaving them frustrated and in financial limbo heading into the weekend. Frequently changing guidance from the Treasury Department, including an "interim final" update published Thursday night, left many lenders unsure of how to proceed. Major banks, including Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank, publicly said on Friday that they weren't yet ready to accept loan applications.

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"It's been a clusterf---," says Nicole Snow, founder and CEO of yarn, clothing, and home goods wholesaler Darn Good Yarn, which is based in Clifton Park, New York. "The government is supposed to be there in a time of crisis, and they're kind of screwing around with us right now. Meanwhile, business owners are being bombarded, and their employees are relying on them to assimilate this stuff at lightning speed--while they're trying to not get freaking coronavirus."

Snow, whose 12-year-old business has made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America the past three years, has begun paring back operating hours for her 14 employees. Daily sales have fallen by 50 percent so far, and her revenue projections are cratering. She's paying half-rent at her office and warehouse--against her landlord's wishes--because it's all she can manage.

Due to global supply chain disruptions, Snow says she has three weeks of supply left, and is hoping a $200,000 paycheck protection loan could help her get through this. She says her lender, Capital Bank, told her it plans to submit her application on Monday with the hopes of more clarifications. "I have to do everything I can to make sure my business is here for another day," Snow says. "I don't have a 30-day plan. We're taking every day at a time."

Plenty of other business owners fear that delayed applications could result in delayed disbursements, adding another unknown to an already uncertain funding timeline. Grant Geiger, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based health-care tech startup EIR Healthcare, says his revenue could fall to zero by the summer: His 25-employee company, which makes modular patient rooms for health care facilities, can't yet enter the construction phase on current projects due to coronavirus-related factory disruptions.

Geiger says his Wells Fargo representative told him that his application for a $150,000 paycheck protection loan wouldn't be accepted until Monday. He spent the rest of Friday approaching other lenders with no luck.

"As a health care company, it's been a lot of frustration because we're sitting on the sidelines," he says. "We want to help, but we haven't been able to--and then when we're asking for help, we haven't been able to get the help we needed."  

Everyone agrees getting help to small businesses is an urgent matter. That's why this program was rolled out so quickly, even as banks are unprepared and the guidelines in places unclear. 

In a call with the media on Friday, Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive vice president and chief policy officer, urged patience, given the challenges with the program's rollout, and said that the timeline for loan disbursements is still unknown.

"A week ago at this time, this bill hadn't even passed Congress," Bradley said. "Everyone's working at lightning speed, but there's going to have to be some patience all around. I'm really impressed at how quickly America's financial institutions have responded."

Inc. has compiled a list of ways you can help speed up the process. For example: 

  • Your ability to get to the front of the line likely depends on having a good relationship with your lender. Of course, try that approach first.
  • Apply for your Paycheck Protection loan through multiple banks, in the hope that one of them might be able to process your application more quickly.
  • Don't assume that because you've applied, your application will be processed or funded. A number of online financial firms, for example, are collecting applications. But many haven't yet been approved to make Paycheck Protection loans themselves. In the meantime, many companies are packaging up applications hoping to sell them to banks in bulk.
  • Beware of loan scams, especially from people who say they can get you a loan faster for a fee. You shouldn't have to pay a cent to submit a Paycheck Protection loan application.

For business owners, making this happen quickly will partly rely on vigilance. "We're tracking things every single day," said Darn Good Yarn CFO Kat Camarota. "Tomorrow might be different. This afternoon might be different. Monday is going to be drastically different than today."