My company, Electric Feel in Arlington, Virginia, installs and manages electric car charging stations. We have 10 locations in the pipeline and one location in the process of installation. It took me a year to research my business plan and network, during which I heard more naysayers than you would believe, but I didn't give up.
I didn't qualify for large loans, but my business didn't need $50,000 to get off the ground; it needed just a fraction of that. So, I turned to less traditional forms of funding my small business. I turned to crowdfunding.
Kiva.org is a unique crowd-lending platform in which lenders make microfinance loans directly to small-business entrepreneurs in the U.S. via the internet. In return, the borrower pays back the loan at a 0 percent interest rate. Kiva is probably best known for their international crowdfunding, but they've been lending to U.S. based entrepreneurs for nearly five years, starting with a commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative with support from partners like Capital One.
Not only was I able to get the money I needed through Kiva, but I believe it made me into a stronger, savvier entrepreneur. Here's how.
1. Non-Traditional Funding Can Make You More Creative With Your Budget
I had a colleague who blew through over half a million in a traditional bank loan and savings as a first time business owner. I believe that access to capital on the basis of credit, with no experience in business budgeting, will not make you a successful entrepreneur.
By contrast, I started with a $5,000 budget. I had to get creative when it came to allocating resources. Things like business cards, customer resource management (CRM) systems, professional email accounts, a website, domain name purchase -- I did it on my own.
On a $5,000 budget, I wrote my own business plan, committed to only the lowest level of services, created my website, and didn't outsource any services. Of course I purchased a domain name and business cards. But I researched creative ways to manage and track contacts and leads, managed my own social media accounts, and purchased only what I needed.
Don't fall in the trap early on to purchase business products and offers for others to write your business plan -- think long term. Budget your business like you would budget your personal finances. Besides, the more you do on your own now, the more you understand the intricacies of your business and the ability to scale in the future.
Kiva approved my loan based not on a credit score or my current equity, but rather on social character -- my ability to mobilize people all over the world to believe in my project and my determination. I had the plan, just not the capital. There is nothing worse than having the reverse.
2. Non-Traditional Funders Often Help Minorities and Disadvantaged Groups With No Connections and Access to Viable Resources
One of the toughest things for minorities is finding affordable resources and connected individuals genuinely interested in your success.
As a second-generation Haitian-American women, I unfortunately didn't have the luxury of deep connections with the movers and shakers of my community, or a family well established in the United States. Instead I had to learn first hand a new language and create my own educational and financial plan to reach my goals. In addition, I had to constantly battle negative and discouraging feedback throughout my process of reaching my lifelong dream.
Amid all this negativity, I was so delighted when I connected with Kiva. They funded my project based on my business plan and provided positive energy when I really needed it.
Traditional banks typically do not give loans under $50,000, and it's very difficult to get those loans as a new entrepreneur. But many businesses like mine don't need that much to get started. That's where an organization like Kiva really bridges the gap. It gets us started so we can build up credibility and go for larger funding as we build our successes.
3. Non-Traditional Funders Can Connect You With Great Mentors and Advisers
I can't emphasize this enough. An unbiased individual who knows nothing about your business and has no intention of entering your market provides invaluable insight into costs and considerations you've missed, because as a small-business owner you have a lot on your plate and cannot think of everything. Going through a business without a mentor/adviser is like going through life without a friend. You need the consistent feedback and moral support.
Kiva's lenders want their borrowers to succeed. Because of this I interacted with others across the United States and abroad who asked the tough questions and provided honest and thorough feedback about the use of their funds.
4. Non-Traditional Lending Forced Me to Do My Own Work and R&D
Do your research before you hire the employee and "date" the contractor before you sign a long-term contract. And dump them if they are not working.
When you are on a budget time and money is everything! And if you are a startup, it is likely impractical to spend majority of your budget on an employee or contractor who you feel is either not worth the money or time.
"Dating" your contractor doesn't mean you wine and dine them -- it means you build an authentic mutual relationship and determine if your short- and long-term goals align before committing. Without the money, I spent more time on authentic relationships and exploring what services I couldn't do on my own and paid for those instead.
5. Non-Traditional Funders Connected Me With Lifelong Supporters
In the United States alone, Kiva has loaned over $10 million to over 2,000 hard-working small-business owners throughout America. Fifty-five percent of loans have been to ethnic minorities; and over 50 percent have been to women entrepreneurs. And I am one of those borrowers!
Because of Kiva, I now have 160 customers and 160 cheerleaders who crowdfunded my loan. It is this type of human connection that makes crowdfunding stand out. I didn't just reach lenders from the United States with my business; I have lenders from Europe, Australia, Indonesia, and more. And as my very first investors, they will always be a part of my life.