Are you building a rocket ship or a minivan? It's a question entrepreneurs have to confront early, often before they're ready, since the best way to fund a new business depends on considerations like whether it's aiming at hypergrowth or steady growth, IPO-ing or staying private, making revenue right away or trying to build a user base first, and so on.

Scaleworks thinks there should be more options. On Tuesday, the San Antonio-based "venture equity" firm announced a $10 million debt fund, from which it will make loans to startups. Not unlike the Rise of the Rest campaign that aims to bring tech wealth to flyover country, Scaleworks represents an alternative model for spreading opportunity.

Rather than investing in moonshot companies, as is the Silicon Valley cliché, it acquires and operates software-as-a-service (SaaS) businesses that have unrealized potential. Scaleworks looks for founders who've created a good product but want to move on with their lives.

The firm will acquire a startup, giving the founder an opportunity to exit, and then bring on a new, growth-oriented CEO. The most recent addition to Scaleworks's portfolio is analytics startup Keen IO, which joins seven others, including popular email API provider Mailgun.

With the new debt fund, Scaleworks is expanding its options. The firm will be able to extend loans to companies led by founders who want to retain equity and build the business independently, rather than under the Scaleworks umbrella.

In a blog post, partner Lew Moorman pointed out that startups often lack the "tangible assets" that banks look for when making loans. "They do, however, have consistent recurring revenue streams, with high gross margins," he wrote. "We believe that is a bankable asset, banks don't."

Scaleworks isn't the first investment firm to have this idea. Inc. 5000 company Lighter Capital practices "revenue-based financing"--business loans that are paid back based on a percentage of revenue. According to Lighter Capital's FAQ, it usually asks for between 2 and 8 percent. Patrick FitzGerald of the Wharton School of Business told the Washington Post that revenue-based financing gets less attention because "it's not as sexy." The payouts to investors are moderate and predefined, rather than unknown but potentially huge, à la the traditional VC model.

The attitude toward revenue-based financing and other flexible loan products may change as Silicon Valley's post-dot-com startup ecosystem continues to mature. Entrepreneurs like Basecamp's David Heinemeier Hansson push back on the venture capital paradigm as the one-and-only way to grow a technology business. Scaleworks's new initiative is another option for going the third way.

Correction: This article initially stated that Scaleworks is based in Austin, but the firm's actual location is San Antonio. The error has been corrected.

Published on: Jan 16, 2018