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Updated Apr 09, 2024

The Difference Between Debt and Equity Financing

Debt and equity financing both offer the funding small businesses need to launch and grow, but each comes with its own set of pros and cons.

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Kiely Kuligowski, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Most entrepreneurs need some sort of financing in order to start a business and grow it. But with so many options for getting the funding you need, including bank loans, alternative loans, factoring services, crowdfunding and venture capital, it can be hard to know which to choose. 

The first thing to understand is that there are two broad categories of financing available to businesses: debt and equity. Figuring out which avenue is right for your business can be confusing, and each option has its own pros and cons. [Read our picks for the best loans for small businesses.]

Here’s an introduction to both debt and equity financing, what they mean, and important things to know before making your decision. 

What is debt financing?

Many of us are familiar with loans, whether we’ve borrowed money for a mortgage or college tuition. Debt financing a business is much the same. The borrower accepts funds from an outside source and promises to repay the principal plus interest, which represents the “cost” of the money you initially borrowed.

Borrowers will then make monthly payments toward both interest and principal and put up some assets for collateral as reassurance to the lender. Collateral can include inventory, real estate, accounts receivable, insurance policies, or equipment, which will be used as repayment in the event the borrower defaults on the loan.

Types of debt financing

The following types of debt financing are the most common:

  • Traditional bank loans. While often difficult to obtain, these loans generally have more favorable interest rates than loans from alternative lenders.
  • SBA loans. The federal Small Business Administration is a popular choice for business owners. The SBA offers loans through banking partners with lower interest rates and longer terms, but there are stricter requirements for approval.
  • Merchant cash advances. This form of debt financing is a loan from an alternative lender that is repaid from a portion of your credit and debit card sales. Note that merchant cash advances have notoriously high annual percentage rates (APRs).
  • Lines of credit. Business lines of credit provide you a lump sum of money, but you only draw on that money when you need some of it. You only pay interest on what you use, and you’re unlikely to encounter the collateral requirements of other debt financing types.
  • Business credit cards. Business credit cards work just like your personal credit cards, but they may have features that serve businesses better, such as spending rewards that business credit lines lack.

[Learn about other alternative financing methods for startups in our guide.]

Pros and cons of debt financing

Like all types of financing, debt financing has both pros and cons. Here are some of the pros:

  • Clear and finite terms. With debt financing, you’ll know exactly what you owe, when you owe it and how long you have to repay your loan. Your payment amounts will not fluctuate month to month.
  • No lender involvement in company operations. Debt financiers will become intimately familiar with your business operations during your approval process but have no control over your day-to-day operations.
  • Tax-deductible interest payments. When it comes time to pay taxes, you can deduct debt financing interest payments from your taxable income to save money.

These are some downsides of debt financing:

  • Repayment and interest fees. These costs can be steep.
  • Quick start of repayments. You’ll typically begin making payments the first month after the loan has been funded, which can be challenging for a startup because the business doesn’t have firm financial footing yet.
  • Potential for personal financial losses. Debt financing comes with the potential for personal financial loss if it becomes impossible for your business to repay the loan. Whether you are risking your personal credit score, personal property or previous investments in your business, it can be devastating to default on a loan and may result in bankruptcy.

[Read Related: Startup Costs: How Much Cash Will You Need?]

What is equity financing?

Equity financing means selling a stake in your company to investors who hope to share in the future profits of your business. There are several ways to obtain equity financing, such as through a deal with a venture capitalist or equity crowdfunding

Business owners who go this route won’t have to repay in regular installments or deal with steep interest rates. Instead, investors will be partial owners who are entitled to a portion of company profits, perhaps even a voting stake in company decisions depending on the terms of the sale.

Types of equity financing

These are some common types of equity financing:

  • Angel investors. An angel investor is a wealthy individual who gives a business a large cash infusion. The angel investor gets equity — a share in the company — or convertible debt for their money.
  • Venture capitalists. A venture capitalist (VC) is an entity, whether a group or an individual, that invests money into companies, usually high-risk startups. In most cases, the startup’s growth potential offsets the investor’s risk. In the long run, the venture capitalist may look to buy the company or, if it’s public, a substantial portion of its shares.
  • Equity crowdfunding. Equity crowdfunding is when you sell small shares of the company to numerous investors via crowdfunding platforms. These campaigns usually require immense marketing efforts and a great deal of groundwork to hit the goal and get funding. Title III of the JOBS Act lays out the specifics of equity crowdfunding.  

[Read our related guide on bootstrapping vs. equity funding.]

Angel investors and VCs are often highly experienced, discerning investors who won’t throw money at just any project. To convince an angel or VC to invest, entrepreneurs need a pro forma with solid financials, some semblance of a working product or service, and a qualified management team. Angels and VCs can be difficult to contact if they’re not already in your network, but incubator and accelerator programs often coach startups on how to streamline their operations and get in front of investors, and they may have internal networks to draw from.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Equity financing is when you receive funding in exchange for shares in your business. Angel investors, venture capitalists and crowdfunding are common types of equity financing.

Pros and cons of equity financing

Similar to debt financing, there are both advantages and disadvantages to using equity financing to raise capital. These are some of the positives:

  • Well suited for startups in high-growth industries. Especially in the case of venture capitalists, a business that’s primed for rapid growth is an ideal candidate for equity financing.
  • Rapid scaling. With the amount of capital a company can obtain through equity financing, rapid upscaling is far easier to achieve.
  • No repayment until the company is profitable. Whereas debt financing requires repayment no matter your business situation, angel investors and venture capitalists wait until you make a profit before recouping their investment. If your company fails, you never need to repay your equity financing, whereas debt financing will still require repayment.

These are the main cons of equity financing:

  • Hard to obtain. Unlike debt financing, equity financing is hard to obtain for most businesses. It requires a strong personal network, an attractive business plan and the foundation to back it all up.
  • Investor involvement in company operations. Since your equity financiers invest their own money into your company, they get a seat at your table for all operations. If you relinquish more than 50% of your business, whether to separate investors or just one, you will lose your majority stake in the company. That means less control over how your company is run and the risk of removal from a management position if the other shareholders decide to change leadership.

Debt or equity financing can support business growth

Ultimately, the decision between debt and equity financing depends on the type of business you have and whether the advantages outweigh the risks. Do some research on the norms in your industry and what your competitors are doing. Investigate several financial products to see what suits your needs. If you are considering selling equity, do so in a manner that is legal and allows you to retain control over your company.

Many companies use a mix of both types of financing, in which case you can use a formula called the weighted average cost of capital, or WACC, to compare capital structures. The WACC multiplies the percentage costs of debt and equity under a given proposed financing plan by the weight equal to the proportion of total capital represented by each capital type.

Tejas Vemparala and Max Freedman contributed to this article.

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Kiely Kuligowski, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Kiely Kuligowski is an expert in project management and business software. Her project management experience includes establishing project scopes and timelines and monitoring progress and delivery quality on behalf of various clients. Kuligowski also has experience in product marketing and contributing to business fundraising efforts. On the business software side, Kuligowski has evaluated a range of products and developed in-depth guides for making the most of various tools, such as email marketing services, text message marketing solutions and business phone systems. In recent years, she has focused on sustainability software and project management for IBM.
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