Small businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy: According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 27.9 million small businesses registered in the United States, employing 120 million people — almost half of the nation's workforce.
Part of what the Small Business Administration (SBA) does is help America's small businesses secure the funding they need to operate and grow. As a federal government agency, the SBA does not lend small businesses money directly. Instead, it sets guidelines for loans that are made by its partners, which include banks, credit unions, community development organizations and microlending institutions. The SBA guarantees a portion of these loans granted by these institutions will be repaid, eliminating some of the risk for lenders.
Kale Gaston, head of the SBA Lending Group for TD Bank in Greenville, S.C., said SBA loans "do a great job of helping lenders say 'yes' to borrowers." He also noted that SBA programs provide better access to capital and credit enhancement for small business owners. For example, since the SBA guaranty lowers the risk in case of a loan default, lenders are able to provide funding when the down payment available is too low or the business's cash flow is not high enough for traditional options.
SBA lenders can provide longer terms as well. Instead of five or 10 years for a real estate purchase with a balloon payment at the end, the lender can give terms for 25 years, eliminating the balloon (i.e., final payment) or need to refinance every few years, Gaston said. For shorter-term assets, like equipment, terms could go to 10 years instead of the usual three to five years.
SBA loan programs
The SBA's loan programs are designed specifically for small business owners who don't have access to other reasonably termed financing. There are four main types of loan programs:
7(a) loan program: This is the SBA's primary program to help startups and existing small businesses obtain financing. 7(a) loans are the most basic and most commonly used type of loan, as well as the most flexible. The money can be used for a variety of general business purposes, including working capital, machinery and equipment, furniture and fixtures, purchasing or renovating land and buildings, leasehold improvements and debt refinancing. Loan maturity is up to 10 years for working capital and generally up to 25 years for fixed assets. Borrowers can apply through a participating lender institution.
CDC/504 loan program: This program provides businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing for major assets, such as land and buildings. The loans are typically structured with the SBA providing 40 percent of the total project costs, a participating lender covering up to 50 percent and the borrower putting up the remaining 10 percent. Funds from a 504 loan can be used to purchase existing buildings, land or machinery, and to construct or renovate facilities. These loans cannot be used for working capital or inventory. Under the 504 program, a business qualifies if it has a tangible net worth of less than $15 million and an average net income of $5 million or less after federal income taxes for the two years before application. The maximum amount of a 504 loan is $5 million.
Microloan program: This program offers very small loans to startups, or newly established or growing small businesses. The loans can be used for working capital or the purchase of inventory, supplies, furniture, fixtures, machinery or equipment. The SBA makes funds available to specially designated intermediary lenders, which are nonprofit organizations with experience in lending and technical assistance. Those intermediaries then make loans of up to $50,000, with the average loan being about $13,000. The loan cannot be used to pay existing debts or to purchase real estate.
Disaster loans: The SBA offers this option to businesses that have been affected by a declared disaster. These low-interest loans can be used to repair or replace damaged real estate, personal property, machinery, equipment, inventory and business assets.
Further details on each type of loan program can be found on the SBA's website.
What you'll need to apply
When applying for an SBA loan, you'll need to fill out forms and documents for the specific loan you're trying to get. The SBA also encourages borrowers to gather some basic information that all lenders will ask for, regardless of the loan type. The following items are usually required:
- Personal background and financial statements
- Business financial statements
- Profit-and-loss statement (three years)
- Current within the last six months
- List of debts
- Projected financial statements
- Business certificate/license
- Income tax returns
- Résumés for key team members
- Business overview and history
- Business lease
The SBA also advises small businesses applying for a loan to be prepared to answer several questions:
- Why are you applying for this loan?
- How will the loan proceeds be used?
- What assets need to be purchased, and who are your suppliers?
- What other business debt do you have, and who are your creditors?
- Who are the members of your management team?
Why your business plan matters
Whether you're a new startup or an established company, the key to a successful application is a well-written business plan.
"The business plan not only is the road map that will guide the business from planning to startup to (hopefully) success, but also will show any potential lender that the potential business owner does have a clear view and understanding of the business, how to run it and, most importantly, how the loan will be repaid," David Hall, a public affairs specialist with the SBA in Washington, D.C., said in an email interview with Business News Daily.
Gaston agreed, noting that lenders want to know how knowledgeable you are about your business and the competitive market.
"The concept may be great, but what the lender is looking for is that the individual is driven, capable and determined," Gaston said. "You really need to understand what you are doing every step of the way and be able to convey that to the lender during the application process."
Hall also recommended that business owners take full advantage of the business planning resources offered by the SBA and its partners, such as SCORE, SBDCs (Small Business Development Centers) and WBCs (Women Business Centers).
Finding a lender
While Gaston acknowledged that applying for an SBA loan is a process, she said working with a lender that has experience can make that process a lot easier. To find experienced SBA lenders in your area, he suggested talking to folks locally in the market and looking for a lender that is part of the SBA's Preferred Lender program. This program gives thousands of lenders per year delegated authority to approve loans based on certain criteria, shortening the time period between application and approval.
You can find SBA lenders by going online at sba.gov, contacting local accountants and attorneys, and looking for lenders with a large local presence. SBDCs also provide document support and lender referrals.
"The SBA program drives a tremendous amount of value in the economy, lending approximately $30 billion to small businesses annually," Gaston said. "It takes businesses to the next level, is appropriately structured and enables them to be successful."
Additional reporting by Business News Daily contributor Elizabeth Palermo.