For many online and other small businesses, getting a loan or a big cash advance is tough. Banks and other traditional lenders are often leery of those without years of financial statements and solid credit scores.
But some lenders and other financial services companies are beginning to assess credit risk differently — using criteria you might not expect.
Jeffrey Grossman is an acupuncturist in Bellingham, Wash. He's also a small businessman. He creates media marketing materials for other acupuncturists hoping to expand their practice.
Over the years, Grossman has borrowed money from family and from bank lines of credit, but recently, he needed a quick infusion of extra cash. He turned to a company called Kabbage, an online financing firm for small businesses.
He found the concept interesting, but the application also made him skeptical. "They wanted all this information about QuickBooks [accounting software] and UPS accounts and all this stuff," he says.
Such details, says Kathryn Petralia, a co-founder of Kabbage, allows the company to "effectively build a financial statement." The firm provides financing to small businesses — such as online merchants — that banks typically don't lend to. Petralia says Kabbage uses real-time and verifiable data from things like UPS shipments, eBay and PayPal accounts to assess creditworthiness.
"We can see historical data and current data, and we can see tomorrow's data. And we are looking at information that could be as detailed as what people are actually buying from you," Petralia says.
And she says that can be more useful than static financial documents that banks and other traditional lenders typically rely on.
"If you see that the customer's business is changing over time — they're selling different products, they're changing their price points, transaction volume is going up or down — you get a lot more visibility and insight into that business than a pure financial statement's going to give you," Petralia says.
To be clear, small businesses that get money from Kabbage give the company permission to view their online accounts. Christine Pratt, a senior financial services analyst at Aite Group, says Kabbage's use of this real-time transaction data is smart. She also likes the fact that Kabbage looks at companies' social media pages.
"Are customers saying that you are doing a good job? Are consumers complaining about you?" Pratt says.
Kabbage looks at a small business' Twitter account and its Facebook page. The company knows the information there isn't foolproof but says it can add insight into how a company is relating to its customers — and at the margins it can be helpful.
"They use that information to be able to look ahead, to see whether or not your business not only is doing very well right now but can also sustain that business and grow," Pratt says.
She says the use of social and real-time data is growing. Some traditional lenders are starting to embrace it, and Amazon is quietly mining its own data to find retailers it wants to make loans to.
Back in Bellingham, Grossman, the small businessman, decided to take the plunge and gave Kabbage access to some of his online accounts.
"I think we were funded probably within like minutes," he says.
But he has words of caution to would-be borrowers: The company's fees can be steep.
"I don't want to say you're doing business with the devil, but sometimes when you're a small business, if the banks aren't able to give you the money and if you need some cash flow, you kind of have to bite the bullet and do it," he says.
Grossman was approved for up to $25,000 and says the funds he got have helped him grow his business and for that he remains grateful.