I’m very pleased to be able to provide the final installment in this startup financing series. Classic bank loans are probably the easiest of these instruments to understand - everyone knows how a loan works. And yet, in the startup world, they may be the last option many CFOs consider.
As we’ll see, one reason for this is the banks themselves. They’re often not looking for or willing to work with startups.
But there are startup loans available - especially to certain business models. Founders and finance leaders just need to know what they’re looking for.
So in this article, we’ll explore the nature of bank loans for startups, the kinds of companies that might choose to use them, and the key differences between this funding model and the others you’ve already read about in this series.
About venture banking
There are several dedicated banks in the market offering debt financing for growth startups, like Deutsche Handelsbank, European Investment Bank, NIBC, and Silicon Valley Bank (to name just a few). They basically provide venture banking - everything that relates to the financial challenges startups have.
In short, they offer debt funding to drive company growth.
Over time, they’ve been able to do this in various ways. You’ll find venture debt, but also working capital financing, overdraft facilities, and term loans - basically everything you might expect from a bank, but with a clear focus on fast-growing startups.
Some of them also offer fund banking. They actually back venture capital or private equity funds with debt solutions to make their investment operations work more efficiently. Furthermore, you can find offerings like banking-as-a-service (BaaS) for fintech startups, or just basic payment transaction services.
In the recent past, I had the great opportunity to take a deep dive into the world of venture banking at Deutsche Handelsbank as their SVP. I was heading the strategy and business development department, as well as the fund banking activities of the bank.
I’m a passionate entrepreneur, and this was a great opportunity for a startup enthusiast to learn really fast not only about venture banking or fund financing, but especially about a huge number of thriving startups. I met fantastic teams, packed with innovative technology in various markets. And above all that, investing alongside the brightest minds from the venture capital industry is like drinking from a fire hose.
Nonetheless, the entrepreneurial journey never stops. I’ve recently left to pursue other adventures, but I am very happy to share some of my experiences with you about venture banking.
Before joining the bank, I co-founded my own startup in 2014. It was venture capital-financed, but we employed debt instruments and grant loans too. So we used several different financing tools to finance a company, which is really the point of this whole article series.
But enough about my background, let’s talk about loans.
Bank loans for startups
I’m sure that everyone reading essentially understands how loans work. A bank gives you money up front, which you pay back with interest. This will typically also involve collateral on your part - something that the bank can keep if you fail to repay on time or in full.
But perhaps more important than what is a loan, is when they make sense for startups. Traditional banks usually step in much later than venture capitalists, venture debt funds, or technology startup banks would.
This is mainly because banks don’t gain a lot from startups. They receive a limited upside - the interest paid on the loan. But they risk a lot, because early-stage startups often fail. And when you have little collateral to offer, most banks just don’t see it as worthwhile to get involved.
Loans make more sense for banks later in the startup lifecycle, when there’s revenue coming in and potentially assets in the business.
Traditional banks also tend to have a very scalable sales approach, based on experience in the typical economy. They use historical data to rate companies. But modern tech companies aren’t (yet) “typical,” and the banks have less experience in dealing with them.
As a result, there are a few banks aiming their services at tech startups. And the difference here is that they tend to analyze companies in the same way as venture capital funds. They look at the market, the team, and certain performance KPIs, and do proper due diligence.
Most importantly, they try to really understand the potential of the company for the future, and then finance the company if there's a strategic fit.
These kinds of banks are usually a bit more expensive - with higher interest rates. And they also offer different products depending on the startup in question. So for example, if the company is in, say, year two or three, and it doesn't have a huge amount of revenue yet (but still a solid proof of concept), the banks usually start with a product like venture debt, which means that they also have an upside potential (often called a “kicker”).
Later, if the company is more mature and has steady recurring revenues - but not necessarily profitable yet - then banks might offer an overdraft facility. That’s more flexible in the way the companies can use the funds, but obviously involves less upside potential than a venture debt loan for the bank.
So they usually try to answer startups’ challenges with different kinds of products, but still with the overall business model of a bank.
What kinds of startups suit bank loans?
As we’ve seen, we now have specific banks providing loans and other services to startups. But that doesn’t mean that any new startup can wander in and secure funding. These banks are especially interested in specific business models, and they will always want to be confident that the loan will be repaid, of course.
So for starters, B2B SaaS companies seem to be easier to finance at the moment. That’s also reflected in the venture capital world, where these startups regularly receive funding today.
Which might seem odd. They have no obvious assets that would cover the loan volume, and many aren’t profitable for some time. But they do often have contracted future revenue. Other businesses have taken subscriptions with them, which will be paid in future.
Sometimes, if a bank is open and adventurous enough, it may take this future revenue as security. If you’re considering this, I recommend you only offer securities that create a legal claim in the future when your service is fully shipped and the invoice has been sent. In certain cases, this might still be a good security bet for debt providers like banks based on the service contract that promises recurring future revenue from solvent corporate clients.
Another reason why tech companies are popular is that they present better opportunities to banks if the company goes into bankruptcy. The bank may be looking for the chance to take over business operations. And this is easier with technology than for capital-heavy companies selling furniture or goods, for example. These assets are harder to refinance.
There are plenty of other models that are also a good fit. But as a general rule, if the companies are working capital-heavy and need to pre-fund that, and if the working capital in itself is not really as suitable as a potential security, then it's hard to finance this as a bank without accepting a rather weak downside protection.
Business loans vs other startup financing
As promised, we’ll turn now to the differences between this model and a few of the others in this series. And since we just talked about future receivables (those SaaS contracts in the example above), let’s begin with factoring, or supply chain financing.
Bank loans vs factoring
Factoring is essentially cashing in your receivables, in return for cash now. That means, when your service is completely shipped once, you hand over your outgoing invoices at a discount to a factoring partner, in exchange for working capital today.
Using these same receivables as security for banks isn’t really the same thing. In this case, the bank will only take ownership of these debts owed if you default on the loan. So if all goes well, you’ll pay off the interest and the principal, and the bank will have nothing to do with your receivables. If you want to keep full control over the customer relations also during the invoicing process you should evaluate all the specific characteristics of the financial solution.
For what it’s worth, the two options will likely cost about the same. Factoring isn’t necessarily more expensive. But a venture loan or bank loan might give you more flexibility, because your receivables are still available to you and you take care of the customer through the whole journey.
Loans vs revenue-based financing
Revenue-based financing also offers a similar opportunity to raise funds today on the revenue you’ll receive tomorrow. Under this model, a startup demonstrates its ability to generate revenue, and then receives a loan to help it generate more. The loan is paid back at varying rates, depending on that new revenue coming in.
So you’re essentially pre-financing revenue with non-dilutive capital, and I think that's a very smart approach. One key difference at least in the solutions that I have seen until today, however, is the loan volume. Typically revenue-based financing works on relatively low amounts - a few hundred thousand euros. Which makes sense, because it’s often dealing with specific marketing or sales campaigns.
Venture banks usually invest ticket sizes starting from €500,000 and upwards, around a series A financing round and up to serious growth stage ticket sizes in later stages.
So while I like both models, you typically won’t use them for the same kinds of needs.
Startup loans vs venture debt
Venture debt often is offered by these newer startup banks. And this really reflects the market - banks know the potential in emerging startups, and want to be able to provide capital with some insurance if things go wrong.
Venture debt actually works a lot like a bank loan. The key difference is in the downside protection for the bank. Each bank will have its own version, of course, but classic venture debt gives the bank the right to take a stake in the company if you default on your loan.
And that needs to be considered carefully by founders. Because some banks can be quite aggressive in protecting themselves. For example, many contracts will include a material adverse change (“MAC”) clause. This lets the bank cancel the contract if the company value drops significantly. Which is a problem when you’re relying on these funds.
And then there’s the kicker (as mentioned above). Not only is this a scary proposition, but it can add extra costs at the start. If there’s a right to convert shares in the contract, you’d better be sure that the legal terms are ironed out perfectly. And lawyers who can do this well don’t come cheap.
On the plus side, venture debt can be more flexible than traditional bank loans. There are fewer regulations, and this makes for useful financing between funding rounds.
You’ll also likely have access to higher tickets than you would from venture banks. Because the downside is reduced for them, providers are usually willing to go further with you.
Bank loans - depending on the conditions - usually come from a different philosophical point. There’s really no benefit to the bank in your business going into bankruptcy, so they’ll usually work with you. Especially the more modern, startup-oriented ones.
They usually try to support and talk with you, because they don't want to lose that money. Venture debt lenders - again, depending on the case - can have some real incentives to see companies struggle.
The main takeaway from all this is that both are very interesting and worthwhile financing methods, but you need to choose wisely.
Bank loans vs equity
Finally, it’s worth looking briefly at equity. Much of this series is based on the premise that startups tend to think of equity as their first and best option to raise money.
But for startups, bank loans are most likely much cheaper than equity. You have zero dilution, which will always be preferable, even if it means paying interest on a loan.
I’ve also found another interesting advantage from talking to venture capitalists. When they’re looking to invest in later rounds for startups, they actually like to see that there have been bank loans in place in some cases.
First, it will usually mean that the company is less diluted when they want to invest. The business has more working capital and liquidity to play with, and whatever they invest will go further.
But it’s also a sign of a more mature company. As we’ve seen, banks aren’t rushing to help startups. So if you can show that you’re trusted by these institutions, that’s a good look for investors and their future equity story.
And there’s also the obvious: once an investment has been made in the company, it’s done. Even in tough times, you have your investors and their capital to help out. Whereas debt has to be paid back to avoid foreclosure, whether times are good or bad.
The downsides to startup loans
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And banks aren’t here to provide charity. So let’s look at some of the reasons you might not want to rush into a startup loan.
To begin, you need to analyze any banking partner well. Do they understand the startup ecosystem, your market, and the kinds of challenges you’re likely to face? Because I’ve seen very few startups cruise through without significant hurdles. Most go from challenge to challenge.
So it’s critical that your banking partner sees this from the start, and is prepared to work with you. As I said above, it’s not in the bank’s interest for you to miss repayments. But compared with some other modern financing options, you likely won’t get the same level of support.
Another thing to consider closely are the terms of the loan, and the different potential outcomes. Particularly in the difficult economic times we’re facing.
For example, it may seem like an advantage to have no termination rules in your overdraft facilities - a common feature for startup banks. That means you could use the overdraft whenever you need it. But it also means that the bank could terminate the overdraft whenever it wanted - because there are no strict terms.
In positive times, they likely would leave the overdraft alone. But in tricky times, when the bank’s own funds are tighter, they may not be so flexible. They can’t take the risk any more.
And this is also precisely when you need the overdraft the most.
These sorts of discrepancies between good times and bad will be reflected in every financing instrument in this series. It’s just worth noting here, because some banks won’t look as kindly on your startup as many of the other services we’ve seen.
And at the same time, the newer startup banks - by definition - may be even more in tune with your challenges and the startup world as a whole.
Startup bank loans - a new take on a classic funding model
Today, there are more options for smart startups than perhaps ever before. CFOs and founders should be open to a range of funding instruments, depending of course on their growth phase and business model.
As we’ve seen repeatedly in these articles, it’s not a question of equity or debt financing.
Most growing startups will benefit from a healthy equity investment, supplemented with shorter term bank loans, or perhaps other credit options. This way, you have the working capital you need for campaigns and processes today, and the big picture funding to build the company you’ve dreamed of.
The question is how to use both to keep your balance sheet healthy and business growing fast. You have such a wide range of options available to you. It’s up to you to put them to good use.
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Frank Stegert is a passionate entrepreneur turned growth finance and tech banking expert, most recently serving as Senior Vice President Strategy and Business Development at Deutsche Handelsbank. Previously, he was Co-Founder and Managing Director at 99chairs, a prop-tech platform offering online interior design solutions for future workspaces. Frank has significant experience in strategic consulting, and has advised startups in accelerating growth and growth financing.