Lean Startups

Choose Your Own Adventure: Freelancer or Founder - Out Now in php[architect] magazine

I'm excited to announce that my article, Choose Your Own Adventure: Freelancer or Founder, appears in the January 2015 issue of php[architect] magazine, which is available online and in print now. I drew on my experiences as a freelancer who found himself rather unexpectedly growing into the founder of an eCommerce development agency to write what I hope is a very applicable, hands-on guide for all of the developers out there considering striking out on their own either as a freelancer or as the founder of their own agency.

php[architect] is a great magazine that I encourage all PHP developers to subscribe to - there's both a print as well as digital subscription, and I've been impressed with the quality of the articles each month.

If you have any questions or feedback on my article, please don't hesitate to post it here or reach out to me on Twitter at @JoshuaSWarren.

Getting an SBA Loan for Your Small Business: Part II

Earlier this week I posted an overview of the SBA loan process, and presented a few steps to get started. Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty — the numbers. The bank is going to look at a few things:

  • How much money you’re asking for.
  • The maximum amount of risk the SBA will guarantee. If your loan is for more than $150,000, the SBA will only guarantee payment of 75% — so for example, if you borrow $1,000,000 and default on the loan, the SBA is only going to reimburse your bank for $750,000 and the bank has to absorb the remaining $250,000.
  • What sort of assets you and your business have. Generally, if you can show personal and business assets that total at least 75% of the loan amount you’re requesting, your bank is going to approve your loan application. The wider the gap between your assets and this amount, the more the bank is going to look at your business plan, your financials and your resume to decide if they want to accept this risk.

Loans for the Lean: A Note on Assets

The last factor — assets — is likely the biggest hurdle facing oDesk-based businesses; as a virtual business, chances are you don’t have many assets. Instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, you have contractors and a laptop.

However, remember that the small things add up when it comes to assets, so it’s important to think of any and every asset you can when putting together your application. And going forward, when you buy anything for your business, you should check with your accountant to determine if it can be considered a business asset.

You should expect that because you don’t have as many assets as most businesses, your bank is going to need convincing that you are worth taking a risk on. As a result, it’s so important to work with a bank that you have some sort of relationship with. If the person evaluating your loan application knows you well, they will know about your successes working on oDesk, and you’ll have a much better chance of them approving your loan application. So my advice — even if you aren’t considering a business loan at this time — is to find a local bank, do all of your business and personal banking there, and get to know the employees in your local branch of the bank. Bankers don’t often encounter people who have built virtual businesses or who work online, so it’s going to take some time to educate them about what you do and your part in the future of work. But consider that an investment into the growth of your business.

The Final Stage: More Paperwork

When you get the good news that your bank has decided to approve your application, you get to celebrate accordingly — with the next round of paperwork. If you felt like you had to do a lot of paperwork to get to this point, hold on tight.

Many banks will hand you off to a ‘packager’ at this point, which is a consultant or business that does nothing but take all of the paperwork you’ve provided thus far, plus all of the bank’s paperwork and your answers to a number of questions, and convert it into the 500+ pages of documentation that are required to be prepared before a loan can be submitted to the SBA. The ‘packager’ is generally going to charge you anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 for their services; it’s wise to build this into the amount of your loan request. Once the packager has completed their paperwork, they will set up a time for you to sign this massive collection of papers and documents. Once it’s signed, it’s submitted to the SBA for approval.

If your bank is an SBA Preferred Lender (which is an important thing to look for when selecting a local bank to work with, if you are planning for or considering an SBA loan in the future), then the submission to the SBA is basically a formality and you should have a final approval of the loan at this point. If your bank isn’t an SBA Preferred Lender, then the SBA will review all of your documentation and make a determination concerning the approval of your loan.

Once you get to this final stage, your bank will set up a time for you to sign one last set of paperwork that outlines your responsibilities and duties under the loan. Once that paperwork has been signed, you may begin drawing from the proceeds of the loan to make the purchases you outlined in your business plan.

If you do not already have a business address for your company (and a corresponding lease), your bank is most likely going to require that you obtain a lease before you draw any money from the loan. It can be helpful to build this expense into the amount you’re requesting for your loan, and then find an office building or office park with executive offices nearby that you can use.

The process of obtaining an SBA-backed loan is a long, complicated process, and if you are operating an oDesk-based business, it can be even more complicated. But if you find a good local bank, are patient and write an excellent business plan, you will be on your way to funding in no time.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had success obtaining an SBA-backed loan for your oDesk-based business, or if you’re thinking about trying the SBA loan process. Let me know in the comments section below!

Getting an SBA Loan for Your Small Business: Part I

I wrote this two-part article series for the oDesk blog, where it originally appeared Growing a small business, even with the amazing tools available to the modern business owner, can be a challenge. One of the biggest challenges is often finding the time and money to power that growth. There are many time management gurus out there that know quite a bit more about the subject than I do, so I’ll leave that subject to them (for what it’s worth, I’ve learned that finding good employees, in person or online, is key to making your time go a long way).

But I do know a bit about the latter — finding the money to power the growth of your small business, and specifically your oDesk-based business. As the owner of an oDesk-based business and someone who recently completed the process of applying for (and receiving) a Small Business Adminsistration (SBA)-backed loan, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned.

Step 1: Take an Honest Look at Your Business

Before I explain how to obtain an SBA-backed loan for your oDesk-based business, I want to first warn you — this type of loan should not be used to solve a fundamental flaw in your business. Specifically, if you’re not generating positive cash flow, and if you don’t have a clear plan for how to do so, an SBA-backed loan is not the right option for you. Here’s why.

The SBA and your bank are going to require you and any other person who owns at least 20% of your business to sign a personal guarantee. This means that if your business fails, or if your business is unable to make the payments on the loan, the SBA and your bank are going to require you, personally, to pay back the loan. Even if your business is set up as a corporation, because of the personal guarantee your obligation to repay this loan will survive the failure, bankruptcy or dissolution of your business. So, understand that an SBA-backed loan can be a powerful tool to grow your business, but it comes with significant personal risk that you should be aware of.

Step 2: Understand Your Options

A Small Business Administration-backed loan (often called an ‘SBA Loan,’ although it’s your bank, not the SBA, making the loan) is a bank loan made for business purposes where a majority of the debt your business takes on is guaranteed by the Small Business Administration, an agency of the U.S. government.

The most common loan program the SBA has — and the one I’ll be focusing on — is called the 7(a) loan program. These loans may be used for a number of purposes; those most likely to be applicable to an oDesk-based business are:

  1. The purchase of equipment, machinery, furniture, fixtures, supplies, or materials
  2. Long-term working capital, including the payment of accounts payable
  3. Short-term working capital needs

These loans are typically structured on a 7-year term with an interest rate that varies and is usually 2.75% over the prime rate — so currently, most of these loans have an interest rate of 6%, which is significantly better than the rate you would get by financing your business using credit cards or other financing options. The average 7(a) loan is approximately $370,000, but loans as small as $25,000 and as large as $5 million are possible.

These loans do carry packaging and guaranty fees, and require significantly more paperwork than a typical business loan. You should certainly do your homework to evaluate all your financing options, but if your business is young or does not have significant assets, chances are an SBA-backed loan will be one of the best financing options that your bank will make available to you.

Step 3: Planning is Half the Battle

The SBA loan process is not a quick one; it’s a safe bet to plan on it taking several months. To kick things, off, you should first:

  • Write a business plan, if you don’t already have one.
  • Ensure that you have accurate financial records for the past three years (or as many years as you’ve been in business, if it’s been less than three years) for both your business and your personal finances.
  • Prepare financial projections. While it varies from lender to lender, most will want to see two sets of projections — a ‘worst case’ and a ‘best case’ projection. While at their heart projections are merely guesses, make sure to research your projections and base them on the past history of your business and what you reasonably feel your growth will be moving forward.

N.B.: If you need help getting your financials up to date, writing your business plan or developing these projections, look to online workers! I have hired accountants, researchers and writers via oDesk in the past, all of which were instrumental in helping me assemble the information I needed to provide as part of the loan application process.

In your business plan, you should include an overview of why you’re asking for a loan in the specific amount you’ve asked for, and how, exactly, you plan to use that money. This will form the basis of the loan application, and these numbers, once submitted to the SBA, can’t be changed. So be careful when putting this request together — you may tend to focus on the total amount you’re requesting, but how you allocate that amount into individual expenses or categories is just as important. If you say you want $10,000 to purchase equipment and $15,000 to hire a new employee, if your loan is approved, your bank is going to make sure that you spend $10,000 to purchase equipment and $15,000 to hire a new employee.

In addition to these records and plans, expect to be asked for a copy of your resume. If you have any specialized training, a degree, etc., that relates to what you do for your business, include that. Banks are looking at more than just your financials — they want to see if you can reasonably be expected to succeed in the implementation of your business plan. This isn’t a time to skimp or put forth less than your best efforts. For example, when we obtained our first SBA-backed loan at Creatuity, our loan officer was very blunt and stated that the time and attention I put into the business plan and other documentation is what finally convinced the bank to approve the loan and submit it to the SBA for consideration.

Once you meet the minimums with your paperwork — you have a good business plan, a resume and financial records, and projections that show you can reasonably afford to repay the loan — it all comes down to numbers. In the part II of this article, we’ll look at the numbers the bank will use to guide their decision to approve or deny your loan application.

Do you have any questions about the loan application process? Have you received a loan to operate your oDesk-based business? I’d love to discuss it with you in the comments!

Truly Lean Startups Use Online Contract Developers

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My first guest column for oDesk  is now live; they've been kind enough to give me permission to cross-post it here on my site as well. Let me know what you think! What do Dropbox, Intuit and HP have in common? Aside from being tremendously successful tech firms, they have all employed the Lean Startup methodology—a new approach to starting and building companies, services and products that focuses on shortening product development cycles, launching with the simplest possible product and then extensively testing and improving it. Created by Eric Ries and described in his book, The Lean Startup, this methodology is a great way to launch your new business idea as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The Lean Startup movement has also spawned the Lean Software Development concept, which focuses on developing software in a lean manner—primarily by eliminating all forms of waste in the development process. Most companies are focused on building the simplest product possible, eliminating unnecessary meetings and other small steps to eliminate waste. However, the truly cutting-edge lean startups are taking it to a new level by using teams of contract developers to develop not only their web presence but also their product itself.

By using an online work platform such as oDesk, a lean startup can hire exactly the number and type of experts they need, for exactly as long as they need them. Need an expert Magento developer for 2 months while you build and launch your ecommerce website? In the past, you were forced to hire from a local talent pool that might only contain average developers—now you can use the web to find and hire the best Magento developers around the world who can build your site faster and get you to market sooner, and who can work with you for exactly how long you need—no more, no less. Hiring online contractors gives you an edge other companies don’t have—you can hire the best developers, writers, marketers and more, and work with them for exactly as long as you need to.

For an example of when this comes in particularly handy, let’s look at the ‘pivot,’ a key concept to a Lean Startup. This structured ‘course correction’ is designed to help a Lean Startup explore a new product or strategy that testing shows may be more successful than the company’s current strategy. If you’ve hired a number of employees with a specific skillset, and suddenly discover that your business needs to pivot into a completely different direction that requires different skills, you’re faced with either attempting to retrain every employee or the grim decision to replace them all. If instead you’re using an online work platform to find the best contractors for your needs at that given moment, you simply shift your online team to one with the skills you need in order to execute the pivot.

Hiring contract developers and other experts online means that you can reduce waste and make the process of pivoting to a new business model as painless as possible. If you’re looking to become more of a Lean Startup through online contractors, here are a few tips we have found helpful:

  • Do your homework to ensure that the individual or firm you will be working with is successful and reputable enough to be in business when you need them. Nothing is worse than going to launch your new product, only to discover your developer has gone out of business and can no longer assist you.
  • If you don’t have a project manager on your team already, find a developer that has a project manager or hire a contract project manager. Nothing slows down a Lean Software Development project more than when your developer has a question and you are unable to answer in a timely manner. You have a business to run, so find a project manager you can rely on!
  • Check the credentials and certifications of each contractor you hire, and make sure they plan to do the work themselves, not subcontract it out. You want to build a team of experts.

Are you familiar with the Lean Startup movement? I've been reading Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works recently, and would love to hear your thoughts on lean startups and especially Running Lean.