In part 1 of the “Startup vs. Small Business” I addressed what may be the most important differentiator between a startup and a small business: growth. While I hope that post was useful, especially from a theoretical standpoint, I want this one to go more directly to where the rubber meets the road. What’s the difference between how a startup funds their business and how a small business might do so?
First off, in large part, the funding question goes back to growth. As noted in the last post, a startup needs to grow fast. In a startup, at least one of your goals is to create a large/valuable company (read: a valuation of 8-9 figures) in a highly competitive marketplace. This can’t be achieved without fast growth, because there will always be another company nipping at your heels, ready to pass you (or, in a market with strong network effects, make you irrelevant) the first moment you falter.
That fast growth, in turn, often leads to highly experienced and capable people joining your team, and those people can then lead to even faster growth. The ideal startup forms a virtuous cycle of sorts that starts by growing fast and ends with the startup serving a whole lot of customers and being worth a whole lot of money.
But that sounds like a chicken/egg problem. How do you start growing fast? In a startup, there’s almost always some “magic” in the answer to that question. The founders of a startup have got to be able to pull some type of rabbit out of their hat to get off the ground. That rabbit could be a beautiful product made with no resources; customers lining up, wallets out, despite your company being brand new; or a crazy-experienced team that anyone would want to bet on. But once you’ve done that, you will likely need real financial backing (eventually, on the order of millions of dollars).
A typical startup funding path might be like the following (caveat: almost nothing is ever really this clean):
This is oversimplified, but one important point here: I often see founders going straight to #3—they have an idea and start trying to line up meetings with VC’s. But usually, this doesn’t work. VC’s do an incredible amount of due diligence before funding a company, and at the idea stage, there’s usually too little information for them to be confident making an investment. There are no perfect companies, but generally, you have to really have something going for you before making it to that third step. What rabbit can you pull out of your hat?
I’ll also note that I didn’t address venture debt, a unique and still fairly uncommon type of security. Usually, startups are funded through equity financing—your investors will get a piece of the pie, with lots of terms and preferences.
Ok. So if startups often get funded through equity from founders, angels, and VC’s, how does a small business do so?
Again, let’s go back to growth. Small businesses don’t necessarily need to grow fast (though they should certainly want to grow, as stagnation is one very small step from contraction). They often operate in less competitive markets, and don’t have the explicit goal of becoming huge company. Without the brutality of highly-funded competitors trying to eat your lunch day after day, small businesses often have the luxury of growing more slowly, even totally organically.
As an example, my second company, a design and development agency, never took any outside funding of any kind. In fact, it was profitable on day one—I charged a decent hourly rate for my services, some of which went to my salary and some of which stayed in the business. Over time, I used our profits to hire more people and turn it into a nice little business.
This worked for us, because the goal was never to become a huge company. We had competitors, of course, but often, we were the only serious bidders on a project. We weren’t in a race to create defensible intellectual property that would dramatically alter the dynamics of a market or create a new one entirely (which you’re often doing in a startup).
Here’s a handy gut check for the startup or small business question: imagine your company 10 years in the future, having grown entirely on its own profits. Is your company irrelevant? If so, it’s probably a startup. If not, it’s likely a small business.
That being said, small businesses do often need capital to get their feet under them. You may need to hire some help before you have the profits necessary to do so, or make payroll before you’ve been paid on a project. You may have to purchase inventory, equipment, or commit to retail space for some period of time. So how might you do that? Here are some common ways, in no particular order:
Note one important omission in this list: venture capital. As a rule, venture capital simply does not fund small businesses. And that’s ok! VC’s simply need their companies to grow fast and achieve very large exits. Venture capital firms have their own investors (known as limited partners), who often demand 25%+ annual returns. Imagine the pressure a VC is under to make that hurdle, compounding year after year, especially given that some non-negligible portion of their portfolio is likely going to be worth $0! That’s why most VC’s only bet on companies that can grow quickly and become really big.
And if your company is more of a small business, that’s ok! Venture capital comes with many, many obligations—and as noted, it’s not the only way to fund your business. If you have a small business or an idea for one, my advice is to not waste your time and sanity beating your head against the wall trying to raise VC money. Your time is better spent elsewhere.
The huge upside is that in most of these types of small business financing, you’re not giving up that “piece of the pie” that you would with VC’s. And that’s great! Small businesses can lead to great lifestyles for their owners who, in the case where they maintain majority (or even 100%) ownership in their business, can pay themselves as much as they want, work when they want to, and build something on their own terms.
As a final note, just remember, not all businesses are created equal, but that doesn’t mean one type is “better” than the other. The market your business competes in, its potential for growth, and perhaps most importantly, your own goals with your business—will dictate the type of funding you should go after.
Tim is Founder and CEO of ZipBooks. He keeps his desk really nice and neat.