Thinking of applying for a small business loan? Congrats! Hopefully, this is a sign that your business is healthy and growing.
You should know, however, is that applying for a small business loan is nothing like applying for a student loan or an auto loan. In fact, the process shares more in common with applying to college or a job, or even dating; there’s plenty of research and patience involved, but once you find the right “fit” it all seems worth it.
Applying for a small business loan the right way can take a while, but your due diligence will pay off when you find the perfect loan. Plus, you may find the process itself to be tremendously rewarding.
Prepping for a small business loan is an extremely valuable exercise
Securing a small business loan isn’t like pitching to Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank. Most lenders aren’t interested in a flashy product demo, but rather, piles and piles of paperwork.
In fact, I’d say that by the time you’ve gathered all the necessary documentation, you’re probably 60% done with the whole process.
The good news is that the labor-intensive process of prepping for a small business loan serves a dual purpose; it’s a loan application and an extensive self-audit. As a small business owner, everything a lender asks for (credit history, financial projections, etc.) are things you should already have a close eye on anyways. And chances are that a detailed quiz on your financials will help you discover some missing documentation or gremlins in your balance sheets.
So if you feel bogged down or disheartened by the pile of prep work below, remember that every step you take, even if you don’t end up getting a loan offer, helps out your business.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s start with the first step!
Step 1: make sure you qualify for a small business loan
Right away, just assessing your own eligibility for a small business loan is a great way to check on the health and growth of your business.
The qualifications for a small business loan file under three categories:
- Does your business qualify?
- Do you qualify?
- Can you pay back your loan?
Does your business qualify?
Every lender out there has their own ideal image of a small business loan recipient. Plus, many lenders have relaxed some of their requirements in order to speed up the process, attract more clients, and stay competitive.
That said, even the most relaxed online lenders will look for some or all of the following qualifications:
- Business age. How long has your company been in business? Most banks prefer you to be at least two years old, while online lenders may go as low as one year.
- Business credit score. Different from your personal credit score (which is also important), your business credit score, history, and length will be one of the first things lenders look at, and they like to see scores above 680.
- Business structure. Is your business filed with the IRS as a sole proprietorship, LLC, S Corp, or C Corp? If none of the above, you may be looking for a personal loan instead. Corporations sometimes get preferential treatment because lenders don’t want to go after your personal assets (as they could with an SP or LLC).
- Cash flow. Is your business making enough money? Larger lenders like banks typically require your business to make at least $50,000 a year in revenue (not profit), but some online lenders have lesser requirements around $10k.
- Outstanding debt. Lenders will certainly take a peek at your existing debts and loans to assess your ability to make payments. If you’re already in the red with another lender, you may not qualify for another loan (or certainly not one with ideal terms)
- Records and paperwork. Simply put, do you have all of your ducks in a row? We’ll go over everything you’ll need in the next step, but for now, know that one of the “qualifications” is that you have access to all of the necessary records and paperwork.
- Potential collateral. Many lenders still require some form of collateral for loans exceeding $25,000. Collateral is just stuff that the lender can take if you can’t pay back your loan. The Small Business Administration defines collateral as “assets such as equipment, buildings, accounts receivable, and (in some cases) inventory.” If the stuff you have or plan to buy with your loan isn’t easily seizable, or rapidly depreciates in value, you may not qualify for a small business loan (at least not one exceeding $25k).
That covers the most basic business qualifications for a small business loan. Now let’s see if you qualify!
Do you qualify?
In addition to how well your business is doing, most lenders will want a peek at your financial status as well. After all, two small businesses can look identical on their loan applications but have completely different founders worthy of varying levels of trust with money.
Here are the three most common personal qualifications for a small business loan:
- Personal credit history. Your business may be going gangbusters, but if you have a credit score below 680 or simply a lack of credit history, you may have trouble getting a small business loan.
- Personal tax returns. Similarly, lenders may dig up your tax history to determine a) that actually you’re paying what’s owed to Uncle Sam and b) your adjusted gross income, in order to gauge your personal ability to inject cash into your business.
- Your investment in the business. Lastly, and more subjectively, lenders will want to see evidence that you’re personally invested in your business. That doesn’t just mean with cash, but also time, effort, even passion. After all, motivated small business owners have a greater likelihood of success, profit, and paying back their loan.
If you’re personally and professionally qualified for a loan, the last qualification lenders analyze is much more straightforward: can you pay us back?
Can you afford to pay back your loan?
Not-so-surprisingly, lenders will want to see clear or convincing evidence that you’ll be able to pay back your loan. Most of this evidence will come from a combination of:
- Your business plan.
- Cash flow statements.
- Your financial projections.
You’ll be gathering all three documents as part of the next step, but for now, how can you perform a gut check to pre-qualify yourself?
If you have a compelling business plan, your cash flow exceeds your expenses, and your projections are realistically good, you have a good shot at meeting this qualification.
If you’re missing a business plan or it needs updating, cash flow is running low, and prospects look grim, you may need to revisit the drawing board. Lenders aren’t small business paramedics; they’re interested in profit, not resuscitation.
Once you feel that you’re pre-qualified for the loan, it’s time to start the scavenger hunt!
Step 2: gather the 10 essential documents
Most guides would have you browsing loan types at this point, but I think it’s definitely best to gather your documentation first. Again, that’s because the mere process of collecting paperwork for a small business loan serves as an invaluable self-audit: one that can help determine which type of loan you need, identify red flags in your operations, and more.
While every lender has different requirements, blah blah, but a good “average” application to prep for is the Small Business Administration’s 7(a) loan application. The reason being, tons of lenders use it, and those who don’t model after it. A 7(a) may very well be the loan you apply for (more on that in step four).
Without further ado, here’s exactly what the 7(a) asks for:
Basic borrower and business information
The borrower information form alone is 13 pages long, and includes fields for the following:
- Business and personal address and contact info.
- List of owners and ownership percentages.
- Amount and purpose of loan (short description).
- Misc. questions regarding business operations (exports, etc.).
- And much, much more.
Most small business lenders will ask for some or all of the following stuff at some point in the application process. Even if it’s not in the initial online forms, they may ask in a follow-up call later, so you’ll want to have everything on deck.
Personal background and financial status
Next, the 7(a) loan app will ask for your personal background and financial statements. The SBA specifically asks for you to complete forms 912 and 413, which include:
- Your detailed contact information, prior addresses, and criminal history.
- A detailed breakdown of your personal net worth, including income, assets, debts, real estate holdings, and other investments, down to how many shares of which stocks you own.
- Your outstanding debts and debtholders.
- Your unpaid taxes (they’ll probably find out anyway).
- Your life insurance.
Yeah, this stuff is detailed. Small business lenders really want to know who they’re lending to!
Owners and affiliations
Next, your lender will certainly want to know who else owns part of your company, their percentage ownership, and their contact information. They may also want a detailed breakdown of everyone’s stock portfolios, notably their controlling interest in other companies.
In addition to ensuring everyone is on board with the loan, lenders want to see who owns your company (and what else they own) to sniff out any potential conflicts of interest, inconsistencies, signs of foul play, and more.
Business financial statement(s)
These are pretty much a must for any loan with decent terms. You and your accountant (often you again) will want to have the following documents prepped and ready for your lender:
- Year-End Profit and Loss Statements (P&L) going back three years.
- Year-End Balance Sheet also going back three years.
- Reconciliation of Net Worth.
- Interim Balance Sheet.
- Interim Profit & Loss Statements.
- Projected Financial Statements (month-to-month for at least 12 months).
Phew! Finally, an easy one (hopefully).
Naturally, lenders will need proof that you can legally operate in your city, so you’ll need to provide your business license. If you don’t have a business license, not to worry; they’re pretty easy to get, they just might take some forms, fees, and a visit to your county registrar’s office. Google “[your city] business license” for the next steps.
Also, if you missed my earlier note about business entities, you’ll need to be a registered, for-profit business to apply for a small business loan. That’s a sole proprietorship, LLC, S Corp, or C Corp. If you haven’t yet registered as a business and have been operating through your personal account and social security number, you’ll definitely want to jump on this (for many reasons). Talk to your CPA to determine the right business structure for you.
Loan application history
Lenders take a peek at your loan history for the same reason your Bumble date scans your old profile photos: they both want to see who else you’ve been spending time with.
Specifically, lenders are looking for two things:
- Existing debt. Logically, lenders want to know who you already have loans outstanding with. Having outstanding loans isn’t an automatic dealbreaker, as long as you can justify your need for a second loan and can demonstrate a clear ability to pay it back.
- Previous loan applications. Lenders also want to see what other loans you’ve applied for in the past. If you’ve been rejected for loans in the past, they might ask you why or call up the other lender to ask. They’ll also want to see who else you’ve applied to recently; if they see that a small business owner has submitted loan applications to two other banks in the last seven days, they might just write it off as due diligence. But if someone has applied for nine loans in 24 hours, they might see it as a potential scam, someone in legal trouble, or a sign of desperation and steer clear.
Tax returns – both business and personal
Time to download your old tax returns. Remember your Turbotax password?
Most lenders will ask for both your personal and business tax returns going back at least three years each. You can request transcripts from your CPA, download them from whichever tax software you used, or even pull them straight from IRS.gov.
In addition to making sure you’re, you know, paying taxes, lenders look at the following on your returns:
- Your adjusted gross income.
- Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI).
- Your income stability.
- Your write-offs.
- And more.
This one might come as a little bit of a surprise, but it makes sense when you think about it. Just like a job interview, you may need to polish off your resume to get a small business loan.
Lenders use your resume to help subjectively determine your overall “loan worthiness.” Just like an HR rep, they want to see relevant work experience that indicates a high likelihood of success.
For that reason, it’s worth tweaking your resume to make you sound like someone who’s perfectly positioned to bring your company to success. If the success of your company depends on your personal ability to make tons of sales, emphasize your sales experience all the way from high school to your most recent job role. Find that link between your company and your past experience and make it the focal point of your small business loan resume.
This is the Shark Tank part of your loan, and quite possibly the step you’ll have the most fun with. The business overview is effectively a one-page “story” of your business, including but not limited to:
- Who you are and your business background.
- Why you started your company.
- What your company does, and for whom.
- How you’ve grown.
- Challenges you’ve overcome, and those you’re still facing.
- Why you need the loan, and how you’d spend it.
Generally speaking, your lender may request your business overview in the form of a one-page cover letter, an “executive summary” later on the loan process, or they may even just quiz you on these questions over the phone. Drafting it up as a one-pager now will help you prep for all three contingencies.
Even if you never end up using your business overview one-pager, you can recycle it as website copy, a 30-second elevator pitch, or the basic outline of a full pitch deck when you apply to Shark Tank.
Finally, the last document your lender might ask for is a copy of your business lease or leases. If you owe a big chunka change to a landlord each month, your lender will want to know as they factor it into your overall loan-worthiness. They may also simply call up your landlord to see if you’ve been on time with payments.
Lastly, if you’re purchasing an existing business, the SBA says you’ll want to have the following additional documents ready since your lender will probably ask:
- Current balance sheet and P&L statement of business to be purchased.
- Previous two years federal income tax returns of the business.
- Proposed Bill of Sale including Terms of Sale.
- Asking price with a schedule of inventory, machinery and equipment, furniture and fixtures.
Welp, that’s it! Gather every conceivable data point related to your life and business short of your shoe size and 3rd-grade teacher and you’re ready to move on.
In all seriousness, there’s a hidden benefit to lenders putting so many hoops in front of you to jump through. I already mentioned the benefit of self-auditing, but there’s another. Our country’s extremely rigorous small business lending process helps to weed out fraudsters and charlatans. When only the strong survive the gauntlet, default rates are lowered. That means lower APRs for everyone, including you.
So the small business application process may be time-consuming, but it’ll save you and other business owners like you thousands in loan payments.
Step 3: polish up your online presence
Once your paperwork (or PDFwork) is ready, it’s time to audit your online presence.
As hinted earlier, applying for a small business loan can be a lot like applying for a job or even going on a first date. You can expect your lender to go online and see if everything you told them is true.
Smaller lenders making small loans under $25k might skip this step, but you still might want to consider performing an “online self-audit” for its own benefits.
When you submit your loan application, lenders may go online to check some or all of the following:
- Your business website. Do you have a crisp and modern website? Does your site copy match up with what you put in your loan application?
- Your e-commerce platform. If you’re an online business, is your e-commerce platform clearly set up to facilitate the traffic and sales you forecast in your cash flow projections?
- Your customer reviews. What are customers saying about your company on sites like Yelp, TrustPilot, and the Better Business Bureau?
- Your business social media presence. Do you have company accounts and relevant activity in all the right places? For example, if you’re an aspiring lifestyle brand, do you have legions of Instagram followers ready to convert to buyers?
- Your personal social media presence. Does your personal social media activity paint the picture of someone who’s passionate about their business and their customers? Or do you look like someone who would use your loan to buy a Lamborghini (yes, that happened)?
Step 4: determine which type of small business loan you need
For $50k+ within months: SBA 7(a) loans
An SBA 7(a) is a loan offered by a traditional lender (like a bank) but backed by the Small Business Administration. SBA loans have lower interest rates and higher approval rates than traditional loans because they’re insured by the government; if a borrower defaults, the SBA will pay back the lender between 50% and 85% of the principal balance.
The 7(a) application process is rigorous – it’s the one I based step two off of. However, the process is certainly worth it since SBA 7(a)s have some of the most favorable terms you can find, including interest rates as low as 5% to 10%, terms as long as 25 years, and zero prepayment penalties.
For loan amounts ranging between $30,000 and $5 million, most small businesses look at 7(a)s first. However, they’re not for everyone – the chief drawback to 7(a) is the long lead time. It can take between six weeks and six months to get approved for an SBA 7(a).
If you need less cash and faster, you might prefer an SBA Microloan.
For <$50k within weeks: SBA Microloans
To elaborate, an SBA Microloan might be a better fit than a 7(a) if you’re:
- Looking to borrow $50,000 or less.
- Need it faster than six months.
- You’re concerned about meeting the high requirements of a 7(a), notably years of cash flow and business credit history.
Unlike 7(a)s which often come from big banks, Microloans are given out through SBA-approved non-profit lenders. Sadly that doesn’t translate to a lower APR for you. Microloans have APRs between 8%-13%, which is a pinch higher than 7(a)s because lenders are financing newer, riskier businesses.
Still, if you’re just starting out or don’t need such a massive cash deposit (the average microloan is $13,000), an SBA Microloan may be the right choice.
For tiny loans within days: small business credit cards
Though not exactly a loan per se, a business credit card might actually be a better fit for your small business’ financial situation than a 7(a).
- 0% introductory APR means you can borrow money interest-free for a short period (usually around 12 months).
- Faster approval process – all you need are a good personal credit score, a registered business, and a federal EIN for your business.
- No need to ask for a predetermined loan amount – only spend what you need (up to your credit limit, of course).
- Initial cash back bonuses mean you can actually save money by borrowing.
- Cash rewards help you save up to 5% on daily business expenses.
Compared to a traditional loan, the primary drawbacks of a business credit card are that your initial line of credit may be as low as $3,000 (depending on your personal credit history) and APR skyrockets to ~30% after the intro period expires. For that reason, it’s never a good idea to max out a credit card (business or personal) if you’re unsure you’ll be able to pay it back.
But if you’re just starting out, aren’t sure what your upcoming expenses will be, or only need to borrow small amounts each month, a business credit card might be the superior fit.
For equipment and real-estate purchases: SBA 504 loans
504 loans are specifically designed to cover the cost of building or improving real-estate and equipment, including:
- Existing buildings or land.
- New and existing facilities.
- Long-term machinery and equipment.
- Land, streets, utilities, parking lots, and landscaping.
A 504 loan is intended to help create jobs – for that reason, be prepared to answer questions about job creation in your application process.
Interestingly, when you’re approved for a 504 loan, 40% of the funding will come from a non-profit company called a Certified Development Company or CDC. Officially approved by the SBA, these companies exist to stimulate and regulate growth in your area of proposed development.
Anyways, if you’re specifically seeking a loan to cover the cost of real estate or pricey equipment, consider a 504.
Lastly, let’s briefly touch on conventional loans, aka bank loans or “traditional” loans. These are loans from a bank, credit union, or other financial institution that aren’t backed by the SBA.
It’s unlikely that anyone reading this would apply for a traditional loan over an SBA-backed loan, but it’s worth knowing the difference in case you do one day in the future.
Here are the key differences between 7(a)s and conventional loans:
- Higher APR. Because they aren’t insured by the SBA, conventional loans have APRs as high as 30%, whereas SBA loans are capped at 4.25% above prime (so, usually around 10%).
- Higher loan amounts. Banks will loan small businesses anywhere from $25,000 to several million, but they generally prefer to make larger loans of $250,000 and higher.
- Shorter terms. 7(a)s can go as long as 25 years, whereas most bank loans cap at five-year terms.
- Higher revenue and credit requirements. Since they’re lending uninsured amounts, banks strongly prefer to lend to established small businesses with $300,000+ in annual revenue and a FICO score above 680.
- Faster turnaround. When you apply for an SBA-backed loan, you need approval from both your lender and the government. It’s only the former for a traditional loan, so while the process may not be any easier, it’s almost always faster.
The faster approval process and higher loan ceilings are about the only things going for conventional loans, which is why most folks go for SBA-backed loans (and the banks themselves encourage it). Still, it’s helpful to know the difference.
Online term loans
If you’re looking for a fast and easy loan with a turnaround time under two weeks and an SBA Microloan isn’t a fit, you might consider an online term loan.
I bring up online term loans last, and with trepidation, because in my opinion they should only be considered after SBA loans.
It’s worth going through the rigamarole for an SBA-backed loan because you’ll get a fixed low-interest rate that won’t squeeze cash out of your business.
An online term loan may be worth a look at though if the SBA has turned you down, but be sure to read your terms and conditions extremely carefully, and don’t be tempted by their convenience alone.
Step 5: find the right lender
Now that you’ve picked out the appropriate loan type, let’s find you a great lender. Keep in mind that you’ll want to keep your list of potential lenders reasonably small for a few reasons:
- Each individual application can take a while.
- Too many applications over a span longer than 45 days will hurt your credit score.
- Too many apps at once can also jeopardize your loan-worthiness since lenders will notice.
So you’ll want a tight list of two or three lenders to apply to for the best rates.
For SBA 7(a)s, 504s, and Microloans: SBA Lendermatch
For SBA-backed loans, there are so many lenders of all shapes and sizes that it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why the SBA created SBA Lendermatch, its own borrower/lender dating app.
Your first step with Lendermatch will be to fill out a surprisingly brief profile about yourself, your business, and your desired loan amount and usage. It takes only five minutes, and once you’ve submitted your info the SBA takes it and passes it along to its vast network of approved lenders. Within two business days, you’ll receive a single email with a list of lenders who expressed interest in your loan. From there, you’ll be able to compare terms, rates, fees, and more.
For online loans: Bluevine
There are a variety of places you can look for an online loan, but perhaps none have made the process as simple and user-friendly as Bluevine.
An online-only bank, Bluevine specifically caters to small business owners and their unique needs and challenges. You can opt for a line of credit that goes all the way up to $250,000 (if you qualify).
Bluevine also offers a unique 1.5% APY checking account. Yep, a checking account with double the interest rate of a traditional savings account. To qualify for that APY you need to meet one of the following monthly eligibility requirements (effective May 1, 2022):
- Spend $500 per month with your Bluevine Business Debit Mastercard®.
- Receive $2,500 per month in customer payments into your Bluevine Business Checking account via ACH, wire transfer, mobile check deposit, or directly from their merchant payment processing provider.
For business credit: the Ink Business Cash® Credit Card
If you’re thinking a credit card with a low APR might just do the trick for your business needs, consider the Ink Business Cash® Credit Card by Chase.
Chase’s most popular business credit card is a superb choice for smaller, growing companies for a few reasons. First, it offers a 0% Intro APR on Purchases for 12 months, so you can spend up to your credit limit for a full year without paying a dime of interest (after that an APR of 15.49% - 21.49% Variable applies). Second, it offers a $750 cash bonus after spending $7,500 within your first three months, which is like a nice 10% off coupon for your next quarter of business expenses.
Lastly, you’ll get 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services, 2% back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at restaurants and gas stations, and 1% back on all other purchases. Oh, and there’s no annual fee.
Step 6: read the terms, then read them again
Not all small business loans are created equal, and some that look similar on paper may be completely different on a granular level.
Most lenders will publish their most basic terms upfront, so you can begin weeding out non-fits before you even apply. For example, if a lender’s APR, terms, and fees don’t meet your fancy, take a pass and save yourself the application effort.
Here are some other key questions you’ll want to find answers to before accepting a loan offer or even applying in the first place:
- What is my interest rate? Is it fixed, or variable over time depending on the prime rate (aka market rate)?
- In total, what will be my combined interest, principal, and fees?
- How often will I make payments, on what day, and precisely what will those payments be, down to the penny?
- Are there any miscellaneous/conditional fees that aren’t included in my APR that I should plan for, most notably prepayment penalties?
- Will collateral be required for this loan? If so, what are the terms?
- Under what circumstances can the lender call default on the loan?
- What documentation will I have to provide the lender over the lifetime of the loan (e.g. financial statements, forecasting reports, etc.)? How often will I have to provide them, and in what format?
- Are there any usage or operating requirements associated with my loan, or can I use it for any purpose I see fit (usage restrictions are more common with conventional bank loans, but worth confirming regardless)?
If a lender doesn’t have all of these answers published in their materials, try reaching out; they may give you a few more details before you apply. You might also find some answers to the questions above within TrustPilot and BBB reviews.
Prospective lenders may come back with “it depends,” and that’s totally fine. In many cases, they simply need to know more about you before committing to precise terms.
The bottom line is this: gather as much data as you can about a lender’s terms and conditions before you apply. Once you apply and are approved, fill in the final blanks with the literature they send you.
As with all financial commitments, whether it’s a mortgage or a car purchase, there should be no uncertain terms when going into a small business loan.
Step 7: apply
Congrats, you’ve made it through the gauntlet! Applying for a small business loan can be a bit like Navy SEAL “Hell Week” for small business owners, but like our heroic frogmen, you and your business will come out stronger on the other side.
As you start to formally apply for loans, again, try not to apply to too many lenders at once, or else each lender will notice and it could lower your loan-worthiness. It’s hard to say exactly how many applications will trigger a red flag since each lender is different, but five or fewer is likely a safe number. Lastly, be sure to make all five within 45 days of each other; each lender will make a hard pull against your credit, but the credit bureaus will see all five pulls being made for the same reason and bundle them into one, minimizing the dip to your credit.
Applying for a small business loan can feel daunting at first. But as long as you break it into steps, it becomes not only easier, but an invaluable practice in self-auditing your business. Here’s a recap:
- Make sure you qualify. Does your business qualify for a loan? Do you qualify for a loan? Lastly, and most pertinently, can you afford to pay back a small business loan?
- Gather the 10 essential documents. In addition to basic borrower info, tax documents, and financial statements, you’ll likely need to put together an executive summary and clearly articulate why you need the loan and how you’ll spend it. Even if your lender doesn’t end up asking for everything you prepared, you’ll still be glad you prepared it.
- Polish up your online presence. Lenders these days often go online to get a peek into the legitimacy of your business, how it operates, and what customers are saying. Tuning up your social media presence and addressing reviews on TrustPilot and BBB are excellent ways to cover your bases.
- Determine which type of small business loan you need. Do you qualify for a need-based, forgivable loan? Or will you go the more traditional route with a 7(a)? Determining which type of loan you need will greatly accelerate the process of finding the best lender.
- Find the right lender. Whether it’s Bluevine, an Ink Business Cash® Credit Card, or an SBA-backed lender you “meet” through Lendermatch, taking your time to find the right lender is perhaps the most critical step in getting the perfect loan.
- Read the terms, then read them again. How much total will you pay back over what span of time? Are there any hidden fees or prepayment penalties? Will you have to put up collateral? Collecting these answers at some point before accepting a loan offer will ensure it’s truly the best fit for your business.
- Apply. The easiest step of the bunch! Once you have your ducks in a row, it’s time to start reaching out to lenders and finding the best possible rates. Just be sure not to apply to too many lenders at once, and try to condense your applications to a 45-day window to minimize the impact on your personal and business credit scores.