Only 70% of eligible voters are registered to vote in California. If you aren’t registered, go do it now! Read on to learn why voting is beneficial to your business.

According to Secretary of State Alex Padilla, only 70% of eligible voters in California are registered to vote. If you aren’t registered, go do it now! Read on to learn why voting is beneficial to your business.

Why you should vote

Contrary to popular belief, your vote does count. Your vote directly influences state representatives and initiatives, and it indirectly influences which presidential candidate receives your state’s vote.

Local and state ballot measures affect your business. Take a look at these two measures that will be on the November 2016 ballot in California:

  • Proposition 67 would ratify or dissolve the state ban on single-use plastic bags. How does this affect your business? Charging a minimum of 10 cents will offset the cost of purchasing those bags and help reduce the amount of plastic we are dumping in our oceans, but plastic bags are also a free service your customers enjoy. Whether you support the bag ban or not, this is a measure that will directly affect your business.
  • San Jose Business Tax Revenue Initiative is a proposed measure that would change the way businesses in San Jose are taxed. Instead of a flat tax, this initiative proposes a revenue-based system of taxes, with businesses making a gross annual revenue of $1 million or less exempt.  While this is an issue specific to San Jose, 26 other cities in California already have switched to a revenue-based tax system. Local measures like this example directly affect your business, and you should make your voice heard.

As a small business owner, you play an important role as a community leader and a significant influencer of your family, friends, and employees. It’s a civic duty to register and vote in both state and federal elections.  And part of that responsibility is to encourage your friends, family, and employees to do the same.  

Did you know that in California you are legally required to allow your employees time to vote on election day and post a notice of your employee’s voting rights in the workplace? To ease the strain of missing your employees for a few hours, work with them to allow time off to vote in shifts. Since business may be slower in the morning and right before closing, consider scheduling voting time at the beginning or end of the day (or whenever business is slower for you).

The rights, opportunities, and success of your small business are determined in part by state and federal policies. If you want your voice heard, it is important to register and vote for representatives and legislation that will benefit you and your community.

How to register

Registering to vote in California is easier than you might think. You can register online, by mail, or at your local DMV or county clerk’s office. The online application is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese. The deadline to register is October 24th .

If you don’t think you will be able to leave your business to vote on election day, it’s easy to request your ballot by mail. The deadline for vote by mail is November 1st..

In order to register, you must be a citizen of the United States, be 18 years or older by election day, be a resident of California, not be found mentally incompetent by the court, and not in prison or on parole for a felony.

Most polling places should have ballots in English, Spanish, and Chinese. If you need assistance voting, you are allowed to bring someone with you as long as they are not a member of your company or union.

Registering to vote is easy, accessible, and important. If you haven’t already, go register now and encourage your employees to do the same. Your business’ future will thank you!


Opportunity Fund is California’s largest and fastest-growing nonprofit lender to small businesses. In FY16, we made $60M in loans to help more than 2,200 small business owners invest in their businesses.  Opportunity Fund invests in small business owners who do not have access to traditional financing. As a founding member and signatory to the Borrower’s Bill of Rights, we believe in the important role small businesses play in our community and the economy, and we aim to help owners financially succeed.

Visit us online at http://opportunityfundloan.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter

From an early age, Olivia Colt showed signs of a fighter’s mentality.

Whether it was explaining that her Dominican culture was as legitimate as the dominant Mexican culture in her hometown of San Diego, or filling out an application to get into a Catholic high school so she could be the first in her family to graduate college, Colt was not going to take no for an answer.

It’s not surprising — the matriarchs in her family are all driven people. After her grandmother immigrated to New York in the 1960s, she didn’t rest until almost all of her family members were here.

“They really wanted us to have the American dream,” said Colt. “When my mom was divorcing my dad, she figured out how to buy a house on her own. She grew up adjacent to the projects in the Bronx, and wanted her kids to have a better life than she had. [She and my grandmother] instilled in me a drive and work ethic like no other, where failure is not an option. Any success, you celebrate it.”

It’s that mentality that has allowed Colt, 33, to operate Salt & Honey, a thriving catering business in Berkeley, despite the fact that she has a life-threatening illness, one that requires her to receive all-day treatments at the UC San Francisco hospital twice a month and often requires her to be at home for days afterward.

Mini berry cobbler skillets from Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey
Mini berry cobbler skillets from Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey

Ever since she can remember, Colt loved being in the kitchen. When she was 8 or 9, she was inspired by a Martha Stewart cooking show to make aioli, even though she had no idea what it was.

While her further experimentation sometimes yielded some pretty awful results, Colt realized early on cooking for her family was her favorite way of expressing her feelings. “Food is love and so intimate,” she said. “You get the opportunity to nourish someone and touch them, in a way. It’s a privilege to be able to cook for someone. That’s how I won everyone over.”

Nevertheless, Colt didn’t consider cooking a profession — at first. After graduating from the University of San Francisco, she entered the non-profit world, working on behalf of the homeless and homeless veterans, and later the Red Cross, while continuing to cook and bake as a hobby. At the time, she wanted to become a foreign diplomat.

However, one day at work, she met the man who would become her life partner. They decided that one of them should leave the job so as not to work together, and Colt decided to experiment with cooking. She began catering parties, but still wasn’t sure whether she was ready to abandon her dreams just yet.

And then she had her first stroke. “When God shuts the door,” she said, “he opens a window.”

Olivia Colt of Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Opportunity Fund
Olivia Colt in the kitchen. Photo: Opportunity Fund

Falling into a fog

Colt has a huge personality, and most of the time she is quick to laugh and joke. But when she describes the day her life changed, she tears up.

On Dec. 27, 2010, she was on the escalator at the San Francisco Airport, headed down to baggage claim, when she experienced confusion and blind spots. She was alone, except for the dog her brother had just given her as a Christmas present. Colt managed to take a shuttle home, but when she got to the block where she had lived for years, everything looked different. She felt as if she was in a foggy, dreamlike state.

Not wanting to call in sick right after vacation, Colt went to work the next day, where she and a colleague began trying to diagnose her symptoms on WebMD. Later, she went to a doctor’s office, where an ophthalmologist confirmed she had had a stroke and sent her to the hospital. While she was there, she had a second one.

“I was presenting with a stroke,” she said. “I had been having migraines a month prior to all this happening.” Yet her test results came out inconclusive.

Her family all rallied around her. In a rare visit with her father, Colt told him that if she could cook every day for the rest of her life, she would.

“The next day, my dad came back to hospital and had incorporated my company, [Salt & Honey], telling me, ‘I have all the confidence in the world in you,’” she said.

(The company’s moniker, by the way, comes from a caramel venture she and a friend started. The candy business was short-lived, but the name stuck.)

When she left the hospital, her doctors told her the strokes were an anomaly.

Growth, and then another setback

Blackened harissa shrimp with Israeli cous cous from Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey
Blackened harissa shrimp with Israeli cous cous from Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey

With vacation, paid recovery time off, and her parents around to help, Colt started holding dinner parties in her apartment. Her father worked the front of the house and her mother was her sous chef. These parties led to her first two clients, both tech companies, for whom she catered staff meals.

Slowly, Colt started growing her business, learning everything by doing.

“I had $2,000 in my savings account that I started my business with, and I’ve been bootstrapping it the entire time,” she said. “Part of that has been great, all the experiences are new and you’re learning and growing and seeing how far you can stretch yourself.”

Over the course of two years, her company grew, and Colt was able to hire her first few employees and rent commercial kitchen space. (Salt & Honey now operates out of its own kitchen on Fifth Street in West Berkeley.) But in Sept of 2012, she had a third stroke, and this time, her whole left side was temporarily paralyzed.

For a week, Colt remained in the hospital, where her case remained a medical mystery. “All the interns and residents were on it.” she said. “My symptoms didn’t add up.”

While she doesn’t remember the name of the resident who figured it out, she is thankful that the doctor had just attended a lecture by Dr. Bradley Lewis, director of the hematology department at San Francisco General Hospital and an expert in a disease so rare that only one in a million people get it. Called Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria, or PNH, it’s blood disease closely related to aplastic anemia.

Colt prefers a shorter name. On the advice of her therapist, she refers to the disease as “Steve” whenever she needs to vent about how much it has impacted her life.

While a diagnosis of PNH used to be a death sentence, those who have it can now have a normal life expectancy by taking a drug called Soliris (or eculizumab), which is given intravenously every other week. This was good news for Colt.

Rustic dinner party table setting at a Salt & Honey event. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey
Rustic dinner party table setting at a Salt & Honey event. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey

The medicine puts a protein back into her system that helps fortify her blood cells. “Without the medication, I would have another stroke,” said Colt. “The fact that I’ve had 3 at 33, I won’t walk out of the next one.”

But Solaris comes with a hefty price tag. In 2010, it was named the most expensive drug in the world, with estimated costs over $400,000 per year. For a woman with no health insurance, the figures she saw on her medical bills were staggering.

“I didn’t have insurance because I had already had pre-existing conditions and my COBRA had run out,” she said. “If the stroke didn’t kill me, the bills will.”

With the help of a nurse, she learned that her only way to get access to the drug was to get on Medi-Cal. To do so, she would need to liquidate her small 401K and stop taking a salary. President Barack Obama’s health care law, she said, also helped save her life, as it made it impossible for insurance companies to reject coverage based on preexisting conditions.

Because her illness did not leave her with a disability, she would also have to prove she was worthy of getting the only medication that would save her life. “I wouldn’t recommend this experience to anyone,” said Colt. “You’re sick on top of all [these financial issues], and there’s no compassion for that. The system is cruel and doesn’t set you up for success. It shouldn’t be such a struggle and you shouldn’t have to justify being a sick person.”

The one place Colt doesn’t have to justify being sick is at work.

A ‘saving grace’

Kale salad from Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey
Kale salad from Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey

Colt’s medical regimen requires her not only to be at UCSF for around eight hours, but also to take six or seven pre-medication steroids so she doesn’t have too many negative side effects from the drug, which is administered through a port in her chest like chemotherapy drugs. Sometimes she needs a day or more to recover from the treatment itself.

She admits she’s gone through all the stages of grief about losing her former healthy self, including some extreme lows. “The business became my saving grace,” Colt said. “It allowed me to focus on something that didn’t make me feel weak or sick or less-than, and allowed me to put positive energy …  something that made me feel good about myself. [My business] gave me purpose.”

The non-profit Opportunity Fund, which gives loans to small business owners generally considered too risky to take chances on, was also a great help. And Colt has managed to surround herself with employees who are incredibly loyal and understanding. While she comes to work as much as she can, she pretty much leaves all of the cooking to her 20 employees.

Leo Giron, who is Mexican-born but classically trained in French and Italian cuisine, is her executive chef. “He’s so loyal, and loves what he does,” said Colt. “He’s also the most positive person I’ve ever met.”

Since Colt’s family now lives in Washington State, it’s important that her workplace feel like family.

Her sister-in-law is her office manager. “We also have two sisters who started as dishwashers and are now a sous chef and a kitchen manager,” she said. “Everyone has each other’s back. We also have this almost unhinged belief that we’re going to make it.”

Vanilla nectarine cakes from Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey
Vanilla nectarine cakes from Salt & Honey. Photo: Courtesy of Salt & Honey

Colt describes Salt & Honey’s food as “California rustic.” She makes use of as much local, seasonal and sustainable products as she can — and clients will pay for. Her team makes everything from scratch. While its client list includes tech giants like Facebook and Google, Salt & Honey also does weddings and smaller events.

“Part of what I want my clients feel to is that we’re an extension of their hospitality,” she said. “They’re part of our family and we’re part of theirs, and we’ll take care of all of the details. The best compliment I can get from anyone is them saying ‘I got to be a guest at my own party.’”

Given what she’s been up against, Colt’s optimism about her future is infectious, and when listening to her talk, one can’t help but feel that if catering doesn’t work out, she could easily become a motivational speaker.

“The financial system isn’t set up for folks like me, and before Obama, the medical system wasn’t set up for folks like me,” she said. “But I feel no reason to be super negative about anything. Life is about finding the work-around, saying, ‘This will be difficult, but how will we overcome it and what will we learn from it?’ There isn’t any reason for you not to believe in yourself and be grateful for your life experience. You get one shot at this — that’s it. You don’t get this to do this over, so I will live my life to the best of my ability. On my death bed, I will be so happy that I lived life authentic to me, and that allowed me to pursue my dreams and goals and be happy.”

Connect with Salt & Honey Catering on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Not so bleak. Those three words just may sum up the prognosis for seniors on the hunt for new work, a verdict reinforced by data out of the Boston College Center for Retirement Research where the academics said, “The outlook is generally not as bad as it used to be.”

The BC researchers did acknowledge that, for most, employment options “decline with age” – but, and this is crucial, no longer do seniors appear to have employment choices limited to “old person jobs” such as store greeters. That is a huge shift and bright news for work hungry seniors.

The BC researchers pointed to multiple factors that, they said, have greased this change. A big one: most employers have shifted away from so-called defined benefit pensions so they no longer see seniors as a sure money drain. The researchers continued: “Older workers are no longer less educated than younger workers and could thus be more attractive to employers. And, finally, the aging of the large Baby Boom cohort could mean that job applicants are evaluated by older hiring managers, who tend to value older workers more than younger managers.”

All good news for seniors. “There’s a lot of demand for seniors,” said Allan Ageman, managing partner at New York based staffing firm The Bachrach Group. “We hire seniors ourselves.”

Seniors, he stressed, bring maturity to work and “they dress normally.”

Recruiter and author Evan Pellett said similar: “The seniors job outlook is no longer bleak due to many key shifts in employers’ perspectives. Employers are recognizing that seniors often have incredible work ethic, show up more consistently, keep longer tenures, and are grateful for the work. Many seniors come from a time when overworking themselves was considered the norm, not the exception. Seniors also understand impeccable customer service and are more adept at building long term connections and relationships.”

A few years ago, yes, things were different for seniors in the hiring halls – but back then most job applicants regardless of age found it tough going in the recession. In today’s comparatively buoyant economy the national unemployment rate is under 5% according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dan Shube, chief marketing officer at staffing company Labor Finders, extended that thought: “Due to the low unemployment rate, and the skills gap — jobs that are open that available workers do not have the correct skills to fill — hiring managers have been forced to expand their search to include people that they might not have considered to be a perfect match in the past. They have discovered that it may have been a mistake to overlook seniors.”

Good as that sounds, this doesn’t mean that seniors can write their own labor tickets today. Not exactly. Nor does this mean every senior job applicant will be embraced with high paying offers. That’s not reality. A lot hinges on the person’s particular skills. Some industries are more receptive to seniors than others. Art Koff, who runs RetiredBrains.com, said that the job outlook is especially bright for pharmacists, cost accountants, chemists, and researchers.

It isn’t necessarily bright in all other fields. Tom Smith, a 58-year-old marketing and advertising executive in North Carolina, said that he has been unemployed for three of the past eight years and that today, while employed, he is making substantially less than he had in peak earning years. He attributed that to a lack of interest in his sector in older workers. He added that he knew many peers who “have just given up.”

What’s the next step for workers who hit a roadblock? Koff, who said he is 81, offered his recipe for success for seniors: “Employers are very much interested in hiring older workers for part-time, temporary and seasonal work and for project assignments.” Even when a full-time, permanent job may not be in the cards, project and temporary work may be available.

A different route: start your own business. That’s what 65-year-old chef Tina Ferguson-Riffe did in Berkeley, Calif when, stymied by an inability to get hired in other restaurants, she started her own, Smoke Berkeley, a BBQ place that has won rave reviews on sites like Yelp.

“I’d been out of work for three years when I opened Smoke Berkeley,” said Ferguson-Riffe, who said a loan she got through Opportunity Fund, a California microfinance pioneer that specializes in helping entrepreneurs who aren’t succeeding with traditional lenders, helped pave her way.

Other seniors describe similar experiences: self employment is, for some, a path to a better gig. When no one else will hire you, hire yourself.

Add it up and, no, it no longer is bleak, not for most seniors looking for work in most fields. It’s definitely not boom times either, but for seniors who are on the hunt for work, now is shaping up as the best of times in some years and that is good news indeed.

 

Original Article

Each month, we’re sharing and promoting free or affordable online tools that help small business owners run their businesses better. This is your toolbox for five affordable website development resources.

Each month, we’re sharing free or affordable online tools that help small business owners run their businesses better. This is your toolbox for the five best website development tools.

Developing your small business is hard, but developing a good website for it can be easy. We’ve compiled this list of five affordable online tools you can use to develop your website. From tracking visitors to hosting your blog, this list has you covered.  

How much it costs: Free for standard use; from $9.95 a month for premium

What it does: The most important thing about your small business’ website is actually having one. WordPress is extremely popular for hosting websites. The interface for creating, editing, and managing your site is easy and user-friendly. Although the free version doesn’t include a custom domain name or advanced design customization and places ads on your site, it is still a useful tool for you to create an online presence for your business.

How much it costs: Free for most templates; $19.00 for premium templates

What it does: What separates a good website that generates business and a bad one that doesn’t attract customers? How it looks. If you don’t like any of the templates included in your web-hosting service, such as WordPress or Blogger, using a more unique template is the way to go. Templated is an easy-to-use resource for free templates that will make your small business’ website look professional and trendy.

How much it costs: Free for standard; from $20.00 a month for SumoMe Pro

What it does: SumoMe has a lot of tools for making the most of your small business’ website. You can choose from many different tools such as visually seeing where visitors click, popup email subscription request boxes, social media sharing buttons, content analytics to see if your visitors are actually reading what you have to say, and more. Whether you only want to share your business’ contact information and photographs or run an online retail store, this affordable online resource has something that can help your small business grow.

How much it costs: Free

What it does: Did you know that your website should load in under three seconds or visitors will leave? Finding out exactly how long your small business’ site takes to load what how you can make it faster is one of the many uses for Website Grader. Website Grader will help you optimize your site so customers will stay longer and visit again. This tool is completely free, but the information it tells you about your website is priceless.

How much it costs: Free

What it does: Google Analytics is a tool everyone who has a website should use. Not only does it allow you to track which pages are being viewed, but it also shows you where your visitors are located and how they found your site. This information, and everything else Analytics shows you, is important for targeting your small business’ audience and marketing to them better. If you aren’t sure if you want to use this resource or are overwhelmed by all of its tools, Google has a demo version you can play with and many great tutorials and videos. Google Analytics is by far the best free online tool you can use to help your small business’ website grow.

 

We’re always looking for the best affordable online resources including tools to promote to small business owners like you. If you have a tool you’d like to share with fellow business owners, contact us at sblending@opportunityfund.org.

For information about Opportunity Fund’s small business loans, please contact us at 866-299-8173 or loans@opportunityfund.org.  For questions about your existing loan or other customer service questions, please contact us at 866-299-8173 or sbhelp@opportunityfund.org.


Opportunity Fund is California’s largest and fastest-growing nonprofit lender to small businesses. In FY16, we made $60M in loans to help more than 2,200 small business owners invest in their businesses.  Opportunity Fund invests in small business owners who do not have access to traditional financing. As a founding member and signatory to the Borrower’s Bill of Rights, we believe in the important role small businesses play in our community and the economy, and we aim to help owners financially succeed.

Visit us online at opportunityfundloan.org and follow us on Facebook  and Twitter

Don’t like spammy phone calls and emails? Ever wonder how your contact information gets into seemingly random hands?  Our content partner Nav shares five tips for how to protect your personal contact information from predatory lenders and scams.

Protecting your contact information from predatory lenders and scams is important for the security of your small business and for not wasting your valuable time. Read this post from our partner Nav.com for five easy tips.

 

Since I started reviewing online lenders, I have filled out 30+ online business loan applications to understand the alternative lending market. The applications include direct lenders as well as loan brokers. An unintended consequence is that I am getting 10+ cold calls from loan brokers and alternative lenders on a daily basis. I don’t know how they get my phone number exactly, but I suspect someone sold my contact information as leads to lenders/brokers.

In the beginning, there’s novelty. I would answer the phone calls and try to pry more information from the “fast and easy” funding people. But after a while, it just became annoying. I stopped picking up my phone unless it’s someone from my contact list. I missed a few important phone calls from that. In retrospect, if I had known what I know, I would have taken the following steps to protect my contact information so that I don’t get spammed all the time.

  1. Get a phone number through one of the virtual phone systems such as MightyCall. This will become the number you use to register your company, and the number you use to apply all the business financing products.
  2. Get a separate email for all the spams you are going to get once you fill out a loan application.
  3. I don’t think you need a separate mailing address. But throw away all the snail mails that include a fake check or a pre-approved $50K business line of credit. These are mostly loan sharks who charge insane amount of fees no matter how much they sound like they are here to help your business.
  4. Now, don’t use your primary contact information on any corporate registration documents, yellow pages, phone directory, your website, loan applications or final loan documents. Your information will be spread around through many different ways. Some lenders/brokers might sell your information. Some of the information is available through secretary of state or business credit bureau. The best way to protect your private contact information is not to give it away in the first place.
  5. You might still want to check your messages on the VoIP phone number and emails regularly but you don’t have to worry about being harassed like me.

I have had enough. I am getting a new phone number. Be ultra protective of your primary contact information so you can get into contact with people who are important to you while avoiding spammy phone calls which are mostly counter productive.

 

This article originally appeared on Nav.com and was re-purposed with their permission.

For information about Opportunity Fund’s small business loans, please contact us at 866-299-8173 or loans@opportunityfund.org.  For questions about your existing loan or other customer service questions, please contact us at 866-299-8173 or sbhelp@opportunityfund.org.


Opportunity Fund is California’s largest and fastest-growing nonprofit lender to small businesses. In FY16, we made $60M in loans to help more than 2,200 small business owners invest in their businesses.  Opportunity Fund invests in small business owners who do not have access to traditional financing. As a founding member and signatory to the Borrower’s Bill of Rights, we believe in the important role small businesses play in our community and the economy, and we aim to help owners financially succeed.

Visit us online at http://opportunityfundloan.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter

With its launch in 2007, OnDeck set out to become the alternative to merchant cash advances. That financing option, widely used by small-business owners looking for quick access to capital, is easier to get than a bank loan — but it can be staggeringly expensive and lead business owners into a debt trap.

“In the early days, that was a lot of our business, finding folks who had taken merchant cash advances,” says OnDeck CEO Noah Breslow. “Merchant cash advances had made them sad. We say, ‘Here’s a better alternative.’”

But not all small-business owners are happy with OnDeck’s alternative.

Critics question its role

Some nonprofit groups that support small businesses and are critical of merchant cash advances say OnDeck loans, with annual percentage rates that can reach into the high double digits, can be just as harmful to business owners. OnDeck, some maintain, is just another merchant cash advance provider.

OnDeck is “a short-term, high-cost alternative lender,” says Caitlin McShane, marketing and communications director at San Francisco-based nonprofit lender Opportunity Fund.

Gwendolyn Wright has a more scathing view. The business financing consultant, who has worked with the nonprofit Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco, calls OnDeck “scavengers.”

“They’re going after a vulnerable population just like merchant cash advance companies go after a vulnerable population,” she says. These companies “are in crisis positions and need money to get out of that crisis.”

On an upward trajectory

Amid such criticism from small-business advocacy groups and the media, OnDeck is growing rapidly. The lender has originated about $5 billion in loans since 2007, more than doubling its loan volume annually in 2013 and 2014. OnDeck went public in 2014 and is expanding its reach with partners such as JPMorgan Chase. The default rate of OnDeck borrowers was 6% to 7% over the last two years, according to regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Since reporting of default rates or loan loss rates vary, it’s difficult to determine how OnDeck compares with others in the industry. The Small Business Administration doesn’t make public default rates, a spokeswoman says. The Coleman Report, published by an industry research firm focused on SBA lending, estimated the SBA’s 2015 default rate at 2%.

But OnDeck’s rate is only slightly higher than the 5.5% loan default estimate for firms with 20 or fewer employees published by research firm WAIN Street. The default rate for loans by microlenders is even lower at 4%, according to a 2014 report from the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit that tracks trends in microlending.

OnDeck has its supporters and satisfied customers, some of them highlighted in testimonials on the company site. Jim Moseley, CEO of TransGuardian in San Marino, California, says OnDeck helped the logistics software company grow at a time when banks were reluctant to offer him financing.

“Banks only believe in you when you don’t need money from them,” he says in a video on the lender’s site. OnDeck provided funding “to take us over the valleys.”

OnDeck has expanded its role in small-business financing in recent years — it has reached out to nonprofits that serve small businesses, launching a program that gives them free access to its online lending platform. Recently, OnDeck initiated an industry group that promised to standardize the disclosure of APRs in business lending.

But its early years were not so auspicious.

Early missteps at OnDeck

In 2014, the lender acknowledged in a regulatory filing with the SEC that some independent brokers in its network had incentives, mainly higher commissions, to “mislead loan applicants” or were “engaged in disreputable behavior.” It is widely believed that some of those brokers also worked in the merchant cash advance industry.

Shortly before OnDeck’s 2014 IPO, Bloomberg reported that the lender “teamed up with brokers convicted of stock scams, insider trading, embezzlement, gambling and dealing ecstasy.” The piece featured an illustration of an executive holding handfuls of money and with a shark’s head.

The report argued that OnDeck was part of the merchant cash advance industry, “essentially payday lending for businesses.”

OnDeck rejects that characterization. Jim Larkin, OnDeck’s vice president of marketing and communications, says that belief may have been due to “confusion in the early days of the industry when the small-business lending space was comprised primarily of banks and merchant cash advance companies.”

“OnDeck has always offered true business loans,” he tells NerdWallet.

And because it offers loans, OnDeck — unlike merchant cash advance providers — is subject to federal banking regulations.

Similarities to MCA companies

But OnDeck is similar to merchant cash advance companies in two key areas: On its website, it doesn’t disclose term-loan APRs, which are on the upper end at 98% as OnDeck has disclosed in a regulatory filing. Also, borrowers must make automatic daily or weekly payments.

OnDeck’s daily withdrawals can overwhelm borrowers, says Will Davis, CEO of online lender Able Lending. “It’s just the same as a merchant cash advance, effectively.”

“They look like a duck,” he says. “They walk like a duck, and they quack like a duck.”

An OnDeck loan can actually be worse than a merchant cash advance, says onetime customer Jay B Sauceda. The owner of Sauceda Industries — a T-shirt company that also offers third-party logistics services such as processing and shipping to small businesses — notes that merchant cash advance payments are typically based on a set percentage of daily or weekly credit and debit card sales. With OnDeck, the daily or weekly amount is fixed.

Sauceda says he paid $1,400 a week on a $60,000 loan, which he took out to cover an unexpected cash shortfall. “With OnDeck,” he says, “it’s ‘We don’t give a …. You owe us every Wednesday.’”

Overwhelmed by payments

Jonathan Brereton, CEO of Accion Chicago, a nonprofit financial services company that helps small businesses, says daily payments — no matter the lender or provider — are the most common complaint from borrowers.

“If their revenues are volatile and they know they have this fixed payment every day,” he says, “that creates a lot of anxiety and can lead to overdrafts and a lot of additional expenses as a result.”

Larkin, the OnDeck vice president, acknowledges that daily or weekly payments may be tough for businesses with uneven sales, but he argues the regular schedule can “smooth cash flow” for some, by eliminating a large monthly payment “when other items come due.”

High annual percentage rates

Payment schedules aside, critics point to APRs as an OnDeck flaw. Although loan APRs start at 9%, which compares favorably with other online lenders, OnDeck’s average APR is much higher — at 41%, a regulatory filing shows. Wright, the business financing consultant, says when clients ask her about the lender, she presents the APR as the main deterrent.

“The interest rates are just way too high for a small business to be able to be successful,” she says.

It wasn’t until Sauceda went to a different lender to refinance his OnDeck loan that he learned his APR — which was 64%. The new lender offered him a loan with a 15% APR.

If he’d realized how much the OnDeck loan would cost him, Sauceda says he “would have just sold a kidney or something instead.”

“In those situations,” he adds, “you’re not always thinking clearly.”

Making changes at OnDeck

OnDeck has made moves to change its public image and improve its lending practices in the past few years. It has aligned with nonprofit organizations and small-business advocates to offer better financing options. The lender also has won praise for a program that gives nonprofit lenders free access to its technology.

The program has allowed a St. Louis-based nonprofit lender called Justine Petersen, one of the nation’s top providers of Small Business Administration microloans, “access to a fairly sophisticated underwriting platform that yields performing loans,” says Galen Gondolfi, chief communications officer.

“We couldn’t do this on our own,” he tells NerdWallet. Gondolfi says his company doesn’t have the research and development budget that OnDeck does to create that kind of underwriting infrastructure.

Also, in the wake of complaints, OnDeck took steps to make changes to its broker network. Larkin says the company set up a certification program in 2015 for its brokers, whom OnDeck refers to as funding advisors. Larkin calls the program “rigorous” and says it has helped to improve the customer experience. Last year, funding advisors represented 20.5% of OnDeck’s loan originations, down from nearly 46% in 2013, according to regulatory filings.

New loan options with lower APRs

OnDeck says it has focused on improving loan products as its customer base has grown to include small-business owners who may have once gone directly to a bank for a loan. Its average APR of 41% in the first quarter of 2016 is down from a high average of 63% in 2013, according to a filing with the SEC.

“Overall, we are supportive of efforts to regulate the industry and create a level playing field and create more disclosure for small businesses,” CEO Breslow told NerdWallet in an April 2016 interview.

OnDeck in May 2016 joined with two other major small-business lenders in the online space, Kabbage and CAN Capital, to form an industry group that would come up with disclosure standards for lenders and pricing comparison tools for small-business borrowers. Under these standards, lenders would have to reveal APRs — a key demand of advocacy groups.

OnDeck began posting on its website the APR range for its line of credit late last year, Larkin says, and plans to do the same for term loans before the end of 2016.

‘Huge step forward’

Accion Chicago CEO Brereton calls OnDeck’s initiative on disclosing APRs “a huge step forward.”

He describes OnDeck as an evolving player in small-business financing. Given the lender’s position in the market, its moves are significant.

“They’re the most visible brand, which inherently draws attention to them,” Brereton says. “What OnDeck does is very important as far as setting the tone for others.

“They’ve probably been criticized more than other lenders in the space. I think much of the criticism has been appropriate, but there are certainly worse actors out there.”

 

Original article

Len Rogers’ business, the Electric Bicycle Super Store, was growing fast — so fast that he decided to move into a much bigger space. It seemed like a necessary step in expanding his operations, but he didn’t realize that he’d soon be learning two lessons the hard way:

  1. Good deals are hard to find.
  2. Keep an eye out for vultures.

The 49-year-old entrepreneur moved into his new space at a high point. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee had recently cited his company as one of six small businesses “shaping the future” of the city.

But with the move, his store rent more than doubled to $6,000 per month. He also had to spend an additional $2,500 per month on an apartment since the new site wasn’t a live-work unit. Meanwhile, business wasn’t as strong as he had expected. “The sales volume was not rising as fast as the overhead,” he tells NerdWallet.

Six months into his new lease, he was at risk of falling behind on rent. Rather than tell his landlord the bad news, he decided to “get ahead of the situation” by hunting for financing, he says.

Turned down flat

He detailed his experience in a summary he wrote when he was given San Francisco’s 2016 Micro-Enterprise of the Year award.

Rogers turned first to institutions he knew offered loans with low annual percentage rates: banks, the Small Business Administration, nonprofit lenders. And he thought he’d be approved. Instead, he was rejected by lender after lender. The bank where he had his business and personal accounts denied his application for a $10,000 line of credit. “I was turned down flat even though they could see how much money I was grossing,” he wrote.

Another bank turned down his application for a business credit card with a $20,000 limit. He was told he could have one with a cap of $500, an offer he found “pretty insulting since I had been banking with them for over 15 years.”

That’s when Rogers found himself in the world of merchant cash advances. It started when he received a persuasive sales pitch from a broker with a company called Merchant Solutions Group.

The broker “took a very friendly approach,” Rogers tells NerdWallet. “‘Look, I like your business. I’m here to help so I can get you some cash. … The terms are flexible.’ He befriended me. He was a good salesman.”

Through the broker, he received a $20,000 merchant cash advance with a seven-month term from a company called Americor. That took care of his immediate money problems. But it quickly led to new ones.

For one thing, he had to make a $975 weekly payment for the next seven months, which translated to an APR of more than 30%: “It got me back in the black, but now you’ve got these seven months of payments,” he says.

So he refinanced the first advance with another one from a company called Happy Rock. This one was worth $40,000 and had a $52,000 repayment and a 12-month term. Rogers estimated that the APR was at least 33%.

The transaction put him in a deeper hole. “The payments were $1,785 and the pressure to produce was now even greater,” he wrote.

Rogers had to make sure there was money in his bank account the day his payment was due. “If you had to discount some merchandise to make a sale then you do that,” he tells NerdWallet.

He also would work extra days “just to make sure I had the appropriate amount of money.”

“It was a slow process, and it wears on you,” he says. “It was like these vultures kind of picking at you. … They were just getting their beakful of meat every week.”

A way out

Rogers eventually found a way out. He refinanced with the help of nonprofit lenders and organizations, including Opportunity Fund, Main Street Launch and Urban Solutions.

Talk of vultures aside, Rogers says he understands the lure of merchant cash advances. They provide quick and convenient cash, which is helpful for small-business owners in a bind.

“I would say to a small-business owner, ‘At least know that there are these merchant solutions out there, but use them as a last resort,’” he says. “It’s an exorbitant amount of money. …

“You can get addicted to merchant cash advances.”

Reached for comment, Rogers’ broker initially said he would agree to an interview, but he did not reply to follow-up phone calls and emails. A Happy Rock representative declined to comment. Americor could not be reached for comment.

Business to business fraud is unfortunately a big problem that could cost your small business a lot of money. Our content partner Nav explains why checking the credit of the companies you do business with is so important, how to do it, and how this quick check can save you money.

Business to business fraud is unfortunately a big problem that could cost your small business a lot of money. Our content partner Nav.com explains why checking the credit of the companies you do business with is so important, how to do it, and how this quick check can save you money.

 

Let’s start with a story that’s frustrating, true, and all too common.

Gerri is a independent consultant with years of experience. One day, she’s introduced to a potential business partner (let’s call him Mike) through a friend. Mike publishes information for the mortgage industry, and is interested in developing a credit training program for loan originators. Gerri and Mike decide to work together, and agree that Gerri will write the program, Mike will market it, and they’ll split the proceeds 50/50.

Gerri works hard and delivers the program. Mike begins the marketing process, and reports back to Gerri that her program is being well received and that she’ll be getting a check for $10,000 for the initial sales, with more to come as sales continue. But the check never comes. Mike assures Gerri that all is well, and asks her to wait just a few more days. So she waits.

And waits.

And waits.

You can probably predict the ending: Mike stops responding to Gerri’s calls, Mike’s office manager leaves, Gerri never sees a penny for her hard work, and an attorney advises her that it might be in her best interest  to cut her losses and move on. Which is what Gerri did.

We’re used to hearing stories about consumers being defrauded, but how often do we hear about businesses defrauding other businesses?

According to leading credit reporting agency Experian, business-to-business (or B2B) fraud is a multi-billion dollar per year problem for U.S. businesses. And you can bet that as more and more small businesses turn to e-commerce and virtual transactions to keep their cash flow flowing, that number will only go up.

Fortunately, the same technology that emboldens and expands B2B fraud simultaneously provides tools to avoid it. One of the most effective of these tools is tracking a business’s credit information.

While personal credit scores are protected by the FCRA, anyone can pull a business’s credit report anytime, without permission from the business. If Gerri had run a business credit check on Mike’s company, she might have saved herself a lot of stress and wasted time and money.

But even if fraud weren’t part of the equation, checking another business’s credit report is an important tool that should be used when you extend terms to another business, or make a large sale before collecting full payment up front. As a small business owner, your success depends your on customers’ ability to pay their bills on time. If your customers can’t pay their bills on time, keeping your cash flow at consistently healthy levels becomes difficult, and it can eventually force you to go under.

And, as Gerri learned the hard way, outward appearances don’t count for a lot when push come to shove in the business world. Recent financial disasters have proved that it’s sometimes the biggest and best-looking companies that end up collapsing and taking everyone down with them. No matter how good you think your relationship with a potential business partner is, you should always keep in mind that what you see on the outside is what they want you to see. Their credit history may very well reveal a different picture.

If you’re convinced that you need to perform a credit check on any company with whom you’re considering doing business, Nav’s premium plus plan allows you to track detailed credit information on up to five different businesses at once. (Obtaining a single business credit report on another business would cost $40+ elsewhere.)

Growing a successful small business entails taking precautions as well as risks. (For a more complete breakdown of B2B scams and how to protect yourself, see here.) Checking the credit of the companies you do business with is one more step toward making your story a happy one.

 

This article originally appeared on Nav.com and was re-purposed with their permission.

For information about Opportunity Fund’s small business loans, please contact us at 866-299-8173 or loans@opportunityfund.org.  For questions about your existing loan or other customer service questions, please contact us at 866-299-8173 or sbhelp@opportunityfund.org.


Opportunity Fund is California’s largest and fastest-growing nonprofit lender to small businesses. In FY16, we made $60M in loans to help more than 2,200 small business owners invest in their businesses.  Opportunity Fund invests in small business owners who do not have access to traditional financing. As a founding member and signatory to the Borrower’s Bill of Rights, we believe in the important role small businesses play in our community and the economy, and we aim to help owners financially succeed.

Visit us online at http://opportunityfundloan.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Running a business is hard, but SWOT can help you find where it can grow. Opportunity Fund Director of Small Business Marketing Anna Suarez shares her expertise on marketing your business and how small business owners like you can optimize your business operations.

Running a business is hard, but SWOT can help you find where it can grow. Opportunity Fund Director of Small Business Marketing Anna Suarez shares her expertise on marketing your business and how small business owners like you can optimize your business operations.

What is a SWOT analysis and why is it important?

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. By looking at these aspects of your business, you can see a comprehensive view of your business and where it can grow. As a small business owner, you probably already have a general idea about your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, but putting them down on paper and seeing it all laid out allows you see where you can take action.

This helps you come up with how to develop more relevant marketing messages, how you can compensate for weak spots, how you can take advantage of open niches in the marketplace, how to define or refine your products or services to sell better, and how to most effectively deliver those products or services to your customers.

How to find your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats?

Developing your business’ SWOT is easy, but it takes some honest reflection and dedicated research.

Finding your strengths is the easiest one. What makes your product or service unique? What are you good at and in what areas does your business make the most profit? Why do your customers love your company? Ask them! Talking with your customers builds relationships that will foster loyalty, and they will give you an outside perspective on what they like about your business.

Talking with your customers can also be a harsh, but necessary, reality check when it comes to your weaknesses. It’s often said that the people who leave reviews are the ones with something to complain about. Read those reviews and analyze how you can address those issues in the future. Are you understaffed or underfunded? What areas are you making the least profit? Does your location hinder foot traffic? Is your niche market too small? Are you a new immigrant and do not have business credit? (Check out our blog post[http://opportunityfundloan.org/how-to-build-business-credit-if-youre-a-new-u-s-immigrant/] about how you can)Some things are out of your control, but identifying these interior and exterior weaknesses can help you compensate and work around them.

Your opportunities are where an action plan begins. Research on the internet or by talking with customers and industry experts to find out where your market is going. Food trucks are gaining popularity all over California; if you own a restaurant, can you open a food truck as well? Social media is the key to reaching younger customers; do you have and maintain a social media presence for your business? Knowing what opportunities are available to your small business makes it easier to go after them.

Lastly, knowing your threats is important. Figure out who your competitors are, what they do better than you, and how you can differentiate yourself from them to keep your customers. Are competitors offering lower prices? Is their service faster? Is your neighborhood being gentrified and filled with big chains and a different customer base? Knowing any threats to your business’ success is important for preventing potential roadblocks and standing out from the crowd.

Even if you are too busy running your business to do a SWOT yourself, you can hire a consultant to do the time-consuming research and analysis. You will be happy when you do, because knowing your SWOT can really help you identify how your small business can grow.


For information about Opportunity Fund’s small business loans, please contact us at 866-299-8173 or loans@opportunityfund.org.  For questions about your existing loan or other customer service questions, please contact us at 866-299-8173 or sbhelp@opportunityfund.org.

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Opportunity Fund is California’s largest and fastest-growing nonprofit lender to small businesses. In FY16, we made $60M in loans to help more than 2,200 small business owners invest in their businesses.  Opportunity Fund invests in small business owners who do not have access to traditional financing. As a founding member and signatory to the Borrower’s Bill of Rights, we believe in the important role small businesses play in our community and the economy, and we aim to help owners financially succeed.

Visit us online at opportunityfundloan.org and follow us on Facebook  and Twitter

Opportunity Fund. Working Capital for Working People. opportunityfund.org