Secrets of Growth

Meet the small biz loan matchmakers

November 10, 2011: 9:39 AM ET

The climate for small business lending over the past few years has been dark to say the least, opening a door to entrepreneurs who pair business owners with interested lenders.

By Elaine Pofeldt, contributorbusinessmen_making_connections

FORTUNE -- For many entrepreneurs, growing a business over the past few years has come to feel like an endless, and fruitless, quest. Not so for Brock Blake. Five years ago, the 30-year-old entrepreneur founded Lendio, an online matchmaker that pairs loan-hungry entrepreneurs with banks, credit unions, and other lenders.

Lendio, which specializes in loans that range from $5,000 to $1 million, brought in about $8.6 million in revenue in 2010, according to Blake. Borrowers do not have to pay Lendio to search for a lender, but the company collects a payment from lenders when it makes a successful match. Since March, the company, based in South Jordan, Utah, says it has received 3,000 loan requests through its system and has achieved a loan approval rate of 50 to 70%.

"Our focus is to provide business owners as many options as are out there to help them get the loan they need," says Blake.

With many small business owners still struggling to get loans from their banks in the wake of the financial crisis, several companies have spotted the opportunity to act as matchmaker. In addition to Lendio, web-based companies such as Biz2Credit, Boefly, and FastPay are competing to pair entrepreneurs with financing sources across the country.

There are plenty of small businesses that need help securing loans. Small business lending declined 0.4% in the second quarter of 2011, with the total loans outstanding dipping to $607 million, according to the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy. While this was the lowest rate of decline since the downturn began in 2008, according to the SBA, the data underlines the challenges that growth-minded small business owners continue to face.

"Even though interest rates are at an all-time low, the lending standards have gotten more difficult and more narrow," says Andrew Sherman, an attorney who advises small business owners as a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Jones Day and is the author of books such as Raising Capital and Harvesting Intangible Assets. "It's like trying to kick a football into a goal post that's twice as high and half as wide."

Some big banks have outsourced their loan underwriting operations to providers that use automated systems to evaluate loan applications, making the landscape particularly challenging for small firms. Business owners who followed the old advice about cultivating a personal relationship with their bankers are finding that, in many cases, it was all for naught. "You're seeing more rejections coming from the big banks right now," says Rohit Arora, CEO of online loan broker Biz2Credit. "There's a big vacuum in the market."

Enter the middlemen, who can lead business owners to lenders who may be more open to lending. Biz2Credit's Small Business Lending Index, an analysis of 1,000 loan applications on its site, found that while big banks approved only 9.3% of funding requests made through its platform in October, the approval rate for loans by small banks was 46.3%, the highest level of the year.

Loans from alternative lenders were also on the rise. Biz2Credit found that there was a 61.8% approval rate for funding requests made to the credit unions, Community Development Financial Institutions, microlenders, and other alternative lenders that make loans through the site, up slightly from 61.5% in September.

Discouraged by the current banking climate, Danny Watkins, president of Watkins Cleaners in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, recently borrowed $15,000 through Lendio. Watkins, who has been in the business for 33 years, estimated it took between seven to 10 days to get approved for a loan after the site paired him with the lender On Deck. While he said he wished the term of the loan, which he declined to disclose, was longer, he didn't see many available alternatives. "The banks have such strict guidelines, it's difficult to borrow from them," he says.

Of course, no online platform is a panacea. Those with poor credit are likely to struggle to get funding, even with a matchmaker. As Lendio's statistics underline, a fairly large percentage of loan applicants on its site still come up dry.

And alternative lenders can't usually match the low interest rates that big banks offering SBA-backed loans offer. "Their cost of capital is much higher," says Arora.

Then again, many small business owners have few other options right now.

"It's a recent phenomenon after the bank regulatory environment changed so much," says Sherman. "I don't think the trend is going away."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Lendio charges users to search for prospective lenders. As of last week, the service no longer charges interested borrowers to search for lenders.

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