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By Manpreet Dhot 6 Min Read — May 24, 2024

This article was originally published on Fintech Nexus on October 20, 2023

It’s hard to overstate the importance of small businesses to our economy. They account for nearly half the private sector jobs and almost as much of GDP. Keeping small businesses healthy is in the best interest of all of us, and yet many have a very difficult time accessing the capital they need to operate and grow. 

For these small businesses–with anywhere from a few employees to a few hundred–working capital isn’t just a challenge; it’s also a necessity. They’re often at the mercy of seasonality and typically don’t have the kind of cash cushion that larger companies do. 

For the smallest of these companies, a dip in cash flow or the loss of just one or two team members can endanger their ability to operate and keep the doors open. The need for access to working capital is very real, but so is the struggle to get it. The one source that has historically worked for small businesses is starting to disappear. 

The challenges facing local banks 

Traditionally, these small enterprises relied heavily on their relationships with local banks, credit unions, or Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). These institutions provided a lifeline, especially when the size, structure, or maturity of the business made it challenging to secure funding from larger lenders. Unfortunately, over the past decade and a half, these smaller community banks have experienced significant headwinds, leaving small businesses struggling to find the financial support they need.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, small banks faced numerous challenges, while larger counterparts benefited from government interventions. The crisis had an especially big impact on small banks, while subsequent government interventions like TARP and the Dodd-Frank Act disproportionately benefited larger financial institutions. It’s an eerie parallel to the trouble smaller businesses have in dealing with some of the burdens bigger companies can more easily handle.

With decreased profit margins and increasing compliance costs, small banks have not been able to devote the same level of resources to crucial functions like lending to small businesses. This regulatory response left small businesses that once relied on local banks at the mercy of large conglomerates, which often implemented one-size-fits-all lending policies that didn't cater to the unique needs of small enterprises. 

With many smaller banks sticking with what they know and working with a decreased risk appetite, there are fewer options for many businesses in need of funds. Fortunately, there are financing platforms that still understand what it’s like to run a small business and are quickly increasing their offerings.   

The rise of vertical software

Trips to the bank are becoming less and less frequent as businesses accept more card payments and manage more of their business life online. In fact, software platforms are becoming the new “watering hole” driving capital into small businesses. It’s here that small business owners run their businesses from end to end and get the support they need. 

If we look back just a few years ago, most software was horizontal. Payment platforms were for payments, scheduling tools were for scheduling, and payroll software was only for running payroll. Today, software is verticalized, allowing business owners to do everything in one place. For example, restaurant owners can use Toast (or, even more specifically, pizzeria owners can use Slice) to accept orders, process payments, run marketing, and more.  

Until recently, the missing piece has been capital. But fintech is changing that. Vertical software platforms hold the deep industry knowledge and transaction data they need to become the new community banks on a much more niche level. Let’s talk about what that looks like.  

Embedded capital and beyond

Traditional lending falls short for small businesses when it’s designed to fit much larger ones. For example, many traditional bank loans are based on credit scores, two or more years of financial statements, and some type of collateral assets. Even SBA loans require a minimum of 3 years of business history. For younger and smaller businesses, any one of these elements can be a barrier to accessing financing, whether they deserve it or not. 

Modern fintech makes it possible for financing to be underwritten directly from transaction data, reflecting a small business’s true ability to pay back the funds. I’ve seen this work very well with as little as six months of data, making it a much better fit for young businesses. With live revenue data as the basis for the decision, collateral is no longer needed to reduce risk, which is also a welcome change for small business owners. 

This kind of transaction data is exactly what vertical software companies have in spades. As the operating platforms helping SMBs run every day, they have the first-party data needed to successfully underwrite small business loans with very reasonable risk levels. All they’re missing is the expertise in capital and the right models for risk management. This is where a fintech partner comes in. 

Enabling capital access through fintech

By definition, embedded finance connects businesses or consumers to financial services through non-financial platforms. In this case, vertical software platforms are the perfect connection point, allowing business owners to access capital in the same place where they run their operations and accept payments every single day. 

With secure APIs, fintech lenders can ingest all the underwriting data they need, eliminating most of the cumbersome manual application steps and cutting out the middlemen from the customer's perspective. They can access the capital they need on the platforms they’re already using. Not only that, but capital also becomes seamlessly connected to the tasks that require it, like accessing capital for inventory inside of your inventory management system or the capital to cover payroll inside of your payroll software. 

This is what it looks like when niche software platforms increasingly serve the roles traditionally played by community banks for their unique industries. With the help of embedded financing, likely built by fintech partners, they can offer financing solutions that are tailored not only to small businesses, but even to the specific industries they serve. As more vertical software adopts embedded finance, the need for small businesses to go to traditional financial institutions decreases. And as these platforms expand to offer broader services within their industries, they gain additional data points, allowing for even more tailored and bespoke financial solutions, all accessible in one place. 

Disclaimer: Pipe and its affiliates don't provide financial, tax, legal, or accounting advice. What you're reading has been prepared for knowledge-sharing and informational purposes only. Please consult your financial and legal advisors to determine what transactions and decisions are right for you and your business.

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Manpreet Dhot Manpreet is the Chief Risk Officer of Pipe. He’s a seasoned risk professional with over two decades of experience in risk management at GE Capital, American Express, Funding Circle, and Imprint Payments. Connect with Manpreet on LinkedIn to keep the conversation going.

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