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“Surround Yourself with People Who Believe In You” #SFSBW2016 Interview: Working Solutions

#SFSBW2016 asked our business resources to share insights, best practices, and examples of how they help small business owners flourish. Today we hear from Working Solutions.

What is your organizations mission?
Working Solutions invests in the success of local businesses one microloan at a time by financing businesses that are ineligible for a bank loan with $5,000-$50,000 and offering each borrower up to 5 years of free business consulting and advising after their loans are funded.

What are your organizations recent accomplishments that demonstrate how you have helped the small business community?
In March, Working Solutions celebrated 17 years of helping local small businesses achieve their dreams. We recently surpassed $10 million lent or granted to Bay Area business owners, who have created or retained over 1,400 jobs.

We are continually innovating our products and services to serve the needs of the small business community. For example, to better serve start-up and cash-based businesses, we created a ‘Step Ahead’ loan product of $5,000-$10,000, with a more streamlined application and flexible underwriting. We are also piloting a debt refinancing initiative, to help small business owners who have taken on predatory, high-interest online loans pay down their debt at a much lower APR.

What tools and resources has your organization created to help small businesses tap into new opportunities to reach new customers, increase their revenue, and grow their business?
Once a loan is funded, we provide intensive post-loan business consulting services designed to build the skills of entrepreneurs in every dimension related to business ownership, and we offer these services for free until the loan is paid off. We focus on skill-building so that our clients can apply what they learn to their long-term success.

Each new loan client is matched with a member of our Business Consulting team who provides direct consulting services as well as referrals to additional resources throughout the life of the loan. These services include free legal advice, free training on the QuickBooks platform, marketing and promotion, and industry-specific guidance from expert advisors.

Our goal is for our clients to grow their skills and capacity throughout their repayment period, so that by the time their loan is repaid, their business and their financial skills are ready to take on additional financing to continue to grow the business. We help connect our clients with additional financing through our connections with other alternative lenders or banks. Over 50 of our clients have ‘graduated’ from a Working Solutions loan to access over $10,000 in additional capital.

San Francisco has been experiencing quite the transformation. What is your organization doing to attract and support new and younger small business owners? What resources do you offer to entrepreneurs and small businesses to get started?
Unlike many traditional or other alternative lenders, Working Solutions offers our loans and consulting services to pre-revenue start-ups. In fact, nearly half of our clients are new to business, and our holistic application and underwriting process allows us to invest in the projects of new entrepreneurs. We also offer extensive assistance to new business owners from the moment someone inquires about a loan to the time the loan is paid off—from assistance filling out the loan application to financial management and operating strategy consultations in year two, we help prepare our start-up clients for all of the ups and downs of business ownership.

San Francisco is known for its diverse culture. How does your organization ensure that the small businesses that make this city unique are able to stay in San Francisco?
As the cost of doing business in San Francisco continues to rise, and small businesses face increased rent instability, Working Solutions is excited to launch a new initiative in collaboration with the City of San Francisco and Citibank to keep small businesses thriving in San Francisco. The project will create a specific loan fund for emergency rent subsidies, while also working to provide training and education to small business owners about lease negotiations, real estate financing, and other options. The program is expected to launch later this summer—stay tuned for updates!

Additionally, Working Solutions creates a network of our small business clients to support one another as part of a cooperative community. Having a support system of other entrepreneurs who have experienced the same challenges and can offer advice and moral support is crucial!

What words of advice or wisdom would you like to share with small business owners?
Being an entrepreneur can be incredibly isolating, so surround yourself with people who believe in you. At the same time, don’t let anyone tell you what’s not possible, but also make sure you have a realistic plan, and continue to test your assumptions in the real world!

From a purely practical standpoint, here are our top 3 recommendations for new business owners: 1) Make sure you have financing secured before you sign a lease. 2) Create separate personal and business bank accounts as soon as possible, and 3) Keep an eye on your personal credit—it can affect your ability to access affordable financing, and can take a while to clean up.

Hear from other small businesses that have used Working Solutions to tap into new opportunities and grow their businesses.
Small business owners may face a number of thorny legal issues as they open and grow their businesses. From leases and contract negotiations to legal structure, small business owners need expert advice to make the right decisions, but legal advice can be incredibly expensive. Working Solutions partners with law firms to facilitate pro-bono services through bi-annual Legal Clinics. Business owners representing a variety of industries each receive a three hour consultation with a team of corporate lawyers to do a complete audit of their business’s legal health and to have any specific questions answered. Issues addressed include trademarking a business’s name and logo, developing HR policies and creating an employee handbook to ensure all hiring and employment practices are compliant.

“What a valuable experience! I was left feeling encouraged that we entrepreneurs are not alone in navigating this business environment,” said Working Solutions client Christopher Coccagna, from T-We Tea.

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