It’s the hope that kills you.
In response to the covid-19 pandemic, thousands of businesses across the UK descended upon the banks in order to secure urgent financial support to keep them afloat throughout what is likely to be the greatest financial crisis of all time.
Initially panicked, but with great relief from the Government’s grand promises that:
“Any business who needs access to cash, to pay their rent, their salaries, suppliers or purchase stock will be able to access a government-backed loan.”
Businesses old and new, began making optimistic applications to the lenders of the CBILS program.
Spoilers: It didn’t go well. I’ve already written about our totally futile experience of trying to acquire CBILS funding, which is likely to mirror the hugely disappointing experience of hundreds of thousands of others.
For IAM Technology Group though, this is not our first rodeo. Since 2016, I’ve had the responsibility of making sure our asset-less, debt-strewn tech startup has had enough money to pay our not-inconsequential bills every month.
The thing you notice pretty quickly about having a software company is that there’s quite a bit of a lag between A) Writing software that’s decent enough for someone to want to buy it, and B) Someone buying it.
Unless your company is sat on some great pot of startup capital (ours wasn’t), you’re going to get off on the wrong foot. And then you’re going to procede to limp around making a mess and causing a bit of a scene until you get your act together. When things go well, it’s hard. And when things don’t go well. Well it’s bloody awful.
For a while we managed to dodge some bullets, Neo-style, and we had a good little run. But then we got catastrophically f–ked by a series of unbelievable events involving a global tech giant and a couple of other smaller companies, that I won’t disclose here, but one day might make sensational material for an earth-scorching book on the inner workings of the tech industry.
The early days of IAM Technology Group are perfectly articulated by a scene in Futurama, where Bender ends up accidentally meeting God and becoming a God of his own mini-Kingdom.
“You were doing very well, until everyone died.”
– God (Futurama)
After a year or so of our slow and steady success, the wheels didn’t just come off, they were catapulted into the Atlantic ocean.
Ok I’m exaggerating, a bit, but here was the thing. We had working software by this point. Customers actually liked us. Horrible cascading shitstorm aside, we were running a pretty sweet company with significant global potential.
Surely someone, somewhere, somehow would see our potential and be able to save us?
On A Quest For Capital
If I ever decide to change careers and become some kind of startup consultant, my first piece of advice to anyone I speak to will be this: Do not pay money to anyone who promises they can help you find money.
“You need to spend money to make money.”
Be f–king careful with that mindset. It is a mindset that, while you’re on course for a cliff edge, will put a foot on the accelerator.
We worked with three different companies – two small specialists and one very large accountancy practice. All three reviewed our company’s books, business plan, product markets, sales data and all confidently proclaimed they could help us find the lenders and/or investors we needed to help solve our temporary cash problem.
First of course, we just needed to pay them some money. Ok, what’s £5-10k for a company that’s going to help us find c£250-500k? It’s worth it, right?
Naturally on the side I was doing my own research and outreach to banks, regional lenders, business angels, VCs and basically anyone with some cash who’d let me through the door.
Now this is what I learned… both through my own fundraising activities and through the agents we worked through.
THE IMMUTABLE LAW OF BRITISH BUSINESS FINANCE: EVERYONE SAYS THEY CAN HELP.
Everyone says they are different, and “unlike other more traditional lenders”. Everyone says that they take your business’ individual strengths into account. Everyone wants to see business plans, sales pipelines and portfolios. They want your bank statements. They want your management accounts. They want your financial accounts. And they want you to fill in 17 forms answering questions ranging from your forecasted cashflow for the next 36 months – when most startups are lucky to know it for the next 60 days, to what your favourite Power Ranger is.
But here’s the thing, it is all – and I can’t stress this enough – bollocks. Every single lender and investor goes through this lengthy rigmarole that consumes absolutely hours if not days of your time. And it’s all bullshit. Because all they actually care about is how much equity you’ve got in your primary property that they can secure the loan against (either directly or via a PG).
The UK business loans sector is nothing more than a dressed up mortgage market. Everything else is fluff. Branding. “We specialise in providing finance to bio-tech companies.” – F–k off you’re a mortgage lender with double-helix in your logo.
I ended up being really short with lenders in the end. They would try to get me to engage about business plans and all the rest of it, and I just cut them off and went straight to the point about the company’s debt and my equity. They still tried to protest. “No but we’re different, we’re unlike traditional lenders, we take into account other factors.” NO YOU DON’T. NOW STOP WASTING MY TIME.
And that is the point of this blog (finally, and with just a beautiful little hint of irony). By putting the results at the end of a very long process, lenders end up consuming a shed load of time of the people searching for money. This is what I mean by “the burden of false hope”.
Lenders (and the middlemen funding specialists) give you hope, and with that hope, they waste your time. They waste your opportunity to genuinely create value. And that is what I learned. So guess how our business managed to get ourselves out of our sticky financial problem?
We stopped looking for money. We stopped wasting our time. We got our heads down, and we earned it. In 2 years, our company of <10 people paid back well over £500,000 of debt. Covid19 problems aside, we are on track to being completely debt free within 18 months, and then will generate c. £50k profit per month.
I don’t know what brought you to this blog. Perhaps as part of my series of moans about the CBILS and the Government Furlough scheme… If that’s the case, here are my thoughts for you:
Instead of wasting hundreds of hours of your time failing to acquire CBILS finance, apply yourself to thinking up new ways for your company to make money. What about new products and services you can offer? What could do you remotely? Or as a delivery or pick-up service? What social distancing could you do on your premises? Even if there’s nothing you can do right now because of the lockdown, maybe there’s something new you could start doing when it’s over? Give yourself some credit. Think, innovate and earn your way out of the problem. You can do this. The real hope is with you yourself.
What about me? Well, we’re doing quite a bit. In a week, we mobilised half of our company to create an entirely new product from scratch that we could see would be very useful at a time where organizations of all kinds needed to upgrade their remote-working/remote-teaching/remote-whatever capabilities. Beyond that we’re on the cusp of a number of major breakthroughs in our technology that we’re hoping are going to help us turn the odds back in our favour to help us get through the next 12-18 months, and who knows maybe even come out of the covid19 crisis stronger than ever. Never give up, never surrender.