Last year, when Little Baby’s Ice Cream was looking to expand to Baltimore, owner Pete Angevine found himself a little short on the cash he needed to make the move. He mentioned needing a loan to his friend, Kate Strathmann, who runs Elysian Fields consulting, which has worked with Little Baby’s on marketing.
So Strathmann came up with a novel idea: She offered Angevine a $5,000 loan at a workable, tiered interest rate. But rather than pocket the interest, she matched it and put it into a fund for another small Philadelphia businesses or creative enterprise that needs a microloan. Angevine paid $500 in interest, which Strathmann has matched. And now the friends are set to award their first microloan to a local business or creative project, what they’re calling “Shared Interest” —get it? (Applications for the grant are due by April 23.)
Now, you may be familiar with the concept of microloans. The concept is simple; It’s pretty much right there in the name. The lender, often through a charitable organization, puts up a loan of, say, $500 to be paid back slowly, with an extremely low interest rate; this seemingly teeny-tiny loan usually goes to workers in regions with developing economies, where receiving $500 would be something like a $10,000 VC check in big American startup terms. These microloans typically benefit farmers and other agrarian workers, who can immediately invest the cash into livestock. Their repayment, with interest, then goes back into a fund for future microloans.
And it works! Microloans have caught on in the U.S., largely to help fund rural small businesses; the United States Department of Agriculture has actually started its own microloan fund to help spur farm ownership here. The calculus of the setup isn’t hard: Brand-new businesses often have zero capital, and whatever capital that they do have is in the form of major bank loans; the repayments of those loans have to be tightly-charted and itemized, and the interest rates aren’t often manageable for baby businesses. A microloan—low, manageable interest rate and all—can help a fledgling shop through a tough time. And then it can pay itself forward.
Brand-new businesses often have zero capital, and whatever capital they do have is in the form of major bank loans; the repayments of those loans have to be tightly-charted and itemized, and the interest rates aren’t often manageable for baby businesses. A microloan—low, manageable interest rate and all—can help a fledgling shop through a tough time.
They are a force for good of no small value—they’re just not so big in economically dynamic American cities yet. There are loads of reasons why, ranging from the simple fact that there are very few groups that hand out microloans to private businesses, to the nature of metropolitan small businesses—where an extra grand might hold you over for a month in a pinch, but might, in reality, only pay for a third of the rent, making a microloan seem useless.
Strathmann is no newcomer to the concept of microloans and microgrants. Before starting her microloan program through Elysian Fields, she was on the board of Philly Stake, which gave microgrants and loans to a whole mess of different Philadelphia do-gooder entities, from the Therapeutic Garden for the Elderly to Girls Rock Philly Library to the Refugee Urban Farm. Some of these groups, Strathmann says, would go on to flourish after they received cash from Philly Stake, like The Monkey and The Elephant, a non-profit coffee joint on Girard Avenue.
“I’ve been into art and creative communities for a while, and both of those scenes have sort of creative funding mechanisms, from community-supported agriculture to funding for artists, so some of my interest in microloans came from that,” says Strathmann, who also worked with the Stake network in Brooklyn and around the country.
Though Philly Stake closed up shop in 2016, Strathmann says that their mission of providing microfunding is vital, especially in a city like Philadelphia, where a grand can still go a long way in helping a new business or non-profit (as opposed to, say, Chicago or New York). So when Angevine came to her with his need, it didn’t take long for her to get back in the game, but with a new spin.
Strathmann sees microfunding as a positive outcome of the Kickstarter generation of funding, a generation rife with major successes and equally major pitfalls. While successful Kickstarters seem to be as plentiful as Kickstarter scams, the democratization of funding, Strathmann says, can’t be denied as a societal good. Kickstarter and similar sites have introduced the masses to a new form of funding that isn’t directly dictated and guided by whether a bank thinks your small business or new idea will be successful. Instead, she says, people just have to believe in you, or at the very least your mission.
What’s more: People are more and more aware that every little bit counts to a new business, be it a $100,000 investment or a $50 donation to get your place off the ground. It’s a net positive; more small businesses and ideas are being funded, and more people are becoming intimately aware of the nature of betting on a business.
“You can’t work for free forever in our capitalist culture,” Strathmann says. “But banks are just not usually the most fruitful route anymore. People are having to go to friends and family for funding, or Kickstarter, or Indiegogo. There’s been a lot of creativity about how we get funding these days. ”
Now Strathmann sees an opportunity to take the concept of microfunding a step further, and in an unexpected direction: Instead of making microfunding a supporter-to-business situation, she wants it to be business-to-business.
As margins grow smaller, Strathmann says, the bonds between small businesses naturally become bigger, and a willingness to help each other out becomes part and parcel of operating within the small business community. Case in point: Elysian Fields’ willingness to loan Little Baby’s a few grand in the first place. Strathmann sees Little Baby’s mission—providing insane ice cream flavors via tricycle and bringing an artistic bent to the public consciousness—as fascinating enough to warrant investment. Angevine, meanwhile, says the $5,000 loan came “at a critical time” for his business.
“You can’t work for free forever in our capitalist culture,” Strathmann says. “But banks are just not usually the most fruitful route anymore. People are having to go to friends and family for funding, or Kickstarter, or Indiegogo. There’s been a lot of creativity about how we get funding these days.”
To Strathmann, who hopes to see Shared Interest grow—and maybe spawn other microloan organizations—this is the natural extension of the Kickstarter age into the business world, and a whole new facet of capitalism. It is, also, a spin on the growing trend of businesses operating with a social conscience; not every business has or needs to have a socially-good mission. Strathmann and Angevine are devising a way for any business to help better their community, a small, growing investment at a time.
“Owning a small business is hard work, with a lot of sleepless nights,” she says. “But there is a lot of power—a lot of collective power—when we work together and support each other. There’s power when we reinvest in one another. I see this as kind of the beginning of an experiment.”
Strathmann admits that business-to-business microfunding is still in its infancy, maybe even more so in urban areas. But she’s glad to carry the torch for what she is sure is a serious part of the future of business funding.
And maybe it’s a good thing that Strathmann is a creative type, an artist. She knows that good art thrives in a supportive environment and that businesses—especially those seeking to do social or artistic good—have their best chance of survival in a business world that sees them as a vital part of the local economic ecosystem, worthy of a pittance of a donation to get their legs under them, even though the investment won’t necessarily yield dividends.
Correction: A previous version of this story called Philly Stake a non-profit. It wasn’t.Header photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia