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How much does revenue-based financing really cost?

There’s an incredibly counter-intuitive aspect of revenue-based financing, which is this: the more successful you are as a company, the higher the cost of capital associated with your RBF.

This is counter-intuitive for a few reasons:

  1. It’s the opposite of how society typically views capital. If you walk into a bank and have a successful business, you’ll get a cheaper rate because you’re a less-risky borrower – not a more expensive one.
  2. Most people – myself included – generally equate time with money. (You know, the old saying goes…). For example, if you take out a car loan and then pay it back earlier than expected, you’d pay less interest than if you took the full term to pay it back. This makes sense – the lender has their principal plus the pro rata interest, so now they can go lend it to the next person. And you, the borrower, just saved all of the interest that would have been accrued moving forward – had you kept the loan open.
  3. It appears that RBF has a structure that punishes borrower for good behavior. In this case ‘good behavior’ meaning that they run a successful company. When someone is more successful than expected, are they expected to actually pay a higher cost of capital?

However, the kicker that will clarify it all is this: The amount of capital paid back in addition to the principal is set in stone, and time is the variable that can change, which is the inverse of the typical model. Compare this to the car loan example above in #2 – where the total amount of money paid back is flexible dependent on when its paid back, and the interest is fixed – based on a fixed period of time set by the lender. For example, many car loans may be structured for 60 months. Time is set in stone, and how much you pay back depends on your ability to pay that loan back faster (assuming no pre-payment penalties).

Let’s simplify and use some real numbers. Scenario A: If you were to take out a traditional car loan of $10,000 and pay it all back 1 day later. You’ll only have to pay interest on that 1 day when you had the capital. If you took out a relatively expensive loan and agreed to pay a 10% APR, that 1 day of borrowing would only cost you .027% in interest.

However, let’s run scenario B, this time using the revenue-based financing model: You take out a loan of $10,000 with a fee of $1,000. Most RBF lenders operate on this fee-based model which gives the borrower flexibility as to when they pay back the loan (i.e. time is the variable that can change). Now, no matter when you pay it back, you have to pay back $11,000. If you were to follow the same payback timeline as scenario A, and pay back the $11,000 the next day – your APR would be 3,650%.

Obviously RBF loans aren’t built to be paid back the next day, but the math illustrates an incredibly important point: revenue-based financing can be tricky to leverage, as you may actually be leveraging incredibly expensive capital if you’re more successful than you originally projected. It’s a relatively new model where time is a major factor in the cost of capital you use to grow your business – and adds to the complexity of your decision: which instrument do you choose to finance that growth?

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Is Revenue-based Financing Right for You?

If you want to learn about revenue-based financing (RBF), you typically end up at a site where they are also trying to sell it to you. And as a result, the message gets muddled. All of the benefits of RBF are raining down on you from on-high, and along with them, the trade-offs have been stripped out.

If you’re thinking of RBF, you’re going to be making trade-offs, so let’s display them loudly here:

You’ll pay more cash long-term, in order to pay less during your months with lower-revenue.

That’s the primary value prop of RBF. Your repayment of the loan goes up and down with your revenue, which is great, because as a startup you’re no longer stuck servicing a debt that you may not have the revenue to properly cover if you’re going through a slow month or two. The repayment adjusts to the performance of your business. However, as a result, the lender is taking a bit more risk on you. i.e. What if every month for your startup ends up being a “down-month”? Well, to make up for that risk, they charge higher interest. 

Lighter Capital for example, explains that “repayment caps usually range from 1.35x to 2.0x”. This means that the greatest amount you’ll pay back, regardless of what happens with your revenue, is 1.35 to 2 times the amount you borrowed. Seems simple enough.

That is the “cap”, which feels good to have a limit on how much you’ll be forced to repay. On the other hand though, if you went into a bank and they informed you that you’d be paying 100% APR on a loan, it may sound somewhat ludicrous. Essentially, you’ll likely be paying a high interest rate, but you’re getting lots of flexibility in return.

You’ll also give up far less long-term, than you would otherwise with equity-based investments from an angel of VC (that is, if  your startup does well).

Paying 2x the amount of the loan seems outlandish, that is, until your startup succeeds and you compare it to equity. 2x on a $500,000 RBF loan that helps you scale is certainly hefty, but it’s nothing compared to 20% of equity in a company that ends up being worth $10M. Instead of paying $500,000 of effective interest, you’re giving up $2M in equity at the exit (in this scenario at least). Those numbers obviously get even more dramatic if your company grows beyond that and becomes worth more. Imagine having a $50M startup, giving up $10M in equity – all when you could have taken out a $500k loan and paid a “measly” $500k in interest back on that over time. It kind of hurts to consider.

Revenue-based Financing is non-dilutive.

Simple. You’re trying to attract the best talent. If you have more equity on your cap table, you have more flexibility when creating compensation plans for potential co-founders or employees.

Save yourself time.

If RBF is a good fit for your company, you won’t have to spend 4-6 months doing the VC roadshow. Assuming you qualify, there are typically a few meetings, a few emails, and some paperwork and then you’re off to the races. Much better than pitch after pitch, and then driving the VCs to a close.

The obvious caveat: All of this only works if you are generating revenue.
It may be obvious, but let’s be explicit. If you’re super early-stage and don’t have revenue, RBF will clearly not be a fit. You then may have to go the angel / pre-seed route.

See what we’re working on as it relates to revenue-based financing over at Bootstrapp. I also plan to keep digging deeper into this subject moving forward so stay tuned and let me know if you’d like to see anything else in particular.