Saddled with student debt and less-than-perfect credit, Ayla Bystrom-Williams is hesitant to take on small-business loans to finance her kombucha beer company, HoneyMoon Brewery. The Santa Fe, New Mexico-based entrepreneur is relying on a less expensive but more time-consuming financing method: a small-business grant.
"We're really trying to not get into any sort of debt or give away any equity at this stage of the business," Bystrom-Williams says.
Although free cash to start or grow a business sounds like the dream solution, small-business grants are difficult to obtain because there just aren't many available. But if you're determined to try for a grant, there are some earmarked for women entrepreneurs.
Below, to mark Women Entrepreneurs Day, are four tips to maximize your chances of getting small-business grants for women.
1. Apply widely.
Getting grants to fund your small business is a numbers game: You have to apply to many in hopes of actually getting a few. Bystrom-Williams says she has spent up to 30 hours a week researching grant opportunities and attending networking events she hopes will lead to grant money.
"It was definitely like a part-time job," she says.
It took persistence before her work paid off. Bystrom-Williams got denied for a large local grant, but the sponsoring organization told her about possible funding through Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe. She got a $25,000 grant through the lab's technical assistance program, which paid a lab researcher to help her develop her kombucha beer. In August, Bystrom-Williams won a $500 Amber Grant from WomensNet, an organization that awards that amount to a different business each month.
2. Look locally.
Finding a small-business grant is perhaps the most challenging aspect of securing one. The federal government doesn't offer small-business grants, but state and local governments do. You can search for them using the U.S. Small Business Administration's Loans and Grants Search Tool.
Get to know business advisors in your area who can point you in the right direction. There are hundreds of SBA-sponsored Small Business Development Centers and Score chapters around the country, both offering free business consulting. (Find your local SBDC here and your local Score chapter here.)
3. Research the organizations.
Once you identify a grant you're interested in, spend time researching the organization, says Cathy Kellon, founder of Portland, Oregon-based Ivalieu, which makes "modern pettipants" for women to wear underneath skirts and dresses. She suggests building relationships with the people who work at the organization funding the grant.
"Some foundations will not respond to general inquiries," she says. "So you have to [know] someone."
Kellon, who won the $500 Amber Grant in September, also suggests looking at businesses that have won the grant in the past to learn about what types of ventures the organization is looking to fund.
4. Pursue non-cash prizes.
Participate in business plan or pitch competitions that offer business services, office space and other non-cash resources as prizes.
Bystrom-Williams was a finalist in BizMIX, a business plan competition in Santa Fe. For making it to the last round, she won time with an accountant, bookkeeper and a lawyer -- expenses that would have come out of her budget otherwise.
Additionally, Bystrom-Williams "didn't see a dime" of the $25,000 from Los Alamos National Laboratory, which instead paid the researcher she worked with in the lab. But that was OK with her.
"Sometimes grants that target specific aspects of your business can be way more valuable than actual capital," she says.
Can't get a grant? Consider small-business loans.
If you can't get your hands on a small-business grant, you might have better luck with loans. For alternatives to grants, check out our small-business loans for women page, where you can compare seven different loan options based on your needs.
It's not free money; you'll have to pay fees and interest, which can be high. Traditional bank loans are your best bet if you can qualify for them. Otherwise, online small-business loan annual percentage rates range from 7% to 113%. But there are more small-business loans available than grants, so you're more likely to succeed at getting funding.