How investors can support small businesses through the COVID-19 lockdown

NATASHA DINHAM - 2 April 2020

For a small business, twenty-one days may be as long as it takes to close its doors forever. But investors might just have the tools to make sure that doesn’t happen.  

The world has changed faster than we thought possible. In just a matter of weeks, we’ve gone from distantly hearing the term ‘COVID-19’ to total country lockdown. For the economy, it’s deeply concerning. For small businesses, it’s catastrophic.

Large corporates may have deep enough pockets to survive plunges in demand, but many small businesses don’t have the luxury of accrued savings that will tide them over for the next twenty-one days or more. For most business owners, their business is their only livelihood. For many, it’s supporting staff who have nowhere else to turn for work. If these businesses crumble, so too do households, families, and communities.

Government has taken bold and admirable steps in providing financial support for small companies, but with lockdown looming, we’ll need all hands on deck to ensure that small businesses make it through.

There is hope. Investors in these businesses can, and should, ensure that they don’t have to weather the storm alone. By embracing innovative, out of the box thinking, funders can safeguard against the worst of the lockdown and ready their investees for its after-effects.

At the Bertha Centre, we’ve put together a toolbox of tips that investors can use during this crisis.

Flexible terms will ensure that bending doesn’t mean breaking. For debt funds, this could mean restructured repayment schedules tailored to the business’ needs, expectations, and sector. Investors can temporarily reduce or defer interest payments, provide payment holidays, or extend existing loan periods. Accelerating trenched disbursements may also provide a much-needed buffer during the dip in cash flow. Standard Bank is already deferring payments for all business clients with a turnover of less than R20m per annum, Nedbank is offering bespoke restructuring solutions to business clients, and FNB have alluded to as yet unspecified solutions for SME clients.

It’s time to introduce new products that emphasise resilience. Cash flow shortfalls could be a deathblow to small businesses during the lockdown. Even those able to continue running will see a dip in demand as clients reduce consumption. Short-term bridging loans will help small businesses withstand the crisis by increasing their liquidity at a time when revenues are falling. For investors who specifically want to ensure their funding is used for good, these bridge loans can be tied to impact targets, such as maintaining employment figures throughout the lockdown, preventing unnecessary job losses.

Prioritising support for portfolio companies over other business. As the country goes on lockdown, investors should be ramping up portfolio monitoring. Sourcing and pipeline will need to take a backseat in favour of providing hands-on financial and business development support to investees. Investors can also use this opportunity to tap into their network of portfolio companies and create connections, particularly where businesses are facing gaps in supply chains.

Partnerships. Despite hard work and good intentions, there is a limit to the amount of support an investor can offer under such extenuating circumstances. Blended finance partnerships with grant funders, foundations, government programmes or aid organisations will allow investors to provide more targeted (and generous) support packages to small businesses. An emergency assistance package funded through grants and managed by investors can give an (otherwise viable) small business the stimulus it needs to weather the corona-storm. Foundations worldwide have already responded to the urgency by relaxing grant restrictions and contributing to emergency response funds (as shown in this pledge by 40 international foundations). Now is the time to initiate and accelerate partnerships with funders who can offer fast-moving, targeted grants for small businesses.

For equity funders, keeping timelines as regular as possible is going to be key to supporting businesses. Maintaining Investment Committee meetings and due diligence schedules – wherever realistically workable under the circumstances – will see to it that pipeline companies don’t lose out on investments at this critical moment. If ever there was a time to embrace technology and pilot a virtual due diligence process, this is it.

For investors willing to embrace innovation, revenue-based loans are a powerful antidote in times of crisis. Revenue-based deals are typically structured as loans that are paid back over time, along with a premium, via a percentage of revenues. For the small business, this provides flexibility during a downturn. For investors, it can provide a greater potential upside than debt, without the need for structuring an exit.

Twenty-one days is not a lot of time, although for a small business owners, it might be enough to lay off its staff, or stop drawing a salary, or even close its doors for good. But twenty-one days also might be enough for an investor to make sure that none of these things happen. By pulling together resources, partnerships, and with innovative thinking, investors have the power to bolster not just our economy, but our communities and our families.

Natasha Dinham is a Senior Project Manager of Innovative Finance at the UCT GSB’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship 

Finance and investing | Entrepreneurship