PPP loans provide lifeline for some, leave others frustrated and ‘helpless’ – GeekWire-TechWeu

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Taylor Soper

The Onboard Dynamics team. The Bend, Ore.-based startup got its Paycheck Protection Program application accepted — a “lifeline,” according to CEO Rita Hansen. (Onboard Photo)

Rita Hansen was losing sleep and grappling with anxiety. Like many small business owners and startup CEOs, she spent the past several weeks submitting applications and waiting nervously for federal funding that could keep her Bend, Ore., company afloat amid the coronavirus crisis. Many entrepreneurs reported delays, bureaucratic hurdles, eligibility confusion, and other issues that made it difficult to apply for loans.

Onboard Dynamics CEO Rita Hansen. (Onboard Photo)

But this past Thursday, her CFO called. Onboard Dynamics was one of 1.6 million companies to land much-needed cash from the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, part of the $2 trillion CARES Act.

“I’m not a crier,” said Hansen. “But all the emotion just let go.”

The loan will help Hansen continue paying her 12 employees, who build natural gas compression machines used by commercial fleet vehicle operators. The 6-year-old startup had already reduced hours and executive salaries to trim expenses as all of its projects were paused.

“This is a lifeline so that we can keep the team intact,” Hansen told GeekWire. “We’re going to use this time to get some good work done and be well-positioned to not only survive, but to succeed.”

Onboard Dynamics’ story illustrates the federal relief program’s potential to make a meaningful difference for startups that might otherwise need to make deep cuts, or go out of business entirely, as COVID-19 shuts down large swaths of the economy. Many others were not so fortunate. PPP relief money ran out on Friday, less than two weeks after the application process opened, leaving many companies frustrated with what seemed like a random process.

Tyrone Poole, CEO of Portland housing startup OneApp, said he applied for PPP funding with multiple banks, but hasn’t received any confirmation of approval. His company, an online rental marketplace that helps renters pre-qualify for housing, has seen revenue drop by 50%. The 7-person startup furloughed two workers and cut salary for the remaining staff. Poole, a father of five daughters, is not taking salary for the foreseeable future.

“I feel helpless,” Poole said. “I feel like I’ve done everything I can and it amounts to nothing, except a bunch of ambiguity. It’s a hard place to be.”

Tyrone Poole, CEO of OneApp. (OneApp Photo)

One Seattle startup CEO said the process to apply for PPP funding was a “total shitshow.” His company applied as early as possible with several banks. He wished to remain anonymous so as not to worry his employees.

“Ultimately we don’t feel like we have a clear understanding from anyone on the priority around how the funds are being allocated, and the timing around the allocation,” the CEO said. “As you can imagine, ‘wait and see’ is not an option for most small business owners at this time.”

Dan Price, CEO of Seattle payments technology company Gravity Payments, called the PPP a “catastrophic failure.”

Nearly 50,000 small businesses in Washington and Oregon will receive a combined $10.7 billion in PPP loans, according to the latest update from the Small Business Administration. Congressional lawmakers are working to unlock additional funds for the program but Democrats and Republicans have struggled to reach a compromise.

The National Federation of Independent Business last week said the federal government should issue another $400 billion in PPP loans, at least half of which should go to companies with less than 20 employees.

TELL US YOUR STORY: Has your Seattle-area startup applied for a PPP loan? We want to hear about your experience. Email us at tips@geekwire.com.

The PPP loans are forgivable for qualifying small businesses that retain their workforce or use the money to rehire laid-off employees. Businesses can apply for up to 250% of their monthly payroll.

The average loan size was $206,000, according to the SBA. The “professional, scientific, and technical services” industry garnered the most approved loans, with 208,360, and was second to construction in approved dollars, at $43.3 billion. There were 4,975 lenders.

Many venture-backed tech startups weren’t sure if they were eligible for PPP funding due to complex SBA “affiliation” rules related to their investors. A company may be deemed an affiliate of a larger entity, such as an investment firm, which could disqualify a PPP application. The National Venture Capital Association issued guidance for VC-backed companies earlier this month.

Volt CEO Dan Giuliani. (Volt Photo)

The PPP has also also sparked an ethical debate over whether investor-backed startups should apply when so many companies with fewer resources are struggling, such as mom-and-pop restaurants.

“My bank, the @sbagov, the @whitehouse and so many other banking institutions failed the small businesses of America,” top Seattle restaurateur Eduardo Jordan wrote in an Instagram post Saturday. “There was no infrastructure and still isn’t any to help those that need the most help.”

Communityspoke with several startup founders last month who attributed their PPP application experience, good or bad, to the bank facilitating the loan. It’s unclear if large or small banks had an advantage.

Companies with more than 500 employees are not eligible. That means that many of Seattle’s largest venture-backed tech startups, such as those near the top of our Community200 ranking of Pacific Northwest tech companies, can’t get PPP loans even if they are in need of the funds.

Dan Giuliani, CEO of Seattle fitness training startup Volt, said his company was able to secure a PPP loan last week. But it wasn’t easy.

“Some banks are simply not SBA-approved lenders and their clients were left out in the cold,” he said. “Others took too long to process applications and their clients missed out on loans through no fault of their own. I’m not sure I have a better solution in mind, to be honest, but it feels like there could have been a more equitable way to disperse the funding.”

Terry Peterson, CEO of Pacific West Bank in West Linn, Ore., told the Portland Business Journal that 100% of its applications were approved. His firm turned its office into a “quasi war-room” while Peterson relied on trade groups and his network for advice.

Some entrepreneurs applied for the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), but many reported delays and confusion with changing guidance that limits loans to $15,000.

Part of the issue is capacity. The SBA facilitated 63,000 loans amounting to $28 billion in the entire fiscal year 2019. Now the organization is lending nine times that amount — and possibly more — in a matter of weeks.

US VC investments reach $34B in Q1, but decade-long rise will likely subside due to COVID-19

Washington state rolled out a $5 million emergency grant program earlier this month to help small businesses with up to 10 employees. The City of Seattle gave $10,000 to 250 small companies last week as part of its Small Business Stabilization Fund; nearly 9,000 had applied.

The delays in government loans could force startups to shut down, either temporarily or permanently, since it’s unclear when shelter-at home orders will loosen. Nearly half of small business owners believe it will take six months to a year for the U.S. economy to return to normal, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey.

The median small business in the U.S. has more than $10,000 in monthly expenses and less than one month of cash on hand, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

As companies wait for help, many are laying off staff. Nearly 270 tech startups have cut 25,000-plus employees since March 11. The Wall Street Journal reported that the “second round of coronavirus layoffs has begun,” noting that higher-skilled workers are now facing the real possibility of unemployment.

Analysts say venture capital funding will likely slow as some investors will be more skittish about plowing millions of dollars into companies, at least for the time being. The IPO market has slowed, and the same could happen for M&A, a recent report from PitchBook and NVCA noted. Valuations, particularly for late-stage companies, will likely “be challenged” over the next few months.

“Startups will see some options for federal relief from the CARES Act, while others will look to alternative means for cutting costs and capital infusion,” Bobby Franklin, president and CEO of NVCA, said in a statement. “The reality is that it will be a tough road ahead in 2020, but as we’ve seen in past downturns, resilience is in the fabric of this industry. Some of the most successful venture-backed companies were born in difficult times.”

Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital last month published the letter it sent to portfolio founders and CEOs titled “Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020.” The investment group told its entrepreneurs to “question every assumption about your business” related to cash, fundraising, sales forecasts, marketing, headcount, and capital spending.


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