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Originally published Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 8:02 PM

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Microlenders a lifeline to online business

Microlending provides an alternative to traditional banks for small online businesses in search of financing.

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES -- Erik Jimenez needed $1,000 right away to buy 200 used guitars he could sell from his online store.

He couldn't get a conventional loan or line of credit from a bank because his business of selling vintage and custom music instruments was too small. But the Bellflower, Calif., resident knew how to use social media to generate sales -- and that's what was important to a company called Kabbage Inc.

The Atlanta microlender, which provides small online businesses with funding ranging from $500 to $40,000, signed the deal. Jimenez got his cash.

"For me, the more money I have access to, the more money I can potentially make," a delighted Jimenez said.

The explosion of online sellers through sites such as eBay, Fab, Etsy and Pinterest has been a boon for entrepreneurs looking to sell a broad assortment of items, including used CDs and handmade scarves. But finding a traditional bank to make small-business loans to virtual stores has been a tough sell -- and has opened the door to niche players.

Kabbage is one of a number of new lenders that look beyond credit scores to make an assessment, and put more weight on UPS shipping information, Amazon.com and PayPal records to assess the probability that they'll get their money back from a particular loan applicant. The lenders also look at how much potential borrowers use Twitter and Facebook to promote their products.

Rob Frohwein, Kabbage's chief executive, said all those data points help give Kabbage a "360-degree view" of how online merchants operate their business. "The more we know about you, the less risk there is for us and the more capital we can lend at more attractive rates," he said.

Other microlenders targeting online merchants include On Deck Capital and Capital Access Network, which specialize in high-interest, short-term loans.

"If the local bank wasn't so risk-averse, and if they understood technology better, they would be doing this lending," said Stephen Howard-Sarin, eBay's head of marketing in North America. "But they don't understand."

Technological innovations and the opportunity for online sellers to avoid a sales tax have allowed online commerce to transcend the economic problems that have punished some bricks-and-mortar operations.

Growth in online purchases is expected to continue, according to a report by eMarketer. The report states that consumers have shown confidence in online commerce, with 58 percent saying they will spend more money online in 2012. And 70 percent of all Internet users ages 14 and older made at least one online purchase last year.

E-commerce grew 16.1 percent in 2011, and sales are expected to grow to $361.9 billion in 2016 from $194.3 billion in 2011, according to the report. Investment firms Robert W. Baird and JPMorgan expect e-commerce to grow more than 12 percent this year.

Small businesses are hungry to latch on to the e-commerce momentum, and microlenders are casting a wide net to reel in as many customers as possible. Lenders such as On Deck Capital and Kabbage attract these small businesses because getting a loan from them is quick and easy.

But the interest rates can be high.

On Deck's rates run 18 to 36 percent, but Chief Executive Noah Breslow said they are able to remain competitive with banks because the loans are typically up in three to eight months.

"I think the bottom line is people value speed and convenience," he said. "A business owner can go online with us and get approved basically within minutes and then get funding in their account the next day."

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