The don’ts of debt for fast-growing startups

If you take on debt, understand the implications and consider the following five rules

I work every day with company founders who are grappling with the challenges of driving business growth while keeping their finances on an even keel. One topic we often discuss is how to take advantage of debt to drive business growth — without it turning into a problem.

In my experience, debt can serve as a valuable piece of a company’s capital structure. The key is to use debt for the right purposes and to understand the implications of doing so. For example, short-term loans (one to two-year terms) are useful for financing receivables and inventory to help manage cash flow. These working capital facilities have attractive interest rates (often in the 5% range) and are well understood by the lending community.

By contrast, mezzanine loans (usually three to five-year terms) are better suited to provide the flexibility and runway needed to prove out certain initiatives prior to securing an equity investment or a liquidity event. These loans tend to have limited covenants, are not secured by specific working capital assets and are junior to the working capital loans. Given their higher-risk profile, they are more expensive than short-term loans, with lenders typically targeting a return of 15% to 20%, split between a current pay interest rate of 10%+ and expected stock appreciation from the receipt of warrant coverage.

Regardless of the type of debt a company takes on, there are certain principles to consider to keep the debt from threatening the success of the business. Should you decide to take on debt, understand the implications and consider the following five rules: