Are you a ‘buy local’ person? Did you ditch the big box stores and shop small for this holiday season? If so, then you get a gold star! Buying local is investing in your community. It’s taking your hard-earned cash and giving it to your neighbor. That transfer of money doesn’t go out of town; it stays right here in Pittsburgh.
But, shopping small is not be the only way to support your favorite local business. There is now a way to ‘invest local!’
We spoke with Ken Martin, Co-founder of Honeycomb Credit, to learn about the struggles small businesses face and to find out how everyone can up their game and go from a buyer of local to an investor in local through his innovative company.
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Mr. Martin: Honeycomb is a website where local businesswa can get expansion loans of up to 50,000 dollars, funded entirely by their community or customer base. So, we are perfect for locally owned businesses that are too big for Kickstarter, but not yet ready for a traditional bank loan.
I’m Ken Martin, I’m the co-founder of Honeycomb Credit.
Ben: Wow, thanks for being here today, I really appreciate your time. Can you explain the difference between the way small businesses can get a traditional loan versus what they’re doing with Honeycomb, what they can do with Honeycomb?
Mr. Martin: [You know], the way we like to explain this is to think about what the traditional loan process is like. You know first off it’s hard to qualify sometimes. There are creditworthy small businesses that maybe just haven’t been open long enough; they don’t have the operating history required. That alone can be a big barrier [for] great creditworthy businesses. But, then secondly, something we hear from small businesses all the time, is that the process is painful; it’s administratively intense. There [are] documents, there’s maintenance, it’s very difficult and not cheap to go through. So, a lot of business owners are focused on building their business [and] don’t really have the time to, kind of, jump into that relationship. The main difference is we are trying to think, okay, as a former small business owner [myself], how do we make an experience that helps businesses get the access and capital they want, but strips away a lot of business that is just painful and difficult to deal with.
Ben: Sure, no one likes paperwork. I am not a fan of paperwork. So, it’s all digital? You have a website.
Mr. Martin: Exactly.
Ben: You just type it in!
Aside from like the cutting down on the bureaucracy, what else is better? Like, what really says, ‘I could go get a traditional loan, but Honeycomb, what do they have for me?’
Mr. Martin: Yeah, well there are […] two specific things that are better. So number one, for folks that are actually making a decision between a traditional loan or not, our process is just simply more streamlined. It’s an experience that is built around small business owners. In terms of ‘what are the things they actually care about in a loan?’; ‘what are the real terms? the real structures?’ that they actually want [and] care about. Versus what is typically imposed by a bank due to convention or standard. So, that’s kind of the one thing that’s tangibly better. The second thing is actually many small business owners today don’t even have access to [loans]them. And often times not because they are not creditworthy, not that they are not deserving of a loan, it’s the current structure biases towards very large loans. So, for example, something that is less than 100,000 dollars, federal reserve survey says that about 70% of small business owners actually want loans that are below 100,000 dollars. But, banks simply can’t do that. It is very difficult for a bank to do that loan, profitably. So, in some ways, we are better because we are actually a viable option for the first time for many small business owners.
Ben: Sure, I mean 100,000 dollars; I think that it is difficult to just sort of grab. 100,000 sounds like a small amount. To me, it’s like, ‘yeah, money!’ But, you know, when you are starting a business that little bit gets you something.
Mr. Martin: Exactly.
Ben: So, let’s talk about the specific types of loans. You said you’re catering [to small business owners], but like what does that mean? What specific loans? I know there is all this jargon out there about loans, but what are you guys offering?
Mr. Martin: That is a good question because what we have done, you’re right, there [are] a lot of different structures and terms that often banks will be thinking about. We’ve tried to boil down to what do business owners really care about. So, there is a little variation in this, but eventually, the kind of flagship offering is a fixed-term loan that’s between three to five years, depending on the owner’s preferences. The interest rate can also vary, but it typically around 8 to 12 percent. And, also there is flexibility around two very important things which is: one, is there a personal guarantee required from the business owner or, [two], is there collateral required from the business to be posted. Often times we were talking to business owners, those two issues were very important to them. And often time there were not a lot of flexibility in the current bank loan market. So, that is essentially the current flagship offering we’re doing.
Ben: Nice. So, how did this idea come about?
Mr. Martin: Yeah, so basically the idea was really born by my co-founder George Cook. But, it sort of came from two sides of the same coin. So, basically, George, he comes from six generations of small-town community banking. There is a small town called Somerset Pennsylvania; it’s kind of down the road from us here in Pittsburgh. And […] they have owned and run that little community bank for six generations now. […]George sort of lived and breathed the family business so to speak and saw what was changing; the bad changes that were happening in community banking. They used to be the biggest source of capital for small businesses, but they are consolidating at a rate of 1 per day the last 20 years. And so he was seeing that change, and realizing, gosh it’s really hard to do small business lending now. Now, the flip side of that coin is I spent a long time on Wall Street, but then really decided my passion was Main Street. And so, started founding some small businesses and then even with my financial background[…], realized as a small business owner, it’s really hard to get a small business loan. Not only administratively difficult, but to kind of fit into the right box of criteria is often challenging even for a strong growing small business. So, basically, […]the two sides of the same coin, we started asking ourselves, why is it so hard? Why did Fintech make consumer lending much better, but it kind of didn’t make small business lending better. So, […]that was kind of the genesis of the company. We started that research and in a nutshell what we found [is] that the data sets that you use for consumer lending is our credit reports, right? So, for you or I, our credit reports are pretty robust; they are pretty large. So, better algorithms can actually make that process better and it has. But, small business are totally different. You know when you start a small business, there is no credit report. It’s a brand new business; it’s an unknown quantity. So, basically, there was always this marriage of qualitative underwriting and quantitative underwriting. It’s […] what community banks [always] did. They were very successful at it. But, now that they are disappearing that opportunity has been lost. Now, it’s [a] much more quantitative-only approach. And we [at Honeycomb] just think that is fundamentally wrong for small businesses. So, that, in a nutshell, was kind of the origin story of why we started getting interested in this.
Ben: Interesting, it is a complex issue with the consolidation. What types of investing are you offering? How are you wooing these investors?
Mr. Martin: We throw around a term a lot called financial democratization. Really what that means is this type of investing used to only be available for rich folks quite honestly; what’s known as an accredited investor. But, now, with some changes in regulations, we are […] able to offer this type of investing for anybody that logs onto the Honeycomb website. So, investors will see on the website, great locally owned businesses, that they can actually choose to invest in a piece of a loan that will return a real interest rate from that business.
Ben: Nice. Is there a minimum investment around this?
Mr. Martin: Yeah, exactly. So, investors can invest with as little as 100 dollars.
Ben: That sounds, that’s nice. I’ve got a 100 bucks. What is the difference for investors between using you and, let’s say, any other service out there?
Mr. Martin: We really think of it as kind of twofold. So, […] on the first side; you know investors who already love supporting local businesses by buying local, now we give them the opportunity to invest local. The second thing is having healthy small businesses strengthen communities; that’s really our strong belief. [Small businesses are] providing good local jobs, keeping streets and sidewalks clean and safe, and also sponsoring local groups and programming. You know [like] the local baseball little league team, for example. We think all of those things, giving investors a voice in that, it is important as well. So, those are kind of the two big things we see.
Ben: Can you give me any specific businesses that are available right now to invest in?
Mr. Martin: Yeah, so the end of this month [available now]. We will be launching our first two right here in Pittsburgh. The first is for Pittsburgh Juice Company, and the second will be from Millie’s Ice Cream. So, your listeners can log onto our website, Honeycombcredit.com and check out those two candidates.
Ben: I actually had some Millie’s Ice Cream last night.
Mr. Martin: That’s right you did.
Ben: I think that I had the Vietnamese coffee.
Mr. Martin: Vietnamese coffee, yeah, that’s excellent.
Ben: It was really good. I was up a little late because I had the coffee surge. I actually don’t know if it has caffeine in it, but it tricked my brain into to thinking that.
Let’s talk about local economies. What is the philosophy behind the investing in small businesses or even in your neighbor?
Mr. Martin: We mentioned this briefly before and actually before we started to recording. I think this is such an important topic because, you know, [there] are healthy small businesses in our communities that are creating what are called positive externalities. Right. It’s basically things like good jobs, these clean sidewalks, no broken windows, things like that; that are so important for a community. And so, in a nutshell, basically by giving investors, the community members, a voice in that investment decision, it helps bring down the interest rate. Because they are actually able to capture those externalities.
Ben: Nice. I agree. Keeping those streets clean with having a business owner who has to keep their storefront nice to keep new customers coming in. That’s a good thing for all of us.
How will your ability to serve small loans bring about growth in each of these communities?
Mr. Martin: What’s interesting is, we looked at what is happening today and what is the trend over the last two decades or so. And what’s kind of sad is that community banks used to serve this role because they had to have bankers that were in the communities making lending decisions. And whether they knew it or not those community bankers were capturing those positive externalities we were just describing. But what is happening, unfortunately, is over two-decade the consolidation in community banks has been massive. It’s one per day in the united states for a period of 20 years. So, as those community banks consolidate and the lending decisions no longer get made in communities that has had a really negative impact on supporting small businesses with expansion capital. So, basically to you question, what do these small loans actually do? By actually providing that actual capital back into the community, in a way that use to be there for generations, were actually empowering a good successful growing small businesses to get access to the capital they always use to have and now need to actually grow and to continue expanding.
Ben: Interesting. Do you think that’s the shift? Even out this window, there is a very dynamic look here in Pittsburgh. Do you think the shift in the last twenty years has created both – this is very off-topic, but a curious question – the sort of suburban isolation system and then the urban blight all at the same time? Do you think this is linked?
Mr. Martin: I certainly do. I think it is above my paygrade to strategize in such a grand way. But, my take on it is basically that, part of the reason you’re seeing this buy local movement, [which] has really taken hold, is people are kind of reawakening to that idea. Consolidation and efficiency, it’s important and good, but there is something that is not quantifiable that we are losing and now reawakening to. And, so for us, we [at Honeycomb] love that phrase, “invest local.” People are already familiar with buy local. They are realizing they enjoy diversity of choice. And they enjoy having creative and unique experiences. And they are choosing to buy local. So, now we view ourselves as a way to invest local. So, kind of to your point, some of the revitalization you see around here is because of that diversity and uniqueness that’s now coming back to our communities. We really see ourselves as a way to support that.
Ben: Sure, sure. Do you have data or examples of local investments that have yielded, you intended, positive results?
Mr. Martin: I will give you an example right here in East Liberty, which is where we are recording this. There is a beloved coffee shop right around from where we are. And a couple of years ago they lost their lease at their current store and were basically on the verge of shutting down. [It] was and still is a beloved coffee shop here in the community. And what they were able to do is launch a campaign that was more of a donation effort. Kind of an emergency campaign and because they were so beloved by the community when they signaled that need the community rallied behind them and they were able to raise that donation campaign. And they are still growing and thriving today, which we are all very happy for. So, we see ourselves at Honeycomb as being kind of that logical next step, which is, […] there are use cases where, you know, look it’s not an emergency, it doesn’t require a donation, but, it really is […] a good strong business that is loved by the community and the community now has a way to rally around that and support the growth. So, we think that is what ]underlines what we are doing here.
Ben: How are you or how will you engage the community to market your loan services?
Mr. Martin: Our model is quite simple. If you think about the example [of] Kickstarter, what is called [a] gift crowdfunding website? You know most people know about Kickstarter, they know the brand, but I promise you that you’ve never actually seen an advertisement from Kickstarter. What happens is that you know about Kickstarter because some business or person had promoted their campaign. So, that’s how you are familiar with Kickstarter. We take the similar approach where we spend our time identifying great local businesses that are beloved by the community and give them the tools to build a campaign that they want to do raise the expansion capital that they need. And that is how we get attracted to a wider audience.
Ben: Very cool. That’s good. That’s good. So, pay attention to the person that actually needs the credit to expand their business. And by having that happen, by having that business exist, you’re getting your marketing done. Pretty nice.
Mr. Martin: Exactly. Those businesses have already done such a great job of building their brand and providing an awesome product that people already love. So, we kind of see […]our role, we don’t need to change that. They’re already beloved; they have a loyal customer base. And we just like to provide them with a suite of tools to access capital in a totally new way; have a totally new relationship with their customers.
Ben: That is really cool. Where are you looking for investors to invest in these local businesses?
Mr. Martin: We throw around this word “community” a lot. We really think of Honeycomb as kind of building one small business at a time. But, for us, community doesn’t necessarily mean geography. Right? I grew up in Texas – and I know we’ll talk about that – even though I don’t live in Texas, and I haven’t for many years, I am still connected to that community and I still care about that community. So, likewise, our approach is to identify investors that care about a certain community, regardless of geographic location. So, that is kind of how we think about sourcing investors.
Ben: Nice. Is there any specific technology that you are using to simplify the process for investors or for those seeking a loan? Like an app or software? You said the website, but…
Mr. Martin: In short, yes, yes there is. Our team has worked very hard to create a system that is easy to use from both a small business owner and an investor. So, what that kind of looks like is a website that is viewable from both desktop and mobile. When people log on, it is an interface that they are very used to. I think a lot of people know about Kickstarter, they know about Kiva, so that kind of donation-based crowdfunding is pretty well known. People understand what that looks like from a user experience perspective. So, we were able to kind of stand on the shoulders of giants, so to speak, where our interface is very similar and familiar to people. But, of course, on the back end of that technology, there is a pretty robust system; that […]makes sure we are safe with data, regulatory compliance, and can move data and information around in a very fast and efficient way.
Ben: Are you hoping to offer your services in other towns and cities? You mentioned Pittsburgh, as the first starting place, where else are you thinking?
Mr. Martin: Definitely, in our minds, Pittsburgh is home. This is definitely going to be the HQ, so to speak, for many years in the future. But, you’re exactly right, we really do feel as though there is an opportunity to bring this to millions of storefronts across, call it, Main Street America. And we are very excited to do that. While Pittsburgh is our home, we are going to be rolling this out slowly in 2018 to other geographies. And we want to make sure we kind of identify places that resonate with this theme, meaning: there has been an urban revitalization, there’s been a focus on buy local, people actually care about supporting and building communities. That is our plan for 2018.
Ben: I guess the big questions for me is, you’re from Texas how did you get to Pittsburgh from Texas?
Mr. Martin: Well, Ben, you’re folks probably know, you are also from Texas.
Ben: Yeah, I am from Texas, yeah.
Mr. Martin: So, we are fish out of water here in Pittsburgh.
Ben: Yeah, a bit.
Mr. Martin: But, you know, it really surprised me, the reason we landed in Pittsburgh is two-fold. I mentioned my co-founder, George cook, he has strong ties to Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, particularly, rural Appalachia. When we were thinking about the future and vision of Honeycomb, we were very careful to make sure [that] Honeycomb is not a Silicon Valley solution for Main Street America. We want to make sure we are planted firmly in middle-America with our roots here, because that’s important to us, George and I, as co-founders. So, that in a nutshell is how we landed here. We were very proud to be accepted into the Alphalab accelerator program several months ago. We’ve been here in Pittsburgh working through that program, which is just about to end in a matter of weeks. So, that is how we landed in Pittsburgh. But, we are delighted, this is such a great place to make a home.
Ben: Nice! Is there something you really like about Pittsburgh that you’d like to give a shout-out to perhaps?
Mr. Martin: Yeah, the thing that surprised me most and what makes this such a great place for us is, it’s a combination of old and new. There is a history and tradition and strong community bond here, which I think is so important to the success of Honeycomb. But, at the same time, there is kind of this new spirit, technology innovation, that has really taken hold in this city. And the marriage of those two things is absolutely perfect for Honeycomb.
Ben: Well, this is really exciting. I like the idea of investing in local as I am very passionate about it myself. I think there is a transformational opportunity. I think those who are in development, who are working on developing communities, might want to look at opportunities like this. Because you need to change the storefronts. Changing communities takes time. And I am glad that you are doing something to go in that local direction.
Mr. Martin: I agree, you raise a really important point when we were chatting just prior to this [recording]. When you revitalize a community there is a lot of complexities, right? There are new developments that will happen, new homes, and things that will take root over time. But, to your point, before we started recording was, you know storefronts are sometimes the first things to actually change and new businesses coming in can happen more quickly and that’s often the first grass shoots that are coming up. If, we can do something to support that, while also letting the existing community members share in that by supporting businesses that are sprouting up in their community. We think that’s important too.
Ben: Well, I do love it. I want to thank you for taking the time today. And I want to say congratulations on your [Alphalab] demo day yesterday as of this recording. How are you feeling, you feeling good?
Mr. Martin: Yeah! We feel great. As you know it was my co-founder George giving an awesome presentation. I think he did very well and we are all very proud of him.
Ben: Thanks again and I look forward to seeing who you are investing in locally.
Mr. Martin: Great! Thank you, Ben.
Discover more about Honeycomb Credit at honeycombcredit.com.
The interview, podcast, and video were created for the Owl Me Not project run by Ben Wonderful. The Owl Me Not project seeks to simply explain that which is unknown, whether it’s an idea or forward-thinking business. Owl Me Not has partnered with IHeartPGH to produce interviews and videos on topics related to Pittsburgh, including a series on innovators. The project is currently in development, but the latest video can be found here. Want to know more or perhaps be a part of the Owl Me Not project? Feel free to email Ben here.