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Opinion Columns

Opinion: We helped 150 Colorado companies navigate the coronavirus. Here’s what we learned.

A sign visible inside a Starbucks' closed cafe area in Glendale on April 19, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Early Monday morning, the Small Business Administration’s application system for its second round of Paycheck Protection Program funding crashed within an hour of coming online. The first round of $342 billion — nearly 10 times what the SBA administers in a typical year — was depleted in just 13 days. And like the first round, this latest infusion of $310 billion will be delivered on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Getting money into the hands of small businesses is a good idea, and we applaud the government’s quick actions. However, in the haste to create and pass these two rounds of emergency financial support, there are some gaping holes that must be addressed quickly so companies can make the most of these lifelines and extend their financial runways. 

According to data released by the SBA, the average PPP amount was just over $200,000. That equates to a nearly $100,000 monthly payroll — hardly “Main Street” businesses. For companies reliant on PPP funding as a lifeline for operational survival, the stakes for accessing and using this funding wisely could not be more high. 

From left: Phil Vottiero, a partner at High Plains Advisors; Lew Visscher, founder of Lew’s List; and Seth Levine, a partner at the Foundry Group. Together, they are the founders of the Finance Assistance Network, a pro bono network of more than 100 senior finance professionals who have come together to help businesses navigate and survive the COVID-19 crisis. 

How high? A just-released survey from Goldman Sachs finds that nearly 70% of small businesses will likely change their business models for good as a result of COVID. In other words, if companies are relying on the same strategies that they had in place in January to keep their doors open, the ability to adapt and update practices now has an even greater urgency. Even in good times, most small businesses carried between one to three months of cash reserves. More than ever, understanding and then extending financial runways for small businesses is a critical component to helping businesses survive.

A little less than three weeks ago, we helped create the Finance Assistance Network, a pro bono alliance of senior financial professionals, supported by legal, HR and other resources that are available for free to any small business or nonprofit organization impacted by COVID-19, regardless of size or location. The network connects business owners with a small army of CFOs, controllers and senior financial professionals willing to help with business and cash flow planning, applying for PPP and EIDL money and urgently needed support. 

MORE: Colorado small businesses that missed first round of federal coronavirus relief anxiously queue up again

Since launching earlier this month, the network has helped more than 150 companies, giving us unique insights into the special challenges and limitations of the CARES Act. For example, the companies we’ve helped appear to be especially impacted by the eligibility criteria for PPP funding because the programs exclude many small businesses that stand to benefit the most from this support. 

Many small businesses rely on consultants and part-time 1099 workers who do not appear on payroll calculations (they can apply as individuals to the program, although anecdotal evidence is that few are), which can hurt their chances for larger loans. Likewise, businesses owned by women and people of color are at special risk of being excluded from PPP funding because they are more likely to make use of contractors and less likely to have established relationships with SBA-approved banks.

The feedback that we hear most frequently is that the calculations of payroll are far too small to provide the stabilization needed for ongoing survival and continued operations. Many small businesses have expenses, such as rent and utilities, that are significant relative to their payroll costs. By stipulating that funds need to be spent on payroll to qualify for forgiveness and by covering only an 8-week period, the current program effectively acts as federal unemployment insurance, rather than a business stabilization program.

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Our biggest takeaway is that companies need more flexibility in how they spend aid dollars to balance what’s in the best long-term interest of their business and in the best interests of their employees. Many employees will likely be out of work well past the 8-week period anticipated by Congress, and some are better off individually taking enhanced unemployment benefits. 

This Friday, we are partnering with Good Business Colorado to put on a free webinar, open to all, to share how companies of all sizes should be thinking about approaching business planning through the crisis. We’ll also discuss how they can access the pro bono resources provided by the Finance Assistance Network, apply for PPP and other loans and get expert guidance on using these funds to help your company extend your financial runway. Please join us by registering at https://bit.ly/3bM3OPg.


Seth Levine is a partner at the Foundry Group. Lew Visscher is the founder of Lew’s List. Phil Vottiero is a partner at High Plains Advisors. Together, they are the founders of the Finance Assistance Network, a pro bono network of more than 100 senior finance professionals who have come together to help businesses navigate and survive the COVID-19 crisis. 

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