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Ask the Mompreneur: How to handle business loans from friends, family

By By Jennie Wong | The Charlotte Observer

This week's "Ask the Mompreneur" features an interview with Anson Liang, the founder of TrustLeaf, a way for small businesses and startups to raise money from family and friends.

QUESTION: As a serial entrepreneur yourself, what has been your personal experience with raising money from family and friends?

ANSWER: In early 2011, I created an online business with two of my friends. Over the next year, while designing our product, we all basically ran through our personal savings and maxed out credit cards. We didn't qualify for any bank loans at the time. I avoided asking friends and family for loans because then my co-founders would also have to raise money from their friends and family, just for it to make sense. It was much easier to avoid those awkward conversations and just keep depleting my savings account.

Fast-forward a year: Our product is ready to go and ready to be promoted. Except we all had run out of money and couldn't pay our rent, much less invest in the type of promotion that our product needed in order to become popular. By then, it was too late to begin a real funding campaign, and our product basically died while we were busy searching for regular jobs.

The worst part about this was that we were all software engineers with lots of friends and colleagues at Google, Apple, Facebook, etc., who had plenty of money they could have loaned us. Two of my friends offered to loan me money, but they only wanted to loan the money to me directly, not to my co-founders, whom they didn't know. In the end, I decided it wasn't worth the stress, time, and risk of ruining the friendships. It was extremely stressful, and that's how I knew there had to be a better way.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs when it comes to getting your nearest and dearest to invest in you?

A: Preparation and communication are 90 percent of the work when it comes to friends and family funding. The follow-through is surprisingly easy if you've done your homework. Be careful, though; it can be a total nightmare if you avoid the tough questions at the beginning.

No. 1: Always provide a business plan, even if it's just a simple one. It looks unprofessional to not have a business plan. Just as important, giving them a business plan means they have a solid idea what their money will be used for. This is better emotionally, but also makes it more likely they will offer higher amounts.

No. 2: Make the terms of the agreement crystal clear in writing. If your business hits the jackpot, the last thing you want is someone thinking that they are part owners and deserve a share of the profits directly. If you just want a loan on which you will pay interest, that has to be clear. With a well-written agreement, you protect yourself as much as you protect their investment.

No. 3: Offer a fair interest rate. If the worst happens and you need more time to pay your friends and family back, they are much less likely to freak out if they know that they are earning a good interest rate in the meantime, and that you genuinely want to pay it back in full.

No. 4: Ten loans from 10 friends and family are better than one big loan. It's better if one person doesn't put all their eggs in your basket, so you should prefer to owe 10 people $2,000 each than 1 person $20,000, especially when they're a relative or friend. And in order to manage all of that, an online platform like TrustLeaf is pretty much the only way to go.

Q: What other resources and tools do you recommend?

A: Nolo has a great book about the ins and outs of lending money to friends and family called, "Business Loans from Family and Friends: How to Ask, Make it Legal and Make it Work." It is very detailed and goes over just about every situation out there.

For doing the actual money transfer, Dwolla is one of the best new payment services for small businesses.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Jennie Wong is an executive coach, author of the e-book "Ask the Mompreneur" and the founder of the social shopping website CartCentric.com. Email her at TheJennieWong@gmail.com.