David Prosser: No better time for SMEs to issue own debt

Small Talk

The CBI's new guide to innovative sources of finance for small businesses struggling to raise cash features no fewer than 15 separate alternatives to bank debt; it has already won support from Business Minister Vince Cable, who is desperate to diversify the UKs SME funding ecosystem.

But there is a tacit message in the guide: that small businesses should take responsibility themselves for finding funding where they can.

As the CBI itself points out, one under-utilised potential source of finance is the retail bond sector but there is nothing to prevent small businesses issuing debt for themselves.

In Germany, small companies self-issued bonds worth more than €1.9bn over the year to the end of March, with each one raising an average of €35m (£30m). There is no comparable data for the UK, but the equivalent figure would be pretty close to zero. It's difficult to understand why that should be, given that the small number of British SMEs that have in the past self-issued bonds have had great success.

For example, three years ago, Hotel Chocolat raised £4m of finance after offering investors the opportunity to put up to £4,000 into bonds it issued.

A bond issue by Ecotricity, the alternative energy business, was even more successful – it raised £10m in 2011 by offering investors an annual yield worth 6 per cent (or 6.5 per cent for investors who were also its customers) and was 50 per cent oversubscribed.

Leon, the restaurant chain, managed to pick up £1.5m last year through a similar scheme while the Scottish brewer Brewdog managed to raise £2.2m through a direct appeal to equity investors in 2011. Almost 6,000 subscribed in the business.

The self-issue bond market has the potential to generate much larger sums than have been raised by the handful of issues seen so far. How, though, to kickstart it?

One option would be for the Government to offer the kind of support to investors in small companies' bonds as it extends to investors in their equity. Initiatives such as the Enterprise Investment Scheme and the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme reward investors who put money into the stock of SMEs.

Why shouldn't investors who put up debt for these businesses also get a bit of encouragement?

Small Businessman of the Week: Adam Landau, director, DeVono Property

I was one of three founders who launched DeVono 10 years ago this October. We'd all worked in smaller property firms and become frustrated with their conflicts of interest – their priority is always the landlord so we felt there was an opportunity for a business that only represented tenants.

In the London market where we operate, even a small firm negotiating a lease over, say, five years, is facing a multi-million pound liability, so it's important they get advice on the transaction.

Many SMEs are getting a raw deal from the London property market. Landlords' agents talk up the lack of availability of space because it's in their interests to do so and clients who don't have representation have no way of challenging agents' claims about who is paying what for comparable property.

Our turnover is now running at £2.5m a year and we've been profitable in every year since we incorporated. We've acquired more offices for companies in London in each of the past six years and we now have a project management operation helping tenants move, and a retail arm that helps clients such as Topps Tiles and Domino's Pizza with multiple sites. We also have close relationships with several firms in Europe.

Competition: Techies can win £1m funding to go solo

Calling young technology entrepreneurs. The organisers of the Digital Shoreditch festival have teamed up with a consortium, including City University, the crowdfunding platform Seedrs and accountants KPMG, to launch Million Pound Startup – a contest that rewards the winner with £1m of investment funding.

The promoters will find a company with the potential to grow into a £100m London-based technology business. The winner will get mentoring support as well as finance. The competition is open to technology businesses with a turnover of less than £1m a year after less than 10 years' trading. Closing date is 29 August. For full details, see millionpoundstartup.com

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