When Rachel Irons won Nav’s first small business grant for her company Founding Foods, it wasn’t just about the money. “To have a much larger company choose us and trust us with with such a sum of money felt incredibly validating,” she explains. “All the hard work we’ve been putting in was recognized and appreciated and that was just the best feeling.” At the same time, she recognizes that the money she won will be immensely helpful to her business.
“When you’re starting a business, you feel like you’re just scraping by and it’s so hard to get enough capital together to expand. Nav’s grant let us take the next step with our Wild Boar Jerky and we will be entering new markets soon,” she says.
A grant is money that doesn’t have to be repaid, which means it’s essentially “free money.” But grants are not easy to get. “There are not a ton out there,” says Irons and “the ones that do exist are pretty competitive.” So if you take the time to pursue one, you want to do everything you can to increase your odds of winning.
Here are six strategies to help you win a small business grant.
1. Search Wide, and Search Often
Irons says she regularly searches for grants using a variety of resources. Her first recommendation is a simple online search. She also recommends Grants.gov but admits it can be “a bit overwhelming” and it hasn’t been particularly useful for her type of business. In addition, she suggests talking with your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and other relevant organizations such as your Women’s Business Center.
Biotechnology executive David Krizman, PhD has been awarded a number of grants, including multiple Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants and economic development grants from the state of Maryland where the biotech firm he co-founded (and later sold) was based. “It wasn’t a lot of money, but it helped us get started,” he says.
Economic development organizations, in particular, often offer grants to spur local business growth. Scott Gabrielson, founder of Oliver Cabell, located the fulfillment center for his luxury handbag firm in North Dakota which helped him nab over $30,000 in small business grants.
Quick tip: Set up a google alert for “small business grant” to get a notification in your email if a new grant is announced.
2. Follow Directions
Krizman previously worked at the National Institutes of Health, where he had the advantage of sitting on the other side of the table, reviewing grant applications. There he learned the importance of following application instructions to the letter, as those that didn’t were immediately disqualified. “The number one thing is to follow exactly what they say in the requirements,” he says.
Incomplete applications are one of the top mistakes grant applicants make, says Jana Lynch, Director of Grants and Programs for the Plutus Foundation, a non-profit that provides financial and programming resources to members of the personal finance media to create, develop, and administer community based programs that enhance financial literacy, education and empowerment. “We need to know who you are, what you’re doing, and that you’re providing all the information we need to make an informed decision for our grant money,” she explains. “Other, smaller mistakes include multiple grammatical errors, not paying attention to specific details in the grant and asking for something the grant does not cover, and failing to respond to any clarification questions we may have.”
Quick tip: List the requirements and then make sure you’ve met each one. Ask someone to proofread your application.
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3. Stand Out
You want to help the grantor get as excited as you are about your idea. “The passion for the program and serving the community should come across clearly,” says Lynch. “If the applicant seems excited, we get excited to potentially partner with them.”
Chris Jones of Pascagoula, Mississippi won Nav’s second $10,000 business grant for his mobile bait and tackle shop. His idea was unique, but just as importantly he clearly conveyed a strong work ethic with a desire to grow his business and serve his community at the same time.
Quick tip: Look at past finalists and winners of a particular grant, if possible, to help understand why they won, and give you ideas for how to creatively present your business.
4. Know Your Numbers
One reason Irons won Nav’s first small business grant was that she knew exactly how much she needed to take her business to the next level: $10,000. That also happened to be the exact amount of the grant.
The amount of money you need doesn’t have to perfectly match the amount of the grant, but you must be able to convey how you plan to use the money if you get it.
“Be fairly specific about what you are going to use the money for,” recommends SCORE Chapel Hill Durham mentor Christopher Exton, who has mentored several business owners who successfully got small business grants from local economic development agencies. He often helps his SCORE clients develop financial projections for financing or to apply for grants and notes that if you win, “In a year’s time or so they are going to ask you, ‘What did you do with the money’?”
Quick tip: If you aren’t confident creating financial projections yourself, get help from your accountant; or your local SCORE chapter, SBDC, or other small business support organizations.
5. Understand Their Motivation
Put yourself in the shoes of the organization making the grant. What do they hope to achieve? Then think about how you can help them achieve that objective— and convey that.
“The biggest mistake I see applicants making when applying for a (Plutus) Foundation grant is asking for money for programs that do not match our mission,” says Lynch. “It’s clear that they haven’t read the criteria or understand the Foundation and they’re just seeking money.”
In Krizman’s case, he understood that the organizations offering science grants want to “fund good projects that lead to good science that will bolster the economy” and he kept that in mind while writing his grant proposals.
Similarly, Exton coaches his small business clients to think about the grantee’s motivation. A common one for his clients: “They are giving the grant to help create a business and jobs in Orange County North Carolina.” The business owner must explain how they will do that in the application.
Quick tip: Don’t just think about what you need; think about what the organization offering the grant needs and convey how you can help them achieve their goal.
6. Expand Your Options
“Be flexible,” advises Krizman. While he looked first for grants from the NIH because that’s what he knew, he has since learned that the military funds a number of biological research programs and that could be another place for scientists like himself to get grants.
In addition to business grants, some small business owners are finding that business competitions are a way to get funding, assistance to grow their business, or both. Entrepreneur Anne Courtney Olson, for example, recently won a business competition through a local community development coalition, and they are providing her with free consulting.
If you can’t secure a grant, you may also want to consider small business financing. In some cases, even a business credit card with a decent line of credit can be helpful. Unlike a grant, business financing must be repaid, of course, but the ultimate goal is the same: to create a growing, thriving business.
Quick tip: Look into business competitions and business financing so you can still continue to pursue your business even if you don’t win.
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