Start me up: Brandon Hinkle ’09
Through his online matchmaking service plura Financial Solutions, Hinkle connects small businesses with banks eager to lendBy Deborah L. Cohen
Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the Kellogg School spotlights young Kellogg graduates bringing bold new entrepreneurial visions to life.
Brandon Hinkle ’09 is betting on the romance in small-business lending.
Hinkle’s startup, plura Financial Solutions, matches small businesses seeking capital with banks looking to loan.
“It’s similar to eHarmony in that the more you meet someone’s criteria, the more likely you’ll get matched,” says Hinkle, a former GE Capital banker who serves as CEO. “We’re creating corporate relationships online.”
The Chicago-based matchmaker charges would-be borrowers nothing to apply; it makes a commission from a bank once a match is secured. Its sweet spot is transactions in the $250,000 to $5 million range.
“I was an underwriter for almost 10 years in different aspects of commercial loans,” Hinkle says. “I got frustrated because I was spending so much time on deals that didn’t fit the bank’s criteria. It was an inefficient process.”
Plura, which began with a soft launch in March 2011, aims to remedy that problem. The brainchild of Hinkle and classmate Ryan McElvogue ’09, now company president and COO, plura relies on algorithms to match borrowers’ financial criteria with appropriate lenders.
A ‘huge opportunity’
The co-founders and several classmates germinated the concept during Kellogg entrepreneurship classes. Several Kellogg alumni remain as advisers. So does Gregory White, a lecturer who teaches the school’s New Ventures class and helped the students refine the idea.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” says White. “They’re solving the customers’ problem as well as the banks’ problem.”
The business plan for plura took second place in the Kellogg Cup competition. It was also a runner-up in a global business plan contest sponsored by Silicon Valley early-stage venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jervetson.
Plura introduced a more comprehensive version of its site in April of this year. Interest in the service has been helped in part by an unstable economy that has made it difficult for many small businesses to obtain financing.
“A lot of people are saying they need loans,” says Hinkle, who along with McElvogue seeded the company with less than $100,000 of their own money and to date have no outside investors. “The traction we’ve gotten is definitely a function of the demand.”
Hinkle is reluctant to release specific results for competitive reasons, but he says the company is generating revenue and is on the road to profitability. It has some $3.5 million worth of deals in the pipeline that have more than a 50 percent chance of closing.
The new business is starting to gain national attention. On Sept. 9, plura was featured on MSNBC’s Your Business program. “It’s exciting that the hard work is starting to pay off, but we still have long way to go in this race,” Hinkle says.
One of the toughest hurdles Hinkle says he faced was making the transition from a banking mindset to an entrepreneurial one. He had a difficult time watching the startup burn through cash in its early days, not knowing with any certainty if it would be around the following year.
“As a banker, you’re trained from day one to find what’s wrong, why not to do something,” he says. “For startups, it’s the total opposite.”
Earlier on, Hinkle had to swallow his pride, cold-calling banks to try to convince them to take a chance on a new way of finding qualified leads. About six months ago, however, the tables turned as banks began deploying pent-up capital.
“We’re now getting several calls a month from banks wanting to join plura,” Hinkle says, noting that some 20 lenders are part of the network, including national and regional banks, as well as alternative lenders such as ACCION.
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