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Inside Renault’s Community-Driven Approach to Innovation

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A Renault R&D center holds innovation competitions with a twist: In addition to allowing employees to say whether they like prospective ideas, it allows them to volunteer to help pursue an idea if it gets the green light. After the competition ends, the successful inventor can get in touch with some or all the people who indicated that they would want to help turn the idea into reality who could provide skills and support that the project will need.

Often, even the best ideas don’t make it from the winner’s circle of an innovation competition to the shop floor. Before they are adopted, they must find internal champions.

Yet as important as this step is, most innovation initiatives tend to gloss over it, assuming that the brilliance of the concept — be it a new widget or Wavy West Coast Truffle Fries — will be enough to earn the innovation a place in the world.

Renault, the car maker, has found a solution to the challenge of finding internal champions for promising innovations, with a special feature on its in-house innovation platform. The platform — initiated and sponsored by the company’s Creative Lab, which “supports projects by facilitating access to digital prototyping technologies and design methods” — focuses on encouraging employees of Renault’s Technocentre, the company’s R&D center outside of Paris, to invent and develop new concepts of mobility. It’s very similar to many other innovation platforms, except for one important difference: the center’s employees not only have the opportunity to “like” an idea, they can also promise to help develop and implement the concept if the inventor’s proposal is accepted.

This simple feature has several advantages. It provides a good gauge of relative internal enthusiasm for the project, and it gives an inventor a team of knowledgeable supporters to help develop and implement an idea. After the innovation competition ends, the successful inventor can get in touch with some or all the people who indicated that they would want to help turn the idea into reality who could provide skills and support that the project will need. They may ask them, for instance, to help conduct a market study or develop a first prototype. Winning inventors are authorized to work on their projects up to two days per week for a period of one year; those who join them can make individual arrangements with their managers.

The feature offered us a unique opportunity to take a closer look at the crucial role a community plays in the lifecycle of an innovation.

The Value of the Volunteer

When we examined how platform participants were using this option to volunteer, we observed a few surprising things. In our study of 1,201 participants’ responses to 244 ideas posted on the platform, and in subsequent interviews with Renault employees, we found:

Likes don’t matter.

Renault employees told us — and empirical results confirmed — that volunteering to work on others’ ideas is more significant than simply “liking” an idea, which may constitute “cheap talk”-signaling rather than actual and active support. When participants commit to an idea, they “walk the talk.” As one participant told us: “There’s no commitment with likes.”

Volunteers didn’t line up to work on sure-fire winners.

Instead, the supporters — predominately engineers — were more inspired by the challenge posed by highly novel and technically ambitious ideas. One implication: If companies want to expand the number of more-radical ideas in their innovation portfolios, they should pay closer attention to those that volunteers in their R&D organizations sign up for. Such volunteers seem to have a greater appetite for novel and challenging ideas than more-cautious managers, who often are more worried about the feasibility of proposals.

Inventors who volunteer more for others’ projects tended to attract more volunteers for their own.

On the innovation platform, for every commitment the inventor made, the rate of commitments received rose by a factor of 1.29 – a 29% gain. This wasn’t simple “I’ll like your idea if you like mine” reciprocity. Instead, generous inventors seemed to trigger even more generous responses: Employee A’s public commitment to work on Employee B’s idea seemed to inspire Employee C to volunteer for Employee A.

Build a Community, Not a Contest

This 29% gain in support interested us in that it confirmed something we have been thinking for a while now: Maybe innovation contests are structured in a way that focuses too much on prizes and not enough on building a community of innovation-minded people. Could it be that by appealing to altruism and collaboration we could spur even more innovation?

Adding functionality to the platform that allows volunteers to commit themselves to the implementation of ideas is a useful way to build a more creative, collaborative culture among employees. Managers might reinforce that sentiment by clearly communicating that they value collaboration and consider it important for innovation. In addition, they might consider rewarding collaboration more directly by designing incentives not only for those who generate ideas but also for those peers who help implement them.

Indeed, our earlier research with the International Committee of the Red Cross showed how critical collaboration can be for the success of an innovation contest. The Red Cross’s contest was designed not only to help inventors come up with new concepts but also to support them build strong startups to execute their ideas.

Creating more possibilities for participants to engage with and support the development of their peers’ ideas early on could give inventors the chance to work with a team with a more diverse range of skills, providing a head start once the idea is selected for implementation.

It’s worth noting that many of the most successful crowd-sourced projects — such as Wikipedia, Linux, and, more recently, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies — feature a similar simple, flat architecture and a strong focus on collaboration. While none of these venues offer much in the way of prizes beyond peer respect, the collaborations they have fostered have had a major impact.

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How to Find the Right Business Coach — and Avoid the Wrong One

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At its best, business coaching can connect you with a mentor and supporter who helps you generate ideas, make plans and execute on them.

But at its worst, a business coaching offer can cost you time, energy and money — without much to show for it.

Here’s what to expect from a business coach, how to find a coach that suits you and how to spot red flags.

What a business coach can do

Business coaches draw on their professional experience to help you set and achieve your own business goals.

“I’m here to help you, and I’m here to raise your level of knowledge in whatever way I can,” says Gary Robinson, who chairs the Memphis, Tennessee, chapter of SCORE. SCORE offers free business mentoring for entrepreneurs nationwide.

Some ways a business coach or mentor might do this include:

  • Offering feedback on your ideas and suggesting new ones.

  • Giving you templates and other tools that help you make plans.

  • Connecting you with resources in your region or your industry.

  • Giving you deadlines and holding you accountable to them.

Some business coaches may also offer coursework or group training sessions on particular topics, like sales.

Working with a coach should help you identify opportunities you hadn’t seen before or develop new strategies for pursuing those opportunities, says Sophia Sunwoo, who coaches women and nonbinary entrepreneurs through Ascent Strategy, her New York City-based firm.

“[Coaches] don’t necessarily have to have all the answers,” Sunwoo says. “But they are the people that know how to maneuver and create a bunch of different thinking paths for their clients.”

What a business coach can’t do

A business coach isn’t the same as a consultant, whom you would hire to perform a specific task. A coach or mentor could look over your business plan, for example, but they wouldn’t write it for you.

“If you were to hire me as a consultant, you would expect me to roll up my sleeves and pitch in and work with you to get things done, and you would pay me for that,” Robinson says. Coaches, on the other hand, “try to show you how to do things so that you can do them [yourself].”

Business coaches are also not therapists, Sunwoo says. Entrepreneurship can be emotionally and mentally taxing, but it’s important that coaches refer clients to mental health professionals when necessary.

Business coaching red flags

If a business coaching opportunity “promises guaranteed income, large returns, or a ‘proven system,’ it’s likely a scam,” the Federal Trade Commission warned in a December 2020 notice.

In 2018, the FTC took legal action against My Online Business Education and Digital Altitude, which purported to help entrepreneurs start online businesses. The FTC alleged these companies charged participants more and more money to work through their programs, with few customers earning the promised returns.

In both cases, these operations paid settlements, and the FTC issued refunds to tens of thousands of their customers in 2021 and 2022.

To avoid offers like these, the FTC recommends that you:

  • Be wary of anyone who tries to upsell you right away or pressures you to make a quick decision.

  • Search for reviews of the person or organization online.

  • Research your coach’s background to see if they’ve accomplished as much as they say.

Sunwoo says to also be skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions. A coach should customize their advice to your personality and skill set, not ask you to conform to theirs.

“The moment that a business coach pushes you to do something that is really not compatible with your personality or your beliefs or values,” Sunwoo says, “that’s a huge problem.”

How to find the right coach — maybe for free

Here’s how to find a coach that will be as helpful as possible.

Determine whether you need advice or to hire someone. A coach isn’t the right fit for every business owner. If you need hands-on help organizing your business finances, for instance, you may need a bookkeeping service or accountant. And take legal questions to an attorney.

Seek out the right expertise. A good coach should be aware of what they don’t know. If they’re not a good fit for your needs — whether that’s expertise in a particular industry or a specialized skill set, like marketing — they might be able to refer you to someone who’s a better fit.

Consider free options. There may be some in your city or region:

  • SCORE offers free in-person and virtual mentoring in all 50 states, plus Guam, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

  • See if your city has a Small Business Development Center, Veterans Business Outreach Center or a Women’s Business Center. All are funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and offer free training and advising for entrepreneurs.

  • Do an online search for city- or state-specific programs. Philadelphia, for example, offers a business coaching program designed for entrepreneurs who want to qualify for particular business loan programs. Business incubators often offer courses or coaching.

Make sure your coach is invested in you. They should take the time to learn about you, your business and its unique needs, then leverage their own experiences and creativity to help you.

“I’m on your team now,” Robinson says of his clients. “Let’s do this together and make this a success.”

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Are There SBA Loans for the Self-Employed?

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Many of the same SBA loans are available to both self-employed people and more formally structured businesses, such as limited liability companies and corporations. However, self-employed individuals, like sole proprietors and independent contractors, might face a higher barrier to entry for having limited credit history, inconsistent revenue or no collateral. If they can’t qualify for an SBA loan, other business financing options are available.

Who qualifies as self-employed?

Sole proprietors, independent contractors and partnerships all fall under the self-employed category. In these cases, there is no legal distinction between the business owner and the business itself. Sole proprietors, for example, are solely responsible for their business’s gains and losses, while LLCs and corporations are legally distinct from their owners. This distinction helps protect the owners’ personal assets if their business runs into legal or financial issues.

Are self-employed SBA loans hard to get?

While a sole proprietorship is much easier to set up than an LLC or corporation, lenders may be more hesitant to finance them for a few reasons:

  • Self-employed business owners are legally responsible, as individuals, for any debt and liabilities that their businesses take on. If someone sues their business, for instance, their personal assets — not just their business — could be at stake. This makes it riskier for lenders to finance them.

  • Sole proprietorships and independent contracting businesses may have lower revenue or less collateral to offer since they’re often a business of one. This could make it more difficult for them to prove that they can pay back the loan, plus interest. And it may require more paperwork.

  • Some banks set lending minimums that surpass what a self-employed business owner is looking for, either because the business owner doesn’t need that much funding or doesn’t qualify for it.

  • Since there is no legal distinction between the self-employed business owner and their business, they may lack business credit history. To establish business credit, you’ll want to register the business, obtain an employer identification number and open a separate business bank account and credit card to keep your business and personal finances separate.

SBA loans for the self-employed

SBA microloan: Best for small loans and more lenient requirements

Applying for an SBA microloan is a great option for self-employed business owners, especially if they’ve been turned down by traditional banks and don’t need more than $50,000 in funding. In fact, the average SBA microloan is around $13,000, according to the SBA. SBA microloans are administered by nonprofit, community-based organizations that can also help train applicants in business practices and management. And because the loans are small, the application process may be easier — applicants may have limited credit history and typically don’t need as high of a credit score as they do for an SBA 7(a) loan.

SBA 7(a) small loan: May not require collateral

Funds from the SBA’s most popular 7(a) lending program can be used for a variety of business-related purposes, such as working capital or purchasing equipment. While the maximum SBA 7(a) loan amount is $5 million, SBA 7(a) small loan amounts don’t exceed $350,000. And if the 7(a) small loan is for $25,000 or less, the SBA doesn’t require lenders to take collateral.

SBA Express loan: Best for quicker application process

SBA Express loans are a type of 7(a) loan for businesses that need quick financing and no more than $500,000. The SBA responds to these loan applications within 36 hours as opposed to the standard five to 10 days, which may speed up the process for borrowers working with non-SBA-delegated lenders. Additionally, borrowers might not have to fill out as much paperwork — the SBA only requires Form 1919. Beyond that, lenders use their own forms and procedures.

SBA loan alternatives

Online lenders

Self-employed business owners turned down for SBA or traditional bank loans may be able to qualify for financing with an online lender. These lenders offer options such as term loans and lines of credit, and they often process applications faster and have more lenient requirements. However, applicants should expect to pay significantly more in interest than they would with an SBA loan.

Business credit cards

Not only can business credit cards help build your business credit history and pay for everyday business purchases, but they can also help finance larger purchases (within your approved credit limit). And if you qualify for a credit card with a 0% introductory APR offer, you’ll have multiple months to pay off the balance interest-free. Just make sure you’re able to pay off your purchase before the intro offer ends and a variable APR sets in.

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9 Best Factoring Companies for Trucking

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Factoring companies for trucking, also called freight factoring companies, give trucking companies cash in exchange for outstanding invoices. They can be helpful to trucking companies that need working capital quickly or don’t have the staff to manage invoicing and collections, but be cautious about potentially unclear costs and contracts.

Here are our picks for freight factoring companies, as well as additional information to help you decide whether this kind of small-business loan is right for your business.

Best trucking factoring companies for funding speed

These factoring companies for trucking offer some of the fastest funding times.

Apex Capital

Time to funding: Minutes via its proprietary Blynk payment service; otherwise, same-day and next-day funding.

Good to know: Company factors freight invoices on nights, weekends and holidays. Its proprietary Blynk payment service, launched in 2020, allows customers to get paid via debit, Zelle or bank transfer. Apex specializes in small and midsize trucking companies.

Headquarters: Fort Worth, Texas.

TAFS

Time to funding: One hour during the week.

Good to know: Company’s mobile app allows customers to submit invoices to be paid right from a smartphone. TAFS is a recourse-only factoring company, meaning that if the customer ultimately doesn’t pay your invoice, you pay the factoring company. In other words, you bear the risk of nonpayment. TAFS does factoring in several other industries too.

Headquarters: Olathe, Kansas.

RTS Financial

Time to funding: Within 24 hours.

Good to know: Offers discounts to veterans. Also does factoring in distribution, staffing, oilfield, textiles and manufacturing industries. The company’s RTS Pro Factoring app lets customers upload invoices, submit invoices in bundles, use the camera to scan invoices and access reports. It also helps find fuel, tire and maintenance discounts.

Headquarters: Overland Park, Kansas.

TBS Factoring

Time to funding: The same day you deliver your load.

Good to know: TBS offers a program in which you can finance 50% of your truck insurance down payment through eight weekly payments from your factored invoices. The company also offers bookkeeping services.

Headquarters: Oklahoma City.

Best for trying freight factoring for free

These factoring companies for trucking offer customers a chance to use the service before fully committing.

eCapital

Time to funding: First funding takes up to 48 hours but subsequent invoices process faster.

Good to know: Customers get an automatic, preapproved line of credit of up to $2,500 per truck. Transferring money from eCapital to your bank account is $10. The company also offers a 90-day free trial. Fees start at 2%.

Headquarters: Aventura, Florida.

Thunder Funding

Time to funding: Typically within 24 hours.

Good to know: Company says a $1,000 invoice will likely cost $25 to $40 (2.5% to 4%) in factoring fees. It also waives the factoring fees for your first invoice as sort of a free trial.

Headquarters: Carlsbad, California.

Best for upfront factoring pricing

Few factoring companies for trucking disclose their prices. These companies offer at least a peek.

OTR Capital

Time to funding: Within 24 hours.

Good to know: Company does recourse and nonrecourse factoring. OTR Capital says it funds 96% of the invoice value, implying a 4% fee.

Headquarters: Roswell, Georgia.

Porter Freight Funding

Time to funding: Within 24 hours and sometimes sooner.

Good to know: Discounts available if you sign a six-month or one-year contract. Recourse factoring fees start at 3%.

Headquarters: Birmingham, Alabama.

CoreFund Capital

Time to funding: Same day.

Good to know: Fees start at 2%. Works with startups and trucking companies with one to 100 trucks. No mobile app available.

Headquarters: Weatherford, Texas.

What is freight factoring?

Freight factoring is a process in which a factoring company buys your invoices at a discount and collects payment from the customers on those invoices. The arrangement creates a source of fast cash for the trucking company.

There are two types of factoring companies for trucking:

  1. Recourse factors. If the customer ultimately doesn’t pay the invoice, the trucking company pays the factoring company. The trucking company bears the risk of nonpayment.

  2. Nonrecourse factors. If the customer ultimately doesn’t pay the invoice, the trucking company doesn’t have to pay the invoice. The factoring company bears the risk of nonpayment, which is why nonrecourse factoring typically costs more than recourse factoring.

Do I need a factoring company for trucking?

A factoring company for trucking can be a source of quick cash, which could come in handy if a trucking company is having trouble making payroll or paying other bills, or if it doesn’t want to take out a loan or other financing. In addition, companies that don’t have the time or staff to deal with collecting money from customers might find factoring attractive.

Pros

  • Fast cash.

  • Flexible — factor only what you need when you need it.

  • Credit score doesn’t matter.

Cons

  • May cost more than bank financing.

  • Company may come after trucking company if customers don’t pay.

How much do factoring companies charge?

Trucking factoring companies buy accounts receivable at a discount, meaning that trucking companies selling invoices won’t receive the full value of those invoices. The size of that discount is one of the key factors to consider when choosing a factoring company for trucking.

However, it’s rare to get an upfront price from factoring companies because they typically base their discount rates on a variety of factors:

  • Whether you want recourse or nonrecourse factoring.

  • Who your customers are.

  • The volume of the invoices.

  • Whether you want to pay a flat factoring fee (the same percentage fee for every invoice) or a tiered factoring rate (a lower fee on invoices that pay quickly and a higher fee on invoices that pay more slowly).

  • Whether the company also charges invoice submission fees or invoice processing fees.

For these reasons, it’s important to review the contract terms of any factoring agreement and make sure you understand the costs before you sign up.

Alternatives to freight factoring

Freight factoring is just one way to borrow money quickly. These other options might be viable alternatives for your trucking business.

Business credit cards

Borrowing money using a credit card gives you the opportunity to keep 100% of what your customers pay you. Credit cards can carry various rewards, such as travel miles or cash back, and a business gas credit card may make sense for a trucking company. But be sure you can pay your credit card balances off in full, because the interest charges may be higher than what you’d pay in factoring fees.

Business line of credit

If you need access to ongoing working capital, drawing from a business line of credit might be cheaper than factoring to cover short-term costs. You’ll likely have a higher spending limit with a line of credit than with a business credit card, but there may also be higher qualification hurdles to jump in terms of credit score and financial performance.

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