Monday, June 18, 2012

Unzipping Kiva Zip: Meet the borrowers

Every person on the planet will soon have the ability to connect with every other person.

Think about that for a moment.

The potential for this new global, digital village is endless. It's also raised a lot of questions about who will harness, control and use the power of these connective platforms. Kiva, for one, is working every day -- with the support of people like you -- to make this new village a place and force for good.

In this spirit, we launched Kiva Zip, a person-to-person lending pilot program that connects lenders around the world directly with borrowers in California and Kenya. Since launching the program several months ago, we've facilitated hundreds of direct lending transactions.

To see how Zip was working firsthand, I recently interviewed a few of the borrowers based in California. And while their ideas, backgrounds and methodology couldn't be more different, their stories followed a common thread of passion, drive and financial obstacles. 

"Is now a good time to chat?” I ask, as I hear papers shuffling in the background. A brief pause and then a voice. 

“Hang on, let me snap out of artist mode.” A moment later, a calm and authoritative voice says, “Hello, it’s a pleasure to speak with you."

Richard is the founder, designer, manufacturer, accountant, marketer and web designer for Imptees Designs. And, like many of our Kiva Zip borrowers, he is a one-man company.

Richard tells me that he has always been creative, constantly drawing and creating characters. At his last job, he had free time to just let his “mind run wild” -- that’s when he thought of the idea for a T-shirt line.

“I’ve had ideas before” he tells me. “My mother was an entrepreneur, so it runs in my blood. But it wasn’t until I thought of Imptees Designs that I felt I could really do this -- that this was going to work!”

Each of the five Kiva Zip borrowers that I interviewed described some version of this moment -- the realization that there was a way to turn their talents, skills and interests into something profitable. This “a-ha!” moment is easy to identify -- their voices dance with passion and moxie. In that moment, it’s impossible not to be inspired. But as each borrower told me their story past the point of inception to growth and development, their voices changed again.

Realization comes down to resources -- financial and otherwise.

“Money is hard to get,” Bryan, an engineer-turned-brewer, frankly states. “Banks want collateral, and even angel investors want to see an established business. I'm a guy with a dream. Dreams aren’t currency and they’re not collateral.” 

A biomedical engineer by trade, Bryan turned his brewing hobby into Pacific Brewing Laboratory. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make. 

“I had passion, knowledge and demand, but I struggled to find funding,” he said. 

Bryan is far from alone.

Lance, founder of Planet Fillmore, a media services platform for community outreach and content development, put it this way: “I have the skills and vision, but the cost of equipment kept everything out of reach.” 

Emiliana of pickle-maker Jarred SF Brine also reflected on hitting this wall. “The cost of starting a business felt like it was always going to be a prohibiting obstacle,” she said.

For most new business owners, the excitement at the beginning is often met with the aching pain of feeling financially frozen and confused about what to do next.

“I loved brining, and I was having success at a farmer’s market, but I didn’t know how to develop a business plan to enter broader markets,” Emiliana says. She felt stuck until she heard about La Cocina, a community organization that helps budding entrepreneurs. The staff there helped her develop her idea and introduced her to funding through Kiva Zip.

When I asked Lance to describe his initial experience with Kiva Zip, he was moved. 

“As someone who has taken care of and helped people all my life, it is deeply moving to ask for help and have the community respond," he said.

Kiva Zip strives to be a place for entrepreneurs to reach out for help, share their dreams and connect with people who can offer a solution. Emiliana described how hesitant she was to take on any debt. But once she acknowledged that she needed outside money in order to grow, she realized that traditional credit options were not available.

“Kiva Zip is an invaluable resource for entrepreneurs,” she said.

It's not uncommon to feel like technology has made things more difficult, confusing and disconnected. But the Kiva Zip model is a prime example of how technology can be used to do the exact opposite.

“I didn’t think character-based lending existed anymore. It’s an amazing use of technology to bring us back to the basics,” said Cristian, founder of custom cabinetry maker J Style at Home.

Putting yourself out there can be intimidating. Lance recalled being nervous that Zip “was a temperature gauge for interest in my business. But as I watched the gauge move, it was incredible. It felt like people wanted me to succeed in a real and immediate way."

All five borrowers said they were initially attracted to Kiva Zip’s interest-free capital, but soon realized that sharing their stories and connecting with their lenders offered an additional bonus: free advertising and marketing.

Emiliana couldn’t believe how fast her loan was funded by complete strangers. 

“It’s reaffirming and morale boosting,” she said.

Richard described his lenders as “his team” and Cristian remarked, “I am excited to share every success with them, and I’m inspired and driven by their support.” 

But, it was Bryan the brewer who expressed it best: “Having 45 people invest in Pac Brew Labs is like hiring 45 brand ambassadors.”

For some borrowers, being on Kiva Zip comes with some concerns. Several expressed guilt -- “There are people worse off than me. Why do I deserve a loan?” Self consciousness --“What if one of my clients saw my profile?” And worry -- “I want to present myself in a professional manner and have a pristine product, but I need money in order to do that.”

Becoming an entrepreneur is an exercise in taking calculated risk. You do as much as you possibly can until you get to a point where you have to reach out. When I asked Emiliana about the entire process, she quickly replied, “It’s hard to picture this going any better.”

When I asked what they would like to change about the existing pilot-model of Zip, the most common suggestion was understandably to increase the flexibility of loan terms. Cristian reflected that “More money would mean I could do more and grow faster,” and Bryan informed me that “the one-year term limited the amount” he was comfortable borrowing.

Nevertheless, each borrower was grateful for the funds and overwhelmingly happy with the process. Emiliana told me that “a loan from a traditional bank would have meant that one bad day, one misstep would have been the end.” But the Zip loan offered her a little breathing room and a chance to explore new opportunities.

Bryan of Pac Brew Labs summed it up: “Kiva Zip encourages you to put yourself out there in a way that nourishes the things that are most important to any new business owner: connections, relationships, resources and growth.”

Interested in becoming a Kiva Zip lender? Request an invitation to participate in the pilot program at Send any questions to

photo courtesy of CGAP