The Current State of SME Lending in Canada

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Canada FinanceAccording to the latest statistics, there were 1.18 million employer businesses in Canada, with the majority of them located in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

  • 1.15 million (97.9%) represented small businesses
  • 21.926 (1.9%) referred to medium-sized ventures
  • Only 2.939 (0.2%) accounted for large corporations

Small and medium companies are blooming in Canada: they represent 99.8% of all businesses, and they are the heart of the local economy. However, these businesses are facing extreme challenges when it comes to raising capital – a crucial element of SME growth.

The Canadian banking sphere, dominated by five large banks, often overlooks these businesses. Banks in Canada typically require 32 articles of information when applying for a loan and still 78% of applications from SMEs are rejected. It is especially stressful for startups: you can’t get a loan unless you have customers, but you can’t start your business and get customers without a loan. Cash flow, on the whole, is a complex concept that may be confusing for small business owners, and this kind of financial exclusion only makes it worse. The problem is global, but this Catch-22 has given the green light to alternative lenders worldwide.


One of the alternative funding options for SMEs to bypass the banks and find the right level of capital that they need is called a merchant cash advance (MCA). MCAs aren’t loans. Instead, they represent the sale of a business’s future revenues in exchange for quick cash — the majority of applications are approved within 2 days. This way, a funder provides a lump sum payment with a predetermined percentage (the factor rate) of a merchant’s future credit or debit card sales — cash and check sales typically don’t qualify to be counted. The process goes on until the contractual terms are satisfied. The MCA industry is growing on Canadian soil, but since it is a relatively new domain, the sector remains heavily influenced by American providers, especially when it comes to business models and pricing. But domestic providers don’t see it as a threat. Bruce Marshall, VP of British Columbia-based Company Capital told deBanked in 2016 that “We are happy that some of the bigger US players are coming up here and they are spending millions of dollars on advertising. These companies raise awareness of the industry to a higher level and with us being a smaller company, we can ride on their coattails.”

The question of raising awareness of new technology is vital. In comparison to American SME owners, their Canadian colleagues are slower to adopt technology — for instance, only 27% say they currently use technology to analyze customer data. Another study by BDC claims that only 19% of Canadian businesses are digitally advanced.

On the other side, those established companies find the Canadian alternative lending market to be “a very manageable extension of the US market.” However, it’s a smaller market, and Canada’s geographical position (the majority of businesses are located in four main provinces out of thirteen) and regional differences play their part as well. For instance, because of the restrictions that require businesses to advertise and produce marketing materials in French, the majority of alternative lenders from the US don’t operate in Quebec.


All in all, MCAs are slowly becoming a financing option for Canadian SMEs looking for quick cash. That “slowness” comes from a lack of understanding about how exactly merchant cash advances work. Some alternative funders take advantage of their non-bank status to neglect regulations that require clarity resulting in somewhat unethical lending practices. Because of this, a certain number of business owners still hesitate to take a chance on a merchant cash advance program.

MCAs in Canada are generally available to businesses that have a steady volume of credit card sales, such as retail stores or restaurants. The amount of personal and business information required when applying for an MCA is much lower in comparison to a regular bank loan application: the documentation generally includes proof of identity, bank statements, and business tax returns. Merchant cash advance rates and costs differ from provider to provider. As MCAs aren’t loans, there are no fixed amounts for repayment installments and no fixed terms either. Typically, the percentage of credit card sales taken to enable the transaction ranges from 5 to 10%. Some companies in Canada charge premiums on their cash advances (which can be as high as 30% or even more.)


The main challenge for Canadian MCA providers is the absence of reliable data necessary for making underwriting decisions. As previously mentioned, only a small group of large financial institutions dominate the market, so the data is available solely to a handful of businesses. The information obtained from credit bureaus doesn’t help either: in most cases, it isn’t complete for making a wise credit decision. “The availability and access to government and financial data are scarce in Canada compared to other markets,” said Jeff Mitelman, the former CEO of Thinking Capital in an interview with deBanked in a past interview. “Most of the data relationships that fintech companies rely on, need to be developed on a one-to-one basis and is often proprietary information.”

When it comes to the process of underwriting, the availability of data presented in the proper format is a crucial factor. It provides the full picture and saves an enormous amount of time for risk officers. “We pay a lot of attention to our underwriting and decision-making process because if we make a mistake, we can lose a lot of money,” Andrew D’Souza, the CEO of Clearbanc, told TechCrunch.

At the moment, the financial data available to Canadian alternative lenders is meager and needs improvement. Another issue is the legislation that varies with each province. Many alternative lenders find the Canadian rules and regulations that govern the industry rather unclear. However, those challenges are associated with a growing market and emerging ecosystem. One way or another, the business loan landscape has changed for good, and alternative financing methods have captured much attention, with giants like PayPal stepping in the game.


As the industry is new, and has lots of challenges, the banking sphere and fintechs are turning to partnerships accelerating online lending to small business members. It makes perfect sense to MCA providers to license their automated platforms, banks, and credit unions. Traditional players are familiar with regulations and have data for fine-tuned underwriting, while fintech providers bring innovative technology and customer experience. “We saw that Canada is ripe for technology but the differences in regulation among other things made us go the partner route,” said Peter Steger, the head of business development at Kabbage, to deBanked – a perfect illustration of the growing partnership trend. These mutual interests create a lot of business opportunities, and that’s a good sign for all parties involved.

When small business owners need financing, timing is essential. Small and medium businesses are vital to the Canadian economy, so for them, the proper financial support means fast and convenient access to credit. In the new fintech-driven reality, applications should be completed within thirty minutes, decisions made within hours, and funds deposited in the applicant’s bank account within days. Canadian small businesses contribute around 30% of the total GDP, so the need for simple finance is acute. The technology has already made small business lending more accessible, and over time, financing alternatives such as MCA will become mainstream.

Last modified: December 1, 2019
Dmitri Koteshov is the digital content marketer at HES FinTech, the company behind comprehensive lending and credit scoring solutions. As a seasoned professional, Dmitri provides insights on finance and current technology trends for the worldwide fintech community.

Category: Business Lending, Canada

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