“I have been a business owner for 43 years, and in all that time, you are the first company that has ever told me that what I am doing really matters.”

Those tearful words shared by a small business owner with Carissa Reiniger, Founder and CEO of Silver Lining, remain a powerful reminder to her that she’s chosen the right career path.

“In that moment I realized just how thankless, lonely and often scary it is to be a small business owner,” she recalls. “That they feel like we care about them and are advocating for them makes everything worth it.” 

Reiniger is a big believer in the power of small businesses — and she has the global data to back it up: 90% of the world’s companies are small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), and they account for 70% of global employment while generating 70% of the gross domestic product in developed countries. 

“Small business owners are driving most of the engines from which we all benefit. They are in the fabric of our society,” she says. “And yet, as a population, we are obsessed with tech start-ups raising millions, selling for billions and finding the next unicorn.”

Silver Lining is her remedy for making things right, a play for character over charisma when it comes to entrepreneurs. A SaaS and fintech platform based in behavior change science, Silver Lining supports small businesses in setting and hitting their growth goals. Since launching in 2005, Reiniger and her team have supported more than 14,000 small business owners in 76 countries.  

“One of the most beautiful parts of my work is meeting these small businesses all around the world,” she says. “And I’ve realized that my life’s work is to build something that can stand and live beyond me.”

Small actions = big results 

With a knack for business development and a background in behavioral science, Reiniger quickly realized that her first job at an advertising company was not going to fulfill her. Around the same time, she was frequenting small business meetups to connect with people in her new city, Toronto, and she discovered a calling that would. 

“I was so inspired by how passionate they were and the sacrifices they made to pursue what they were called to do. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if I used my business development skills to help a small business owner make more money?’”

Support for SMBs traditionally comes from government economic development agencies, private coaches, nonprofits, and academics via training and mentorship programs. This approach was flawed, and Reiniger envisioned a different path. 

“Behavior change science teaches you that education, training and mentorship serve the purpose of building knowledge, but not the purpose of creating change,” she says. “The small business industry is spending billions globally trying to help small businesses succeed. But it’s not working, and it’s an indictment on the industry. If we want to actually change someone’s behavior, we need to wrap them in long-term comprehensive support.”

That’s where the Silver Lining Action Plan (SLAP™) methodology comes in. Small business owners complete a three-hour guided process detailing their values, what they do, their ideal client profile, expenses, revenue streams, pricing, profit margins and a 12-month action plan that combines marketing, sales, and business development into a clear and simple format. In total, 280 data points are collected on every small business owner. 

Once their SLAP™ is created, customers have unlimited access to the platform to track their progress, connect with other SMBs, entrepreneurs and industry experts from around the world, and earn perks and rewards. Reiniger and her team feed this data into an algorithm that uses technology-driven nudges and human interventions to prompt entrepreneurs to take certain actions based on their work and communication preferences and patterns of behavior to get the results they want. 

On average, 80% of business owners hit their goals with SLAP™. The average failure rate of SMBs overall is 90%. 

As Reiniger puts it, it’s tech-enabled and data-driven, but still incredibly human. She explains, “We can use technology to allow for our humanness, our justice and our impact to grow. That’s the question we need to be asking CEOs right now. It’s not about how we manage the technology or how they’re all opposing forces. But rather, ‘As CEOs are we using every tool we have at our disposal to do good?’”

Betting on herself and her data 

In the early days of Silver Lining, like many tech entrepreneurs, Reiniger operated under the assumption that she’d raise venture capital. She did a fundraising round and had all the term sheets, but ultimately realized that she’d rather be beholden to her customers than to investors. 

Walking away from guaranteed money when her company had accrued debt wasn’t easy and made the next years difficult. But she decided to “build the business the old-fashioned way,” focusing on sales, paying off debt over time, and investing as much money as she could into the software and Silver Lining’s growth. 

“What I learned from that experience was that if I had been honest with myself sooner about my ambitions and ideas, and how I wanted to build this company, I could have saved time and money,” she says. “However, what we’ve done is audaciously ambitious, and I’m proud of where we’ve ended up.”

Betting on herself and her company became a habit. In 2021, Silver Lining began providing their customers with small loans and alternative equity capital based 100% on their activity within the SLAP™ program as opposed to traditional underwriting models such as credit scores and cash flow. To date, Silver Lining Capital has issued 83 SLAPloans.

For many SMBs, a loan of USD50,000 allows them to make significant progress. In the case of one SLAPloans recipient, Row House Publishing, a U.S.-based, justice-focused book publisher, that investment led to the publishing of titles from diverse first-time authors, expanding available perspectives and widening the ripple effect of Silver Lining. To date, SLAP™ customers have created more than 100,000 jobs and USD7 billion in capital. 

“We are truly betting on our own data. And the reason that matters is because of our access-for-all policy, that any small business can access our support because there is no financial barrier to get in.”

Expanding access and encouraging economic justice

While the monthly price of using Silver Lining is USD300, Reiniger knew that cost could eliminate a significant amount of small businesses from using the platform. So, she instituted an Access for All policy, allowing customers to set a price they can afford based on their expected sales goals. No cumbersome applications, no questions asked. She estimates that 90% of businesses that have used SLAP™ in the past 10 years would not have been able to do so without this policy. 

“Our community is so diverse, and there are so many people who probably weren’t receiving support before they got SLAP™,” she says. “We would have been perpetuating the exact issue that we’re trying to solve. That’s why our pricing model matters so much. It’s inherently complicated as a CEO, but it is the right decision in every way.”

Economic justice has been baked into Reiniger’s business plan from the beginning, but in recent years her approach has caught the attention of larger entities. In 2021, they launched the American Small Business Growth Program supported by Wells Fargo. which gave SLAP™ access to 1,270 U.S.-based SMBs from marginalized communities. And they launched Impact5X Economic Justice Initiative supported by GoDaddy and JPMorgan Chase, which supported 500 global SMBs from marginalized communities with SLAP™ access and SLAPloans. 

Internally, Reiniger and her team continue to enhance the support and resources they provide SMBs, including now offering the platform in Spanish and finding ways within the platform to accommodate the neurodivergent.  It’s all in support of the customers who became a calling for Reiniger almost 20 years ago. 

“I care so much because each of these individuals gives so much, and so much of our livelihood depends on them,” she says. “So, I consider it an honor to work with them, to understand their realities, and to be a small part of their journeys.”