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As the founder of a growing company, there are plenty of good reasons to consider using a corporate credit card. Not only can it help you keep personal and business finances separate, but it can also come in handy to extend cash flow, help build business credit, and improve your bottom line through perks and rewards.
Corporate cards are a great way for startups to get the best of both worlds in terms of convenience and benefits. However, for those new to corporate cards, picking the right card for your business can feel like a daunting task
Here we take a closer look at some of the main considerations when applying for and choosing the best credit card for your business. Granted, we at Mercury have worked hard to design our own corporate card, the IO Mastercard,
The IO Card is issued by Patriot Bank, Member FDIC, pursuant to a license from Mastercard.1 with these considerations in mind — so we can’t help but to consider it a top contender in the sea of choices. Still, it’s important to us that founders and their teams feel knowledgeable about what to look for so that they can make the card decision that’s right for their growing startup, whatever that may be.
Even if you already have a corporate card (or several) and want to add another card to complete your robust financial stack, the following points are still worth considering before you click “Apply”.
When to consider applying for a corporate card
For many newly incorporated startups, debit cards are often the perfect payment solution. They make it easy to manage your finances because you can never overspend. You can always see how much money you have left in your account, as well as easily track recent charges. What’s more, debit cards are accepted almost universally, and some checking accounts even allow you to easily issue cards to employees and set custom user permissions.
As useful as debit cards can be, adding a corporate card to your financial stack can be a smart move for your business if you want to grow and scale. For example, many corporate cards give you rewards points for every dollar you spend with your card. This is a great way to save money on things like office supplies and travel expenses — all while extending your runway.
It may be time to consider applying for a corporate credit card if you:
- Frequently spend on travel: Corporate cards can offer unique travel perks and rewards, such as rental car protection and airport lounge access. However, when it comes to travel, the main reason you might prefer a credit card is that it can help circumvent the occasional 5–7 day hold levied by hotel and car rental companies.
- Have big-ticket recurring subscriptions: Many cards offer discounts or rewards for spending on software like Google Workspace, or for hosting on AWS.
- Want to improve cash management: Although most corporate cards will not dramatically extend your runway, some credit cards will allow you to pay off your card early or set a statement date that works with your business cadence. This helps alleviate the fear that two major charges — for example, payroll and a big software subscription payment — will occur on the same day.
- Are planning to hire more employees: If your company is issuing cards to employees, you’ll benefit from the additional spend management and fraud protection that corporate cards offer.
How to choose between the different types of cards available
Once you’ve decided to add a credit card to your startup's financial stack, you may find it tricky to pick the right one. First, make sure that you understand your company’s needs. For instance, do you need cashback or travel benefits? Are there any other features that would be beneficial for your company?
You’ll need to find the right balance between the perks your startup wants and the cards that make sense for your company’s spending patterns.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before making a decision about what card makes sense for your startup:
What is a charge card vs. credit card?
There are two main types of credit cards offered to startups and small businesses in the U.S.: charge cards and credit cards.
Although they share similar features to traditional corporate cards, charge cards are often better for founders and small business owners interested in money management and rewards. However, because of their similarities, it’s easy for people to conflate or confuse the two. Additionally, many charge cards — including IO, in Mercury’s case — are marketed as credit cards simply because “charge card” isn’t as recognizable of a term.
With a charge card, purchases are still made with credit like a traditional credit card, with the main difference being that you have to pay back the full sum at the end of the payment cycle, which is normally 30 days. In this way, a charge card can help increase awareness around how and where your company is spending money since it requires you to pay down your balance and assess your spending on a monthly basis without letting a balance carry over.
Additionally, charge cards are often designed to make it especially easy to reconcile your account and track your spending — ultimately saving you a significant amount of time.
While not the case for all charge cards, some can help establish your company's credit history. They’re also excellent alternatives for small or VC-funded startups that don't need to rely on credit financing, which is often very expensive.
Credit cards, on the other hand, do not need to be paid off in full every month. Instead, each charge is made — technically speaking — as a loan and recorded on a monthly credit card statement. The total loan amount (i.e., the credit card balance) is repaid to the credit card issuer with monthly installments and interest. This type of loan can have initially lower interest rates than other loans (such as personal or business loans). However, if the credit card balance is not paid on time, you may find yourself paying high interest rates and late fees as a result.
Because both types of corporate cards are often issued by other firms and not by your primary bank, they may also require you and your team to spend a significant amount of time each month consolidating records and information on spending, payments, and rewards on different platforms.
How easy is the application process and how will my credit limit be determined?
With credit cards — and even with charge cards — the card provider is taking on credit risk by betting on whether or not customers will repay their balances. Different providers think about underwriting this risk in different ways, which can materially impact the process of getting approved for a credit card and what your spending limit is.
Many traditional providers will underwrite the profitability of your business and determine your credit limit relative to your profitability. While a larger, profitable company won't likely have an issue here, earlier-stage companies may find that this makes it difficult to qualify for a meaningful credit limit — or even qualify for a credit card at all. This may be the case even if you are well capitalized and have plenty of cash in your bank account.
When managing your company’s finances, speed can also matter. For example, if you need a credit card to spend money on online advertising, waiting weeks for paper forms or cumbersome applications to be processed can mean it takes you longer to grow your business.
You never want to rush a card selection decision, but you should also feel confident that you’ll be approved in a timely manner with minimal unnecessary steps when the time is right.
Should you look for rewards in the form of cashback or points?
Both charge cards and traditional credit cards tend to offer rewards in the form of either points or cashback.
Cashback credit cards are usually straightforward. As your business spends money using the card, you build up a cashback balance. However, the rate at which you can earn and redeem cashback will vary depending on the card you choose. Many corporate card programs require you to reach a certain threshold before gaining access to your cashback. In most cases, you must also remember to log into your account to redeem your cash balance manually, though there are some cards on the market that do automatically deposit cashback into the account of your choice each month.
With points cards — as opposed to cashback-centered cards — you typically earn “points” or rewards in some other unit besides a dollar amount, such as miles, for example. Some cards also offer bonus points for certain spending categories, which can then be redeemed for a mix of rewards, including statement credits, gift cards, business travel, or airline transfer points for booking business or personal travel.
Some corporate card providers even allow you to pass your business points to your personal credit card. This gives you the option to redeem travel points and gift cards for personal use. That said, these kinds of rewards tend to be easier for solo founders and small teams, as managing multiple reward redemptions and bonus categories can quickly become tricky.
In determining what rewards program might be the best fit for your business, consider if you or someone on your team has the bandwidth to manage redemptions and track points. You’ll also want to check redemption policies as some credit card programs require you to have been a customer for 12+ months or to spend a certain percentage of your credit line each month before points become redeemable. In some cases, you may have to meet a minimum points or cashback threshold before you can redeem your rewards.
Beyond points and cashback, many credit cards also offer substantial discounts on software and other services that can help your startup scale, including AWS.
In short, when considering a card program, take a deep look at your company’s highest spending categories and select a card that will reward your spending and help your startup cut costs in key areas.
Did you know?
IO offers all the benefits of credit — built on Mercury. And when it comes to rewards, you can forget about confusing point systems and manual redemption. Instead, earn 1.5% automatic cashback on all domestic and international spend — deposited directly into your Mercury account every month.
Where will your card be accepted?
If you are a foreign founder or conduct a lot of business outside of the U.S., card acceptance is a major consideration when choosing a corporate card.
First, make a list of the countries in which you plan to use your credit card. Then, take a look at the credit card network (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, etc.) and identify if they are present in those countries. For instance, Discover — while accepted pretty widely across the U.S. — can’t be used in countries like Mexico and Germany.
Mastercard and Visa, on the other hand, are among the most accessible credit card networks, both domestically and abroad. Customers who have one of these two types of cards will be able to pay at most businesses worldwide.
If you are making payments abroad, you should also consider whether or not your card provider charges foreign transaction fees. It is common for Mastercard and Visa to charge foreign currency exchange fees with each transaction made in another currency, but be careful of card providers charging additional fees. With foreign transaction fees ranging up to 3%, this can dramatically decrease your purchasing power in other countries.
If you make frequent online payments, you might also want to consider a card program that includes virtual cards. Virtual payment cards are ideal for making secure payments online and with your mobile wallet (ApplePay, Google Pay). Since the card number is not connected to a physical card, they are impossible to clone or lose. This can help protect your business from unauthorized charges, while saving you the hassle of reissuing cards to your employees should a fraud incident or loss occur. Additionally, virtual cards allow you to easily track and manage your business's online spending, as you can set limits on how much you spend and where you spend it. This can help you better control your business's finances and ensure that you are not overspending in any areas.
What is the process of issuing employee cards?
As you scale, you may want to issue your employees credit cards. Perhaps you are offering a one-time office setup budget, a weekly lunch stipend, or you’ve onboarded a traveling sales team. No matter why you choose to issue employee cards, doing so can help you earn more rewards while keeping clearer records of spending across the team. Credit spending also offers additional fraud protection, security, and card controls when compared to traditional reimbursement options.
If you plan to issue employee cards in the future, consider the following when selecting your credit card provider:
- Annual fees: Some credit card providers charge you an annual fee multiplied by the number of cards you issue. Others offer unlimited virtual and physical cards for employees with no annual fee.
- Easy onboarding: If you hire more than a few employees, it can be tedious and time-consuming to issue employee cards and update user permissions with traditional banks. However, a few providers allow you to connect directly with your HR management system to issue new employee cards, or they may offer an integration that allows you to bulk-issue cards with custom limits.
What is the impact on your personal credit?
Corporate cards can help you keep personal and business finances separate. However, as a newly incorporated company, many traditional financial institutions may require a personal credit check to determine eligibility for corporate cards. This can affect your personal credit score, so be cautious if you are planning to take out any loans or apply for individual credit cards in the immediate future.
If you have poor credit, many card companies may approve you if you’re willing to submit payments more frequently or accept a smaller credit line to start. You may also qualify for secured credit lines that require a security deposit or personal guarantee when you open an account.
Luckily, many new credit card providers that make credit decisions based on your business and your business’s financial history — rather than your personal financial history — have emerged in the past five years. These cards require no credit check or personal guarantee.
If you’ve established that you’re interested in applying for a corporate card, familiarizing yourself with the above considerations is just the beginning. When you think about the difference a credit card can make in your company’s bottom line — as well as all the ways you can benefit from using credit cards wisely — choosing the right card feels less like homework and more like an exciting opportunity for shaping the future of your company.
Ready to take your startup’s credit card game up a notch? Get to know Mercury IO and discover how our corporate card is designed to give founders and startup teams more control, more benefits, and more possibilities.
Dan Kang, VP of Finance