As an entrepreneur, you'll likely have experienced a state of uncertainty, if not outright panic, at some point about your business’ cash flow. During these times, questions like these keep us up at night:
- How much cash is there in the business right now? Next month?
- Is there enough in the account to take on another monthly payment?
- What if that client pays late?
If these concerns sound familiar, you are not alone. Many small businesses are white-knuckling it on cash flow. In fact, a study from Dunn & Bradstreet revealed that 90 percent of businesses that fail trace their problems to cash-flow issues.
As a result of the lack of cash-flow modeling — a common practice in Fortune 500 companies with large finance departments, yet all but absent in smaller businesses — most entrepreneurs have no idea how to make important financial decisions around such actions as hiring an employee, buying new equipment or spending on marketing. Without numerous scenarios accounting for multiple “what ifs,” spending is largely guesswork.
And that's not wise. Alternately, cash-flow modeling, projections and analysis give business owners the confidence to say “yes” or “no” to important business questions without the guesswork, and keep their businesses running smoothly.
One of the primary barriers to cash-flow modeling, however, is that most small and medium-size business owners don’t speak the language of accountants. Owners need the critical information to make responsible business decisions and keep the business growing. Many of our clients have said, “What I enjoy most is dealing with the clients. I don’t enjoy the financial side that much at all.”
So, what frequently happens is that owners obtain professional guidance. And that's where accountants come in, with some accompanying problems. Accountants tend to focus on P&L reporting, which is important, but it's vastly different from cash flow. P&L has a tremendous value for certain types of planning, especially big-picture strategic planning. Yet P&L projections alone, without cash-flow analysis, are only part of the picture and leave business owners without vital information for running the business on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis.
Say, for example, that the owner of a small trucking company wants to grow the business by adding another vehicle to his fleet. So, he checks with his accountant and the P&L confirms his gut feeling — the business is turning a profit. But what the accountant and the P&L don't tell him is the impact another significant payment may have on his cash flow. What he needs to know is when he is flush with cash, when he isn’t and what might happen if customers miss payments or he adds more customers in the near future.
This is where cash-flow forecasting becomes an essential part of your business decisions. Cash-flow forecasting helps you see things coming in and out of the business –without any nasty surprises — and provides peace of mind that the business owner has everything covered. Cash-flow forecasting enables the exploration of scenarios, such as:
- What if the client pays late?
- Can we afford to grow our team?
- What if our sales increase or take a dip?
To avoid being in a state of panic and uncertainty about cash, then, here are five cash-flow lessons to master:
1. Understand your burn rate.
Calculate how much you spend in a given month. For example, if you are nine months into the year, and you spent $500,000, year to date, on operating expenses, regardless of revenues coming in, your burn rate would be approximately $55,555 ($500,000 divided by nine months and rounded off). Because small businesses experience extreme contraction and expansion, it’s best to take an average of the previous 12 months' expenses.
2. Understand how much cash you actually need in the business.
Calculate your monthly obligations and then build in a cash reserve as a safety net in lean times. The size of your safety net will vary company by company, but two to six months is a good range to shoot for.
3. Don’t sit on cash unnecessarily.
Make a better forecast, not just a spreadsheet. A lot of information can get trapped in spreadsheets in a format that is completely unusable and un-actionable by business owners.
4. Build a rolling forecast, not just an annual budget.
Traditionally, small businesses look at a static period, for example, one year ahead. With a rolling forecast, the number of periods in the forecast remains constant. So, if the periods of your forecast are monthly, for 12 months, then as each month is traded, it drops out of the forecast and another month is added onto the end of the forecast. This enables you to always be forecasting 12 monthly periods out into the future.
5. Plan for many contingencies.
Once you master the four lessons above, you can to run your business with confidence, knowing that if there are any roadblocks in the making, you will see them before they become a problem.