Posts Tagged ‘cash flow’

6 Myths About Starting a Business

July 17th, 2013

Lots of people decide to take the entrepreneurial path and start their own business. The idea of being your own boss, making it big, and having a company that you can point to as your life’s work is very appealing. But the realities of starting up a small business are sometimes overshadowed by myths which make it difficult to deal with the real challenges that arise in those first few years, resulting in unreasonable expectations, frustrated entrepreneurs and potentially a failed business.

Here are some small business startup myths that might keep you from realizing your vision:

1. You should spend a lot of time preparing a detailed business plan
A client of mine in Gardena believed, as many business owners believe, that they should spend a lot of time preparing a detailed business plan, and that the business plan needs to include lots of what-ifs and elaborate financial projections. A grain of truth obscures a much larger point here. Yes, it’s smart to have an overall strategy in mind before diving into a business of any kind.  However, it’s very possible that by the time you finish your do-all-end-all business plan, the market will have changed so much that it will be about time to start on a new one. Business plans are especially important in the initial phases, as it is essential your businesses road map includes your goals. It is also important that you refer back to your plan every few months, check these goals, and add or change them accordingly.

The problem is that detailed plans work best when you are pursuing a fixed goal, such as losing weight or sticking to a budget. In these cases, a planned sequence of steps will best accomplish the goal. In business however, the goal is meeting consumer demand, which is often a moving target. Look at all the businesses (like Google) that are now doing something radically different from their original plan. So create your business plan, and then get busy developing a product and trying to sell it. Then resolve to be open-minded and react to opportunities as you see them emerge.

2. You have to develop the coolest, most innovative product
Many entrepreneurs think they have to develop the coolest, most innovative product. Entrepreneurs are often creative-types, dreamers and inventors, and they get so caught up in the coolness of their product that they forget that they need see if anyone will actually pay money for it.

What you do need to do is get your product to market as soon as possible, to start generating revenue and gain customer feedback. All companies, large or small, need to be more customer-oriented than engineer-oriented. You have to take into account customer demand, and develop products based on that feedback. Too many entrepreneurs so endlessly improve their products before starting to sell them that by the time they finally do, they’ve run out of capital and have to shut down.

Get a workable product out the door and fix the bugs as you go along. That way you also get valuable feedback about its strengths and weaknesses, for the market doesn’t necessarily agree with you about what’s perfect.

3. You’ll have more time to do what you want
Yes, you do own your time. By, ironically, you will find yourself using more and more of this time to run your business. Whether this hoped-for scenario actually pans out, is largely a function the business you are in and how much time you devote to it up front. Early on, you will almost definitely not have more time on your hands.

As a client of mine in Manhattan Beach found, there are many benefits (personal and financial) to having your own business, but plenty of free time is not one of them. You will probably have a little more flexibility, as many small business owners choose to work late at night so that they can spend time during the day with their families; but there are still some major sacrifices, such as sleep. Starting up a small business requires that you work until the work is done, without exception. Those fantasies of taking long vacations while your business grows itself are just that, fantasies.

None of this is to say that you will not ultimately have more freedom as a result of running your business. However, to expect a lot of it in the early days would be an exercise in self-delusion. So prepare yourself for immense demands on your time.

4. You’ll be able to write everything off
Absolutely not, unless of course, you have a desire to get audited. I can’t tell you how many clients have come to me over the years for help getting their books in order only to have to be told that even with a complete set of transactions and reconciliations, their books won’t be clean until we remove all the personal expenses they’ve burdened their profit picture with. Personal expenses should not be expensed to your company, and the business expenses you do incur should be clearly connected to the business you’re running. While it’s true that business owners can write off more than employees can, there is great risk in taking this too far.

Typical real expenses can include your computer and business operating and account management software, rent, employee salaries, money paid to independent contractors, advertising costs, and your business phone bills. You probably will not get away with deducting 100% of your car payments, nor gas and repairs. You can write off the portion of auto expenses that you can document as being essential to your operations. The key word here is “document”. Keeping good records is critical. Basically, if you cannot document it and cite a clear connection between the write-off and the operation of your business, your attempt at a write-off could trigger audits, fines or worse.

5. If you build it, they will come
Despite the Field of Dreams reference, setting up shop and getting your startup ready for business, doesn’t mean that the world will beat a path to your door. A former client in Torrance found out the hard way that today’s consumers have an endless array of choices, meaning simply “building it” will not cause customers to walk through your doors and snap up your products. No matter what type of small business you choose to start, it will rarely, if ever, be sufficient to open up shop and idly wait for business to start pouring in.

You still need to market and advertise your business strategically. That means having a plan and a budget.  It also means researching the most effective methods for marketing and advertising. There is no shortage of ways to waste money in advertising, as a client in Lawndale discovered, and it can end up being a huge financial drain on a fledgling company. No matter how good you are, there is lots of competition and your small business has to establish a presence and reputation to go along with your talent.

Consider your number one priority after opening your doors to be spreading the word about your product to your target market as much as possible.

6. Starting a Small Business is Rewarding
One other common myth about starting a small business is that it can be an incredibly rewarding experience. But unlike the myths presented above, this one has great potential to become true.

The independence and the satisfaction of turning a business idea into a successful enterprise are probably what most small business owners find the most rewarding. And there are all kinds of other satisfactions, including creating a successful new product or service as a result of solving unforeseen problems, or from customer feedback. So don’t let the myths of starting a small business put you off; the reality is so much better.

Small business is one of the most exciting arenas for earning a living.  There is plenty of creative potential, and a chance to really make something tangible for yourself and your family. But doing so requires more than just the vision and determination of a bold risk-taker. You need to be intelligent about how your business is framed in the marketplace, and what obstacles there are to overcome. You also need to be aware of the tools and support that you have at your disposal. Staying focused on these realities, and avoiding the myths that many fall prey to will only increase the chances of success and longevity in your small business.

 

6 Tips for Cost Improvement

June 12th, 2013

6 Tips for Cost ImprovementMost small business owners can agree that saving more money is a continually reoccurring topic. Cutting costs, boosting cash flow and paying less in taxes, will allow you to keep more of what you make, and is a good entrepreneurial frame of mind to be in.

To take this from prudent thinking to actual practice, and put more money in your own pocket, utilize these six tips to put your business on the path to fiscal improvement.

1. Talk to your employees
Employees who are on the front lines of your business, dealing with customers, processes and systems, often have ideas for ways you can cut costs. Have you listened to them? Sit down with your employees and brainstorm ways that costs could be cut without sacrificing quality. Make it more interesting for them by offering a bonus to the people who come up with ideas that have a positive impact on the bottom line.

2. Pay attention to detail
Often, substantial sums of money slip between the cracks a few dollars at a time. One good crack to seal up could be done by reevaluating your businesses recurring expenses. This could be a subscription you signed up for a year ago, insurance that you no longer really need, or a monthly membership fee to an organization you’re no longer involved with. Auto billing is a great way to reduce the cost of paying reoccurring expenses. But it is common that these fees can get rolled into your monthly credit card bill to the point that you no longer notice them. And little sums do add up. Go over all invoices and bills in detail and cut out anything you don’t really need. And don’t stop after looking at auto payments, review everything that isn’t providing a return on investment (ROI).

3. Negotiate with vendors
What you’ve been paying your vendors does not have to be the final word on what you continue paying. Ultimately, vendors want to stay in business too, and they’re dealing with a tough economy just as you are. Many are often willing to negotiate lower prices rather than lose a regular customer. The potential to save money, without even having to change vendors, can result in better prices on everything from office supplies to the phone bill. You certainly won’t lose anything by trying, and you may find yourself able to shave several hundred dollars off your monthly operating costs.

4. Stay on top of your invoices
One of the biggest cash flow problems for small businesses are the slow-paying customers. To speed up the process, make sure your invoicing system is working smoothly. Your invoices should be clear, easy to read, and simply state what is due and when. Make sure you’re meeting any special requirements of each customer, such as including purchase order numbers, and that your invoices are going to the right person at the right address. This may sound basic, but simple errors like putting the wrong suite number on an invoice can cause delays.

5. Enable customers to pay invoices faster
Once your invoicing system is cleaned up, look for other ways to encourage customers to pay you even faster. Depending on your industry and financial situation, this could mean offering a discount for cash payments or early payments. Encourage your customers to use e-payments. This will not only enable faster payment, but also saves processing time on your end.

6. Partner with your accountant
Sure, you have an accountant, but do you only get together at tax time? A good accountant can help shape up your business’s finances all year long. Enlist your accountant to give your company a checkup. What could be improved? Where could you cut costs, free up cash, or make more by putting profits back into the business? Check in with your accountant once a month to follow up on results, fine-tune systems, and make sure your company is on track. There is a wealth of information in your books for improved business decisions. Have your accountant help you access it and be rewarded with higher profits, better cash flow, lower expenses, reduced taxes, and more money going into your pocket.

7 Tips for Getting Paid

May 17th, 2013

Not getting paid by clients or customers is one of the most frustrating aspects of running a small business. But when not getting paid impacts your small business’s cash flow, it’s one of the most dangerous, too. What small business owner hasn’t worried about getting paid at some point? Whether it’s the number of customers that are running past due accounts, or the client who seems to be reluctant to pay for completed work, having proactive policies in place that anticipate these eventualities is your best defense.

Here are seven ways to make sure you get paid for the goods and services you sell.

1. Don’t extend credit automatically to new customers/clients.
Small businesses, just like large businesses, need to have credit policies in place that provide guidelines for determining which customers or clients will be extended credit and on what terms.

It may be your business’s policy, for instance, to never accept personal checks as payment, only company checks, debit cards, credit cards or cash.

If you are considering extending credit beyond that point to individual clients or customers, you should have a procedure set up where the customer or client has to fill out a credit application and/or do a customer credit check. The fee for a credit report can seem expensive depending upon how detailed the report is, but it’s definitely money well spent if it prevents you from not getting paid for that big sale.

2. Take partial payment in advance.
If it’s sensible in terms of the price of the goods or services, ask for a deposit or retainer up front. This is an increasingly common business practice for higher-ticket items and services; no reasonable customer should be offended by such a request.

For instance, if you provide services, you might charge a percentage of the projected bill or a set amount as a retainer before you start work on a project with the remainder due on completion of the task. Or break the bill into thirds, asking for a third before work starts, a third halfway through the project and a third upon completion.

The beauty of partial payment is that it ensures that you get paid something even if the customer or client defaults on the rest of the bill.

3. Invoice promptly.
This seems like a no-brainer but many businesses are slow to invoice their clients. And by establishing the degree of urgency with their own example, why should anyone be in any hurry to pay them?

Customer/client invoices should be prepared and presented immediately upon delivery of the goods or services, or as soon as reasonably possible. Not doing so can make your business look indifferent to getting paid and slow down your cash flow for no reason. Waiting to prepare your invoices at the end of the month, for example, you may be adding as many as thirty extra days to your cash flow conversion period. QuickBooks software and Point of Sale systems make quick invoicing easy.

4. State payment terms visibly and clearly.
If you want to get paid promptly, don’t leave it up to the customer or client to decide when your invoice should be paid. Rather than giving them invoices that say vague things such as “Payable upon receipt”, make sure your invoices state specific payment terms, such as “Payable within 30 days” or “Due Date: ____________”. Your invoices should encourage prompt action on the part of your customer.

5. Reward customers for paying promptly.
Offering customers a discount for paying their invoices early, can help you get paid more quickly. For instance, if the usual policy is to have payments due in 30 days, offer a small discount such as two percent to customers who pay within 10 days.

6. Establish a follow up procedure for customers who miss payments.
Even if you’ve never had a collection problem to date, you should still have a system in place for flagging late payments, and a procedure for contacting the customer or client when the payment is late. The more quickly you follow up on a missed payment, the better your chance of getting paid.

Typically, such a procedure starts with a letter that simply states the bill is overdue and requesting the customer’s immediate attention to the matter. Nowadays there are many channels that you can use to contact the customer. Some are more effective than others. If time allows, I recommend starting out with a phone call to “touch base” with the customer or client. You want to come across as friendly and polite, not threatening in any way. Sometimes the person has just forgotten or missed seeing a bill and a quick phone call is all it takes, meaning you get paid and you don’t have to go through any of the rest of the collections procedure.

Sending collection letters via email is nice because it automatically creates a copy of the collection letter for your files, and automatically date stamps your message. However, because of email filtering and email overload, it may not be a very effective way of getting your collection letters to customers and clients. You’ll want to send them in other ways, too, such as regular mail, fax or even courier, depending upon the size and importance of the debt.

7. Turn the overdue account over to a collection agency.
Collection agencies collect debts for a fee or percentage of the total amount owed. This fee is based on how old the debts are (the fresher the better) and how much business a creditor has to offer. Expect the rate for collecting consumer accounts to be higher than for business-to-business accounts. Collection agencies have experience with, and knowledge about debt collection that you, as an individual business owner, don’t have and hiring one can be well worth it, if the amount of outstanding accounts receivable warrants it.

Proactive Policies Are the Best Way to Get Paid

As you can see, the best ways to ensure you get paid for the products you sell and the services you provide is to have proactive policies and procedures in place to cut down on the number of delinquent accounts receivable your small business has to deal with.

Things such as having credit policies in place, performing credit checks, having a partial payment policy and being clear and upfront about your payment expectations, both in person and on your invoices will go a long ways towards ensuring that you get paid, and your small business doesn’t get stuck with a lot of bad debt.

Making Any Money? Can You Tell?

March 11th, 2013

Profit means making more money than you spend. Many confuse profit with income. As a result, they don’t understand why all their income isn’t getting them ahead; why no one wants to invest in their high-sales company; why the bank won’t extend their line of credit.

Let’s look at the most basic way to tell if your business is actually profitable, making money, not just recording sales.

Most small business people are very good at tracking their income. Each widget sale is recorded in a spreadsheet, and each payment from a customer or client is recorded in the checkbook. Each is totaled frequently.

Actually, that’s not what you made. That’s income, not profit. It’s what’s coming in. In order to determine profit you have to subtract what is going out from what is coming in.

(PROFIT = INCOME – COSTS)

Calculating Costs
Your business has two basic types of costs; fixed and variable. Fixed costs are costs that don’t change based on your level of business activity, such as rent. Whether you produce 100 widgets per day or 150, your rent will stay the same. Variable costs are directly tied to how many units of goods you produce. If you need $10 of screws to produce 100 widgets, you will need $15 worth of screws to produce 150 widgets. The cost of screws is a variable cost.

Fixed Costs
For the most part, fixed costs can be closely estimated at the beginning of the year and accurately projected for the next 12 months. For example, you know the rent on your facility is $5,000 per month. You may know of, or expect, a rent increase in April to $5,500 per month. As a result, your fixed cost for rent will be $64,500 for the year (3 months at $5,000 plus 9 months at $5,500).

Fixed costs include things like rent, depreciation, licenses, equipment lease payments, some taxes, and indirect labor.

Variable Costs
Variable costs are those that depend on your production level. As the production volume goes up, the variable costs go up as well. If I make lamps, I have to purchase one lamp pole, two light bulb fixtures, a lamp shade and five feet of wire per lamp. If a lamp pole cost $3 and I need enough to make six lamps, my lamp pole costs will be $18. However, if I need to make 20 lamps, my lamp pole costs will be $60. I can estimate variable costs at the beginning of the year, but my estimate will not be as predictable as was my estimate of fixed costs.

Variable costs include such expenses as cost of materials used in manufacturing, certain utilities, some taxes and fees, and direct labor.

Telling the Difference Between Fixed or Variable Cost
Some costs the business incurs, such as labor will have to be split between fixed costs and variable costs. The wages you pay production labor, called direct labor, is a variable cost. It is tied to how many units you produce. Other labor costs, such as the salary you pay your administrative assistant, are fixed costs. These indirect labor costs are not tied directly to production levels. If your production increases from 100 widgets per month to 150 widgets per month it is unlikely you would hire an additional administrative assistant.

Utilities are another cost that is split between fixed and variable costs. Your phone bill, for instance, probably won’t change much as production increases or decreases. However, the demand for electrical power, and the cost of it, will increase as production lines run longer and lights stay on further into the night because of increased production.

Income
When someone pays you that is income. Income is usually related to production levels, but is not tied to it directly.

You may produce more or less than you sell. For instance, if you have 100 widgets in the warehouse when you receive an order for 150, you only have to produce 50 additional widgets. If you make widgets for skis, you may make 20 widgets every month during the summer even though you don’t sell any, just so you have enough in the warehouse when winter arrives.

So income is when you actually get paid, not when you make the product you are going to sell. Total income is just the total of all your payments received during the year.

Break-Even Analysis
The break-even point is the production level where your income for a certain number of units produced equals your fixed costs plus the variable costs for that number of units. For instance, you have fixed costs of $500, variable costs of $20 per widget, and you sell the widgets for $25 each, so your break-even point is 100 widgets.

If you reduce your fixed costs to $400, your break-even point is 80 units. Or if you cut the cost per unit from $20 to $15, your break-even point drops to only 50 widgets.

 

Profit
Any sales beyond the break-even point are profit. In the final example above (fixed cost $500, variable cost $15 each, income $25 each) your break-even point is 50 units. If you produce 50 units and sell 50 units you will break even. Your costs will equal your income. You will have a profit of $0. If you sell less than 50, you will have a loss. If you sell more than 50 you will have a profit.

For example, if you sell 70 units your fixed costs are $500 and your variable costs are $1050 ($15 x 70), so your total costs are $1,550. Your income is $1,750 ($25 x 70) and your profit is $200 ($1,750 – $1,550).

Bottom Line
To make a profit, you must be able to sell each unit for more than it cost to make it and you must be able to sell it for a price high enough to cover both the variable cost of making it and its share of the fixed costs.

This is true whether you are selling widgets, boxcars of apples, dance lessons, or hours of financial consulting.

5 Tips for Cash Flow Management

December 18th, 2012

Cash flow is the lifeblood of any business, and in any business there are cash flow dangers. There is a capacity for a business to accumulate costs. They gradually grow month-by-month and your cash flow gradually diminishes to a trickle and finally dries up. Your only defense is to watch, record, compare and trend your costs.

Understanding what the numbers mean is crucial to your cash flow. Are sales trending up or down? Are expenses rising faster than sales? Is one product more profitable or better selling than another? How much do I need to sell to meet expenses each month? The answers all lie in the numbers.

The best way to measure cost trends is by analyzing the expense categories in your software, and ideally graphing them to get a better visualization of their impact. If the chart of accounts in your program is properly designed, you can produce the graphs for each cost item and quickly be able to see that your power bill, for example, is gradually rising. This new perspective can now lead to an informed change in behavior that will reduce those costs or at least reduce the increase in those costs.

Once you have established your costs, you should compare them against the industry average, or at least use your own common sense and business experience. If you keep your books accurate and up to date, you will be able to calculate the relationship between your gross sales and the expenditure in any category. For example, with the help of your historical data, you may decide that your postage should be 2% or 3% of gross sales. When you look over your month-end reports, you may discover that it has risen to 5%. Catching it early, you can now take corrective action.

If you are able to control your expenses, you can develop a healthy constant cash flow. Normally, it’s the cost of your expenses that sucks up your cash and put you in an uncomfortable position.

When your bills are greater than your sales/receivables, your first reaction is most likely that you need to increase sales and collections. Although that is always a good idea, even when there isn’t a cash flow problem, there is still very good reason to pay particularly close attention to your expenses. If when looking at your figures, you see that it takes five dollars to put one dollar on your bottom line, it then takes $5,000 of sales to yield $1,000. This means that saving $1,000 in costs is exactly the same as generating $5,000 worth of sales.

You need to look at your cash flow from an informed perspective. Here are five areas to focus on:

1. Mismanaging Credit
There are two common ways to mismanage credit in small business; granting credit without specific credit policies, and using credit with no plan for how to pay for it.

Both have a huge impact on your cash flow and are often closely related. For example, you have an opportunity to work on a big project, for which you will need to order materials. Your supplier expects payment in 30 days, but you won’t receive cash for the project for 60 days. Right away you’ve put yourself into a cash flow crunch that could take months to recover from financially. In the meantime, you’ve passed on smaller jobs that would have provided quicker cash at less cost. And, if you’re unable to pay your supplier on time, you’ve endangered that relationship as well.

2. The relationship between Receivables and Payables
In a perfect world, what customers owe you would be paid just in time for you to pay what you owe your vendors. But, as any small business owner knows “stuff happens”. The customer you thought would pay this week, doesn’t. So the bills you thought you’d pay this week, don’t get paid. Are your payables in balance with you receivables? If what you owe to others is far more than what is owed to you, then you have a cash flow problem. And if your receivables are particularly old, chances are good you’ll never see that cash at all.

3. Focusing on profit instead of cash flow
Is profit the ultimate goal of every business? Did you know that many businesses that fail are operating at a profit? How can that be? For the small business, cash flow is the ultimate goal. No cash flow. No business.

The difference is mostly in the decision making process. If you take on this big job, it will earn you a huge profit, but if you take on five smaller jobs, you’ll have cash to pay your bills. Yes, you want to be profitable, but every decision has to be measured against the effect it will have on cash flow.

4. Don’t forget your debt to the Tax Man
Some bills are easy to forget. Bills like sales tax, payroll taxes, estimated taxes. They just sit out there, almost off the radar. They don’t have to be paid right away. It’s easy to forget about them. But when they’re due, they’re due right now. And you better have the money to pay them or you’re in hot water with the Tax Man. That is not a place anyone wants to be. Pay them late or not at all and you end up with penalties and interest on top of what’s already due. Using the money that needs to go toward taxes to solve cash flow problems results in even more, and probably worse, cash flow problems when those taxes come due. It can take months or even years to recover.

5. Spending your company’s future on a sailboat
Haven’t you always wanted a boat, a fancy car, or a trip to Tahiti? It might be tempting to try to pass your personal purchases off as tax-deductible business expenses. But, it’s a bad idea for two reasons.

The people at the IRS are over-worked, but they weren’t born yesterday. The last thing you need is an audit that could reveal your transgressions and result in an unexpected tax bill plus penalties and interest. No company’s cash flow should have to suffer that indignity.

The other reason it’s a bad idea is that you are spending your company’s future on unnecessary expenses. Small businesses operate close to the edge. Unless you have a reserve to see you through the tough times, you’re always in danger of being on the wrong side of that edge. You must take care of the cash flow first. Then, you can pay yourself a properly taxed bonus and buy all the toys you want.