I talk to small businesses all the time, have done for 20 years, and it makes me cry how many of them do a great job at their passion, the reason they stated the business, but a lousy job of making money from it.
A simple analogy.
When you drive around a bit, you use petrol. Everyone knows that when the gauge gets low, you need to put more petrol in, or the car will stop. Basic common sense, but how many use the same sort of common sense with the basic gauges in their business, and stop now and again to look at the levels, and recharge when necessary? Nobody can make you look at the gauge, and take the necessary action, you have to do that yourself, just like driving into a petrol station before the car stops.
There are four really simple questions to be asked that represent the “gauges” of your business, they represent the foundations of profitability and longevity. For many small business owners, motivated by the passion of what they are doing, it is too easy to ignore the basics of what will build the foundations of the busness that will allow them to keep doing what they love.
Take this road at your peril.
However, the good news is that much of this can be automated, and outsourced, so you can spend a few minutes a week, and be sure that the foundations are in place.
So, to the four questions.
- Will you have enough cash to pay your bills? Many small business owners just look at the balance in their bank account, and answer “yes” or “no” to that question. Mobile banking apps have made it even easier, but that is not enough. Cash is the oxygen of business, cut it off, and you die, very quickly. You should know if there will be enough cash to pay the GST bill in 2 months, or the long service leave entitlement of Suzie the receptionist in three months when she goes to Europe with her husband. For that you need to track your cash-flow, the money you anticipate coming in, and going out over the next three months. The formula for a cash flow forecast is pretty simple, and takes only a small amount of time, but can save your arse.
- Pick the period. I recommend a rolling 3 month forecast, updated weekly.
- List all the cash you expect to come in, and when you expect it in. Not sales, cash coming in. Similarly, list what cash will be going out, and when, as you pay the bills that come in. This is the reality of the cash flow through your business, just like the petrol flow to your car engine driven by the mechanics of the motor as it turns over.
- Simply subtract the cash out from cash in, and carry the total over to the following week, “rinse and repeat” for every week in the rolling three months. A very simple spreadsheet will do it for you, so long as the numbers are put in, either from your accounting system, or for micro businesses, from the pile on your desk/in your inbox, that you often manage to ignore.
- If you have a cash shortfall forecast at any time, you have the time to do something about it. Ever gone to the bank and asked for an extension to your overdraft activated tomorrow? They will laugh at you, but go to them and ask for an extension because you will need it in 6 weeks, and chances are they will give it to you.
2. Are you making a profit? Pretty basic question that many small business owners cannot answer. To answer the question you need an “Income Statement” or as it is often called a “Profit & Loss” statement. This should be done monthly, and as with the cash flow statement, is essential to maintaining business health, and to continue the petrol analogy is a bit like knowing that your petrol gauge is accurate, and that there is not a leak in the tank, or the youngster down the road is not sneaking in at night to keep his tank full at the expense of yours. Again, the formula is pretty simple.
- Total booked sales less expenses incurred. Sales are pretty simple, although I like to track gross sales, before any discounts, and record discounts as an expense.
- Expenses come in two forms, fixed expenses, those that happen irrespective of sales, like rent, salaries, insurance, and many others. Secondly variable costs, those that occur that enable you to make the sale such as discounts, commissions, freight, advertising, and usually most importantly, the cost of the goods you have sold, which could be manufacturing costs, or some sort of acquisition costs, commonly called “Cost of goods sold” (COGS).
- Simplistically the formula is: Sales – COGS – Variable costs – fixed costs = Profit. When you do an income statement monthly, and build up a bit of history, it becomes very easy to see what needs to be changed, and the impact that even modest changes can have on the profitability of your business. As with the cash flow, a simple spreadsheet can offer great insights and direction. What happens to your profit if you increase your sales by 5%, or decrease your COGS 2.5% when you are working with a 40% margin? Easy to calculate, and then you set out to do what is necessary to move the percentages around, although sales always remains at 100%.
3. Are you creating or destroying wealth? This question is more longer term that the P&L or cash flow statements, and is often done just twice a year. It has less immediacy than either, although if you go to your bank because you will be short of cash in 6 weeks, they will always want the most recent balance sheet. Partly this is hard wired into banker DNA, and partly it is reassurance that the longer term health of the business means they will get their money back, with interest. Again, the formula is pretty simple.
- When you start, you in effect make a loan to the business, and in return take equity in, or ownership, of the business.
- The business then uses those funds to make sales, pay all the business costs, borrow more money to operate, buy/lease equipment, and hopefully create the wealth that can deliver an return on your initial investment.
- The in principal formula is: (Fixed assets + liquid assets) – (long term liabilities + short term liabilities) = Equity. It is not usually expressed this way in financial statements because equity is technically a liability of the company, but this simpler way is easier to see and understand for those “number-phobics” out there. It is also complicated by all sorts of differing treatments of all the variables that can occur, such as the treatment of depreciation, and how much of Suzies long service leave has been brought to account over time. Perhaps the best example to use is the equity you have in your house. Your equity is the difference between what you owe on the mortgage, and what the house is worth if you sold it, which is rarely what you paid for it.
4. Do you have a plan? George Patton once said “unless you have a plan you are just a tourist” which is absolutely true. If you do not know where you are, or where you are going, any route can get you there. Having a plan is so essential, it is left off many lists, and to many others, it is just an exercise in extrapolation, which although easy, is not what it is all about. Good planning is all about the examination of the assumptions that underlay your business, the assumptions about costs, customers, markets, and competition. At the very least, it offers as my old marketing mentor, Jim Hagler of Harvard used to say, (or rather rumble) “at least you know the point from which you departed”
Most of the help you will need that shows you how to do all this stuff is available on Youtube, and all electronic accounting systems, no matter how simple, have as a core part of their reporting the first three reports. They just need some setting up, and once done, so long as they are maintained, will continue to deliver the numbers essential to the insights needed to make profits.
The last, you need to do in a much more hands on manner. Whilst there are many templates which can be of value, there is no template I have ever seen that will create a plan by itself. You need to do the numbers and research, make the enquiries, incorporate the testing that offers the chance to learn, and then most importantly, implement, measure and adjust.
The response to these questions offers an insight into the strength of the foundations of a business. We all know that any structure lasts better on a solid foundation, and no matter how fancy the edifice, it will not last on quicksand.
To build a really solid foundation, you may need the assistance of someone who has done it all many times, and knows the right questions to ask.