Do I have enough cash to……………….?
This is one the 4 fundamental questions for small business survival, and is the one I hear far too often. It is all to do with how much cash is available at any given time to pay the bills.
It is almost inexplicable to me that many operators of small business do not understand their cash flow, how it works, how it can be managed, and how to leverage it. After all, it is their lifeblood.
The sad reality was brought home again a week or so ago talking to a tradie I met casually who was hurting badly because a developer he had subbied for over many ears was not paying him, and he in turn was not paying his bills, as he had used up his overdraft. He was in effect funding the developer, and ultimately the receiver, and seemed unlikely to get any of his money back.
A common occurrence and all too easy to address with a bit of planning.
There are some pretty simple things that can be done to assist in the management of cash, but like all things it takes a little bit of work up front, and a disciplined process
The steps to a positive cash flow are simple, if you make them a part of your routine, you can follow them with little effort, although at first, it can be a bit confronting.
- Have robust, enforceable and explicit terms of trade. For anything that requires credit terms to be extended, make sure you have a signed agreement that specifics all aspects of the terms under which you agree to provide your goods and services. These terms are an enforceable contract, and in the event it is necessary, is actionable. There are templates available that can be personalised for your needs and used without cost or with just a small charge. Some service providers such as EC Credit Control will assist in the preparation, as will your bank, although your bank has a vested interest in lending you money, not making what you have work harder.
- Do credit checks. By giving credit, you are effectively lending someone your money. It makes sense to check if they have any history of fraud or default, which can be done easily for a modest fee. You pay for access to a database that is in effect a credit footprint of everyone who has applied for and been given credit, and the data includes their credit history, and any outstanding judgements. Veda is one of the agencies that provides this information as a service, there are several, most banks will provide the service for a fee, often they wholesale services like Veda. Often if you choose to outsource your debtor management in some way, these sorts of checks are a part of the service.
- Issue invoices immediately and follow up politely but persistently and in a highly predictable manner. Most businesses wait until they receive an invoice before they initiate any consideration of a credit period, let alone get around to paying, so the sooner you issue the invoice, the earlier you have a chance to be paid. A client of mine about two years ago instituted a process of sending a polite “thanks in advance” for payment on the invoice due in a couple of days. He thanks his clients for the expected payment, indicating being paid on time is one of the ways he manages to maintain the high value he is able to deliver. It had a significant impact on his debtor days, and served a marketing purpose to highlight the quality of the service he provided, and as it was highly automated. After the initial set-up and a few teething problems, the process became virtually automatic, and a boost to his business.
- Keep the credit period ASAP. In this case, the acronym is As Short As Possible. Generally the negotiation on credit terms will take place at the beginning of the relationship, and that is the best time. Make it as short as possible, I always advise starting with 7 days from invoice date, be very happy with 21, and if it is in your interests, give a bit more, but if you start with 30 days from the end of the month, watch your sales bunch into the beginning of the month, which effectively gives a customer up to 60 days to pay, before the invoice is overdue, and you can start chasing payment. This is a gap you are funding, bankrolling your customers, and generally people in business are not there to be a philanthropist, leave that to Bill Gates.
- Do a weekly rolling 13 week cash forecast. This is a simple exercise, but knowing what is coming at you offers the opportunity to manage it with the least pain, ignoring it can be terminal. Generally this cannot be automated, but most bookkeepers and service providers can do it simply, although most would say monthly is sufficient. I strongly recommend weekly for small businesses.
One of the more innovative automations I have seen is the one noted above, but most of the basic bookkeeping routines are now highly automatable via mobile connections into software that can manage all the recording and invoicing processes. For a tradie, assembly and issue of an invoice via email against a signed and dated acceptance of the cost can be done on site the moment a job is complete. No paperwork to end a long day. Automating can cost a bit to set up, but the expense is well worth it.
Most parts of the process can be easily outsourced if you choose not to do it yourself. Think of this outsourcing cost as insurance, and the cost of buying back a bit of your own time and peace of mind.
- Book-keeping. There are many book-keeping services available, and whilst they may vary in quality and cost, it is pretty easy these days to find one you are comfortable with, who provide the mix of services you require.
- Debtor and debt management. There are many service combinations possible from the straight invoice financing where you in effect sell your invoices to a finance broker who then owns the debt, to more relationship sympathetic arrangements where a third party undertakes to be your accounts receivable function, and often do some of the risk assessment functions noted above. Selling your debt, or “factoring” still smells of desperation, but outsourcing accounts receivable is pretty sensible and often very cost effective.
Most understand the concept of leverage when it comes to moving a physically heavy object, but have never thought of it in relation to their business, and particularly their two most crucial resources, their time and their cash.
- Closely managing terms and collections so that your average debtors is shorter than your average creditors means you are collectively enjoying having your creditors fund your business. However, I recommend paying your bills as they come due, as a history of reliability can pay big dividends when things suddenly go pear-shaped.
- Inventory. In many businesses the greatest consumer of cash is inventory, and closely managing it can save considerable sums. For a retailer like a fruit and veggie market, they take most of their revenue by cash or credit card, for which they get paid within 24 hours, but often pay for their stock on 21 or 30 days, by which time they have turned the stock over several times. Lovely. Measuring stock turn is a great metric if you have inventory.
Finally, there is a further measure not usually recommended that I particularly favour, Net Cash Consumption or NCC. It is a simple measure you can apply over any period, simply the difference between cash in and cash out over a time period. For small businesses I usually exclude capital items, so it is a measure of trading cash generation, or destruction. If the measure is positive, that is a good start, if it is negative for any extended period, trouble. I usually recommend a rolling 3 month measure, short enough to be sensitive, long enough to accommodate the operational vagaries that occur like paying the receptionist long service leave. Adding it as a graph on the bottom of your cash flow forecast automates it. Easy.
If you would like more information, or the opportunity to discuss any of this, just give me a call. The Croydon Park Business Chamber (Sydney) hosted an event in June 2014 organised by Franze events which was an expansion of the ideas in the post, with a heap of Q&A. It was well attended, and of great value to those who were there, several of whom have implemented the idea of weekly cash flow forecasting for a rolling 13 weeks, and they tell me they are less stressed, and have more in the bank as a result.