Notes from yesterday’s talk at Finance from the Start a virtual conference by BlackStarLaunch.
The title is inspired by AVC blog post about lifestyle businesses. I agree that term always felt like I should be able to run my business from a beach somewhere; whereas, a “cashflow business” resonates with my experience of managing a small business.
Everything I know about finance I learned from real world experience. Most of my career was spent as part of high growth businesses, where an initial investment in product development turned into revenue for shareholders, through company acquisition or public offering. In this talk, I shared what I learned from running a software consulting business for 5 years, which I grew to almost 2 million in revenue.
Cash flow is the movement of money in and out of your business
Different kinds of reports that help you manage your business
- Balance Sheet
- Cash Flow Statement
- Sales & Marketing, Pricing, etc. (important, but not this talk)
- Legal Stuff – you need a contract for any money in
- Keeping Track: Cash Flow Forecast
When you sign a contract, find out how you will get paid. At this point everyone is happy and you have fresh contact with all of the business folks
So you ask them,
- who do I send the invoice to? if its an email address like firstname.lastname@example.org, find out who is on the other end of that email address
- when I send an invoice who needs to approve it?
- do you cut checks on certain days or certain weeks? or do you pay with other methods? don’t find out too late that they only pay by ACH or billpay.com and then you have to walk thru a lengthy sign up process. If you can set up direct deposit, that will save you time and hassle.
Then when inevitably, you don’t get paid on time, you know who to call. Some companies have policies of not paying bill until after they are due. A personal relationship with the folks in accounting can make the difference where they pay you on time.
Before you send your invoice, make sure the approver knows the work you’ve done.
Payment upfront: some people will tell you “no one does that” its not true. You may need to build a reputation to make this happen. Note that you can often set expectations based on past performance, even if it’s not exactly the same kind of work.
I had a policy not to start work until the contract is signed, and in general I would advise that everyone do that. Of course, you will spend time with your prospective customer, that’s sales or business development, that’s an investment into your future relationship.
Create a cash flow forecast and review it every two weeks or monthly, or whatever cycle your invoices are. Then you can easily see who you need to follow-up with on payment and make plans based on expected cash balance in the future.
Question from the audience: As a solo founder should you get an accountant? if so, how do you find one?
Unless you alreay know how to do all of it yourself, I think should absolutely get accounting help, but also understand what they are doing for you. For a small business, you won’t need a CPA, but a bookkeeper can be helpful. Anyone can learn these skills, but my personal opinion is that you should focus on what you do best, and what is core to your business — focus on learning what you need to know for the latter. Get referrals from people who run (or have run) business like yours. Talk to 3-5 people before you pick one. Don’t worry about finding the “best.” Find the best fit for you. Different people have different styles.
In addition to a good lawyer, you should have people you can talk to regularly about your business. Put together an advisory board. They don’t need to be on your website (though that can help your credibility and reputation). They don’t have to even know they are on your advisory board — it can be that informal. Put together a list of 5-7 people with different skills that complement your own and talk to each of them every month or three about how your business is going. When you are a new founder, there are so many questions you don’t even know to ask. These folks will help you see a more complete picture, and make you realize there are options you would never guess you have.
Find a mentor (or two). Someone who will look out for you and proactively think about your next steps, as an individual, and what you need for professional growth. You are not your company. Schedule regular meetings to talk.
Money Out: Managing and Growing Your Business
Figure out how much money you need in the bank to manage your business. This will depend on the kind of contracts you write and how your sales come in. Plan for someone to miss a payment, that large deal not to land or other unexpectedly dip in your sales revenue.
At Blazing Cloud, And we needed 3x our burn rate in the bank for our business to work. We had contracts where clients paid 1 month to 1/2 up front. Net 14. Know what you need. Also know your risk tolerance, adding cash to extend the amount of time you can cover the unexpected.
Every business has its slow and busy times, know yours. Expect that no new business is signed between Thanksgiving and Jan 2. I pretend those dates don’t exist, and would plan to have money in the bank and try to get any new contract signed by early November.
Most banks won’t give a loan to a business that is less than two years old — it will take you that long to understand your seasonal ups and downs. Summers are slow for closing deals. What would take me five weeks over the summer, I could often get done in three days in September.
Consider Investing in Growth
Growth is a choice. Often you can invest in the health of your business without increasing staff, and if you do decide to increase staff there are many ways to grow.
There are two basic ways to hire: 1099 contractors and W2 employees; however, there are more than two ways to use these approaches. You can have hourly employees that work more or less depending on how busy you are. You can pay lower salaries and offer profit sharing or bonuses.
If you are successful and in a position to grow, think about the job you want, why you decided to start your business. You are in a position to create the situation you want by hiring for skills and interests that you don’t have. Also, know that you never know exactly what it’s going to be like. Even if you think you know exactly what you want when you start, it may be different from what you expect when you get there. Be open to the adventure.