Cash flow is the lifeblood of every business, and it is particularly critical for small and mid-size businesses, as these companies often have less free cash flow to help them cover unexpected costs, delays, work shortages, or their growth.
Before we talk about good cash flow management and share a few tips to improve cash flow at your business, let’s back up a bit. What is cash flow, and why is it so important?
What is Cash Flow?
If you’re not entirely sure what we mean when we say “cash flow,” don’t worry—you’re not alone. Cash flow is simply the money coming in and out of your business. A positive cash flow means you can pay all of your company’s overhead costs, debt payments, and other expenses, still have some money left over in the bank account and hopefully provide a buffer against any future issues or challenges. If you have positive cash flow, you can reinvest in your business, take advantage of growth opportunities, and weather financial downturns with less stress.
Cash flow comes in three forms: operating, investing, and financing. We’ll focus on operating cash flow, which is the money your business makes from selling goods or services. Basically, the money your company makes doing whatever it is your company does. Financial cash flow shows the money you use to fund your business, including debt, equity, and dividends. Investing cash flow is money created from investment opportunities.
How Does Cash Flow Management Affect My Business?
Here’s an easy question: Do you know how much cash you have in your business each and every day, what the expenses of the business are that week and how much cash you need in order to manage the week’s needs? If you answered NO to all or any part of that then this is especially for you! (Checking your bank account at any given moment to determine how much cash is there is NOT sufficient to give a Yes to this question.) A report given to you weekly or daily as the business owner is key to your cash flow management success.
Managing your cash flow sources and the consequent uses of that cash can literally make or break your business. A U.S. Bank study showed that 82 percent of small businesses fail because of poor cash flow management. We cannot over-emphasize the importance of being able to estimate, track, and forecast the money coming in and out of your business, especially if you are planning to grow.
Prolonged cash flow shortages can lead to insurmountable debt, while short but chronic shortages can lead to stricter payment terms with vendors and lenders, who know longer trust your ability to pay. It can also impact your company’s credit score, which means banks will be less likely to lend to you when you need funds to grow … or survive.
Cash Flow Management Tips for Small Businesses
Hire an accountant and likely a bookkeeper too. If this is the only thing you take away from this article, it would still be a valuable read. Hiring an accountant is THAT important to your business. Don’t rely on Quickbooks or your friend’s mother-in-law, unless she is a CPA. You need a trusted professional who can help you navigate your cash flow statements, ensure you maximize your cash flow, and help you craft your business growth strategy. If you are saying to yourself, “I can’t spend the money on an accountant or they are too expensive” then you either need a new accountant because the one you have is not helping you, or you are being penny wise and pound foolish.
Know your numbers. The first step toward better cash flow management is to know your numbers so you can perform a cash flow analysis. “Know your numbers” may sound cliché, but it is so critical to your success or failure. You have to know what costs you have in your business—the fixed costs (salaries, rent, debt service, insurance, vehicle payments, etc.) and the variable costs associated to your products or services.
If you use an accounting software—or even better, if you work with a CPA like we mentioned above—you should be able to get an accurate breakdown of your cash flow sources and uses in a cash flow statement.
We all go into business for a completely different reason than “know your numbers” but that does not mean we get to ignore them. If you do your business will most likely fail despite your best intentions.
Estimate, track, and forecast. By looking at a cash flow statement, you can see if you are accurately marking up your products or services to cover the overhead expenses of running your business. Here’s how you determine the accurate markup:
- Add the fixed cost of all recurring monthly expenses to get the total monthly cost. Multiply by 12 to get the Total Annual Expense of those fixed costs.
- Determine what the estimated Total Annual Revenues will be for the year.
- Divide the Total Annual Expenses by the Total Annual Revenues to get a percentage.
- That percentage is how much of each dollar you sell will need to go toward paying your fixed overhead expenses. If you add that percentage to every product, project, or bid you will break even and have no profit at the end of the year. What amount or percentage you add above that is what your profit will be.
The next step is to track your cash flow. This is especially true in businesses where costs can change. We specialize in working with construction and manufacturing companies, and their project costs can shift quickly and often. The same could be true for a restaurant, if the prices of ingredients suddenly skyrocket due to a shortage. Tracking your cash flow on a daily, weekly or monthly basis (depending on the nature of cash flow in your company) helps you stay ahead of any potential cash flow issues.
Finally, when you have a history of cash flow tracking and analyses under your belt, you can start to forecast or predict your cash flow, which is the key to making an effective cash flow plan for growth. You now have the ability to run your business and make good decisions in the moment but also proactively. Decisions like when to buy new equipment, bulk order supplies when there is a good deal, take an owner’s distribution, hire a new employee, give bonuses, etc.
Have an emergency fund. Free cash flow is cash that you do not have to spend on overhead and that you could re-invest into the business. This is the ultimate indicator of financial health. Most accounting professionals recommend you keep three to six months of working capital in reserve. If this seems daunting, start small. Sit down with your cash flow analysis and determine what percentage of your cash can be saved. Then continue to save that percentage even as you grow.
Negotiate terms with suppliers. If you need something, you NEED to ASK for it. Remember that the customer/supplier relationship works both ways. You need their products; they need you to stay in business and keep paying them for product. If you need credit or extended payment terms, you need to ask for it. Get them invested in your success by sharing how the new terms will help you grow and order even more.
Get paid on time. The best way to avoid a cash flow shortage is to get paid when you expected to. In construction, the wait to get paid is often 60 days or more. One easy way to keep cash flowing in is to create a process around submitting invoices so that they are correct and on-time. It can also be helpful to setup reminder emails to clients if you have extended terms of payment.
Why Do I Need a Cash Flow Plan for Growth?
Growth phases are one of the most exciting but also most vulnerable times in a company’s life. Having a cash flow forecast built on solid cash flow tracking will help you determine how much extra you need in order to meet your growth goals. If you plan to grow by 25% next year, a cash flow plan will help you break down what that growth will do to your overhead and other expenses, and how much of your free cash flow can be utilized to cover the cost of growth.
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