From the Blog
How Financial Routines can generate big “marginal” gains in cash flow
The success of British cycling under Dave Brailsford is attributed to his relentless, relentless, relentless pursuit of even the smallest marginal improvements. As a result the team benefited from what he describes as “the aggregation of marginal gains”. By this he means that if you improve every aspect of an activity by even a small amount then cumulatively this will add up to a big improvement. This approach could be applied to any area of your life – including weight loss, personal finance and certainly running your business. So my big idea for you in this article is rather than hunting for that “quantum leap” that consultants usually advocate to boost your cash flow – look for the small improvements which made consistently over time will really help your cash flow. The first step to finding these gains is to develop a financial routine. Here are my tips for some key areas to build in to your financial routine. Daily routines Invoicing – every day you delay getting out your invoice is a days delay in your cash flow. Delays in invoicing also increase the chance of getting the invoice wrong by missing out items. Sometimes invoicing takes time – even so get into the habit of at least preparing a draft invoice daily and then weekly have a finance meeting scheduled with yourself where the invoices are finalised and sent out. Expenses – again delays dealing with expenses lead to receipts being lost – and the longer you leave it the bigger the pile becomes and the more daunting. Look at using software like Receipt Bank to capture expenses digitally. Weekly Routines Credit control – the most disappointing aspect of business is how reluctant customers are to pay – weekly you need to review your “aged debtors” (aka “aged receivables”) – this is a report from your accounting system that lists customers, the amount over due, and whether it is 30, 60 or 90+ days overdue. Send out reminders, call, and if needs be put on hold. Invoicing – finish those invoices and get them out “the door”. Agreements – more cash is lost in my opinion through lack of documenting business agreements than any other reason – with email there is no excuse – at least send a confirmation of key terms agreed. Bank Accounts – check all bank accounts for the balance and transactions going through the accounts. Trading – review sales and enquiries. Are these tracking your business plan assumptions – if not assess impact sooner rather than later. Monthly Routines “Board Meeting” – diarise a monthly board meeting – say the last Friday of the month and set aside 2-3 hours. As well as your regular weekly items, you should review your profit & loss report for the month and year-to-date and your cash flow forecast. If you are not tracking your budget assumptions, the cash flow will need updating. Review Expenses –– are you tracking budget? Are there any expenses you can reduce? Any suppliers you can start renegotiating with. Pricing – most businesses don’t charge enough for what they do and this is exacerbated by not having a routine for price review. Consider what you can do to make your offer more profitable – it doesn’t have to be an actual price rise – eg. what about a smaller portion? Or a different way of charging. If you don’t follow these routines on a regular basis it probably won’t make much difference – in the short term. But as time goes on, you will see the gap growing between the amount of cash in your bank account and what there could be. So schedule time for your financial routines to start generating big “marginal” improvements to your cash flow. Johnny Martin FCA is an experienced Finance Director who now passionately explains business numbers and jargon. He is a partner at the British Library Business & IP Centre where he runs regular workshops and he is the author of “Understanding Your Business Finances”.
Understanding the types of Profit
We all know the expression “Cash is King” – but often people forget today’s cash is driven by yesterday’s decisions on pricing, “ingredients” and running costs, all of which determine profit. The Profit and loss report gives you the information to track and manage your sales and expenses and help you run a profitable business. But when it comes to looking at your Profit & Loss (P&L) report what are all those different kinds of profit? – Gross profit, Operating profit, Net profit and then your accountant might talk about the Bottom Line – is this before or after tax? And then investors might ask you about EBIT and EBITDA… lets get demystifying! First up a quick caveat – for some bizarre reason, some of the terms I am going to explain are defined slightly differently by different accountants and also whether you are UK or US based – so don’t be phased by this and there is no need to feel embarrassed to ask for clarification. Here is a typical summary of your P&L report “Standard Terms” Explanation Sales Sales invoiced in the month – NOT cash received and excluding VAT if you are VAT registered less Cost of Goods Sold The “ingredients” costs ie bread/mayo etc in a sandwich businesS = Gross Profit Think of Gross Profit as your value added – this is what you are in business to create ie in a sandwich business you took bread, boiled eggs, horseradish & anchovies and turned them into a high value sandwich – my favourite! less Overheads The fixed costs of running the business ie rent, marketing, office costs = Operating Profit Operating profit which is before interest and tax, helps you compare profit between periods irrespective of the level of borrowing, interest rates or tax. Also known as EBIT (earnings before tax and interest) less interest = Profit before tax Also known as PBT less Tax = Profit after Tax Aka “the bottom line” Let me explain the types of profit Gross Profit – this is sales less cost of goods sold and represents the “value add” that you are keeping. This is at the heart of your business model and your job is to push sales and cost of goods sold as far apart as possible but consistent with giving customers a “value proposition”. It is the Gross Profit generated that will cover overheads and make a profit. Often especially creative businesses do too much “polishing” of their product ie spend too much on ingredients (because they love it) – as a result they lose value and give it away to customers. Operating Profit is Gross Profit less Overheads. It shows the profit of operations – before interest and tax. It is also known as EBIT – earnings before interest & tax. EBITDA is your EBIT with depreciation and any amortisation added back. They are added back because they are both just accounting entries not reflecting cash – so EBITDA can then ne used as an approximation for cash flow by investors. You will also come across the term margin in relation to profit as in Gross Profit margin and net profit margin. What this does is express the profit as a % of sales to help track movements in underlying profitability. So for example: Month 1 Month 2 Sales £400 £500 Less Cost of Sales £100 £150 = Gross Profit £300 £350 Gross Profit Margin 75% (£300/£400×100) 70% (£350/£500×100) By using the % you can see that while the amount of gross profit in £ has gone up the profitability has gone down from 75% to 70% – maybe this was planned but maybe this is because of inefficiency in portion control or maybe a member of staff is pinching cash from the till ie sales were really £600 in month 2… That covers the terms – so the big question is what should you be looking at? – all of them and on a regular basis! The Gross Profit will show you how profitable you are at producing your good or service. The Gross Profit Margin (%) will help show the trend in efficiency. The Operating profit or EBIT shows how good your housekeeping has been – keeping your overheads as low as possible to retain as much of that Gross Profit as you can. And the key thing is to get regular management accounts so you can pick up issues as soon as possible. If the only time you look at the accounts is at the end of the year – start doing it more regularly and see how the improved profit management flows into CASH!
Why a realistic Sales Forecast is crucial for your Cash Flow
If there is one crucial piece of financial management you must do at whatever stage you are in your business – you must prepare and regularly update a cash flow forecast for at least the next 9-12 months. And the most important line in the cash flow is the sales assumptions – being up or down on sales will have a direct and possibly major impact on cash. Given the uncertainty around sales forecasting it is tempting to say why bother. I can understand this feeling. However you will find the process of undertaking a sales forecasting exercise incredibly useful and later I will discuss some techniques to help you. If you are starting up then all the clichés around “taking twice as long and costing twice as much” are sadly true. Getting customers and making sales is the toughest and actually most expensive activity the business does. You need to understand your sales cycle – how many contacts does a customer need before they buy (at least 4 usually) or how many visitors do you need to the website to make one sale. If you are starting up, you may not have any historical information to extrapolate from there are people with experience who can offer you realistic guidance on your assumptions. And documenting your assumptions or metrics as they are called will help you set your marketing/selling priorities. This will give you targets, month by month to aim for. This will also act as an early warning in case your business model isn’t working. And if you are already well established you still need to forecast to minimise the danger of over trading. Over-trading is when you expand too rapidly and run out of working capital (because money is tied up with customers and in stock less what you your suppliers). This is exactly what happened to children’s rainwear business Baggers – they launched, and grew the business to £1m+ sales but without enough working capital to fund this expansion Here are my Top tips to help you with your sales forecasting. Break your forecast into blocks. The first block is distribution channels – this is how you reach your customers. For example a skin care company might do online sales and via the high street, so you would separately forecast online sales and high street. Then for each channel forecast each main product category and do this using quantity x price. By analyzing each element you are building confidence (and investor confidence because they can follow your story). The focus initially is very much looking at the quantities and what drives the quantities. For an online freemium business model you would need to make an assumption about what % of visitors take the free offer and what % then go on to the paid service (usually quite low!) and don’t forget churn – the lifespan of your customers. As part of your sales forecast do bear in mind seasonality eg August holidays and crucially the rate of build up of sales. It is a common mistake to underestimate how long it takes to build up sales, especially when you are an unknown brand. The biggest strength of the US economy is its customers who are willing to give new products a go. In Europe a new customer typically takes 4 contacts before buying (maybe less on the internet) but its still a big cost/resource that you mustn’t underestimate. This is why investors pay such a lot of attention to the marketing section of your business plan which sets out how you are going to build that bridge to your customers. Finally always do a sensitivity a “what if” – what if sales are up 10%, what if they are down 10% – what is the impact going to be. So having constructed your first draft forecast what’s next? Well you need to “realism” test it. You can do this by networking with people in your industry, finding out about the growth rates of their companies. I have found people are very happy to talk about their business – especially with a bit of flattery. But what if your product is really a first, well you can look at growth rates of companies selling to similar customers at similar price points eg in fashion how long did it take LK Bennett to get their 10th shop? It’s all about realism and reasonableness – this is the objective for your sales forecast – to be reasonable. And whatever you do, if you are approaching investors, never ever describe your forecast as conservative. They have just seen too many “conservative” forecasts missed by a mile…you are aimimg for realistic.
“Thank you for your brilliant jam packed day on finance at LCC. Believe it or not I came home and began sorting things out straight away, as tired as I was. Much to be done! As I mentioned to you I work at the Royal British Society of Sculptors as the Education Projects Manager and organise professional development seminars for sculptors on various aspects around making a living. It would be wonderful if you could lead the seminar on finance coming up.”
“Thank you very much to the connection to your film. It is really very good and I agree with you about the necessity for training people to understand this stuff by taking the mystery out of it. To be honest there are a lot of people who are already supposed to be in business who could use a simple refresher on many of these points.”
“I really enjoy your classes. You cover the important topics that we need to learn step by step, and like Weronika said you add a human touch to what would otherwise be numbers numbers and numbers.”
“This enterprise and financial management in cultural production has been an enjoyable and high level learning experience and I feel that the method and techniques related to finance, I learned on the unit helped me to make this business plan much better than if I had tried to develop such a project without the theory.“
“I looked through your videos – they look good and the principle behind it is definitely useful, and I think there could even be an idea of EMCA students viewing them before starting the EMCA finance unit, so could be a great way of getting up to speed.”
“I thought the course was fabulous because I actually understood the basic principles of cash flow, balance sheet and profit and loss. The course was taught in a less formal way than one would in a financial training course which made it easier to understand to learn. Overall, I really liked the course, I found it very helpful and it’s been really great of you to upload all the documents, excel models after each class. I really learned a lot and enjoyed it!”
Internet of Things conference
The Numbers Coach in Oxford speaking at a Nominet sponsored Internet of Things conference
Accelerator London Summer LaunchPad
Having fun with the numbers with particpants at the London Accelerator Summer LaunchPad
School Enterprise Day
Downside School Enterprise Day led by the Numbers Coach. Students worked in teams to develop a business idea to help local charity Harrys Hydro. The winning idea was to set up an open air cinema screened on the Abbey wall.