Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why the Bank Account Fools Most Entrepreneurs

Business is about cash flow. Whoever coined the phrase “Cash is King,” must have been in business. But an entrepreneur’s bank account can sometimes be the most misleading source of information about how the business is really doing.

Your profit and your cash will almost never equal each other in the same period. This is one of the most difficult concepts for small business owners and entrepreneurs to understand. Here are two examples to help you understand the difference between the two.

Let’s imagine you start your business and in the first month your sales explode. You generate $100,000 of sales and you are amazed. Your gross margin on your sales is 50%, meaning your gross profit is $50,000. Since you are a new business with very little overhead expenses, you only spend $10,000 in this category. Your profit for the month is $40,000. But does that mean you have $40,000 of profit in the bank? Most likely not.

While you were having this great month, you spent $60,000 on overhead and your costs of goods sold. Assuming you paid for all of these during the month, your cash outflow was $60,000. But what about your cash inflow? Assuming you extend net 30 terms to your customers, you didn’t collect any of your sales for the month during the month. So your inflow is ZERO. The bottom-line of this example is this: $40,000 of profit, but a negative $60,000 in cash flow. Profit does not equal cash!

Perhaps the biggest challenge that this situation presents is that while you celebrate your fantastic first month in business, you can’t figure out why all of your checks are bouncing. An additional challenge is that the you may actually think something is wrong with the business and make a bad decision as a result.

For the second example, let’s assume month 2 of your business has sales of only $10,000. Assuming a 50% gross margin and $10,000 in overhead expenses like last month, this business will post a net loss of $5,000 for the month. But what about cash?

Well, assuming all the customers pay on time, you collect the $100,000 of sales from last month, and you pay your cost of goods sold and overhead expenses of $15,000. Your net cash flow for the period is a positive $85,000. So, the company recognizes a loss but nets $85,000 in cash flow. Again, profit does not equal cash and the bank account balance is at $25,000 at the end of month two.

The biggest challenge with this scenario is you look at the bank account balance and feel great. If you fail to realize you need to improve next month’s performance you will quickly erode all of your profit from the first month.

Most entrepreneurs will, at some point, ask a version of the following question when they are looking at their financial statements: “How can this report say I lost $20,000 last month when I know I have $50,000 in the bank today?” This question is usually followed with: “This report must be wrong.”

Knowing that cash and profit almost never equal each other in the same period, the fact that the two are different potentially validates the accuracy of the financial statements. Understanding the dynamic difference between profit and cash will empower entrepreneurs to improve both their profit and cash. And it can also be the catalyst to correctly forecast their company’s cash flow.

How can entrepreneurs best understand the difference between their profit and cash? The best way to accomplish this is a thorough review and analysis of the company’s monthly financial statements (which should include, at a minimum, a balance sheet, income statement, and statement of cash flow) by a CFO Partner. In addition, the exercise of forecasting these statements will help validate and invalidate your assumptions on a monthly basis until you have a firm grasp on all of the moving parts in the company’s cash flow.

Should entrepreneurs look at their bank account balance regularly? Sure, so long as they agree to not be fooled by the balance.