Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Show Me the Cash!

I remember the moment well.  I had just reviewed the P&L and things were looking good.  The business was healthy.  Sales were up.  Expenses were down.  Projections were being hit.  Everything was moving in the right direction.  I smiled. 

And then, our Controller walked into my office and said: (numbers fictitious)

“We have a problem.  I have $40k of bills on my desk and payroll is due this week, and we only have $80k in the bank.”

I thought of a phrase I’d heard a thousand times, and at this moment, I finally understood it:

A quick look at the balance sheet showed a monstrous Accounts Receivable number.  Yes, sales were up and expenses were down, as the P&L showed.  But people weren’t paying us on time.  Revenue reported as sales wasn’t showing up as cash in our bank account. 

Thankfully we were at a stage with the company where we could weather the storm.   We have always been diligent about keeping the company debt-free so it’s easy enough for us to get a credit line from a bank or a short-term loan from investors if need be.

However, many early stage companies don’t have this luxury.  Cash in the bank is their life blood.  Run out and you’re done.  You can have a stack of purchase orders and a P&L that makes you feel like a rock star, but without cash you’ve got nothing.  Seems simple enough.  But, in my experience, it’s often overlooked.  And I’ve been guilty myself.

In my situation, cash flow comes from the royalties paid by our franchisees.  We establish our operating budget based on them.  If franchisees are late with their payments to us, we have a problem.  Often, it’s the result of a trickle-down effect – the franchisees’ customers are late in paying them so they’re late in paying us.  The cash flow problem runs downstream.

Which is why I encourage entrepreneurs, franchise candidates and early stage business owners to do two things:
  1. Start with more cash than you think – like 2-3x
  2. Establish a culture with customers of prepayment or 30 day term maximums (with a sizable down payment) from the outset and be ruthless about enforcing it
We were way too laid back in the beginning about Accounts Receivable.  Our mentality was – “we want our franchisees to know that we have their backs and if that means delaying a payment to help them out, so be it.”  The problem was that the effect was the exact opposite of our intent.  It created debt-ridden franchisees, put the company as a whole at risk, and penalized the franchisees who were paying on time as they didn’t get all the services/products they otherwise would have had we had more money to invest in projects and infrastructure.

We’ve been working for years to turn around this mentality.  But culture is hard to change.  It takes a lot of time and energy.  It’s much better to establish a good one from the outset.  My suggestion for how to do so is threefold:

1) If you’re launching a company, start with as much cash as possible.  Make sure to add a “cash flow” line to your pro forma to see how much you’ll need.  Then double it.

2) If you’re in revenue and signing up customers, get them to pay as much as possible up front and be adamant that they meet your financing terms.

3) And if you’re in the throes of running a small business, give cash flow as much (if not more) attention than sales and income.

Because at the end of the day, cash really is king.  And it’s the type of lesson you don't want to learn the hard way.