Everyone's talking about the fiscal cliff. Please. Let's talk about small business' real problems.
I am responsible for reviewing new contracts with our clients and I recently came across something that floored me. One of our client agreements calls for payment terms of net 75. That means this client--a large, very well-known brand--wants to pay us almost one quarter after we deliver our services to them.
How nice for them. While they request such a long time to pay me, I am still beholden to my employees, who expect to be paid twice a month, and my vendors, who really want me to pay them net 15 or net 30.
Most of the press around small business concerns these days is about the fiscal cliff, and the health care law, and their potential effects on small business. But I--and most small business owners I know--frankly have much more pressing problems. If my customers aren't paying me for almost three months, how am I supposed to pay my bills? I'm a lot more concerned about whether I'm getting paid than some partisan bickering in Washington that may or may not ultimately affect me.
This slow payment trend started as the recession squeezed everyone a few years back. Big businesses were usually the culprits, because they have the ability to strong arm their vendors, especially the smaller ones. But why am I still talking about this, with 2013 on horizon? These days many big companies are awash in cash, but they're not backing off their demands. If I try to bring it up with clients, I face a litany of excuses: "I can't change it--that's another department." Or, "This is corporate purchasing policy."
They're a huge client; how do I say no? The truly ironic part is that I am a customer to many of the clients that are paying me net 60. These clients require that I pay our bills to them in full every 30 days. The customer requesting net 75 actually gets paid immediately for the services and products they provide.
My company's experience seems to be the rule, not the exception. Small companies are increasingly serving as no-interest banks for big businesses.
Turning away business from a larger company simply based on long payment terms isn't a valid option for most. Many small businesses have to take on debt to cover the shortfall, delay hiring, or delay investment in new inventory or expanded lines of business. That's not helping the economy.
I have been working with customer contracts for almost 15 years and this is the first time I have seen such a long payment term proposed. I am not exactly sure how I can even successfully service this customer's account--how much will the drag in cash flow impact what I can actually make off of this account? Is the relationship worth it?
With continued uncertainty in the economy, net 60 is becoming the new standard. Call me cynical, but even after the economy fully recovers, I am curious if this is not a permanent state of affairs. The Obama administration recently turned the screws on government payers, but I don't see how the new rules are really enforceable. I seriously doubt, and certainly haven't seen, that companies see this mandate extending to their non-government business activities. In fact, I work with several government contractors who are paying us under the exact same terms as they did before this regulation went into effect.
As small businesses, we face a lot of bullies. Right now, I'm just much more concerned about the big business bullies than I am the government bullies.
ERIC V. HOLTZCLAW is a serial entrepreneur who has founded multiple startup companies, including one of the first profitable Internet enterprises. His last company appeared on the Inc. 5000 three years in a row. Holtzclaw advises clients on the whys of business--why customers buy, why teams work, and the all-important "entrepreneurial" why. He is the author of Laddering, and his weekly radio show, The "Better You" Project, shines a spotlight on entrepreneurs' individual business journeys and successes. To learn more about Holtzclaw, visit ladderingworks.com or e-mail email@example.com. @eholtzclaw