I'd be lying if I said I loved walking into budget meetings. In fact, like most people, I used to dread them.

While I'm not crazy about crunching numbers with every department head, I've come to understand how incredibly important it is to create a comprehensive budget--no matter the size of the company. A budget isn't just abstract numbers on a page, a head-count of staff, or a checklist of the software your team is using. A budget is inextricably linked to your business strategy.

That's why our budget creation process at ThirdLove was different this year than in the past. My co-founder Dave and I sat down with each department leader and our CFO and went through their spending for this year line by line to see where money was being allocated. Everything was examined and discussed. It was much more time-consuming than in the past, but it was absolutely necessary to continue growing the company efficiently.

After going through that process, here's my advice for creating your own comprehensive annual budget:

1. Get a feel for speed and scale.

It's much harder to predict revenue in an early-stage company, so your budget will be a little loose. There are so many variables to consider, and you don't have much (if any) history to use as a baseline for your projections.

Once you grow and get several fiscal years behind you, you have a better idea of what your revenue and spend will be. And the bigger you become, the more important processes and structure and efficiency become. Everything must be counted.

For instance, I now know how much our team spends on snacks and meals every month. I know what we spend on learning and development. And I know all the specific numbers that used to be grouped into general expenses in the past.

Although your budget process will depend on where you are as a company, the important thing is that you have one--and you continue to refine it as you grow.

2. Make sure department leaders are working cross-functionally with the finance team.

We had 10 different budget meetings this year. Each one included a department leader, our financial analyst, our CFO, and of course, Dave and me.

I know many people still take an old-school view of the finance department. They think it's the people who set the budget and then periodically tell you to stop spending money. But the finance team's job isn't just to say "no." Actually, in a strong and successful company, you'll find a close partnership between finance and the function-oriented teams.

Your finance team should deeply understand your business key performance indicators because their job is to help scale and grow the company in a profitable way. So, encourage them to work with the department leaders and not simply act as independent arbiters of where nickels and dimes wind up.

3. Leave room for change and flexibility.

Flexibility is a large part of integrating the finance team with the rest of the business.

Situations you haven't planned for will always come up throughout the year. And it's essential that your team has the flexibility to add to the budget or make changes where they're spending money to address those unplanned circumstances.

Having flexibility within a budget also gives team leaders the autonomy to run their departments and make decisions without always double-checking with the CEO or CFO. If someone overspends, that should absolutely result in a conversation about why it happened. But otherwise, your team leaders should be free to make budget decisions as they see fit to optimize strategies and revenue.

4. Consider any financial impact from the previous year.

When you put an annual budget on paper, it tends to feel like a single moment in time.

The truth is that the consequences of your decisions may take time to manifest themselves. Let's say, for example, that you hired 10 new people in 2018. You probably didn't hire them all on January 1st. They were likely spread out over the course of the year, and some of them may have even been hired late in Q4. That means you won't see the full impact of their salaries until the following year.

Until you crunch the numbers for the upcoming year, it's tough to understand how those salaries--or even new software--affect your overall budget.

Creating a comprehensive annual budget isn't fun or easy. But it's necessary if you want to avoid unpleasant surprises and continue building your company in a sustainable manner.

Published on: May 9, 2019
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