If you run a small business, you know how critical it is to nail the big things everyone talks about. You've got to have a service or product that customers need, want and feel like they can't live without. You've got to figure out how to brand yourself in a way that sets you apart in a largely copycat world these days. You've got to nail the customer experience in today's social media environment where bad customer experience trends spread fast and can kill you.
On top of all of that, you've got to find a way to get the best people working for you who can differentiate your company beyond the short life of any given product.
Those things get all the buzz, and they certainly deserve it. Without doing those things, you probably don't even have a business to run in the first place. Once you have a business, though, is it possible to do all of these things well and still have your business be on the verge of falling apart? It is.
The reason why might not be the most glamorous business topic and certainly doesn't get much hype, but it might actually be the difference between a business that lives or dies.
That thing is cash flow.
The impact of poor cash flow (even if everything else looks great)
Years ago before I had my own company to run, I worked for Deloitte Consulting, one of the largest global consulting firms in the world. Twenty years later, I still remember one of the things a leader in the firm told me about how he evaluated the health of the small companies he worked with. He told me that the first thing he looked at was their cash flow. That would tell him much of what he needed to know.
I understood what he was talking about in concept at the time. It made logical sense, of course. Every business needs access to money it can spend right now. I only really understood what he meant when I started running my own small company, though.
It is a delicate balance in terms of the timing of expenses going out and revenue coming in. It seems almost rudimentary and basic, but things happen in the course of a fiscal year that can upset the balance and put you into a surprisingly challenging financial position.
Unexpected business challenges arise that require money right now. There are very real delays in the timing of big initiatives, projects, or new products or services that have significant revenue impact not just in terms of the revenue they bring in but when they bring it in.
I lived through all of these.
Ironically, in those same years, my year end P&Ls looked phenomenal. I had really good top line revenue, awesome bottom line net profit, and solid margins. You would have thought I had no problems and just cruised along during the year. In each of those years, though, there were periods of poor cash flow that had me wondering how I was going to keep the business up and running.
The problem of showing a great end of year P&L combined simultaneously with incredibly stressful periods of poor cash flow during that same year may sound almost preposterous. How could that even happen? It was very real for me and could be for anyone running a small business - which is inherently much more susceptible to it than bigger ones who usually have a better chance, theoretically at least, of having a good amount of daily cash on hand.
What can you do about it?
Here are two not so glamorous but important things you can do to help you pro-actively manage cash flow:
1. Put cash flow strategies on the top of your list right next to products, customers, and people
This by itself doesn't solve cash flow challenges, but simply by recognizing it as being centrally important to the health of your business forces you to think about it regularly. For me, doing this has resulted in cash flow contingency planning that has given me strategies to deal with unexpected timing challenges on expenses or revenues.
2. Build your buffer
It is the same thing that big companies do with daily cash on hand. Create a buffer of daily cash on hand and don't use it for anything. It's hard to not use it when you run a small company that isn't resource rich, but the fortitude to hold on the desire to tap into it for other strategic business needs has been critical for me in terms of dealing with the unforeseen and weathering what would have been serious cash flow storms.