The pandemic has changed the way small companies operate. Covid-19 winners -- such as online payment services, video-conferencing services, and makers of personal protection equipment -- are scrambling to meet a surge in demand.
Most companies are suffering. Covid-19 losers -- such as restaurants, apparel stores, conference promoters, and entertainment venues -- are lucky it they can operate at all. Covid-19 adapters -- such as makers of UV light disinfection machines -- can tap into a surge in demand if they can finance the retooling they need to adapt.
While small companies always struggle to meet their financial obligations, the Covid-19 losers are in the most financial trouble. Here are solutions to the four most pressing small-company financial problems.
1. To keep selling, pay employees and vendors first.
Business leaders must triage their operating expenses -- continuing to pay only the ones needed to keep generating revenue. Depending on your business, that almost certainly means paying employees who make, sell, and service your products. If you purchase raw materials for your product, you must also keep paying your raw material vendors.
To make sure you have enough cash to pay those workers and vendors, you must stop making payments for nonessential items. For example you might consider cutting employee holiday parties, corporate apartments, and your customer sales conference. In addition, you might consider layoffs or furloughs for people who are not essential to continuing to generate sales.
2. To preserve profit margin, forecast worst-case cash flow.
While your company might have operated with a decent profit margin -- say 10 percent -- before the pandemic, you need to look closely at how that profit margin has changed since March, when social distancing began. If your business is among the Covid-19 losers, that margin has most likely plunged.
To start solving the problem, create a monthly (or even weekly) forecast of your cash flow based on your pandemic financial results. The forecast should include specific estimates of cash inflow such as invoices paid by customers as well as cash outflow, including salaries, vendor payments, rent, and utilities.
Once you've developed a pessimistic version of this forecast, you will be in decent shape if you are still generating positive cash flow. If not, you need to boost cash inflow and/or cut cash outflow until your business is cash-flow positive.
3. To avoid loan default, talk to your lender.
If you borrowed money before the pandemic, you are likely to be having trouble repaying it now. The fear of not repaying could make you so afraid that the last thing you want to do is tell other people about your debt woes.
Resist that urge and immediately contact your lender. Nina Kaufman, a Manhattan lawyer who specializes in advising small businesses, told the Wall Street Journal that if you are in trouble with your lender, contact them right away to negotiate lower rates and/or lower -- interest-only -- payments.
The consequences of not having this conversation can be far worse. If you don't make the payments you owe, the bank can demand immediate repayment of the principal and interest. If you can't pay, the bank can take control of collateral -- such as your property or inventory -- and sell it to help repay the loan.
The less-bad news is that lenders want to get as much of their loan back as possible. As Kaufman told the Journal, lenders "appreciate it if you're honest and forthcoming about the situation so you both have more options at your disposal."
4. To preserve your savings, create business accounts or shut down.
If your small business owes people money and you pay bills out of your personal bank accounts, your business problems are likely to be personal financial problems during the pandemic.
If you have enough cash to pay your bills, you should immediately create separate business and personal bank accounts. Keep only the cash you receive from your business in the business bank account and pay all your business invoices from that account. Otherwise your creditors will try to take your personal assets to pay your business debts.
If you do not have enough cash to pay your bills, you ought to consider seriously shutting down your business while negotiating with all your creditors to pay them what you can. In this way, you will have a better reputation with capital providers should you decide to restart your company after the pandemic passes.