Lost amid the news of yet another ice and snow storm in the Northeast, Punxsutawney Phil the Groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter. Not only does that prospect dampen the spirits of residents in chillier areas of the country, but it also results in cold, hard cash-flow issues for certain types of businesses.
While heating companies, such as Edison Heating and Cooling in New Jersey, get busier as furnaces need to be replaced, many small companies are hit hard by winter. Restaurants that generate revenue based of the popularity of al fresco dining may see substantially reduced business during the colder temperatures. Landscapers benefit if there are large accumulations of snow that enable them to make money by using plows, but the work is unpredictable. Retailers typically experience leaner times in January once people get the credit card bills they rung up during the holiday season.
My advice is to make good use of slower periods to anticipate and respond to more robust times. In other words, plan for a sunny day.
1. Prepare in advance.
Every small-business owner should anticipate and prepare financially for lean times. It is critical to make cash-flow projections that take into account seasonality. By doing so, entrepreneurs can plan for lean months. This is not so hard to do; simply examine records from prior years to figure out when cash-flow issues arose. Consider fixed expenses (such as rent and utilities) and your variable costs (such as salaries, inventory, and taxes) and the times during the year when variable expenses will be highest. Then develop strategies to manage cash, including reducing staff, shopping for less expensive vendors, and securing upfront advance payment from customers in return for discounts. When business picks up, you will be in a better financial position.
2. Develop new sources of income.
If you own a restaurant with a robust dinner business, look for ways to generate more revenue during breakfast or lunch. Subway's wildly successful "Five Dollar Footlong" promotion was started by a franchisee who wanted to increase his weekend traffic. The price point hit the nail exactly on the head when it launched during the Great Recession. Later, the promo was extended throughout the Subway franchisee network. Another example: Marci Semel, owner of Mara's Cafe and Bakery, in Fanwood, New Jersey, partnered with Be Craftful, a nearby children's craft store, to develop an evening dinner-with-a-craft offering during the month of February, often a lean month for businesses in the Northeast.
3. Secure lower-cost financing.
With interest rates still quite low, taking a short-term loan or opening up a business line of credit can help a company with cash-flow issues navigate through rough periods. For seasonal businesses, lines of credit are popular. Retailers, who in past years sought financing through merchant cash-advance products, are now able to get longer terms and better rates through marketplace lending platforms, such as Biz2Credit. Retail companies that used to pay interest rates of 30-40 percent can lower their cost of capital substantially because of changes in the small-business credit marketplace.
4. Plan for summer.
If business is currently slow, now is a great time to plan ahead for warm weather. For instance, a woman who runs a home-based dessert business might have time to look for new street fairs, flea markets, and other events that could prove fruitful. It might even be possible to negotiate an "early-bird" discount if you're willing to commit during the winter months. Another valuable exercise could be to reexamine your branding. Now might be the best time to revamp a logo, plan an expansion, or look to open a new location.
Entrepreneurs find it hard to plan during busy times, as their focus stays on handling current projects. The cold winter months provide an opportunity to plan for sunny days ahead.