Here's a bit of wisdom too many entrepreneurs have learned the hard way: when it comes to cash flow management, more isn't always better.
For a growing company, new customers are obviously always welcome. But landing a game-changing piece of business - without preparing for a new pace of expenses - can actually do more harm than good.
Take a friend of mine. He had a great product and worked hard to make in-roads to large companies. One day it happened: a Fortune 50 company placed an order that was 10 times the size of any deal he had seen before. He lined up his supply chain and delivered the goods.
Everything was great, that is until the bills came in from providers in his supply chain. Some were due on receipt and others due in 30 days. The bills amounted to more cash than he had on-hand, and his customer wasn't going to pay him for 90 to 120 days.
Having to bridge the lag between outgoing expenses and income with credit cards, the 20+ percent revolving charges evaporated his entire profit margin. Lesson learned: Prepare for the big deal, negotiate with your supply chain, and ensure you have cheaper access to working capital.
A recent survey of business owners commissioned by my company, Xero, underscores the issue. When asked about the business reasons for closing down their companies, 65 percent of the entrepreneurs pointed to financial problems, including cash flow management, as the culprit.
Sometimes the broader market environment can make cash flow control particularly challenging, but veteran small business owners know they can take several steps to keep their finances on track. Here are five helpful strategies I've learned in my career:
Automate your invoices
The faster you invoice, the faster you get paid. Keep your payment terms as short as possible and communicate clearly with your clients to make sure billing errors don't slow down payments.
In addition to establishing internal practices that ensure timely invoicing, automate as much as you can. Software-enabled invoice reminders, for example, can sometimes be an awkward ordeal, so let technology take it off your plate.
Know your numbers
Before you the pop the champagne when a big potential client comes knocking, crunch the numbers to confirm you can make the timing work. If a customer with deep pockets wants to pay you every three months but your suppliers demand payment every 30 days, you need to be sure your business is ready.
Some of the most successful small business owners I know rarely let a day go by without checking their accounts. And, in the age of the iPhone, it couldn't be easier to keep close tabs on your finances. Digital banking options and accounting software mean you can drill down to analyze and project cash flow in real time.
Take inspiration from iTunes and Amazon. Once you bill a client, make it as easy as possible for them to pay you. With a single click, consumers can now purchase groceries, movies and cab rides. Figure out how you could lower the barrier to payment for your customers, whether it's through subscriptions, bundled products or a streamlined user experience.
Analyze your pipeline to identify your power customers
As you grow your customer base, follow the data to learn what your best customers look like and where they come from. The key characteristics - from demographics, to behavior, to interests - will depend on your sector. But exhaust the information available to you to understand your customer base as deeply as you can.
When you have a solid understanding of your strongest customers, optimize their experience to keep them coming back, as recurring customers can often be the glue that keeps a company's cash flow consistent.
Hatch an emergency plan
It's always hard for growing, bootstrapped small businesses to save money. So if you can't build a cash reserve, at least do the homework when your company's not on thin ice to identify the people or institutions you might be able to turn to in leaner times. When talking to potential funders, smart small business owners ask for more than they need and, in a pinch, they have a plan of attack for securing last-minute loans.