I tell every budding entrepreneur I meet that it's not lack of cash that will put your business under. It's lack of cash flow, and now I have a shiny, new study I can point to that backs up this bit of hard-earned wisdom.
For their study "Growth, Vitality, and Cash Flows: High-Frequency Evidence from 1 Million Small Businesses," JPMorgan Chase & Co. pored over data from 1.3 million small business banking accounts active between October 2012 and February 2018 and analyzed over 3.1 billion transactions in those accounts.
What the bank found was that small businesses that could not achieve stable cash flow within four years had more of a chance of folding than small businesses that managed to achieve stable cash flow.
The researchers identified seven different cash flow patterns from all the businesses they looked at:
1. Regular weekly: These businesses saw larger revenues and expenses happen with weekly frequency with little deviation week to week.
2. Regular weekly + financing: Similar to pattern one, but also relying heavily on financing.
3. Semi-monthly revenues: In this pattern, businesses see larger revenues about twice per month and pay expenses on a weekly basis.
4. Semi-monthly revenues + financing: Similar to pattern three, but also relying heavily on financing.
5. Erratic timing: Cash flow amounts are not subject to volatility, but the timing of them is erratic.
6. Volatile expenses: Expenses are more volatile than revenue, which is usually the opposite for businesses.
7. Sporadic revenues: Revenue is infrequent, coming in only about once every seven weeks or so. When it does come in, the amounts vary. Financing is heavily relied on.
The study says that small businesses that have more volatile expenses compared to revenue are more likely to fold than those with more stable cash flow, meaning large and unexpected financial challenges are extremely dangerous for small business.
However, they can mitigate this danger by holding onto more cash.
Sixty-nine percent of businesses in the study had regular cash flow in their first year and 78 percent had regular cash flow in their fourth year, either having maintained regular cash flow or by moving from an irregular to a regular cash flow.
The good news from the study is that the more a business grows and the longer it is around, the more stable its cash flow becomes and the greater its chances of surviving become.
Authors of the study say more focus should be put on programs that help small businesses better manage their cash flow and I agree with that. There are also steps new entrepreneurs can take to help them with cash flow, like the following three.
1. Learn to say "no."
I've written before about the importance of learning this magical word in business and cash flow plays an important role in the art of saying "no" to certain opportunities. I've seen many a new entrepreneur (and have almost been that entrepreneur) who take on too many new clients believing that is the answer to survival.
However, taking on more clients or orders means expanding more resources and payment from these new clients doesn't always come in regularly (or at all in worst case scenarios). So, be cognizant of how any new clients or orders will affect your cash flow.
2. Build relationships so you can negotiate.
A brand new supplier isn't likely going to let you extend your credit with them too far or delay payment for too long, but one that you have a good rapport with just might. Business is all about building relationships and the better a relationship you have with your key suppliers, the more flexibility you'll retain, which can be your ticket to survival. Asking your main supplier to delay your payment by 20 percent longer and offering a discount to customers who pay their invoices 20 percent sooner can give you the wiggle room you need with tight cash flow.
3. Communicate openly.
Some businesspeople tend to clam up when they are having issues with their cash flow because they don't want their situation known lest it make the company look weak or vulnerable. However, virtually all businesses have faced some volatility with their cash flow and most other small business people will be understanding to a certain degree if you are open and honest about the situation. Nobody wants to see anyone else go out of business (not even a competitor), so be transparent with the other businesses you deal with. You may be surprised at how receptive they are.
When we first got started, instead of buying from five different places for cheaper, we ended up paying slightly more and buying from two places, but on better terms. The end result was better cash flow for us. We would never had gotten those better terms had we not explained our situation and asked for them.