By Blair Thomas, co-founder of First American Merchant.
In the years since I co-founded my business loan and payment processing company, we've seen many new businesses struggle because of cash flow volatility. Many of my clients are considered "high risk" by traditional banks because they own a cash-intensive business, so bank financing is not always an option for them. Instead, my clients must look inwards to find new ways to self-finance their businesses during a cash flow downturn.
Take "Carol" for instance: She opened a clothing store two years ago, which has an established a clientele and a good reputation in the local community. But the previous summer had been slow. Cash flow lagged behind expenses. She struggled to make payroll and needed an injection of capital to get her through the down patch. However, when she went to her bank, she was shocked to find that, as the owner of a retail business, she was considered a "high risk."
If your business has volatile cash flow like Carol's, here's how you can manage your finances to protect it against down periods.
Make the downtime productive.
If you experience a business slowdown, look at it as an opportunity for business planning. In Carol's case, she could use the extra time to work on her business rather than in it, and that meant planning. She created a realistic budget for the coming year that reflected the seasonal nature of her business.
Similarly, you can create a budget for your business that builds in savings during your peak sales season so that you have a buffer in the leaner months. By sticking to your budget, you should be able to avoid future cash flow problems.
In general, coming up with a marketing plan to attract new customers can help you get out of your downturn faster. If your revenue is tight, focus first on marketing activities that don't require big investments, like social media campaigns and participating in local markets -- anything that keeps your business's downtime productive on a budget.
Focus on variable costs.
When Carol looked at her budget, she saw that she was really feeling pain around her fixed costs -- things like rent, payroll and equipment costs. To alleviate your own cash flow pressure, convert as many of your fixed costs to variable costs, if possible.
There may be nothing you can do about your building lease, for example, but you could hire temporary seasonal help during your busy periods and run with a smaller staff in the slow months. You could also lease equipment rather than buy it outright, which would give you more financial flexibility.
Ask for better terms.
Carol had never thought to dicker very much around the terms her suppliers demanded. However, they can be more flexible than you might imagine. Good vendors are partners in your business: When you succeed, so do they, and vice versa. It's in their best interest to sometimes allow better discounts or longer payment schedules if it means the difference between success and failure.
By negotiating longer payment terms with some of your vendors, you'll be able to lower your costs during the slow times. If your business faces cash-flow issues and traditional funding is not an option, look inward for solutions. Use your down time to create a budget that will minimize the effect of future downturns.
Focus on variable (versus fixed) costs so you can adjust to seasonal revenue variations, and renegotiate with suppliers so they become true partners, working together to smooth out cash flow volatility.
Managing your finances using these strategies will help you avoid -- or at least shorten -- your down seasons.
Blair Thomas is the co-founder of First American Merchant.