Profits, Growth and Cash Flow – Which is Most Important to Small Business Success?

Business growth and profitability. Most entrepreneurs would consider these to be the Holy Grail of business ownership. So it’s not too surprising that many participants in the financial workshops I lead are surprised when I tell them that instant profits and rapid business growth aren’t always a cause for celebration.

“How can this be?” you might be wondering. The best way to explain it is to tell the story of the Wonder Widget Company. Haven’t heard of them? Well, this is a fictitious company I made up to help me explain business financial concepts in an easy-to-understand way.

A Hot New Launch

Wonder Widget Co. launched last year with $100,000 in cash and the hottest new product in its market, the amazing Wonder Widget. It was so hot that the owners had sales and profits the very first month of operations. So they quickly leased and outfitted a factory, production equipment and furnishings (all with minimal initial cash outlay), bought materials, hired workers, and manufactured and shipped widgets. Then they mailed invoices totaling $50,000 to customers in the first month. Amazing!

They paid their bills as they came due and collected from customers in the normal course of doing business. Meanwhile, sales continued to grow, increasing by $50,000 every month with no decline in margins and no serious competition, and profits climbed without a pause.

But a strange thing happened on the way to the bank: The owners were shocked to find that they didn’t have enough cash to pay their bills. Soon, they couldn’t buy any more raw materials to manufacture Wonder Widgets or make their payroll. Instantly profitable Wonder Widget Co. was insolvent six months after they opened the doors.

On the surface, it’s hard to see how something like this could happen to a profitable and growing business. But when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that there’s a whole lot more to running a successful business than just profits and growth-namely, cash flow.

The Cash Flow Cycle

Understanding what happened to Wonder Widget Co. starts by understanding what’s known as the cash flow cycle. This is the time lag that exists between when cash is paid out by the business for things like equipment, raw materials and salaries and when accounts receivable are collected. In manufacturing, the cycle usually consists of converting cash into raw materials, finished goods, receivables, and then back to cash again.

At the beginning of the cash flow cycle, nearly every business starts out with-you guessed it-cash. But from that point on, the central purpose of the business is to convert that cash into other kinds of assets or to leverage or extend it with liabilities, and ultimately to turn it back into cash again-but this time, more cash than the business started with. This process continues indefinitely and simultaneously throughout the life of a business.

When the company started up, its first activities revolved around setup-renting facilities, getting phones and utilities installed, etc. At the same time, it was purchasing assets so it could start operations. These included office equipment, computers and the like. Of course, the company also needed employees to answer phones, run the office, and produce and sell Wonder Widgets. The owners financed some of these costs, but obtained credit via bank loans to cover most of them.

With all this in place, the company was ready to begin production, or the manufacture of Wonder Widgets. Unfortunately, the process consumed even more cash: wages, taxes, sales and marketing, more raw materials, and so on. In fact, this is the period of greatest cash consumption for most companies, as they are in full production mode but no cash is coming in yet.

Finally, Wonder Widgets was ready to sell its products and begin the process of recovering all the cash it has been spending (or investing) in the business. However, while sales were brisk, they were made on “net-30” day terms, which means the company won’t actually receive cash from these sales for another 30 to 45 days, at least.

To add to the challenge, growing sales means the company had to buy more raw materials than they did the first time around. Since they were selling more each month than the prior month, they needed to not only replace inventories consumed but also buy additional goods to satisfy their growing sales demand. Purchases can actually exceed sales in such a fast-growing environment.

Collections are the final step in the process. While this might seem like a minor activity in comparison to production or sales, it’s actually the most critical task in making every other step pay off. Unfortunately, it’s the step that many businesses, including Wonder Widgets, neglect-and that leads to their ultimate demise.

Don’t Give It Away

Are you starting to see how Wonder Widgets failed despite having strong profits and sales right out of the gate? Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese Restaurants, put it this way: A sale is a gift to the customer until the money is in the bank. This final step is the one that turns the entire effort-setup, purchasing assets, hiring employees, obtaining credit, and producing and selling products-back into cash again.

At this point, the answers to some important questions will begin to surface, like: Did the company ultimately make a profit on its business activities? Did it plan adequately for the working capital it would need to finance the cash flow cycle in it’s entirety? As the Wonder Widget story makes clear, answering “yes” to just the first question isn’t enough to ensure business survival. There are three key takeaways from this story:

1. Fast growth is a double-edge sword. Fast-growing companies need more working capital than those growing more slowly or not at all. When incoming cash flow is delayed while fixed costs continue and paydays come every week, there’s a limit to how long a company can operate comfortably, even if it’s profitable.

2. Cash flow needs must be forecasted months in advance. This is especially critical during the early months of a startup. And cash flow results must be tracked separately from profits.

3. Business goes with the flow. The health of a business depends on the health of its cash flow. As Wonder Widget Co. makes clear, more businesses fail due to a lack of cash flow than a lack of profits.

Reputation Leverage Using Widgets

The use of widgets as a marketing tool has been around for many years. Widgets deliver value for the provider, the publisher, the end-user and in some models, even more levels, so marketers have used this value chain for brand leverage. These widgets have tended to be of limited business value; little more than gimmicks as a vehicle for the brand. But what if widgets could deliver more than just weather predictions, a world clock or news feeds that can easily be found elsewhere?

Widgets can be very powerful for the simple reason that they have the potential to reach a very large audience. Say 15,000 Facebook users have embedded the widgets sponsored by Brand A. Brand A captures a year-round exposure to 1.5 million people assuming that each FB user has a network of 100 friends. This marketing leverage becomes exponential as a certain percentage of each FB user’s friends will also embed the widget.

Reputation Leverage

Political economists Klein and Leffler in their Reputation Model observed that reputable brands can charge a premium based on the strength of their reputation but lost reputation due to poor quality erodes long-term profit streams. Additionally, reputation can extend into other products via umbrella branding notes Eric Rasmusen, business professor at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. Basically, a good reputation has value and this reputation can be extended.

B2B Reputation Leverage (RL) Widgets

Systems integrators and software developers typically mention that they are IBM, Microsoft or Cisco “Business Partners”. They place the logos or trademarks of these IT giants along with their online content. This way, they can charge a premium or close a deal more easily versus competitors that are non-business partners.

On the other hand, a potential client has no readily available way to validate if such claims are true. With a reputation leverage widget however, such claims can be verified. A Microsoft partner logo for instance, can invite the user to “Click to Verify Business Partner Certification”. When clicked, the widget directs the prospect to a new window where a widget clearing house has the Extended Validation SSL Green Address Bar potentially avoiding phishing scams. As another layer of trust assurance, the clearing house can periodically check Microsoft’s partner database to ensure the certified business partner is a member in good standing.

Another useful application is for professional certifications such as the Microsoft Professional or Cisco series. RL widgets can serve as the online certificate of any professional that can be verified, validated, authenticated and checked. MBAs, professional association membership, PADI licenses; just about any certification that might be useful to have on display.

The distribution of RL widgets need to be controlled, monitored, well-managed and exclusive. If good reputations create value then so does scarcity. Therefore while brand leverage widgets need to have a viral quality, reputation leverage widgets are earned like trust, skill and status.

Make a Business Plan for Working from Home

One of the biggest mistakes those who work from home make is neglect creating a business plan. Oftentimes they are thinking that because they work at home, a business plan does not apply to them as it would for other types of business startups where financing is needed. Of course there are home businesses that need financing to start up but oftentimes the reason why people choose a home business is because little startup capital is needed (i.e., financing). But you still need a business plan. Lets look at a few reasons why.

A business plan defines your product or service. First, you need to decide what products or services you are going to offer when you work from home. You need to take your business idea and write it down. This will be the basis of further market research to test your idea. For example, lets say you make a great blue widget and decide you want to go into business and sell it. So, you declare that you will sell blue widgets. However as you do market research you find out that everyone is now buying yellow widgets and blue widgets are no longer in demand. This means in order to work at home and sell widgets, you will have to adapt to make and sell yellow ones. Our example uses imaginary widgets but you can replace widget with your idea and see if there is a market for it. Deciding what it is you want to sell or the service you want to offer now will save you expense later on.

A business plan identifies your target market. If you have no idea who your target market is for selling your product or service then you do not know where to focus advertising for your home business. Using our widget example, it could be that younger people like yellow widgets with green stripes while senior people like plain yellow widgets. With the business plan, you can write this research down so that you can refer to it as you build the marketing strategy for your home business.

A business plan identifies your competition. You have to identify your competitors and as much as possible pinpoint what they do right and how you can do it better. Remember that in order to increase the chances for success of your home business, you must have characteristics that set you apart from your competition. A business plan lets you identify what it is that will set you apart and by writing it down you can refer to it and stay on track.

A business plan defines the daily operation of your business. Your home business [http://www.beasuccesfulconsultant.com] might be a one-person shop but you still need an operational plan. For example, what are your terms of service? What are your payment policies with your clients? What are your delivery procedures? Who are your suppliers if you have them? These are just a few of the questions you will answer in a business plan for your home business.

A business plan identifies any loan requirements. As mentioned before, one of the big reasons why people set up home businesses is that the capital investment requirements are lower. However there are certain types of businesses where you might need people to invest money or you have to get a loan from a bank. These people wont even meet with if you have no business plan.

Get yourself a self-help book and read how to make a business plan [http://www.beasuccesfulconsultant.com] for your home business. It might seem labor-intensive but it will help your business be more profitable and run smoother in the long run.