In the last month I have had the experience of three small business leaders talking to me about their P&L in moment-in-time terms. Something like this… for this quarter (or this year) we’ll make $X, we spend $Y less than I thought so we’re $Z ahead. Usually followed by why $X and $Z are so great, and how they’ll spend those extra dollars they are ahead, or why their company is successful as a result. Naive.
Unless you have a steady business that has been the same for a while, is not growing and is profitable the moment-in-time view of your business tells you very little. It might make you feel good that your bottom line is black and not red, or not as red as you thought it would be, but all you’re getting is the warm and fuzzies – no insight.
So, five reasons it’s critical you truly understand your P&L over time – to be able to answer what is your revenue, costs, profit/loss and collections every quarter (or month depending on the cadence of your business) for the last year and the coming 2 years?
Cash is Queen for a growing business of any size; it’s the fuel for growth and the security for longevity. So you need to see how cash flows every month for the foreseeable future. Unless you are selling products for cash in the local market, every sale comes with a delay in collection. Sometimes it’s when the credit card vendor pays you for your product, sometimes it’s 90 days later when your customer’s AP department pays you, but there is typically a delay. But you are paying your people anyway, and maybe opening up new offices, hiring etc ahead of being paid for your sales.
This means the collections line item in your P&L is critically interesting. What cash are you collecting every month, and so what is your ending cash every month after your expenses? You need to have this carefully modeled over the next 18-24 months, and intimately understand it so that as your business fluctuates and changes you know what it will do to cash flow. Combine this with a need to always have at least 6 months of payroll in the bank and this will tell you how much risk you can afford to take with your business at any moment in time.
I’ve seen businesses where the CEO is telling him/herself how great they are doing because of all kinds of positive indicators but the cash collections line is not changing over time, it’s not growing. You can’t hide from cash flow and so it’s a great indicator of the true underlying health of the business. Are the dogs eating the dog food and, more importantly, are they paying for it?
2. Measuring your progress
If your business is immature (less than 10 years old) then almost no matter what business plan you build for the next 24 months it will not be what you actually do. Something will change, you’ll do better, or worse, or differently than you thought. But having a 2 year outlook and then measuring yourself against it is how you’ll learn the nuances of the business and learn how to predict and measure the changes.
Going through the discipline of putting an 8 quarter plan together together to present to your stakeholders and your management team forces you to think through what assumptions you are making about your business. Don’t tell me you don’t know enough to do this yet – if you take someone else’s money, or even hire other people to work for you, then you are responsible, and that means you need to put your assumptions down on paper and fold them into a P&L model so you can measure your progress against your assumptions and course correct accordingly. You can’t correct your course if you’re not on one.
And don’t fall into the trap of comparing your business to last year’s business at the same time. While an interesting statistic it tells you nothing except whether you are growing. It does not tell you how you are doing against your plan and so how your top line and expenses are flowing into cash. See #1.
3. Learning financial management
No-one comes out of the womb knowing how to manage a P&L. Most students graduate college without ever learning how to read a P&L and a balance sheet (a crime I think) so no one expects you to just know it. If you are not a trained financial professional, but you want to lead a business team or be a CEO then you need to learn it. Step 1 take a class. Step 2 learn on your own P&L. Do the spreadsheets yourself until you understand the relationships between revenue and collections, costs and margin.
Yes you’ll need a CPA to do your books, but when it comes to forecasting the next 2 years of your business there is no reason you should not be able to build a simple model yourself. I despair of entrepreneurs who hand the financial modeling off to someone else, and never really grasp the financial dynamics and dependencies of their business.
4. Valuing your business
As I mentioned up front, unless your business is mature and not growing then how it is doing at any single point in time does not tell you much about it’s true value, except a low value such as 1X revenue, or 1X profit. If you want to establish and communicate the value of your business to, for example, a potential investor, you need to tell a story over time. Last year, and next 2 years at a minimum.
Except with mature businesses that generate cash, businesses are valued on their potential. How much revenue and profit will the business generate in the future? Is it growing, and so what does that mean for future cash flows? Should it be valued as a multiple of LTM (last twelve months) revenue or NTM profits?
Building, and deeply understanding, your business’ next 2 years of growth and being able to present it in a believable way (because you understand the dynamics so well) is how you establish value with an investor or buyer.
5. Communicating with your employees
Your employees, or partners, are following you because they believe. Hopefully you’re paying them a fair wage, but they are probably with you because they believe in what you are trying to do. Even in a large company this can be true – people join a team because they believe in the mission.
So given they are following you, you need to keep them updated on how the business is doing so they can both help you solve problems, and celebrate with you when things go well. I am a big believer in sharing the basic P&L of your business with your leadership team at a minimum, and with your employees once it stabilizes. If they don’t have a good understanding of the future of your P&L how are you going to enable them to fully participate in the building of the business? And how will you celebrate the wins with them if they don’t know whether you are making the plans you set out or not?
I don’t buy the argument that employees are not able to handle the numbers – that it will “scare” them. Yes you don’t tell them you are running out of cash, but if you are hiring college graduates you can at least share your top line plans with them and if they don’t understand the basics of a P&L you can teach them. They will thank you for it, and be much more vested in the end results of the business if you share progress with them. I recently put together a 2 hour class on the basics of reading a P&L for a friend’s business (where most of the employees have liberal arts degrees) and it was not only great fun for me and the employees, but it gave them a starting point to understand the terrific progress the company they are working for is making.
Bottom line – whether your business is wine or weather prediction, if you are leading a team with financial targets, or are the CEO of your own venture, you owe it to yourself to learn and truly understand your own business’ P&L.
Photo: Photo Frescobaldi Winery, Tuscany © 2016 Penny Herscher