Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

5 Tips for Better Cash Flows

“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” Warren Buffet

Mismanagement of cash flows is a leading cause of failure among businesses. Business owners do not realize how critical it is to budget and plan cash flows from the beginning of the venture and most times a liquidity crisis catches them completely off guard. This often leads to irrational last minute maneuvering which amplifies the problems at hand. To ensure smooth cash flow cycles we have to ensure that we are extremely vigilant of the financial health of our business from the onset. This may appear to be over simplistic advice, however the truth of the matter is, not enough emphasis is given to this function. The excitement lies in closing those million dollar deals and creating fancy marketing campaigns. Reality of the matter is that if we do not have the financial structure in place to support these deals and campaigns we will soon find ourselves in a lot of trouble. Listed below are a couple of tips which have helped me manage cash flows better.

1. Inflows & Outflows: From the onset identify your inflows and outflows. If you have adequate historic data, map out how long on average it takes to receive cash after providing your product/service. Next carefully map out all your expenses, and dates when they need to be paid. Next we have to minimize the time between the two flows. Usually inflows are much slower than expected and this needs to be compensated by negotiating favorable agreements with suppliers, stocking less and invoicing your customers at regular intervals. To learn more about the importance of mapping out inflows and outflows please click here.

2. Cost Management: Cost cuts do not necessarily require a business to layoff staff or drastically cut marketing expenditure. I take the approach of measuring cost effectiveness in terms of every product or service that the business is providing. The goal must be to provide the product or service at a lower cost than the competition. Identify all direct costs, incremental costs of increasing volume, fixed costs and overall cost structures in comparision to the competition. This does not necessarily have to be reflected in lower price points. As we widen the cost comparison between competitors, we are able to hold a much stronger position in the overall industry. To learn about each cost in greater detail please click here.

3. Marketing: Cutting marketing expenses to conserve cash is often not the most optimal solution for solving one’s cash flow problems. Assessing marketing strategies and tactics needs to be practiced on a regular basis. It is not wise to make marketing expenses cyclical with business cycles. With optimized marketing campaigns and strategies in place, a business has greater chances of avoiding these cash gluts as business is constantly being generated at a healthy level. To learn more about marketing strategies during a liquidity crunch please click here.

4. Technology: Gone are the days of keeping track of your business expenses on excel sheets. As a business owner today we should use one of the many accounting packages available to make sure we always have a financial snapshot of the health of our business. This will provide us with the ability to quickly identify trends and potential liquidity crunches before they take place. Please click here to read five questions you need to answer before selecting which accounting package is right for you.

5. Last Resort Measures: There will be times however when a liquidity crisis will hit . It is important that when it does we remain calm and evaluate the options we have instead of making rash decisions. The options I have used during these period of times are, discounting, credit cards, loans from friends and family, invoice factoring and secured credit lines. All of these options need to be used when all other alternatives have been exhausted. Attention needs to given to ensure that all documentation has been read carefully and that one is fully aware of the pro’s and con’s of each measure. To learn more about each measure please click here.

Those who have experienced liquidity crunches realize how stressful and frustrating these cycles are. They can result in partners leaving the business, unpleasantness at the office and even eventual closure of the business. Using some of the tips provided above we can avert a number of these situations. It comes down to better financial planning and catering for unforseen events. We have to be prepared when such situations arise and must deal with them face on. There is no need to dig ourselves deeper into a hole by using temporary fixes. If the business that you are running is repeatedly running into cash flow problems, do your best to re-engineer it from the ground up, or have the discipline to change boats.

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Getting out of a Cash Crunch

“When you’re in a pit, the first thing to do is to stop digging.” James Ellman

At some point of time or other most entrepreneurs go through a cash crunch period. These are stressful and frustrating times when the world seems to be falling apart around us and we have a limited set of options to get out of the mess. I have found that by following the tips provided earlier in this series we can reduce the probability of being stuck in a liquidity crisis substantially. However, there are times when even after having planned for every conceivable outcome there is a blind spot we missed out. The important thing to do at this point is not to panic. Cutting your marketing budget, laying off staff and hawking office equipment on ebay is not usually the answer. In a situation where we have exhausted options of negotiating extensions with suppliers and run out of excuses why we have not settled the rent, there are a couple of alternatives I have used. Listed below in order of my personal preference are:

1. Discounting: If we are in a quarter with a number of payments due I include a clause in outgoing invoices stating that if payment is made within x number of days there will be an x% discount. This creates monetary incentive for clients to pay up on time. If invoices have been pending for a while I give the same discount to the client stating they should pay the discounted bill or we would be forced into calling in collection agencies. Surprisingly I have had very good results using this method in speeding up payments causing strapped up cash.

2. Credit Cards: I personally do not advocate using this type of financing but when the situation calls for it, use it as an emergency backup. These can be either business applied credit cards or personal cards. Using the cash advance option, essential payments can be made. This will help tide through the business until payments are made by clients. Using this option for any other expenses other than these critical ones results in getting buried by ridiculously high interest payments. Instead of fueling growth for your business this stunts growth. Use it with caution

3. Loans from Friends & Family: If you are in desperate need of some bridging capital and need access to it quickly, going to friends and family is a valid option. I do not like mixing friends and family with business, but at times it is unavoidable. Make sure when you take the money there is an agreement with terms and conditions spelt out in black and white. Full disclosure must be made regarding the situation at hand as well as when you are expected to repay the loan. Conflicts tend to arise when inadequate information is given, this results in confusion and unrealistic expectations.

4. Invoice Factoring: For businesses with natural and steady flows of revenue, but prone to erratic payments, applying for these schemes through banks or specialist factoring companies is an option. These basically take into account your average business activity and streams of revenue, then provide you a credit line against it. This can free up much of your working capital and can boost growth. However read the fine print carefully. Sometimes these institutions limit who you can do business with, and can also force your clients to interact with them as far as payments are concerned. This reflects negatively on the business and does not convey a good image to your customers.

5. Secured Credit Lines: If one is expecting the next couple of quarters or year to be tight, taking out a secure credit line may be a good alternative to solve the liquidity crunch. The bank provides you with a line of credit which is usually secured against a particular asset. The asset is usually real estate which you or the business may own. The business is then able to borrow money against the asset conveniently. This is an option exercised by many entrepreneurs. However it takes time to setup, therefore one must plan for it well in advance and not when you are stuck in a liquidity crisis.

No one wants to be stuck in a liquidity crisis. We must do all we can to ensure the business does not slip into one. Keep your eyes on both the sale numbers and controlling expenses. When and if the situation becomes critical these last resort measures can provide significant relief in assisting you to get out of the mess. It is important to use these options wisely and to do thorough research on them before committing to any one of them.

Related Articles:

Raising Capital from Family & Friends

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Technology and Cash Flow Management

“What amount of value creation can be assigned to the efforts of management for a particular time period? That is the essence of accounting. Otherwise, it’s simply an appraisal process.” Charles W Mulford

Gone are the days of keeping track of your business expenses on excel sheets. Earlier on in my entrepreneurial journey we relied solely on excel sheets to manage accounts. However we were then introduced to Quickbooks, and it completely changed the way we viewed our accounts. With this software we were actually able to extrapolate a lot of data and zoom into key metrics by which we could monitor the growth of our business. Many business owners wait until they have an ‘established’ business before investing in standard accounting software. This is like wearing a helmet after you have experienced a fall. Undoubtedly experience is a great teacher and one should continue to learn from mistakes. There are however some precautions which should be taken beforehand, and getting software to manage your accounts is one of them.

There are many great accounting solutions available in the market today. These key questions need to be answered when selecting an accounting package:

1. What is your budget allocation for purchasing this software? (If a budget has not been allocated there are many free accounting solutions which one can find online)

2. Do you want the software to run locally on your computer or would you want web access to your data?

3. How many users will be using the software?

4. What is the primary purpose of purchasing the software? (Do you require a simple application which helps to track all of your incomes and expenses, or do you require one through which you can manage inventory, payroll, invoices etc)

5. What level of reporting will be required? (If one requires simple profit/loss, cash flow and balance sheet statements there are a lot of great packages out there. For more complex reporting, software like Quickbooks premier can generate detailed reports on sales report per employee and profitability per product)

Once these key questions have been answered, you will have a better idea for the sort of solution required and your search would have been made easier. When you have selected a software, assign someone or a group of people to continually update it to ensure access to the latest activity. This acts as a safeguard and protects over exposing the business to unnecessary risk as well as maximizing the opportunities currently in hand. I plan on creating a widget which will compile the answers to the questions above, and help provide a list of appropriate software or services. If anyone would like to help me out in creating it please let me know at blog (at) usmansheikh.net

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5 Steps to Manage Startup Risk

“I think that only daring speculation can lead us further and not accumulation of facts.” Albert Einstein

In the first post of this series, I added a video which stated life = risk. If we shield ourselves from all sorts of risks by staying in our small comfort zone we will not be living life fully. It is our perrogative to find a balance to ensure that we live life to its fullest. The points below relate how to find that balance when starting a business.

1. Market Risk: Our world is in a constant state of flux and with mind boggling technological advancements taking place, we have to be constantly aware of the changes taking place around us. This requires us to monitor our competitors, be in touch with our customers and suppliers, and watch for trends which could potentially make your business extinct. To read more about how to manage market risk please click here.

2. Operational Failure: All companies operate on a set of processes. These processes drive all avenues of business, ranging from Internal operations, business development, sales, marketing and execution to name a few critical functions. When these processes are not optimized or closely scrutinized a business will not be able to scale effectively and reach its target goals. To read more about how you can avoid operational failure please click here.

3. Financial Risk: Without financial controls a business loses its foundation and is on shaky grounds even when the company is making steady profits. Ensuring that you have sound and reliable financial controls in place will allow you to minimize your exposure to financial risks and allow your business to grow more effectively. To read about how you can add financial controls to your startup please click here.

4. The People Risk Factor: You hear it all the time, “Our people are our most important asset”. Its like a mantra that has been wedged into our sub conscious and is constantly repeated from board meetings to your daily staff meetings. However, I am always surprised that though this is such an important asset, very few steps and measures are taken to mitigate the risk associated with this asset. To read more about how you can add effective control measures to mitigate these risks please click here.

5. Lessons in Risk: Having been in this line of work for some time now there have been several risk factors which I have witnessed or experienced first hand. These cover the time you should start, what the risks of starting without a plan are and the kind of risks you have to deal with on a daily basis. To read more about these lessons please click here.

In life and business, if you stop taking calculated risks, or if you let doubt  paralyze you, moving forward becomes close to impossible. It is only when you make mistakes that you learn from them and eventually move forward. Along the way we have to manage the types of risk faced and ensure that we take precautionary measures to avoid risking it all if we do not know where we are headed. Once you know what you want and how you want to get it, take action , because thinking ‘what if’ is just about the worst thing you could do to yourself!

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Personal Experiences With Risk

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” Paulo Coelho

The risks mentioned in prior posts provide a framework on mitigating risk in various divisions of business. Some of the risks and counter measures mentioned in this post are general and some those I have personally encountered during my journey as an entrepreneur. 

1. Start as early as possible: The younger you are , the lower the  risk level when embarking on new startup ventures. This is a point in life when you do not have many personal responsibilities and can hence take on greater leveraged risks, for greater payoffs. There will never be a right time. If you wait around for it, you drastically reduce the level of risk you can take . 

2. Don’t start without a plan: Starting a business is a lot of fun and very exciting, however, if you do not have a solid business plan which has been well researched and developed, get working on that first. I am not a fan of shotgun startup ventures who are clueless about where they want to go and how they plan on getting there. 

3. Learn to trust your gut: There will be times when the plans looks too good to be true on paper, but your gut feeling is to be wary. On the other hand ,there are times when the pieces do not fit into place initially, yet, your gut says this is worth exploring. Learning to trust your gut allows you to hone into your inner guidance system and intuitive capabilities.

4. Don’t forget your core values: We are constantly faced with challenges where compromising on core values could lead to substantial benefits. However, going down that path poses great personal and moral risk . I have personally known someone who went down this path and ended up losing everything that mattered in his life. It was an incident which left a deep impression. Compromising on core values is one of the greatest risks you can take and one where the consequences are long lasting & long term.

Some of the concepts mentioned in this posts have many counter arguments. Such as the first one, which is to start early. Some argue that it is better to get some work experience before venturing out into the startup world. Others believe in just starting a business and hoping to eventually make some money. I would really like to hear what your thoughts about this are. Look forward to hearing from you.

 

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The People Risk Factor

Our mission statement about treating people with respect and dignity is not just words but a creed we live by every day. You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed the employees’ expectations of management.” Howard Scultz

You hear it all the time, “Our people are our most important asset”. Its like a mantra that has been wedged into our sub conscious and is constantly repeated from board meetings to your daily staff meetings. However, I am always surprised that though this such an important asset, very few steps and measures are taken to mitigate the risk associated with this asset. As a startup this is one of the most dangerous sort of risk we are exposed to, due primarily to our size. When a critical team member or employee leaves, the entire business can be brought to its knees. Listed below are a couple of risk control measures you can use to protect this asset .

1. Strict selection policies: At early stages, startups are usually 2-3 individuals who know each other and are comfortable spending days on end locked up in an office, working on the next big idea. Adding new partners or employees represents a large undertaking, and requires serious looking into . If you make the mistake of adding the wrong individual, productivity in the office takes a nose dive and the cost of replacing the employee is high. So use this list along with your own requirements to ensure that you select carefully.

2. Ironclad contracts for new employees: A lot of private data is shared regarding costing, pricing and internal processes with new employees. Many startup companies fail to get employees to sign non compete and confidentiality clauses. The risk of losing an employee to a competitor with your trade secrets represents a phenomenally large risk against which you should take counter measures .

3. Quarterly one of one reviews: I usually have quarterly reviews with most of the individuals whom I work closely with . This is an open and candid session where I learn about their level of satisfaction, frustrations and other problem which may be hindering them from performing up to mark. These sessions provide critical feedback and allow you to take precautionary measures to ensure you do whatever is necessary to retain your most talented performers.

4. Provide training and development: Most startups run on strict financial budgets, however if they have used strict budgeting controls as stated in my previous post, a budget for training and development should be in place to provide your team with training ,which will help improve their productivity and skills. This helps in creating stronger bonds between management and employees. It also increases the overall morale and productivity levels of the organization.

5 Fair rewards & recognition: If your team is generating high levels of growth for your organization they need to be compensated fairly. In some startup companies, which are not heavily venture backed this can be a challenge as funds are usually very tight. However, management needs to ensure that performance and rewards are tightly linked. If they are not, you stand a high level of risk to lose your rainmakers. To read more about rewards and recognition please click here.

We have to do whatever is necessary to ensure that we cater to our team wherever possible. It is a difficult juggling act to manage expectations and requirement, at the same time maintaining an environment where productivity and morale is high. If not correctly maintained there can be nasty repercussions which can bring your organization to a standstill and expose it to extremely high levels of risk. However if it is correctly managed, this asset becomes your organization’s competitive advantage, and paves the way for greater achievements.

 

 

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Financial Risk

“Before you can really start setting financial goals, you need to determine where you stand financially.” David Bach

In most businesses I have been part of todate I have been lucky to have partners who excelled in the field of financial control. Over the years I have come to realize that without these controls a business loses its foundation and is on shaky grounds even when the company is making steady profit. Once you have a financial accounting system in place and have reliable data regarding the forecasts, budgets and the companiy,s cash flow, your teams gains a morale boost knowing that the business is supported by strong numbers and an understanding of the numbers that have to be hit to keep everyone afloat. Listed below are a couple of a pointers which formulate the basis of this foundational core to reduce the risk of your business going under, due to lack of financial control.

1. Using an accounting system: One of the first things you need to do if your business has a sizable inflow and outflow of finances is to buy an accounting system. For those without financial background this provides a professional framework to operate in and to record in detail the financial health of your business. I have used Quickbooks  and it has proved to be a relatively simple and robust accounting system.

2. Forecasting: This provides the business with goals and direction and an outlook for goals that need to be realistically achieved. Doing yearly and quarterly forecasts provides the team with numbers that need to be hit to ensure steady and profitable growth. Without them, you are aimlessly wandering from quarter to quarter and never really hit any targets. Most importantly your goals must be SMART, setting unrealistic expectations will only result in decreased morale.

3. Budgeting: If you have set forecasts and goals for the company, they must be adequately supported by funds to ensure they are met. This is difficult for early stage startups and one of the primary reasons so many venture backed companies burn through their initial funding. There need to be strict controls to ensure that you use your budget as a control measure thereby avoiding hemorrhaging cash through miscellaneous expenses which are fund consuming .

4. Cash flow: The inflow of funds in your business must exceed the outflow . Even though the concept of cash flow is simple to understand, it is a  primary reason why many small business fail. By not correctly managing the flow of funds you will be placed in awkward situations where you will not be able to meet expenses. Review your policies on customer credit and negotiate favorable terms with your suppliers. Keep checking that your expenses are being matched by your revenue and if possible, develop a cash cushion to weather you through the difficult times.

If you have not implemented these basic controls at your startup, I strongly suggest that you take steps to integrate them into your daily operations. This will help provide everyone in the team with a transparent picture of the health of the company. Initially it will take  time to set up all the controls and will take some getting used to. However it will be well worth the effort. Take control of your finances today because lack of financial control should not be the reason you go out of business!

 

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