The Basics of Cash Flow for your Small Business: Terminology, Best Practices and More
Cash flow is one of the most important aspects of any small business. If cash flow is not managed correctly, a small business can quickly go under and fail to survive. In this blog post, we will discuss cash management terminology and best practices for your small business so you are in the best position possible to avoid failure!
In June 2019, half of the small businesses in the UK had negative cash flow. This is a no-nonsense guide to everything you should know about cash flow management, terminology, and best practices for your business. Follow these steps and get the basics right and you’re putting your business in the best position to avoid cash flow problems.
These topics are covered, each one essential to understand, if you are running your own business:
1. Cash flow definitions.
2. Cash flow importance vs profitability.
3. Cash flow formulas.
4. Cash flow traps to avoid.
5. Improve your cash flow today.
6. What is free cash flow?
7. What is a cash flow statement?
8. What is a cash flow analysis?
9. What is cash flow forecasting?
10. What software can I use for cash flow management?
1. Cash flow definitions
Cash flow is of course the movement of cash in and out of a business.
- Cash into your business can be generated through the sale of goods or services, money earned through investments, or money borrowed.
- Accounts receivable is where you’ll find invoice amounts still to be paid.
- Trade debtors are another name for customers.
- VAT/GST will sometimes be applied to any sale you make.
- Cash-out of your business will usually fall into these categories: debts, expenses, bills, wages, purchases, and tax.
- Accounts payable is where you’ll find bill amounts you still have to pay.
- Trade creditors is another name for suppliers.
- VAT/GST will sometimes be applied to purchases you have made.
A cash flow statement categorizes cash flow into three sections:
- Operating: Cash flow from the business's main operations. For example, when goods are sold, services are provided and cash is gained from this.
- Investing: Cash flow from long-term investments in assets, loans, and payments, such as the purchase or sale of a property.
- Financing: Cash flow with regards to how a business is funded, including investments made by the owners, investors, or the receipt or payment of bank loans.
2. Cash flow importance vs profitability.
Rather obviously, the Small Business Administration says that “inadequate cash reserves” are the top reason startups don’t succeed but the facts don’t lie, understanding cash flow is vital to the success of your business and must be prioritized.
Understanding the rhythm of your business’ cash will ensure that you are never left short at crucial times in the month when salaries, tax, and balance sheet liabilities, like loan repayments, are made. Not having enough cash to cover your bills and responsibilities will put you in an insolvent position. This has to be avoided at all costs. 1 in 7 business owners has been left unable to pay employees because of cash flow issues, equating to 2.2 million people in the UK not being paid on time.
Most small businesses don’t have up-to-date cash flow projections as the time to create them manually is too complicated and time-costly. An accurate cash flow projection should take current performance across revenue, operating costs, payment habits of both, financing commitments, etc. and using what you know about future trends and seasonality, adjust what you think the likely outcome of every account line will be, factoring in when the cash impact in or out will happen. A typical small business will have at least 100 accounts that they use in a chart of accounts, so it’s little wonder that it’s easier to hope for the best when looking to the cash flow future.
Profitability vs Positive Cash flow
Do not confuse profitability with being positive cash flow. You should assess both separately.
Profitability means your revenue is greater than all the expenses required to keep the company generating that revenue. Positive cash flow means the money comes in on time to pay the expenses and keep you from running out of cash. Timing is the difference between the two.
If you sell $1,000 of goods every month and spend $500 in a month, you will make +$500 profit. But, if you’ve paid your suppliers for the $500 expenditure within the month and fail to collect the cash from the sale of goods within the month you would have -$500 in negative cash flow. So many businesses fail due to poor customer payment collections, under a false impression that they are successful as there is profit showing in the Profit and Loss statement.
As a business owner, when relying on your bank balance and the P&L to indicate your business performance, you are at huge risk of forgetting all of the items you are responsible for “below the fold” on the Balance Sheet. Often, the biggest, lumpiest cash outflows that you are responsible for appearing there: VAT/GST, payroll taxes, loan repayments, etc.
This is why it’s important to understand the three classifications of cash flow: operational, investment, and financing. Ideally, you’ll want to establish a steady pattern of positive cash flow from operations (that is, bringing in revenue), regardless of how your financing and investment activities impact cash flow as a whole.
3. Cash flow formulas.
Focus on net cash flow as the most important formula. But, like everything in business, knowledge is power, so here are the other cash flow formula definitions that accountants and investors will use.
Net cash flow
Net cash flow = cash in - cash out.
Cash from operating activities
Net income + non-cash expenses + changes in working capital.
Net income is the same as net profit. It represents the amount of money remaining after you've been paid, and made your payments. Net income is commonly referred to as your 'bottom line'. Net income = total revenue - total expenses.
Non-cash expenses are expenses that are reported but not paid during the given period. Things that your accountant will often deal with at year-end. E.g. Depreciation, Amortization, Unrealized gains and losses, Stock-based compensation, Provisions for future losses
Working capital is the cash needed for a company to operate daily. Change in working capital is the difference between the working capital of the current year compared to the working capital of the previous year. E.g. Cash, Inventory, Accounts receivable/payable, Debts.
Cash from investing activities
Inflow from sale of assets/securities - purchase of assets/securities
Examples of securities and assets include Purchase of property, plants, and equipment, Acquisitions of other companies, Receipt of sale of another business.
Cash flow from financing activities
Cash from financial activities = receipt of equity/debt - (cash paid as dividends + repurchase of debt/equity)
Cash from financing is a result of raised capital and the repayment of debt. Common activities included in cash flow from financing are: Receiving cash from issuing stock or spending cash to repurchase shares, Payment of cash dividends, Receiving cash from issuing debt, Repaying debts, Receiving cash from issuing hybrid securities, such as convertible debt.
4. Cash flow problems to avoid.
Cash flow success doesn’t have to be tricky and understanding it is vital for the success of your business. We’ve covered the difference between profit and cash flow above. Here are more areas that can trip you up:
Stock control, like so many things, is a careful balancing act. Order too little stock and you won't be able to fulfill demand or act on opportunities of increased demand. Order too much and you tie up cash flow in products that will give immediate returns and will cost you in storage charges, decreasing the amount of cash available for day-to-day operations.
Taking too long to get paid
52% of B2B payments are still done by Bank Transfer which means that most small businesses rely on their customers to manually make payments within the agreed payment terms. Lengthy payment terms will leave you waiting a long time for the financial return on your work. Whilst you wait for your clients to pay, unseen bumps in the road will be eating into any cash reserves you have.
If the worst happens, say a large piece of equipment breaks, or you have a fire in a property, you might, despite being due payments from customers, not have the cash around to fix it yet and will need to rely on your savings. Making sure you get paid as soon as possible after completing a job enables you to replace those reserves as quickly as possible. Do you know the average time your clients are taking to pay you? Are you being a bank for your clients? Are you paying your suppliers too quickly (which has the reverse impact?). Futrli Flow monitors this and other customer and supplier behaviors for you automatically and will highlight opportunities to move customers to tools like GoCardless to automate your cash collections and get paid quicker.
Overspending and overtrading
It's so easy to spend cash when you're trying to grow your business. Facebook ads, SEO, websites, branding are all touted as the golden bullet to business growth. But don’t be tempted unless you have it planned. A rolling cash flow forecast prediction will ensure that you know how much you have available to spend today and in the future, considering all commitments. It should then let you try out decisions before you make them. Understanding the impact on your cash flow before you buy anything.
Similarly, overtrading can be detrimental - yes, unbelievably you can have too many orders. If you need to purchase materials before you get paid for fulfilling a job, you can end up spending more than you have in the bank, relying on overdrafts and loans. If invoices are then not paid on time, you can end up in tricky situations where you're having to scrounge for cash, or paying your expenses late. This is so often the cause of brilliant businesses failing.
If your business has seasonal implications you must ensure you are not spending cash you will rely on later in the year. A rolling, working cash flow forecast prediction is essential for all seasonal businesses allows you to ensure those good months help out the not so good, by helping you plan and budget your cash accordingly.
If you are building a cash flow forecast for the first time, it does not need to be difficult. Futrli Predict will do the majority of it for you, as well as predicting cash, it will also predict everything in your profit and loss and balance sheet, so you can use it to assess profitability as well as ensuring that VAT/GST is accurately calculated.
5. Improve your cash flow today.
Best practice strategies you can start immediately:
Stop late payers
Late payments are one of the biggest problems facing today's small businesses. In a recent survey by Xero and PayPal, it was found that 48% of invoices were paid 14 days late, on average. If suppliers are large enterprise businesses this can creep up to over 90 days late. In real terms, this means that the average UK small business is owed £23,360 in late payments, a 17% increase in 2018. This trend is similar in around the globe.
- Do not use home-created invoice generators or excel templates to invoice your customers. As well as giving you absolutely no insight over your business performance, it’s manual, not linked to your bank account, and completely ignores expenditure and all big balance sheet cash impacts. You must be on a cloud accounting package such as Xero or Quickbooks, to enable all of the seamless workflows you’ll see below as well as cash flow prediction tools such as Futrli Predict.
- Use Direct Debit. GoCardless will automatically collect payments for any invoice on the due date, whether recurring or ad-hoc. (GoCardless users spend 84% less time chasing unpaid invoices and 82% report improvements in their cash flow!)
- Be strict. Your customers are less likely to put off paying when they know there are strict conditions in place. Ensure you have an agreed payment date, payment method, and warnings of the relevant charges for late payments (important note: there are rules surrounding this.)
- Automate everything. Xero and Quickbooks have automated invoice reminders as standard so use them. They will send reminders to your customers and chase invoices if they're made too late.
- Use virtually free embedded payment solutions within Xero and Quickbooks such as Stripe to give customers who are not on direct debit, a one-click way to pay you using their credit card.
- Keep payment terms tight. For new customers try to get paid in advance or take a deposit. Only extend customers into credit terms as they earn your trust. If the credit score of any customer is bad - take it all upfront, and don’t be afraid to alter credit terms, if your customers' credit score changes.
- Know your rights. It's worth doing some research with government bodies like the Small Business Commissioner as to what to do if you need to take an unpaid invoice further. It's not a strategy to use every time, as it certainly won't help you build relationships, but when big cases strike, it's good to know your options and there is plenty of advice out there.
- Keep on top of the day-day. Get your bills and expenses photographed and uploaded via ReceiptBank into Xero, or Quickbooks. Raise invoices and send them with one click from there and get your bank reconciliation done over coffee on your phone in the morning. It’s not scary and we’re happy to help if you want guidance on the day-day.
Cut your costs
One benefit of building long-term cooperative relationships with your suppliers is being able to negotiate better deals with them, with reduced pricing or extended repayment periods. Use Futrli Predict to see your total spend with particular suppliers. You will be a customer they will be relying on for their cash flow for their next year and so may be willing to reduce costs to keep you. It also acts as an audit, in the tech world we live in now it is very easy to be paying for online services that you no longer use, the list of suppliers in Futrli Flow will reveal this!
Other ways to reduce your costs include evaluating and reducing your expenses, innovating new ways to make the most of materials (using leftovers), consolidating your production/office space, reducing paid marketing spend (and investing in organic marketing instead), going paperless. The options are endless.
If your cash flow is a pinch point, consider the money you're investing in the financing portion of your business. Are you reinvesting a lot? Are you trying to grow too fast, or at a bad time? Review the next 12 months as predicted in your cash flow forecast, maybe there is a more stable time from which to grow, use tools like Futrli Predict to see what happens to your cash flow if you delay expansion by a few months. Use data to drive decisions, not personal ambition or gut instinct.
Equipment and machinery will often require large upfront payments, as well as payments for the maintenance that comes with them. Especially in your early days, when these upfront costs are high as you have no trading history, one option to consider is leasing. It is more expensive in the long run, so we wouldn't recommend leasing everything you need, but it can be helpful for the equipment you won't need for every job or those with the biggest price tags. It is also more predictable costing - there will be no hidden maintenance costs with leased equipment so when cash is tight, this helps.
Alternatively, if you still want to buy, consider purchasing refurbished equipment. It will if from a reputable source, come with a warranty, and often be brand-new, having been deemed 'unsellable' for a minor fault or scratch.
Optimize your inventory
As we mentioned earlier, buying too much stock, or having excess stock on hand can be detrimental to your cash flow. By optimizing your stock, you can ensure these issues are well avoided.
Stock/inventory optimization should make your stock as lean and beneficial as possible. In the beginning, start with the minimum stock levels across the board. If you’re using EPOS software or inventory control software such as Unleashed, quickly you’ll paint a picture of the optimal levels you need every day, week, or month, depending on the sales frequency of your business. Automated cash flow AI predictions from Futrli Predict will also indicate the level of expenditure tied to revenue that you are predicted to need.
Increase your prices
Increasing your prices is the quickest way to generate positive cash flow. Pricing strategies should form part of your annual process. What are your customers actually willing to pay for your product or service? How have you asked them? Competitor landscape and the general economy will give indicators as to the price you charge, but if you can raise your prices with no customer attrition, you must. Do your homework first though and then put the same activity in the calendar for the following year.
6. What is free cash flow?
Free cash flow describes the cash a company has, after its operations, equipment, and assets have been taken care of.
Having largely positive free cash flow could tell you that you have money that can be reinvested back into the business or that you could pay off debts quicker.
If you use 3-way prediction software like Futrli Predict, you don't need to calculate free cash flow it is automatically calculated.
Free cash flow formula (simple)
Cash flow from operating activities - capital expenditures.
Capital expenditures, more commonly known as CapEx, are funds that are used to acquire, upgrade and maintain physical assets such as property or equipment. An expense is considered to be a capital expense when it is a newly-purchased asset with a life of more than a year or an asset that extends the useful life of an existing asset. Accounting detail: If an asset is being expensed as a capital expenditure, the cost of the asset is spread over the useful life of the asset.
CapEx = PP&E (current period) - PP&E (prior period) + depreciation (current period).
PP&E - property, plant, and equipment. These are your fixed, tangible assets. They're tangible as physical assets with clear purchase value. And they're fixed because they cannot be sold or turned into cash easily, likely to provide value to a business for a long period of time.
Depreciation - An accounting method whereby the cost of an asset is spread over the asset's useful life. Not as complicated as it sounds and really valuable as it can enable you to spread out the cost of the asset which will positively impact your bottom line! There are many types of depreciation to use.
7. What is a cash flow statement?
It’s a report that banks, investors, and boards will need to see. They cover both current activity and often future activity. A cash flow statement provides a summary report of the inflows and outflows a business has as described above; including cash from operations, investing, and financing.
Cash flow from operations
Cash flow from operations is the first section of your cash flow statement and includes transactions from all operating activities. These activities would include things like sales, paying employees, purchasing supplies, etc.
Cash flow from investing
The second section of a cash flow statement, detailing investment gains and losses. This could include the sale or purchase of properties, the acquisition of other businesses, investing in new machinery.
Cash flow from financing
Cash flows from financing is the final section of the cash flow statement, providing an overview of cash flow concerning funding the business. This includes a business's equity, debt, and dividends.
Analysts use this section to look at where a business sits in terms of borrowed funds - if cash flow from financing is a negative number, it means the business is paying off debts, making stock buybacks, or dividend payments.
What's a cash flow statement used for?
It’s a snapshot of where all of your cash has come from and gone to. And in the case of a predicted cash flow statement, it is then used to track actual performance as it happens. Without a handle on your cash flow statement as well as your profit and loss and balance sheet, you are driving your business blind. Don’t be scared of any of these reports. Contact us in Peer if you need some guidance or to ask questions that you’re scared to ask your accountant.
If you decide to apply for funding, your cash flow statement, among other financial documents, will be examined. They provide a look into the health of a business and its value. They also detail if the company is generating revenue, how it's doing so, and the types of debts they have.
8. Cash flow analysis
What is a cash flow analysis?
It’s unlikely that you will perform a full cash flow analysis, which is an investigation of a company's inflows and outflows. The analysis takes a set period and shows the movement of cash flow within that time. This is then examined, to look for trends and weak points, to inspire future strategies. These activities were often manual processes that a finance team would have to undertake, reconciling activity against projections, etc. With the advent of tools such as Futrli Predict, this analysis happens every time new data is automatically brought into the system. It is a standard piece of functionality, alerting you to expenditure, opportunities, risk, and dependency, etc. It also means that you can monitor this every day, week, or month (depending on the volumes of activity within your business), with no effort on your part and without having to wait for a finance professional to perform their analysis.
Why is cash flow analysis important?
This is a no-brainer, and yet so many business owners just don’t look or aren’t aware that they could use tools that would do the looking and analysis for them. As we have detailed, you cannot rely on looking at revenue, expenses, and your bank balance to assess your business health. Your risk level jumps massively if you do.
Creating a strategy based on your cash flow
Your overall business strategy should be built upon many of the factors affecting your business. Your cash flow is one of those factors, influencing when you decide to make or implement decisions for your business. Knowing where the weaknesses in your cash flow are and where they come from, will help you boost your business's performance. It also means if you’re regularly checking your prediction software, that you know ahead of time, of any possible cash flow dips. Being pre-prepared means you can solve the problem before it becomes one.
My cash flow is consistently good - what next?
Although having positive cash flow is great, having too large a surplus could suggest that you're not investing enough money back into your business, and are therefore missing potential opportunities to grow.
What can you do with surplus cash?
- Bank it - having a cash cushion for your business to fall back on can be a great idea as well as give you great peace of mind. Using your cash flow prediction software, you may know you have some tricky junctures coming up, so make sure you have some cushioning for those lower times. High-interest accounts and bonds are also an option if you're happy to lock the cash away for a while.
- Reinvestment - reinvesting cash back into your company is a great way to grow. Bettering your assets, expanding to new locations, increasing the budgets for your teams, investing in advertising or new staff... the possibilities are endless.
- Pension plan - another option is planning for your personal future, investing some of the surplus cash as pension contributions or property.
My cash flow doesn't look good - what should I do?
Most businesses will experience this, negative cash flow is just part of the business. Maybe you invested in a new piece of machinery or paid for next season’s stock. Maybe you've just had a bad month. Other times, when negative cash flow becomes a regular occurrence or appears out of the blue, it can be a sign of problems within your business. This is a warning sign to investigate the leaks in your business's bucket. Are you being paid late by customers? Where is the resource being wasted? Are there any holes in your teams or processes that need plugging?
Speaking to a financial advisor or business coach can be a great way to figure out where potential issues are in your business and how to fix them.
9. Cash flow forecasting
Cash flow forecasting? Prediction software? Is it for me?
We’ve described many practical uses of a cash flow forecast above, but here’s the ultimate guide. There are cash flow forecasts which just look at the cash flow implications of activity in your business. But the best forecasting software will also calculate predicted revenue, expenditure, tax commitments, profit, and so on. It is absolutely something that every business owner should be able to use to make sure they are making the best decisions for their business. You don’t need to be a finance whiz, an accountant, or a bookkeeper. You wouldn’t set off on a journey across the USA without a sat nav, helping you to find the fastest route and alerting you to issues ahead. You shouldn’t run your business without cash flow forecasting or prediction software.
What are the benefits of forecasting generally?
Armed with the knowledge of what you’ll have in the bank, your cash flow forecast will allow you to make educated decisions at the right time for your business. Here are some examples of questions that cash flow could help you answer:
- Can I start creating a new product/service?
- Can I open a new office/location?
- Can I start selling in a different area/country?
- Can I afford another member of staff or outsourced assets?
- Can you take more money out of your business?
- Are you at risk of running out of cash?
How do you create a forecast?
The short answer is you don’t have to anymore. AI technology advancements such as Futrli Predict mean that the complex and impossible forecasting that was only possible for finance professionals is now possible literally at the click of a button for any small business owner, whether they are comfortable with the numbers of the business or not. The ability to test out your decisions before you make them in addition to the automated predictions, means you have a second brain on your business 24/7.
We will detail below the rhythm that you should get into weekly with your business. It’s a 10-30 minute job, depending on the detail you want to get into. It’s also slightly addictive.
How far into the future should I forecast?
Forecasts are most beneficial for looking at the next year. They should be used in the short term for immediate planning and decision making and medium to long term to assess our trends today will extrapolate. Anything more than 3 years in advance is pointless, but you will need to forecast for this term if you are applying for bank funding. In rare situations, we have seen requests for 5 or 10-year forecasts but they should be stored on the fiction shelves. It’s important to remember that the further you look into the future, the less accurate your cash flow forecast will be as there are too many unknowns yet to pass.
10. Cash flow and management software.
What is the benefit of using cash flow software?
If you've made it to this point, hopefully, cash flow's feeling a little simpler. But, improving your cash management strategies might seem like a huge task to take on. So, it may be of comfort to know that there are several cash management tech solutions to help.
As many of these systems are cloud-based, they acquire data automatically, giving some benefits:
Accurate, timely, up-to-date
The automatic retrieval of data eradicates the chance of human error in data input. With multiple daily syncs, Futrli ensures the data you're presented with will show you the most up-to-date version of your business. When making decisions, you need the best, most accurate data possible, to support and inform your choices.
Utilizing software unites all of your data into one place. Trawling through reports or hopping from system to system uses valuable time and makes it easy to lose track. Software like Futrli makes it simple to stay on top of everything, by bringing everything into one place.
Not only does software adoption eradicate the room for error in data input, but it eradicates the need for you to do it all! Software like Futrli pulls information from many integrations. For financial data, we integrate with Xero and Quickbooks, the industry-leading cloud accounting software. So forget huge admin costs and man-hours, it's done for you.
What tool is right for me?
What exactly does Futrli Predict do?
In short, it predicts everything you need to be on top of for your business. Futrli Predict will take your historical accounting data from Xero or Quickbooks and transforms it in seconds behind the scenes into a fully predicted profit & loss, balance sheet, and cash flow for your business.
The presentation of the predictions is simple, user-friendly, and highlights things that you might miss if you were looking at a spreadsheet or financial reports (The reports are all there of course, in case you need to get funding). Predicted cash is at the forefront so that with every decision you test, the impact on cash is front and center. It’s the road ahead in the sat nav analogy.
For the nerds - read on to find out how Futrli Predict creates your calculations
The level of detail and accuracy it delivers would be nearly impossible to create without a full time-finance team who had significant spreadsheet skills (and salary costs). Spreadsheets also have a huge risk attached to them as they are prone to error.
Every day, twice a day, Futrli Predict will:
Generate full P&L activity for every account
- Bring in 12 months of historical reports (P&L, Balance sheet, and Trial Balance) and transactions, including invoices and bills.
- For every account, split out the different transaction types it finds there (as invoices behave differently to spend/receive money and journals),
- Predict P&L activity for each one for 3 years.
- Zip them back together into each account line creating summing their predicted activity for that account (predicted revenue, expenses, etc).
- Calculate gross profit, net profit, and all standard financial KPIs
Generate full cash impact of the above for every account
- Predict the cash impact of invoices and bills that are unpaid in your accounting package.
- Calculate and predict the cash impact of the activity that Futrli has predicted, based upon aggregated assessments of payment trends of every customer, supplier, etc.
- Calculate and predict the cash and balance sheet impact of VAT/GST from actuals and Futrli predictions as you would expect your accounts package to do it.
What can I do on top to get the predicted cash flow pinpoint accurate? In only 10-30 mins every week you should:
- Make sure your bank reconciliation in Xero or Quickbooks is done - it’s easy we promise. Reach out to us in Peer for guidance if you need it. You MUST do this before heading into Predict. (5 minutes a day)
- Review the unpaid invoices and bills in the Invoices section of Futrli Predict. If you’ve done your bank reconciliation, these will be accurate and you can edit their predicted payment dates with your insider knowledge to get your cash flow pin-point accurate. (3 minutes)
- Scan the charts of each account’s Futrli predicted activity and cash impact for anomalies that jump out (big spikes or lows) and click on the cell to find out “This number explained”. If you disagree you can turn the prediction off (it will still calculate in the background and you can turn it on if it starts to track with what you expect to happen). (5 minutes)
- Create your own predictions. There are lots of different methods that we can guide you through to cover things like selling products, subscriptions, split payments, accruals, prepayments, loan amortization, and so on. Futrli Predict isn’t psychic, so every week challenges the decisions you’ve made that impact the future, and test out new ones. (5 - infinity minutes). New staff? New product or service? Office move? Price change? Staff joining? Staff leaving?
- Bulk edit many actions at once. (VAT/GST %s, cash impact terms, modifiers)
- Move accounts into groups or re-order them
Note: For those with bigger, more complex businesses, we have Futrli Advisor. Deep business reporting, bespoke KPI dashboards, scenario modeling, consolidations with eliminations, and more.