Sound financial management is at the heart of every business, no matter how big or small. Without it, even viable and potentially profitable businesses will fail.
Every year in the UK, around 400,000 new start-up businesses begin trading, but just two-thirds of those are still in business within three years and just half remain after five years. For most of those businesses, it’s not a lack of customers or poor-quality products or services that are responsible for their demise – it’s simply a lack of cash.
Important financial decisions have to be made right from the off. There is no bedding-in period. While some small business owners may have prior experience running a business or have strong financial literacy, many are complete novices. That’s when it pays to have resources to turn to that will guide you through the crucial early decisions and the financial tasks you’re going to face.
This guide to managing small business finance has been written for those with limited business finance experience in mind. It’s for those of you who have had an idea and decided to pursue it, but now need a little help to manage your finances effectively.
A Guide in 5 Sections
We’ve split the guide into five sections, each designed to help you through a crucial aspect of your small business’s financial development.
- Managing and Tracking Small Business Cashflow
- Small Business Accounting Basics
- Financial Planning and Forecasting for Small Businesses
- Managing Small Business Debt
- Understanding your Small Business Finance Options
Part 1: Managing and Tracking Small Business Cashflow
Cashflow is defined as the money that moves into and out of your business over a specific period.
Cash comes in and goes out of your business constantly. It comes into the business as ‘income’ from customers and clients who buy your products and services. It flows out of the business in the form of ‘expenditure’, such as rent, wages, monthly loan payments, payments to suppliers, etc.
‘Positive cashflow’ i.e. when you receive more income than you pay out in expenditure, must be maintained if you are to remain in business. If you have positive cashflow, your business will be able to pay its bills when they’re due and meet any unexpected costs.
There may be periods where you experience ‘negative cashflow’, for example, if you buy a new piece of machinery or a payment from a customer is overdue. Potentially, you may have to rely on a bank overdraft or short-term loan to cover this cashflow shortfall. However, as long as the negative cashflow has been planned for and your business reverts to a positive cashflow position, it should not cause a serious problem for your small business.
Cashflow is usually tracked over a standard reporting period such as a month, a quarter or a year.
Why is Cashflow so Important for Small Businesses?
Cashflow is critically important to the success of your small business.
A lack of cash is one of the most common reasons why businesses fail. Even the most successful businesses can quickly find themselves in trouble if their cash is tied up in late or unpaid invoices and they can no longer pay their bills.
One of the most difficult periods for cashflow is in the early days of your business. While you’re busy setting up the business, you will have many expenses but no clients or customers to create an income stream. That’s why it’s so important you consider your cashflow situation from the outset and make sure you have a temporary source of cash such as savings or an overdraft to keep you going while you wait for the money to start flowing in.
Keeping a close eye on cashflow is also particularly important for seasonal businesses. If you have a large fluctuation in income at different times of the year, you must track and manage your cashflow carefully. Although managing cashflow in this type of business can be tricky, it can be done, and we’ll show you how.
How to Manage Your Small Business Cashflow
So, what can you do to make sure your business doesn’t run out of money and fail?
(1) Create a Cash Flow Statement and Forecast
The best way to keep a close eye on the flow of cash in and out of your business is to create a cashflow statement and forecast. These very simple financial documents will give you a snapshot of your actual monthly cashflow and your forecast monthly cashflow.
These days, your accounting software should have a cashflow statement as one of its standard reports. However, if not, these documents are very easy to create yourself and do not require any prior accounting experience at all. This simple cashflow template and accompanying article from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants includes everything you need to know.
(2) Think about Your Payment Terms
Another big step in managing your small business’s cashflow situation is choosing appropriate payment terms. Many businesses that sell directly to the end customer take payment immediately. For example, a restaurant is paid once the customers finish their meal, while a plumber or electrician will expect to be paid as soon as their work is done.
However, businesses that sell to other businesses often offer credit in the form of payment terms of 7, 14, 30, 60 or even 90 days. Extending credit to customers and clients can be an effective way to attract new business and build trust, but it will also have a direct impact on your cashflow. Offering payment terms of 60 days might be attractive to a customer who will be able to ‘buy now and pay later’, but how will you operate while you wait for the payment to be made?
There’s also the perpetual problem of late payments to think about. Late payments are a leading cause of cashflow problems, so it’s worth thinking about how you’ll encourage your customers to pay on time. There are several strategies you could consider, such as charging interest on late payments, offering early payment discounts to incentivise customers to make quick payments or imposing ‘due on receipt’ payment terms.
(3) Choose who you do business with very carefully
As a small business, you must be selective about who you work for and credit-check new prospects before you agree to work with them. Turning down potential new contracts based on a credit check is certainly not easy, it takes a steely resolve, but it could be the best thing you do for your business.
Just imagine what would happen to your cashflow situation if you spent a month fulfilling an order for a single customer, only for them to accept the goods and refuse to pay. You could take legal action to recover the money you are owed, but that will be expensive and take time. During that time, how will you function without being able to buy new stock, pay your bills or pay employee wages?
Credit agencies such as Creditsafe and Experian allow you to instantly credit check a company online. If you see that the business has a less than perfect credit history, you might decide not to grant them credit or even choose not to work with them at all. Monitoring the credit activity of key individuals who are involved in the company could also be beneficial. If they’ve been associated with other organisations that have failed or are the directors of multiple companies at the same time, it might be better to stay away.
(4) Set expectations and make it watertight
Assuming a new customer has an excellent credit record and you’re happy to supply your goods or services, you now have to make sure they understand the terms under which you agree to do business. Although a verbal exchange might be used to initially agree your payment terms, you should make sure that is followed up with watertight payment terms and conditions in writing.
That should cover everything from delivery terms to what will happen if you’re not paid. Writing up your payment terms might sound time-consuming, but depending on the nature of your business, you may find that a standard set of terms and conditions available online that covers all the necessary details.
(5) Get to know the people behind the payments
To reduce the likelihood of payment delays, it’s always beneficial to build relationships with the individuals who will be making the payment. Checking that the invoice has been sent to the right place and all the necessary details are correct will help to reduce delays. When submitting the invoice, it’s also worth asking if there’s any reason why the payment won’t be made on time, as most people will do everything they can to not go back on their word.
Part 2: Small Business Accounting Basics
Unfortunately, running your own business comes with a number of time-consuming but unavoidable bookkeeping, tax and accounting tasks. Although they might be frustrating, these tasks are crucial to not only keeping your business safe and compliant in the eyes of the taxman but also to generating valuable information that you can use to run your business more effectively.
The reality these days is that the vast majority of small businesses use cloud accounting software to make day-to-day accounting tasks much easier, while some also work with an accountant who takes care of their filing obligations on their behalf. However, to run the finances of a small business effectively, there are still several important steps you must take yourself:
What are the Small Business Accounting Basics you Need to Take Care of?
(1) Open a separate business current account
All limited companies are legally required to have a separate business bank account. Although sole traders are not legally required to open a separate business account, doing so will save you some serious headaches along the way and make it easier to keep your finances in order. Consider factors such as transaction fees, withdrawal fees, introductory offers, admin features and the level of customer support that’s available when choosing your business account.
(2) Choose cloud accounting software
Almost all but the smallest businesses invest in some form of cloud accounting software. Cloud accounting software can be a perfect solution for business owners who would prefer not to hire a professional due to the costs involved. For growing limited companies, cloud accounting software is often used in conjunction with a professional small business accountant to make sure all their accounting and tax obligations are met.
(3) Consider hiring an accountant
Keeping on top of your accounting obligations is an ongoing job. In the early days, you might be able to submit your tax returns on time and file the company accounts yourself with the help of your cloud accounting software. However, as your business grows, you’ll find you have less time and your company accounts become increasingly difficult and time-consuming to produce.
The Small Business Accounting Terms you Must know
Whether you choose to hire a small business accountant or are happy to fulfil your accounting obligations yourself, there are some small business accounting terms you must have an understanding of.
Bookkeeping is the day-to-day administration you must do to keep your small business’s finances in the best possible shape. It includes tasks such as generating and sending out invoices, recording your expenses, monitoring your outgoings and paying employees.
If you run a limited company, you must produce and file annual accounts with Companies House every year before the end of your accounting deadline. This is a formal record of your yearly financial performance that must be presented in a prescribed way. Most limited companies use a professional to do this for them. The relevant accounts must be filed by your accounting deadline or you risk a fine.
Although sole traders do not have to file accounts, they should prepare a balance sheet and a profit and loss account each year.
Corporation tax is something all UK limited companies have to pay on any profit they generate that’s not ring-fenced. The current rate of corporation tax is 19 percent. To meet their obligations, companies must complete a corporation tax return every year and pay the amount due within nine months and one day of the end of the accounting period.
Sole traders and partnerships do not pay tax on their business profits. Instead, they pay tax via the self-assessment income tax system.
Self-assessment income tax
As a general rule, anyone who receives income which is not taxed at source must complete a self-assessment tax return. Sole traders must complete a self-assessment tax return to pay income tax and National Insurance contributions.
If you’re a limited company director, you’ll also need to register for self-assessment and complete a tax return every year, unless your income is taxed under PAYE and you have no other taxable income.
The gov.uk website has an online tool that will tell you whether you need to file a Self-Assessment tax return.
Income tax rates
Everyone has a tax-free personal allowance of £12,500 (2019/20). Basic rate income tax is paid at 20 percent on income between £12,500 and £50,000. Any income above £50,000 falls into the ‘higher rate’ band and is taxed at 40 percent. That then rises to the ‘additional rate’ of 45 percent for income above £150,000. National Insurance contributions must also be paid on income at various rates and thresholds
In the case of limited companies, dividend income is tax at lower rates and there are no National Insurance contributions to pay, making it a tax-efficient way to take money out of a limited company.
Regardless of your business’s legal structure, all businesses must register to pay VAT if your annual turnover is £85,000 or more. VAT registration is optional if your business’s turnover is below that. VAT is charged at the standard rate of 20 percent.
You must file VAT returns and pay/reclaim the difference between the VAT you have paid on business-related expenses and the VAT payments you have received. VAT returns and payments must be filed and paid quarterly.
As an employer, it is your responsibility to calculate and deduct income tax and National Insurance contributions from the salaries of your employees and pay them over to HMRC. PAYE must be paid monthly. You must also pay employer’s National Insurance at a rate of 13.80 percent.
Part 3: Financial Planning and Forecasting for Small Businesses
Financial documents have a crucial part to play in any small business. They have a wide range of uses, from the internal tracking of revenue and expenses to proving the viability of your business to investors and finance providers. Keeping on top of your financial planning and forecasting will also help you identify potential issues before they arise and allow you to make more informed decisions about the direction the business will take.
What financial planning and forecasting documents should a small business have?
There are four main financial planning and forecasting documents that every small business owner should produce and regularly maintain. That includes:
(1) Balance sheet
A balance sheet gives you a snapshot of your business’s financial standing at any point in time. A balance sheet is made up of three parts:
- Assets – The things the business owns (machinery, vehicles, buildings, etc.)
- Liabilities – The money the business owes (bank loans, debts to suppliers, etc.)
- Equity – The amount the owners have invested in the business
These three pieces of financial information can be used to calculate the net worth of your business at any time. A balance sheet that shows a positive balance, i.e. the total assets of the business are worth more than the liabilities plus equity, shows that your small business is built on solid financial foundations.
The balance sheet also gives third parties such as the bank and prospective investors a clear picture of how the business is being financed. If you do not have the money to invest in the business yourself (equity) then you will have a higher value of liabilities.
Here’s a sample balance sheet along with templates you can use to create your own.
(2) Profit and loss statement
A profit and loss statement summarises the business revenues and expenses over the course of the year. Using those figures, you can calculate your net profit or loss for the period. Maintaining an accurate profit and loss statement will allow you to measure your profitability over time, and critically, it will determine your breakeven point (the revenue you must earn to cover the company’s total expenses).
Creating profit and loss projections for future years can also be invaluable for your business. Creating three different profit and loss forecasts based on the best-case, worst-case and most likely scenario will give you an idea of how your business is likely to perform in the coming months and years. If you forecast the business will make a healthy profit, you may decide to invest in new plant, staff or R&D projects. If your forecast indicates low profit levels, it might be time to consider cost-cutting measures.
Here’s a sample profit and loss statement and a simple template you can download.
(3) Cashflow statement
We’ve already discussed how the level of cash in your business can make or break its financial health. For that reason, a cashflow statement is a document you’d be wise to create and maintain.
A cashflow statement reflects the inflow of revenue and the outflow of expenses from your business activities over a specified period, typically a month or a quarter. It allows you to make sure there is enough cash in the business to operate effectively on a day-to-day basis and take action before problems occur.
Here’s a simple cashflow statement template from the ACCA.
(4) Breakeven analysis
A breakeven analysis is used to determine the number of units you must sell or pounds of revenue you must receive to cover your total costs. In the early days of a new business, it is not unusual for a small business to make a loss. However, over the longer term, if the business struggles to breakeven, it’s a sign that it may not be financially viable. Calculating the breakeven point can help you determine if your prices are too low or your costs are too high and evaluate a potential business expansion or new project.
Here’s a simple guide you can use to conduct your own breakeven analysis.
Part 4: Managing Small Business Debt
Debt is undoubtedly a useful tool when starting and growing your small business, and in reality, the vast majority of small businesses will rely on debt financing of some type. However, there’s a fine line between having debts that you can manage and debts that are spiraling out of control. Sometimes, all it takes is a single event such as a market downturn, a late payment from a customer or a dip in sales to tip the balance.
Good financial management is about the little things. It’s about taking public transport to meetings rather than taxis and reducing costs where you can. The same can be said of managing small business debt. You need to keep a constant eye on the situation and take steps to prevent debt from snowballing out of control.
What Steps can you Take to Manage Small Business Debt More Effectively?
(1) Create a rainy day fund
It’s impossible to plan for every eventuality in business, so just as in your personal life, it pays to have some savings you can dip into when you’re faced with unforeseen costs. If you have some money left at the end of the month, top-up your savings fund and make sure there’s always a minimum amount in the account. That will reduce your reliance on a business overdraft and credit card to cover costs such as long-term staff illness and the breakdown of vehicles and allow you to take advantage of unexpected growth opportunities.
(2) Cut unnecessary spending
If debt is becoming a problem for your business, there are likely to be cost-cutting measures you can take that will not impact your ability to run the business effectively. That could include cancelling a weekly cleaning service, reducing the amount you spend on office supplies, making non-essential members of staff redundant and meeting clients in coffee shops rather than hiring meeting rooms. You’ll be able to revert to your regular spending habits once your debt is under control.
(3) Increase your revenue
There could be a number of relatively simple ways to increase your revenue that you’ve overlooked. For example, something as simple as offering an early payment discount to your customers could lead to a short-term cashflow injection. Alternatively, if you’re not using all of the available space in your business premises, you could consider subleasing the unused square footage to raise additional income or downsizing to lower your rent. On the other hand, if you have a method of marketing your business that’s proven to generate results, increasing your marketing spend temporarily will lead to an upturn in sales.
(4) Consider refinancing
If you have a business loan that you’re repaying at higher than the current market rate of interest, consider refinancing in favour of a loan with more manageable monthly repayments. If business loans aren’t available at lower interest rates, make paying off loans with the highest interest rates a priority. You should pay off any debts that you have provided a personal guarantee for first. That will ensure your personal assets are not at risk if the business defaults.
(5) Negotiate with suppliers
Do not hesitate to negotiate with suppliers and ask for discounts when you place bulk orders. You could use lower quotes from other suppliers as leverage or draw on your history of making prompt payments to negotiate more flexible or extended payment terms. You could also consider teaming up with another small business to make bulk purchases at lower prices.
(6) Manage and boost your credit score
Your ability to qualify for business credit of any kind, whether it’s a business credit card, a small business loan or a property or equipment lease, will depend on your business’s credit rating and history. The better your credit history is, the easier it’ll be to secure finance and the lower the interest rates you’ll have to pay.
Taking steps to increase your credit score may not reduce your debt repayments now, but it will help you access more affordable credit in the future.
Tips to increase your credit rating include:
- Check your credit report: Obtain your business’s credit report from major credit reporting agencies such as Equifax and Experian. That will provide information to help you raise your score and show you which accounts are negatively impacting your report.
- Reduce your credit utilization rate: Keep your credit utilisation rate, that is, the amount of credit you use in relation to the amount of credit available, at less than 15 percent.
- Create more positive credit events: Establish credit accounts with suppliers to increase the number of positive payments on your file.
- Add successful payment experiences manually, if necessary: Not all vendors and suppliers share payment data with business credit-reporting agencies. However, you can add positive payment experiences to your credit file manually by contacting the agency.
- Make sure your details are accurate and up to date: It’s important to make sure the details on your credit file are accurate and up to date. If you see something that’s on your report and shouldn’t be there, give the credit agency a call to dispute it.
(7) Raise funds to repay your debts
It’s not always easy for an indebted business to raise funds as investors will typically view a business that’s free from debt as a better investment proposition. However, there are still several options open to you:
- Borrow from family and friends: Borrowing money from family and friends can give you access to funds at favourable rates that you would not receive from the bank. However, it can also put a strain on your personal relationships, so it’s something you should think about very carefully.
- Realise company assets: Selling non-essential company assets could be an effective way to raise funds to repay your business’s creditors.
- Seek investment: Opening up the business to new investment could be an option for your business; however, the presence of debt means investors are likely to want more of your business for their money.
Part 5: Understanding Your Small Business Finance Options
At some point in the development of your small business, you’ll probably need to seek business finance in some form, whether that’s to deal with short-term cashflow issues or to fund the growth of your business over the longer term. There are numerous business funding options available to you depending on the nature of your business and the particular challenges you face or the opportunities you want to capitalise on.
Although there are plenty of different ways to raise money for your business, the reality of securing the funds you need can be tricky. However, how you go about securing the funds can make a big difference to the success or failure of your business, so you must consider all your options very carefully.
What’s the difference between debt financing and equity financing?
There are two main types of business financing: equity financing and debt financing.
- Equity financing is the most common method of financing a small business. It involves an investor making money available in exchange for a share in the ownership of the business. This could be as a silent partner or as a shareholder who will have a say in how the business is run. In return for their investment, the investor will receive dividends and will eventually hope to sell their share in the business for a profit.
- Debt financing is more familiar to most people because it is the basis for many personal credit products. In a debt financing agreement, the lender charges interest on money that is borrowed by the business. The lender does not receive a share in the business. Instead, the borrower agrees to repay the loan along with interest at the end of the agreed period. Payments are typically made monthly.
What are the pros and cons of equity financing?
- Reduced risk: There’s less risk with equity financing as there aren’t any fixed monthly repayments to make.
- Improved cashflow: Equity finance doesn’t take cash out of the business, boosting cashflow and reducing the money needed to finance growth.
- Long-term planning: Equity investors don’t expect to receive an immediate return on their investment, which allows the business to take a long-term view.
- Bypassing credit problems: Businesses with credit problems that secure investment can access funds without having to pay inflated interest rates.
- Cost: Equity investment involves a high level of risk so investors will expect a sizeable share of the business. The proportion of company profits they receive could be higher than the cost of debt financing.
- Loss of control: The business owner will lose some control of the company and will have to consider the views of equity partners when making business decisions.
- Potential for conflict: The investor may not always agree on the best way forward for the business, potentially leading to conflict.
What are the pros and cons of debt financing?
- No dilution of control: Taking out a loan is temporary. The lender has no say in how the business is run and the relationship ends once the debt is repaid.
- It’s tax deductible: Interest paid on a business loan is a deductible expense when your tax bill is calculated. Dividends paid to shareholders are not.
- It’s predictable: You know exactly how much you’ll have to pay to service the debt every month so it can be planned for in advance.
- Payments are fixed: While the predictability of the debt repayments can be an advantage, there’s very little flexibility if you experience a temporary cashflow shortfall.
- Security: Lenders will typically demand that business assets are provided as security on the loan. Those assets could be at risk if debt repayments are not made. The owner may even be required to guarantee the loan personally.
- Qualification: Not every business will be accepted for a debt finance deal.
- Cashflow: Debt repayments will eat into the available cashflow every month, potentially hindering the business’s growth.
What different types of small business finance are available?
(1) Bank loans
Traditional bank loans are still one of the most popular sources of debt financing for small businesses and startups. This option is suitable for a business that has a good relationship with its bank, a sound credit history and a compelling business case. You should research loan types, terms and interest rates thoroughly to find the most appropriate deal for you.
One relatively new form of business financing is crowdfunding. With this funding method, you raise money from the general public via crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo. Investors can either lend you the money via a peer-to-peer lending agreement or receive shares/equity in your business. This is suitable for businesses with an attractive proposition that can attract plenty of investors. However, it can take a long time to reach your funding goal.
(3) Invoice finance
Invoice financing is the process of essentially selling your unpaid invoices at a discounted rate in return for receiving the cash upfront. That means, rather than having to wait for 30, 60 or even 90 days for a customer to make a payment, you can release the cash tied up in the invoice almost as soon as it has been issued. This can be an effective way to raise finance for businesses with a poor credit history that need a quick injection of cash.
(4) Business credit card
Using a business credit card to fund your small business can be risky. If you fall behind on your repayments your credit score will take a serious hit. Equally, if you just make the minimum payments every month, you can create a debt that’s difficult to clear. However, use it sparingly and responsibly and a credit card can be a useful tool to boost your cashflow and make occasional business payments.
(5) Small business grants
The wonderful thing about small business grants is that you don’t have to pay the money back. Small business grants are designed to reward innovative companies and businesses that operate in an area of need by offering direct cash or discounts on important resources. The grant will usually have to be used in a specific way and the criteria businesses must meet can be tough. The government’s business finance support finder is a good place to search for grants.
(6) Venture capital
Venture capitalists are professional investors who invest a significant amount of money into a business in return for an equity stake. They typically invest in startup businesses with high growth potential to help the business grow quickly so they can realise a good return on their investment in a relatively short time frame. Venture capitalists typically offer expertise as well as money, but you will have to be prepared to give up a significant chunk of your business.
(7) Enterprise Finance Guarantee
Many viable small businesses don’t qualify for bank lending simply because they cannot provide sufficient security to meet the lender’s requirements. In that instance, the government’s Enterprise Finance Guarantee can provide a guarantee of up to 75 percent of the value of the loan. That can give you access to finance streams that might not otherwise be available as long as your business meets the strict qualifying conditions.
(8) Short-term business loans
For businesses with relatively small and immediate financing requirements, short-term loans could be just what you need. This type of loan is extremely quick to arrange and the cash can be in your account in a single day to help you cover immediate overheads such as rent and payroll. This can be an effective funding option if you’re just bridging a gap and are confident you’ll have the cash to make the repayments on time. However, the rates of interest are high and the costs can quickly mount up.
Put Financial Management at the Heart of Your Business
Managing the finances of your small business shouldn’t be an afterthought. If your business is to survive past the five-year mark, when 50 percent of UK small businesses have already failed, it must become a fundamental part of your strategy. Understanding the numbers that drive your business will improve your decision making and help you identify when it’s the right time to invest in growth and when cost cutting measures must be put in place.
At AABRS, we advise company directors and sole traders whose small business finances have become unmanageable. That could be due to a cashflow shortfall or bank loans, tax bills and wages that cannot be paid. We can provide you with a full range of options to help your business emerge unscathed from a problematic financial position and go on to be a profitable business once again. We can also advise you on the formal and informal insolvency processes that will help you reach the best resolution for you and your business.