Unlike this city in the desert, you only get a chance to set up best practices once.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
Those going to Burning Man next week will be arriving to a city that did not exist a few weeks ago and will cease to exist in just a few days. It is one of the very few examples of its kind where everything is temporary, and can be re-done better next year when the entire city will raise again from nothing.
Unfortunately, startups do not have the flexibility to start over each year. The systems that are put in place early on form a foundation that will affect the company’s performance for the foreseeable future.
Here at Burkland Associates, we help our startup clients set up scalable systems that not only minimize the friction from everyday accounting, but also ensure that the business runs smoothly over time. While supporting startups with on-demand bookkeeping and accounting services for many years, I’ve identified five important items that should be kept in mind when setting up your systems. Here are some of the details on these five set-up practices, so you can be mindful and avoid unnecessary pains as you grow.
Quite often I find that many startups that are poised for fast growth choose bookkeeping systems that can’t keep up. Although Freshbooks, Bench.co, and Indinero seem like simple solutions to start, their automation and integration with outside apps and services are far inferior to other solutions such as Quickbooks Online and Xero. This ability to connect easily to outside services offers the flexibility to optimize accounting systems to each company’s specific needs. As for expense reimbursement software it’s best to choose one, such as Expensify and Abacus, that not only syncs with existing accounting software, but has the ability to structure multi-tier approval paths (although a young company may only have one approver at the moment, this almost certainly will change as the company grows). The same for bill payment solutions- chose one that syncs and scales such as Bill.com.
Opening a bank account early on for your startup not only is the easiest way to begin organizing your company’s finances, but it also offers the opportunity to develop a relationship with an important business ally- your bank. Co-mingling personal finances with your company is a no-no, and the opening of a business account (along with appropriate debit and credit cards) has the added benefit of less expense reporting and reimbursement activity. So, avoid using your personal credit or your savings account as soon as possible. Also, be sure to select a bank who is supportive to the startup community. Here in Silicon Valley, several banks, such as SVB and Square 1, have developed special services for startups that result in lower costs and red tape for you, with the added benefit that they help their clients network. In addition, when you develop a relationship, there will be someone you know on the other end of the line when you need your bank to work with you.
With ever changing payroll tax laws, periodic filings, and the need to make sure your employees get paid on time, there is a lot that can go wrong during the payroll process. Make it easy on yourself and hire a low-cost payroll provider that will handle these responsibilities and more. Gusto, for instance, not only syncs automatically with QBO and Xero, it provides your employees easy onboarding, digital pay stubs and direct deposits right into their personal bank accounts.
This is the time to set precedent. Take some time to think of best practices regarding issues that impact your bookkeeping and accounting systems such as credit card usage, expense reimbursement approvals and limits, collection of accounts receivables, client and vendor onboarding, etc. Document these policies and procedures then share and train you crew. Early adoption can help avoid bad habits and ensure that your team is singing from the same sheet of music.
Your startup will begin generating tons of information regarding your finances. However, for this information to be meaningful, you need to become familiar with accounting principles that signal different aspects of the health and growth of your company. Sales, COGS, Gross Margin, Net Margin, Burn Rate, AP/AR, and Cash Flow are only as important as your understanding. Websites such as Accounting for Management, Accounting Coach, and books such as Financial Intelligence can help, but for a deeper understanding you might want to consult with an experienced CFO or Controller.
Although the five items listed above seem obvious, with hectic days of coding and acquiring your first customers, it is easy to ignore the accounting/bookkeeping function. Yet, you don’t want to; as an initial focus on setting up scalable and efficient accounting systems will save you time, money and energy in the future. And if you get stuck, there are several terrific and cost effective on-demand bookkeeping and accounting services (like ours!) that can help you get on track.
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No matter your size, you’ll need financial guidance to gain or maintain momentum.
Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Christopher Michel.
Medium’s blogger John Cutler wrote an interesting article on startup complexity (Complexity is a Startup Killer. Don’t Grow Up) in which he analyzed how the two advantages of a startup – speed and focus – start to evaporate as your company grows. His advice is to resist the complexity that comes with growth and avoid the temptation to: Let features reproduce; Add endless sales tools; Multiply enhancements; Add more people to the Board; Find more and more partnerships; and Hire “experienced” people.”
To this last part about hiring experienced people, Cutler adds “Company experience doesn’t equate to Startup experience.” As an on-demand CFO at Burkland Associates, I’m a member of a team that enables access to startup experience on a fractional basis, enhancing a Company’s ability to scale up with the guidance of a strategic financial resource – when you need it!
A forward-thinking startup rents before buying whenever possible. Posit the following two scenarios where “renting” a CFO can help you minimize growing pains and burn.
Scenario 1: All the low-hanging fruit is coming your way.
A friend with a green thumb tells me “plants usually die out of an excess – not lack of – water”. Sadly, this is the case for many startups that find money and initial traction come their way relatively easily. I’ve been at more Board meetings than I would like to count in which investors were pushing their portfolio CEOs to scale up faster. On the surface, there is of course nothing wrong with scaling quickly; after all, startups are about speed.
The problem comes when scaling up follows little planning – tracing a horizon based on the initial traction that a talented business development person may have generated. Planning involves understanding how the interdependencies of product delivery, market expectations, and customer management could evolve. If you follow short term thinking without considering longer term context you may find yourself in a quagmire in future growth stages. As your strategic financial partner, people like me can help you craft the right plan.
Burkland CFOs can help develop a sound business model that plans growth looking at likely and unlikely scenarios (developing contingencies for them), and evolves your business in the right direction with models that show how to sustain and improve margins while optimally servicing existing customers. Smart investors look beyond traction, they want to see “smart traction” that doesn’t dry up and lives up to the market challenges you will inevitably face. A sound plan helps you to attract the additional capital and key resource hires you need as you scale, and becomes critical to sustaining momentum.
Scenario 2: You’re struggling to gain momentum.
If you’re losing sleep, it’s most likely because you’re not growing as fast as you expected and the solution is not obvious. You’re draining cash and not building the business growth story you need for your next round of financing which, by the way, is around the corner.
The challenge becomes one of creating processes to drive efficiency, fine-tune key variables such as pricing and levels of service, and buying time to figure out your market and educate prospect customers. You can’t justify hiring a full time CFO given your size, but you need a strategic minded CFO more than ever to stabilize your business, or face dire consequences. A part time CFO from Burkland is a huge asset in your corner to help you find traction. In this case, renting is a no brainer because a hired gun brings the relevant experience you need to figure out how to start sales momentum in context of a plan, as most of us have seen this problem several times even in your own industry.
Lack of traction can be a blessing – just ask SaaS star Slack, which came out of a failed gaming company – if and only if you have the right guidance to know where and how to tweak your model. A strategic CFO from Burkland could give you the partner and coach you need to help solve the puzzle and develop sustained traction.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to speak further. Thanks
Make sure you plan ahead; it’s going to be a bumpy ride no matter what.
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”- Dwight Eisenhower
Developing a financial plan is one of the most beneficial actions you can take as an entrepreneur when starting a business. A financial plan is like a spec for your company; it forces you to translate business strategy into a concrete business plan and to establish an operating roadmap that identifies the timeline for your key business milestones. As you develop your plan, your team and your investors will align on the goals and objectives to move your business forward.
A financial plan is also an essential tool for raising capital. Your projections enable you to determine your business’ funding requirements and communicate the financial opportunity to investors. In discussing your plan with prospective investors, you can demonstrate the financial literacy that investors expect from executive teams.
There are three types of financial plans that every start-up needs: a Long-range Plan, an Annual Budget, and an Intra-year Forecast. Here are some details on each.
1. Long-range Plan
A Long-range Plan is the first financial model a start-up should build. The Long-range Plan should include a 3-5 year outlook, with the number of years determined by how long it will take to prove and scale your business model. You should build the plan with monthly detail for at least the first 2 years, and you can plan the remaining years quarterly or annually.
The Long-range Plan should set your vision for the business model and help you to test the sensitivities of your key business drivers. It is helpful to prepare different scenarios of the model so you can anticipate and plan for different outcomes. I generally recommend preparing a base-case, a best-case and a worst-case scenario.
Investors expect to see your projected funding needs and the business milestones that can be reached in advance of each funding round so that they see a path to scale. You should target enough cash raised between rounds to last at least 12 to 18 months. Think of this plan as building blocks and create it as a detailed bottoms-up plan while keeping a top-down view as a reality check (e.g. what % of the market can we reasonably expect to capture?)
One crucial detail that many new CEOs overlook (sometimes fatally) is to ensure you forecast your cash flow, not just your income. Make sure to account for the timing of working capital (accounts receivable, inventory, accounts payable) collections and payments as well as capital expenditures. Poor working capital management causes many early-stage companies to fail.
2. Annual Budget
The second type of financial projection you should prepare is an Annual Budget, which is a detailed monthly plan for the coming year, generally prepared in the quarter prior to the upcoming fiscal year. The Annual Budget is presented to and approved by your Board of Directors.
It is always a good idea to preview your thinking, assumptions and high-level numbers with your investors before you send them the budget and ask for their approval. Sit down with members of the board that are willing to brainstorm scenarios for the year with you to ensure you get good advice and the buy-in from your board members before the actual board meeting.
Once your Board approves your Annual Budget, it becomes your North Star to measure performance throughout the year. Ensure that every executive team member is involved in the process of creating the Annual Budget, as their input and buy-in to the process is crucial to their performance. I recommend you share the Budget with the entire company to ensure everyone is aligned with the organization’s goals (although some executives prefer to omit sensitive details, such as the timing of cash running out).
3. Intra-year Forecast
As its name suggests, an Intra-year Forecast is simply an update of the budget completed during the year to reflect actual performance to date and an updated view of what is expected for the balance of the year. An Intra-year Forecast is an important tool to manage your cash and make the necessary adjustments to stay as close to the Annual Budget as you can. I recommend preparing an Intra-year Forecast at least 3 times per year – at the beginning of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarters.
As the quote at the beginning of this article says, “plans are worthless but planning is everything.” In general, reality significantly deviates from your plans. By having a plan, you will quickly identify when business and market conditions have diverged from expectations and you will be prompted to quickly react and adapt. One of the most useful things that on-demand CFOs like us can help you with is to develop Long-range Plans, Annual Budgets and Intra-year Forecasts to help you plan, monitor and grow your business with confidence.
Here are some useful articles that dive deeper on these three essential types of financial projections.
Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Christopher Michel.
Pay-as-you go or subscribe?
Have you ever wondered why managed service providers usually hesitate to offer subscriptions?
What my experience as an on-demand strategic CFO for several managed services tells me is that the reason is rooted in the concern over the need to change customer behavior, as the traditional financial transaction for the industry has been on-demand, pay-as-you-go. Therefore, selling services requires consumers – both individuals and businesses – to buy into a completely new way of acquiring services.
Interestingly, both your customers and your organization need to change your behavior in order to have a subscription model that sticks. The White Paper, linked at the bottom of this article, we just published gives some hints on how to do this successfully.
Slow to subscribe
The managed services sector has been slow to adopt subscription business models despite the success of product companies in doing so. Recent subscription model pioneers include software developer Pivotal Labs, medical services provider OneMedical, mobile application QA tester Testlio and airline operator Surf Air. However, using a subscription model to sell services is still a new concept. The main concern seems to be the need to change behavior of the consumer of these services, which includes both individuals and enterprises. Importantly, this model also requires your company and your people to change behavior, as managing a subscription model is a different game that requires different skills.
The 4 keys to a sticky subscription model
In this White Paper, I’ve drawn upon my experience to identify several key success factors common to managed services providers using the subscription model. Pioneers will lead the charge in changing consumer behavior and reap first-mover benefits. Their success will depend on their ability to activate four key success factors:
Download the White Paper to get the full insight into activating a subscription model that sticks.
GET THE WHITE PAPER HERE:
Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley photographer and entrepreneur Chris Michel.
Your CFO: A co-pilot you often need to rely on for handling a healthy HR process.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
Sometimes in a startup, your CFO will need to step up to handle non-financial duties and act as an informal COO. The reasons can range from fast growth to a key VP leaving to the need to establish processes, or even to simply not having the team/bandwidth to complete the needed work. Because of his or her familiarity with the daily pulse of the company, the CFO is often in the best position to assist, especially in matters regarding HR.
Several of us at Burkland Associates have been required to take over the HR processes of our clients for some periods of time. This can look like a trial by fire for a CFO, so we created a framework that helps us evaluate the company’s HR options and choose the best path. Limited resources are usually the norm, and the priorities often start with ensuring you can secure payroll and benefits, closely followed by the need to find an HR partner who can handle the recurring process of compensation and give you strategic HR cover.
There’s no quick fix for a function as central to success as HR, which touches everybody in your company. However, you need to find a balance between the urgent and the important so that the path takes you to a well-functioning HR practice. Here are some guidelines you may find useful as you evaluate partners, whether it be your part-time CFO, a 3rd party resource, or a combination of both, who can help you run HR without a glitch in the short and long run.
The ability to set and run compensation & benefits must be at the top of the list when you are evaluating an HR partner/service provider. The five things we look for are: a) does the partner have an employee help desk for all HR/benefits/payroll questions & issues? b) Can they create employee communication materials? c) Will they help you set compensation levels and stock option programs with relevant benchmark data? d) Can they support you regarding compensation and benefits compliance? and d) As you grow, do they have the capacity to organize, coordinate, and run open enrollment meetings and health fairs for your people?
A solid HR partner needs to help you establish written HR policies and procedures that can accommodate your startup’s team growth and help you attract the right talent. In addition, their HR policies and procedures capabilities must include a sound and clear process for hiring, on-boarding and also one for termination. Finally, make sure their policies and procedures include compliance with regulations in your market.
HR is one of the areas where technology has made a huge difference for companies of all sizes over the last few years. A partner needs to have a good Human Resource Management System (HRIS) with integrated HR, benefits and payroll functionality, and benefits enrollment software. It also helps if the system has an employee on boarding self-services portal, and gives you the ability to easily implement and manage payroll.
As you grow, you need a partner who can provide expert guidance on recruiting strategy, not just short-term tactics and practices. This strategy often includes a hiring plan and a pipeline of the positions you need to fill over time. Ideally, they will manage this hiring plan and the recruiting pipeline for you. Expert guidance also includes giving you access and helping you make sense of compensation benchmark data that is relevant to your industry and to the stage of your company.
Finally, an important but not urgent task for a good HR partner includes an initial strategic HR audit and a review of the big picture with you and your executives. As time goes by, your partner should be able to provide guidance on the strategic HR road map they help you develop, while giving you sound advice and expert guidance with setting the crucial cultural tone for the business that reflects the unique essence of who you are, often, this essence is found through interviews with management and well-designed employee surveys.
These five elements are by no means exhaustive. HR is a complex task. However, evaluating HR help using these five areas as a guide provides the cover you need to have a well-run, healthy HR function that accommodates growth and supports recruitment and retention. Most importantly, solid HR practices designed early on can ensure you nurture and maintain your culture through time, no matter your size.
A consumer play not yet served by Amazon. Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
“Warren Buffet just confirmed the death of retail as we know it,” – that’s the headline of an article published by Business Insider last week. If your startup is in the consumer retail space, you should take notice.
Warren Buffet is usually spot on when it comes to having long-term vision. To illuminate this long-term view and how it applies to the consumer retail outlook, here is an exchange he and Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, had at their most recent annual meeting earlier this month:
Warren Buffet: “The department store is online now, I have no illusion that 10 years from now will look the same as today, and there will be a few things along the way that surprise us, the world has evolved, and it’s going to keep evolving, but the speed is increasing.”
Charlie Munger: “It would certainly be unpleasant if we were in the department-store business.”
As strategic CFOs for consumer startups, we’ve learned 3 lessons we’d like to share in order to help you position your startup to attract the investment that will bring success in the evolving retail landscape that Mr. Buffett refers to.
People love Amazon. Consumers are used to finding and ordering on their site or app in a painless and quick way. You do not want to be solving a problem they don’t have. You therefore will have a hard time raising money for an online business selling things that can be easily found and bought on Amazon, like regular books, toys, and small electronics. If you focus on these types of commodity items, investors will have a hard time believing you can source your products for less, or get them to the customer faster, or even get people to visit your site in the first place and transact there when they already have Amazon Prime.
Yet, there is hope for your startup. Although it may seem like they already sell everything, Amazon didn’t get to every category at once (for instance, they are just now getting to furniture and groceries). They didn’t do every category well on the first shot either (case in point: fashion). Your opportunity to play alongside this online giant is by focusing on a niche they are presently not choosing to focus on or have historically had execution challenges with because of obstacles related to merchandising, vendor relations, or other factors. A complex selling process also opens up a window of opportunity, for instance, a market where you need to customize the product online (like glasses), or a market where regulatory compliance makes Amazon’s standard checkout process insufficient (think pet RX), or areas where merchandising is key (like designer fashion).
If all it took to imagine the future of retail was visualizing empty malls and a world where every purchase is made on a mobile app, a sharp guy like Buffet would not have said that “there will be a few things along the way that surprise us.” Although news about the death of bricks-and-mortar retail and retailer Chapter 11 notices surrounds us, many local shops are doing quite well. Online brands are building and emerging faster than ever. One of their “secrets” seems to be to open physical retail along the way for brand support, and for retail “showroom-ing”. This term is used when an online brand (like Warby Parker or Bonobos) opens a bricks-and-mortar location that is open to the public in order to let the customer touch and feel the product. This allows the company to get closer to their end customer and acquire feedback that will be essential for future product development. Often these new retail showrooms carry very limited or even no inventory for purchase, and customers need to wait for their purchases to be mailed to them, as if they had purchased online, while they have had the benefit of a physical try on.
The destruction in legacy retail is a naturally occurring forest fire; it is creative-destruction that opens up space, and creates opportunities for new brands in the form of short- and long-term and pop up leases in premium, high street locations and malls. These opportunities would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. If you think bricks-and-mortar are dead, think of millennials; as connected as they are, they also like to stroll their local neighborhood on weekends and find stuff they can buy. Tourists from areas of the country less dense with early adopters, and international arrivals in particular, can also be introduced to new, emerging brands – in fashion, home, electronics, even food & beverage and health & wellness – through strategically placed physical outposts in high traffic locations. Physical space is here to stay for those startups that are creative and use it to augment their digitally-driven business models.
The model invented by Zara and H&M has put many former titans of the mall on the brink of irrelevance – and they did not do it by shifting consumers online. Fast fashion companies like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 know that consumers are fickle and what is hot now can become old news next month. Their entire model is designed to take new styles from the designer’s desk to the shelf in just a few weeks, without squeezing their suppliers. As a result, their initial buys are shallow and frequent, and stores only carry current stuff that will not need to be heavily discounted because it went out of fashion while sitting in a warehouse waiting to be shipped – which is a huge issue their competitors have.
Having a lite – or even zero inventory – business model reduces the investment in working capital, which in consumer businesses, is often a risky asset. Getting to inventory-lite requires high inventory turns. High inventory turns are made possible by a kick-ass concept-to-shelf design process, aided by superior logistics. Even better than inventory-lite is inventory-zero. Inventory-zero is inherently less risky, requires the least working capital, results in the highest operating margins, and has a tendency to translate into a free cash flow machine. VCs know this. Think eBay, MercadoLibre, Grubhub, and Opentable, who don’t even own anything they sell. They are the toll-takers of the internet, taking a piece of other people’s transactions, but never actually taking the risk of owning anything or the expense of warehousing or shipping anything. These agency businesses are fantastic business models, but they tend to be winner-take-all because of the importance of scale and network effects, so when attempting to build a toll-taker business, be prepared to answer questions about how you will acquire your customers, how much it will cost to do so, and who your competitors are.
Use them to fine-tune your value proposition
These three things to have in mind when formulating the plan for your consumer startup are by no means exhaustive… the comprehensive list of potential ways to maximize the value of your consumer startup would be a very long one. These are however three key things you should keep in mind as you try to define your value proposition for VCs. They are also key items to keep in mind as you prepare your strategic plan and do your long-term modeling to ensure you have an attractive beachfront to compete supported by smarter finance.