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.
To grow faster, follow their footsteps and learn from their mistakes.
For this article, I found a quote from Steven Dunn that says that “You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.” Quite fitting regarding how we can learn strategic finance lessons from second-time CEOs and avoid some of the mistakes they made in their startups the first time around. At Burkland Associates, we give strategic finance cover to many CEOs that have been there before, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned from them:
A few years ago, RedRocketVC came up with a checklist for startup success. One of the items on their list is “Flexibility to fine-tune model and navigate challenges.” We see it and hear it from our CEOs time and again: modeling is one of the very few “must haves” for any startup. For a startup, business modeling and finance modeling is exactly the same thing. It may seem like a theoretically painful process, especially early on, but it is definitely one that will yield many benefits. A sound financial model that you can iterate over time, provides clarity on the current business and also illuminates the strategic choices available. Furthermore, this model will focus product, sales, business development and management on the same strategic plan and the levers available to make it viable.
Another reason to invest time in modeling is that a sound financial model will help you see the holes in your go-to-market approach that an experienced investor will detect at first sight, enabling you to bulletproof your investor pitches. Also, strong financial modeling will help a founder show investors the tangible steps to transform their idea first into a successful revenue model (generates revenue but burns cash) and eventually into a successful business (generates both revenue AND cash!).
Although good accounting is a basic skill every startup needs, its role needs to be understood. It is natural for a good accountant to become a “right-hand” guy for a CEO early on. After all, the accounting person usually knows more about the overall business than other management team members. Thus the CEO will often use them as a sounding board for discussing future plans for the business.
This is where things can go wrong. Good accountants are trained to look in the rearview mirror to make sure you do not leave out anything from the financial scorecard that provides an honest assessment of historical company performance. What they are not trained to do, however, is look out the front windshield and see what’s coming and/or which strategic turn the company should take.
That is the role of a strategic finance professional, who can use both the rearview mirror as well as look out the front windshield to help a company navigate around the obstacles and find the opportunities in the road ahead. Accounting and strategic financial professional are very complimentary and should be brought in as early as possible in a startup’s life — and remember, they are more affordable than ever since you can rent both in the new sharing economy!
The third lesson in finance we can learn from second-time CEOs concerns financial discipline. Financial discipline implies running your business based on both your financial model (which is forward-looking) and your accounting (which is backward-looking). Take these two extremes. First, most first-time CEOs have a good innate sense of their monthly burn (they usually are signing the checks!) and yet they are often surprised when the money runs out.
Why? Often founders do not want to really think about what is happening to their dwindling cash and without a true cash flow statement it is easier to not think about what is coming. Real financial statements with a solid cash flow statement provides founders with an unambiguous picture of what is happening to their cash including how important payment terms and collections are to making your payroll in the coming months before that next fund-raising round. This becomes especially important with the big-name clients that often will only accept 60-day payment terms when most of your own expenses need to be paid in less than 30 days.
Strategic finance as an early partner to grow with confidence
Like second-time CEOs, most successful first-time entrepreneurs eventually come to realize the finance function is more than just parental supervision required by their institutional investors. The only question is how much time (and opportunity cost) passes before they recognize that strategic finance is a vital ongoing partner in company success…just like development, sales, marketing, and customer success.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.