The Bumps in the Road

For many start ups, the beginning can be a bit like living hand to mouth, and the financial bumps in the road caused by bad clients, poor cash flow etc, can be quite a challenge. If the challenges did become too much, you might find yourself considering Insolvency and in need of advice from an Insolvency Practitioner but I wanted this article to look at how to manage common financial issues (the big and the small) in the first months/years of a new start up business to avoid letting the bumps get the best of you.

Starting a business is a major life step change. There are many early financial challenges that need management and planning. Approach and execute these in a systematic way.

Planning

Planning a new business venture is fundamental to its success. Financial planning involves budgeting and putting required finances in place.

Budgeting involves estimating revenues and expenses for the business monthly, usually for its first three years. You need to be confident that the business will generate a profit after all costs, and enough profit to give you an income that you can live on.

You next need to extend that into a cash flow forecast which anticipates the bank receipts and payments monthly. This will indicate the finance requirements of the business, which will include monies you can invest in it at the start, and external finance such as a bank overdraft facility. If adequate finances are not available to fund the cash flow forecast, then the project is not viable. This could lead you to look at other potential sources of finance (such as crowd funding) revisiting the budget to cut its scale; or abandoning the project completely.

The final step is to test the model for risk. What is the effect on profitability and/or cash flow if: sales are 10% less than expected; stock purchase prices rise unexpectedly; or bank interest rates increase? You then need to consider strategies for these events, and look at ways of mitigating the risk. For example if the risk of a customer going bust before they pay you would devastate the business cash position to the stage where it would itself run out of money, then appropriate mitigation might be improved credit vetting procedures and taking out bad debts insurance.

Most new businesses fail because they run out of cash. As a general rule longer life assets (plant and vehicles) should be financed by long term finance (hire purchase or bank loan.) Other working capital cash requirements should be funded by cash introduced personally and/or bank overdraft. Be wary of introducing funding yourself that you have had to borrow personally (e.g. credit cards or home equity loans.) If the business fails then you are going to have to live with the consequences for years after.

Check with your accountant or tax helpline whether or not you need to register for VAT or PAYE. If you are liable to do so and do not do so then there are financial penalties and back-dated recoveries. With many businesses such as eBay traders, VAT registration can dramatically affect the profitability, and it may well be worth restricting the business sales to below the registration thresholds.

Recording

It is necessary to record the businesses actually performance to comply with tax legislation and also to see how actual results compare against your budgets so that you have early warning of potential problems and can act on them. There are a lot of time demands on the entrepreneur, and it is easy to under-resource bookkeeping and reporting at the price of say marketing activity. Follow certain rules to make the process simpler and more accurate.

Choose a simple bookkeeping system that is not over-sophisticated for the nature of what you are doing. Solicit external bookkeeping help if accounting matters are complicated or there are a large number of transactions.

All business expenses need to be recorded, otherwise a false picture of profitability is given. Many costs are incurred between having the business idea and achieving the first sale (e.g.: professional fees; marketing; company formation; visits to suppliers.) These are all business expenses and should be recorded as such. Similarly when the business starts you might use a personal asset (e.g. a laptop) for business use; use your own car; or dedicate part of your house for a business office. These costs should be apportioned and recorded.

Open a separate business bank account. All business transactions should go through it. Draw your salary to live on as one monthly amount. Don’t take out varying small amounts of money as personally needed. Don’t put any other personal expenses through the business account, and don’t pay business expenses through your personal bank account or credit card.

Prepare monthly accounts and don’t rely on the bank balance as a measure of success. Some of these bank funds may be PAYE or VAT and don’t belong to the business.

Consider using relevant tax elections available to reduce the administrative burden on small business (e.g. Annual PAYE; and the Flat-rate, Annual Accounting, and Cash Accounting VAT schemes.)

Monitoring

So we have a plan, and when we start trading a monthly record of how well we have done against that plan.

Act on any large negative variances, for example if sales fall below budget the need for greater advertising spend may be indicated. If things do not move to correct themselves in future months more dramatic action may be required: get a part-time job to supplement business income; or cut the size of the workforce.

On the other hand if things are going better than planned, don’t immediately take out a cash bonus for yourself. Recognize that individual monthly figures can be distorted, for example by seasonal trading. Rewarding yourself for good performance is better done after one year’s trading; in discussion with your accountant; and in consideration of the tax effects.

Business start-ups have a high failure rate. Some of these will be poor business ideas which were not viable in the first place. Much the larger number will fail because the entrepreneurs have neglected the financial planning recording and monitoring of their businesses. So to take steps to avoid that unpleasant winding up petition, begin with systematic approach to monitoring, then you can minimize the risk of failure, and reduce its effects if it does happen.

As Your Business Grows

As your business grows you will need to ensure that you keep things in order. The key to a successful business is effective management on all levels and keeping on top of the books is one of the aspects that create the biggest headaches in the early days. This need not be the case now, gone are the days of heavy ledger books and endless tapping on the calculator, the internet is now bursting with bright, user friendly bookkeeping packages with more features than the average small business could ever need. Choosing the one that fit’s the needs of your business should be your main influence along with the ease of use and compatibility with other technology.

By keeping clear bookkeeping records, you will be able to monitor all aspects of the financial status of your business which will be particularly relevant in ensuring that you remain tax compliant especially as your turnover draws near to the VAT Registration Threshold, which is currently £83,000 and for ensuring that your business can afford to take on staff.

Bookkeeping Software

There are packages on the market now to suit just about every budget and manage everything from the basic day to day bookkeeping through to robust reporting and analysis tools. The latest trend is moving away from the desktop and into the cloud offering access from your PC and through smartphones. So how do you decide which is the best option for you? For the tech savvy small business owner on the go a package that offers a solid mobile app that can handle the everyday functions such as invoicing and recording expenses will prove to be an administration asset, couple this with an on the go payment processing app such as iZettle and you can virtually manage most things from the palm of your hand. For those who prefer the big screen option then there are no end of choices there too.

Most providers offer the opportunity of a free trial, usually one month, make the most of this and if time allows trial several simultaneously, this will allow you to evaluate them clearly using identical data, by the end of the month you will probably find that you are only working with one package, the one that works best for you!

The other big advantage linked to cloud based packages is the ability to share information in real time, this can be valuable if you find you need assistance.

Taking on employees

As time goes on you may find that you need to take on an employee to assist with some aspects of the business. It is vital that you manage this correctly as failing to do so will result in penalties and fines.

When you decide that your business is ready to take on an employee you will need to ensure that the correct processes are followed, in the majority of cases you will need to be registered as an employer with HMRC and report your payroll information in real time using appropriate software. Most Accountants will be happy to offer compliant payroll services. Don’t forget to take into account your responsibilities in terms of your employee’s eligibility to work in the UK and so forth. You can use background checking services such as uCheck in order to ensure you are aware of anything that may have appeared on their criminal record.

You will also need to ensure that you clearly understand your obligations as an employer, employment law is complex and the penalties for employers in breach can be astronomical, one of the best resources for employers is Acas, originally set up by the government in 1896 as a voluntary conciliation and arbitration service, Acas have now separated from the government and now give advice to 800,000 callers per year with respect to employment related questions, resolving disputes and promoting good practice through their training courses.

VAT

As mentioned previously, the current VAT Registration Threshold is £83,000, put simply, this means that once your business turnover reaches this level within any 12 month period you should register for VAT. This is compulsory. In some cases, it may be advantageous to register voluntarily before you reach this level, this is particularly beneficial if your business sells a high volume of zero rated or exempt goods such as Children’s clothing and certain cold foods for example, in this instance you would then be able to reclaim VAT on eligible expenses.

When to register

If you are registering voluntarily then you may do this at any time; however you should take appropriate advice to ensure that it would be clearly in the best interests of your business to do so.

If you have reached the VAT Registration Threshold then you must, by law, register for VAT within 30 days of your business exceeding the threshold, if you register late then you must pay the VAT from the date from which you should have been registered, and HMRC may also add an additional penalty depending upon how late the registration was notified and how much VAT was due.

Managing VAT

Once registered for VAT you will need to complete and submit your VAT Returns, usually every 3 months. You should ensure that your returns are correctly calculated and that all records are kept in order.

You may wish to instruct your Accountant to manage your returns.