Finance and Accounting 101

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A friend told me the other day that he was re-looking at my eBook “So you want to run an agency (and maybe sell it one day)”. He’d just sold his agency to a big International Group and they had put him in charge of that Group’s Regional office (smart choice, he’s very talented). I was flattered and intrigued. I wrote that book more than 10 years ago and to be honest I could not remember what I’d said so I refreshed my memory and was relieved to discover that the advice I give has mostly stood the test of time. I stand by it as far as an agency or consultancy is concerned.

In the intervening years since writing it I have spent most of my time investing in and supporting technology based businesses plus a couple of consumer goods start-ups, in all cases where professional outside investors are involved. I’ve been a NED and looked at a lot of business plans and financial results. My eBook is weak on finance and accounting for these kind of businesses. I’m not going to try to rectify that here – get yourself a very good finance director would be my first advice. I am, however, going to talk about what all the leadership team need to know about finance and accounting to get the best out of their finance director and run a better business.

The next piece of advice is that all the leadership team should understand P&L, Cash Flow and Balance Sheet. They should know the purpose of each, how they work, what the differences are and how they connect to give the complete picture on a business. They don’t need to know this to the standard of a Chartered Accountant but they need to know the basics. You’d be surprised how many don’t. These are all real and fairly recent examples:-

The CEO who told me their P&L was strong because he’d added the equity finance to the revenue line.

The CEO and COO who thought that being just above break-even meant they would not run out of cash. (They did – twice)

Several CEO’s who had no idea what they could or could not depreciate thus understating their P&L.

The CEO and COO who could not distinguish between equity, loan and deferred costs. (They even mistook an overdraft limit as the liability rather than the actual overdraft).

A senior business advisor (whose experience was all gained in large corporates) appointed as a NED to several start-ups who had no idea what a term sheet was.

Several CEO’s and COO’s who did not understand their various options to raise finance and the pros and cons of each.

I want to pause on this last example of financial ignorance. Of course you can use advisors to explain your financing options but you need to at least understand what they are and how they evolve as the business evolves. You must also appreciate that advisors, banks or financial investors will not weigh the pros and cons in the same way as you might as the actual person or team running the business. I will give three simple examples, all based on real situations I have seen first-hand.

The best way to finance your business is through growth (to be precise, operational cash flow). If you need, say, £500k to invest in the business, to hire new talent, build technology, put behind marketing, open up overseas markets etc, the very first place you should look is your revenue. Even if you can only squeeze a bit more from higher revenues that reduces the need to borrow or raise. Banks and investors will not tell you that, it’s not entirely in their interests.

It may nevertheless be the right option to raise money either through borrowing or raising capital . Where possible, borrow, it’s normally cheaper and more flexible. Selling (or issuing) shares is time consuming and expensive and places additional restrictions on the business.

When you raise capital you need a bit more than you think but not too much. I still hear advisors tell companies to take as much as they can get. There is some rationale to that as the process is time consuming so raising bigger amounts less often is better in some ways. Also, you never want to run out of money and have to ask investors or the bank, at short notice, for more. But the more you’ve raised the more equity you’ve given up plus too much ‘spare capital’ in a business has a habit of promoting the wrong behaviours. You must also be wary of the investors motivation – some US investors always want an early big raise so the business has plenty of capital. Why? Because they want to dilute the founders down so far they have to create huge growth to make their share worth something – if they can’t they’d rather know sooner than later so they can just move on to the next investment – Go Big or Go Home.

Simple but real examples that I hope show you cannot just rely on advisors or worse still the people offering you money. You need to understand it yourself.

Which brings me to the final point – you have to have some realistic understanding of how businesses are valued. Here are a number of things that could be used to estimate the value of a business to an acquiror:-

  • Multiple of Revenue
  • Multiple of Profit
  • Trading record over 3 years (trajectory)
  • Projected Cash Flow (and/or Free Cash Flow)
  • Nett present value of future profit (or cash)
  • Assets (Financial, Human, IP, Client, Distribution)
  • Contractual and other liabilities

I said ‘could be used’ to estimate value. The true value is what someone is actually offering to pay and that can depend on any and all of the above plus many other factors like the deal Structure (how the consideration gets paid). Depends on the business and it depends on the acquiror. But as the business leaders you need to have some appreciation of what they all mean, the implications for how you run the business, how you can raise money and where the information sits in your P&L, Cash Flow and Balance Sheet.

I must stress I am a long way from being an expert in any of the things I’ve covered – but I know enough to ask the right questions and to understand the implications of the answers. Even if finance and accounting is no part of your job description and you have the best advisors you still need ‘Finance and Accounting 101’ to start and run a business. That said, if your basic reflex is to drive the hell out of revenue and run a tight ship I’ll forgive you. Strong revenue growth and effective allocation and management of costs will cover a multitude of other shortcomings.

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