“All financial projections are wrong, by definition. We’re human and we don’t predict the future accurately. So don’t expect accuracy. Go for plausibility, and then follow up with regular plan versus actual analysis, review and revisions. We call that management.”
– From one of my posts on Amex OPEN forum
Please don’t use financial terms incorrectly. Banking, finance, and investment assign exact meanings to several important financial terms. They are easy to learn and really important because using them wrongly in business plan financials is at best going to make a very bad impression, and at the worst could even be fraud.
The guardians of financial correctness live in an unforgiving world. Banking and securities laws make even some innocent financial errors look like fraud. Preserving the details of financial standards is the only way business numbers can stand up to legal scrutiny. Numbers in financial statements have to mean what they are supposed to mean.
And seriously, it doesn’t take an MBA degree or CPA certification to know essential financials required for business planning and, really, running a business. It takes focusing your attention for an initial few minutes and then having the discipline to check back when you need to. Read and understand this section, keep it in mind when you deal with financial projections, and you will be fine.
Sure, a good argument for teams in business is not having to know finance if you love sales, marketing, or product development. But you’re a business owner. These important terms aren’t that hard to learn and understand. You owe it to yourself and your business.
Like it or not, some very common terms including capital, assets, liabilities, costs, and expenses have very exact meanings in accounting and finance; but they are often used in conversation with much more flexible and fuzzy meanings. For example, in a conversation over coffee, a business owner might refer to her website as an asset; but in finance it’s an expense. And an employee whose work is sloppy might be called a liability; but that’s not proper use of the accounting term.
Just Six Terms
Every item in every standard accounting system is one of the following six terms. The first three (assets, liabilities and capital) appear on a standard balance sheet, and the next three (sales, direct costs, and expenses) appear on the standard income statement. Explanations of those, plus the all-important cash flow, are coming. But first, the six terms you need:
Assets are things of value a company owns. Money is an asset. Money in a bank account, or in securities like stocks and bonds, or liquidity accounts and banking instruments, is an asset. It goes on your books as some amount of dollars or pounds, francs, yen, or whatever currency you use. Land, buildings, production equipment, and furniture are assets. One definition is “anything with monetary value that a business owns.” Inventory is a very common category of assets, meaning the goods a business owns to resell (like the books in a bookstore or the bicycles in our cycle shop example), or, in a manufacturing business, materials to be assembled or processed to become a product.
Assets are often divided into current or short-term assets and fixed or long-term assets. The exact distinction between the two usually depends on decisions a company makes and sticks to consistently over time. Land and buildings are durable production equipment are almost always fixed or long-term assets, and furniture and inventory are almost always short-term assets. Some companies consider vehicles long-term assets, and some consider them short-term assets; and some vehicles (dump trucks and cement mixers, for example) are almost always long-term assets. You have flexibility on how you categorize long- and short-term as long as you know it and stick to it.
Assets can be tangible, like money in banks or physical goods, or intangible, like patents and trademarks and money owed to you, called Accounts Receivable.
Tax law and accepted standards dictate the value of the assets listed in your books. This can be annoying when your accounting lists a piece of land at $100,000 because that’s what you paid 10 years ago, even though its market value is $500,000 today. And tax code makes you list your patents and trademarks in your books at the value of the legal expenses you incurred in securing the registration; less “amortization,” a complicated formula that specifies in tax code the decline in value over time. And your plant, equipment, and vehicles have to be listed at what you paid for them less “depreciation,” another complicated formula that tax code specifies for their hypothetical decline in value.
Liabilities are debts: money your business owes and has to pay back. The most common liability is called Accounts Payable, which can be any money you owe to anybody but is usually money owed to vendors for goods and services purchased recently but not yet paid for. And there are notes, loans outstanding, long-term loans, and others.
Like assets, liabilities are often divided into short-term or long-term, and short-term liabilities are often called current liabilities. Accounts Payable are always short-term or current liabilities. Companies can choose how to distinguish between short- and long-term liabilities, as long as they are consistent. So some companies call debts owed within a year short-term debts, and others call them current debts. Some companies break out the next year’s payments of long-term debts as “Current Portion of Long-term Debt.” All of these options are fine as long as you maintain them consistently.
The quickest way to explain capital is by the magic formula that is always true in finance and accounting:
Capital = Assets less Liabilities
Capital starts formally with money the owners of a business put into its bank account to get it started. When our restaurant example owner Magda writes a check from her own funds to open a bank account for her restaurant, that’s supposed to go into the books as capital. It’s usually called paid-in capital. When an angel investor writes a check to a startup, that money goes into the books as paid-in capital.
You’ll also hear about so-called working capital, which is the money it takes to keep a company afloat, making payroll, buying inventory, and waiting for business customers to pay what they owe. Accountants and financial analysts calculate working capital by subtracting current or short-term liabilities from current or short-term assets.
And retained earnings, which are profits you didn’t distribute to yourself or other owners as dividends, or to yourself or other co-owners as a draw, add to capital in standard accounting. If there are no dividends, then last year’s earnings in the balance sheet are added to previous Retained Earnings to calculate this year’s Retained Earnings. And both Earnings and Retained earnings are part of capital, while dividends and distributions or draws decrease capital.
But none of those common interpretations of capital change the basic rule. The capital in a business is always, exactly, in every case, the number that results from subtracting the liabilities from the assets.
Most of us understand sales from an early age. Sales is exchanging goods or services for money. Technically, in standard accounting, the sale happens when the goods or services are delivered, whether or not there is immediate payment. Do you know it can be a criminal offense to report financial results including sales that you haven’t actually made, even if you are 99% sure your client intends to buy? Some very big companies have gotten into legal trouble for confusing optimism with actual sales, when for example they book a full year’s service contract into sales in the same month the customer signed the agreement. Technically the sale is for 1/12th of the annual contract value each month.
Direct costs (COGS, unit costs, cost of sales)
Most people learn COGS in Accounting 101. That stands for Cost of Goods Sold, and applies to businesses that sell goods. COGS for a manufacturer include raw materials and labor costs to manufacture or assemble finished goods. COGS for a bookstore include what the storeowner pays to buy books. COGS for Garrett, our bicycle shop owner in Section 3, are what he paid for the bicycles, accessories, and clothing he sold during the month. Direct costs are the same thing for a service business: the direct cost of delivering the service. So for example it’s the gasoline and maintenance costs of a taxi ride.
Direct costs are different down the value chain of a business. The direct costs of a bookstore are its COGS, what it pays to buy books from a distributor. The distributor’s direct costs are COGS, what it paid to get the books from the publishers. The direct costs of the book publisher include the cost of printing, binding, shipping, and author royalties. The direct costs of the author are very small, probably just printer paper and photocopying; unless the author is paying an editor, in which case the editor’s income is part of the author’s direct costs.
The costs of manufacturing and assembly labor are always supposed to be included in COGS. And some professional service businesses will include the salaries of their professionals as direct costs. In that case, the accounting firm, law office, or consulting company records the salaries of some of their associates as direct costs.
Direct costs are important because they determine Gross Margin. Gross Margin, which is part of the Profit and Loss, is an important basis for comparison with other companies.
It’s hard to define expenses because we all have a pretty good idea. Expenses include rent, payroll, advertising, promotion, telephones, Internet access, website hosting, and all those things a business pays for but doesn’t resell. They are amounts you spend on business goods and services that aren’t direct costs but reduce your taxable income and profits.
You have to understand what isn’t an expense. Repaying loan principle isn’t an expense. Buying an asset isn’t an expense. Purchasing inventory isn’t an expense; amounts spent on inventory go into direct costs when goods are sold, but they aren’t expenses.
The six essential financial terms work into three essential statements (for past results) or projections (in business plans or anything referring to the future). A pro-forma statement, by the way, is another way to say projection. TheProfit and Loss (also called Income) includes Sales, Costs and Expenses. The Balance includes Assets, Liabilities, and Capital.
And these three are conceptually linked and interconnected. The following illustration shows how they relate to each other:
The standards of accounting, like double-entry bookkeeping, make a delightfully automatic error check with the three statements. They link up conceptually so that if the balance doesn’t balance, it’s wrong. If assets are not the sum of capital plus liabilities, it’s wrong. If retained earnings don’t add up to profits less distributions to owners (as in dividends, or owners’ draw), it’s wrong. If your spreadsheet, or your software, doesn’t reflect every change in the profits to the cash and balance, and every change in balance to cash, then it’s wrong.
I’ve heard an intelligent successful lawyer claim that double-entry bookkeeping was the most important invention of the western world. I’m not going to go there in this book. I’m not doing debits and credits. But knowing how these statements link up is important.
Your business bookkeeping is going to be either cash basis or accrual. Too bad “cash basis” sounds so simple and attractive, because accrual is way better, and easier to manage too. Cash basis accounting only works right if you absolutely always pay immediately for every business purchase, and you never buy something before you sell it, and all of your customers pay you in full whenever they buy something from you. That case is extremely rare. So accrual is better.
Here’s why, in a few obvious examples.
You make a sale when you deliver the goods. If the customer doesn’t pay you immediately, in cash basis nothing is recorded. The sale doesn’t even show up in your books until the customer pays. In accrual, you record the accrued amount as Accounts Receivable, so you keep track of the amount, the date, and the customer who owes it to you. It’s obvious that unless you never sell without immediate payment, accrual basis is better.
You order some goods. When you receive them, you don’t pay for them. You owe the money. You have an invoice to pay. In cash basis, nothing happens until you pay up. In accrual basis, you record the accrued amount as Accounts Payable, along with the date, a record of what you bought, and who and when you are supposed to pay. So cash basis is better only if you pay everything immediately; all normal businesses need accrual.
I’m so sorry that the accounting standards that were set a few generations ago chose to call it “cash basis” when you don’t record money owed into your books until it’s paid; or money you owe until you pay it. It’s a terrible idea to keep that information in your head instead of in your bookkeeping. That causes many mistakes as we business owners fail to keep track and remind ourselves of these outstanding obligations. And yet, ironically, they call that “cash basis” accounting. I do wish that the right way to do it, which is accrual accounting, didn’t have such an off-putting name.
For any normal planning purposes, for any normal company, you should have at least 12 months detailed month by month for business plan forecasts. That would be for sales forecast, cost of sales, your burn rate, and eventually the complete financial forecast, if you’re going to do it. Then have another two years beyond that, for three years total, as annual projections.
That doesn’t mean you don’t think in longer terms. Think about what you want for your business for 5, 10, 20 years. I’m all in favor of that. But I don’t think you should plan for very long time periods in the detail of financial forecasts. The larger numbers — sales, for example, involve so much uncertainty that the time you spend trying to project more detail isn’t worth it. At least not in normal cases. If you’re farming lumber from tree farms, maybe.
Be forewarned. You’ll run into experts who will say you need more than 24 months, or more than five years in detail. They will be very sure of themselves. Sometimes what they mean is that they know more than you do, so they want you to suffer more. Or they want you to pay them to do the financials instead. Or they don’t like you or your business plan and they’re embarrassed to tell you. So instead, they say you need to forecast in more detail. If they are investors, what they mean is they don’t want to invest and they don’t want to tell you why. If they are loan managers, they don’t want to make the loan. And they don’t want to tell you the real reason.
My advice to you, when that comes up, is that unless you are a special case (if you are, you know who you are), look for another expert.
Just a quick note. I hope it’s obvious. With examples in this book I’m not showing you the full columns of the spreadsheets, because that would be awkward. Numbers would have to be very small and difficult to read. I use my spreadsheets for sales forecasting and other normal monthly projections with a standard layout.
I base my tables on the standard spreadsheet layout as used in Microsoft Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, AppleWorks, Quattro Pro, and even the true pioneer, VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, from 30 years ago. The rows are labeled from 1 to whatever, and the columns are labeled from A to whatever. When you get past the 26 letters of the alphabet you start over again, with AA, AB, AC, etc.
The two phrases have the same meaning. An Income Statement, or Projected Income, is exactly the same as a Profit and Loss Statement, or Projected Profit and Loss. Too bad both exist because every time I write about them I always have to clarify. Now you know.
Cash vs. Profits
This is critical. I covered this basic concept in How to Plan Cash Flow in Section 2, as part of your lean plan. However, I can’t do this list without starting with this very big one. It’s one of the most dangerous misunderstandings in business. Profitable companies can run out of money, and fail. It happens, for example, when an important customer stops paying in time and there isn’t enough working capital. Or when too much money is invested in inventory.
If you have a business that sells only for cash, credit card, or checks, then the cash flow implications of sales on credit and accounts receivable don’t affect you. If you don’t make, distribute, or resell products, then the cash flow implications of inventory don’t affect you. If you have a very simple cash flow, then profits are pretty close to cash. If you don’t, watch that difference very carefully. Profits are an accounting fiction. You spend cash, not profits.
Understand sales on credit and accounts receivable. When your business sells anything to another business, you usually have to deliver an invoice and wait to get paid. That’s called sales on credit, which has nothing to do with credit cards, but plenty to do with B2B sales. When you make the sale and deliver the invoice, the invoice amount increases sales and accounts receivable. When that money gets paid, it decreases accounts receivable and increases cash.
Assets vs. Expenses
Although many accounting and financial definitions are rigid, use and application aren’t. Much depends on interpretation and application.
For example, take development expenses. As you pay a construction company to build a new building for your business, you are buying an asset. What you pay is not deductible as an expense. But when a software business pays programmers to build a new software product, that company is spending on an expense, not an asset. Lines of programming code aren’t normally assets. Nor is a product design, packaging design, or a prototype. Those are expenses.
Who decides these things? The government does, in tax code. A smart business owner would prefer to book every dollar spent as either direct cost or business expense, because that would reduce taxable income and mean more money in the bank. Tax law decides what you can call an expense and what has to be booked as an asset.
So U.S. federal tax code makes buying office equipment an expense, at least up to an annual limit that changes, but has been more than $100,000 for several years now. That’s good for businesses because they can buy computers, phones, and other office equipment and deduct the cost from taxable income. But it’s odd because logically that’s buying assets, so it should increase the sum of the assets and not affect the profits or taxes. And you could choose to book those computers as assets, if you’d rather show higher profits on your books, and more assets, but have less money.
Costs vs. Expenses vs. Inventory
In Section 2 with Essential Projections I made the distinction between direct costs and expenses, for the lean plan spending budget. Direct costs are also called COGS for Cost of Goods Sold and unit costs. These are costs that happen only if the business makes a sale, such as the cost of the bicycles our bike storeowner sells, or the cost of gasoline used by the taxi. Although the distinction between costs and expenses makes no difference to the profits in the bottom line, we use this distinction to calculate Gross Margin. Gross Margin is sales less direct costs. It is a useful basis of comparison between different industries and between companies within the same industry. Furthermore, the direct costs number helps in understanding variable costs and fixed costs, which is another useful analysis in itself, and it’s the core of a break-even analysis as well.
The distinction isn’t always obvious. For example, manufacturing and assembly labor are supposed to be included in direct costs, but factory workers are sometimes paid even when there is no work. And some professional firms put lawyers,’ accountants,’ or consultants’ salaries into direct costs. These are judgment calls. When I was a young associate in a brand-name management consulting firm, I had to assign all of my 40-hour work week to specific consulting jobs for cost accounting.
When in doubt, remember that consistency is the rule. Whichever way you do it, stick to it over time.
Depreciation and Amortization
Depreciation is something you learn once and it usually sticks. Most business owners understand it. Tax codes and accounting standards prevent business owners from deducting the cost of business assets such as a vehicle, a building, office furniture, or land when you buy them. We’d all prefer to call those things expenses because they reduce our taxable income and therefore our taxes; but we can’t. So our consolation prize is that we get to depreciate them, and depreciation is an expense that reduces taxable income.
The practical result is that any business owning assets has depreciation as an expense. Tax code specifies formulas for depreciation based on the type of asset, but as a simple example, assume you can deduct one-fifth of the purchase price of a business vehicle every year for five years. That deduction is depreciation. The book value of the asset starts at the purchase price, and declines by one fifth every year for five years. At the end of the five years, the book value is zero, so if you sell the vehicle, the entire sales price is profit. Profit is based on book value, for tax purposes.
Depreciation shows up as an expense even though it doesn’t actually cost money. The asset did cost money, but that went somewhere else in your books, not into profit and loss.
Most people count depreciation as an operating expense, but some don’t.
Amortization is depreciation’s sidekick, which works like depreciation but applies to assets like legal expenses, which weren’t really assets anyhow (it’s tax law — don’t try to understand; just be aware of it.) You can also think of it essentially as depreciation of intangible assets, like intellectual property, or so-called goodwill.
EBIT vs. EBITDA
Profit and Loss set up for EBITDA calculations
The classic Profit and Loss includes EBIT, which stands for Earnings Before Interest and Taxes. Lately EBITDA has become more fashionable. The DA in EBITDA stands for “depreciation and amortization” and the EBIT is the same EBIT, so EBITDA is probably a more useful term because of the nature of depreciation and amortization.
Timing is Very Important
As I explained in What’s Accrual Accounting and why does it matter, accrual accounting gives you a more accurate financial picture, unless you’re very small and do all your business, both buying and selling, with cash only. I know that seems simple, but it’s surprising how many people decide to do something different. And the penalty of doing things differently is that then you don’t match the standard, and the bankers, analysts, and investors can’t tell what you meant.
Your Profit and Loss (Chapter 17) depends on timing. It’s supposed to show financial performance over some specified period of time, like a month or a year. What you call sales on that statement is supposed to be sales made during that period. The goods changed hands or the services were delivered. When you were paid for it, and when you originally bought what you sold, is supposed to be irrelevant.
Therefore, the direct costs are supposed to be the costs of the items or services reported as sales during that period.
So when Garrett the bike storeowner buys a bicycle he wants to sell, the money he spent on it remains in inventory until he sells it. It goes from inventory (an asset) to direct costs for the income statement in the month when it was sold. If it is never sold, it never affects profit or loss, and remains an asset until some day when the accountants write off old never-sold obsolete inventory, at which time its lowered value becomes an expense. In that case, it was never a direct cost.
Expenses have timing issues too. If you contract a television advertisement in October, and it appears in December, then it should go into the December Profit and Loss. And that’s true even if you end up paying for it in February. The idea is that sales, direct costs, and expenses go into the month they happen.
Tax law allows businesses to establish so-called fiscal years instead of calendar years for tax purposes. For example, your fiscal year might go from February through January, or October through September. Use “FY” (as in “FY07”) to specify the year in your plan. The year is always the calendar year in which a plan ends, not the year it starts.
Don’t call your investment venture capital unless it comes from one of the few hundred actual VC firms. If you’re getting venture capital, you’ll know it. If not, just call it investment.
Pro forma is just a dressed up way to say projected or forecast. It’s one of those potentially daunting buzzwords that really isn’t complicated. The pro forma income statement, for example, is the same as the projected profit and loss or the profit and loss forecast.