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Five Fatal Flaws in Financials

One of the first and most important steps to take before you launch your startup company is to create pro forma financial statements to verify that your company makes financial sense if all the assumptions that you are making end up becoming true.

The three pro forma financial statements we will be referring to are the income statement, cash flow statement, and the balance sheet.

Three types of “financial sense” can be derived from the above financial statements:

  • Fatal flaws: These are conditions in your financial statements that indicate that the company cannot survive. These are the subjects of this blog.
  • Universal non-investible flaws: These are conditions in your financial statements that make it highly unlikely that any right-minded investor would consider investing in your endeavor. The presence of universal non-investible flaws implies that the company could survive but will not produce extremely good financial returns.
  • Situation-specific flaws: These are conditions in your financial statements that may or may not preclude good financial returns, depending on the specific industry or unique situation.

Fatal Flaw 1. Negative Cash

The bottom line of every column of the monthly cash flow statement is always labeled “Cash at End of Period.” It tells you (based on all the assumptions you have made about your company) how much cash you will have in your company’s bank account at the end of every month.

No entry in this row can be negative.

If some column has a negative value in this row, you must do something to your assumptions prior to this month, for example (these are just four of dozens of possibilities),

  • Get a loan
  • Raise money in an investment round
  • Sell more product
  • Spend less money (on expenses)

What you cannot do is just launch the company and hope that things will work out. Hope is not a strategy. The fact is many things will change once you launch, but you have to at least start with a plan that has a fighting chance of working.

Fatal Flaw 2: Negative Gross Profit

Near the top of every column of the annual income statement will be lines for

Revenues
– Cost of goods sold      
Gross profit

Gross margins indicate how efficient the company is at acquiring and using raw mate­rials for its products. Different industries tend to experience radically different gross margins based on (a) inherent cost of goods sold within those industries, and (b) level of price competition.

Your company can tolerate a negative gross profit in its first year while you figure out pricing, find best suppliers, and hone manufacturing and internal processes. However, by year 2, you had better have a positive gross profit.

New companies rarely emerge in industries where gross margins are low. Reasons should be obvious: investors will likely not see a return on their investment based on an ROE calculation.

Here are some ideas on how to increase gross margins:

  • Decrease cost of raw materials. This is the most straightforward method to reduce cost of goods sold, and yet it is the most dangerous because of potential to adversely affect product quality.Some ways are: (a) find alternative suppliers, (b) replace expensive components with less costly substitute components, especially when customers are unlikely to perceive the difference, (c) use less of a raw material in your product, and (d) purchase in larger volumes
  • Outsource, insource, offshore, or onshore. Find the lowest cost source of doing tasks while still maintaining acceptable levels of quality.
  • Increase prices.
  • Change the product. If your product cannot be sold profitably, consider selling a simpler product that solves fewer customer problems and price it lower. Or consider selling a larger product that addresses more customer pains and price it higher. Or maybe you should rent or lease the product instead of selling it?

Fatal Flaw 3: Insufficient Cash from Operations

The top third of the annual cash flow statement captures cash flows in or out of the company that result from the core business of the company. The bottom line of every column of this top third is always labeled “Net Cash Provided (Used) by Operating Activities.” It tells you (based on all the assumptions you have made about your company) how much cash the company’s business is generating without the contributions of loans, investments, or sales of property.

Almost all startups experience negative cash from operations for the first few years. During this time, they rely on infusions of cash from external sources such as investments or loans.

However, a successful company must at some point be self-sufficient; it must be able to sustain itself with being on life support.

It is possible that a high-growth company with a huge market could plan to stay on a high-growth trajectory for many years and continue to need capital infusions to fund its growth. So, I guess the best way to describe this fatal flaw is to ask if the cash from operations would be positive if the cash from financing were set to zero.

Fatal Flaw 4: Current Ratio Less than One

On the annual balance sheet, divide current assets by current liabilities for each year. This current ratio gives you a pretty good indication of whether your company will be in a condition to pay off debt when it becomes due.

A value less than 1.0 indicates that the company is going to have problems, although there could be short-term fixes for short-term problems. As your company evolves, your current ratio should become (and remain) above 1.2.

If your current ratio is less than zero, it means your current assets are negative (current liabilities can never be negative), so this is equivalent to fatal flaw 1.

Fatal Flaw 5: No Profit

Near the bottom of every column of the annual income statement is a row labeled “EBITDA,” short for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. You can think of it as the company’s profit (without some of the “noise”).

Most startups experience negative EBITDA for the first one or two years, and that is okay. In fact, it is highly unlikely to have positive EBITDA during those first few years.

However, by year three or so, EBITDA should be positive, and stay positive for the remaining years.

Summary

Although many dozens of potential problems can be detected in advance by examining the pro forma financial statements, the above five conditions are easy to detect and are almost always fatal for your company if not fixed. If you find them to be present in your company’s financial statements before you launch, don’t launch! Instead, fix your plan.

After you fix the plan, and know that it is possible to succeed, then launch the company. It is always good to start knowing that failure is not guaranteed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr. Al Davis has published 100+ articles in journals, conferences and trade press, and lectured 2,000+ times in 28 countries. He is the author of 6 books, including the latest, Will Your New Start Up Make Money? He is co-founder and CEO of Offtoa, Inc., an internet company that assists entrepreneurs in crafting their business strategies to optimize financial return for themselves and their investors. Formerly, he was founding member of the board of directors of Requisite, Inc., acquired by Rational Software Corporation in 1997, and subsequently acquired by IBM in 2003; co-founder, chairman and CEO of Omni-Vista, Inc.; and vice president at BTG, Inc., a Virginia-based company that went public in 1995, acquired by Titan in 2001, and subsequently acquired by L-3 Communications in 2003.

If you’d like to learn if your great business idea will make money, take a look at Will Your New Start Up Make Money? If you’d like to verify that your great business idea makes financial sense, sign up for www.offtoa.com.