After developing a great set of financial goals and operating metrics, the next part of running a healthy business is having strong systems and processes in place to manage the business toward achieving those targets.
This episode introduces Step 5 of The Financial Operating System: Manage the Business, and Step 6: Learn, Iterate, and Improve. If you want to learn some ways to help your business follow through and achieve the targets you set, then this edpisode is for you.
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Sponsored by SmartBooks. To schedule a free consultation, visit smartbooks.com.
Welcome to the Empowering Healthy Business podcast, THE podcast for small business owners. Your host, Cal Wilder, has built and sold businesses of his own and he has helped hundreds of other small businesses. Whether it is improving sales, profitability and cash flow; building a sustainable, scalable and saleable business; reducing your stress level, achieving work life balance, or improving physical and emotional fitness, Cal and his guests are here to help you run a healthier business, and in turn, have a healthier life
Cal Wilder 00:34
Welcome. Today is the final episode in our series dedicated to The Financial Operating System. The Financial Operating System is a proven process developed over 20-plus years of helping empower small business owners to take control over their finances and improve their financial fitness. It's a six step process. And we've covered each of the first four steps in the last four episodes of the podcast. Today, we're going to cover steps five and six.
Cal Wilder 01:04
So to quickly recap, step number one is identify your why why are you in business? What are you trying to accomplish by owning your business? What are the financial objectives when you want to get out of your business financially? Step number two is assess your current finances right analyze the business gut check its current performance against what your financial objectives are for the business and see if there are gaps and where those gaps are. Step number three is identify or define metrics and goals. So if you know your financial objectives, and you know where some of those gaps are, we can define the right metrics that reflect operating performance of the business. And we can set some goals or targets to measure performance against those objectives. And get that into a scorecard or some kind of reporting system. Step number four is upgrade your accounting operations. Because typically, when small businesses start to try to use financial reporting and metrics are increasingly manage the business and guide decisions. They see that there's some deficiencies in their current accounting and finance function. And they need to upgrade that in a variety of ways.
Cal Wilder 02:17
And so that brings us to steps number five, and six. These steps are about managing and administering the business, learning from current performance, tweaking decisions and policies and procedures, and trying to improve the business over time using the tools in the previous steps. So step number five is titled Manage the Business. Step number six is titled Learn, Iterate, and Improve. And they're related. Step number six is more around the mindset of constantly learning and trying to make minor changes and improve the business. And step number five is a series of concepts around how we can effectively manage the business. I'm going to present some of the key concepts from those two chapters here.
Cal Wilder 03:07
The first concept is a metrics framework. By framework, I mean a system with a format and a common language that everybody in the company uses to track and communicate about metrics on a regular basis. There are a number of different frameworks out there. Some of the ones you see more commonly are EOS or Entrepreneurial Operating System. It has a document called the vision traction organizer, or VTO, which is kind of a one to two page business plan that has a 10 year target, a three year picture, one year goals, quarterly rocks, and then outside of that there's a weekly scorecard to track weekly results. So that's very common system.
Cal Wilder 03:56
Another one we see is OKR, which stands for Objectives and Key Results. And in this framework, the business sets a small number of key objectives for you know, a month or a quarter or a year. And then under each objective, there are a few metrics that measure progress against the objective.
Cal Wilder 04:17
A third framework out there is called Scaling up, it used to be called Gazelles. I'm not as familiar with the current metrics tracking format in scaling up I know it used to be geared around a big hairy, audacious goal or a BHAG, something that represented a big goal that might allow us to 10x the business or grow the business 10 times larger than the current size. But the framework may have evolved in recent years and I'm not as familiar with the current iteration of it. And there are other frameworks out there too.
Cal Wilder 04:51
There are often software products that are geared to each framework to help use that framework, apply that framework. In small businesses, frankly, Google Sheets may be perfectly sufficient. I'll mention one product called 7geese, which was acquired recently by Paycor. It's now part of the Paycor suite of products. That's geared toward the OKR framework. And it includes a broader set of HR performance management tools and meeting agenda tools, performance review tools, and it's a great product that I've used before. EOS has its own software, as well.
Cal Wilder 05:29
Or you can create your own framework. Whatever framework you use, though, the key is really to be able to monitor tangible, measurable progress toward goals on a weekly basis. In those metrics, the weekly metrics tend to be more activity-focused. And then we can measure the results of those activities on a longer-term monthly or quarterly or annual basis. Because we don't want to only be looking at results at the end of the month of the quarter of the year, as it's too late then to impact the day to day and week to week activities that drive those results. You'd have a set of weekly expectations, and then a weekly meeting cadence to keep everyone focused on those metrics. And then if something diverges, from what we expect, we can promptly dive in and investigate and identify and resolve issues that may have arisen that would cause a metric to veer off course versus its target.
Cal Wilder 06:31
Now, part of the framework is going to include an annual forecast function. Typically the forecast is outside of the framework, but it feed the results feed into that framework, and helps define some of the goals within that framework. You don't necessarily need an annual forecast as a small business owner. However, if you're really trying to manage the business toward financial objectives, which is the whole point of The Financial Operating System, then the forecast is key. Because your bookkeeper or accountant, they can report on what you've done in the past. And we can compare that against what your goals were in the past. And that is certainly better than nothing-- that's infinitely better than nothing. However, it's not forward looking and forecasting. Entrepreneurial small business owners tend to be focused on the future, and what are we going to do this next year, much more than what did we do this past year. And so for managers, supporting business owners, especially the accounting and finance function, being able to predict and forecast the future is critical. And it's really a litmus test in some ways if you're getting what you need from your accounting function.
Cal Wilder 07:39
If we think about an annual forecast structure, the basic structure could be a spreadsheet with 14 columns in it with one column per month. So that's 12 columns, one for each month. Then a 13 column would be a sum of the first 12 columns will represent the full year results. The 14th column would consist of the annual goal. So this would have the lines of the income statement, potentially balance sheet and cash flow, but at least income statement. So we know what our our revenue and our gross profit, and our operating profit forecast would be for the year and various line items that go into those. At the beginning of the year, the 12 monthly columns would represent our forecast for each month of the year. And then each month, as we close the books, we'll replace the numbers in the forecast column with the actual numbers for that month. And the forecast which is in column 13, that rolls up the first 12 columns, which can be updated based on actual results. So as we proceed through the course of the year, the forecast converges on actuals as more of those forecast columns get turned into actual columns. Then as we go, we can compare the full year forecast in column 13 against our goals in column 14. Inevitably, there's usually some divergence between our forecast and our goals. And when that happens, we can investigate and figure out the cause and manage accordingly.
Cal Wilder 09:11
Another key concept in step five is ways to operationalize the metrics. Meaning, we've sat down, we figured out what our financial objectives are, and we've created what we think is a great set of metrics to measure progress against those objectives, and they usually require some improvements and various financial results-- and so how do we go about operationally trying to produce those improvements?
Cal Wilder 09:37
Some of the ways we can do that could include segment analysis. Segment analysis would refer to a situation if you have different product or service lines or different customer groups or different geographic stores or locations then, with segment analysis, we're breaking down the business into different segments representing those different groups. We can see how each group may be performing financially and some of the differences between the groups. So we could compare revenue growth rates between the segments or profit margins between the segments. And then management is in a position to really focus on potentially increasing investment and focus on growing the segments that are performing better, or remediating segments that are performing poorly, or even ending certain business lines or offices that are performing too poorly. So we can segment the business and invest where we're having the most success and limit or reduce investment where we're not having success.
Cal Wilder 10:43
Another way to operationalize financial metrics would be through price experimentation. Pricing is the single variable that can have the greatest and fastest impact on profitability. And that's because costs are relatively fixed, especially in the short term, or they have a large fixed component to them and a smaller variable component in many small businesses. And so a large chunk of any additional revenue, or of any decrease in revenue falls to the bottom line profit as extra profit or lost profit. Now, economics textbooks will have all kinds of formulas and charts illustrating the impact between pricing and market demand and elasticity and sales volume and marginal costs and resource utilization and ultimately profitability. And we're not going to get into into all that complication. I'm just going to say that for most small businesses, there are two options when it comes to pricing.
Cal Wilder 10:43
The first option is we can price lower to try to drive a higher sales volume and make it up in volume. However, unless at the same time you're reducing price on you're able to drive a significantly lower cost structure, then you're going to just need a ton more sales to make up for the lower gross margin percentage on each sale. This is a strategy that Costco and Walmart, for example, are incredibly good at executing. However, it's very hard for small businesses to execute that as its core business. However, perhaps there are opportunities to sell a low price entry product, a wedge product, you might call it, the kind of gets you in the door, or maybe a retainer type product in some way, a leave-behind the keeps you engaged with the customer for the long term, so that you're in front of them, and then can then sell them your full margin products as opportunities arise. But it's gonna be very hard for a small business to compete as a low cost, low price high volume player, because you're going to quickly need to outgrow the small business phase to have a viable business model with that strategy.
Cal Wilder 12:55
And then the second option is one that is great if we can pull it off. And that is to be able to price higher and maintain the same volume and then drive significantly higher profit margins. And so when we're experimenting here, we want to price higher on a limited basis in some part of the business or in some segment and see if the market will bear it. Meaning, will your customers continue to buy from you at higher price at around the same volume. It's certainly very risky to try to price higher all at once for all your products and all your customers. So it's definitely best to experiment with a subset of services or customers and clients and get feedback from the market in order to inform future decisions. Your pricing is incredibly important.
Cal Wilder 13:44
Another thing that may need to be done to operationalize the metrics to improve cash flow is really analyzing cash flow, and then finding some tactics to improve it. Figure out ways potentially to invoice customers faster, to get paid before you deliver goods and services, perhaps you get an upfront deposit or retainer of some kind. Perhaps you're able to get paid electronically automatically by credit card or ACH at the time of invoicing. I know nobody likes to pay the credit card processing fee. But depending on your situation, if you're able to get paid faster, reduce bad debt expense, reduce the cost of doing collection calls and collection efforts, then paying that 3% processing fee may be worth it. If we're looking at our scorecard and having trouble getting the day sales outstanding or the delinquency rates lower, then there's going to be need to be some analysis of tactics that can be used to get clients to pay faster. \
Cal Wilder 14:47
The next tactic can be very powerful. It's called zero based budgeting. The standard approach to budgeting is typically to copy last year's budget, to tinker around the margins, make a few changes on the margin to some of the line items, adjust line items for inflation, but largely carry on the same, hoping that operational execution next year will produce better results than last year without any significant changes to the budget. Now, if the business is stable and producing financial results that are well-aligned with the financial objectives of the business owner, then that may be a prudent way to do it. There may be no reason to change. If it's not broken, then let's not try to fix it.
Cal Wilder 15:36
However, if financial results are not aligned with the objectives of the business owner, or you anticipate some major headwinds and challenges in your industry or business next year, then something more aggressive needs to be done as part of the planning and budgeting process. And so as its name suggests, zero based budgeting starts with zero expenses, not last year's expenses, and then you build the budget from scratch. It forces you to consider if you were starting the business over again, today, what would you choose to spend money on? You must justify every expense. When you add expense to the budget, why are we adding that expense? What's the benefit of that expense? What's the real true need? For that expense, it forces consideration of return on investment, because the alternative to spending the money is to pocket the money in the owner's pocket. Right? So it can very powerful process. It can stimulate a lot of strategic thinking. Aside from the financial benefit of facilitating a rigorous review of expenses, it also drives strategic review of the business. Because effectively during zero based budgeting, you are rebuilding the business every year. That process and thinking about, if you were starting the business from scratch, what would you spend money on what would you invest in? What would you stop? That can be very powerful in terms of assessing your business model and company strategy.
Cal Wilder 17:14
Another concept is measuring return on investment. Small businesses tend not to operate on fixed budgets. Rather, as opportunities and issues arise, the owner decides what seems like a good idea to spend money on and what can they afford to spend money on, right? And so that can be refreshing, and it's more nimble and entrepreneurial than large businesses. However, it's it's also dangerous if there's not a framework in place to measure return on investment.
Cal Wilder 17:47
So I'll challenge us to think about whether an item of spending is an expense or an investment. If it's an expense, then it's something that really is needed to support current operations, kind of a necessary evil to spend money because we need it to keep the lights on. If it's an investment, though, it's discretionary in nature and we don't need to spend it in order to maintain current operations. The reason we would spend the money on an investment is because we want to support future growth of some kind that will eventually produce higher profits in the future. And so when we're trying to measure return on investment, we need to be able to parse out spending on that investment, and then the future revenue stream and profit stream produced by that investment. There are various ways to do it, sometimes within QuickBooks, or your general ledger software, with classes or locations, or general ledger account codes. Or it can be done in the spreadsheet outside of the general ledger.
Cal Wilder 18:45
Let's think through an example here. You're thinking about sponsoring and attending a trade show for a particular industry that you're trying to get more customers in. Before committing to that spend, we're going to view this as an investment, because we're looking to get more new customers out of it not just be friendly with our existing customers, and it's a big investment. We're looking to get a lot more new customers out of this big investment. We need to think about, we kind of know, what the cost is of the sponsorship and sending, flying people out and all the travel costs associated with that. We know the approximate cost of the investment. But we need to figure out how do we measure the return on that. Meaning, we need to think about our customer size and our typical profit margins and the average customer lifespan, how many years we have the customer, and all that boils down to the lifetime value of a customer expressed typically in gross profit or contribution margin. And so once we have a sense for what the lifetime value of our customer is, then we can answer the question of how many customers do we need to generate from this investment in the trade show in order for it to be profitable. And before we get customers, we have to get a certain number of leads. And so how many good qualified leads do we need to walk away from the trade so with based on our typical sales conversion rates, in order to produce that many new customers and get the return on investment. So do that kind of analysis and then measure the results.
Cal Wilder 20:22
And this mindset of thinking in terms of return on investment, and then applying that mindset more broadly, it can cause you to start evaluating even regular operating expenses through the lens of return on investment. The recent COVID pandemic really caused an acceleration of looking at rent cost and occupancy costs, the cost of having a physical or physical office, through the lens of return on investment. For a while, maybe businesses simply could not afford it. And they just had to cut office space. However, now that everyone's free to go back to working in an office again, companies are evaluating what is the return on investment of maintaining physical office space, versus more flexible space or a lot more work from home. And so there may be certain job positions within your business that could also be put under a microscope and assessed in terms of return on investment. Now, having this this role filled by this person in your company is great, but what does that role produce financially? And how do we measure that production and what are the right scorecard metrics that we need to have in place to make sure we're getting a net benefit from spending to have this role in the business. I'm not saying necessarily to cut their role, but it can clarify what scorecard metrics the role needs to be producing in order to yield return on investment for your business.
Cal Wilder 21:58
The next concept I want to cover is this concept of delegation versus abdication. When a business owner hires someone to take over some or all of the financial operations of the business, that's a big step. It's a great step, but it's a big step. Maybe you've hired a skilled accountant or maybe a fractional CFO, you know, someone above a bookkeeper, you know, someone that you generally expect to be able to manage financial operations on either a full time or part time fractional basis.
Cal Wilder 22:01
Let's first focus on the scenario in which you hire the fractional CFO. Let's assume you understand your accountant is not at the level to manage toward the financial results that you're looking for. And you're not really expecting that from your accountant or your bookkeeper. But when you hire this fractional CFO, they've got a C-level title, their resume has CFO positions in businesses much larger than yours, they probably gave you a sales pitch about how great they are. So you have pretty high expectations for this role. And so it can be tempting to say, "Great, I hired this person, they own it, it's their job to figure it out. It's their responsibility for the results. I don't have to worry about it anymore." However, we've got to consider a few things. Number one, the fractional CFO does not directly manage your employees. They report to other managers, they take direction from other managers. The fractional CFO is part time, usually very part time, eight hours a week, maybe, often, less. They certainly cannot come close to doing everything that a full time CFO can do, especially operationally within your business. They're just too far removed from the day to day operations and not in a position to directly manage many of them. And they have relatively little ability to impact the culture of the business as well. And then finally, the fractional CFO cannot override the decisions of the business owner. They can advise, they can sometimes cajole, but if the owner's decisions are in conflict with the financial objectives of the business, the fractional CFO is really really hamstrung. Now a full-time CFO might have more power and pull to drive culture and manage up the CEO and prevent some of that from happening. But fractional CFOs are not going to be very effective doing that. So I think the takeaway here is the fractional CFO can provide invaluable insight and advice and be tremendous value, but it is up to you and your full time management team to implement and operationalize those decisions. And also consider that fractional CFOs have other clients. While the good ones really truly care about you a lot, at the end of the day, you as the business owner are taking all the risks and have the most to gain or lose. If things don't work out for your business, then the fractional CFO has other clients they can work with. If something doesn't work out with your business, it's your business, you're stuck, right? So you need to own the results, and hold the CFO accountable to getting you the analysis and recommended recommendations that you need. And then you need to make sure those decisions are well implemented by your full-time employees. You cannot abdicate the responsibility to a very part-time fractional CFO and think they're going to magically overhaul the financial results of your business. It's just not a realistic expectation.
Cal Wilder 23:12
Now let's consider the other scenario in which you hire a bookkeeper or accountant. And that's great, you get a lot of that work taken off your plate. Maybe you can afford to hire a full time role, even better, right? And let's say you appreciate that they're not a CFO, you're not asking them to do forecasting and budgeting and a lot of metrics scorecard design, you just want them to manage the day to day accounting operations and the monthly close and give you some basic financial reporting. So in this scenario, the abdication risk relates more to fraud and theft. Bookkeepers, and accountants steal a lot of money from small businesses. It sad . Every week it seems like there is another headline about that kind of theft. They're able to bury the embezzlemenbt in any number of ways, especially if the owner is not looking through the financial accounting in detail. It can go on for a long time.
Cal Wilder 25:35
I'll give you an example. My company SmartBooks took over the accounting from a prominent local business in our local community here. And we found $100,000 variance in the credit card balance that was being reported on the balance sheet, versus the actual account balance with American Express. Was this theft or embezzlement by the prior accounting employees? Or was it just the accumulation of years of sloppy bookkeeping? Without a detailed, expensive forensic analysis, it was going be very hard to tell. But what I can say is, is that if this small business owner, like any small business owner, would have spent a little time every month looking at the bank statements and the credit card statements and the payroll reports, making sure they understood the disbursement and charge and employee wage payment, and being able to ask questions about anything that looked odd or that he didn't understand, that would have largely been able to head off too much money from being stolen or embezzled. And so that's the key, putting forth kind of that baseline level of review, so that you deter somebody from trying to steal the money. And if they start to steal it, catching them before too much disappears. And then another thing that can be done is trying to enforce a separation of duties where the bookkeeper and the accountant cannot both host and pay bills. A system like bill.com can enforce that. Or you might have it set up so that the bookkeeper or the accountant can post the bills to the system, they then get routed to you to review and approve. And then your bookkeeper or accountant can pay them but they are not able to pay anything without you first approving it in the system. You don't want to make your bookkeeper or accountant a signer on your bank account. And you want to set them up with their own read only user account to access your bank account. You don't want to be sharing your master administrative credentials with anyone. So kind of the 80/20 rule here when it comes to preventing most fraud. 20% of the effort produces 80% of the results. Somebody who's super determined to steal from you may still find a way. But most of it you can head off with some basic practices.
Cal Wilder 29:05
Those are some of the key concepts from from chapter five around managing the business. Then chapter six is around this mindset of learning and iterating and improving. I don't believe running a business is a linear path with a defined start and defined finish. It's more of a loop. It's a cycle. You set strategy and goals. And you make some decisions that you think support those strategy and goals. You then operate the business based on those decisions. You periodically measure and report back on performance against those goals. You're collecting data, you're listening, and you're observing, you're thinking, you're learning as you go. You come back to the managing part of, you know, reassessing your strategy and goals. You may tweak your strategy and goals and targets, make slightly different decisions for the next period of time. And then you repeat that cycle of you know, operating based on those decisions and goals collecting data and reporting, and then managing to reassess strategy and goals and targets. And it's a cycle. And so in short, you manage, you operate, you report, and then repeat in a loop. And each time you go around that loop, you try to apply what you've learned to do a slightly better job next time than last time. Or if the market conditions are changing each time you go around that loop, readjust based on market conditions and market opportunities.
Cal Wilder 30:38
And then the last major topic in Step Six is around reevaluating your accounting and finance function. It may be time to do that, again. It would have been done once already in step four, but now that you've gone through at least a couple monthly close cycles, and you're trying to use your new financial reporting and scorecards to help manage the business, maybe you're trying to rely on that forecast to help plan for the future. You know, after you've really tried to do this for at least a couple of monthly close cycles if not several months, you'll be in a much better position to reevaluate your accounting and finance function. Until now, it could have been a case of you didn't know what you didn't know when it came to their abilities and capacity. But now you have expectations around accuracy and timeliness and usefulness of the reporting that you're getting from that function.
Cal Wilder 31:34
Now we can ask ourselves how confident we are around the following issues, and we could rate each one on a scale of one to 10. These are characteristics of a high performing accounting and finance function. We can ask ourselves how confident we are that: The monthly close is complete with financial reports timely delivered every month. The financial statements accurately reflect the performance of the business with an appropriate level of GAAP accrual. The reporting package provides you insights into the business performance beyond just the financial statements. Your systems and processes run efficiently, consistently and accurately. You've got technology utilized to be efficient with your accounting related tasks. You've got some internal controls in place to help prevent and tax mistakes and fraud. You're getting monthly meetings with your bookkeeper or accountant or CFO or whoever it is to present an explain and discuss the numbers with you not just email you reports or telling you that QuickBooks is closed. You get actionable and predictable insights, not just backward looking financial statements. You can look at documentation of your accounting policies and procedures and you're capable of following it or onboarding a new account and using that documentation to get the job done even if you lose your current person. Your current solution is bringing you ideas to improve cash flow. When it comes to taxes, your tax returns are being filed on time without extension. And your tax advisor is able to sit down with you mid year and do some tax planning and projections based on good clean books. And then finally, your current solution hopefully is largely self managing, requiring little time from you and other managers beyond the things that senior managers just absolutely need to do. You can't be worrying about whether bank accounts are getting reconciled on time or the prepaid expense schedule is accurate-- you just need to make sure the solution is self managing when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the bookkeeping and accounting. Those are all characteristics of high performing accounting and finance function.
Cal Wilder 33:53
If you conclude, unfortunately, like too many small business owners that you're just not getting enough of what you need, then you have two options. Option number one is keep your current role or roles, but replace people in those roles. Say you're failing to close the books each month but you have a controller in place and the controller just can't get the books closed, then you may just need a new controller. Option number two, it's the more optimistic option, where you can keep your current people and roles in place but just layer in a higher level or all above your current people to help guide them and get the things done that your current people can't do on their own. For example, you may have a bookeeper or an accountant doing a decent job on the day to day, bookkeeping and accounting and basic monthly financial statement reporting. But you may be looking for forecasting and budgeting and somebody to design and implement metrics scorecard. So in that case, you may want to layer on a fractional CFO and keep the current people in place.
Cal Wilder 34:54
I hope you've gotten some valuable take home ideas now from these concepts and steps five and six of the Financial Operating System. So just a quick recap of the six steps the financial operating system: Step one is identify your why, what are you in business for? What are you trying to accomplish by owning your business? What are your financial objectives that you're trying to accomplish, you know, financially with the business from the business? Step number two: assess your current finances. You know how well your current financial results line up with the objectives that you're trying to achieve financially from owning the business. Step number three, define metrics and goals. So based on your objectives, and your business model, what's the best set of metrics that will help you understand how well your business is performing against those objectives? Step number four, upgrade your accounting operations. You know, unfortunately, as you start to use financial statements and metrics, and reports and analysis to more intensively help you make business decisions manage the business, you're going to find some gaps and need to upgrade your accounting operations in one way or another. And then once you've done the first four steps, now we're getting into reaping the rewards and maintaining and administering a high performing accounting and finance function for your business. So we've talked about step number five and steps number six around managing the business using the concepts we discussed today. This idea of financially managing the business in a loop where we're learning and iterating and improving constantly every time we go through that loop.
Cal Wilder 36:46
If this whole process of implementing The Financial Operating System seems daunting, or you just don't have the time to become an expert on it yourself, and maybe want to accelerate the process, then feel free to reach out to me. I can help you get control of your business finances sooner rather than later and would love to help.
Cal Wilder 37:05
Reference show notes and find other episodes on EmpoweringHealthyBusiness.com. If you would like to have a one-on-one discussion with me, or possibly engage SmartBooks to help with your business, you can reach me at Cal@EmpoweringHealthyBusiness.com or message me on LinkedIn where I am easy to find. Until next time, this is Empowering Healthy Business, the podcast for small business owners, signing off.