It takes passion to start a small business, and to work the long hours it takes to make it a success. While most business owners love working with their products and customers, as well as thinking up “the next great idea,” managing business finances is often a challenge. For most entrepreneurs, gaining expertise in money matters is a learn-as-you go prospect — adding knowledge with each business milestone or lesson learned.
No one knows this better than these FedEx Small Business Grant Contest winners. Although each runs a very different type of company, in different parts of the country, each of these successful entrepreneurs has learned by doing. We asked each of them to share their top financial tips for managing a small business, and gained a bounty of insight to share with each of you.
“Don’t Grow Faster Than You Can Scale”
Ari Hoffman, owner/advisor of GOBIE h2o, knows the temptation of scaling for that first big order — and the pitfalls of not making it to the finish line. His advice? Deliver as promised. Don’t grow faster than you can actually scale, despite your good intentions.
“Let’s say a big box retailer is offering to bring your product into its stores, but the volume it needs for that initial order is more than you can produce. You take the order anyway, thinking that with the money from the order you can figure it out. I mean it’s a good problem to have, right?” Hoffman said. “Inevitably, you will either fall behind, produce inferior product because it was rushed, or just flat out fail to meet the demand. Big box retailers give you one shot; once you mess up and can’t uphold your end of the bargain, they cut the contract, and trust me, you’re never getting back into that store again. You’re better off being realistic about what you can produce now and how fast you can scale. If you say no to an opportunity because you can’t deliver, you can always go back to that retailer when you’re realistically ready. In fact, retailers tend to appreciate your candidness with them, and it often gains you brownie points in their eyes. Yes, it’s hard to turn down money, but failing to deliver that first big order could destroy your reputation and your business.”
In other words, don’t let the dollar signs blind you to production reality.
“Don’t Outspend Yourself”
Actually, this one came up a lot, with a mention from all of the business owners we spoke to.
“Cash is king; plain and simple,“ Hoffman said. “Any time you’re spending money, make sure it brings you some sort of return. If you advertise, make sure you can track the results, so you can gauge your return on investment. No small business should be spending money on brand advertising unless there is a clear capital return; every dime you spend should drive sales, increase margin, or accelerate productivity. We would not have gained the market share we have, without growing smart, steadily, and responsibly.
Nicole Snow, founder and president of Darn Good Yarn, said that she learned early on that excess inventory was “frozen money.”
“The creative part of me wanted to have SKUs of my yarn in every color in the rainbow, until I learned that when that particular color doesn’t sell, you have a lot of unusable dollars sitting on the shelf, gathering dust,” Snow said. “Better to have the cash in hand to run your business.”
That reality really hit home when she was approached to buy another business.
“When I looked at the numbers, I was flabbergasted to find out that the business had a quarter of the sales we did, but carried the same amount of inventory,” Snow said. “That’s why they weren’t profitable; that’s why they were closing down.”
“Learn to Read Your Financial Reports”
Although Snow’s heart is in crafting and empowering women through her company, her head is continually in her financial reports. Her advice? Get help, early on, learning what the numbers mean.
“I recommend that every small business owner contracts with a competent bookkeeper, in addition to a CPA. One of the best things I did early on was finding an experienced freelance bookkeeper, and getting her to walk me through how to read the reports, how to measure profitability and how to calculate my margins,” Snow said.
Keeping up with the numbers is critical to the health of any small business.
“You need to understand that the numbers are as important to a small business as blood pressure, heart rate and temperature is to a living, breathing human being,” Snow said. “If your margins increase from 42 percent to 43 percent, you need to know why. Did you automate something that brought profitability up or was it some other reason? If your margins decrease from 42 percent to 41 percent, you better know why, as well. You have to stay on top of it; you can’t delegate that part of your business away.”
Snow also recommends that your bookkeeper meets with your CPA annually, to ensure that you’re categorizing things correctly for taxes.
“Always Plan for a Rainy Day”
“We always like to have a nice reserve of cash on hand. It took me a couple of years to get to the amount I wanted, but it was well worth the effort,” Snow said. “When we import our yarn, we pay with cash — that’s just the nature of the business. By having the cash reserve on hand, I can take advantage of quick sales, where I can buy yarn at a discounted price, and then offer it at as a special purchase to my customers.”
Snow has also used her cash reserve, instead of a line of credit, for unexpected business expenses.
“For example, I just had a $5,000 legal expense, and we dipped into our reserve for that,” Snow said. “Of course, the real key here is not just saving the money, but continually replacing what you take from that fund as you go.”
“Use Borrowed Money to Make Money — If You’re Profitable”
When Danny Catullo took over Catullo Prime Meats, this family business was near bankruptcy. He knew he had to turn the company around, but he also had to do it without spending much money. Goal one was getting the company out of the red.
“I never had a line of credit when I started, and, even when we became profitable and got a line of credit, I tried not to use it. I thought the idea of spending borrowed money in October to make money in December was bad money management,” Catullo said.
The bulk of Catullo’s business comes during November and December, when people are splurging for the holidays or buying corporate gifts. Yet, he was ordering fresh meat like he did the other 10 months out of the year, even though all the online orders shipped frozen.
“My banker showed me that if I took advantage of my line of credit, I could buy and prep turkeys and other seasonal items earlier, and ultimately ship more,” Catullo explained. “Because we were now a solid business, and we had hard data on our previous sales, we could use money to make money. I could start buying 75 percent of what we used in the previous years and know I wasn’t going to have excess inventory. Why pull $25,000 out of an account that is generating interest when I can borrow from the line of credit and pay it back in three months?”
“Find a Banker You Can Build a Relationship With”
Because Catullo Prime Meats had been around for three generations, it had a long-term established relationship with a local bank by the time Danny Catullo became president of the company. The problem was, that bank was a little too old school for Catullo’s vision for the business — and its expansion into e-commerce.
“When I met with the banker, it was clear that he looked at our business as a sinking ship. He didn’t understand the new business model or the additional revenue it had the potential to bring,” Catullo said.
Instead of giving up, Catullo went to another, larger bank and got a very different response.
“I dealt with a vice president who saw the vision, understood the business model and the technology,” he said. “He told me that he couldn’t give me the lowest interest right then, but if I could show him some good numbers in a year, we could get a lower rate. That relationship has grown from there. “
Even though you’re a small business, you have to work with a banker who is willing to be a partner in your success. That doesn’t always mean saying “yes,” but it does mean offering advice and looking out for your best interest.
“Research Other Funding Sources”
When sisters Heather O’Neill and Katie O’Neill sought out funding to expand their fair trade clothing and accessory boutique, a commercial bank turned them down. Instead of giving up, this enterprising team started networking with other small businesses in the area.
“By talking to other small businesses in Philadelphia, we learned about a variety of different funding sources. For example, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) work with local businesses to encourage local growth and development. Entrepreneur Works is another resource; a non-profit focused on cultivating businesses in our area through small business and peer loans, workshops and consulting,” said Katie O’Neill, co-founder and creative director of Mushmina. “Not only did we learn about these programs, and others specifically geared toward women-owned and minority-owned businesses, but the other business owners introduced us to their contacts at these organizations, so we got to the right person more quickly, as well.”
The O’Neill sisters also encourage small business owners to participate in the annual FedEx Small Business Grant Contest. They speak from experience; Mushmina was a 2014 Grant Award winner.
“FedEx makes applying for the grant easy and fun. You share your pitch and you get your customer community involved in the voting process,” said Heather O’Neill, co-founder and production manager for Mushmina. “It doesn’t cost anything but time to enter, and, could give a boost to your business that extends beyond the money itself.”
All great advice for small business fiscal fitness, no matter what stage of business you’re in.