If you own a small business, it could feel like the whole world is closing in around you. And yet, SMBs have some of the best options out there, according to consultant and financial software developer Rusty Luhring.
Luhring spent 30 years building financial software for companies such as Ferox Microsystems and Franchise Analytics. He says after seeing the turbulent investment times of the late '70s, he knows what it takes to help the little guy manage cash flow.
So after Congress sent President Bush's $700 billion bailout package packing, what's Rusty's best advice for small business owners?
"They need to do some detailed planning to understand the magnitude of the problem, and when their cash needs are greatest," he said in a statement. "Similarly, they can bolster cash flow by thinking outside the box about invoicing and collections."
Here are Rusty's top 10 steps for SMBs to stay on a winning financial track.
1. Triage payments -- Make a list of all payments due for the next three months. Give payroll priority and see what else you can negotiate to pay later. You may be able to slide with utilities; subcontractors can often be persuaded to wait a bit.
2. Accelerate collections -- Call customers to check on payments that are overdue, or due soon. If you have a good relationship, you may be able to ask for early payment as a favor. For older accounts receivable, offer to forgive 15% of their overdue balance if they pay within the week. This may encourage them to respond and it's less costly than hiring a collection agency to go after receivables you may never see.
3. Invoice early -- If you consistently send out invoices a week late, you are delaying receipts by a week. If you average $7,000 a week in receipts, the net effect is that you have $7,000 less to work with. If you take 10 days to send out the invoices, it's the same as if you need another $10,000 in working capital to run your business.
4. Offer discounts -- This invoicing carrot can speed collections, but make sure that you understand how much it is costing you. Some large companies have policies in place that require speeding payments to earn discounts, e.g., 2% for paying within 10 days. But beware: Suddenly offering a 5% discount for payment in 10 days could give out the wrong signal.
5. Invoice more frequently -- If you are billing customers for time, consider billing twice a month instead of once. Billing promptly on the 1st and 15th of the month speeds up immediate cash flow.
6. Ask for some payment upfront -- Instead of just billing for time as it is incurred, ask for a third upfront, a third while the job is in-progress, and a third upon completion.
7. Fine-tune the timing of your payables -- Take advantage of the maximum allowable time (60 to 90 days) to pay suppliers. Picture it as an interest-free line of credit that gives you more time to collect accounts receivable without spending money on short-term credit lines. If your payroll withholding taxes total less than $50,000 per year, remit the withholding on the 15th of the following month, instead of three days after payday.
8. Ask the right people for a loan or investment -- Remember what they say about banks: They will lend you money only if you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you don't need it. Outside investors will sense your plight and demand onerous terms. This is a time to turn to friends and family and/or to get creative. Key customers might be able to help you out by advancing money to undertake a new product or pre-paying for products in anticipation of future demand.
9. Manage your credit cards -- Many credit cards offer a cash advance credit limit that is separate (and lower) than the overall credit limit. Take the time to track the balances and credit limits for cash advances vs. overall purchases separately. Create a simple spreadsheet, and update it as the bills come in. When things get tight, make sure you charge whatever expenses you can to those cards that still have available merchandise credit, but no available cash advance credit. During a cash flow crisis, you want to maximize your available cash advances as they are almost the same as cash.
10. Consider layoffs -- While large companies can take advantage of "redundancies" and "synergies" in downsizing their staff, it's more difficult for small business owners. Each employee has his/her own specialized revenue-generating abilities. Instead of letting go entirely, discuss rehiring them as freelancers. It reduces the costs of health insurance, payroll, and stock options for you, and increases their freedom and provides time for them to seek out additional work from other companies to boost their income.
Going through these 10 steps should give you some ideas of where you can delay payment, speed collections, or find additional cash, Luhring said.
"Make the calls, send the e-mails, and write the letters," advises Luhring. "Then get back to working on your business."
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