Full Sail Partners Blog

Why Cash Flow Planning is Essential for Growth

cash flow planning, cash flow planFor most professional services firms, planning for growth is a natural part of business. There are different strategies for doing so, and choosing the best one depends on your ultimate growth objectives. But whatever your goals, understanding how your growth plan affects your cash flow plan is essential to achieving the results you seek.

The way you grow affects cash flow planning.

Organic growth. There are a number of ways to grow one’s business organically. For example, in a generally healthy economy, your firm could continue doing “business as usual” (i.e., not increase your marketing or business development activity) and still experience significant growth from the improving economy. This type of growth is typically slow-paced; you can keep up with the increased demand either by using existing staff or gradually “ramping up” your staffing to meet the growth curve.

A somewhat more aggressive growth plan might be to expand your client base in the same market niche and geographic area where you’re already doing business. In such a scenario, you are typically increasing your marketing and business development outreach to generate business. As this outreach occurs, you may experience rapid growth that requires you to have staff immediately available to meet the increased client demands.

Strategic growth. Alternatively, you might be planning to significantly expand your service offerings or target market. For example, an engineering firm might add a new service line, or expand into another geographic market. In such cases, you could expect to take on additional marketing and staffing expenses, along with expenses for market research (please do not skip this step), software and equipment and possibly even new office space. These added expenses occur up front, well before you bring dollar one through the door. 

Expect a time lag before reaching ROI.

The fundamental point to keep in mind is that your cash flow will take a hit, probably at least for 90 days for increased staffing costs, and longer for marketing costs. The reason for this is the unavoidable lag between when you begin investing in expansion, and when you actually start reaping the benefit.

Here’s the general reason for the time lag. Once you decide to expand, there are several types of expenses you’ll incur at the beginning of your growth effort — investments that will not bear fruit immediately. For example, there are costs to hire and train new employees, with probably 60 days before they’re doing billable work. Even if you’re very efficient and bill on day 61, then the earliest you should expect payment for their work will be another 30 days, making it a minimum total of 90 days where cash is going out, but no additional revenue is coming in.  

How to meet the demand: sub-consultants vs. salaried staff.

In general, hiring consultants requires less of a cash investment than full- or part-time staff, as they typically will not get paid until you get paid (Paid When Paid, or PWP). This advantage may be offset, however, by the fact that consultants can also be more challenging to manage and they have their own clients (and potentially conflicting commitments as well). Additionally, you still have to invest manager time to assign and manage the sub-consultants’ performance.

On the other hand, while full- or part-time staff may be more costly to hire, they will likely gain institutional and process knowledge as they work, which should make them increasingly valuable to your company. Additionally, they are typically focused on the company’s needs and requirements; you can control their priorities.

Tracking cash flow and return.

The other part of cash flow planning during a growth period (or at any time, for that matter) is monitoring your expenditures and results (hopefully in the form of additional revenue). As with any plan, it’s essential to have an idea of the effort you need to expend, and what results you expect from that effort. Even if your plan is “business as usual” because of an improving market, you should understand what results you expect from the improving market. If you are increasing your marketing effort in your existing market, you should know what you expect from that effort in the form of additional leads, opportunities, clients and, of course, revenue. Without the increased revenue, what is the justification of the increased marketing effort (and assumed increased cost)?

There are a number of approaches for tracking results, ranging from one-off spreadsheets to purpose-built ERP solutions.

In our experience, one of the most effective strategies is to find a solution that accomplishes several key functions at once. Deltek Vision, for example, is a purpose-built ERP solution that provides a unified platform for connecting the front and back office functions — providing up-to-the-minute insight into cash flow planning, as well as accounts receivable, billability and utilization statistics, and much more. It even includes integrated solutions for automating major parts of your processes for customer relationship management, proposal development and tracking.

Watch the details, but don’t neglect the big picture.

Keep in mind that the timeframes for generating ROI mentioned in this article are generalizations. In fact, they’re based on an ideal scenario that assumes making good hires, efficiently training and integrating them, finding a receptive market … and getting paid on time.

Naturally, as the fine print often says, actual results may vary. This makes it even more important to build-in expectations that cash flow will take a significant hit for at least a few months before you start reaping the rewards of you investment.

Growth is rarely painless or easy — but knowing what to expect is far better than wading into a growth plan without knowing when it will start paying off.

 

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