Saturday, 14 November 2020

Steady as she goes


‘Steady’ is not a word you’d normally use to describe an entrepreneur.

The more typical image is as flamboyant buccaneers, identifying a customer need, raising capital and using energy and intellect to fulfil that need, managing risks along the way.

Tales abound of erstwhile entrepreneurs starting an enterprise in their parents’ garage, from a laptop in their bedroom or from a run-down shop. Almost overnight they become millionaires, then billionaires and high-profile media personalities.

That happens, of course, but for many business owners the journey to riches is a little more sedate and in some cases, more predictable. The few who do succeed (the statistics say that the majority don’t) and become successful and wealthy often achieve this over years, or decades of steady and predictable growth. 

Through the wonderful power of compounding (known and loved by many investors), 10% growth, year after year, will create a business of scale if carried on for long enough.

Of course, most businesses don’t grow in a straight line. 

They have good years and bad. 

The year 2020 for many businesses will be more about survival than growth. With depleted reserves and additional loans, many may take several years to recover. But recover they can and as long as the longer term trajectory is up, they can get back on their former growth curve.

Let’s look at an example. 

A small shop with turnover of £100k in their first year. Sales growth averaging 10% each year for 20 years would rise to a turnover of over £670k in year 20. That’s growth of nearly 7 times! That excludes inflation. So that is more units sold, more profit (if margins and overheads are managed) and more scale.

Of course, that is a hypothetical and simplistic scenario. 

There’s a truism in business though - that what you plan for, you achieve. Planning for a minimum of 10% growth (in normal times) is eminently achievable for most businesses. The plan needs to have substance - in our example of the shop, in one year growth may come from increasing the range, another year from expanding or reconfiguring the space, adding new employees, moving on-line etc. Growth won’t be linear but if the trend line is a minimum of 10% growth, scale can be achieved by steady, consistent, application.

Getting rich quick can be a compelling and seductive objective for some. The lucky few with extraordinary talent or perfect timing may succeed.

For the majority, steady, persistent application can deliver similar results...but it doesn’t happen overnight.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Something for a rainy day

I had a Zoom meeting with a client last week to review and sign off some accounts.

The accounts mainly covered ‘pre-Covid’ trading so it was a solid year. The current financial year will be a different story. They are a B2C or ‘Business to consumer’ service business. They were closed and had no sales during the period of lockdown and since then sales have been ‘fair but patchy’. Further restrictions on the horizon make the future uncertain.

But this business is better-placed than most. 

During the better trading years they chose to leave a reserve in the company in case tougher times arose in the future. Tougher times have now arrived, with knobs on and their prudence has been rewarded by having a reserve to fall back on to allow for the inevitable reduction in profits and cash flow this year.

How many of the rest of us showed enough foresight and self restraint to do a similar thing? 

Not many of us I suspect. 

Of course now is not the time for accumulating reserves. Some businesses are still fighting for survival and the majority are probably just ‘getting by’. 

The medium term priority for all businesses must be to return to profitability. Government financial support has helped but we know that this is unlikely to be sustained in the longer run.

Many businesses will have taken advantage of Bounce Back Loans or Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans so cash positions may be relatively favourable. Loan repayments will commence from next year however and it is profit rather than cash which will be the key measure of longer term sustainability.

In a post-Covid world, when it arrives and business fortunes begin to turn, the first priority for many of us will probably not be setting something aside for a rainy day.

One of the lessons of this crisis however is that we all need to become more resilient and prepare for the unexpected. 

Keeping a little bit in reserve, like my prudent and far-sighted client, is something we can all benefit from.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

When the dividends don’t work

Most owner/directors of private limited companies will choose to pay themselves with a mix of salary and dividends.

Usually the most optimal set up is to pay themselves a salary up to the National Insurance Primary Threshold and top up the rest of their income as dividend.

In the current tax year (1920/21) that would mean drawing an annual salary of £9,500. Drawing a dividend of £40,500 in addition to the salary would give a gross income of £50,000. The income tax due on this would be only £2,287. No employee National Insurance would be due but a salary at this level would count as a qualifying year towards State Pension eligibility.

In comparison, personal income tax and employee National Insurance contributions on a £50,000 salary would be £12,358. Some £10,000 higher than the combined salary/dividend option.

The tax saving is much reduced if the combined company and personal tax impact are considered. Dividends are paid after corporation tax (unlike salaries they are not a tax deductible expense) so every £100 of dividend paid instead of salary incurs an extra £19 corporation tax. The company would also pay employers' National Insurance on salary above £8,632 per annum.

Nevertheless, for modest incomes, if looking purely on the basis of tax efficiency the combined salary/dividend option works best and most accountants will recommend this route.

So why wouldn’t an owner/director always choose this option?

There are a some cases where I think the salary/dividend route may not be the best choice:

    1. Where there are a number of senior managers who may not be shareholders

Where there are a number of senior managers who are not shareholders there might be a case for the owner drawing a ‘market rate’ salary for the contribution they make and topping up with dividends if profits are sufficient to allow this. This enables the owner to be transparent about profitability and remuneration with their senior management team. They might also combine this approach with a profit-based bonus scheme. The benefits may outweigh the tax savings gained from the salary/dividend remuneration method.

    2. Where an owner is preparing for exit

As above a ‘market rate’ salary reflecting the owner’s true contribution to the business might be a sensible transition in the years before they exit the business. The remuneration can be easily flexed if they gradually reduce their involvement. As with 1 above a top up dividend can be drawn on top of the salary if profits allow. This can be an added incentive for a business owner to drive the business to generate ‘surplus’ profits after allowing for their management contribution. In this way the business may be more likely to become a standalone investment rather than a lifestyle business.

    3. Where there are several shareholders with varying levels of input

Using salary rather than dividend in this case allows greater flexibility. As with 1 and 2 above dividends can be used as a ‘top up’ on the salary where all the shareholders benefit in proportion to their respective shareholdings.

There’s a saying in tax circles, ‘Don’t let the tax tail, wag the business dog’. 

I think it can apply here. 

It's not conventional wisdom for an accountant to say this but, in some cases, less tangible, business and operational considerations may sometimes override harder tax savings.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Creativity matters

When I started my business, many moons ago, no one mentioned creativity as a helpful skill to have in the toolbox. 

Most books were about practical things - processes, systems, building a team and of course, working hard. 

That’s what most of us focus on - being diligent, learning from mistakes, getting stuff done. 

But creativity matters. 

Good ideas can be the difference between continued hard slog and genuine step changes in your business. Of course, the ideas need to be implemented but having the inspiration in the first place is the starting point.

Like Archimedes displacing the water in his bath, the ‘Eureka’ moment can be transformational.

There are lots of opportunities to be creative in business. One I would avoid, especially if it involves flouting the rules, is creative accounting. That aside, you can be creative with how you deal with people, creative about how you tackle an operational matter and probably most of all, creative about marketing.

Being creative and implementing your best ideas is what makes your business unique so, in my opinion, its a key skill to have, or to learn in business. 

So how do you ‘learn’ to be creative? 'It’s not my strength', you might say.

I’m not an expert on this but for me its about stepping back from the ‘day to day’ grind and making time to think differently. People get inspired at different times, usually when they ‘switch off’ and let their subconscious brain take over. Maybe on a long walk or drive or for the joggers amongst us, on a long run.

Monty Python star, John Cleese is an unlikely advocate of being creative. His style is to make a specific time to be creative. He finds a place he is comfortable in, where he won’t be interrupted and before he starts he clears away all the mundane things on his list which might impact negatively on the session. He’ll make that phone call, put the bins out, reply to that urgent email etc. Then he’s ready.

He’ll think about the thing he needs to be creative about - the comedy sketch, the problem to solve, whatever it is and work hard on it for an allotted time - maybe 90 minutes or so. The unexpected word in there is ‘hard’. No one expects creativity to be hard work. Aren’t moments of inspiration supposed to just appear, as if by magic, as with Archimedes and of equal fame, with Newton’s apple?

Cleese argues that it can be hard work and needs time and discipline.

He goes further. When he has created his new ‘thing’, he tries a bit harder. He takes the draft and works on it a bit more to get a better result. He cites this extra effort as a reason why he was sometimes more successful that other comics with coming up with truly memorable output.

So it may not be the first thing on the skills list for a budding business owner or entrepreneur but creativity is underrated. 

With time, space and some hard work it can make a big difference to your business.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Yes, no or maybe?

There’s a tendency for business owners and entrepreneurs not to want to pass up the opportunity of a potential sale.

The famous saying attributed to Richard Branson goes something like, ‘If some one offers you an opportunity, say yes and think about how you’ll do it afterwards’. 

There is good sense in this. You want to show confidence and enthusiasm to a prospective customer so making them aware of your immediate concerns is not the smartest sales tactic. 

For lifestyle businesses too where the owner is the person delivering the service, saying yes and being positive at the outset is a good tactic. If it turns out on further investigation that it is not such a great idea you can always offer help in some other way. Perhaps refer the prospect on to someone in your network who would do a great job. That way you make two people happy and spread a little bit of goodwill.

Pricing specialist and business thought leader Ron Baker argues that ‘knowledge businesses’ - those that deliver value by means of their intellectual capital and ‘know-how’, should consider charging less if they gain new knowledge from a particular assignment. They may not make as much profit as on a more routine job but they have added to the bank of the firm’s knowledge which should be beneficial in the longer run.

In these challenging times, where sales and cashflow are at a premium, the inclination to say yes is greater than ever.

There are circumstances however where I believe that turning down a potential sale is the best thing to do. By all means try to refer the prospect on to someone else if you can, but sometimes it is better not to to proceed.

An example would be where the business has a clear niche where they do specialised and highly profitable work. Stepping out of that niche to exploit an opportunity will shift focus and resources from what the business already does very successfully. So it may not be the best approach.

Another instance where caution is recommended is where the new opportunity would require significant input from the owner. If this would shift their focus from managing their core business, the benefit from the potential new sale might not outweigh the costs.

Passion and enjoyment are also important. You may make money on a new assignment but if it doesn’t make you happy or inspire you, you may want to think twice.

So in many cases I would agree with the great man and saying, ‘Yes’ and going for it is the best approach. 

Every now and then though, after reflection, a better way forward might be, ‘Thank you for the opportunity but we are not able to help you this time’.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Back to the fray

For many businesses, after the initial panic and scramble to ensure survival, lockdown has been a time of treading water.

Employees on furlough, rent holidays negotiated with landlords, non essential spending halted, loans secured. Then its been a matter of waiting for things to change.

There is still a long way to go as the Government advisors keep reminding us but lockdown is starting to ease with the re-opening of non essential retail imminent. The hospitality sector is expected to follow soon.

The ‘new normal’ means social distancing and strict hygiene measures will remain in place. Business owners and their teams have been planning how they will re-open in these circumstances.

Much of the planning will be operational - one way systems to limit contact, hand sanitiser stations, screens for employees, restricted customer flows and so on.

There are other factors to consider which may get less attention in the rush to re-open. 

The biggest of these is answering the question, ‘Is your new business model viable?’ 

In other words, after estimating your sales and allowing for costs of your new way of working, are you making a profit? 

If not, what is your ‘break-even’ level of sales?

Knowing the answer to both of these questions is critical in my opinion. 

The first because it is the acid test for your recovery plan. If you are losing money to start with you need to know this and have a projection of how long losses can be sustained for. 

The second is the initial target you are aiming for. Reaching break-even as soon as possible is imperative if the business is to maintain financial viability in the longer run.

I would argue that the most important aspects of financial management at this time are forecasting (of projected profits and cash flows) and regular monitoring and review.

The easing of lockdown is a time for optimism and hope.

Combining this with good financial management will increase your chances of weathering the storm until we reach calmer waters.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Time for reflection

One of the features of the lockdown, for most of us at least, is having more time.

Less time on commuting, socialising, shopping etc means more time for, well...whatever takes your fancy, as long as it doesn’t involve non essential travel or mingling with other households.

I’ve been working from home, doing a bit more gardening and had more time to think. 

I’m reading, ‘The Passion Economy’ by Adam Davidson and one of the chapters is about a behavioural scientist who is motivated by influencing lots of people to make positive changes in their lives. One of her techniques is to write a long list of things you are good at doing. She is evidently a person of many talents as her list took a few days to compile. I think mine will be finished much sooner.

When you have the list you then draw a circle around the things you enjoy or are passionate about. If you can make these things part of your career or your business, that’s a very good place to be.

This is not too far away from the Japanese concept of ‘Ikigai’. Broadly translated this means. ‘Reason for living’. If you can find enjoyment and purpose in your work, you will be more fulfilled and probably do a much better job.

Before starting my business 17 years ago I read, ‘What colour is your parachute’, the seminal career planning book by Richard N Bolles. This has a similar approach to helping you choose your career path if you reach a fork in the road. What are you good at? What do you enjoy and what kind of environment do you like to work in? It helped me reach a conclusion that I wanted to be my own boss and shape my own destiny.

So most of us have more time. Time to reset and reevaluate things.

I might just have a go at my list today. Not because I’m at a particular crossroads, but because I have the time and it might lead to something positive.

Who knows, a new career as a wine-maker or bee-keeper may beckon?