I want to talk about how to keep track of the money in a company. That is called accounting and we’re going start with the basics of accounting.
Accounting is keeping track of the money in a company. It’s critical to keep good books and records for a business, no matter how small it is. I’m not going to lay out exactly how to do that, but I am going to discuss a few important principals.
The first important principal is every financial transaction of a company needs to be recorded. This process has been made much easier with the advent of accounting software. For most startups, Quickbooks will do in the beginning. As the company grows, the choice of accounting software will become more complicated, but by then you will have hired a financial team that can make those choices.
The recording of financial transactions is not an art. It is a science and a well understood science. It revolves around the twin concepts of a “chart of accounts” and “double entry accounting.” Let’s start with the chart of accounts.
The accounting books of a company start with a chart of accounts. There are two kinds of accounts; income/expense accounts and asset/liability accounts. The chart of accounts includes all of them. Income and expense accounts represent money coming into and out of a business. Asset and liability accounts represent money that is contained in the business or owed by the business.
Advertising revenue that you receive from Google Adsense would be an income account. The salary expense of a developer you hire would be an expense account. Your cash in your bank account would be an asset account. The money you owe on your company credit card would be called “accounts payable” and would be a liability.
When you initially set up your chart of accounts, the balance in each and every account is zero. As you start entering financial transactions in your accounting software, the balances of the accounts goes up or possibly down.
The concept of double entry accounting is important to understand. Each financial transaction has two sides to it and you need both of them to record the transaction. Let’s go back to that Adsense revenue example. You receive a check in the mail from Google. You deposit the check at the bank. The accounting double entry is you record an increase in the cash asset account on the balance sheet and a corresponding equal increase in the advertising revenue account. When you pay the credit card bill, you would record a decrease in the cash asset account on the balance sheet and a decrease in the “accounts payable” account on the balance sheet.
These accounting entries can get very complicated with many accounts involved in a single recorded transaction, but no matter how complicated the entries get the two sides of the financial transaction always have to add up to the same amount. The entry must balance out. That is the science of accounting.
Since the objective of this blog is not to turn you all into accountants, I’ll stop there, but I hope everyone understands what a chart of accounts and an accounting entry is now.
Once you have a chart of accounts and have recorded financial transactions in it, you can produce reports. These reports are simply the balances in various accounts or alternatively the changes in the balances over a period of time.
The next three posts are going to be about the three most common reports;
- the profit and loss statement which is a report of the changes in the income and expense accounts over a certain period of time (month and year being the most common)
- the balance sheet which is a report of the balances all all asset and liability accounts at a certain point in time
- the cash flow statement which is report of the changes in all of the accounts (income/expense and asset/liability) in order to determine how much cash the business is producing or consuming over a certain period of time (month and year being the most common)
If you have a company, you must have financial records for it. And they must be accurate and up to date. I do not recommend doing this yourself. I recommend hiring a part-time bookkeeper to maintain your financial records at the start. A good one will save you all sorts of headaches. As your company grows, eventually you will need a full time accounting person, then several, and at some point your finance organization could be quite large.
There is always a temptation to skimp on this part of the business. It’s not a core part of most businesses and is often not valued by tech entrepreneurs. But please don’t skimp on this. Do it right and well. And hire good people to do the accounting work for your company. It will pay huge dividends in the long run.
The Profit And Loss Statement
Today we are going to talk about one of the most important things in business, the profit and loss statement (also known as the P&L).
Picking up from the accounting post last week, there are two kinds of accounting entries; those that describe money coming into and out of your business, and money that is contained in your business. The P&L deals with the first category.
A profit and loss statement is a report of the changes in the income and expense accounts over a set period of time. The most common periods of time are months, quarters, and years, although you can produce a P&L report for any period.
Here is a profit and loss statement for the past four years for Google. I got it from their annual report (10k). I know it is too small on this page to read, but if you click on the image, it will load much larger in a new tab.
The top line of profit and loss statements is revenue (that’s why you’ll often hear revenue referred to as “the top line”). Revenue is the total amount of money you’ve earned coming into your business over a set period of time. It is NOT the total amount of cash coming into your business. Cash can come into your business for a variety of reasons, like financings, advance payments for services to be rendered in the future, payments of invoices sent months ago.
There is a very important, but highly technical, concept called revenue recognition. Revenue recognition determines how much revenue you will put on your accounting statements in a specific time period. For a startup company, revenue recognition is not normally difficult. If you sell something, your revenue is the price at which you sold the item and it is recognized in the period in which the item was sold. If you sell advertising, revenue is the price at which you sold the advertising and it is recognized in the period in which the advertising actually ran on your media property. If you provide a subscription service, your revenue in any period will be the amount of the subscription that was provided in that period.
This leads to another important concept called “accrual accounting.” When many people start keeping books, they simply record cash received for services rendered as revenue. And they record the bills they pay as expenses. This is called “cash accounting” and is the way most of us keep our personal books and records. But a business is not supposed to keep books this way. It is supposed to use the concept of accrual accounting.
Let’s say you hire a contract developer to build your iPhone app. And your deal with him is you’ll pay him $30,000 to deliver it to you. And let’s say it takes him three months to build it. At the end of the three months you pay him the $30,000. In cash accounting, in month three you would record an expense of $30,000. But in accrual accounting, each month you’d record an expense of $10,000 and because you aren’t actually paying the developer the cash yet, you charge the $10,000 each month to a balance sheet account called Accrued Expenses. Then when you pay the bill, you don’t touch the P&L, its simply a balance sheet entry that reduces Cash and reduces Accrued Expenses by $30,000.
The point of accrual accounting is to perfectly match the revenues and expenses to the time period in which they actually happen, not when the payments are made or received.
With that in mind, let’s look at the second part of the P&L, the expense section. In the Google P&L above, expenses are broken out into several categories; cost of revenues, R&D, sales and marketing, and general and administration. You’ll note that in 2005, there was also a contribution to the Google Foundation, but that only happened once, in 2005.
The presentation Google uses is quite common. One difference you will often see is the cost of revenues applied directly against the revenues and a calculation of a net amount of revenues minus cost of revenues, which is called gross margin. I prefer that gross margin be broken out as it is a really important number. Some businesses have very high costs of revenue and very low gross margins. And example would be a retailer, particularly a low price retailer. The gross margins of a discount retailer could be as low as 25%.
Google’s gross margin in 2009 was roughly $14.9bn (revenue of $23.7bn minus cost of revenues of $8.8bn). The way gross margin is most often shown is as a percent of revenues so in 2009 Google’s gross margin was 63% (14.9bn divided by 23.7). I prefer to invest in high gross margin businesses because they have a lot of money left after making a sale to pay for the other costs of the business, thereby providing resources to grow the business without needing more financing. It is also much easier to get a high gross margin business profitable.
The other reason to break out “cost of revenues” is that it will most likely increase with revenues whereas the other expenses may not. The non cost of revenues expenses are sometimes referred to as “overhead”. They are the costs of operating the business even if you have no revenue. They are also sometimes referred to as the “fixed costs” of the business. But in a startup, they are hardly fixed. These expenses, in Google’s categorization scheme, are R&D, sales and marketing, and general/admin. In layman’s terms, they are the costs of making the product, the costs of selling the product, and the cost of running the business.
The most interesting line in the P&L to me is the next one, “Income From Operations” also known as “Operating Income.” Income From Operations is equal to revenue minus expenses. If “Income From Operations” is a positive number, then your base business is profitable. If it is a negative number, you are losing money. This is a critical number because if you are making money, you can grow your business without needing help from anyone else. Your business is sustainable. If you are not making money, you will need to finance your business in some way to keep it going. Your business is unsustainable on its own.
The line items after “Income From Operations” are the additional expenses that aren’t directly related to your core business. They include interest income (from your cash balances), interest expense (from any debt the business has), and taxes owed (federal, state, local, and possibly international). These expenses are important because they are real costs of the business. But I don’t pay as much attention to them because interest income and expense can be changed by making changes to the balance sheet and taxes are generally only paid when a business is profitable. When you deduct the interest and taxes from Income From Operations, you get to the final number on the P&L, called Net Income.
I started this post off by saying that the P&L is “one of the most important things in business.” I am serious about that. Every business needs to look at its P&L regularly and I am a big fan of sharing the P&L with the entire company. It is a simple snapshot of the health of a business.
I like to look at a “trended P&L” most of all. The Google P&L that I showed above is a “trended P&L” in that it shows the trends in revenues, expenses, and profits over five years. For startup companies, I prefer to look at a trended P&L of monthly statements, usually over a twelve month period. That presentation shows how revenues are increasing (hopefully) and how expenses are increasing (hopefully less than revenues). The trended monthly P&L is a great way to look at a business and see what is going on financially.
I’ll end this post with a nod to everyone who commented last week that numbers don’t tell you everything about a business. That is very true. A P&L can only tell you so much about a business. It won’t tell you if the product is good and getting better. It won’t tell you how the morale of the company is. It won’t tell you if the management team is executing well. And it won’t tell you if the company has the right long term strategy. Actually it will tell you all of that but after it is too late to do anything about it. So as important as the P&L is, it is only one data point you can use in analyzing a business. It’s a good place to start. But you have to get beyond the numbers if you really want to know what is going on.
The Balance Sheet
The Balance Sheet shows how much capital you have built up in your business.
If you go back to my post on Accounting, you will recall that there are two kinds of accounts in a company’s chart of accounts; revenue and expense accounts and asset and liability accounts.
Last week we talked about the Profit and Loss statement which is a report of the revenue and expense accounts.
The Balance Sheet is a report of the asset and liability accounts. Assets are things you own in your business, like cash, capital equipment, and money that is owed to you for products and services you have delivered to customers. Liabilities are obligations of the business, like bills you have yet to pay, money you have borrowed from a bank or investors.
Here is Google’s balance sheet as of 12/31/2009:
Let’s start from the top and work our way down.
The top line, cash, is the single most important item on the balance sheet. Cash is the fuel of a business. If you run out of cash, you are in big trouble unless there is a “filling station” nearby that is willing to fund your business. Alan Shugart, founder of Seagate and a few other disk drive companies, famously said “cash is more important than your mother.” That’s how important cash is and you never want to get into a situation where you run out of it.
The second line, short term investments, is basically additional cash. Most startups won’t have this line item on their balance sheet. But when you are Google and are sitting on $24bn of cash and short term investments, it makes sense to invest some of your cash in “short term instruments”. Hopefully for Google and its shareholders, these investments are safe, liquid, and are at very minimal risk of loss.
The next line is “accounts receivable”. Google calls it “net receivables’ because they are netting out money some of their partners owe them. I don’t really know why they are doing it that way. But for most companies, this line item is called Accounts Receivable and it is the total amount of money owed to the business for products and services that have been delivered but have not been collected. It’s the money your customers owe your business. If this number gets really big relative to revenues (for example if it represents more than three months of revenues) then you know something is wrong with the business. We’ll talk more about that in an upcoming post about financial statement analysis.
I’m only going to cover the big line items in this balance sheet. So the next line item to look at is called Total Current Assets. That’s the amount of assets that you can turn into cash fairly quickly. It is often considered a measure of the “liquidity of the business.”
The next set of assets are “long term assets” that cannot be turned into cash easily. I’ll mention three of them. Long Term Investments are probably Google’s minority investments in venture stage companies and other such things. The most important long term asset is “Property Plant and Equipment” which is the cost of your capital equipment. For the companies we typically invest in, this number is not large unless they rack their own servers. Google of course does just that and has spent $4.8bn to date (net of depreciation) on its “factory”. Depreciation is the annual cost of writing down the value of your property plant and equipment. It appears as a line in the profit and loss statement. The final long term asset I’ll mention is Goodwill. This is a hard one to explain. But I’ll try. When you purchase a business, like YouTube, for more than it’s “book value” you must record the difference as Goodwill. Google has paid up for a bunch of businesses, like YouTube and Doubleclick, and it’s Goodwill is a large number, currently $4.9bn. If you think that the value of any of the businesses you have acquired has gone down, you can write off some or all of that Goodwill. That will create a large one time expense on your profit and loss statement.
After cash, I believe the liability section of the balance sheet is the most important section. It shows the businesses’ debts. And the other thing that can put you out of business aside from running out of cash is inability to pay your debts. That is called bankruptcy. Of course, running out of cash is one reason you may not be able to pay your debts. But many companies go bankrupt with huge amounts of cash on their books. So it is critical to understand a company’s debts.
The main current liabilities are accounts payable and accrued expenses. Since we don’t see any accrued expenses on Google’s balance sheet I assume they are lumping the two together under accounts payable. They are closely related. Both represent expenses of the business that have yet to be paid. The difference is that accounts payable are for bills the company receives from other businesses. And accrued expenses are accounting entries a company makes in anticipation of being billed. A good example of an accounts payable is a legal bill you have not paid. A good example of an accrued expense is employee benefits that you have not yet been billed for that you accrue for each month.
If you compare Current Liabilities to Current Assets, you’ll get a sense of how tight a company is operating. Google’s current assets are $29bn and its current liabilities are $2.7bn. It’s good to be Google, they are not sweating it. Many of our portfolio companies operate with these numbers close to equal. They are sweating it.
Non current liabilities are mostly long term debt of the business. The amount of debt is interesting for sure. If it is very large compared to the total assets of the business its a reason to be concerned. But its even more important to dig into the term of the long term debt and find out when it is coming due and other important factors. You won’t find that on the balance sheet. You’ll need to get the footnotes of the financial statements to do that. Again, we’ll talk more about that in a future post on financial statement analysis.
The next section of the balance sheet is called Stockholders Equity. This includes two categories of “equity”. The first is the amount that equity investors, from VCs to public shareholders, have invested in the business. The second is the amount of earnings that have been retained in the business over the years. I’m not entirely sure how Google breaks out the two on it’s balance sheet so we’ll just talk about the total for now. Google’s total stockholders equity is $36bn. That is also called the “book value” of the business.
The cool thing about a balance sheet is it has to balance out. Total Assets must equal Total Liabilities plus Stockholders Equity. In Google’s case, total assets are $40.5bn. Total Liabilities are $4.5bn. If you subtract the liabilities from the assets, you get $36bn, which is the amount of stockholders equity.
We’ll talk about cash flow statements next week and the fact that a balance sheet has to balance can be very helpful in analyzing and projecting out the cash flow of a business.
In summary, the Balance Sheet shows the value of all the capital that a business has built up over the years. The most important numbers in it are cash and liabilities. Always pay attention to those numbers. I almost never look at a profit and loss statement without also looking at a balance sheet. They really should be considered together as they are two sides of the same coin.
The standard form of a cash flow statement is a bit hard to comprehend in my opinion and I don’t think it does a very good job of describing the various aspects of cash flow in a business.
That said, let’s start with the concept of cash flow and we’ll come back to the accounting treatment.
Cash flow is the amount of cash your business either produces or consumes in a given period, typically a month, quarter, or year. You might think that is the same as the profit of the business, but that is not correct for a bunch of reasons.
The profit of a business is the difference between revenues and expenses. If revenues are greater than expenses, your business is producing a profit. If expenses are greater than revenues, your business is producing a loss.
But there are many examples of profitable businesses that consume cash. And there are also examples of unprofitable businesses that produce cash, at least for a period of time.
As I explained in the Income Statement post, revenues are recognized as they are earned, not necessarily when they are collected. And expenses are recognized as they are incurred, not necessarily when they are paid for. Also, some things you might think of as expenses of a business, like buying servers, are actually posted to the Balance Sheet as property of the business and then depreciated (ie expensed) over time.
So if you have a business with significant hardware requirements, like a hosting business for example, you might be generating a profit on paper but the cash outlays you are making to buy servers may mean your business is cash flow negative.
Another example in the opposite direction would be a software as a service business where your company gets paid a year in advance for your software subscription revenues. You collect the revenue upfront but recognize it over the course of the year. So in the month you collect the revenue from a big customer, you might be cash flow positive, but your Income Statement would show the business operating at a loss.
Cash flow is really easy to calculate. It’s the difference between your cash balance at the start of whatever period you are measuring and the end of that period. Let’s say you start the year with $1mm in cash and end the year with $2mm in cash. Your cash flow for the year is positive by $1mm. If you start the year with $1mm in cash and end the year with no cash, your cash flow for the year is negative by $1mm.
But as you might imagine the accounting version of the cash flow statement is not that simple. Instead of getting into the standard form, which as I said I don’t really like, let’s talk about a simpler form that gets you to mostly the same place.
Let’s say you want to do a cash flow statement for the past year. You start with your Net Income number from your Income Statement for the year. Let’s say that number is $1mm of positive net income.
Then you look at your Balance Sheet from the prior year and the current year. Look at the Current Assets (less cash) at the start of the year and the Current Assets (less cash) at the end of the year. If they have gone up, let’s say by $500,000, then you subtract that number from your Net Income. The reason you subtract the number is your business used some of your cash to increase its current assets. One typical reason for that is your Accounts Receivable went up because your customers are taking longer to pay you.
Then look at your Non-Current Assets at the start of the year and the end of the year. If they have gone up, let’s say by $500k, then you also subtract that number from your Net Income. The reason is your business used some of your cash to increase its Non-Current Assets, most likely Property, Plant, and Equipment (like servers).
At this point, halfway through this simplified cash flow statement, your business that had a Net Income of $1mm produced no cash because $500k of it went to current assets and $500k of it went to non-current assets.
Liabilities work the other way. If they go up, you add the number to Net Income. Let’s start with Current Liabilities such as Accounts Payable (money you owe your suppliers, etc). If that number goes up by $250k over the course of the year, you are effectively using your suppliers to finance your business. Another reason current liabilities could go up is Deferred Revenue went up. That would mean you are effectively using your customers to finance your business (like that software as a service example earlier on in this post).
Then look at Long Term Liabilities. Let’s say they went up by $500k because you borrowed $500k from the bank to purchase the servers that caused your Non-Current Assets to go up by $500k. So add that $500k to Net Income as well.
Now, the simplified cash flow statement is showing $750k of positive cash flow. But we have one more section of the Balance Sheet to deal with, Stockholders Equity. For Stockholders Equity, you need to back out the current year’s net income because we started with that. Once you do that, the main reason Stockholders Equity would go up would be an equity raise. Let’s say you raised $1mm of venture capital during the year and so Stockholder’s Equity went up by $1mm. You’d add that $1mm to Net Income as well.
So, that’s basically it. You start with $1mm of Net Income, subtract $500k of increased current assets, subtract $500k of increased non-current assets, add $250k of increased current liabilities, add $500k of increased long-term liabilities, and add $1mm of increased stockholders equity, and you get positive cash flow of $1.75mm.
Of course, you’ll want to check this against the cash balance at the start of the year and the end of the year to make sure that in fact cash did go up by $1.75mm. If it didn’t, then you have to go back and check your math.
So why would anyone want to do the cash flow statement the long way if you can simply compare cash at the start of the year and the end of the year? The answer is that doing a full-blown cash flow statement tells you a lot about where you are consuming or producing cash. And you can use that information to do something about it.
Let’s say that your cash flow is weak because your accounts receivable are way too high. You can hire a dedicated collections person. You can start cutting off customers who are paying you too late. Or you can do a combination of both. Bringing down accounts receivable is a great way to improve a business’ cash flow.
Let’s say you are spending a boatload on hardware to ramp up your web service’s capacity. And it is bringing your cash flow down. If you are profitable or have good financial backers, you can go to a bank and borrow against those servers. You can match non-current assets to long-term liabilities so that together they don’t impact the cash flow of your business.
Let’s say your current liabilities went down over the past year by $500k. That’s a $500k reduction in your cash flow. Maybe you are paying your bills much more quickly than you did when you started the business and had no cash. You might instruct your accounting team to slow down bill payment a bit and bring it back in line with prior practices. That could help produce better cash flow.
These are but a few examples of the kinds of things you can learn by doing a cash flow statement. It’s simply not enough to look at the Income Statement and the Balance Sheet. You need to understand the third piece of the puzzle to see the business in its entirety.
One last point and I am done with this week’s post. When you are doing projections for future years, I encourage management teams to project the income statement first, then the cash flow statement, and then end up with the balance sheet. You can make assumptions about how the line items in the Income Statement will cause the various Balance Sheet items to change (like Accounts Receivable should be equal to the past three months of revenue) and then lay all that out as a cash flow statement and then take the changes in the various items in the cash flow statement to build the Balance Sheet. I like to do that in monthly form. We’ll talk more about projections next week because I think this is a very important subject for startups and entrepreneurial management teams to wrap their heads around.