A lack of understanding about the numbers side of your business can cause you tremendous headaches. For a case in point, let me introduce you to one of my new clients who I’ll call John. John is a contractor who has been in business for more than twenty years. He hired me to come in and clean up a mess caused by 1) his lack of knowledge about small business finances and 2) his reliance on marginally competent bookkeepers.
It’s a classic small business scenario. A business owner who doesn’t understand the financial side of his business hires a bookkeeper to handle “all that”. But, because he doesn’t understand the financial side of his business, he doesn’t know what to look for in a bookkeeper and he has no way of knowing whether the bookkeeper is doing a good job.
This is the perfect set up for all sorts of unpleasant consequences including inaccurate financial records and tax returns, missed or inaccurate filings of mandatory forms and payments, useless financial statements, lack of information about how the business is really doing, and a potential for fraud and embezzlement. Scary, huh?
So, what’s a business owner to do? Here are some tips to help you stay out of trouble.
1. Understand that the numbers side of your business is a critical factor in your quest for a successful and prosperous business. You can hire someone else to do the work but you still need a basic understanding in order to run your business.
2. Know the difference between hiring a bookkeeper and hiring a financial professional. A good bookkeeper will understand how to accurately enter information like payables and receivables, process a payroll, make collection calls, and reconcile a checking account. All those are important and necessary tasks. Notice I call them tasks. Bookkeepers are task oriented. A professional finance professional may also perform these tasks but their real value is in taking the information that has been entered and translating it into knowledge about your business and then communicating it to you in a way you will understand. Financial managers are analysis and knowledge oriented. Two different ways of looking at your financial information by two different professionals.
3. Sometimes you can find someone who can perform both sets of competencies but individuals like that are few. Generally, it is more cost effective to have a competent bookkeeper perform the task oriented pieces of the financial puzzle–entering vendor and customer invoices, receiving payments, processing payroll, etc. and then use a financial manager to help you understand what the numbers mean.
4. A financial manager can be someone like your CPA (certified public accountant–they’re not just for taxes anymore) or you can use a CFO (chief financial officer) who specializes in working with a number of different smaller businesses. Usually you can get the information you need by hiring someone to look over your financials once a month, do some analysis and report back to you on trends and operating efficiency, and give you solid advice on how to improve your business. Be sure to find someone who understands the ins and outs of managing cash flow since this is such a critical challenge for small business owners.
5. When you set up your accounting system, get professional help. Again call your CPA or CFO to help with this. How you set it up is directly related to how useful the information is. Part of the problem my client is dealing with is a very poorly set up QuickBooks company. The set up was done in such a way that all the useful features like bank reconciliation and job costing have been rendered un-useable. Getting it set up right in the first place costs a pittance compared to having someone come in and spend hours or days fixing it later.
6. Make sure you have internal controls to protect your business from theft and fraud. Some examples: never have the same person who signs checks also reconcile the bank statement, always scan through cancelled checks or your bank’s check copies for any checks that look out of the ordinary, protect your passwords, keep checks (including the ones from your credit card company) in a secure place, know the basics of navigating your accounting system so you can at least appear knowledgeable, have a trained professional looking over your books regularly to deter fraud and to pick up on any clues that fraud may be happening.
7. When you hire a finance person for your business whether it’s a bookkeeper, a CPA, or a CFO, find one with experience in a business like yours. If you are a contractor like my client, find professionals who have worked with other contracting businesses. If you are a lawyer, find one who has worked for a law office or other professional service office. Check references. Ask for a few customers/employers you can contact to find out more about how the person is to work with. Red flag–an unwillingness to provide any information demonstrating their ability to do the job.
My client John now has a plan to move beyond the days of chaos and stress. He will use a bookkeeper to enter his invoices, receive payments, and keep his job folders under control. He will use my CFO service on a monthly basis to help him learn about the numbers side of his business, to get the information he needs to run his business, and to provide oversight and professional input for his bookkeeper. My involvement brings the stability and consistency that his business has needed for years. With a big sigh of relief he is able to say, “Goodbye Chaos! Hello smoother sailing.”