There are two key reasons why it’s so difficult to gather and use really high quality financial data for making critical business decisions. Firstly, the tools for transforming financial data into useful information are somewhat complex.
The people who know how to transform basic data into meaningful information typically have lots of training and are often really smart; therefore they charge a lot of money for their services.
Hence, smaller private businesses often cannot get access to such people.
Secondly, for financial data to be meaningful, it needs to be analysed in comparison to something else.
Many private businesses typically don’t have access to the performance metrics of other firms in their industry. Such information is proprietary, therefore even if a business owner can do the advanced calculations to transform financial data into useful information, they don’t get the full benefit of it because they have nothing to compare it to.
This creates a real conundrum for you, a concerned, ambitious business owner:
You want to get the right information to make the best business decisions possible, but you can’t afford to keep hiring high-priced consultants, and you have nothing to compare that data with, even when you do analyse it.
Enter Gareth Ochse and Kenneth Kalmer with ValuationUp, a new online financial analysis and strategy tool for privately-held businesses.
ValuationUp is a web-based platform, designed with a simple, intuitive and familiar interface to allow entrepreneurs and business owners to independently track and interpret critical financial metrics about their business on an ongoing basis.
This not only provides you with valuable information to make much better business decisions, but it also educates you on your business and helps you understand performance relative to other organisations.
The ValuationUp founders have come up with a powerful way for business owners to think about transforming financial data into meaningful information. In this article, they share aspects of their framework to provide a roadmap for thinking about when and how financial data can and should be used to better manage a business.
In unpacking their framework, we will consider three key questions:
- What insights can you get from financial data?
- When are financial insights valuable?
- And who should care about key financial insights?
What key insights can you get from financial data?
Imagine that you are a doctor and you need to diagnose a serious ailment of a patient. The easy option is to ask the patient a few questions, poke and prod in a few obvious areas and then deliver a diagnosis. Although this option is easy, it’s probably not the most effective.
We would prefer a doctor to do the appropriate blood tests, ask deep and insightful questions and perform the necessary scans.
Similarly, if we want to understand a business we need to perform a proper analysis of the organisation’s financial data. Ochse and Kalmer point out that such an analysis will provide insight in four key areas: Performance, price, potential and priorities.
Each of these four areas open unique insight to properly understanding the business. Failure to properly use financial data to evaluate these four areas can create
serious ‘blind spots’ for a business owner.
Related: Staring Down Failure
How well is a business currently being run, benchmarked against its industry peers?
Insight into business performance comes from transforming financial data into ratios. However, performance ratios in isolation are not very useful. Ratios need to be compared to ratios from prior years, to see whether performance is improving over time. Ratios also need to be compared to other organisations to see how the business compares to other similar enterprises.
To do this, a manager must decide what performance measures are most important for their business, collect data for the current year and prior years and from similar businesses, transform the data into meaningful ratios and compare the ratios across time and between businesses.
The advantage of using a consultant or a service such as ValuationUp is that they often have templates for doing all these calculations and access to benchmarking data, thereby making performance measurement much more meaningful and insightful.
For example, ValuationUp has built a dataset of nearly one million financial statements across 1 000+ industry groups to benchmark financial performance of firms against industry peers.
They allow you to immediately assess whether your firm is under-performing across most metrics by comparing performance to 50th and 75th percentiles.
What is the business currently worth?
Valuing a business is no easy task. Therefore most business owners have no real idea about what their business is worth until they try to sell it (and even then the price at which their business is valued may be vague and ambiguous). Financial professionals have invested heavily in coming up with highly sophisticated ways to value businesses.
The problem is that most of these methods require a PhD in finance to be properly implemented.
They require firms to project cash flows into the future and then discount future cash flows back down to their current day values, while adjusting for the risk of such cash flows – no easy task.
Yet, knowing the value of your business can be very meaningful, especially if you are able to track value over time so you get feedback on what activities, clients, products and services are adding value to the business and which might actually be destroying value.
At a minimum it’s worth getting your business valued once every few years so that you know the size of the ‘asset’ you are managing and whether it is truly growing.
It’s even more valuable to have regular (eg. monthly) insight into the value of the business so that there is a tighter feedback loop between action and impact — the action that you take in the business and the impact it has on the value of the business.
What could the business be worth in future?
The third focal area for really understanding the financial data from a business is assessing what the business could be worth in the future. Most business owners have an idea of what they want their business to be worth at some point in the future.
However, for many people this is merely a dream and linking that dream to reality is almost impossible.
But, with a tool that dynamically models the value of a business, it’s possible to assess what the business might be worth in the future.
The ValuationUp dashboard splits the business into short-term, medium-term and long-term variables, all visible at a glance. This allows the user to understand the trade-offs between optimising a short-term metric (eg. liquidity) with a long-term one (eg. firm valuation).
What actions are required for a business to achieve its financial potential?
Financial data can be used to assess the impact of operational actions on financial measures.
Managers can assess how action to change variables such as inventory days, marketing spend, debtors’ policies or product mix impact a firm’s valuation.
In so doing, managers can garner deeper insight into the actions that should be considered key priorities as they move forward in building a business to create value.
Although insight from financial data is useful almost all the time in managing a business, there are key pivot points in the life of an enterprise when astute financial insights become highly salient. Ochse and Kalmer point out four key times when such insight is critical.
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Taking Care Of Business
Do you want to grow your business in 2019? Bear these tips in mind.
SMEs are the lifeblood of the South African economy, accounting for approximately 29% of employment in the country and forming a critical pillar of the government’s 2030 National Development Plan. With funding scarce and the economy volatile, small businesses remain increasingly vulnerable to economic pressures, with many failing to last beyond the five-year mark.
Thanks to the abundance of new and affordable technology, bringing with it the potential for new industries and market gaps, there has never been a better time to conduct business without crippling costs. It is not all doom and gloom in the small business sector, despite findings in the 2018 SME Landscape Report that suggest that a meagre 6% of all start-ups have received government funding.
Do not be afraid to delegate
Many entrepreneurs are so passionate about their own undertakings that they are unable to simply let things go. Rather than empowering and enabling others to take responsibility, many Type A business leaders instead opt to do it all themselves – usually with disastrous consequences.
Learning to delegate is key to alleviating bottlenecking and freeing up capacity in your business, so make sure to utilise all your available resources if you want your enterprise to expand.
While billboards and TV ads are expensive, marketing a business can now be done quite cheaply, thanks to the abundance of relatively affordable digital channels. So while you might not be able to have your brand staring out at you from the pages of a glossy magazine just yet, digital channels like Facebook and Google now allow you to achieve the same audience reach for a fraction of the cost.
Offering the best service in town is one thing, but it is worth nothing if nobody knows about it. So make sure to pay close attention to your website and its search engine optimisation (SEO). By using the correct keywords and even putting a small investment into Google Adwords, you will ensure that people who are looking for what you offer are able to find you easily.
With over 50% of all web traffic in South Africa coming from mobile devices, businesses simply can’t afford not to take a mobile-first approach to business. If you are offering an online service, make sure it is optimised for a mobile experience and ensure that any communication touch-points – be they blogs, social media posts or online check-out pages – are designed with mobile in mind.
One of the key advantages SMEs have over their larger counterparts is their ability to be flexible. Without outdated systems and reams of red tape to wade through, small businesses are far better able to adapt to market conditions and revise their offerings based on consumer needs. So make sure to listen to your customers and be willing to accept that some of your great ideas simply are not feasible.
Your willingness to accept failures and move on, will ultimately be what gives you the edge over your competitors.
Plan your finances
Cashflow is king when it comes to entrepreneurship and many a micro enterprise has come undone thanks to their inability to manage it. As such, financial planning is a critical tool for any business, especially for those operating without significant investment capital. Understanding potential pitfalls and keeping tabs on your profit margins will help to ensure you keep your pricing realistic and enable you to avoid finding yourself in the red.
Operating in isolation can only get you so far, so it is important that you put yourself out there and make proactive attempts to connect with other like-minded businesses. By joining a business network or attending industry events, you will be able to arm yourself with useful contacts, handy insights and perhaps a few new clients in the process.
Remember that owning a business is like raising a child – it requires constant supervision, nurturing and care if it is to succeed to its utmost potential. So make sure to look after your business and one day it will end up looking after you.
MiWay is a licensed Short-term Insurer and Financial Services Provider (FSP. 33970).
How Taking Risks – And Failing – Can Lead To Business Success
Don’t let fear of failure stop you from taking the risks you need to, to carry your business forward. But as your business grows, you’ll have to re-evaluate what risks you can take.
Innovate, innovate, innovate. The war cry is so often repeated that it has become something of a bore. Yet, true innovation remains a rarity – and to our huge detriment. As South Africans, we seem to carry a deep shame associated with failure. Yet, facing the very real possibility of failure is the only arena in which a culture of innovation can take root.
The biggest business failure of my life was an investment into a software company that wrote a piece of software that was set to revolutionise the mobile landscape. It was going to be huge. It was going to take the world by storm. But unfortunately, we backed the wrong horse.
We developed the software for the Symbian platform because Nokia was way ahead of the pack. Nobody else even came close. But, given the fact that there’s a good chance you currently have an iPhone or Android device in your pocket right now, you know how that story ended. Nokia seemed untouchable, then almost collapsed. We lost a lot of money.
Get back up
But, we learnt valuable lessons from that. Of course, there’s the general lesson that everyone should take away from failure – to get up and try again. As General George Custer said, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up.”
The other lesson was more specific to our business. In developing the software, we learnt a lot about different technology platforms and those lessons were invaluable as we took the next steps in Fedgroup. The same people who built that software helped in the initial stages of developing Azurite, which today is the backbone of our company’s entire operation.
Because we’d been involved so heavily in developing for mobility and the future, our minds were opened to what technology could do. It gave us the mindset to get where we are today.
Investing in education
It sounds like a terrible cliché, but there’s value in failure. Take the lessons you learn in failure – the genuine lessons – because even if you lose money, consider it school fees, and cheap at the price. Arguably, our failure was the “fees payable” that bought us our competitive edge.
In the United States, they are less afraid of failure. They wear their failures like a badge of honour. Elon Musk, for example, misses his targets, but he’s always pushing the boundaries. Recent (questionable) antics aside, Musk’s risk-taking drives innovation.
If people in an organisation are terrified of failure, they don’t try new things, they don’t innovate, they don’t move forward and they certainly don’t disrupt. Even though now, as the CEO of a large financial services company, I can’t afford to bet the whole business on a risky proposition, I still encourage risk-taking and a spirit of adventure – within reason.
Reckless vs reason
This is not to say that we can – or should – be reckless. There should be accountability, and the reasons for making the mistake should make sense. And, you shouldn’t make the same mistake twice. But if you take risks within those parameters, you’ve got a better chance of making a real difference in your organisation.
We have recently launched an app that is fairly disruptive, and as far as we can tell, the first of its kind in the world. Before we launched, we put our personal money behind the idea to test it. We had done our homework, but it was still a risk. If it hadn’t worked, we would have lost our personal money, but because we took that risk and proved it worked, we were able to launch it safely to the public one year later.
Parameters, limitations, and the ethics of risk
When you’re an entrepreneur, when you’re just starting out, you can bet the farm. You can take risks on new ventures and potentially build something out of nothing.
Once you’re an established organisation with staff and clients – and in our case, clients who have invested their pension with us – the scope of risk takes on a new set of parameters. When you are dealing with a client’s security, it is simply not acceptable to expose them to additional avoidable risk.
However, because risk taking is where the magic of innovation happens, encouraging a framework where creativity, experimentation, and risk is possible within your organisation, is critical. One of the ways to encourage this is to examine your attitude towards failure. Build an environment where failure is not taboo, but presents a strong learning opportunity, and ring fence those areas within the organisation which absolutely cannot be jeopardised. This is risk in a helmet – you might get a roasty, but you could win the race.
Proven Strategies To Grow Your Start-up On A Scale Following These Guidelines
The following strategies can help you make the start-up scalable and grow it to accommodate a larger demand.
Scalability and flexibility are important properties of any business. Let’s say you’ve managed to build a successful start-up. It’s profitable and promising, but you want it to become better. The scalability of a business involves its ability to adapt for bigger workloads without losing revenue.
Even if your business is currently small and doesn’t generate huge profits, scalability can help it turn into a large enterprise. The wrong approach to developing a start-up can deprive it of an opportunity to become better.
Scaling Vs Growth
Many companies make a mistake of thinking that scaling and growing a company is the same thing. In fact, growth involves increasing revenue or the size of the company (the number of employees, offices, clients).
Constant growth requires numerous resources and may not always lead to a proportional revenue increase. In many cases, the growing number of services or products needed to boost revenue involves high costs related to the growing number of employees and equipment.
On the other hand, scaling allows you to increase the revenue without the costs involved in growth. You can handle the extra load and boost your profits while keeping the costs to a minimum.
At some point, a successful start-up needs to make a choice between growing at a constant rate and switching to the scaling business model.
Even though a single clear method for scaling your business doesn’t exist, there are some guidelines you can follow.
1. Get Ready To Be Patient
Scaling is not a quick process so you have to be patient. The overnight success story is not about you. In fact, scaling too fast usually results in unfortunate failure.
Allow yourself to spend the time to understand who your ideal customers are and how you can solve their problems in a better manner. Make sure you understand how to be confident about the new volume of your work.
Do research to find out how you can find the right resources to achieve scaling rather than growth.
2. Choose The Right Software
The lack of time and team members is a common problem for a startup looking for scaling methods. That’s why they need to try and automate as many processes as possible. This can be done with the assistance of the right software.
- Trello – to simplify in-office and remote teamwork
- MailChimp – to improve marketing campaigns
- Brand24 – to get insights about your business
- Survicate – to collect customers’ feedback
- Voiptime – to increase connectivity.
3. Take Advantage of Outsourcing
Since you are hoping to limit the expenses while growing the revenue, you have to find ways to spend the revenue in the right manner. The biggest mistake made by business owners who think they are choosing scaling is hiring a big team. By doing so, they turn scaling into growing.
Your best bet to avoid hiring a large team and paying large salaries while achieving your plans is to outsource. Using your resources wisely involves finding freelancers and remote employees who are willing to work for a lower pay on a one-time (or several) contract bases.
For example, you don’t need a lawyer or a computer specialist sitting in the office all day long. Why should you pay them a monthly salary?
4. Don’t Do It Alone
Even though certain team minimisation is necessary to improve your scaling efforts, don’t try to handle everything on your own. It’s important to have at least one person you can rely on to manage the business-related problems.
Scaling your start-up is possible as soon as you understand what scaling is in detail. You need to be careful not to start growing your business instead of scaling it in the process. Once you have all the fundamentals figured, resources managed, and the right people in place, you are ready to start.
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