The most important lesson in business

Over the weekend, I attended a conference (I was even quoted in the press, despite disclaiming before one of my presentations I was scattered from a terrible hangover!). In one of the sessions, where the brilliant guys at Australian start-up company Good Barry shared some of their lessons, an audience member asked the question of when should they get lawyers and accountants to help them out.

I think this was a very good question and one I will answer here. Why can I? Because I am (nearly) a chartered accountant ; an experienced external auditor; and an employee in one of the biggest firms in the world that makes money from guys like me doing services for people like you.

There are four areas accountants help a business:

1) Reporting & compliance. Whether you run a business and want to know what’s happening (ie, measurement on your employees output so you can track how big their bonus will be) – or you need to create some type of reporting to external stakeholders (like investors, banks, shareholders) – accountants have the skills to ensure you create the appropriate reports. Reports can vary from custom internal ones to help assess things, to government mandated ones like financial reports to statutory authority’s or the tax office

2) Tax. It wasn’t until I studied tax, that I realised how valuable tax accountants are. Tax is the biggest expense of anyone – individual or company – and there are plenty of legal tricks to avoid paying. Specialist accountants can help you structure your business in a way, where you minimise this expense. People can spend an entire life understanding just one aspect of the tax code. It’s massive. Trust me, a good tax adviser is worth their weight in gold.

3) Assurance. If you produce financial reports, you need to get audited by special types of accountants, who will verify your numbers to make sure you are not talking crap. However auditors are also very experienced in understanding how businesses should be run (so would you if you visited dozens of companies every year analysing them inside out), so they can also add a lot of value by helping assess your business during the audit and making recommendations on improving how you run. They do this, because during an audit they see everything and often have a more complete view of a business than management. A very useful thing accountants can help with, is by developing your internal control framework. What this means, is helping set up systems so that it runs like a proper business. For example, making sure two people sign a cheque is a ‘control’ – and a very important one, because without it, people can be signing cheques to themselves and running away with your money (it happens more frequently than you think).

4) Decision making. These types of accountants are called management accountants, and they can help analyse the numbers of a business to assist strategic decisions. For example, should you buy a company? A management accountant has the skillset to provide the analysis on whether it will be worth while. Management accountants help interpret information, to make important decisions for the business.

What help does a start-up company need from an accountant

The most important thing you need to know, is CASHFLOW. You need to maximise the amount of working capital – cash you’ve got on hand – at any one time. It’s seems simple enough that you need to make sure you make more money than you spend, but you will be surprised how easily people overlook this. Possibly in the Internet startup culture funded by vulture venture capitalists, people forget that the money they are spending is not real money.

Accountants can help maximise your cashflow. They can help with cash strategies like for example all that money sitting in the bank, why not put it somewhere and earn interest on it? They can help with cash management to maximise your working capital: smart ideas like pay your creditors as late as possible (people you owe); chase your debtors every day (people that owe you). However you don’t need an accountant to watch your cashflow. You just need you to recognise its importance. Get that? Accountants can do a lot. But if you are a startup, cashfow is all you need to know.

Do you need an accountant for fix up your controls? This only matters when you have hundreds of people in an organisation and things get complex. Controls are the difference between a small company run like a family business, and a big business. Matured startups like Atlassian that make $30million a year, need to consider controls. You? No.

Do you need an accountant for your tax strategies? Well hey buddy, if you aren’t making money, you haven’t got any tax to pay, right?

Do you need an accountant to help make management decisions? Sure you do – but if you have common sense, you can to. Accountants can give you a better analysis of your business from your untrained mind, but you need cash to pay them to do that.

Do you need an accountant for financial reporting? In Australia, unless your gross operating revenue is over $10 million a year; and you have over 50 employees or $5 million in assets, you are considered a small private company that is not required to lodge reports. So stop dreaming about your goal to list your company on the stock exchange, and get back to thinking about the cashflow.

So going back to the question of when does a start-up need an accountant. Well look, if you hire me I can whack some sense into you. But if you have half a brain, you will take this lesson in understanding that cashflow in king. Focus on that first, and then you can worry about the rest if the cashflow is there.

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