Updated: Oct 10, 2022
You're working every day in and on your business, wearing many hats: solving emergencies, making quick decisions, and jumping anywhere in the business you're needed that day.
At the same time, there are things you want your business to achieve, and you balance your day-to-day with thinking about the future.
You know you have to take the right steps and make the right decisions, to reach your long-term goals.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a roadmap for all of it? Something that shows how your business is doing today, how it will do in the coming years, and the right timing for those big decisions.
You might be thinking a budget is the best solution, but budgets are not the best for strategy. They work well for setting spending limits, but they don’t let you look ahead over a few years, which is what you need when you’re building your business for the long term.
A financial forecast is the tool you need.
Let's cover some basics about forecasts up front, and then get into the 4 step process for creating your first one.
First - the job of a financial forecast is to predict what your profit and cash will be, monthly and yearly, forever. Forecasts usually look ahead for 3 to 5 years, and they keep going year after year. They show running balances on key financial metrics like profit and cash and keep rolling along month after month, which is a big contrast from a budget. Budgets are for a fixed period of time: a few months to at most a year.
Second - a forecast is an active tool meaning its constantly being reviewed, considered, and adjusted as business conditions change and actual results happen. This review and change should happen every month if possible. This is also in contrast to a budget, which is set once each year and rarely changes until the next budgeting cycle.
Finally - a forecast is a roadmap for running a business. Every decision about a business should come from the forecast analysis. The forecast should dictate spending decisions, investment needs, and every strategic decision about the business. It’s a tool for building your business, pivoting when you need to, and making your strategy a reality.
4-step process for creating your first forecast
If you’re building or running a small business, you should have a forecast for understanding your business better, its growth opportunities, and making smarter, more confident decisions. Let’s look at the 4 parts of developing your first forecast.
1. Pick your forecast streams
The word “streams” in this context sounds strange, but it’s meaningful. Streams feed larger bodies of water, and they go on and on–they stream–and so does your forecast. It keeps going, month after month and year after year, which is a significant difference from a budget, which has a start and end, usually one year, and isn’t updated during that time.
Forecasts are meant to be updated as changes occur in your business because their job is to predict your future profit and cash balances, so you can make decisions today that will be right for tomorrow and beyond.
Think about what your business sells and create 3 - 7 categories. Your categories should represent a broad picture of the different types of things you sell. Not each thing, but the major different types. Types have to do with how they are priced (by unit, hour, subscription, or fixed fee); as well as what it takes to produce them (costs, personnel, and marketing) and your targeted profit margin. For instance, if you are a service-based organization, and you offer house visits for one price, and phone support for another price, those are both “unit sales,” but they probably have very different profit margins and they require different staff and strategies for marketing. So those should be two different streams.
Your streams should also match the goals you have for building your business - the things you need to track to monitor progress on your goals. In that same example, if the house visits had multiple types of service offerings, and you were trying to add new services, or grow a particular one, you might want to have a stream for each type of service visit, or at least the new one you are trying to grow. You might need to hire new staff for it or do additional marketing, and so exposing it in the forecast is a good idea.
Once you pick your revenue streams, the cost of goods to produce them (COGS) and overhead expenses are next. COGS should relate as much as possible to your revenue streams so that you can see the gross margin on each revenue stream. Gross margin is a very important metric for your business and what you sell. If you can’t sell each thing for enough gross profit, you’ll never cover your costs and your business will lose money over time.
Expenses should be as condensed as possible into major categories. We recommend these: rent, marketing, sales, training, general and administrative (things like office supplies, insurance, and admin support staff).
Selecting the right forecast streams can feel overwhelming at first, but the beauty of a forecast is that it’s meant to evolve. It’s perfectly normal to start with one set of forecast streams and change them along the way as you learn about your business.
2. Make your forecast projections
Now you get to use a different part of your brain! You get to think about opportunities and possibilities and add them to what you know that’s real today. Projections are another fundamental thing that makes a forecast different from a budget. Budgets are mostly concerned with showing what the business will need to spend in a year to remain profitable. They are incredibly conservative in nature and are mostly concerned with setting spending limits by the organizations policies.
Forecasts by contrast are meant to take a business farther. They look out beyond one year and include sales and expense numbers that are anywhere from known to hope for! It’s important to include the “hoped for” numbers because those are what transform a business once they are put down. It’s amazing what a group of people can accomplish together when goals are quantified in a forecast. All of a sudden the things you only talk about with your team because of measurable goals.
Think of your projections in 3 categories: 100% known and booked sales (often called “backlog”), >85% winnable sales, and 50% winnable sales. Anything less than 50% probably shouldn’t be included in the forecast, or it can be in a separate what-if scenario.
Making projections this way becomes pretty straightforward. List the 100% known sales in the correct months at a full dollar value. Put the 85%+ numbers in at .85 of the full value, and the 50% at .5 full value. In this way, everything in your pipeline can be in the forecast but at reasonable values. Work with your sales team every 2 weeks to get updates on the status. It’s helpful to keep a sales pipeline list, broken into those groupings. It’s even nice to color code them and let the sales team move them up or down the “probability ladder.”
As much as possible, tie your costs and expenses to the revenue streams as percentages. The cost of good should be a percentage of each matching revenue stream. Expenses like marketing and office supplies should also be a percentage of revenue. This helps you set limits or targets on what should be spent. And other expenses will be fixed like rent and insurance. Payroll expenses are entered by an employee or group of employees - they should not be a percentage of revenue.
A special note on personnel
Staffing is a tricky expense to forecast because payroll costs are for people. Souls, even. And those souls are the lifeblood of your business. Good employees can make a business soar, so you don’t want to think about payroll expenses as regular old expenses. They are YOUR PEOPLE. You can set limits and targets for payroll, sure, but you can’t hire ½ a person, or increase and reduce payroll at will, like office supplies. You can certainly do reductions in force if needed, but they take time, and it also takes time to find and hire good people. So be mindful of all of that when forecasting payroll. It’s not a number you should expect to move up or down quickly.
3. Watch your net profit, find your break-even point, and adjust
Now it starts to get fun! As you enter your projections, you will begin to see your profit come to life! You should look at a monthly profit in terms of dollars, and percentages. Each industry has benchmarks, but in general, you’re looking for a 3% or higher net profit.
If your business is new you’ll probably start with a negative profit and that’s normal (I’ll cover cash in just a minute). But watch the trend on your profit each month and see if it’s increasing or decreasing, and then watch for the month when the number goes from negative to positive. What's your break-even point. You’ll want to note that and manage it. All of the assumptions that went into your projections will be your goals to hit, to meet the timing of that break-even month. If the timing changes you want to be aware in advance so you can be sure you have the cash to cover it. (Again, cash is next!)
If you start profitable, great! Look across the months, 12 - 18 ideally, and see if there’s a trend. Do you have seasonality? Does the number slowly increase over time? Does it decrease?
After looking at the trends, go back to your sales, cost, and expense projections to see if they need adjusting. Are the sales reasonable and entered with the 100%, 85%, and 50% methods? Is the cost of goods realistic for each revenue stream? And have you thought of all types of overhead expenses? Any missed supplies, insurance, or training? Do you have enough for marketing? Again, each industry has a benchmark, but you want to spend at least 12% of your revenues on some combination of marketing and sales. General and administrative should be no more than 8%.
By this point, your forecast is officially your roadmap for managing your business. Use the sales projections as your goals, and check in on the cost and expense projections to see how they are affecting profit, both gross profit, and net profit.
4. Consider cash
I know, I know, “Cash is King.” But profit creates cash, so it was important to project and analyze your profit before you consider cash, and also know your break-even timing. And in doing so you can project your cash as it relates to your profit - the smartest way to forecast!
There are different schools of thought on how best to forecast cash, but the simplest for a small business forecast is to apply the timing of cash collection to each of your revenue streams. It’s not only the simplest, but it’s also the smartest - because your business cash truly does come from your profits.
When do you expect to receive cash from your sales? Do your customers pay right away (Net 0), within 2 weeks (Net 14), within one month (Net 30), or later?
You can apply 1 timing to your overall sales, or apply timing to each sales stream.
When you do this, really think about your actual cash collection timing - not the one you wish you had, but what happens. This is another way to make your forecast a management tool for your business, namely, if your cash isn’t coming in per your policy, or what your business needs, then you’ll have to make a change to your actual receipt timing. And if you don’t have a policy, you should create one!
On services and project work, Net 30 is normal, and sometimes even Net 45 if you perform work for Federal or State funded groups. Retail sales are mostly cash at the sale (Net 0). And if you take credit cards, then you want to build that into the model too - use the timing for when the credit card company releases the cash to you, and add a percentage expense for their charge.
Add these up by month, and you will now see your predicted cash balance at the end of each month. Wow! Useful, right?!
5. Surprise! There's a fifth step - USE YOUR FORECAST
Now that your forecast is built, you get to use it to build your business better: with confidence and exploration. Each week come back to your forecast and compare what you projected to what you did. Look at the running profit and cash balances, and determine if you need to change your projections to meet profit or cash goals. And use your projections, both the numbers and the timing, as your roadmap for how much to sell and when to spend.
There's truly nothing like having a living financial forecast for your business. It brings added confidence in that you understand where your business is now, and where it's going, and you're able to communicate about all of it in very concrete terms. Your forecast with even impress your board or investors!
Do you want help with your forecast?
If you want help building or managing your forecast, check us out! We are Lookahead Live and forecasting is our expertise. We've done it for a combined 60 years, and we love the work! Learn more and book a call today.