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5 Ways to Tackle the Problem That Kills One of Every Four Small Businesses

May 19, 2015

It's a phenomenon that most people who have never run a business have a hard time understanding: That a seemingly healthy business—even one that is both profitable and growing—can go bankrupt.

The explanation comes down to what's known to accountants and business people as a cash flow problem. Your company might have a contract to deliver a gazillion widgets in December at a fantastically profitable price. But it's July now, and in the meantime you need to buy the raw materials needed to produce those widgets and pay people to assemble them—and if you don't have enough cash on hand to make it until December, well, let's just say the holidays are going to be kind of bleak this year.

That's why, for example, Chris Carey, CEO of Modern Automotive Performance, works hard to keep his cash flow as smooth as the rides his customers crave in their souped-up cars. Carey’s 40-employee company, based in Cottage Grove, Minn., provides auto and truck parts to owners of vehicles like the Mitsubishi Evo X and Dodge Neon SRT-4, allowing them to do things like handle better and accelerate faster.

It’s a seasonal business that peaks in the spring, when drivers get ready to hit the roads—and sometimes the racetrack. One way Carey avoids running short of cash to pay his bills during the frigid winter months is by charging all of his customers in advance. “We’re being paid for the products before we have to pay our vendors,” he says.

By keeping a close eye on cash flow, Carey has enough available cash and access to credit to keep Modern Automotive Peformance well stocked with the type of inventory that keeps customers flocking. He has grown the business to $11 million in revenue annually since 2006.

Unfortunately, his attention to cash-flow is rare among entrepreneurs. “It’s not something most small business owners think about,” says Dave Kurrasch, a former senior vice president of Wells Fargo who is now vice president and general manager of Small Business Payments Company, a financial technology provider.

That can be a fatal mistake. Recent data compiled by the research firm CB Insights found that 29% of startups fail because of a cash crisis. It was the second highest cause. (The number one factor, at 42%? A lack of a need for their product in the marketplace.)

So how can you make sure your business beats the odds? Here are five strategies to keep your cash flow healthy.

Strategy #1: Choose a lower-overhead business. It may seem obvious—and for some businesses, simply too late—but the fact is that certain enterprises require much more or less cash to launch and grow than others. If you don’t have much access to startup funding, your best bet may be business you can fund mostly through the revenue you receive from customers.

“Consultants, if they’re good at what they do and are well known, can be instantly cash-flow positive,” says Kurrasch. That's because they tend not to have a lot of inventory and if they hire people, the team members often contribute directly to producing revenue. “Most businesses that have inventory—restaurants, retail outlets, manufacturers—tend to be negative cash flow producers, at least for the first three to four months, if not longer.” Which leads us to our next point….

Strategy #2: Secure credit before you need it. By talking with experienced business owners in your intended industry before you open your doors, you can find out how much cash you’ll likely need to survive until revenue starts coming in the door—and finance your operations accordingly.

Start by being realistic about it. “If you own a restaurant or a Hallmark card shop, a real traditional small business, [venture capital giant] Kleiner, Perkins isn’t going to come along and put a bunch of money into your company,” says Kurrasch. “Either you have cash reserves or you have friends and family you can call on.”

Start your money hunt long before there’s any chance you’ll run short of cash. “Try to get as much credit as you can before you enter the business,” advises Nat Wasserstein, managing director of Lindenwood Associates in Upper Nyack, N.Y., a provider of services such as crisis management. If you wait until you’re in a jam, you’ll find it hard to get anyone to lend to you.

Strategy #3: Find your ideal dashboard. By keeping keep close tabs on the money coming in and out of your business, you’ll reduce the chance of getting caught short when it’s time to meet payroll or pay a key supplier. “A lot of entrepreneurs don’t even understand that they could be profitable and strapped for cash at the same time,” says Wasserstein. If you need money now to pay your bills and don’t expect customers to pay you in the immediate future, you’ll find yourself in a crunch where you need to borrow.

Fortunately, there are simple tools to help you keep on top of cash flow without spending a lot of time on it. You can get a free excel worksheet to figure out your cash flow through from the CCH Business Owner’s Toolkit. Or, if you want a more automated solution, you can use inexpensive accounting software such as QuickBooks to create a “statement of cash flows.” Kurrasch’s company offers a cash forecasting app, called Small Business Workbench, that costs $6 a month for the basic plan.

Strategy #4. Put your credit card to work for you. Carey has found that one of his most valuable tools in managing his cash flow is his business credit card. He happens to use the American Express Plum card, which offered him 2% cash back if he paid the balance in full when he signed up in 2006, and now offers users 1.5% back. Carey will often spend as much as $750,000 a month on his card to pay for inventory and other expenses, enabling him to get anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 a month once he pays the bill on time. That gives him a big incentive to keep on top of the money coming in and out of his business. “Everything in our cash flow revolves around making that payment for the American Express card,” he says. The American Express Plum card is one of many cards offering cash back, so shop around for a good deal.

Strategy #5. Know when to say no. It’s easy to get excited if a big retailer offers to carry your product or a big contract drops in your lap at a professional services firm. But before you say yes, make sure you understand how quickly a client will pay you—and figure out if you can manage the outlay to fulfill the deal in the meantime. If you won’t be seeing any cash for 120 days, it’s very possible to run out of money and find your company on life support. “Not every sale is worth taking,” says Wasserstein.

Of course, before you turn down business, it’s worth exploring creative ways to get customers to pay you more quickly. For instance, some small vendors offer early-payment discounts to big suppliers to get them to cut checks more quickly and sign up for direct-deposit payments to their bank accounts, which may speed payments by a few days. These approaches are often a lot cheaper than borrowing.

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