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I originally wrote this on VentureFiles which is now part of the Technosailor Galaxy of Blogs but as Aaron Brazell, Editor and fearless leader of Technosailor.com said, this post is more relevant than ever when you are trying to keep your business running and growing (even in this economy). I originally wrote the post about a year ago so below is the original post and after that is an update that tries to do a little reflection on doing this during the current state of the economy.

Original Post:

Over the last 9 years and two startups I have learned many things and screwed up royally in some cases. This series is about providing you best practices of lessons learned and avoiding the mistakes I have already made.

In the past, I have had good years and bad years. When you have employees, they expect to be paid and when you mess with payroll (and payroll taxes, but that is a post for another time) you create such a negative culture that nothing will get done.

With that said, when you are starting your business regardless if it is a service or product company, you will have startup costs and probably forgo paying yourself for 6-12 months to keep growing the business. That is fine and to be expected. What you should not do (and what I did) is keep adding staff and sacrifice your own salary in the name of growth. If you keep going like that and have a bad quarter you will have nothing saved for a rainy day and if the business fails you will probably be in immense debt and get nothing out of the business.

Granted, the balance between growth and cash flow is a tenuous one but it is one thing you should never defer to someone else in beginning. Plus, there is a difference between creating a lifestyle business and an enterprise. A lifestyle business is really making enough money for yourself and having some contractors or 1-2 people that gives you a good salary but is more about freedom. An enterprise is a business that scales and gets big over time but you will be working intense amounts in the beginning but will need to hire those smarter than you with the intention that you are looking for an exit and will have time for freedom when you cash out.

So when you are growing the business you should work the first 6-12 months paying off the initial capital expenses and getting about 6 months of cash flow for yourself before you hire anyone else. Once you have that done, start paying yourself something, even if it is small and will ramp up over six months, pay yourself first. This will get you in the habit of being committed to making the business pay for itself and you so you are not worrying about living month to month and lets you find some resources to help you deliver while you continue to sell and grow the business.

Once you are looking at hiring someone use these two rules as a starting basis:

- Have six months of payroll for that person in the bank on top of your salary

- Have 90 days of projects or sales committed for that person to deliver so they not only have something to do but are earning their keep.

You may have to be conservative at first in your growth but in the end you will scale better and create a business that is focused on delivery and customer service without putting you and your employees on a cash flow roller coaster.

Update, One Year Later:

When I read that post I reflect on the mistakes of past and having had a business through the dot com bust and subsequent recession. Granted, it was not as deep or as long as this one, but the word that comes to mind is, balance. And while it holds true that you need to pay yourself first before you keep growing, the original post was written with the tone of growth and not reduction which may be more likely these days.

When you are growing you are tempted to throw caution to the wind and sacrifice your pay in order to hire that extra person that keeps the idea factory turning out wonderful widgets. When times are good and the sales are going upward, your risk threshold increases. When times are tight, you might feel like you are holding on with your fingertips to a 5,000 overhang below you and no way to see up over the ledge. In these cases, it is natural for people have a tendency to pull WAY back into their shells and not hire when they know they need to or lay people off in order to stay cash positive. In this case, you might sacrifice your entire salary to keep people on board. While this might sound noble, I have done this and it usually ends badly.

This is where the word “balance” comes in.

You can only go so far to reduce staff and pile tasks up on people that are probably already overworked, but cutting down too much can keep you from potentially delivering to clients in the end making things worse. Look to reduce costs in other ways, like office services you may not critically need, or ask if people would volunteer (including you) to take a 5% pay cut so we can keep everyone and deliver at the level of quality clients have come to expect so we can keep our clients happy and ride out this recession together.

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    • teresablaes

      I agree with the idea of balance, but I believe that the worst thing to do is to down size because that is fear based thinking. Plus, that way led’s to being reactive, not proactive. And in this recetion, it is those who are willing to think out side the box that will make it. All others will fall by the way side.
      Thanks for the good post,
      Teresa blaes

    • teresablaes

      I agree with the idea of balance, but I believe that the worst thing to do is to down size because that is fear based thinking. Plus, that way led’s to being reactive, not proactive. And in this recetion, it is those who are willing to think out side the box that will make it. All others will fall by the way side.
      Thanks for the good post,
      Teresa blaes