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Top 5 financial mistakes that startups make—and how to avoid them

The odds are tough for any startup. The business model is unproven, and the shift from prototype to product can take awhile. It’s all-hands-on-deck, which can be rough going when the team is so small. On top of that, everyone’s getting used to working together, and no one person is an expert in every aspect of running a business.

The good news: Even the smallest, youngest companies can better their odds when they recognize their skills gaps and seek out ways they can build a strong foundation for the future—yes, even as they struggle with the here and now.

We’ve worked with hundreds of tech and life sciences startups in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1993, and they usually have this burning question: How can we avoid the typical mistakes that startups make in finance?

This is where experience comes in handy. Learning from past mistakes and those of others is a huge advantage. We’re going to let you in on the common financial mistakes we see companies about to make when they’re starting out.

1. Forgetting about finance

Understandably in any startup, getting the finances is in order is not the number-one priority—it’s usually about getting a great product out the door. The finance function often doesn’t get as much love as it deserves in any startup, as the company tries to stay afloat while attracting new customers and investors. This can be a major mistake.

Paying the bills on time and employing one office manager who handles basic bookkeeping is necessary—but not enough. Startups still need savvy CFO skills, even if that’s on a very part-time basis at first, to think through a smart strategic plan, go after sound funding and plot milestones to get to the desired exit. These are strategic decisions, not bookkeeping basics. A company with just a bookkeeper is way behind and moving down a slippery slope.

CFOs and finance leaders model the burn rate and breakeven point, and they bless the sales forecast. Startups need someone who can go beyond the basic transactions and recordkeeping to actually design the financial strategy. Is it time to pivot? It’s better to have a well-formed plan than some reactive disappointments.

2. Overlooking the mantra that “cash is king”

Great cash management is critical in any startup. Everyone has heard this but not everyone quite believes it until they see firsthand what happens when more money is going out than coming in. Startups need to forecast all cash in and out, and manage spikes and dips. That information can change how your company manages business activity. And it means working with the person handling receivables so that collections don’t get out of control. Also make account reconciliations a regular part of doing business—especially bank recons—so you know how much cash you really have.

So we have another mantra worth memorizing: don’t think that P&L equals cash flow. No, no, no. Yes, you need to know your earnings and you need to know what you’re spending, but that’s only part of the story of how your business is doing. You need to track closely what’s going on with your cash balance and what’s moving it up or down.

3. Ignoring compliance

Ignorance is not an excuse that regulators will swallow. The risks are too high to be in denial. You need to get it done. Government intervention and auditor interference can make life downright unbearable if you don’t. And growth could stall as senior leaders get pulled off their day-to-day work to deal with pressing inquiries. In addition to the high stress involved, audits are disruptive to the business, and troublesome findings can result in penalties and interest charges. And there’s also the possibility of losing the ability to conduct business.

Private companies have a less weighty compliance load than public companies, but the list is still mighty long, between tax returns, labor laws, federal and state regulations, secretary of state filings, and so on. Lean on compliance experts who can help the company stay up-to-date so you can focus on your core job—growing the business.

4. Not planning for the future

It’s important to have a solid business plan. Projections are based on real, solid assumptions, not a finger in the wind. They will guide the company going forward while also ensuring that smart practices become a part of doing business. Smart moves include forming some good habits from day one. After all, make a mess in the early days and you’ll be mopping it up for years to come.

Do it right while you can—keep the books clean from the start, and you’ll see the benefits over time (lenders, for one, need to make sense of your finances or they’ll move on to the next business). Being GAAP compliant as much as possible will similarly help you in the long run. The same goes for compensation decisions you make today—If you’re doling out stock or options, invest in a 409A valuation once a year and anytime a major event occurs (such as a significant financing deal). This will help you stay out of trouble with the IRS and ensure that you properly account for stock comp.

The point here is to think about long-term efficiencies rather than just focusing on the short term. An exit strategy might sound like some far-off dream, but it should always be present when decisions get made. When the time comes to go IPO or to make the company look attractive for an acquirer, the work involved is huge—it can be even more enormous and make any deal shaky if lots of mistakes were made along the way. Set your financial processes in place to scale. Think of the long term.

5. Pretending but not really carrying out policies and procedures

Sometimes startups get sloppy about this. Accountants by nature, we’re sticklers for processes and procedures, but we also know these don’t come naturally to everyone. When your business is streamlined and humming along, extra work can be avoided and expenses kept in check. This happens when people know what is expected of them (policies, please!), the company keeps good records as a matter of course, and everyone knows that certain behaviors will not be tolerated.

Policies and procedures do not slow a business down—they actually keep it moving. Keep strong records now—make it a habit—and you’re setting up the company for efficiency.

Companies tend to be fairly simple at the start stage. As the complexities grow, the mistakes that are made in the early days will start to appear. The cracks can soon be crevasses. Trusted advisors who have the financial wisdom and high-level perspective can steer the ship well and head off mistakes before they happen.

RoseRyan guru Michelle Hall loves to help startups with getting their finances in order, meeting their compliance requirements, budgeting and forecasting, and more. Earlier in her career, she held roles at Netflix, Mercury Interactive, American Express and other firms.

Tracey Hashiguchi heads up RoseRyan’s small business team, a dedicated group of consultants helping companies launch and grow. She develops RoseRyan’s strategy, programs and consulting team for helping startups get to the next level. Before joining RoseRyan, Tracey worked at Deloitte.

Chris Kondo is a small business consultant helping companies make strategic decisions to manage their growth and run their accounting and finance functions. His consulting work at RoseRyan has put him in the finance teams at Roku, GenturaDx, Versatis and Lytro. He previously was vice president of finance at Azanda Networks, corporate controller at Chips & Technologies and director of business development at Intel.

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