A New Foresight
Hi! I’m Taylor, and I build Foresight, tools for entrepreneurs to create financial and operational forecasts using spreadsheets. I recently completely rebuilt Foresight all of the financial model templates. Here’s what’s new and why I did this.
I really enjoy building financial models.
I know it sounds odd, but I truly enjoy helping people make decisions about their businesses using solid, robust analysis to break down complicated situations into clear options. I built the first template back in 2008 — thank you Nicholas — and I’ve been working on building easier, cleaner, better spreadsheets ever since.
Today I want to share what’s new at Foresight: a new website, new template models, new services, and a deeper focus on using the data that companies create. Here’s the details.
The new website is the most obvious change, it’s a drastic revamp that reflects my work to provide more products, tools and services to entrepreneurs. I’ve redesigned how the site explains how the models work and how they help people accomplish their goals. The previous site, which was built circa 2015, featured two models, the Standard and the Venture Fund models, but over time I had built up to 10 model templates that I had in soft release, being used by entrepreneurs but not publicly featured on the site. The new site brings those templates to a full public release, and provides a more polished presentation and comprehensive details on how the models work and can be applied.
The new site also brings the video course onto the website — originally it was hosted on Teachable — to provide a more consistent experience to the products, and to allow me to easily create options to purchase the course with the templates (at a discounted price as a package), which had always been an issue. With that transition complete, I’m now ready to add more content to the course and provide more tools as part of it. To come. 1
Building a good financial model typically combines practical business thinking, knowledge of a spreadsheet program, and a structured approach towards using the spreadsheet program to reflect one’s business thinking. One of my goals behind building the templates has always been to provide better tools and structures for entrepreneurs to do something that can be a bit hard to learn how to do, and to allow them to do more of it themselves, in less time, without having to constantly pay consultants thousands of dollars to build and modify spreadsheets when something in their business changes, which — let’s face it — is nearly every day.
What I’ve always worked to do is build templates that empower users to do more modeling themselves using the structured approaches I’ve already built to address a wide range of business needs. But I also know that many people need help on those last couple of steps to use a spreadsheet to completely reflect their business, and often don’t want to spend the time themselves doing it. What I’ve done is created ways to streamline the consulting and customization work to enable entreprenerus to get the exact models they want cheaper, faster, and better.
That’s why the new website better highlights my customization services, custom models, and forecasting and reporting support services to help entrepreneurs build the exact models they need. They are services I’ve always provided to companies, but never presented cleanly or clearly. As a quick overview, I do three basic things:
- Get Started: A service for people to get the model customization they need, inexpensively and without a ton of hassle for the wide variety of businesses.
- Forecasting and Reporting: A lightweight part-time CFO service for people that want help understanding their business on a monthly basis, updating their forecasts using their accounting and operational data, create reports necessary for investors, and creating analyses to help them make regular business decisions.
- Custom Model: A service for any type of custom model or analysis. This can vary depending on the need; I’ve done a lot of analyses for entrepreneurs that are closer to operational data analysis than financial analysis, digging into advertising, website analytics, or other data about their business and creating ways to understand how it impacts their operations and their financials. The projects really depend on the specific need of the entrepreneur, and can vary from lightweight modeling projects to multiple-month engagements that dive into data and business process design.
More details on services here.
Suffice it to say, lots of changes here:
- Built a brand-new Standard Financial Model
- Brought back the Starter Model, a model that had been retired, with a completely new design and approach
- Refreshed the SaaS Financial Model and Ecommerce Financial Model using the new structures from the Starter and Standard models, but focused on those specific business types.
But let’s explain a bit about what changed, and why.
What makes a good spreadsheet template?
Spreadsheet programs are odd platforms to build templates for. A spreadsheet template is essentially a software program; each template has a number of rules and operations embedded in it to process inputs and actions that a user takes. In an app, we write code to pull, process and display information from a database based on the app’s goals, taking into the user’s particular desires and settings. In a spreadsheet template, we build formulas and sheets to calculate, process and display information from a database (the spreadsheet itself) based on the model inputs and assumptions.
The weakness to a spreadsheet template is that the engine is the same as the presentation, i.e. the database is the spreadsheet, and the users of spreadsheets have to interact with the database and write the code themselves to create quality models. Best practices and standards for building quality models — like the FAST Standard — separate the presentation of the numbers from the calculation to separate the code from the display, because the more that we combine the code and the display the harder it is to make transparent, auditable formulas and calculations that are also easy for users to digest. For example, when we look at Facebook, we as users merely see and interact with the information, we don’t see or touch the code; but in a spreadsheet, we usually see both the information and the code, and that is the weakness to a spreadsheet template for most users. Forcing users to understand a bit of code to make sense of the information is not a great strategy for a mass-market product.
Building quality models requires careful thought to how we perform the calculations and to how we display the information to users to minimize the inherent weaknesses to spreadsheets as analysis products, but also maintain the strengths of an open codebase.
That weakness, however, is also a source of strength: if the model is open for editing, users can edit the code to create a spreadsheet that fits exactly what they want to accomplish. They have complete flexibility to change calculations, build new analyses and add-ons, display information differently. Spreadsheets are dumb databases, and that also makes them more accessible to people. Take a template, do anything you want with it. That strength is something that’s hard to replicate with a web forecasting application, and while it makes spreadsheets harder to use for many people, it also makes them more powerful and practically applicable for people building real businesses.
The key is to find the right balance. Building quality models requires careful thought to how we perform the calculations and to how we display the information to users to minimize the inherent weaknesses to spreadsheets as analysis products, but also maintain the strengths of an open codebase. This balance between making something powerful, extensible and practical for a business owner to use long-term v. making something easy for someone to start using is what I’ve spent years of my life trying to figure out. I’ve built spreadsheet templates for years, and 6–12 months I rewrite my core templates to make things easier for people to use 3. The new models reflect my latest thought on the best ways to make spreadsheet templates easy for people to start using but powerful enough to be practical for sustained, long-term use.
Easier cost budgeting
For many entrepreneurs, all you need is a 12 month cost budget, and perhaps a simple revenue forecast. For others, you need a more detailed forecast of costs extending through 3–5 years with much more structure behind how the costs are forecasted.
Creating a simple cost budget in the original models was possible, but it wasn’t as easy as it could be.
Here’s how I typically structured the cost inputs in the original Standard Model:
But now, it’s simpler and cleaner. Below is the new Standard …
… and below is the new structure for the Starter:
A couple things to point out:
- In the new versions I’ve worked to simply lay out the costs, and then handle the accounting separately. Simply tag the expense as SG&A, COGS or CAPEX, and the model handles all the accounting appropriately. Assign a person as an employee or a contractor, and the model will handle headcount and benefits expenses.
- In the Standard Model, you can designate many more methods for forecasting costs. Per month, per employee, quarterly, annually, as a % of revenue, etc., use whichever method you want and the model will automatically handle the forecasting. Use multiple methods and the model will take the max calculated; what that means, for example, is you can set an expense to be a certain amount per month in the early months, and then set it also as a % of revenue, and the expense will automatically scale as the business grows, but need not be set as a % of revenue in the early days.
- In the Starter Model and industry focused models (SaaS and Ecommerce), entering in costs and hires is intended to be as easy as possible. Simply input the cost into the appropriate month and the model will forecast it to be the same in future months, and simply edit it in months you think it will change. For many entrepreneurs that are creating a cost budget for a seed stage financing, this is the simplest, fastest, and best way to create costs forecasts.
I’ve worked with a lot of entrepreneurs on creating costs budgets, and making them easy to create, easy to modify, and easy to maintain has always been one of my primary goals. The new structures will make this process much better than in previous models.
More operational forecasting
What is an “operational” model? A typical financial model consists of an analysis and forecast of the financials of a business, with the financial statements — income statement, balance sheet, and statement of cash flows — as the centerpiece of the model. With a business with a lot of historical information, the forecasting method may be to simply take the past and predict different rates of change for the components of costs and revenues to show how revenue, margins, and net income will change over time. Without historical data, the methods used to forecast can be thinner. In many financial models the forecasts start by having an input of what sales revenues are throughout the forecasting period, but without any thought into how the business creates those revenues.
That’s a fundamentally limiting way to analyze and forecast a business. One of the reasons why financial models are always wrong is not because of the models themselves but because of our methods and our expectations. A good model is one that helps us think about a business and make operational decisions by understanding their financial impact. It’s important to tie together metrics like advertising spend and customer acquisition cost (CAC) with user acquisition; it’s important to tie together business development staffing and client contracts signed; it’s important to tie together the forecasts with metrics so we can make sense of the business. Financial statements are created in all of my models, but they really aren’t the centerpiece. The Forecast — which combines users, customers, expenses, CAC, revenues, staffing, and more — and the key metrics analyses are the core. If we’re going to create useful models they have to reflect business thinking, not just financial thinking. 4
In many financial models the forecasts start by having an input of what sales revenues are throughout the forecasting period, but without any thought into how the business creates those revenues. That’s a fundamentally limiting way to analyze and forecast a business.
New revenue structures for subscriptions and commerce
The big edits on the revenue forecasts side are a complete rework of the methods for projecting subscription revenues (for the Standard and SaaS models) and transaction revenues (for the Standard, SaaS, and Ecommerce models).
On the subscriptions side, I reworked it to create a flexible structure for different pricing plans and contract lengths. The previous SaaS models worked for month-to-month and contract-based pricing plans, but was limited to 6 plans, was inflexible and difficult to use to add more pricing plans, and the process for calculating all subscription metrics — revenues, expansion revenues, churn, MRR, etc. — was not that transparent. This is now completely reworked, works with 8 pricing points for any contract lengths (more easily extendible to additional pricing points), and also has a full expansion plan matrix so you can determine if people switch plans — including higher priced plans — and the model will automatically calculate contraction and expansion revenue and how people switch between plans. I expect some manual adjustments in using the plan switches in practice, but the structure is more solid for everyone to use.
On the transactions side, one flaw with the original transactions structures was that it was limited to orders — number of orders, average order value, and more — but did not include SKUs, or individual products. It was always possible to add that in, but again, it wasn’t the best approach. The new transaction structures work for a wider variety of buinesses, forecasts orders and products (default up to 10 products but can be easily customized to fit hundreds of individual SKUs), and forecasts inventory needs to fit the sales forecasts, integrating the time and costs to source and manufacture the inventory. All automatically.
Actuals v. Budgets and Rolling Forecasts
One question entrepreneurs used to ask me was “how do I input my past financials?” The answer was typically to create a new sheet, paste in an export from Quickbooks, Xero, or any other accounting program, and then manually create custom views of the business combining the actuals and the forecasts to do rolling forecasts (blending together actuals with forecasts and rolling over the model every month to show a continually updated forecast for the year) and actual v. budget analysis (comparing what was forecasted with what actually happened). The models worked, but it was not a solution that was obvious or easy to use.
In the new models I’ve worked to make this process much easier. In the Starter, SaaS, Ecommerce and other industry-focused models to come, the model allows you to import an export of your income statement and balance sheet from an accounting program — like Quickbooks, Xero or others — and link these actual financial results into an Actuals sheet that matches the format for your Forecast. You can set the start date for the actuals and the start date for the forecast separately and model will aggregate it all automatically. Now you can roll over your forecast for each month simply by importing a new month’s data from your accounting program and changing one cell, changing that month from “Forecast” to “Actual”, and everything updates automatically. It’s also now easy to do any actual v. budget variance you want, with all the data in the same format, it’s easy to compare any parts of your financials.
Small but kind of cool new feature: in past models, the amount of money raised from external funding — equity, debt, grants, etc. — was always an input. The method was to look at the model, think about the costs, look at the cash flows, and put in funding amounts in the right months to figure out how much to raise and when so that you didn’t run out of money.
That’s now fixed: now the model has a central cash flow forecast that integrates a funding estimate. Simply set how many months of costs you want to raise for — and whether you want to raise based on overhead burn, all costs, or net burn (costs less revenues) — and the model automatically figures out how much money to raise, and when, so that you do not run out of cash.
This funding estimate is also fed directly into the cap table, along with a simple estimate of how much of the company is sold in each round (which effectively sets postmoney valuation)
All of this can be overrided with your own specific fundraising estimates and valuation estimates, but it’s good to have a place to start with.
Valuation is tricky. Valuing a company take a combination of art and science: the math isn’t hard, but applying the math correctly takes some experience to understand the real-life, practical thinking and context behind the math. It’s easy to put the calculations to do a discounted cash flow valuation (DCF) in a spreadsheet, much harder to make sense of it.
That’s why I’ve always resisted putting company valuations into the model templates, but based on feedback I’ve decided to build a structure for valuation into the model. The Valuation sheet — in all models except the Starter — will do a discounted cash flow, VC Method, and EBITDA multiple valuation based on the projections in the model. And if desired, you can tie this to the exit value on the Cap Table, and the model will automatically calculate the distribution of exit proceeds to all shareholders and calculate returns. Just be careful; don’t forget the art to valuation behind the math.