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7 tips to manage finances without an accountant

“How do startups manage without an in-house accountant?” I was asked this question by a junior accountant this week. To those of you who are entrepreneurs, it may sound silly, because of course you manage, and how else would it be? You cant afford luxuries like accountants in the early days, right?

But for someone who is used to bigger companies, and especially those who have seen the mountain of work an in-house accountant does, it does seem impossible to live without one.

I started by explaining it’s often not through choice, and that startups have a unique scrappy attitude that means they tend to take on any and all challenges even if it means figuring it out as they go. There is a lot of googling problems and asking around but on the whole, startup founders are pretty damn good at it.

But it does raise some valid questions — Is it ok? How do you do it successfully? Why hire an accountant? Are online accountants for small businesses any good?

As I thought about this, I decided for those who are going it alone for now, to note down some basics, to make sure you are covering off the essentials.

Keep an eye on balances

The most important of all, knowing what money you have and where. It may seem obvious, but with the constant stream of direct debits for monthly subscriptions (for software and other essentials), this can drop down faster than expected. Having a good handle on your available cash helps you make faster decisions.

Categorize

Keep track of your spending with categories. Even basic ones (revenue, software subscriptions, salaries, marketing, etc) are super helpful. It’s easy to not notice when one category gets out of control unless you can see it as a group evolving over time and compare it to overall spend and revenue (if you have any). No need to get too granular here — adding in too many categories can spread the spend too thin and you won’t see the trends. Some bank accounts offer this function, but if they don’t, either use a connecting product or keep track in excel.

Cashflow understanding is essential

Spend can be lumpy, you might pay for a years subscription in advance to get a discount or you may have a lot of variable costs related to sales. A combination of knowing your cash balances and understanding your spend with categories gets you half of the way to understanding cash flow for startup businesses. The rest will require a bit more context, knowing how your processes work and upcoming changes to the regular spend. Bringing this together will help you understand when you will run out of money and the levers to pull to keep afloat.‍

Keep invoices and receipts

Use an accounting product, as there are some great user-friendly, low-cost software options like Xero and Quickbooks, and even a free version with certain bank accounts (Freeagent). You don’t need to use the whole product, but just storing your invoices in it will save you stress at year-end when your accountant has questions. If you are not keen on this, just forward them all to a dedicated email address so they are together, out of the way and complete. You need to keep proper records, so whichever method you use, make it easy on yourself and keep it consistent.‍

Create a budget

Put time aside on a day with few distractions and get stuck into a good spreadsheet. What could be better? But seriously, using the knowledge of your category spend, your bank balances and your newfound grasp of cash flow management should give you a good base to start to create a budget. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect at first, do a first pass as detailed as you can and improve after a few days or weeks away. Show others, accept their questions as areas where you may need to add more detail or rethink your assumptions. We wrote about it in our blog if you want more tips. It’s important to help you make decisions, when should I hire a new salesperson? Should I hire 5? How many customers should I have by September to ensure we are a viable business? If you have not been asked a hundred of these questions already, you will be soon so you might as well get ahead of the game with your budget.‍

Ask for help

Don’t ask, don’t get. By this point, you will be so used to rejection that asking won’t bother you anymore. You will certainly have at least one friend, relative, or angel (even if they have not yet invested in you) who will be ready, willing, and able to help you out with some of the above tasks if you are not quite a spreadsheet ninja. They may even enjoy tasks like that (I certainly do), in which case, everyone’s a winner! Surprisingly, this is the one most overlooked by founders.‍

Show investors

Hold yourself accountable and be transparent with these numbers. Explain why you did or didn’t reach the expected targets, and send monthly updates. It helps on many fronts:

  • Your investors (even potential ones) will expect and appreciate it.
  • It pre-empts those questions and builds trust from the investors that you know what’s going on and are tackling any issues.
  • It makes sure you set yourself stretch goals. You won’t send out a budget saying you are going to stand still for a month and have flat line growth all year.
  • It helps you face and address the problems faster, you see it first and have to think through why it is that way and what your next plan is.

Conclusion

It doesn’t always make sense to hire an accountant in the early stages, although value does come from the finance function, a junior (and therefore cheap) resource won’t deliver what you need. Spend your money wisely and if you can manage, do. There are part-time CFO’s that can add a ton of value for a few hours per month when you are ready to take the next step. Keeping decent records and handing over the basics will also help any finance person get up to speed when the time is right. Don’t stick your head in the sand either. The word “budget” might not be an exciting one, but it’s essential. In the same way, the founder is responsible for sales, product development, design, recruitment, etc, finance is also in there. Take it in your stride and get stuck in. For now, something is better than nothing but don’t assume it will always stay like that. Be aware of when the time is right to outsource and delegate. Good luck!

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