Finance & Operations

Lean Finance: 4 Steps to Streamline Financial Forecasting for Your Growing Business

March 30, 2015

In my 8 years as an FP&A professional, I have rarely seen a company be able to fully align its financial modeling with how the business actually proceeds. Larger or public companies may struggle to bridge compliance reporting with how their general managers want to run each business segment. Smaller companies may struggle to keep their forecasts up-to-date with the rapidly changing environment.

Basically, what I’ve learned is that no matter how detailed your budget or forecast is, the situation will change and alternative views will be required. This is especially true for younger companies that are trying to establish themselves in a market and are experiencing growth. In these cases, a high-level plug-and-play forecast model should be used to highlight the most critical assumptions to the business and eliminate the noise.

If the model is structured correctly, it can be the primary tool used by management to identify business metrics that impact the bottom line, to adapt the company’s financial projections, and to react accordingly.

Below are four steps to adopt a lean financial forecasting approach that is flexible and less time-consuming, yet can still serve as a management tool to steer a growing company.

1) Understand the difference between plans, budgets, and forecasts

These terms are often used interchangeably, but there are distinct differences. Generally speaking, here is how they can be defined:

  • A plan is what you want to achieve in terms of milestones in a given timeframe.
  • A budget is how you want to deploy your resources in order to achieve the above plan and desired financial position. This is usually very detailed and does not change throughout the year. In a rapidly growing company, a budget can quickly become obsolete.
  • A forecast is what the company will actually achieve based on the most realistic scenario. It is typically less detailed than a budget but updated more frequently. This is the focus of this article, as it can better equip you to react to changes in the business.

2) Simplify your financial forecast model and project both bottom line and cash

The more complicated the model is, the less you will use it. The key for financial forecasting, especially for younger growing companies, is to understand your cash flow, not just the income statement. So take your detailed budget model and strip it down to a leaner forecast model like the one provided here. This will give you a good idea of your working capital, and you can update it quickly, primarily through a handful of income statement assumptions, which most companies are familiar with.

Important line items such as revenue can be built out to include several assumptions (e.g. price x volume). Other variables that are harder to predict or won’t materially change the cash flow should be consolidated into as few line items as possible, or set as a % of a more important variable.

3) Identify the variables that are either the most material or most volatile.

Most companies know how painful and time-consuming it can be to create a detailed, bottoms-up financial budget with non-financial data (customer acquisition and churn, for example) that support each budget line. Going through that process every time you want an updated forecast isn’t feasible.

Don’t waste time over-analyzing assumptions that won’t really move the needle or won’t change. Instead, use your forecast model to identify which levers have the largest impact on growth, margins, and cash, and then track them as often as possible.

4) Adopt a rolling financial forecast process

Every day, your business will gain more knowledge and insights on sales, costs, and other key drivers. One new sales contract could completely change the validity of your budget. Whenever these assumptions change, so should your forecast in order to see the impact to the bottom line.

Each month gives you the opportunity to adjust how you deploy your resources. If performance is high, then you can ramp up spend. Conversely, if performance is low, you can work to slow activities with heavy cash burn.

Be sure to look 3-12 months out, rather than only to the end of the fiscal year. You don’t want to be blind-sided in Q1 of next year because you only looked at the current year!

Director of FP&A

<strong>Alex Lau</strong> is Director of Financial Planning & Analysis at OpenView. His role is to provide timely internal/external financial reporting for the firm, along with relevant analysis to enable the firm to make better business decisions. Prior to joining OpenView, Alex worked for the Corporate FP&A team at Vistaprint where he focused on consolidated financial reporting and analysis and financial systems.