Whether you run a small, service-based business with a team of one, or you own a local shop on Main Street with a dozen employees, managing your finances is key to being profitable. Most likely, you can’t do this alone. Building your small business finance team early on can be the difference between success and failure.
However, most small business owners don’t know where to start or who to hire. There are many different types of finance industry professionals, with some being more relevant (or accessible) than others when it comes to small business. To further complicate things, there are some who specialize in personal finance while others specialize in business finance. This can get tricky for the small business owner who may look at their business finances as being one and the same with their personal finances (which they’re not, but I’ll cover that in another blog post).
After working with small business owners for nearly a decade and seeing the typical struggles faced when it comes to building your small business finance team, I decided it would be helpful to create a list of finance professionals who can help you understand and manage your finances better. Some have a specific role such as filing your tax returns, while others guide you in making critical decisions as you grow both your business and your personal wealth.
Building Your Personal Finance Team
First let’s begin with personal finance. Personal finance refers to the income, ownership, spending and saving that is associated with your personal life. The home you live in, the car you drive, and your Netflix bill. It’s also the money you set aside for retirement through 401k plans and other investment savings accounts. While this may seem self-explanatory, business owners may get confused about personal expenses that can become tax deductions for your business. Without getting into too much detail on this, as it is a separate topic, consider this; if you own a car and use it part-time for your business you may qualify for a business tax deduction. However, you would most likely still own a car even if you didn’t own a business.
From a personal finance perspective your goal is most likely to have enough money to cover your living expenses (mortgage/rent, car, food, utilities, etc.), save for retirement, and have discretionary income (vacations, shopping, gym memberships, dining out, etc.). In order to do this successfully, you will need to know how much money you earn on a consistent basis, understand your personal budget, and know how to maximize what’s left over so that you can save money and invest wisely.
Financial Planner vs. Financial Advisor
A Financial Planner is someone who can help you with your personal financial goals. These professionals assist you with a wide range of financial goal setting, from creating personal budgets to outlining plans for financing a home, affording college for your children, or optimizing retirement savings. Financial planners can guide you through the overall process of setting and attaining personal financial goals.
A Financial Advisor is a general term which includes several types of financial professionals. A financial planner is one type of financial advisor. Others include advisors who specialize in areas such as retirement, wealth management, estate planning, tax planning, or investments. A financial advisor, depending on their focus, might manage your investment portfolio for you including mutual funds, or your retirement plans such as a 401k or IRA plan. They might also advise you on 529 plans for college savings, life insurance, and long-term care policies.
While financial planners and advisors can help you with your personal financial planning, there are many who also specialize in working with business owners. There are other professionals who perform financial planning services specifically for businesses, which we’ll cover momentarily. Financial planners and/or advisors are an important part of building your small business finance team because they can help you identify your personal financial goals which can lead to revenue goals that can be achieved through your business.
Connecting Personal Finance with Business Goals
Your small business finance team will consist of both personal and business resources. As mentioned above, your personal finance team might consist of a financial advisor and/or planner. And depending on your level of disposable income and wealth, you might also work with other financial advisors such as wealth managers or estate planners.
However, there are also financial professionals who will work with you for both personal and business finance. For example, your tax accountant will work with you for both personal and business tax strategy and planning. They are often a bridge between your personal and business finances and may work with your personal financial advisor as well as your business bookkeeper, accountant, or outsourced CFO.
A financial professional who works with both you and your business would be a tax accountant. A Tax Accountant is oftentimes (but not always) a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or an EA (Enrolled Agent), who prepares and files your tax returns. Their role is to take all the financial information provided to them (by you) to help fulfill your tax obligations to the government, while also helping you minimize your tax liability through strategic tax planning.
When many people hear the term CPA or accountant, they often think of taxes. However, a tax accountant is only one of many types of accountants. Accountants can be broken down into two main categories; public and private (also known as corporate accountants). These categories can be broken down further into tax and financial accountants (public) and management accountants (private).
Public accountants consist of both tax and financial professionals. Their job is to analyze, interpret, and prepare financial information for the sake of external parties. For example, a tax accountant prepares a tax return to be provided to the IRS or your state government. A financial accountant might prepare financial statements to be presented to investors who have a financial interest in your company.
Private, or corporate accountants, analyze, interpret, and prepare financial information for the benefit of the business itself. This information is used to help management and business owners make decisions for moving the business forward. This work can range from creating budgets to financial forecasting to risk assessment. A management accountant might create a budget, while a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) will manage the budget and use it to create financial strategies.
As a small business owner, you might be wondering how this information is relevant to your business. Larger companies have the financial resources to hire various types of accountants and finance professionals, while smaller businesses do not.
However, as a small business owner you still need these services. Creating and maintaining a budget, understanding your financial statements, and having insight into future financial trends, as well as assessing risks, are all critical in helping you make sound financial decisions as you move your business forward.
These services can be accessible to you by building your small business finance team, which may include part-time staff or outside resources who work for you on a contractual or project basis.
Building your small business finance team will include at least one type of accountant (your tax accountant), though it may consist of others such as a management accountant or outsourced CFO.
Which brings us to the business side of building your small business finance team. The most common, and perhaps most important addition to your small business finance team is your bookkeeper.
A Bookkeeper is responsible for maintaining the books for your business. This includes entering all financial transactions into your bookkeeping software and making sure that all money is accounted for and categorized properly. Bookkeeping is the foundation of accurate financial reporting. If the bookkeeping is inaccurate or incorrect, the financial reports will be as well, making business decisions very difficult and even costly.
Bookkeeping services can vary depending on the skill and background of the bookkeeper as well as the needs of the client. Some bookkeeping services include entering financial data and reconciling bank statements and credit card accounts, only. While other services may include what is known as full-charge bookkeeping. This includes accounts receivable (sending invoices to your customers and collecting payments) and accounts payable (receiving bills and paying vendors). Some bookkeepers may also process payroll, as well as file quarterly tax returns and create year-end tax forms such as W-2’s for employees and 1099s for independent contractors.
While bookkeepers are responsible for maintaining complete and accurate books, they are not responsible for interpreting financial statements and reports, nor will they typically use this information to help you make business decisions. That is the role of management accountants, financial business strategists or advisors, and outsourced CFOs.
Hiring the right bookkeeper is extremely important, and not to be rushed into or taken lightly. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog article on this topic, but for now just know that when looking for a bookkeeper ask for recommendations from trusted sources and interview several before making a decision. Look for someone who has experience in your industry (if possible), is organized and professional, and can provide you with a thorough and accurate estimate of their proposed services.
Most likely if you’ve never worked with a bookkeeper before you will need to find someone who can get you set up. This could mean starting from scratch with new books and software, or cleaning up what you currently have to make sure your books are up to date and accurate. After your books are current, set-up or cleaned-up, the bookkeeper will typically work on a consistent basis to maintain your books monthly.
Business Strategists vs. Business Advisors
Once you have reliable books, it is time to consider adding a financial strategist, advisor, management accountant, or outsourced CFO to your team. These resources can be more difficult to find, but once you do, they can help you make tremendous progress in the profitability and financial growth of your business.
First, let’s address why these professionals are hard to come by. Business Strategists are much more common than finance strategists, and they bring a wide variety of skills, backgrounds, and focus areas. Some who identify as strategists may specialize in overall systems and procedures in your business, while others might lean towards the coaching side, concerned more with the strategies of the business owner rather than the business.
However, the term business strategist often implies a focus on the overall strategy of the business, taking into account all aspects of your business, from finance to marketing. Because of this, they may or may not have the specific accounting skills needed to act as a finance strategist. For overall business strategy, however, they can be immensely helpful in creating actionable plans to achieve your business goals.
Business Advisors follow a similar pattern in that you may find more generalists than specialists. Business advisors have past experience as business owners themselves, and this level of experience is what makes them valuable. They are great assets for small business owners looking to get financing or expand their business, as these advisors may have been involved in past ventures involving raising capital, launching new businesses, or scaling current ones. Business advisors can help with the overall picture, but they may or may not get into the details of interpreting and analyzing financial reports, depending on their background.
Management and Cost Accountants
Referring back to the difference between tax, financial, and management accountants (public vs. private accountants), tax and financial accountants are prevalent and typically who we encounter when it comes to CPA firms (again, remember this means certified “public” accounting firms). These firms do not typically offer corporate or outsourced management accounting services for their clients, with the exception of bookkeeping and payroll services.
Management accounting services include creating budgets, forecasting, and measuring performance. These services might also include cost accounting services such as pricing services and/or products, or performing a break-even cost analysis to determine how much money you need to generate in your business to cover the costs of running it. The role of a management or cost accountant is often reserved for medium to large-size businesses who can afford to hire them full-time. They are not commonly found as independent contractors working with multiple businesses. (I am an exception to this).
Among finance strategists, management accountants, and outsourced CFOs, the latter are probably the most common for small business owners. An outsourced CFO is an independent contractor who provides CFO services for more than one client. They may be hired as fractional CFOs, who work on a part-time basis, and may be hired for a specific project or for ongoing services.
Outsourced CFOs can oversee the work of bookkeepers, ensuring that your books are accurate and maintained according to accounting standards, in addition to analyzing and interpreting your financial statements to determine the financial health of your business.
CFOs may also perform the work of management and cost accountants (depending on their background), such as generating and overseeing budgets, monitoring cash flow, and creating financial forecasts and pricing models. They can take this financial information and go one step further using it to guide business owners on decision-making as well as create strategies aligned with achieving financial, operational, and overall business goals.
In summary, your finance team should consist of professionals who help you with both personal and business financial planning and management. Your personal finance team may include a financial planner, one or more financial advisors, and a tax accountant who works for both you and your business. Your small business finance team may include a bookkeeper as well as an outsourced CFO, or a business strategist with a finance background. It may also include a business advisor depending on the stage of your business and your specific goals.
If you’re looking to add management accounting or CFO services to your business, you can schedule a free consultation. We can discuss how these services can add value to your business and help you achieve your personal and business financial goals.