As a small business owner, the one element of your business you absolutely have to have a good handle on is your finances. But finances for entrepreneurs can be very confusing which is why we asked Sue Torr from Crue Invest to share some of her most practical financial advice for small business owners.

How to succeed as a small business in South Africa

In a country where over 30% of the population is now unemployed, the need for small to medium-size businesses (SMEs) to succeed is critical. Many SMEs are now on a long journey of financial recovery which may be somewhat tenuous given ongoing load shedding, the state of the economy, and a highly stressed tourism industry.

While SMEs are generally innovative and can quickly bring new ideas to the market, they also face significant challenges which include start-up funding, managing expenses until profitability is reached, and surviving through uncertain economic conditions. It is generally accepted that the first five years of business can be the most difficult for small businesses, with stats revealing that 50% of small businesses fail within this time period. One of the main reasons that small businesses fail is a lack of upfront and ongoing financial planning. 

Starting a new business or setting your business on the road to recovery can be challenging, but with smart money management and careful strategising, it can be done. Here’s our best advice for South African entrepreneurs.

Have a plan: 

A business plan is the foundation of your entire venture and is the platform on which your whole business will be built. When compiling your business plan, ensure that it includes a detailed financial plan that includes product funding, budgeting, loan repayments, cash flow, salaries, risk management, sales projections, profit margins and break-even points. With the benefit of hindsight, make sure you have a disaster recovery plan for your business.

Choose the correct business entity: 

When setting up your business, seek advice on the most appropriate business entity for your purposes. In general, you have the option of setting up a private company, sole proprietorship, partnership or business trust. Each of these entities has different advantages and disadvantages in respect of ownership, personal risk, tax and administrative complexity. It’s best to weigh up your options with an expert. Once you have established your business, you will need to register it with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC).

Keep your personal finances separate: 

Regardless of the entity you choose to house your business, it is best to keep your personal finances and business finances separate by keeping a firewall between the two. This will make your bookkeeping easier, but it is also essential for your personal protection, tax planning and protecting your personal assets. It will allow you to maintain your good personal credit score while building up the business’s credit record.

Over-estimate your set-up costs: 

The most common feedback from start-up business owners is that they wholly underestimated the set-up costs and the time it would take to start generating real profits. Our advice is to do your costings and projections conservatively using a ‘worst-case scenario’, and then build in extra just in case.

Get tax advice: 

As a business owner, it is important to be aware of the tax obligations of running a business, bearing in mind that the entity you have chosen for your business will have different tax consequences. Difference tax compliance rules, tax incentives and tax rates apply to different entities, and it is important to understand the difference at the outset so that you get it right the first time.

Learn basic accounting: 

Understanding basic accounting is a vital skill to have if you want to run your business properly. It is not necessary to have a financial background, but it is important to grasp the fundamentals of accounting. Depending on the nature of your business, you may want to install an accounting software package to make your life easier and your record-keeping on point.

Manage your cash flow: 

There are many hidden and unforeseen costs when it comes to setting up a business. Keeping a careful eye on your cash flow – both personal and business – is key. In the excitement of getting your business off the ground, it is perfectly possible to lose track of expenses. Our advice is to put a cash flow management system in place and monitor it every day.

Pay yourself first: 

Although this is one of the first rules of entrepreneurship, it is often the most overlooked. Many business owners feel compelled to put everything back into their business, while at the same time compromising their credit scores, insurability and personal finances. The ideal is to be able to draw enough from the business to cover your living expenses, medical aid, insurance and to service your personal debt.

Limit your fixed expenses: 

In the first few years of business, you will want to keep your fixed expenses at a minimum – although this may involve making some tough decisions. Many entrepreneurs choose to downgrade their accommodation, drive smaller and more cost-effective cars, forego eating out, and cutting back on the nice-to-haves. If you have a solid business plan and an unwavering belief in your product, these early sacrifices will be easy to make.

Stay on your medical aid: 

Remaining on your medical aid is imperative – even if you have to downgrade to a more affordable plan option. As a minimum, ensure that you have a hospital plan in place which covers your in-hospital at 100% of medical aid tariff. In general, medical aid network options are more affordable. Ensuring no break in membership is essential to avoid future waiting periods or late joiner penalties. As and when your earnings increase, you will seamlessly be able to upgrade to more comprehensive cover.

Protect your income: 

Another important reason to pay yourself an income is to secure an income protection benefit in the event of permanent or temporary disability. According to FMI, 70% of South Africans will, in their working lifetime, have an injury or illness that will prevent that from earning an income for at least 7 days. An income protector effectively insures your earnings should you become ill or disabled. In the event of a temporary disability, your income can be protected for up to 24 months, whereas in the event of a permanent disability, your income will be protected to age 65.

Consider business overheads protection: 

Should finances allow, you may wish to consider insuring your business overheads. Business overheads protection is effectively insurance for your business which provides a temporary source of income should you be unable to work through illness or disability. This cover will ensure that your business can continue to operate even without your contribution to the business, and will cover the costs of specific business-related expenses while you are incapacitated.

Avoid lifestyle creep: 

As your business starts to generate profits, you may be tempted to begin living a less frugal lifestyle by upgrading your living arrangements, buying a new car or splashing out a little. However, our advice is to avoid being lured into a false sense of security. If your business is going well, use your earnings to pay off loans, set up an emergency fund and enhance your offering. If you can increase your drawings from the business, consider setting up a retirement annuity, moving on to a more comprehensive medical aid, setting up a personal emergency fund and investing in yourself.

Being an entrepreneur is more than a full-time job, and having to juggle finances as well as marketing and business development and HR and everything else can feel overwhelming. With these tips, you can be sure that keeping on top of your finances is one less thing to worry about.

About the author

Sue Torr is the managing director at Crue Invest (Pty) Ltd, a fee-based financial planning practice based in Pinelands, Cape Town. Sue read for her BA LLB degrees at Rhodes University and is an advocate of the high court. She is author of the online column ‘Let’s talk about money’ and is passionate about financial planning and behavioural finance.