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Investment or Expense?

by Karen Jackson  | No Comments

It’s a tough smallbiz climate right now. The economy is sputtering; the media is stoking recession fears; uncertainty about the impact of the presidential election is giving everyone dyspepsia; and accessing capital is as hard as ever. So, many CEO’s are clenching their fists around the cash on their balance sheets and not spending money. One might argue that hunkering down with cash is the only prudent behavior under these circumstances.

I’d argue it’s not. The trouble is, when we get tight-fisted with our cash, we stop making investments. When we stop making investments, our companies stop growing. The old adage “it takes money to make money” is as relevant as ever. Investing in people, processes, and systems is both essential to growth and to not being left in the dust by the competition. And the reality is many of those investments can’t be afforded through monthly cash flow.

So how does a CEO decide whether s/he can really afford to let go of some of that cash on the balance sheet? I’ve found it revealing to run both big and small financial decisions through this 2 question test:

1)      Is the expenditure truly an expense or is it actually an investment?

2)      Can we afford NOT to spend the money?

Here are a few examples, with my answers were I sitting in the CEO’s seat.

Example 1:  The company’s marketing materials are junk and it will cost real dollars to hire a marketing consultant to rehabilitate.

1)  It’s an investment 2) We can’t NOT spend the money

Example 2: The sales force is on the road a lot but can’t easily access their corporate systems because they don’t have wireless cards for their computers. The cost to purchase card / plan is out of budget.

1)      It’s an investment  2) We can’t NOT spend the money

Example 3: There’s an opportunity to purchase furniture at a good price from the company down the hall that’s moving. It’s in great shape, clearly an upgrade, and would make our office more attractive.

1)      It’s an expense  2) We CAN not spend the money.

See where I’m headed? I’m suggesting that CEO’s upend their view of expenses – a very now-based way of thinking – and reconsider them relative to the future.  It takes some practice, and sometimes the answers seem counterintuitive, as in Example #2. Clearly wireless cards are an expense, yes? For me, no. They’re investments  – investments in efficiency, real-time information, and employee morale. We can’t NOT have any of those things, so I would write the check.

The tendency to over-scrutinize the P & L for money saving opportunities is fear based rather than growth based. By reframing an expenditure as an investment vs. an expense, and questioning not whether the businesses can afford something but whether it can afford NOT to have / do something, the answers become focused on a future of growth.  By all means, keep a leash on expenses – get downright stingy if you want – but routinely make investments. After all, if you don’t believe enough in your business to take those risks, why should your customers believe in you?

How do you make sure you’re not too tight fisted with your cash? What litmus tests do you use when deciding how to spend?  We’d like to hear your ideas.

| Categories: Balance Sheet, Blog, Business Planning, Growth, Investment, Small Business
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