It is no secret that if you ask any business owner or CEO what their number one goal is, most of them are going to mention growth. Growth is something every business owner thinks about when they wake up and when they go to sleep. In the minds of most business owners, business growth is the entire reason for existence. In this thinking, a business with no growth aspirations may as well close up shop. And so, growth, growth, growth is the mantra. And more important than growth is fast growth. In the mindset of many, there is no such thing as growing too fast.
Except that there is such a thing as growing too fast. In fact, when I was new to business banking, a more seasoned banker took me aside and explained that “growing too fast” was the second most common reason that a business goes under. Now at the time, we were dealing with smaller businesses that were active locally or regionally, not internationally.
The problem with fast-growth is that a business can sell too much and incur too many costs before it is able to collect its accounts receivable (A/R). Your P&L may show that you are making money, but if the A/R isn’t being collected, you are not making a dime. In my career, I have seen several small businesses come very close to bankruptcy due to the receipt of one or two large, highly profitable (on paper) contracts. Often, a business in this situation will reach out to a bank (or other lender) to obtain the money to finance the contracts. Some bankers will see the danger and others won’t. Whether the business ultimately runs out of cash and out of business depends on many idiosyncratic factors. But the larger the contract(s) is/are as a percentage of your sales, the more difficult it may be staying in business.
Operating internationally adds an additional layer onto this problem, as operating overseas can often lengthen the cycle between when you produce the service or product and when you get paid. Depending on the business that you are in, you may have to produce the product, send it via ship across the sea and wait for it to arrive in the other port before getting paid. Or there might be other hurdles to getting paid.
Some factors to consider when expanding internationally are as follows:
1.) What currency are you operating in? Large currency swings can wipe out your profit. A job or a contract that was quoted profitably can turn into a loss.
2.) Is it possible to prefund part of the order? This is a good idea when doing work within the U.S., but it is even more important when doing business outside of the U.S. Having additional funds to cover some portion of up frony costs can make the difference between running out of cash and not.
3.) Letters of Credit. Having these from your overseas customer’s bank can ensure that you get paid. See if your bank has an international trade group to walk you through this process.
4.) Maintain excellent relationships with your suppliers. One key factor in managing A/R is the extension of trade credit from your suppliers. Managing cash flow by stretching these payables has carried many businesses through a period in which they were having difficulty collecting A/R. Keeping in contact with these suppliers will be key. Even stretching the payables by a few days can substantially increase your cash position.
5.) How collectable are the A/Rs in the country in which you are doing business? As a banker, many of the banks I worked for did not consider foreign receivables as collectable when calculating collateral for a loan. It is not that they didn’t believe that the customer could collect on those A/R. It’s just that they were conservative and considered that the bank would often have very little recourse if it tried to collect money that was owed to a foreign entity. Consequently, it is key to understand what sort of recourse you have to the local court system should there be a dispute and you have to try and enforce your rights in that foreign court. In a place like Canada or the U.K., you probably have a pretty good chance of getting the money that you are owed. In a place like Jordan or Egypt, perhaps not.
In conclusion, a word to the wise is to be careful of fast growth. A large capital base that can provide funds to support the growth that you are attempting is indispensable. Also, having a keen understanding of the issues surrounding the receivables that you are getting from a foreign entity is critical if your business is to survive. Without careful planning, that customer/contract that is going to take your business “to the next level” can very quickly put it “six feet under”.