Don't Wreck Your Retirement: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Personal Finances
Economist Richard Cantillon is credited with having coined the word "entrepreneur," which literally means "bearer of risk." And that makes sense: A risk-averse entrepreneur is as much of an absurdity as a tightrope walker who’s afraid of heights.
In fact, entrepreneurs actually thrive on uncertainty. They have to be scrappy and resourceful to effectively grow and scale their businesses; and that outlook has a trickle-down effect.
According to research by Startup Genome, properly scaled startups grow up to 20 times faster than those that scale prematurely. Moreover, 93 percent of those that scale too quickly fail to ever reach $100,000 in monthly revenue. Reading between the lines of these stats exposes an ugly truth: An entrepreneur’s personal finances can often take a hit during the process of launching his or her startup.
The reason is obvious: Entrepreneurs often turn to credit cards to help ends meet. And, because of that fact, it’s important that they take a long-term view of their personal finances.
In fact, consumer credit card debt broke records in 2016, with a lower first-quarter pay-down than we’ve seen in eight years; total credit card debt for the year was expected to increase more than it has since 2007.
Those are alarming statistics and they apply to startup founders, because using personal credit to bridge the gaps as a startup launches is a temporary fix. If revenues don’t grow at a sustainable rate, founders may lose their businesses and find themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and subsisting on ramen noodles..
While it’s extremely common for new startups to burn more money than they make, it's important for founders to set themselves up for personal financial success irrespective of their business’s performance. The reason is clear: The faster you scale, the harder you can fall.
Even veteran business owners fall victim
Personal finance consequences generally fall into two categories: how your decisions are directly affecting you and your family, and how they are affecting your business’s ability to thrive.
Unfortunately, naive, inexperienced entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones who fall prey to crippling debt. Even veteran business owners with vast coffers are capable of making questionable financial decisions.
Eike Batista, for example, was Brazil’s richest person in 2012, with an impressive $35 billion and six companies. But when overspending and a devaluation of his primary company left him more than a billion dollars in debt, he was branded a “negative billionaire.”
Conversely, Jacques Spitzer’s startup, Raindrop Marketing, experienced triple-digit growth for four consecutive years, yet he had an incessant fear that his financial habits would be his downfall. Spitzer and his partner didn’t want to touch any profits before taxes were paid. That's why they paid themselves minimal salaries and saw that strategy pay off: The business thrived. Said Spitzer: “Believe it or not, growth became frightening, not fun.”
What can budding entrepreneurs learn from these polarizing examples of lavish spending and frugality? Here are three tips to help you strike a balance in the pursuit of a livable income while avoiding crushing debt:
1. Beware of putting all your eggs in one basket. You’re all in, putting a lot of time, effort and money into your business; you know everything you’re giving it, so you always feel close to the next success milestone. The problem is that sometimes you’re drinking your own Kool-Aid, so to speak. Even if you’ve had some success, it can be hard to sustain that success quarter over quarter.
However, the next milestone is never guaranteed. This is why Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, wisely took two years and $5,000 of her own money to patent her idea and develop prototypes of her-now famous line of shapewear -- all while continuingd to work a full-time job. Granted, time is as much a resource as money, and launching a startup and working a full-time job is not feasible in most cases. But there are other smart decisions you can make.
Cutting losses before debt builds up to unsustainable levels is often the best move. A good rule of thumb is to have at least six months of runway, giving your business six months to see a return.
2. Pay yourself based on benchmarks. How much should entrepreneurs pay themselves? Set a benchmark, and pay yourself a predetermined level of compensation once you’ve reached a certain level of revenue. Of course, benchmarks work only if you can hold yourself accountable. If you depend on the company you’re building to pay all of your personal expenses, fluctuations in your private life may bleed over and affect the business when you have to pull money out of it.
Instead, develop a business plan with a 12- or 18-month runway. If you just keep pumping more of your own money into it thinking that things will improve, you’re going to dig yourself into a hole that could take years to climb out of, hindering your ability to pursue another venture in the future. If you don’t reach your targets, consider alternatives to dipping into personal savings, retirement funds or investments. Seek external validation from friends, family or venture capitalists.
At my company, YieldStreet, if we don’t hit our targets within a certain period, my partner and I will review our salaries. I also set personal benchmarks, and if I miss them, I resort to a contingency plan. These benchmarks force us to reassess our financing before succumbing to an unmanageable debt load.
3. Put yourself in your 65-year-old shoes. The 2015 Mass Mutual Business Owner Perspectives Study found that the majority of small business owners surveyed hadn't prepared for their retirement. And that's not wise: When it comes to product development and strategy, thinking short-term isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with personal finances, you need to take a longer-term view.
First and foremost, don’t bet the farm on a venture. Funds you’ve spent years saving should be set aside and considered sacrosanct. Your business needs to reasonably support your retirement savings. If not, you need to ask investors to cover that cost. If they’re not giving it to you, something is wrong with your business, and you’ll need to dig into that to see why.
Pulling money from your personal savings to pay for business expenses can stress out your family. When you don’t know how you’re going to keep the lights on -- not only at your business, but also at home -- that kind of anxiety can leave you emotionally and intellectually drained. You might be tempted to liquidate your 401(k) and take a penalty, thinking you’ll recoup that money when your business takes off.
Decisions such as this only make things worse. When you find yourself making a highly emotional financial decision, think about whether it will leave you in a good place when you’re ready to retire.
Don’t fall from that tightrope or panic when the pressure builds. For all financial decisions -- regarding both your company and your personal life -- don’t count on success. Set benchmarks to hold yourself accountable, and try to imagine yourself at 65. If there's a chance you might regret having made that decision, think twice.