Ending Soon! Save 33% on All Access

Smart Business Owners Know the Difference Between Profit and Cash Flow. If You Want to Make Money You Should, Too. In short, if the revenue you realize each month exceeds the expenses that generated that revenue, you are profitable. However, it does not necessarily mean that you have positive cash flow.

By Doug and Polly White Edited by Dan Bova

Key Takeaways

  • A business can be profitable yet still struggle with cash flow due to investments in inventory, accounts receivable, and fixed assets.
  • The story underscores the necessity of professional financial oversight in a business.
  • A profitable business with positive cash flow may still have an unimpressive ROI

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Updated on Dec 13, 2023. Originally published on Aug 9, 2016.

We once helped a large mechanical contractor turn around its business. And we were successful in taking the company from loss to profit. However, the problem wasn't solved because, before we arrived, the owners had taken out several business and personal loans to keep the company afloat.

Related: 5 Mistakes To Avoid in Your Digital Marketing

As a result, shortly after it started making a profit, the company hit a cash-flow crisis. At first, the owners couldn't understand why. If they were making money, they had a problem with cash. Further, they wanted to know why they weren't paying down the principle on the loans they had accumulated. Simply put, they wanted to know why they weren't making money?

Profits do not equal positive cash flow

The answer lies in understanding the differences among profit, cash flow and return on investment (ROI). We explained to the owners that their accountant was correct; the company was profitable. The number on the bottom of their income statement was positive. In short, if the revenue you realize each month exceeds the expenses that generated that revenue, you are profitable.

And, this is good. However, it does not necessarily mean that you have positive cash flow.

A business may be very profitable, but if its inventory, accounts receivable and/or fixed assets are growing rapidly, it may not have a positive cash flow. Growing these three accounts requires cash. In the case of our mechanical contractor, the company was growing for the first time in years. The owners were spending cash to buy inventory, among other things. However, these are all balance-sheet accounts that do not immediately affect the income statement. Therefore, they have no impact on profitability.

Work with a professional

It is absolutely possible for a business to be profitable and hemorrhaging cash at the same time. Our contractor, in fact, didn't have cash. One of the reasons it wasn't able to pay down the balances on its loans. That's why we moved to stem the problem by instituting collection procedures and other processes that helped the contractor manage its crisis, come through this short-term struggle and avoid a future disaster.

If you find that your company is in a similar situation, ask your accountant to analyze your monthly cash flow over the past couple of years. It is possible that your cash is being spent to grow assets. If this isn't the case, we suggest that you have an independent third party do a thorough check for embezzlement.

We've seen thieves pull amazing stunts to make the books look right on the surface even as they siphon cash out of the business.

Related: How to Make a Cash Flow Statement

Understanding return on investment

It is also possible to have a profitable business, and even a positive cash flow, but not have a good ROI. While our contractor's actual number was much larger, let's say the owners initially funded the enterprise with a $150,000 investment. Let's also assume that they hadn't put any further cash into the business.

Now, let's assume that their annual profit was $1,500 and that this was also the cash flow. ROI is calculated as: profit divided by investment. So, in our company's case, the ROI would be 1 percent, which is hardly an impressive performance. At this rate, it would take 100 years to earn back the original investment. Depending on the specifics of your own business situation, we suggest that you target at least a 10 percent to 20 percent return on investment.

How profitable is my business?

To return to our client's initial question, they are now making money. The business is profitable. The next question is, how profitable? This is often measured by return on sales (ROS), which is calculated as profit divided by sales. The appropriate ROS target is a function of the specific situation, but for many businesses, a 10 percent ROS is a good target (obviously, more is better).

The different metrics work together to tell a story

It is important to understand profitability and to make sure that this translates into an acceptable positive cash flow. As a finance expert told us, "You can't buy beer with profit; you can only buy beer with cash." Finally, make sure that your ROI is acceptable. If you are achieving your target ROS, but still not getting the ROI you need, the reason is likely that you need to grow your sales without making an additional investment. In other words, you need to improve your asset utilization (sometimes expressed as "sales divided by assets").

Assessing the financial health of your business is not a one-dimensional exercise. However, if your ROS is acceptable, your profit is translating into cash flow and you have a good ROI, you can rest assured that the financial health of your business is good.

Related: Do You Know Your True Value?

By the way, our client is on track to be completely debt free in four years. Given the amount of debt he began with, this is a spectacular achievement.

Doug and Polly White

Entrepreneurs, Small Business Experts, Consultants, Speakers

Doug and Polly White are small business experts, speakers and consultants who work with entrepreneurs through Whitestone Partners. They are also co-authors of the book Let Go to GROW, which focuses on growing your business.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Business News

TikTok Reportedly Laid Off a 'Large Percentage' of Employees as the App's Fate in the U.S. Remains Unclear

Laid-off TikTok employees were notified Wednesday night through Thursday morning.

Personal Finance

This Investment Bundle Includes a Trading Course and Stock Screener Tool for $150

Approach the stock market with an increased understanding.

Business News

Four Seasons Orlando Responds to Viral TikTok: 'There's Something Here For All Ages'

The video has amassed over 45.4 million views on TikTok.

Growing a Business

5 Strategies to Know As You Scale Your Business

Scaling a service-based company requires a comprehensive approach that goes beyond simply increasing revenue. It requires careful planning, strategic decision-making and a deep understanding of market dynamics.

Growing a Business

The Right Way to Ask Someone for a Million Dollars, According to a Fundraiser Who Does It For a Living

No matter what you're raising money for, Wanda Urbanskia says, the same basic rules apply.