Every business can learn an important lesson from Costco. The fast-growing warehouse retailer did $103 billion in sales in the fiscal year ending in September, with pre-tax earnings of $3 billion. Membership fees brought in $2.3 billion -- equal to about 75% of its profit.
That influx of cash helps the company pay for new stores, where it looks to get about a 15% cash-on-cash return on investment in building them. And renewals show no signs of slowing down. "Our membership renewal rates have gone up each year and now exceed 90%," notes CFO and executive vice president Richard Galanti. That's not surprising, given that Costco only charges customers a markup on its products of about 11%. Those in Costco's (COST) popular Executive Membership program, which charges a higher membership fee than its basic membership, get extra discounts and rewards -- a great loyalty builder that keeps those membership fees rolling in.
As I've written before, the first entrepreneurial law of gravity is that growth sucks cash. To fuel rapid growth, you've got to master the cash conversion cycle -- which, simply put, is the time it takes to get a dollar back that you've spent on the business. Finding a source of internally generated cash to get money into the business quickly, as Costco has done, can speed that cycle. It delays the point at which you have to go out and beg and borrow money to grow, a project that can slow you down greatly and doesn't always bear fruit.
Here are some other strategies to make the cash conversion cycle work in your favor.
1. Shorten the sales cycle. It can cost you a lot of money to go after customers. Most companies don't think about the fact that the faster you can land a sale, the quicker you can get a return on that investment (and the more likely you are to block competitors from getting there first). Get off email and pick up the phone or meet your customer face to face. Spending 20 minutes this way will bring you closer to a sale more quickly than going back and forth by email for three days.
2. Eliminate errors. Most entrepreneurs don't think about how even tiny mistakes -- anywhere from the delivery of the product to the invoice -- can slow payments dramatically. A customer who is upset about an error you made is going to be slower to pay.
Many entrepreneurial companies get sloppy about sending out invoices. They're so busy making and selling things that their paperwork starts to slip. Even something as simple as using the wrong format for an invoice can delay your payment for weeks or months at a big company.
If you can't stay on top of invoicing, hire someone to help you. This person should get to know the accounts payable people at any big companies you serve, and make sure your invoices are structured right, so they flow through clients' systems as quickly as possible. At one company I know, hiring a pro to handle accounts receivable helped cut 15 days out of its cash conversion cycle. Yes, you will have to pay an extra person to do this job -- but it's worth it. Shortchanging your accounts payable function is pennywise, but dollar foolish.