What’s the difference between profit and cash flow?
Often, it’s the difference between success and bankruptcy.
Before we begin, let’s use clear language. I won’t say “income” because different people mean different things by that word. I’ll say “revenue” to mean money that comes in from selling a product or service.
Imagine two kids who want to start a lemonade stand. They plan to charge 50 cents per cup. If they sell 100 cups, they will make 100 times 50 cents, or $50 of revenue. Of course, they know it takes money to make money. They figure each cup costs 13 cents to make: 10 cents for ingredients, and 3 cents to pay protection money to the neighborhood bully. Their expenses will be 13 cents times 100 cups, or $13. They will have revenue of $50, expenses of $13, and their profit–revenue minus expenses–is $37.
Profit is the money left once expenses are paid. Some people think business owners can take profit to the bank. If only! Profit is used to pay for any new equipment or materials needed for the business to grow. And unless you buy a politician or two, you pay taxes out of profits as well. (Sometimes, profit is given as “pre-tax profit” and “after-tax profit,” so you know what the business produced on its own.) Only after paying for growth and taxes do owners get to take money home.
Our kids are ready to go! They needn’t buy equipment or pay taxes, so they’re eager to start their business and bank their $37.
But wait! If only this story were so simple. There’s a dastardly twist!
On the very first day, the kids go to the store to buy lemons … only to find out neither of them has any allowance money left. The store won’t loan them the lemons, so they can’t even get started. They’re out of business before they begin, thanks to cash flow.
Cash flow refers to when a business needs money. Often, businesses spend money on salary, utility bills, and lemons before they bring in any revenue. By plotting out when cash will come in and when it needs to be paid out, a business can identify when it needs cash on hand, and can do what it takes to make the cash available.
Companies often take out loans to survive until revenue comes in. If our kids must pay the grocery store $5 for lemons today in order to make $50 by selling lemonade this weekend, they can ask Mom or Dad for a loan, to be paid back once the lemonade sales come pouring in. They borrow $5 today, make and sell their lemonade, and then pay back the loan next week.
(What about the protection money for neighborhood bullies?, you ask. Well, the bullies are kind, generous people who understand cash flow. They’re willing to let our entrepreneurs pay after the revenues come in, avoiding a cash flow crunch.)
Cash flow and profit don’t always match up.
A company can be profitable and still go bankrupt from cash flow problems. If they must pay for materials in January but don’t get paid by their customers until June, they need a loan to survive until June. If they don’t get that loan—even if they have guaranteed sales in June—then they will go out of business. Sometimes customers themselves will pay in advance, effectively giving an interest-free loan to a company to help cover cash flow.
A company can have great cash flow, but not be profitable. Amazon.com raised so much money by selling stock in the mid-1990s, that they had $2,000,000,000 in the bank. Every year, they spent more money than they made, so their yearly profit was negative. But because they had so much money saved up, they could afford to make up the difference out of their bank account. The big stock market cash inflows made up for the continual losses. Only after a decade did Amazon actually start making a profit as a company, so they now have good cash flow and are profitable.
So remember: profit is how much money you have left after you get your revenue and pay your expenses. Cash flow is when you actually get and pay the cash. In the long-term, you must eventually get profitable or find someone like stock investors to keep giving you cash to make up for your losses. In the short-term, even if you’re profitable, you survive or fail based on whether you have cash to pay the bills. That’s why they say Cash Flow is King.