Rules for Entrepreneurs: Pay yourself first

This article will take approx 2 minutes to read.

Over the last 9 years and two startups I have learned many things and screwed up royally in some cases. This ongoing series is about providing you best practices of lessons learned and avoiding the mistakes I have already made.

In the past, I have had good years and bad years. When you have employees, they expect to be paid and when you mess with payroll (and payroll taxes, but that is a post for another time) you create such a negative culture that nothing will get done.

With that said, when you are starting your business regardless if it is a service or product company, you will have startup costs and probably forgo paying yourself for 6-12 months to keep growing the business. That is fine and to be expected. What you should not do (and what I did) is keep adding staff and sacrifice your own salary in the name of growth. If you keep going like that and have a bad quarter you will have nothing saved for a rainy day and if the business fails you will probably be in immense debt and got nothing out of the business.

Granted, the balance between growth and cash flow is a tenuous one but it is one thing you should never defer to someone else in beginning. Plus, there is a difference between creating a lifestyle business and an enterprise. A lifestyle business is really making enough money for yourself and having some contractors or 1-2 people that gives you a good salary but is more about freedom. An enterprise is a business that scales and gets big over time but you will be working intense amounts in the beginning but will need to hire those smarter than you with the intention that you are looking for an exit and will have time for freedom when you cash out.

So when you are growing the business you should work the first 6-12 months paying off the initial capital expenses and getting about 6 months of cashflow for yourself before you hire anyone else. Once you have that done, start paying yourself something, even if it is small and will ramp up over six months, pay yourself first. This will get you in the habit of being committed to making the business pay for itself and you so you are not worrying about living month to month and let you find some resources to help you deliver while you continue to sell and grow the business.

Once you are looking at hiring someone use these two rules as a starting basis:

- Have six months of payroll for that person in the bank on top of your salary

- Have 90 days of projects or sales committed for that person to deliver so they not only have something to do but are earning their keep.

So I hope I got my point across on this one. You might have to be conservative at first in your growth but in the end you will scale better and create a business that is focused on delivery and customer service without putting you and your employees on a cash flow roller coaster.

What have been your experiences in starting up? When did you start paying yourself? Do you agree with my conservative approach? Did you do something different?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Comments

  1. says

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. My wife could ;), but I couldn’t.

    Like everything, growing a business is a process and as such, you have to follow specific steps to get to where you want to go. Getting paid is one of the first steps.

    Also, your point about “making sure the business pays for itself” is important not only in just being smart but also proving that your business can work…now. Not 2 years, 3 years or 5 years out…but now. Having the business pay you is sort of the “canary in the mine” — if it can’t pay you in a timely manner, you need to get over it, get out, and move on to the next project.

    Cheers.

    James Weddle