Predicting the future is never easy. But by following these dos and don’ts for financial services projections, you can avoid some common mistakes

It doesn’t matter whether you’re applying for your first bank loan or your fifth, or whether you’re seeking venture capital or debt financing. Sooner or later, you’ll have to prepare a set of financial projections. Lenders will look for a strong likelihood of repayment; investors will calculate what they think is the value of your company.

In my past 10 years both as a banker and as a financial consultant, I’ve seen many entrepreneurs — despite the best intentions — make mistakes on their projections. The good news is that the most common mistakes are easily preventable if you know what to look for. Here are my top dos and don’ts:

Don’t provide only an income statement; include a balance sheet and a cash-flow statement, too. It’s understandable that you’re focused on sales and net income, but your banker or investors will also want to know how much money you intend to leave in the business as retained earnings and how much additional debt or equity financing you’ll need — if any — to grow your company.

Do provide monthly data for the upcoming year and annual data for succeeding years. Many entrepreneurs prepare projections using only monthly data or only annual data for the entire three- or five-year period. Don’t. Use monthly data for the first year. After that, use annual data. The financial results of your first year will probably end up being different from your projections, so there’s no point in thinking that you can accurately forecast monthly results for the years after that. This is an instance where less is more.
Don’t provide more than three years’ worth of projections unless your lender or investor has asked for them. This is an extension of the less-is-more concept. Let’s face it: it’s a stretch to accurately forecast your company’s sales or net income for even three years out. Only in cases in which you’re looking for long-term financing for equipment or real estate is it likely that your banker will want longer-term projections.

Don’t provide more than two scenarios in your projections. Loan officers and investors are already drowning in paperwork, so do what you can to make their lives simpler. We’ve all seen projections with the following three scenarios: base (or likely) case, worst case, and best case. I’ve also seen super case and break-even case. My advice is to prepare just the base case and the break-even case. The base case should show what you realistically expect the business to do; the break-even case should show how low sales could go before the business begins to lose money.

Do ensure that the numbers reconcile. Everybody knows that assets must equal liabilities plus equity. But all too often entrepreneurs will simply plug a figure into the equity slot to make things settle up. That’s wrong. If your bank is doing its homework, your banker will check the math. If the equity numbers don’t add up from one period to the next, you’ll be asked to explain. Even though everyone makes mistakes, that’s one you want to avoid because it makes you look sloppy. Also, if after the mistake is corrected your company has a smaller net worth than you originally presented, your banker or investor may think you were being intentionally misleading. Not good.

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Don’t be too optimistic about sales growth or gross and operating profit margins. All bankers and investors want to do business with ambitious entrepreneurs, but there’s a big difference between a realistic business plan and fantasy. While it’s true that companies that have low revenues can grow their sales quickly in percentage terms, it may not be realistic to assume, for example, that your business can double in size every year. That rate of growth would turn a $500,000 company into a nearly $16-million business in only five years. And although that can happen, it is definitely not the norm. Also, entrepreneurs often try to convince lenders that as their company grows it will achieve economies of scale, and gross and operating profit margins will improve. In fact, as the business grows and increases its fixed costs, its operating profit margins are likely to suffer in the short run. If you insist that the economies can be achieved quickly, you will need to explain your position.