Cash(flow) is always king / a mystery to me / my worst nightmare

Fairly certain we all have used combinations of this phrase and probably seen/read/discussed many different explanations as to what it actually means to a business. Terms like “cash liquidity”, ‘cash-flow management”, “cash burn rate”, “average debtor/creditor days” do not make it easy to understand why your business never seems to have enough money in the bank for payments to suppliers and employees, but looks like it is really profitable!

Here are my ABCs to get every small business closer to unravelling the puzzle

A. What is cash-flow?

Starting Cash Balance + Money InMoney Out = Ending Cash Balance

Let me break it down in 5 points:

  • Cash-flow is measured within a time period, usually 1 month
  • A business typically has a starting balance of cash at bank and an ending balance of cash at bank (it is either zero or a positive number).
  • If the total amount of Deposits into your bank is MORE than the total amount of Payments that actually exits your bank within a given time period, this is GOOD, or POSITIVE cash-flow.
  • If the total of amount of Deposits into your bank is EQUAL to the total amount of Payments that actually exits your bank within a given time period this is NEUTRAL cash-flow.
  • If the total of amount of Deposits into your bank is LESS than the total amount of Payments that actually exits your bank within a given time period this is BAD, or NEGATIVE cash-flow.

Common misunderstandings:

  • Sending a sales invoice to a client only is a request for customer payment– it does not mean you are instantly receiving money. Generally speaking, this is the area where you have least control in a business, however there are plenty of incentives, payment methods or even short term financing which can be deployed to help your business receive cash more quickly.
  • Receiving an invoice from a supplier is only their request for payment– it does not mean you are instantly paying money. Generally speaking, this is the area where you have the most control in a business, however you need to manage your supplier expectations and not be late on payment too often.

Key Indicators:

  • Sustained POSITIVE cash-flow over multiple periods is a where most businesses want to be – it means you have cash to expand, pay bonuses, repay investors (or yourself).
  • Sustained NEUTRAL cash-flow over multiple periods means that your business is just treading water/surviving.
  • Sustained NEGATIVE cash-flow over multiple periods is where most businesses want to avoid – it means that you are paying more cash out than you are receiving in (or cash burn rate)

B. What is cash-flow forecasting?

In a nutshell, this is the art of estimating:

  • How much cash the business will RECEIVE as deposits (from sales or other sources) in future time periods (e.g. next 3 months) and;
  • how much cash the business will be PAYING (for suppliers or capital expenditure) in future time periods (e.g. next 3 months).

C. What is cash-flow management?

ABCs are not meant to be rocket science – 5 key points to note for beginners

  1. Identify Your Cash Break-even Point (cash-flow NEUTRAL), or Cash In = Cash Out. Being able to balance this equation is a simple measure of business success.
  2. Optimise your Accounts Receivables – minimise delays between payments by tightening credit terms (reduce to net 10 versus net 30/60) and/or offering solutions/incentives for faster customer payments
  3. Extend your Accounts Payables – do the exact opposite of accounts receivables! When negotiating with various vendors, maximise your payment terms where possible to net 30/60 or slice up your payments into monthly instalments – all helps your cash-flow
  4. Be A Smart Spender – identify those expenses which are directly correlated with Put simply, separate into Need vs. Nice-To-Have buckets! For example, online store owners will need an integrated inventory management and payment gateway solution. It may be resource and time intensive but is absolutely necessary if you want to gain business transparency and take payments! Definite NEED!
  5. Keep a Cash Reserve – having a buffer helps you easily navigate out of those unexpected disasters that will happen during your venture. I suggest keeping a minimum of three to six months of OPEX (basic operating expenses like rent, payroll etc) reserve at ALL times. If you dip into the reserve, ensure you replenish!

Necessary Actions:

  1. Checking your starting balance of cash at bank, then
  2. Forecasting what you will receive and pay out, then
  3. Assessing what you actually received and paid out, then
  4. Checking your closing balance of cash at bank, then making a decision on whether your cash position is viable.
  5. Repeating the above steps for the next period.

Step 4 is where the real decision making kicks in – what to do next?

Is your cash hiding in inventory, WIP, debtors?

Take a business loan? Take a shareholder loan?

Look for investment?

Drop us a message if you want to discuss any of the above and how we can provide insight to manage your short-term cash-flow better.

Just to make a final point – there is NO SUCH THING as a silver bullet for conquering the cash-flow beast.

Make learning the ABCs Habitual. Make it Essential.

Just like checking your smartphone the first thing you wake up.

1Original article appears here


Outsource your accounting department

Email: enquiries@cornerstone-group.asia

    News: Regional coverage | Low-touch accounting | Shopify, Stripe & Paypal Automated Accounting

    First an apology for a long hiatus – writer’s drought, father of two, World Cup, craft beer, personal training…choose an excuse that you find palatable.

    And if those aren’t to your liking, here’s a summary of what we’ve been working on behind the scenes:


    Regional coverage

    I am pleased to announce that we have opened an office in Singapore April 2018, headed by our very capable director Kin Seng, supported by a combination of our favourite “robots/software” and existing, amazing but lean HK team.

    Our footprint now includes Malaysia, where we have been able to source awesome accounting talent that can communicate in English, Chinese (Cantonese/Mandarin) and other Asian dialects to better support our existing team and most importantly, our international client base.

    Off the back of our extended coverage, we are now known as Cornerstone Management Group Asia – pretty original I know (still an accountant deep down).


    Low-touch accounting

    In celebration, we are launching a low-touch accounting solution geared towards digital consultants, marketers, agencies – businesses which do not sell physical products and/or hold stock inventory.

    The solution is powered by our bots, programmed and reviewed by Cornerstone logic – it allows clients to easily get their bills/expense receipts to us at Cornerstone through 3 channels:

    • Phone App – take a picture with the app. Yes, it’s that easy.
    • Desktop – drag and drop into the RB app through web browser.
    • Email – email the attachment to a dedicated address

    Our team takes care of the rest and the bill/expense is booked to Xero.

    Get in touch with us at enquiries@cornerstone-group.asia to find out more.


    Shopify, Stripe, Paypal high-volume automated sales/payments reconciliation

    We’ve also built an automated reconciliation software for high-volume e-commerce operators that run on Shopify, Stripe and Paypal.

    Put simply, we can reconcile up to 1000s of Shopify orders per day to Stripe/Paypal payments in seconds – and then auto post to Xero for daily reporting.

    SKU codes from Shopify are sync’d through so you’re covered for automated COGS/Inventory journals and gross profit calculations!

    Designed with an open API so it can also talk to other softwares and/or marketplaces (e.g. inventory management, Lazada), although this will require further development.



    Amazon Marketplace Xero accounting add-on

    We haven’t forgotten about Amazon sellers – a really cool app has been in our testing labs for a while and until we felt that it had reached Cornerstone’s standard of accounting integration maturity, we held back – so we’re happy to recommend using A2XAccounting (https://www.a2xaccounting.com/) to integrate Amazon Marketplace sales, fees, COGS and FBA Inventory to Xero.



    Still under wraps in our labs is a Xero integrated, customisable, model-driven, 3-way forecast dashboard that we are building to improve our engagement with you, our clients. We see that our value going forward, is to help you navigate the uncertain future, rather than just talking about the past.

    Get in touch with us on enquiries@cornerstone-group.asia or contact me directly to find out more.



    Outsource your accounting department

    Email: enquiries@cornerstone-group.asia

      Connecting for Hope and Happiness – CE Carrie Lam’s Maiden Address

      Last month, I shared some basic thoughts immediately before Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s maiden address. Let’s do a quick recap on her policies aside from housing (although an important topic, but not the focus of this particular newsletter).

      The underlying message conveys a vision for Hong Kong to head towards a “let’s bunker down and create a better Hong Kong for the next generation”. Which begs the question, has Hong Kong simply been treading water the past 15 years OR is this atypical “spin-doctoring” to win votes but with no real execution plan or milestones for accountability?

      It seems that the government is looking to double down in Innovation & Technology (I&T) and Creative industries where Hong Kong has a “competitive edge and much potential.*” Take a look at the numbers:

      Innovation & Technology – Total $14.2 billion

      • $10,000 million for University research funds
      • $3,000 million for student scholarships along with postgraduate programmes
      • $500 million in a “Technology Talent Scheme”
      • $700 million to develop Hong Kong into a Smart City

      Creative Industries (apparently specifically the design industry) – Total $1billion

      • $1 billion into the CreateSmart Initiative

      Roughly $15 billion in investing in the future. Not bad in isolation, but comparatively, the Shatin to Central Link cost roughly $100 billion ($79.8 billion + $20 billion) **? Suddenly, $15 billion doesn’t seem like much.

      More specifically, $0.7 bilion to develop Smart City projects is extremely low. Especially compared to Singapore’s S$2.4 billion (HK$13.7 billion) budget to spend on Smart City initiatives***. Perhaps, a more objective question, what Smart City deliverables should we expect from a $0.7 billion investment?

      Let’s take a look at two items that will directly benefit SMEs.

      Tax Rate Reduction

      We have all by now heard of the 8.25% profit tax (for the first HK$ 2 million profit). How the rate will evolve afterwards is still unclear, but there aren’t many nations in the world that provide such a simplistic and incentivized tax scheme for corporations.

      How is your business ready to benefit from this? Perhaps after this legislation passes in 2018, it’s simply a good time to register a profit? Or more complex matters such as potential entity restructure within the new tax boundaries?

      Sadly, Hong Kong has had incentivizing tax rates for a long time now, but will the benefit of this additional tax reduction smooth over the difficulties in Talent Acquisition, Office/Storefront Rental or Archaic Beauracracies? Let’s not forget the increasing difficulty to open a company bank account which is one of the most basic necessities for any business (there are organizations out there that can help you with business banking facilities. Check out Neat).

      Research and Development Deductions

      I suppose the biggest carrot would be in R&D. A 300% tax deduction for the first $2 million spent on eligible R&D was stated in the address. Coupled with a halved corporate tax rate, that’s a huge incentive, but also opens up issues such as “what is eligible research and development?” and “does the Inland Revenue need to re-interpret their stance on R&D conducted by HK companies in light of the increasingly common, digitally nomadic (offshore) work culture crucial to this business phase?”****

      Details on her statement need to be clarified, but just as importantly how will your firm start accounting for the R&D that’s performed to benefit from this policy?

      Get ready to capitalize on these policy changes. Obviously, as an accountancy firm, our shameless sale line – make sure your accounts are in good shape to start!




      *** http://opengovasia.com/articles/7370-budget-2017-singapore-to-invest-sg24-billion-over-next-four-years-for-future-economy-strategies


      How will you benefit from the potential tax break? 

      As Cornerstone services SMEs in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, we also eagerly await for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address on Wednesday, 11 October.  Rumor has it, or better yet, if she stays true to her previous sentiments, a tax reduction to 10% for SMEs of your first HK$ 2 million dollars in profit is in store. That’s a HK$ 130,000 in savings per year or HK$ 10,833 per month from taxes if you’ve hit the HK$ 2 million mark in profit, which isn’t the case for all the players.

      Critics say that the Chief Executive is throwing out very easy ear bait for SMEs. Investing in Hong Kong definitely has another advantage, further lowering of simplistic tax rates, from the previous 16.5% now to 10%. How awesome is that?  Not that I don’t appreciate the initiative, but let’s take a quick walk around and “tire-kick” and see how great of an incentive this really is…

      This incentive is supposedly to be put in place so that we, Hong Kong collectively, can regain some competitive advantages against Singapore and other regions (north of the wall, cough cough) in the startup and SME space. If the tax rate drops to 10%, the Hong Kong government is looking to lose HK$ 10 billion in annual revenue*. Which really is generous, but it doesn’t tackle the fundamental challenges that startups and SMEs face, which are:

      1. Talent Acquisition

      2. Office/Storefront Rental

      3. Archaic Bureaucracy

      Talent Acquisition

      Finding, acquiring and retention of talent is probably one of the largest challenges in Hong Kong for SMEs. First off, finding suitable talent for startups and SMEs where success rate is already extremely low, hinges heavily on finding the right talent. Besides wearing multiple hats, success relies upon how well one can excel in their core job function. In the F&B and retail space (if you have a physical store front), acquiring and retaining good store talent is practically a full time job in itself. With living expenses continue to rise in Hong Kong, this just adds additional pressure to business owners. How far does HK$ 10,833 cover for you?

      Office/Storefront Rental

      Depending on your storefront size, HK$ 10,833 definitely helps a bit, actually any bit will help. How many less shirts, jewelry, coffee, drinks, products will you need to sell? Don’t you feel like everyone is taking a small fee out of your hard earned revenue? Unfortunately, rental space isn’t just a small fee in Hong Kong, but a large chunk of expense for every SME. How does Shenzhen or Singapore tackle this problem? Oh wait, they don’t need to because rental space isn’t as crazy as it is in Hong Kong. I’ll probably take the HK$ 10,833 for this, but again, really doesn’t fix the underlying problem does it?

      Archaic Bureaucracy

      By labeling this, I bet all of you are thinking of bank related regulations, guess what? I’m not. I’m thinking of all the other unfortunate regulations and or bureaucratic necessities that plague Hong Kong, where forms and paper dominate the minds and time of processing minions. I’m quite passionate about this space as you can tell. Can’t wait for blockchain technology to really revamp, overhaul and destroy this sector… for good.

      But in all seriousness, how much time do startups and SMEs waste from over-engineered and outdated form filling/document collating that range from bank KYC requirements to any type of public governance or an application of some sort of SME government funding? Again, I may accept the HK$ 10,833 for this one, because depending on your type of business, hopefully you’ll only encounter it a few times a year, because the other times, you just forgo it altogether.

      I suppose one should probably not just rant on these issues, but provide potential solutions. So, after a beer and a shot of maotai (don’t tell Adrian), here’s a few that the HK government can look into:

      1. Draw international talent and incentivize them, not for large corporates who can afford it, but specifically for startups and SMEs. Hong Kong does such an amazing job for domestic workers, why can’t we do it for recent graduates? Most likely because it’s too expensive. Fortunately there is more and more discussion about co-living and co-working. Incentivize those companies with your HK$ 1 billion for the specific task of recruiting talent back to Hong Kong and performing triage on the “talent bleed”**

      2. If I knew how to lower commercial rental fees, I’d be running for office. So, the following suggestion is a shot in the dark. If the government can provide affordable residential projects, then should they also create affordable work-space projects***?

      3. Smart cities initiatives are sprouting throughout the world. Hong Kong was the innovative leader with the introduction of the Octopus card back in the 90s. When did we start looking backwards and rely so heavily on paper when many other top cities are looking towards a paperless work environment? Once leadership focuses, drives and executes on innovation and technology initiatives, it’ll be surprising to see how quickly that permeates amongst its citizens.

      Well, I’m excited!! Let’s see what comes out next Wednesday.

      – Kenny


      Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning: Are we part of the (r)evolution ?

      It’s been a while since I last wrote but a recent clash of titans caught my eye – no not the McGregor vs. Mayweather, but the Musk vs. Zuckerberg twitter exchange on AI.

      Far from the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML), needless to say, I am a proponent of technology development that improves our lives, personal or business.

      We’ve all seen the proliferation of companies building software/hardware and services to streamline tasks, social network, disrupt and improve archaic processes within industry sectors. For ease of communication, in this article, I will refer to the aforementioned phrase in italics simply as “products”. Some of these products have made a fundamental difference in the way we operate, others are just being created to capitalise on the “now”, “quick-fix” and our self-indulgent nature.

      This latter group multiplies exponentially – today there are so many apps and wearables* with a new feature that is instantly captivating yet disposable. What these lack, in my opinion, is a customer stickiness that has, at its core, elements that address a digital Mazlow’s hierarchy.

      Oversimplified, both diagrams suggest that if basic lower levels are not met, there is no desire or purpose to pursue higher levels.

      Looking at the human chart, the fact you are reading this article on a phone, tablet or computer, I can assume that you are safely beyond the initial basic needs and are wandering in the upper wedges along with the rest of humanity. With the rapid advance and adoption of the Digital Age, millions of us are using apps/wearables as part of our search to satisfy our upper needs – we are driving demand and supplying data in parallel.

      Looking at IoT diagram, one can infer that the current phase of products is a pre-cursor to Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Machine Learning (ML). Think about it – multiple data collection points (social apps, business apps, lifestyle apps, wearables etc) all designed to satisfy the immense AI/ML data need with consumer products that satisfy the bottom three. We’re all heading down this path whether we like it or not, unless you decide to go “off-grid” Jason Bourne-esque. And even he came back online.

      Philosophically, the three upper wedges of each hierarchy are almost symbiotic which affirms the depth at which our lives are intertwined with digital technology.

      Today, self-actualisation/smart needs are being achieved using integration – basically apps that talk to one another. We’re creating multi-app ecosystems that improve our daily lives, businesses which in time will provide the data framework for AI/ML algorithms.

      Practically, what choices are you making in business apps to streamline your operations and “buy” you time?

      The current challenge is twofold for users:

      • To curate and integrate relevant, practical yet fragmented products from the plethora of choices in the market and
      • satisfy the upper wedges in both hierarchies.

      Using the accountancy sector as an example, practical applications of AI/ML are still in infancy stage***, however this interim period allows us to move towards this automation nirvana using integrated software with human oversight, insight and intervention.

      It’s about as close to Tesla self-drive that we have now – @cornerstonehk, we coin it as “low-touch accounting”.

      Anyone interested?



      *broadly speaking, the internet of things (IoT)



      Lost in the Digital Oasis of Hong Kong

      After arriving from New York 8 months ago, everything felt familiar. Transitioning from one large metropolis to another, and also having some passing familiarity to the city as I lived here when I was a teenager. Initially I hoped my transition will be easy. As I began to settle in, I began to notice subtle differences that I took for granted back at home.

      As I function primarily digitally, back home everything was at the touch of a smart phone, or computer. As I navigated Hong Kong’s digital presence, paying bills was challenging, online shopping is less convenient, making reservations went through traditional phone calls, just to name a few inconveniences. Websites are antiquated, or even worse, a Facebook community page. There is no Amazon for easy shopping, only Taobao which requires Chinese reading ability. Even one of the most popular sites, Open Rice, suffers from the same language issue. The site might be in English but the content (ie the reviews) are in Chinese.

      Why hasn’t HK evolved its digital footprint? I assumed Hong Kong would be close to its Western counterparts or its neighbor China. It wasn’t.

      Hong Kong has a unique issue, they have too many different audiences. Generally speaking, there are 3 major groups, local HK-ers, Mainland Chinese, and Ex patriots. One of the biggest obstacles is how to capture all audiences that have different digital maturity and behaviours.

      Zooming in on this issue, language is an obvious barrier. A platform will have to decide which user base do you want to capture. Does it go after the local base, and support traditional Chinese? Or should it support Simplified to capture the ongoing traffic from mainland China? English has almost become the defacto localisation language due to the large ex pat community (and its associate spending power). The MTR is successful at this. It supports all 3 of these main groups. Audio and visual queues support multiple languages, and the support staff are multilingual. MTR figured this out because they understand who their users are. If companies followed suit and invested in researching UI/UX needs, a much better product will come out.

      Despite these growing pains, I can see Hong Kong maturing their digital presence quickly. In the last 8 months, I have seen companies try to start innovating. HSBC has started trying to do a payment app similar to Venmo called Payme. Uber is available and becoming more and more popular to the point where you can catch rides from Tesla owners. There are at least 3 food delivery apps (Food Panda, Deliveroo & Uber Eats) out there along with their motorcycle fleets. Jousun and Honestbee have attempted to take a crack at the grocery shopping space. Online booking reservation systems are beginning to surface (Chope), and GoGo Van has captured the small moving business.

      The next 12 to 18 months will be interesting. All I need is better online shopping or learn how to read and write Chinese…

      – Kevin


      Kevin Tan is from New York City with a background in Finance before switching over to UI/UX 3 years ago. He is currently a Hong Kong based User Experience consultant, trying to help companies transform their products to be more user focused.

      Connect with him on LinkedIn.