Setting Up Your Accounting System

When we were last with Dick and Jane on Finance Fridays, our fearless entrepreneurs were figuring out how to split up their founders equity and account for an investment from Jane. While they’ve been hard at work on their product, they’ve also incorporated the company, now named SayAhh (thanks Mac!) as a C-Corp in Delaware. They’ve done a bunch of other mundane things, such as establishing a business checking account and depositing Jane’s $50k in seed capital, but like all good early stage entrepreneurs, they’ve spent most of their time obsessing about their product, talking to a few potential early customers about what they needed, and coding away on their MVP.

Dick and Jane had limited formal business accounting experience, but they both knew how to balance a checkbook. They reached out to their friend John, a CFO at a late-stage VC-backed company in Boston that was about to file an S-1 to go public. John took an hour out of his day to do a conference call with Dick and gave them advice on how to set up their accounting system. His advice included the following,

  1. Set up a double-entry accounting system and use it to track all financial transactions.
  2. Build a financial model that forecasts the P&L. Revenues and costs should both be based off of a robust set of assumptions. This should tie to your GL for “Actuals” (i.e. historical data).
  3. Be sure to use accrual accounting, not cash accounting.
  4. Tie the P&L forecast to the Balance Sheet and Cash Flow Statement and generate snapshots of what the Financial Statements will look like each year for the next 5 years. Create monthly snapshots on a rolling 12 month basis.
  5. Anytime the financial model indicates that SayAhh will run out of cash, determine how you will raise capital to ensure liquidity and be sure to properly account for the debt or equity transaction on the balance sheet and Cap Table.
  6. Tie each round of funding to a set of key milestones in the development of your product/business.

John also mentioned a bunch of other stuff that Dick didn’t write down because they weren’t really sure what it meant, but it included phrases like 409a and VSOE. Feeling overwhelmed, Dick emailed his friend Josh, the CEO of an early-stage startup in Boulder, to see how they figured out all of this stuff. He summarized Dick’s advice and Josh replied: “That’s great advice and you should do all of that stuff – eventually. But, for now, focus on the following:”

  1. Make sure you both have business credit/debit cards and that you use them (or checks) for all transactions.
  2. Setup a simple accounting system like QuickBooks and sync it with your bank account. At the end of each week, make sure you’ve properly labeled each transaction using the QuickBooks Chart of Accounts. This takes a little getting used to, but you’ll pick it up. Ask me if you have questions.
  3. QuickBooks allows you to forecast expenses. Think through all of the expenses that you anticipate over the next 12 months and enter them. Update this every time you become aware of new transactions and maintain this on a rolling basis. QuickBooks will show you if/when you will run out of cash within the next 12 months.
  4. Build a plan as to how you will inject more cash into the business any time QuickBooks shows you running out of cash, and be sure to start raising any needed cash well in advance.

Dick and Jane followed Josh’s advice. It required a small investment of time and money to get QuickBooks up and running, but it was a manageable distraction from building SayAhh’s core product.

To be successful, you need to know about a wide range of issues affecting your business. However, you do not have to become an expert on each and the degree to which you need to understand various issues evolves along with your business. It is easy to get caught up in all the administrivia of of forming a company, building a business plan, and developing financial forecasts that you fail to spend time building your product.

How do you know what matters most when? This is where developing a network of trusted and qualified mentors comes in handy. While John was trying to be helpful, his advice missed the mark because he didn’t have a lot of experience at the early stages. In contrast, Josh was an experienced entrepreneur who had started several companies and likely learned his lessons through experience. As you build your business, surround yourself with as many Josh’s as you can. And, as you grow, make sure you find mentors like John to help you at at the appropriate stages.

As Josh suggested, when you first start your business you should focus on building systems and processes that allow you to accurately capture as much data as possible from the start. QuickBooks and other accounting software programs will do this for your finances, but you should also implement tools for tracking other key metrics (e.g. customer behavior, support inquiries, marketing analytics). You can and will become increasingly sophisticated in analyzing and interpreting that data over time, but you cannot analyze it if you do not have it.

Additionally, at all points in the development of your startup – including on Day 1 – you should focus intently on forecasting your cash flows as accurately as you possibly can. Running out of cash will either kill your company or force you into a very painful financing round. Know exactly when you run out of money, well before the time you hit a wall and go splat.

  • bradleyjoyce

    Thanks Brad! Have been thinking about this recently myself as we spool up 3#Labs!

  • David Miller

    Brad – Love it.  Managing cash-flow is hugely important and hard for most non-financial Founders to do.  That’s why we built Conjecta (, a cash-flow modeling tool for non-financial modelers.

  • TheROI

    Projecting cash flow is especially important – and tricky – for retailers, because of inventory management. The Retail Owners Institute has in-the-cloud Executive Calculators for retailers that let retailers “do it yourself”!

  • Peter Skalla

    Well told . . . in setting up the financials simply getting started can be really difficult for an entrepreneur.  If you’re in this position, it’s simpler than you think.  Just remember that financial statements and the accounting system should tell the story of your business.  It’s highly summarized, but communicating the story is the purpose. 

    Three thoughts.  First, I suggest a solid start at defining your business model prior to setting up the books.  Ash Mauyrs’s “Lean Canvas” is the best tools I’ve seen (google “mauyra business model”).  Second, make a financial model of your business.  I disagree with “Josh’s” suggestion to use QuickBooks’ budgeting module for this.  It’s too mechanical for the purpose.   A driver-based financial model in which customer activity and pricing drives revenue; hiring and salaries drive compensation expense; selling and promotion activity drives SG&A; etc. is what’s needed.  Third, set up your Chart of Accounts in Quickbooks to reflect the business model you’ve defined in 1 and detailed in 2.  Now you’re thinking intuitively about your business in financial terms but with tight logic that connects operations to the numbers.  This enables the financials to concisely tell the company’s story.  You have financials, historical and projected, that give insight to managing the business and that will help you attract investment. 

    • Jonathan Wolter

      Peter – we have a driver-based financial modeling post in the works!

  • Bart Lorang

    …and if Quickbooks web UI is not up to snuff, try WorkingPoint. It’s slick, simple and inexpensive – and created by former Intuit guys.

  • thesis help

    thanska  lot! very interesting!

  • Ulf

    I love Finance Fridays!  Majored in English but have been told I have an entrepreneurial streak–hope that is a compliment–and learning lots from your blog, Brad.  Thanks!

    • bfeld

      Super. We should start getting into some meaty stuff in the next few weeks.

  • Scott Gregory

    Dick and Jane should make an investment in their business and bring someone in that will help them get their QuickBooks set up properly right out of the gate.

    I’ve seen numerous horror stories from the “DIY” accounting world over the last 10 years to say that it will cost them far less to set things up correctly than to “fix” them down the road.

    There are a number of good programs out their for tracking business accounting – QuickBooks, LessAccounting and Xero are some of them.

    • Speak-feld

      This sounds like solid advice, although if your business is complex at all, a run of the mill CPA may not be sophisticated enough to handle it after the initial setup. I’ve seen a situation where 2 rounds of certified CPAs managed to botch a biotechs financials, costing them a large amount of cash, and such that the founder just bit the bullet and learned to do them himself. Most CPAs I’ve dealt with are great for cookie cutter situations but don’t seem to have a deep understanding of the issues, I guess that’s why the good ones are paid so well.

  • Hakon Verespej

    I really like the info and approach in these posts. Can’t wait for next week’s!

    I know starting out, the budget is tight and mentorship goes a long way, but do any folks have experience with getting professional help to set up accounting for a startup? I have no idea how much this would cost, so maybe it’s a non-starter, but it seems like if it’s a reasonable price and the accountant specializes in startups or small companies, it would significantly reduce the amount of uncertainty and mistakes. If not reasonable at the start, at what point does it usually begin to make sense?

  • Roham Gharegozlou

    I have a couple of questions for you Brad:

    1) How about if the entrepreneur wants to raise VC money, say $1M+.. Then would you say he *needs* the more detailed type of documents / strategic plans / roadmaps / milestones that are referred to earlier on in the article?

    2) How about if the business is cutting it close in terms of cash and/or is in a completely new space and/or needs to figure out basic things like pricing models, breakeven points, etc. – then do you think a detailed financial model can be useful for making business decisions (IN ADDITION to being very confidence-inspiring when facing investors)? Or do you think it’s best to just jump in and iterate based on response, without a model framework to adapt and improve?

    • Jonathan Wolter

      Hi Roham, I’m Jonathan, one of the UoC Booth helpers with Brad on this. Great questions! I can’t speak for Brad, but we do hope to go into a VC fundraising scenario later. And we also will end up creating some more detailed financial models.

  • Roham Gharegozlou

    I have a couple of questions for you Brad:

    1) How about if the entrepreneur wants to raise VC money, say $1M+.. Then would you say he *needs* the more detailed type of documents / strategic plans / roadmaps / milestones that are referred to earlier on in the article?

    2) How about if the business is cutting it close in terms of cash and/or is in a completely new space and/or needs to figure out basic things like pricing models, breakeven points, etc. – then do you think a detailed financial model can be useful for making business decisions (IN ADDITION to being very confidence-inspiring when facing investors)? Or do you think it’s best to just jump in and iterate based on response, without a model framework to adapt and improve?

  • James Mitchell

    My company was accepted in Microsoft Bizspark, a program that allows us free copies of almost all of Microsoft’s software for free for three years, after which you pay a whopping $100. (Being accepted is much less difficulty than, say, being accepted into Y Combinator, but there are some minimal standards.) Microsoft has a series of accounting/ERP software packages called Dynamics. There are several versions of Dynamics. The two obvious choices are GP (formerly Great Plains) and SL (formerly Solomon IV). 

    QuickBooks does not have enough power and functionality for my taste, particularly if you plan on growing quickly. Since it is free, we will soon be installing the GP version of Dynamics (which appears to be more powerful than SL, and Microsoft seems to be most committed to developing GP in the future). We will pay $1000 or $2000 to have someone already experienced in installing GP to set it up. The advantage of this approach is we will never, ever outgrow GP. Yes, most of the features we will never need, but there are some that are useful and I just like using software packages I will never outgrow. We already have our own dedicated Microsoft Windows Server server, so the incremental hardware cost is zero.

    Even if money is tight, it is worth hiring someone to prepare a really good Chart of Accounts. You can do the first draft (I do it in Excel) and then have him edit it, or he can do it from scratch. Starting from an existing Chart of Accounts (QuickBooks has some good temlates) makes a lot of sense. Basically, think about how you want to analyze information going forward. I am detailed oriented so I to a large extent map it to the checks I see myself writing. Find someone who has done at least half of dozen Chart of Accounts before, preferably at least a couple in your industry. This person should have the title of “Controller” or “CFO” on their background, and it would be good if they were a CPA. Make certain the accounts (or rollup accounts) are matched to items on your tax forms.

    If you are VC backed, or if you just know some VCs, almost certainly they will know someone good that they can recommend.

    • Chris Fenster

      Quickbooks has a number of weaknesses but it has three important (for startups) advantages over the “next level” systems like Great Plains, Dynamics, Netsuite, IntAcct etc. 

      1. It’s a lot cheaper/quicker to implement.
      2. There’s a massive user base of competent people who know how to configure and operate it, as well as a slew of add-on apps that extend its functionality. (Paperless A/P, expense report management, dashboard reporting, etc.)
      3. It’s insanely easy to change your mind. 

      CPAs hate this last one because it goes against everything they’re trained to prevent, but the reality is that no matter how much experience the person who sets up your COA has, no one is going to know what your company really needs until you start operating. 6-12 months out, you may need to pivot and reconfigure everything. (Revenue model, sales channels, pricing, staffing etc.) No other system will let you do this as efficiently as QB and the net savings are dramatic. I realize it seems counter-intuitive to plan for the obsolescence of a system but when you do, you acknowledge the reality of the unknowns and you preserve the incentive to build lean at a time when you need to maintain laser focus on business strategy, product and customer development. 

      Your participation in the MSFT program obv gives you some advantages most firms don’t get — not only cost savings but expertise. That certainly changes the paradigm for you but it’ll be interesting to see how many of the initial assumptions you make about CoA/accounting system design wind up evolving over time and how well the MSFT systems adapt. 

      By the way, none of this changes the importance of finding someone with experience to help with the setup. I totally agree that finding a good controller/cfo person up front is a critical priority regardless of whether you’re building something intentionally temporary or not. To Brad’s point. The cash flow and metrics outputs are what matters and lousy design will lead to lousy output. 

  • James Mitchell

    On Brad’s previous rant on accountants.

    The problem is that accountants have little upside and infinite downside. When they audit a startup for $50,000 a year, they make a little money. If something goes wrong — e.g., the startup is sold for $100 million, the seller then realizes he overpaid, the startup founders have cleverly put all of their money in asset protection trusts, the seller looks for a deep pocket to sue, and guess what, the Big Four accounting firm is as deep a deep pocket as it gets. Arthur Anderson went out of business because it made the mistake of auditing Enron. Probably 5 or 10 people in the Dallas office at AA were responsible for those errors in judgment yet tens of thousands of AA employees lost their jobs. Partners in other offices, who had worked for 25 years, had done great work for other clients, and had nothing to do with Enron, lost a good chunk of their net worth.

    The liability system we have in the U.S. is crazy, but it is particularly crazy as it pertains to accounting firms. One solution would be liability for the accounting firm is limited to ten times the audit fees charged for the years in question, but there would be unlimited liability for the individual accountant if he engaged in an intentional tort (such as fraud) as opposed to an unintentional tort (such as negligence).

    Note that VCs such as the author of this blog are often the reason portfolio companies have Big Four accounting firms in the first place, since the VC wants the Big Four stamp of approval when he exits.

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  • Carter

    As a banker I’ve seen what can happen when you do not setup your accounting and forecasting properly. (i.e. Your checking account is overdrawn and you have no idea why)  Having a basic understanding of your specific accounting system and assumptions is critical other wise you will not be able to accurately predict your cash flow. And as you’ve said, the worst time to raise cash is when you desperately need it. Most medium-sized accounting firms have a department dedicated to helping companies setup and maintain QuickBooks or similar accounting systems. It’s worth the $2K to get it done.

  • Shannon Tucker

    QuickBooks does double-entry accounting (John should be happy), but since it is designed to usable by non-accountants, the users are insulated from the “other side” in most data entry situations — they usually don’t see the offsetting entries (Josh is happy). It still crunches both the debit and credit sides of every transaction, though.

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  • Speak-feld

    HI Brad, great article, very timely info for us. Do you have any recommendations for start-up tax advisors in the Boulder area? We have a bootstrapped startup that is generating income and need advice on how to limit our tax liabilities to retain as much of our earnings as possible for future growth.

    • bfeld

      Send me an email at and I’ll connect you up with a few.

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  • J.D. Kern

    Hey, I know I’m a late commenter on this article – great series BTW – but do you have an opinion as to the right time for a startup to hire a heavy CFO? Clearly, in early stages it won’t make sense, but when raising later rounds, doesn’t having a finance guy/gal onboard make increasing amounts of sense?

    • bfeld

      I think a startup should hire a VP Finance pretty early in its life – certainly by the time it gets to 20 people. This should be a “doer” not a manager – someone who will be part of the executive team but own finance. I differentiate between “CFO” and “VP Finance” because most CFO’s are going to view themselves more as managers vs. doers and that takes more scale to be relevant (at least 50 – maybe 100 – people).

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