How to create a robust startup financial model (tips & examples)

A robust startup financial model isn’t just a tool—it’s a lifeline. It provides clarity on revenue streams, expenses, and capital allocation, giving you the data you need to make informed decisions.

Beyond decision-making, your financial model reads like a portfolio to possible investors, showcasing your startup’s potential profitability and long-term viability.

The best products and services can flounder without a smart financial model, and that’s why financing is the primary cause of startup failure (not competition, business models, or founding teams).

Fortunately, you’re already taking financial modeling seriously—which is why you’re here.

Below, we’ll provide the tactical advice and expert insights you need to build a rock-solid financial foundation for your startup.

What is a startup financial model?

A startup financial model forecasts your company’s financial performance based on its current data, assumptions, and projections. It’s a roadmap for your startup, helping your founding team, stakeholders, and potential investors understand the financial trajectory of the business.

Startups use these models to predict revenues, expenses, and profitability over a period of time (typically one to five years). While it’s not set in stone, these forecasts help with decision-making, fundraising, and strategic planning.

Here are the typical components of a startup financial model, including the three financial statements to keep in mind:

  • Revenue projections: Estimates of future sales based on market research, historical data, and growth assumptions.
  • Cost projections: Predictions of fixed costs and variable costs, including salaries, rent, marketing expenses, and production costs.
  • Break-even analysis: Determines when the startup will start making a profit.
  • Cash flow statement: Your cash flow statement shows how cash moves in and out of the business, important for understanding liquidity and ensuring the startup doesn’t run out of money.
  • Income statement (profit & loss): The income statement (or profit and loss statement) shows the company’s profitability by subtracting expenses from revenues.
  • Balance sheet: Your balance sheet provides a snapshot of the company’s assets, liabilities, and equity at a specific time.

“Keep in mind there’s a trade-off between accuracy and overfitting the model,” says Ethan Lu, partner at Phoenix Strategy Group, “There’s a saying that, ‘No model is ever 100% accurate, but some are more useful than others.’”

Why your startup needs a fine-tuned financial model

Financial models might seem like just another thing to add to your to-do list, but they should be a non-negotiable part of your strategic financial planning.

Here’s why:

  1. Informed decision making: Your startup’s financial model offers clear insights into key financial metrics, guiding data-driven business choices toward your key performance indicators.
  2. Fundraising: Venture capitalists and angel investors often require a detailed financial model to gauge a startup’s potential and underlying assumptions.
  3. Risk management: Financial models help identify and plan for potential financial risks and challenges.
  4. Cash flow management: Predicting cash flows helps you maintain liquidity and avoid running out of funds.
  5. Setting and tracking goals: Financial models set clear targets and allow for future performance tracking against these benchmarks.
  6. Operational planning: The business model provides a framework for efficient resource allocation in daily operations.
  7. Valuation: A financial model can be pivotal in determining the startup’s worth during stake sales or negotiations.
  8. Long-term vision: Financial models ensure short-term actions align with the startup’s long-term objectives.

Tactical steps to build your startup financial model

Robust startup financial models aren’t just about optimistic revenue projections—they’re a holistic approach that captures every financial aspect of your business. Below, we’ll walk you through actionable tips to help you create a reliable and comprehensive model for your startup.

1. Start with revenue projections

Revenue is the lifeblood of any startup. It’s the primary indicator of market demand and the foundation for all other financial assumptions.

“Revenue will influence the rest of the profit and loss (P&L) assumptions,” says Tiffany Hovland, CPA and Vice President of Growth Operators. “So if revenue estimates are materially misstated, the company risks overstaffing or understaffing and/or purchasing assets incorrectly.”

Here’s how to approach your financial projections to prevent mistakes:

  1. Understand your market: Before projecting numbers, gain a deep understanding of your target market. How big is it? What’s the potential customer base? Use market research, competitor analysis, and industry reports to gather data.
  2. Define revenue streams: Identify all potential sources of income. For SaaS businesses, this might include subscription fees, advertising revenue, and premium services. For a product-driven startup, it could be sales, licensing, or partnerships.
  3. Pricing strategy: Determine how you’ll price your product or service. Consider factors like production costs, competitor pricing, and perceived customer value. Remember, pricing can significantly impact demand.
  4. Sales forecasts: Based on your market understanding and pricing, estimate the number of units you expect to sell and how much revenue you predict. Consider seasonality, marketing efforts, and external factors like economic conditions.
  5. Growth assumptions: Especially for an early stage startup, it’s essential to make growth assumptions. Will your revenue grow 10% month-over-month? Or is a yearly 50% increase more realistic? Base these business assumptions on market trends and your business strategy.
  6. Regularly update projections: As you gather real-world sales data, revisit and adjust your financial projections. This iterative process ensures your model remains relevant and accurate.

2. Estimate costs and expenses

While revenue projections set the stage for potential earnings, understanding costs and capital expenditures is crucial to measure the profitability and sustainability of your startup. A thorough breakdown of costs ensures you’re not caught off guard by unexpected expenditures.

Here’s the step-by-step process:

  1. Costs of sales (COS): These are the direct costs associated with producing your product or delivering your service. For product-based startups, this includes raw materials, labor, and production equipment. For service-based businesses, it might be the salaries of service providers or hosting fees for SaaS companies. You’ll also want to look at customer acquisition costs.
  2. Marketing and sales: Allocate a budget for promoting your product or service. This includes advertising, promotions, public relations, and the salaries and commissions of your sales team.
  3. Research and development (R&D): R&D costs cover product development, software development, patent filings, and other innovation-related expenses.
  4. General and administrative (G&A) expenses: These are the overhead costs not directly tied to production. Examples include executive salaries, legal fees, accounting, insurance, and office supplies.
  5. Depreciation and amortization: If you’ve invested in long-term assets like machinery or technology, account for their depreciation over time. Similarly, amortize intangible assets like patents or copyrights.
  6. Interest and taxes: If you’ve taken loans, factor in interest payments. Also, account for local, state, and federal taxes.
  7. Unexpected costs: Always set aside a contingency fund for unforeseen expenses. This could be due to sudden market changes, legal challenges, or unplanned operational hiccups.

“Every startup is different,” says Kumar Arora, CEO of Arora Ventures. “There are unforeseen startup costs that come as you go—that’s something every entrepreneur will experience. You might need to invest a little more in marketing, or you forget to think about this specific thing. Your startup costs will change.”

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3. Factor in funding and capital

Capital is the fuel that powers startups. Whether it’s to cover initial setup costs, scale operations, or navigate through lean periods, you need to raise venture capital (or debt financing) to grow your business.

Here’s how to tackle the fundraising process for your startup:

  1. Self-funding/bootstrapping: Use personal savings to bootstrap your business, avoiding dilution of ownership and external pressures.
  2. Angel investors & VCs: Seek individuals or professional groups offering capital in exchange for equity or convertible debt. They can provide funds, expertise, and valuable networks.
  3. Bank loans: Secure traditional loans or credit lines with a solid business plan and good credit history.
  4. Crowdfunding: Use platforms like Kickstarter for crowdfunding—this validates demand and raises funds from a broad audience.

4. Plan for contingencies

Contingency planning is not about predicting every possible challenge but being prepared to respond effectively when challenges arise. It’s about building resilience and ensuring the startup’s longevity amidst uncertainties.

Here are a handful of ways to plan for contingencies:

  1. Emergency fund: Always maintain a financial safety net for unexpected downturns.
  2. Scenario analysis: Regularly test various financial outcomes to identify vulnerabilities and worst case scenario results.
  3. Insurance: Invest in coverage to shield against potential risks like lawsuits or property damage.
  4. Adaptable business model: Ensure your business strategy can adjust to changing circumstances.
  5. Diversify future revenue: Spread risk by not relying too heavily on a single income source.

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