15 working capital management best practices for startups

Working capital is the lifeblood of your startup. Without it, you won’t have the funds to run day-to-day operations, regardless of your innovative ideas, patents, or paying customers.

Working capital is the difference between your startup’s current assets (cash, accounts receivable, inventory) and current liabilities (accounts payable, loan payments). The on-hand cash keeps the lights on, and it’s a clear indicator of your startup’s operational efficiency and short-term financial viability.

However, it’s not just about having money—it’s about how you use those funds to foster sustainable growth while navigating unexpected challenges and setbacks. And that’s where the strategy behind effective working capital management comes in handy.

Optimizing working capital management guarantees you have the necessary capital to:

  • Invest in new technologies and innovations

  • Expand product offerings

  • Negotiate favorable terms with service providers

  • Ensure seamless operations and development cycles

  • Navigate market volatility and economic uncertainties

And all the while not running out of cash.

Below, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about working capital management and how to optimize it with plenty of actionable tips and best practices.

Working capital explained: what it is & how it works

Working capital is the operational heart of your startup. It’s composed of two primary components:

  • Current assets: These are short-term assets that can be converted into cash within a year. Examples include cash, accounts receivable (money owed by customers), and inventory. These assets are important because they provide the resources to fund day-to-day operations and immediate obligations.

  • Current liabilities: These are short-term debts or obligations that need to be settled within a year. This includes accounts payable (money owed to suppliers), short-term loans, and other similar debts. Efficiently managing these liabilities ensures that your startup doesn’t face liquidity issues or damage its relationships with suppliers and creditors.

The working capital cycle (also known as the cash conversion cycle) is the time it takes for your startup to turn its current assets into cash. This cycle begins when you invest in resources (like investing in technology) and ends when you collect cash from customers.

A shorter cycle shows that your startup is quickly converting its investments into revenue (which investors like), while a longer cycle might signal inefficiencies or potential cash flow problems.

Here are a few metrics and ratios you can use to gauge the health and efficiency of your working capital management:

  • Working Capital Ratio (Current Ratio): The working capital ratio is calculated as a company’s current assets divided by current liabilities. A ratio above 1 indicates that the startup has more assets than liabilities, suggesting good financial health. However, a very high ratio might mean the startup isn’t investing its assets effectively.

  • Quick Ratio (Acid-Test Ratio): This is a more stringent test to measure your company’s liquidity. It’s calculated by subtracting inventory from current assets and then dividing by current liabilities. A ratio above 1 is generally considered healthy, indicating that the startup can cover its short-term debts even without selling its inventory.

  • Working Capital Turnover Ratio: This ratio measures how efficiently a startup is at managing working capital to support sales. It’s calculated by dividing net sales by average working capital during an accounting period. A higher ratio indicates that the startup is effectively using its net working capital, while a lower ratio might suggest inefficiencies in managing current assets and liabilities.

Metrics like these provide a quick snapshot of your company’s financial health and ability to meet short-term obligations. You’ll want to keep an eye on these numbers (and strive to improve them) because your lenders and investors will be monitoring them, too.

The role of working capital in startup growth

Working capital isn’t just a financial metric, though. It’s the driving force that pushes your startup forward. You’ll face plenty of challenges and roadblocks during your high-growth phase, such as the following:

  • Inconsistent cash flow: Startups (especially in their early stages) might not have a steady revenue stream. This inconsistency can make predicting and managing cash inflows and outflows challenging, leading to potential liquidity issues.

  • High operational costs: To innovate and outpace competitors, startups might incur high operating costs. Without careful management, these expenses can quickly deplete available working capital.

  • Difficulty finding financing: Traditional financial institutions might hesitate to lend to startups due to their perceived high risk. This can make it challenging for startups to secure loans or credit, limiting their working capital sources.

  • Seasonal variations: Some startups operate in industries with seasonal demand variations, leading to high and low revenue periods. These fluctuations can strain working capital during off-peak seasons.

And that’s why it’s important to prioritize healthy working capital management. It’s not an overnight shift or commitment—it’ll take strategic decision-making and intention, but here’s what you can accomplish once you make it happen:

Fuel day-to-day operations

For startups, every day brings new challenges and opportunities. Working capital provides the necessary funds to cover daily expenses, from paying salaries to settling bills. It’s the grease that keeps the operational wheels turning smoothly.

Support expansion and scale

As you grow, you’ll need to continually invest in resources, hire more employees, and possibly expand to new locations. Adequate working capital allows you to make these investments without compromising your operational integrity.

Build a financial safety net

The startup ecosystem is often unpredictable. Economic downturns, market fluctuations, or unforeseen expenses can come out of nowhere. A healthy working capital acts as a safety net, providing your business with the flexibility to navigate these challenges without derailing its growth trajectory.

15 working capital management tips and best practices

Your working capital situation isn’t set in stone. There are decisions (big and small) you can make to optimize your working capital management and take control of your financial situation. Here are some of the best ways:

1. Manage inventory wisely

Inventory management is crucial for startups, especially those dealing with physical products. Overstocking can tie up funds, while understocking can lead to missed sales opportunities. Implement inventory management systems to track stock levels, forecast demand, and reduce carrying costs.

2. Streamline receivables collection

Delayed payments can strain your working capital. Implement a structured invoicing system, offer early payment discounts, and set clear credit terms to ensure timely collections. Regularly review outstanding invoices and follow up on overdue payments.

3. Negotiate favorable payment terms with suppliers

Building solid relationships with suppliers can lead to better payment terms. Negotiate extended payment durations or discounts for early payments. This can help manage cash outflows and ensure you have funds when needed.

4. Regularly review and adjust credit policies

While offering credit can boost sales, it can also tie up funds in receivables. Regularly review your credit policies, assess customer creditworthiness, and set limits based on their payment history.

5. Regularly monitor cash flow

A regular review of your cash flow can provide insights into your working capital health. Use cash flow statements and forecasting tools to anticipate future cash needs and make informed financial decisions.

6. Implement a robust financial planning system

A well-structured financial planning system can help in anticipating future cash needs. This includes budgeting, forecasting, and scenario planning, ensuring you’re prepared for both opportunities and challenges.

7. Leverage technology for automation

Automate routine financial tasks using accounting software, such as invoicing, payments, and reconciliations. This reduces errors and frees up time for strategic financial planning.

8. Diversify revenue streams

Relying on a single revenue source can be risky. Explore additional revenue streams or diversify your product offerings to maintain a consistent cash inflow.

9. Build a financial cushion

Always maintain a reserve of funds to address unexpected expenses or opportunities. This cushion can be a lifesaver during lean periods or when faced with unforeseen challenges. If necessary, secure a business line of credit that can act as a financial cushion while you build your reserves.

10. Prioritize payments

Not all expenses are of equal importance. Prioritize payments to ensure critical operations continue uninterrupted. This might mean deferring non-essential expenses during cash crunches.

11. Seek external financing when needed

While it’s essential to manage working capital efficiently, there are times when external financing might be necessary. Explore options like short-term loans or lines of credit to address temporary cash shortfalls.

12. Set clear payment terms with customers

Clearly communicate your payment terms to customers. This includes due dates, late payment penalties, and any discounts for early payments.

13. Reduce operational expenses

Regularly review your operational expenses and identify areas for cost-saving. This could include renegotiating contracts, optimizing resource usage, or leveraging technology for efficiency.

14. Provide regular financial training

Keep your financial team regularly updated with the latest best practices in working capital management. This can be through workshops, courses, or on-the-job training.

15. Collaborate with financial experts

Consider collaborating with financial experts or consultants who can provide insights into optimizing your working capital. Their expertise can be invaluable in navigating complex economic challenges.

Take control of your working capital with DigitalOcean

The startup journey will always be filled with a certain degree of risk and uncertainty, but optimizing your working capital management gives you more wiggle room for mitigating risks and seizing opportunities.

It’s the difference between surviving and thriving in a competitive landscape.

Partner with DigitalOcean to take control of your working capital. Our simple, predictable pricing helps you stick to your budget and reduce your operational expenses—all while setting up your infrastructure for scale and expansion down the road.

At DigitalOcean, we understand the unique needs and challenges of startups and small-to-midsize businesses. Experience our simple, predictable pricing and developer-friendly cloud computing tools like Droplets, Kubernetes, Managed Databases, and App Platform.

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