The amount of working capital a small business needs to run smoothly depends largely on the type of business, its operating cycle and the business owners' goals for future growth. However, while very large businesses can get by with negative working capital because of their ability to raise funds quickly, small businesses should maintain positive working capital figures.

What Is Working Capital?

Working capital refers to the difference between a company's current assets and its current liabilities. Current assets are the things a business owns that can be turned into cash within the next 12 months, while current liabilities are the costs and expenses the business incurs within the same period. Common current assets include checking and savings accounts; marketable securities such as stocks and bonds; inventory; and accounts receivable. Current liabilities include the cost of materials and supplies that need to be purchased to produce goods for sale, payments on short-term debt, rent, utilities, interest and tax payments.

A company's working capital is a reflection of its operational efficiency and budget management. If a business has more current liabilities than assets, its working capital is negative, meaning it may have difficulty meeting its financial obligations. A company with a very high working capital figure, conversely, is easily able to pay all its expenses with ample funding left over. Whether a given business requires high working capital is determined by three key factors: business type, operating cycle and management goals.

Business Type

Certain types of businesses require higher working capital than others. Businesses that have physical inventory, for example, often require considerable amounts of working capital to run smoothly. This can include both retail and wholesale businesses, as well as manufacturers. Manufacturers must continuously purchase raw materials to produce inventory in-house, while retailers and wholesalers must purchase pre-made inventory for sale to distributors or consumers.

In addition, many businesses are seasonal in nature, meaning they require extremely high working capital during certain parts of the year as they ramp up for the high season. Leading up to the winter holidays, for example, retail businesses such as department stores and grocery stores must increase inventories and staffing to accommodate the expected influx of customers.

Businesses that provide intangible products or services, such as consultants or online software providers, generally require much lower working capital. Businesses that have matured and are no longer looking to grow rapidly also have reduced need for working capital.

Operating Cycle

Ideally, a business is able to pay its short-term debts with revenue from sales. However, the length of a company's operating cycle can make this impossible. Companies that take a long time to create and sell a product need more working capital to ensure financial obligations incurred in the interim can be met. Similarly, companies that bill customers for goods or services already rendered rather than requiring payment up front need higher working capital in case collection on accounts receivable cannot be made in a timely manner.

Management Goals

The specific goals of the business owners is another important factor that determines the amount of working capital required by a small business. If the small business is relatively new and looking to expand, a higher level of working capital is needed relative to that required by a small business looking to stay small. This is particularly true for businesses looking to expand product lines to venture into new markets as the costs of research and development, design and market research can be considerable.

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