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Small Business Survival Guide: How to Sustain Cash Flow During a Government Shutdown

Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko

Here's how to overcome the cash flow challenges associated with the current shutdown.

A federal government shutdown causes a lot of inconvenience, especially when it goes on for a protracted period. For small businesses, in particular, shutdowns drive a litany of concerns that only snowball the longer they go on. These include challenges like loss of public contracts, delayed payments and the inability to obtain a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. At the core of each of these problems is one thing: uncertainty around cash flow. Even for small businesses that primarily operate in the private sector, shutdowns have a significant economic impact.

"The negative consequences of one of the longest shutdowns in U.S. history is now fully impacting our country's small business community," Keith Hall, president and CEO of the National Association of the Self-Employed (NASE), said in a statement. "From uncertainty around how the shutdown could impact delays in tax refunds small businesses were looking to … to the shuttering of the Small Business Administration impacting small business loans, America's small businesses are on the frontlines feeling the adverse impact."

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In an environment where cash is king, the solutions all must revolve around generating new revenue and getting paid. How can small businesses do that in a pinch? Through a combined strategy of revenue-generating moves, small businesses can find some solace during the tumultuous time of a government shutdown.

Sustaining cash flow is the critical goal.

The chief concern of a small business owner, even in the best of times, is cash flow. According to Lyneir Richardson, executive director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers University, government shutdowns often have an adverse effect on cash flow, and not just for small businesses that rely heavily on public contracts. When those companies feel the squeeze, he said, they will often delay capital expenditures and invoice payments to other businesses they work with, creating a "ripple effect" in the wider economy.

"The biggest fear for small businesses during a shutdown relates to cash flow," Richardson said. "Will my payments be processed? Can I get a loan? Will I get the green light on a contract I've been working on? Will I get paid for the work we've done, or will there be a long line to get my invoice paid? Cash is oxygen, and without oxygen, you quickly start to feel the pressure."

Therefore, every strategy a small business owner employs during a government shutdown should come back to driving cash flow and shoring up operating capital reserves. This includes leveraging outstanding accounts receivable, drumming up new short-term business and exploring financing options. It also includes finding room in the budget on the expense side of the balance sheet, cutting the fat until the government shutdown concludes.

Lean on accounts receivable to increase cash flow.

If your company is sitting on a significant amount of money in accounts receivable, a shutdown is a good time to call those clients on what they owe. Naturally, your clients will often be in a similar position during a government shutdown and will want to hold onto as much cash as possible themselves. If your need for revenue is strong enough, consider offering a discount on the total amount due in exchange for immediate payment.

"If new cash isn't coming in, reserves start to dwindle, and the entrepreneur starts to feel the pressure," Richardson said. "When there are no revenue or invoice payments, that's the biggest challenge."

Negotiate reduced or delayed payments with vendors and creditors.

For many small businesses, simply delaying or reducing upcoming payments to vendors could be enough to carry them through the shutdown with more cash on hand. Consider going directly to your suppliers and requesting an extension on payments for a month. Many vendors will extend flexibility during a shutdown, especially if you've been a loyal and timely-paying customer.

"There are a lot of options like making minimum payments on debt or talking to vendors about delaying payments," Hall said. "We're already in a longer shutdown than ever before, but the hope is it's relatively short-lived. Delaying a payment for one month, deferring a couple things, is a great idea from a cash management standpoint."

Signing new business with a quick turnaround time.

Of course, there are few revenue-generating options better than simply signing new business. However, since the need for cash flow is pronounced during a shutdown, new business should have a quick turnaround time, so you can get paid as soon as possible. Make sure any new clients are aware you expect payment within a short period (for example, two weeks rather than 30 days). Again, depending on the severity of your situation, you might consider offering discounts for a guaranteed immediate payment if clients seem hesitant.

"There are advantages to having government contracts, but best-in-class businesses have both public and private clients," Richardson said. "When situations like this happen, look to private clients to greenlight new work and pay invoices quicker so you have cash flow." 

For some companies, relief might be found in former customers who haven't ordered products or required services in a while. Combing through customer lists and reaching out to see if an old contact needs your business could drive some revenue in the short term, Hall added.

Accept a loan to reinforce capital reserves.

Any wise entrepreneur will think long and hard before taking on debt, but in an environment where a prolonged government shutdown is slowing cash flow across the board, debt could help buoy your capital reserves. Specifically, Hall said, entrepreneurs could potentially seek short-term working capital from a community bank.

"This type of situation is one that bankers typically respond to very well, because it's not a downturn in your business. It's out of your control, and the expectation for most people is that this is going to end," Hall said. "Short-term working capital financing at a local bank is a great way to go."

Small business owners could also rely on lines of credit they might have at their disposal, although Hall cautioned that if left unchecked or used for an indeterminate period, that method of financing could become quite expensive.

As a last resort, consider invoice factoring.

If you're having trouble securing a more conventional loan or calling some of the money owed in your accounts receivable, you might consider invoice factoring. Factoring is a type of financing that leverages your outstanding A/R as collateral to get a large portion of the cash you are owed upfront. The factor, or lender, will then typically collect the outstanding balances directly from your clients. Small businesses generally pay a portion of their total A/R to a factor in exchange for this service, but it avails them liquid capital immediately and can help to avert an otherwise challenging situation.

"I think it's always a good idea to look at options; however, when you get into factoring or selling A/R … that can be a very expensive option," Hall said. "The first step should always be to find more conventional lending opportunities."

If you are looking for an invoice factoring partner, though, it's important to make a wise selection. For help, see our best picks for invoice factoring companies in 2019.

Cut expenses to slow capital outflows.

Finally, in conjunction with efforts to raise new sources of revenue, small businesses should consider cutting any unnecessary expenses until a shutdown concludes. This includes putting off capital investments such as purchasing new equipment or expanding your staff until normalcy returns. For small businesses that are especially tight, it might even mean instituting furloughs or laying off some employees altogether. Ensuring your business operates as lean as possible, at least in the near term, will make each revenue-generating step you take go that much further.

"[Cutting expenses] could include laying off staff, delaying business trips, delaying the purchase of new equipment," Richardson said. "That's how this sort of ripple effect on the economy happens. Once I'm concerned about my cash, I have to delay capital expenditures. You've got to hold on to that cash to continue to survive, operate and see another day in business."

Engage with your legislators and stay informed.

While it's not a direct step to improving cash flow, the most concrete action you can take toward ending the shutdown is taking time to contact your legislators and urge them to do whatever they can to ameliorate the situation in D.C.

"The true way we can make a difference is take that six minutes and send an email to your congressmen," said Hall. "Let them know this is not what we intended when we voted for you guys."

Use this opportunity to build a cash reserve fund.

According to Hall, the shutdown represents an opportunity to shore up cash reserves. He recommends saving up to three months of cash reserves depending on the nature of your business.

"Depending on your company, if you don't have … some level of reserves for your operations, this situation is a great wake-up call to build that reserve," Hall said. "As you go through the year, concentrate on savings. Delay one vacation, one bonus or something to get your business in position so when there is an issue … you have that reserve."

The bottom line is top-line revenue.

Driving top-line revenue amid a government shutdown can be challenging, but it's critical to keeping business operations afloat. Companies with strong reserves will be best positioned when a shutdown occurs, of course, but there's no reason companies with less cash on hand should suffer. Preparing a strategic plan ahead of time for use in the event of a government shutdown can help small businesses set these wheels in motion the moment the news breaks, hopefully sustaining themselves for the long haul.

According to Mike Trabold, director of compliance at Paychex, staying informed is critical. Understanding the facts of the situation, which many government agencies have been diligently trying to communicate to the public, will help entrepreneurs craft a strategy to move forward effectively.

"We're trying to tell people the best thing you could do is just stay informed," Trabold said. "The advice we give people is that it's not a savory situation, but keep informed and do something with the opportunity to expand offerings a bit more – cut back on expenses and reach out to some of your creditors, and talk with them to find out if there are ways to extend payment terms."

Remember, government shutdowns don't last forever, so implementing a multifaceted strategy for driving unconventional revenue until the government reopens in its full capacity serves as an interim measure. Still, the ability to adapt to tough market conditions also demonstrates the resilience of a business, which can help boost long-term prospects and better position a small business for growth. Adversity is merely a new opportunity to the seasoned entrepreneur, and a government shutdown is no different.

Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock
Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko Staff
Adam Uzialko is a writer and editor at and Business News Daily. He has 7 years of professional experience with a focus on small businesses and startups. He has covered topics including digital marketing, SEO, business communications, and public policy. He has also written about emerging technologies and their intersection with business, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and blockchain.