Posts Tagged 'Accounting'

April 9, 2011

7 Keys to Startup Success

We recently announced a partnership with the Tech Wildcatters Incubator Program, a Dallas-based "microseed" fund and startup accelerator, and we couldn't be happier with the results we've seen thus far. Much of the press coverage of the sponsorship focused on the $1,000/mo of cloud, dedicated or hybrid hosting solutions we offered the program's startup companies, but the most exciting aspect of the relationship thus far has been getting to engage with the participating up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

Having been in their seats about six years ago when SoftLayer was born in a living room, the SoftLayer team is especially qualified to give insight about the struggles and successes of running a startup, and that aspect of our partnership is where we hope to provide the most value. Over the past few weeks, we've met with the current Tech Wildcatters participants and seen some of the amazing ideas they have in the works, and we're pumped to see them succeed ... By all accounts, we can't really call SoftLayer a "startup" anymore, but our investment in this community reinvigorates the startup culture we've tried to maintain as the company has grown.

Recently, I had the chance to share a few "Keys to Success" with program participants, and since those thoughts might be interesting for other startups and small business users, I thought I'd share some of the highlights here. There are no "guaranteed win" formulas or "super-secret secrets to success" in business (regardless of what an infomercial at 3am on a Tuesday morning may tell you), but these ideas may help you position your business for success:

1. Hire people smarter than you.
Your goal should be to get people on your team who can handle specific responsibilities better than you can. Just because you're running the business doesn't mean you can't learn from it, and the best people to learn from are brilliant people.

2. Hire a diverse group.
Different people think differently, and different perspectives lead to better conversations and better business decisions. Filling your organization with one kind of employee will lead to a lot of "That's the best decision ever" moments, but whether or not that "best decision ever" decision is good for anyone else is a crap shoot.

3. Founders should put skin in the game.
With all of the startup company trials and tribulations, you want everyone on your team to have a vested interest in the business's success. Clock-punchers and coasters need not apply.

4. Boot-strap the beginning.
Along the lines of the previous recommendation, if you've remortgaged your house or sold your car or maxed out your credit cards on a new business, you're going to care a lot more if it fails. By boot-strapping your initial financing, you become even more accountable for your success.

5. Operate with financial sense, operational sense and common sense.
Balance your business responsibly. If you disregard any of those "senses," your tenure as a small business owner may be relatively short-lived. When it comes to financial sense, I also recommend that you invest in professional accounting support and software to save you a ton of headache and heartache down the road when it's time to go after "real money."

6. CBNO - Challenging But Not Overwhelming
You can always do something more for the business. You and your team should be maximizing your efforts to grow the business but not at the expense of burning out. If you've got "skin in the game," your threshold for what is overwhelming may increase, but you have to understand the need for balance.

7. Have fun and make money.
In that order. If you're not having fun, it doesn't matter how much money you make. Startups are run by passionate people, and the second you lose that passion, you lose a significant piece of what makes your business or idea great.

I touched on about a dozen more points when it comes to how to orient your business to your customers, but I'll save that bit for later.

CBNO

-@lavosby

February 23, 2011

A Journey into the SoftLayer Billing Portal

Since SoftLayer's merger with The Planet in November, we have been working tirelessly to combine our legacy Orbit and SoftLayer customer portals, and we've got some great news: We're ready to move all of our billing information and functionality onto the SoftLayer platform! The changes are designed to make managing your account quicker and easier. While change isn't always welcome, when you see some of the new features and functionality in the SoftLayer billing portal, we're sure you'll be as excited as we are.

Once your Orbit account's billing information is migrated to the SoftLayer portal, you will receive an email confirmation. As soon as you're ready to start exploring the new system, you can log in at http://manage.softlayer.com with your master username and password. We recommend you use the master username to log in because some users may have access restrictions in the portal, and you need to be logged into a user that has accounting access. Once you are logged in, click on the "Administrative" tab near the top-left of your page. From the drop-down menu, you will choose “Accounting" to bring you to the billing-related section on your account.

Wait ... Instead of just guiding you through the process via text, how about we walk you through a quick tour of the billing portal as a bit of show-and-tell?

In the Accounting section, you can retrieve invoices, check pricing and even see your next monthly invoice. As a legacy Orbit customer, you'll also be happy to hear that when your billing information is moved to the new portal, PayPal is available as a payment method! Among other changes, you'll also note that we have a One-Time Payment option to enable some flexibility in how your account is paid in a given month.

In the new system, you'll also notice that order reconciliation is made much simpler. You can easily view invoices by type, date or status. You can even view invoices within a specified date range and save invoices in interactive PDF or Excel formats. Updates to your user and payment information are much more accessible, too.

Our interactive invoices make it much simpler to review your equipment and the costs on your account. The interactive PDF will give you a summary of all charges broken down by type and then by server. If you click on any one of your servers, you are instantly taken to the full pricing detail of that server by component. If you have any items not listed under a server on your invoice you can use our Associate Billing Orphans section to attach unassociated items to a server.

With these invoices, you can track your costs and equipment clearly to make sure the right gear is getting charged the right amount. You can even use our Show Next Invoice feature to project costs for the following month!

We hope you'll be amazed at all the features you now have at your fingertips! Please give us your feedback so we can be sure all questions are answered!

-Nikki

October 12, 2010

What Does it Cost (Part 1)

The Overview
I normally like to have a little fun in the blogs that I write and maybe even take the occasional jab at our CFO Mike Jones (all kidding aside about pink shirts and what not he is a really great guy). This blog is intended to have more of a educational goal, and since there is a lot to take into consideration I won’t be able to make any pink shirt cracks, and the reason for this is because I’ve had a lot of conversations over the past year or two in which the question that always comes up is “How does SoftLayer compare to colocation and what is the better move for me?” We’ll look into this further throughout the blog series.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the Network World IT Roadmaps events in both New York and Atlanta earlier this year. Now what motivated me to put fingers to keyboard here is the perspective I gained from many people that I talked to during and after the conference. I consider myself to be fortunate to attend because it is rare that SLales staff is able to join in on the marketing campaign and work with people more on a face to face basis. Normally SoftLayer Sales member cannot really help our customers if we are not at our desk to take their calls, chats, emails, or tickets. I enjoy attending events like these because it seems that you can learn so much more speaking with someone face to face as opposed to just over a phone call or email.

Since this was not my first go around with the Network World events I was more familiar with the setup and I was able to take more in from the people speaking at the event. There are some common themes that can affect business from the technology side of things, and if you want to have growth you must invest into your own infrastructure and your own technology. If you are a small mom and pop shop that is fine with maintaining the status quo it may not be as vital for you, but then again you wouldn’t be reading this blog post now would you? The themes I saw (broken down into more simple context) were based around some basic principles.

  • A company is a grouping of people working for a common goal. Your people are your most valuable asset and it is important to put them in positions where they can be successful and ultimately you will be successful as well.
  • The Wayne Gretzky quotes of “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be”, and following that up with “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been” these have a common sense idea that if you are not looking to the future and figure out what is coming next then you will always be trying to catch up. If you are not innovating or growing then ultimately you are dying.
  • How can I get more? We are constantly pressured to do more with less, or at least get more out of what we already have. This is probably the biggest and most frequent question we all get no matter what our business model is and what we try to achieve.

There are, of course, many other themes than the ones I have just listed and more specific ones too. Even though I certainly took much more away these were some of the main takeaways that brought me back to an always evolving answer to the same question that every speaker seemed to dance around - “What does it cost?”

No matter how big you are or how much budget you have in place there will always be different options presented to you on how to build up your infrastructure. I have no doubt that you have asked yourself the question of what will it cost in relation to many things and possibly asked yourself in many different ways. Making comparisons to figure out what is the cost and what will give me the best possible results is the end goal we are trying to reach. But how can we get there? It can be very difficult to compare data centers to each other in an apple to apples fashion. There are simply too many variables to note in making this all come forth full stream. My goal is to try and help us all tackle this broad issue, and hopefully it will lead to more discussion about pros and cons so that it can be easier to determine the best course of action in future planning.

There are a lot of things to consider in the cost of running a data center. It seems like a never ending list of essential things that cost both money and time (which in some cases can be more valuable). In this series of blogs we’ll break specifics parts of a data center down into the basics of several areas that you’d need to consider. Once we get into the basics we’ll want to look back to ask “what does it take to run a data center?” Most often people only look at the most tangible items with the easiest metrics to apply which essentially comes down to the server hardware, power, space, and bandwidth. Sometimes these are the only things that people look at in making this decision.

Depending who you are and what you want to get out of your data center this could be close to what you’d need to consider, but for 99% of the population who has any business with a data center this only covers the basics. As a society convenience plays an ever increasing role in what we look for and in addition to this 99% looking for data center infrastructure crave things like uptime, speed, reliability, and space/opportunity for scalability and expansion. Each of these things are more than just desires, they are verified needs.

So in getting to the meat of what this blog is about I’ll quickly discuss the different things that add to the total cost beyond the obvious things of Hardware, Space, Power, and Bandwidth. I know this is already pretty long for a blog so I am turning this into a short series and I will follow up with addition blogs to go into more depth about each portion and how they can relate to each other. I will work to add insight from other customers who have asked this of themselves before in addition to giving my own experiences on this topic.

Opportunity Costs
I consider the idea of Opportunity Costs to be amongst the highest and least quantifiable aspect in running a data center. This isn’t something that will have its own blog post because of its broad nature, so instead I’ll simply tie the idea of Opportunity Cost into each other blog and how it relates to the overall discussion.

There is often a simple truth to knowing or stating that if we choose option “A” it will negate the value, relevance, and in many cases the existence of any other previously viable options. Nearly all Opportunity Costs relates back to What Does it Cost by determining what is potentially to be either gained or lost with that decision. This idea can be further broken down into risk vs. reward, and a simple business decision in knowing that if you wish to take on less risk, you’ll need to pay more for it or get less in return. The same can be said for intangibles other than risk like convenience, reliability, and speed.

Human Resource costs
Earlier, I mentioned that one of the main topics of discussion that guest speakers emphasized was that Our people are our biggest assets, but at the same time they can also easily be one of our biggest costs. I think that a lot of businesses can agree with this statement, however, the impact from how we develop our infrastructure does not often take our people and associated costs into account. Every business should have a growth model the cost of growth (or your growing pains) is often overlooked in the planning stages. We’ll look at specific situations and take into account amount of people needed running everything yourself and what that will wind up costing from just the HR standpoint.

This can get more into what is the cost of adding one more qualified employee. This is one of the biggest aspects often overlooked, because it not only takes new people you would need to hire, but how it can monopolize time and production you would get otherwise from people you already have on staff.

The value of "On-Demand" and the cost of not having it.
Have you ever heard the phrase “time is money”? What does this mean to you? What can this mean in a data center? Here we’ll focus the conversation on efficiency and the compare certain costs and benefits between different ways about achieving our goals.

We can take a look at standard processes that we may have to go through if we wish to add capacity as well as integrating new solutions with existing ones. Time has a huge value in today’s business world, and we’ll determine how having on demand infrastructure has the ability to positively impact the bottom line immensely. Having necessary tools in a truly on-demand and versatile environment will be a major point of focus in everything moving forward, and it is an important intangible factor that we should not lose sight of.

Cost of Uptime/ Redundancy
Uptime is one of the most common themes near the top of everyone’s list for data center management. We can all agree that uptime is important, but how important is it to us each individually? We will look at scenarios where if a catastrophic event were to happen we should ask ourselves what it would cost not only in terms of monetary value, but also what would that mean long term and on a strategic level.

Downtime will eventually happen in all things, but if you can plan around this to have redundancy or failover then you can alleviate this risk. So we must again ask ourselves “what will this cost?” Simply put Redundancy can and will be expensive. Generally it will cost much more than just the sum of its parts and it is easy to over look certain aspects of where you may have a “single point of failure”. At the same time we should consider what will the cost be for each additional level of redundancy that we incorporate?

Contracts
In this blog we will relate focus heavily on two main ideas: The value of time in making long term decisions and Opportunity Cost. We’ll be able to look at what having long term commitments really cost in ways that include scalability, large capital costs, accounting on physical resources and their benefits as well as limitations. Once we have this established we can also more easily determine how this can affect your decision making and your ongoing ability to do the right thing for your business.

Accounting
Different accounting practices can make a great difference in your bottom line. Carrying on additional debt, taxes, and taking depreciation can have a lot of costs that go beyond the normal operating costs. For this section I’ll warrant the help of some of our experts who have already previously run several scenarios and may be a bit more qualified than I am to speak on such matters.

In the end this study can make it easier to compare and see if SoftLayer is the right solution for you or someone you may know. I can say that SoftLayer will not be the entire solution for some companies compared to doing things yourself, however, we do make sound business sense in about 95% of cases at some capacity if not full capacity.

-Doug

Categories: 
October 7, 2009

GAHAP Revisited. Otherwise titled “Credit Analysts, Statistics, and Common Sense”

From time to time, I have posted about my frustration with GAAP accounting and traditional credit analysis and how it is not friendly to the hosting business model. For a refresher, click here, here, here, here, and here. By GAHAP, I jokingly mean “generally accepted hosting accounting principles.”

Mike Jones came in my office after a frustrating phone call with a credit analyst. They were trying to talk through collateral possibilities. He told me that the credit analyst has a problem because we carry hardly any accounts receivable. The credit analyst wants something that he can collect in case of default. In GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles), accounts receivable is the total amount that you have billed your customers but have not yet collected from them. Common sense hint: the accounts receivable balance won’t pay your bills – they won’t get paid until you collect the cash.

SoftLayer includes this common sense in its business model. Rather than send out invoices and bug people to pay us later, we choose to have our customers pay us in advance of their use of products and services. Many other hosting companies do the same. There are many advantages to this: we save costs that we would incur collecting the cash, we reduce the amount of abusive accounts that would sign up for a few days of malicious activity and never pay us, and it helps facilitate the on-demand billing side of the cloud computing model.
Again, the disadvantage of this practice comes about when trying to educate a set-in-his-ways credit analyst about our business model. Here is the basic gist of a mythical conversation between a credit analyst and a hosting company:

Credit Analyst: “I see you don’t have any accounts receivable to speak of.”

Hosting Company: “I know! Isn’t that great?”

Credit Analyst: “But if you default, what can I collect?”

Hosting Company: “You’d simply continue to bill the customers for their continued business. Because our customer agreement is month-to-month, you just collect for their next month of service over the next 30 days and you’ve essentially done the same as collect receivables. In fact, that is far easier than collecting past due receivables. We’d be happy place the anticipated next month billing to our customers on the balance sheet in an accounts receivable type of account, but GAAP does not allow this.”

Credit Analyst: “Oh my…you don’t have long term contracts? So all of your customers could leave at once? Isn’t that risky?”

Hosting Company: “We have several thousand customers who trust us with mission critical needs. They will not all leave at once. Our statistics show only a very low percentage of customers terminate services each month. Even through the depths of the recession, we had more new customers joining us than we had customers leaving.”

Credit Analyst: “But conceptually, they could all leave at once since they have no contracts.”

Hosting Company: “That is statistically impossible. The odds of that event are so low that it’s immeasurable. As I said, we provide mission critical services to our customers. To think that they will all no longer need these services simultaneously is paranoid. And if they did, would a contract keep them paying us? That’s doubtful. Let me ask you – do you lend to the electric company or the phone company?”

Credit Analyst: “Of course.”

Hosting Company: “Do their customers sign long term contracts?”

Credit Analyst: “Some do for special promotions. But for the most part – no.”

Hosting Company: “So why do you lend to them?”

Credit Analyst: “Why, the customers can’t live without electricity or phones. That’s a no brainer.”

Hosting Company: “It is exactly the same with our business. In this information age economy, our customers cannot live without the hosting services that we provide. You should look at us in a similar way that you look at a utility company.”

Credit Analyst: “But we classify your business as a technology company. Can’t you just have your customers sign contracts?”

Hosting Company: “Well, wouldn’t that conflict with the on-demand, measured billing aspects of cloud computing?”

Credit Analyst: “I guess there’s not much hope of you building up a sizeable accounts receivable balance then.”

Hosting Company: “It really makes no sense for us to do that.”

Credit Analyst: “We may not be able to do business with you. Do you have any real estate?”

Conclusion: Most credit analysts are so wrapped up in GAAP that they’ve forgotten the laws of statistics and many have even lost touch with common sense. Is it any wonder we’ve had a big banking crisis over the past couple of years?

June 10, 2009

Medieval Financial Techniques in the 21st Century?

Recently I had the chance to attend the annual Beyond Budgeting Round Table (BBRT) conference to help me keep up on my CPE credits. Those darn accounting licenses have to be maintained, ya know.

I was pleasantly surprised at the conference that SoftLayer was already doing the crux of what this group preaches – namely, that assembling an annual budget and trying to live by it is a colossal waste of time!

One speaker pointed out that budgeting originated back in medieval times long before the Industrial Revolution. During those days, the feudal system was the order of the day. Landowners allowed people to live on their land and raise crops. Once per year, when the harvest came in, the landowners received payment from the people living on the land in the form of a share of the crops or a share of the gold for which the crops were sold. Since the landowners were paid once per year, they had to plan how to make their annual payday last for a whole year. You guessed it – this plan was called “the budget.”

Unfortunately, most companies and organizations today use this horribly outdated financial management technique to run their business in the fast-paced information age economy of today. In most cases, this just flat doesn’t work.

For example, one of the speakers was the CFO of a very large healthcare organization. He said that back in the days when they produced an annual budget, there were 240 budget managers that spent 90 days of full-time effort to produce the annual budget. That equates to 60 man-labor years of total time to produce that budget. If you assume that each of those managers averages $50K per year in compensation, the cost of producing that budget is $3 million. What’s worse is that the CFO said it was worthless before the final version was printed because it was built on stale fundamental assumptions that were several months old.

Once these obsolete documents are produced, they become static financial contracts. They limit spending for each department, and this isn’t always a good thing. Some departments may see some fantastic market opportunities develop halfway through the year, but they can do nothing to take advantage of them because they would exceed their budget. On the other hand, some departments can be allotted too much money, so they go on wasteful spending sprees at year end to be sure and use up their budget or else lose that funding next year. People often ask for permission to exceed budget, but usually no one gives back any unused budget dollars. Even worse, management compensation is often tied to these obsolete financial contracts. Business schools are awash with case studies of bad business decisions that were made to maximize bonus compensation in relation to the budget.

From the beginning, SoftLayer realized the futility of producing an annual budget. In the rapidly developing business of web hosting, the landscape can dramatically change much more quickly than an annual cycle. So we implemented the policy of maintaining a rolling forecast that is updated to the best of our current knowledge each and every month. This practice has served us well, and is one of the “best practices” adopted by the BBRT.

Another best practice recommended by BBRT is to maintain multiple forecast scenarios that factor in macroeconomic possibilities. Then as reality develops, you have a better handle on the tactics to implement because you now know what most of these decisions should be in advance. At SL, we will be implementing the multiple scenario practice over this summer.

January 9, 2008

More "GAHAP"

Our CEO said “so when will our next blog post on GAHAP come out?” By GAHAP he means “generally accepted hosting accounting principles.” He asked for it, so you get it :). If GAHAP bores you, try this on your iPhone. It’s fun!

I could probably squeeze everyone left reading at this point in a Dodge Viper and we could discuss this over lunch. But SL doesn’t provide Vipers to executives so I guess I’ll post it here for you. A balance sheet by definition is a snapshot of the current financial condition of a company. Here's a formal definition. A GAAP balance sheet simply doesn’t portray an accurate picture of the financial condition of a hosting company.

Probably the most important value that a GAAP balance sheet completely misses is the value produced by monthly recurring revenue. By implementing some sort of fair value accounting as I mentioned before this value gets captured. But on that part of the balance sheet, it still doesn’t help someone looking at the dreaded current ratio. So here’s a way to get a measure of this value that matches up to current liabilities on the balance sheet and get a current ratio that better reflects the company’s true financial position.

Since current liabilities include debt that must be paid at any time over the next 12 months, I would propose using statistics to walk forward 12 months and add “Future EBITDA from Existing Customers” as a current asset on the balance sheet. I can sense the shudders of all accountants who are reading this because you’re thinking that this completely abandons the revered principle of conservatism. In hosting, however, this can be done with conservatism in mind by employing statistics. Public accounting auditors employ statistics every day in their work, so the use of statistics is not a foreign concept to accountants.

Here’s how I’d propose hosting companies do this. First, look at the behavior of the current customer base at the beginning of each month regarding customer churn and the purchase of incremental business by remaining customers. Ignore all new customers acquired during the month and add them to the customer base for next month’s analysis. For each month over the past 12 months, analyze how much revenue is lost from customers who leave and net that from how much revenue is recognized from the existing customers who remain. The results of this analysis can be statistically boiled down to give you an idea of how much revenue will come in over the next 12 months even if you do not gain a single new customer during the next 12 months. That’s the principle of conservatism coming into play here. Let’s call this “statistically stable anticipated revenue.” By the way, at SoftLayer, the incremental business from customers who stay is greater than the business lost from customers who leave us.

Second, take a look at EBITDA margins over the past 12 months and work the statistical mojo to get an idea of EBITDA margins going forward. Multiply this margin against the statistically stable anticipated revenue to arrive at “Future EBITDA from Existing Customers.”

Third, add this category as a new line in the Current Assets portion of the balance sheet as well as adding it as a new line in the Stockholder’s Equity portion of the balance sheet. The resulting balance sheet is much closer to the true financial condition of a hosting company than a traditional GAAP balance sheet.

Why is this view more accurate? 1) A hosting company isn’t like a retail store. Like a hosting company, retail stores have repeat customers but the repeat behavior is more sporadic. The customer may decide that the weather is too bad and they’ll run out and get that new pair of shoes another day. Or the weekend may have been too hectic for a grocery store run so they’ll eat out for the next week. With hosting customers, mission-critical things live on their servers and they are usually set up on automatic monthly billings. Repeat sales are much more predictable than for customers of retail stores. This consistent cash flow has real value, and to not capture it on the balance sheet negatively distorts the financial condition of the company. 2) Putting this statistically solid future EBITDA as a current asset allows a better picture of the current ratio because it is from this EBITDA that the current portion of the company’s debt will be paid. This gives a banker, etc., a clear view of whether the company will struggle over the next year to pay them back.

Here’s how a sample summary balance sheet would look before and after this adjustment.

                                                  <b>GAAP</b>            <b>"GAHAP"</b>
Cash, A/R, Other Current Assets                $33,218,805     $33,218,805
Future EBITDA from Existing Customers        <u>           $0     $26,575,044</u>
Total Current Assets                           $33,218,805     $59,793,849 
 
Fixed Assets                                   $90,355,150     $90,355,150
Other Assets                                    $9,301,265      $9,301,265
                                             =============================
<strong>Total Assets</strong>                                  $132,875,221    $159,450,265 
 
Current Liabilities                            $55,807,593     $55,807,593
<strong>Long Term Liabilities</strong>                          $67,766,363     $67,766,363 
 
Stock, Paid in Capital, Retained Earnings       $9,301,265      $9,301,265
Future EBITDA from Existing Customers        <u>           $0     $26,575,044</u>
<strong>Total Stockholder's Equity</strong>                      $9,301,265     $35,876,310
                                             =============================                                                                                   
<strong>Total Liabilities and Stockholder's Equity</strong>    $132,875,221    $159,450,265 
 
Current Ratio                                         0.60            1.07

-Gary

Categories: 
September 27, 2007

Who Counts Your Beans?

Just like any company, the search for ways to increase revenues and lower costs to make more money never ends. In the increasingly competitive hosting environment, raising prices is rarely an option but finding ways to cut costs while making the experience better for the customer can and must be done on an ongoing basis.

We have achieved some success to date with the provisioning of nearly 10,000 servers; however, the end game is far greater as the ultimate goal is to become a multi-national corporation serving markets all around the world. In the hosting space, you don't really have a choice, you either innovate and get bigger or you get out. The complexities are just too great to have the luxury of maintaining the status quo. The technology landscape is littered with companies that started reading their own press clippings and got fat, dumb and lazy. And keep in mind that copying your competitors only delays the inevitable; the "me-too" companies eventually go away. In the technology world, you must innovate and push the envelope to survive.

While we are constantly looking for new and better ways to serve the customer, a great deal of time is spent improving internal reporting systems. I work with a management team that understands the importance of budgeting and tracking various financial and operational metrics. To that end, we have made a substantial commitment in systems and people to gather data to help make the best decisions for us and most importantly, for our customers.

I would love to reveal all the data we have at our fingertips but for competitive reasons, I don't want to give away too much but let me leave you with this tidbit: I wonder how many of our competitors' CEOs can, from his/her desktop, drill down to any one of 10,000 servers in multiple data centers and know exactly how profitable each individual server is with the click of a mouse.

The best companies in the world are all supported by world-class accounting and finance departments providing pertinent financial and operational data to all its stakeholders. The right information gives you a tremendous advantage over your competition.

Find someone good to count and analyze your beans. Wal-Mart did and turned the world of retail on its head. With a little luck, we might be able to do the same to hosting.

-Mike

September 18, 2007

Current Ratio Punishes Hosting

For the third (and final!) installment in this likely sleep-inducing trilogy of hosting and accounting blog posts, we'll cover Current Ratio and how it doesn't treat hosting companies fairly. Bear with me – this rant may run a bit longer than normal.

Current Ratio is easy to compute – simply go to the balance sheet and divide current assets by current liabilities and voila! You have the Current Ratio. OK, so what does it mean?

So why is this unfair to hosting companies? Well, where does most of the cash of a hosting company go? Into servers and networking gear! But guess what? These don't fall under current assets on the balance sheet and thus are excluded from the Current Ratio calculation. As a result, I'd wager that most if not all hosting companies have at some point been in the position of current liabilities being greater than current assets, where conventional wisdom says "the company may have problems meeting its short term obligations."

How does this hurt hosting companies? Suppose the company could use some short term financing for a network upgrade. If they go talk to a banker about this the banker might throw up his hands and say "I can't help you…you're in financial distress according to your Current Ratio."

I would argue with the banker that this is not necessarily so. Traditional GAAP places servers and networking gear in the bucket of long term assets along with things like buildings, bulldozers, cranes, heavy machinery, etc. For a hosting company, this placement just doesn't make sense.

Long-term assets, or capital assets, are things that typically can't be reconfigured, can't be easily converted into cash, and are used for a long period of time. A hosting company's, buildings, generators, HVAC gear, etc., is rightly classified in long term assets. But servers and networking gear are quite different in that they exhibit more traits of current assets than long term assets. Check out this definition. It would take far less than a year for a hosting company to convert its server fleet and networking gear into cash and these assets are the key source of funds for day-to-day operations.

A manufacturing company gets to count its inventory in current assets, whether it is raw materials, work in progress, or finished goods ready for sale. A hosting company uses its servers and networking gear in much the same way – it can reconfigure the processors and drives of servers, arrange the networking gear to offer new services, virtualize a server into several virtual machines or combine several servers into a grid. Then it can change things up next month if desired. This sounds more like current assets than a bulldozer. But according to GAAP and the 800 year old double-entry math system we must use today, servers get placed in the same bucket as bulldozers.

My question is, how do hosting companies as an industry get together and establish some specific accounting standards that will allow our financial statements to truly reflect our business? Simply moving servers and networking gear to current assets would more accurately reflect how we use them in our business.

Am I off base in asking this? Hardly. The real estate investment business has been doing this for years. Traditional GAAP simply made no sense to their business, and they developed accounting standards that fairly represent that business. See this and note this quote from the Real Estate Information Standards, which is published by the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries and is widely accepted among the real estate investment management industry and the firms that audit that industry:

"The development of the Market Value Accounting and Reporting Standards resulted primarily from the realization that standardization of meaningful financial reporting was necessary in order to allow real estate to become more acceptable as an institutional investment asset class. Accounting standards promulgated by authoritative accounting bodies exist for various real estate entities, including public real estate investment trusts and other public and private real estate entities that utilize historical cost accounting [i.e. GAAP – my comment]. The reporting requirements and information expectations of the institutional real estate investment community required the development of a market value-based financial reporting model for which no accounting standards published by authoritative accounting bodies presently exist. Accordingly, the lack of adequate authoritative guidance applicable to market value accounting for institutional real estate investment vehicles necessitated the need for these standards to be published."

Translated out of accountant-speak, this simply says that GAAP didn't fit their business and they applied common sense to the situation. I suggest that this young business of web hosting also needs some industry specific accounting standards to fairly report information about the health of its companies to its investors, and that these standards do not presently exist. Finally, if you've made it all the way through to here, you may order a server with free double RAM up to 2 GB by using the promo code "toothpaste&OJ" anytime over the next week. [subject to approval by Lance of course]

-Gary

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September 10, 2007

You Can’t Judge Health by Net Income Alone

In GAAP, net income is the bottom line. It's supposed to tell you if you're making money or losing money. But the amount on the bottom line is never equal to your bank balance and by itself, it's an inadequate measure of a hosting company's health.

For example, depreciation is subtracted before you arrive at net income. But depreciation is not cash going out the door. It represents the theoretical drop in book-value of something you own, such as servers. Ideally, the timing of depreciation should match the length of time you actually use something, so if you use a server for three years, its value would depreciate to zero over three years.

Problem is, from the years of hosting experience we have in this company, we know that servers bought in the early 2000's are still in use today. Many were depreciated over three years, but they're still generating sales revenue long after they've been depreciated to a value of $0. What this means is that net income from these servers was effectively UNDERSTATED during their first three years of use and that net income is currently OVERSTATED for the periods of use after their value has dropped to $0 on the books.

But since I have to judge a hosting company's health based on Net Income, here's how I do it. If net income is positive and it's greater than depreciation expense, one of two things is going on. Either they're knocking it out of the park in this asset-intensive business or they're not reinvesting enough to remain technologically relevant. If net income is positive but less than depreciation expense, they're likely healthy. If net income is negative and the absolute value of depreciation expense is greater than the absolute value of net income, the company could be fundamentally sound and worthy of receiving credit. Bankers will likely disagree with me, but my opinion here is hosting-business specific. Finally, if net income is negative and the absolute value of net income is greater than the absolute value of depreciation expense, then the company needs to adjust something to get healthy.

If you ask me, cash generation from operations is a much better indicator of the health of a hosting company. It ignores distortions like this mismatched depreciation. It will also tell you if the company generates enough cash to cover its debt service and/or to continue investing to stay technologically relevant.

Got that? If I haven't lost you already, I'll talk about how the normal Current Ratio calculation unfairly penalizes hosting companies next time.

-Gary

Categories: 
September 6, 2007

Hosting and GAAP Accounting: Like Toothpaste and Orange Juice

Hosting and GAAP accounting go together like toothpaste and orange juice.

If you're confused go brush your teeth and drink a big glass of orange juice. I've held out as long as I can, but I just cannot restrain myself from a post or two about the hosting business and accounting. So if this will make your eyes roll back in your head, please stop reading now and click here before you keel over.

In many ways, good ole GAAP just doesn't treat the hosting business fairly. Relative to accounting, hosting is a new phenomenon with roots dating back only into the 1990s. This is ancient in Internet time but double-entry accounting dates back to the 12th century, and the first accounting textbook describing the double-entry system was penned by Luca Pacioli in 1494. The double-entry system was used because mathematicians denied the reality of negative numbers until the 16th century and the double-entry system was used as a workaround for the lack of negative numbers.

So, why must we account for paradigm-changing Internet businesses with an archaic 800 year old math system? It's a classic example of the old "square peg – round hole" cliché. Toothpaste and orange juice.

Applying this 800 year old system to the hosting business often paints a flawed picture of the financial position of a hosting company. And there are a lot of folks in the financial world that either can't understand this or don't want to understand this by thinking outside the normal accounting paradigm.

I'll blog about two examples of this: 1) Net Income and 2) Current Ratio. My next post will cover Net Income and we'll discuss Current Ratio thereafter.

-Gary

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