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Raise your profits by understanding and optimizing gross margins

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Seeking ways to cut costs?

As a business owner or an independent contractor, you are always looking for ways to cut costs and optimize your profits (and/or increase your take home pay). At least I hope you are doing this – so let’s assume yes you are. There are basically two different types of expenses that you can cut: costs of goods sold (COGS) and business expenses. These were both introduced as part of a previous article on expense projections.

Gross margins are your total profits minus all of your costs of goods sold. In real estate, gross margin isn’t a commonly used term or measured metric. I’m not sure why – I believe it can be extremely valuable for the industry, brokers and individual agents. It should be one of the most important financial metrics to measure and optimize. This article will introduce why and how.

How to track your margins

COGS are variable, meaning that they will go up and down according to how much revenue you generate. Any cost you incur that is tied to a transaction is a part of the equation here. Examples are a referral fee paid to another agent, a split paid to an teammate and even a $500 flat fee paid to an assistant to help execute paperwork or another part of the transaction. You want to make sure that all of your variable costs are incorporated into a gross margin calculation, excluding general business expenses like gas, marketing or rent. It’s still important to carefully analyze general expenses, but not for this exercise.

Over time, you should settle into a fairly fixed gross margin percentage. If you have a gross margin of 50%, this means that half of your proceeds from a sale will move to become cash flow for your business. This cash flow is what you use to pay expenses and pay yourself, and the rest is pushed down to the bottom line as profit. As an independent contractor, obviously you just have the expenses and everything else is take home pay (your taxable income/profits for the year).

It is important to know your gross margin so that you understand how much cash flow your sales will generate. It is also important to understand that no matter how many transactions you do, your gross margin will never change on its own. It is the maximum cash flow percentage your business will create in its current form.

Increasing your gross margins

However… If you can reduce your COGS – and therefore increase your gross margin – the impact on your business operations and value will be significant. As you grow your business, adding a few percentage points to gross margin will make a big difference for your profits. If selling your business is a goal, then gross margin is an essential metric for potential purchase. If you can create a growing business that has above average gross margins and solid profits, then you will be a very attractive acquisition target, and the high gross margins specifically will increase your price tag too.

Each business and independent contractor is different, but here are few ways to reduce COGS. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it is a good start. An important note: just because gross margins are increased doesn’t mean that profits will increase too – above all else a business must make sound overall decisions, including on all expenses.

Let’s move on to some options to increase gross margins. You can move some compensation for assistants or teammates from a commission/split to a fixed salary (this moves it from part of the gross margin equation to a general business expense). You can push some pay for teammates or assistants to a flat fee tied to a closing instead of a percentage of the transaction (it will remain part of COGS but if you are growing your average transaction size and/or doing more deals, this can have a strong positive affect on gross margins and profits). A third idea is the obvious one – negotiate small splits and referral fees. Perhaps add some other incentives to compensate for the change if you have to. Again, with all of these, make sure you are making smart decisions to net out the same or better for overall operations and not just gross margin. When appropriate though, reducing your COGS and moving the gross margin metric larger can have a significant and positive effect on your business in the short term, as you grow and if you want to sell.

I am a big believer in data and analysis, and believe studying and optimizing all kinds of data points is very effective and important for business. The gross margin can have one of the biggest impacts though, so dig in to it!

Hoyt David Morgan is an entrepreneur, angel investor and business strategy leader. He is an investor and/or adviser to a handful of exciting and high growth companies, and has been a part of several high-value exits. He is passionate about customer experience, smart business and helping innovative companies grow... and sailing.

Business Finance

The responsibility of billionaires in tough times

(BUSINESS FINANCE) How have billionaires continued to grow wealthy in times of economic turmoil? And how can they try to improve others’ situations?

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Billionaires counting money at desk in journal

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the divide between economic classes in the US more clear than ever before. From housing to healthcare, one’s ability to survive the impact of these times has been largely dictated by income.

Billionaires, however, sit in a league of their own. Mostly, they have been impacted by becoming much wealthier.

Jeff Bezos is an easy example of wealthier billionaires. He has added $74 billion to his already eye-popping net worth over the 8-month course of the pandemic.

Not just because of the shift away from shopping in-person, either – Watchdog group public Citizen has alleged that Amazon raised its prices as much as 900% on essential goods like face masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and shelf stable food staples, though Amazon has denied this. And while the company regularly speaks out against price gouging, their efforts primarily fixate on third parties.

But as far as I know, only one person has intentionally lost their billionaire status recently. The “James Bond of Philanthropy,” Charles Feeney, just shuttered The Atlantic Foundation after 40 years of giving. In that time, he has donated away nearly his entire $8 billion fortune to charities around the globe.

Feeney, now 89, cofounded Tourists International with Robert Miller in 1960. The luxury retail chain, later known as Duty Free Shoppers, was fueled by cash from international Asian tourism and military service members.

Unbeknownst to his fellow shareholders, Feeney transferred his company assets in 1982 to start the Atlantic Foundation and for years the Atlantic Foundation’s grants were bestowed totally anonymously. His secret wasn’t discovered until court documents regarding a conflict with Miller, his former business partner, forced him to come forward in 1997.

Feeny is far from broke today, living in a San Francisco apartment (hey, they’re expensive) and holding onto a tidy $2 million.

Still, he has given away the greatest proportion of his wealth out of all American philanthropists. The Atlantic Foundation’s legacy remains a powerful acknowledgement of the responsibility that comes with holding a vast quantity of resources and capital.

After all, human brains struggle to really ‘get’ the sheer scale of a billion – let alone give it away.

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Business Finance

Nextdoor goes public for HOW MUCH?

(BUSINESS FINANCE) NextDoor’s latest valuation comes in at a whopping $4 billion to $5 billion, leaving many of us scratching, shaking, or nodding our heads in disbelief or agreement.

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Nextdoor app screens on green background with house in neighborhood.

How did they come up with this $4 billion to $5 billion valuation in Oct. 2020? Could this possibly be accurate for Nextdoor?

Considering the $2.1 billion valuation in Sept. 2019, that’s some Jack-and-the-Beanstalk growth right there. That’s not to say it isn’t worth that much, merely a thing that makes you go “hmmmm.” Has it really grown that much in just more than one year?

For those who aren’t familiar with NextDoor, it is a neighborhood app and website where neighbors communicate within a limited geographic area, bound by the neighborhood you live in and the surrounding neighborhoods.

This is the go-to app to reunite lost and found pets with their families, ask community questions, or even organize community events. It’s also where people complain about dog poop, warn others of coyote activity in the area or break-ins, or, increasingly during the pandemic quarantining, simply say hello and try to make a connection to the people they see walking down the street.

This aspect of the platform meets NextDoor’s stated vision of connecting neighbors, getting to know each other online in ways that will ideally lead to real life interactions. They see themselves as a community builder in this regard, and to some extent, they certainly are. I joined NextDoor to keep track of lost and found animals in my area. I appreciate that neighbors have also reached out to help each other, with gardening tips, “What’s this bug” type questions, offering rides to vote, free yoga lessons, and ways to haze a juvenile coyote to train it to be fearful of humans and not get too close.

I appreciate all of this.

NextDoor is also the online version of Mrs. Kravitz, the perennial nosy neighbor. The platform amplifies these voices of petty venting, grouchy grumbling, and paranoid postulating. People really can be ridiculous, and NextDoor can be a real laugh riot at times. A thread happening on my own NextDoor thread as I write this is pretty awesome: “A drone flew over my house in the middle of the night. Is it legal to shoot it down with my BB gun?”

A lot of people also ask if anyone else heard fireworks/gunshots/police sirens in the middle of the night, usually followed by a robust commentary on said loud noises. Unaffiliated Facebook and Twitter accounts exist only to highlight the more unusual or titter-worthy posts from real NextDoor posts. The most well-known of these is the Best of NextDoor (on Facebook and Twitter). The Best of NextDoor reposts screenshots from actual NextDoor posts, such as these:

Okay, you get the picture. The petty is strong in this one. NextDoor also has had to face the fact that the open platform has also seen issues surrounding racism. Some neighborhood threads became rife with posts of seeing a “suspicious man” walking through the neighborhood. The problem was that often, no suspicious behavior was reported, only a description of the person’s race. There have been calls, even a petition, for anti-racism training requirements for all NextDoor’s volunteer neighborhood leads (moderators).

Like many of the big dogs in modern day social networking apps, NextDoor grew quickly from its launch in 2010 and took on a life of its own. Often called the “anti-Facebook,” NextDoor blurs the line between online interaction and building a real-life community among neighbors. As with all communities, online or otherwise, it brings out the helpful, petty, social, cranky, generous, and sometimes awful side of people.

A community service and a sh*tshow, all wrapped into one, that’s what to expect. With 10 million users in 11 countries, according to DMR, and growing, NextDoor surely has momentum and potential. Could it really be worth the $5 billion valuation? It remains to be seen.

Whether the $4 billion or $5 billion valuation will pan out for their IPO, it will be interesting to watch NextDoor’s next steps, including if they even end up going public.

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Business Finance

Which generation has cried the most over money?

(BUSINESS FINANCE) Financial stress is tough on everyone. Here’s who has cried the most about money woes, and a few tips on how to alleviate some of that stress.

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Upset young man seated on bench with head in hands thinking about money.

There’s been serious critique in the last several years about the educational system and what basic knowledge young people should be taught in the United States. Home Economics (Home Ec) comes to mind (everyone should probably know how to cook or sew a button), as well as financial literacy.

There are many young Americans who grow up not really having a deep understanding of budgeting and fixed and variable expenses… But it may not be their fault. Perhaps, Mom and Dad (or other guardians) have always been paying for all of their expenses, making sure they had a roof over their head, clothes on their backs, and food in their fridge. Because, that is what you’re supposed to do as a parent, correct?

So, while there’s no reason to blame anyone, often the process of learning what it costs to live and pay your bills is a rite of passage.

The current state of debt and financial fears also doesn’t mean that Millennials and Gen Zers weren’t educated around savings or working. Many young people have had part-time jobs (although much less in comparison to Gen X or Baby Boomers) but they may also be able to use the majority of that income for discretionary spending – which never created room for feelings of lack when they didn’t have to pay rent or a mortgage.

This scenario can ultimately create a challenge when you are finally out on your own and now have student loan debt, credit card debt, utility bills, and required car insurance. Especially if you are young person moving to a big city for exploration and/or new opportunities, where the cost of living can be quite high.

If you are feeling nervous or sad around finances, you are not alone. If you have cried over your personal balance sheet or your bank statements, you are also not alone. According to yahoo!money, a recent online survey of 1,004 Americans by CompareCards.com found that “7 in 10 Americans said they have cried about money in their lifetimes. Many cited worries over their job or making ends meet. Younger Americans appear the most vulnerable to financial tears. About half of millennials and half of Gen Zers said they cried at least once in the past month over money.”

So how can you cry LESS about money? Well, the first thing is to not be too hard on yourself. But you will also want to create a plan that works for you. Each person deserves financial freedom and not a bank statement that makes them cry on the regular.

Here are some financial literacy resources that may help you figure out how to navigate your way out of crippling debt.

Dave Ramsey Books – The Total Money Makeover – A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness

Bravely Go with Kara Perez – Feminist economics + inclusive personal finance

Debt Relief Programs – you’ll have to do your research but there may be a program that is right for you and an agency that can help you set up a realistic payment program for you

Student Loan Forgiveness – it is worth looking in to your options if you are feeling overwhelmed with student loan debt and there may be ways for your loans to be forgiven

Financial Advisor – consider working with a professional that can help you with your budgeting, investing and retirement savings/funds

And you may still cry because this is big adult stuff… But hopefully you trust yourself to do the research, explore, ask, and find options that work for you to gain a little more control over your financial situation.

If you are not already doing so, it may be as simple as starting with a budget to better understand your income and outgoing expenses. Being informed can help you to plan better for the future and make you feel less like crying.

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