In my last post I suggested that the idea of “opportunity cost” was critical to a business owner’s decision making. Before getting more deeply into the analysis of that idea I think we’ve got to make sure we’re on the same page with respect to definition.
What is “opportunity cost”?
At its core, opportunity cost is the profit that a company loses (or forgoes) by NOT doing something.
Opportunities come in different varieties.
In one standard example there is a fixed amount of capital available and two competing potential uses. In that case the opportunity cost would be the expected profit from the option NOT chosen. In other words: I choose to take option #1 but, in doing so, I lose the potential profit from option #2.
More often in today’s economy we confront opportunity cost in a different sort of choice i.e. we can either expand our business or not; take advantage of trade discounts or not; pay on time to avoid penalties or pay the penalties.
In these cases the opportunity cost is the cost of NOT taking on that additional client or NOT bidding on that additional contract; or NOT getting the discount; or actually paying the penalty.
You get the idea.
If the availability of money is the controlling factor in that decision, then the cost of that money must be considered in relation to the opportunity available.
Let’s use an example that might be familiar to many. You’ve got a good idea for a business: a good product or service; the experience necessary to deliver it; a provable market; a good plan; but no money to put your plan into effect and no access to traditional financing.
You approach someone who has the money to back you, who might agree to furnish the capital in exchange for a share in the business.
The cost of funds in this case is not the annual percentage rate that your backer might earn. The true cost is what you would lose by NOT moving forward. As they say: “It’s better to have 50% of something than 100% of nothing.” This is not the mindset found in the traditional borrower/lender relationship.
But then let's say your business gets going and the demand for your product is good. Your customers are pleased and want to buy more. You’ve now got another problem.
You have to pay your staff weekly and your suppliers in 30 days but your customers don’t pay you for 60 days.
Your working capital can’t support an increase in your business volume even though the demand for your product is there. You still can’t access traditional financing sources and your partner has put up all the money he’s willing to.
So there’s another opportunity cost problem. If you can get your money in 5 days instead of 60 days, maybe you can double your business volume. The analysis of the cost of capital is NOT the annual percentage rate that you would calculate as if you were buying a car.
The cost that should be driving your decision (assuming, again, that you do not have access to a bank line or a home equity loan) is the difference between the profit that you could earn by expanding your business (or decreasing other costs) and the cost of the capital that will allow you to do that.
As long as the profit from the opportunity available is sufficiently greater than the cost of the funds needed, the opportunity should be considered.
Remember: It’s not appropriate to measure the cost of funds that ARE available against the theoretical cost of funds that are NOT, in fact, available.
Businesses focused on growth have to be oriented to recognizing and siezing opportunity.
And so it is the analysis of opportunity cost that has to drive the big decisions.
The Fat Lady Sings at Five
3 years ago