WOMEN@WORK

’Tis the season: best practices for managing irregular income

Posted Dec. 22, 2011, at 8:28 p.m.

All businesses have seasonal ups and downs. Retailers are bustling to close their biggest month of the year. Farmers’ fields may be dormant, but their minds and ledgers are filled with plans for the next harvest. Tourism and recreation businesses are eager to bring on the snow and fill rooms and restaurants, sleds and slopes.

What can we learn from businesses whose seasonal ups and downs are most acute? Those with the biggest peaks and valleys in their customer base and cash flow quickly learn best practices for staying afloat. By remaining flexible in the face of seasonal challenges and opportunities, capitalizing on customer interest and loyalty, and managing your money carefully throughout the year, even the most seasonal of businesses can be successful. Below, three seasonal entrepreneurs share experiences, tips and tools to help you manage the annual ups and downs of your business.

Tracy Thibodeau, owner of Equine Inspirations Learning Center in Caribou, operates seasonally from May through September. Her business cycle is dictated by when the snow is gone and the ground is dry enough to safely ride horses, as well as the window of opportunity between the school calendar and summer activities.

“There are many challenges to operating a seasonal business, one of which is that the weather and climate dominate many things, such as our peak business months and our day-to-day operations,” Thibodeau says.

Lindy Howe agrees. Owner of Heywood Kennel Sled Dog Adventures in Stockholm, she notes that “flexibility is important so that plans can be shifted according to the weather, trail conditions, and the influx of tourism. For example, this year when we have unusually late snow for our area, we have offered rides by wheels.” With steady business growth, Howe has extended her busy season significantly. In its first year, the business was strongest from January to mid-March; now, the peak season is mid-November through the end of April. Summer mushing camps for girls and partnerships with area schools complement winter programs and sustain business revenues during the off-season.

Meeting consumer demand in creative ways is critical. Annette Marin, owner of No View Farm & Bakery in Rumford, reports, “What has helped me weather the season the most is the community support through sales of community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. I accept shares all season long so people can buy breads, jelly, jams, eggs and some fresh greens in the winter season.”

She notes that the CSA share is a “great concept that helps the farmer when they need the income boost and connects community members to where their food comes from.” Sustaining relationships with customers and building loyalty to your business helps you bring customers back season after season, sale after sale.

So you’ve been quick to respond to conditions and opportunities and creative in keeping your business connected to your customers. But what about the bottom line? When your mortgage must be paid every month but your income rises and falls, how do you manage?

For entrepreneurs living on an irregular income, you need a healthy emergency fund to cushion your deepest dips and protect you from unexpected crises. Stay on top of your quarterly estimated taxes to avoid a big bill in your slowest season. Know your business and personal budgets inside and out and plan for a full year of ups and downs. With a strong financial plan in place, you can make the most of your money, keep up with overhead costs, and meet your basic needs even in the slowest of business seasons.

Marin says, “I have learned to project a personal income and expenses sheet for 12-18 months. Using this visual tool, I can plan my purchases and buy in bulk, so I gain a better price and have needs mostly met for the season when money is tight.”

Marin also focuses on planning and prioritizing during the winter months, when the slow season can be a gift as well as a challenge.

Outside employment also helps buffer seasonal business income.

Thibodeau works a full-time job that demands her time most in late September in order to close the fiscal year. While the busy time at work picks up where her seasonal business leaves off, Thibodeau notes that “one major challenge as a growing seasonal business is finding the time to work a full-time job and take on more students to maximize my business.”

Howe and her business partner, Kevin Quist, both have part-time, on-call positions that help fill in their slower months, and they work hard to balance their incomes against “surges” and “slumps.”

Take your lesson from these three successful seasonal entrepreneurs: With the right balance of creativity, flexibility, marketing and money management, your business can support you year-round.

Erica Quin-Easter is microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work, and Community in Aroostook County, where she offers workshops and one-on-one assistance to entrepreneurs from Sherman to Fort Kent. Upcoming classes in Aroostook County include Beyond Start-Up: Moving Your Business Forward (Presque Isle); The Basics of Starting a Business (Houlton and Fort Kent); My Money Works: Tools for Smart Money Choices (Presque Isle). For information, visit www.womenworkandcommunity.org, call 764-0050, or email erica.quineaster@maine.edu.

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