The Ultimate Guide to Startup Financial Projections [Template Included]

January 11, 2022

Adam Hoeksema

Financial projections are an important part of any business plan or startup pitch deck. They allow a company to estimate future revenues, expenses, and profits, and to identify potential risks and opportunities.  We have been helping founders create financial projections through our templates, tools, and custom financial modeling services since 2012.  I thought it was finally time to write a comprehensive article that should answer the key questions that we get from founders again and again.  So here is what I plan to cover:

What are financial projections? 

Why should a startup create financial projections?

How to create a financial forecast? 

  • Creating sales projections based on data
  • Forecasting operating expenses
  • Salary projections
  • Startup cost forecasting
  • Pro forma financial statements
  • Existing business vs. startup vs acquisition forecasting

How to know whether my projections are realistic?

What will investors and lenders be looking for in my projections?

Tools used for financial forecasting

But first, who am I, and do I know anything about financial projections? 

My name is Adam Hoeksema and I am the Co-Founder of ProjectionHub.  Since 2012 we have helped over 50,000 entrepreneurs create financial projections between our software tool and our business projection spreadsheet templates

I didn’t spend a decade on Wall Street or make a killing in private equity, and I haven’t even raised VC funding myself.  

But I did spend over a decade launching a growing an SBA (Small Business Administration) lender in the Indianapolis, IN area.  During that time we made over 1,800 small business loans and we often asked our clients for financial projections along with their loan applications.  That is why I started ProjectionHub.  

So 10 years ago my experience was with helping small, main street businesses create projections and secure loan funding to start their dream.  Along the way, I learned a ton about startup projections for tech-based businesses as well.  Today about 50% of our work is with small businesses looking for an SBA loan and 50% is with tech-based businesses looking to raise capital from investors.  

With that background in mind, I want to share with you what I have learned along the way to try to make your financial forecasting process just a little bit easier.  Let’s dive in!

What are financial projections? 

Financial projections are estimates of the future financial performance of a company. These projections are typically based on a set of assumptions and are used to help businesses plan for the future and make informed decisions about investments, financing, and other strategic matters. Most ProjectionHub customers use pro forma financials to help external stakeholders, such as investors and lenders understand a company's financial position and future prospects. Financial projections typically include projections of income, expenses, cash flow, and balance sheet items.  

There are many opinions on whether a startup needs to create a forecasted balance sheet and how many years a set of projections should be.  At ProjectionHub, all of our financial projection templates have an integrated pro forma income statement, cash flow and balance sheet in annual and monthly format for 5 years.  This seems to meet the needs of 99% of our customers, so I think it is pretty safe to say that your investor or lender might not require all of that level of information, but they probably won’t require more than a 5-year forecast of your 3 statement financials. 

Why should a startup create financial projections?

So it sounds like a lot of work to create a financial forecast, so why do we create projections?  No one can know the future.  Isn’t it just a pointless exercise?  

Well, I think it is smart for an entrepreneur to create a set of projections before they start a business to understand what they are getting themselves into and what it will take to break even and generate a profit.  

But…

I could beat that drum all day, and you know what it doesn’t really matter.  Even if we know it is a good idea to create projections before throwing our life savings into a new venture, most entrepreneurs will not create projections before starting their business.  I have just come to accept this!  

So the real reason to create projections is because the people with the money, the investors and lenders ask for them.  

  • Investors will ask for a financial model because they want to see how you plan to use their money, how long you think it will last, and what the potential return could be. 
  • Lenders will ask to see financial projections for startups or new projects or divisions in a business because they want to be able to see whether you think you can pay them back or not.  How does your debt service coverage ratio look? How many cups of coffee are you going to have to sell to make your monthly loan payment? 

Now that we know why we are creating projections and who the audience is, let’s get into the “how.”

How to create a financial forecast? 

So the plan now is to walk through how to create a set of financial projections, how to do good research to take a data-driven approach when modeling, what tools you can use to help you with research, and then how to know whether your forecast is realistic once you are done.   We are going to look at:

  1. Creating revenue projections
  2. Operating Expenses
  3. Salaries Forecasting
  4. How to get investor and lender-ready projections

Revenue Projections

This is where we will camp out for a while.  I want to show you a few examples of different types of revenue models to show you how I approach creating revenue projections.  

If you have a stable, existing business, then it is possible that the best approach to creating sales projections is simply to take last year’s numbers and apply a growth rate based on your expectations of growth.  Since that approach is quite straightforward I am not going to spend any time on that today. Our Existing Business Forecast Template will be perfect for you in this scenario.  

We are going to focus on more of a first principles approach.  I am going to outline two different approaches that I often take when building a financial model.  First a capacity approach and then a customer funnel approach.  

Capacity-Based Revenue Projections

I use a capacity-based approach to revenue projections when a company is pretty certain to have demand for their products or services and their revenue is more of a function of your price x capacity.  

Here are some examples of businesses where I would take a capacity-based approach. 

Farming Projections

For a farm, your revenue forecast is going to be based on how many acres you are farming x the yield per acre x the price per unit for your crop.  You don’t really need to worry about whether you have a customer or not.  Since most crops are commodities you won’t need to find a customer, you simply sell into the ready made market at the market price. 

Trucking Projections

Trucking is similar in the sense that as long as you have a valid license and a working truck, you will be able to find loads to deliver.  The question is more about how many trucks do you have, how many miles per day can each truck drive and what price will you be able to earn per mile.  Again this is about capacity and price, not whether or not you can find a customer.  This is the approach we take to show how a trucking business with one truck can generate $400k in annual revenue

Daycare Facility

A daycare facility will also be able to calculate a capacity based on the size of the facility and the teacher-to-student ratio requirements.  Once you have your capacity it is mostly a function of pricing to determine your revenue forecast.  You can see a screenshot from our daycare financial forecast tool to see how we think about modeling this type of business. 

Example of daycare capacity projections

I would say most tech businesses do not fall into a capacity-based projection approach. 

For tech companies, I typically use a customer funnel-based approach to forecasting revenue. 

Customer Funnel-Based Revenue Projection Approach

These are companies where your customer might not even know your product or service exists and might not know that they want it or need it so you are going to have to really go out and market and sell.  You will likely have a customer funnel that will have leads that convert into customers over time.  

Here are some examples of business models where I would use a customer funnel approach to financial modeling. 

B2B SaaS Projections

For a B2B SaaS product you will probably have an advertising budget and a sales team that will drive leads that your team will work to qualify.  Then some percentage of those sales qualified leads will turn into customers.  You will need assumptions for things like:

  • A monthly ad budget 
  • Cost per click to attract a website visitor
  • Percentage of website visitors that become sales qualified leads
  • Percentage of sales qualified leads that the sales team converts into customers
  • Average monthly spend per customer

DTC Product Forecasting

For direct to consumer product companies you will have a similar customer funnel.  Once you get to a customer, then you might have assumptions like:

  • Average order value
  • % of customers that become repeat customers
  • How often do repeat customers repurchase

Consumer Apps 

For a consumer mobile app you will need assumptions for things like:

  • Monthly ad budget
  • Cost per download
  • Organic / word of mouth downloads
  • % of customers that download the app that convert into active users
  • % of active users that churn each year
  • Average monthly spend per active user per month

So this should give you an idea of the structure of assumptions that you will need in order to approach creating projections, but I just left you with a bunch of assumptions that you have no idea how to fill in with realistic data.  

Next I want to show you what I would do in order to research and find good data for your sales projections. 

Creating sales projections based on data

So how do you know how many people are searching on Google for terms that are relevant to your product or service?  How do you know how much it would cost to advertise and get a click for that term?  How do you know what a reasonable conversion rate is from a website visitor to a customer?  How do you know what the average order value is for an ecommerce business like yours, etc? 

I recorded an entire course on this, but I have listed some tools and some slides below to show you my typical research process. 

As you will notice in the slides, I start out be simply doing Google research to try to find reasonable assumptions for as many of the key assumptions as I can.  

From there, I like to use the following tools:

  • Ahrefs - I use this tool for competitor research to determine how much organic traffic my competitors are getting and thereby how much organic traffic my website might get over time. 
  • Google Trends - I use Google Trends to see seasonality trends in a business. 
  • Google Adwords Keyword Tool - I use this tool to forecast how much it will cost per click to attract a website visitor, and to see search volume for certain keywords.
  • Bizminer - You can use Bizminer industry reports to get an idea of key industry ratios to get an idea of whether your projections are realistic for your industry. 

Forecasting operating expenses

When forecasting expenses I like a couple of different resources to help me forecast my expenses and ensure that my expense projections are within industry standards. 

Expenses for Small Businesses

Bizminer - You can use Bizminer industry reports to get an idea of key industry ratios.  For example, you can determine if the average company in your industry spends 10% on rent or 12% on rent. 

Expenses for Tech Startups

SaaS Capital - You can use this report from SaaS Capital to get an idea of the spending categories as a % of revenue for tech companies.  This is specifically focused on SaaS, so if you are in ecommerce or a hardware startup you will need to find a similar source for your industry.  You can see an example of the expense ratios from SaaS Capital below:

median spend by company funding source chart

Salary projections

When forecasting salaries I actually take two different approaches.  I typically start out by projecting specific salaries and positions for the first 24 months of the projection.  Then after that, I simply include salaries in larger buckets of operating expenses like General & Admin, R&D, and Sales & Marketing.  When you are raising investment the investors will likely want to know your specific use of funds for the first 18 to 24 months, but after that they will understand that it is impossible to predict exact positions, timing and salaries, so transitioning to an expense as a % of revenue makes sense.  You can see how this looks in one of our financial models for a B2B SaaS company

Detailed Salary Projections for the First 24 Months:

Salaries included in operating expense categories as a percentage of sales for year 3 and beyond:

Startup Cost Forecasting

When forecasting your startup costs, your specific location, concept, size and scale of business will make a dramatic difference in what it costs to launch your business.  I don’t recommend that you just take the first “average startup cost” number that you find in a Google search because your specific situation matters.  You will need to do your own research for each startup cost, but I have actually found it helpful to use ChatGPT to ask for a list of common startup expenses for business XYZ so that I don’t forget any common expenses. 

Existing business vs. startup vs acquisition forecasting

I have already mentioned this before, but I commonly take a different approach to creating projections for an existing business compared to a startup compared to modeling a business acquisition.  

Existing Business Projections

When modeling a projection for an existing business I like to use our existing business budgeting template that allows me to enter in historical revenue and expenses and use that as a baseline to build a forecast by increasing or decreasing expenses and revenue based on my plans. 

Startup Projections

For a startup, I would use one of our 70+ industry specific financial projection templates and start from the ground up.  You would use the research process outlined in this article to create your projections. 

Forecasting a Business Acquisition

For creating projections for a business that you are looking to acquire I would use our acquisition financial model which will allow you to enter in historical financials from the target business, but it will also allow you to make adjustments to the balance sheet and revenue and expenses for a post acquisition pro forma. You can’t simply use the existing balance sheet and income statement because both will likely change quite a bit after the sale of the business.

Pro forma financial statements

Finally, I wanted to show you some example pro forma statements so that you can see what the end product should look like.  

Pro forma P&L Example

Here is an example of our 5 year pro forma income statement. 

example 5 year profit and loss example

Pro forma Balance Sheet Example

Here is an example of our 5 year pro forma balance sheet. 

Example of 5 year pro forma balance sheet

How to know whether my projections are realistic?

Once you have a complete set of projections (if you are using a ProjectionHub template) I would suggest taking a look at the profit and loss at a glance table as seen below: 

example of profit and loss summary

In this example, I am looking at projections for a technology company that is looking to raise investment.  So a couple of things that I would look at for a tech company pro forma.  

  1. The first year should probably be a loss because that is why you are looking to raise investment right?  I would just make sure you are assuming that you will raise enough investment to cover that first year loss.  
  2. Next I would look at how fast revenue is growing.  For an investable company there is a rule of thumb “triple, triple, double, double” which means after investment an investor will be hoping that you triple sales the first 2 years and then double sales the following two years.  This is really hard to do, so if you are forecasting that you will do 10x every year you are probably off base! 
  3. For tech startups you can look at this study with our partner Story Pitch Decks where we looked at what is a reasonable projection for a tech startup.  This study will show you what other similar companies are projecting, so that you can ensure that whatever you project will fall within the norms that investors see. 

What will investors and lenders be looking for in my projections?

Investors and lenders will likely be looking at the following numbers and ratios to make sure your projections seem to be reasonable:

  • Gross Profit Margin
  • Profit Margin
  • Debt Service Coverage Ratio
  • Comparing to industry averages
  • Do revenue projections, units sold make sense?
  • Does your balance sheet balance?
  • When do you reach breakeven?
  • Do you have room for error?

I suggest that you simply Google these things and make sure your numbers seem “normal.”  For example, if you are opening a coffee shop you could Google “average profit margin for a coffee shop” and you would probably find our article on coffee shop profit margins.  Confirm that your forecasted profit margins are in line and reasonable. Do this same exercise with each of these key ratios and numbers.  

Tools used for financial forecasting

As a thank you for reading this behemoth of an article, you can download our free financial projection template.  Other tools that I utilized or mentioned in the article include:

If you would like to learn more about my process for creating financial projections, you can watch this course that I put on for tech startups looking to create investor-ready financial projections. 

Insert Webinar video below

Well I hope this has been helpful to you.  If you have specific questions please feel free to reach out directly to us at support@projectionhub.com 

About the Author

Adam is the Co-founder of ProjectionHub which helps entrepreneurs create financial projections for potential investors, lenders and internal business planning. Since 2012, over 50,000 entrepreneurs from around the world have used ProjectionHub to help create financial projections.

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