For publicly-traded companies, it’s the money left over from operational activities that you can use to pay off debts, pay out dividends, or make acquisitions. As a company matures and moves toward an IPO, free cash flow helps investors understand the true value of an organization and its ability to pay a return on investment.
Companies typically report free cash flow on an annual basis, so you’ll see them in 10-K filings. However, you could also report on free cash flow quarterly in 10-Qs. Internally, if you’re nearing an IPO or already operating a public company, focus on having a real-time understanding of free cash flow and other cash flow metrics.
How Is Free Cash Flow Calculated?
There are multiple ways to calculate your free cash flow, all of which should return the same numbers (or roughly the same).
The simplest method is to take your operating cash flow from your statement of cash flows and subtract any capital expenditures from it.
Simple free cash flow formula
You could also use a variety of income statement and balance sheet line items to get to your free cash flow number. Here are a couple of different methods:
- Subtract your net investment in operating capital from your net operating profit after taxes to find your free cash flow. The formula would be: (Net Operating Profit – Taxes) – Net Investment in Operating Capital = Free Cash Flow
- Subtract your required investments in operating capital from your sales revenue less your operating costs, including taxes, to find your free cash flow. The formula would be: Sales Revenue – (Operating Costs + Taxes) – Required Investments in Operating Capital = Free Cash Flow
Why Does Free Cash Flow Matter?
There are two sides to a discussion about why free cash flow matters — the internal side and the investor side.
Free cash flow matters to internal finance teams and executives because it gives you an idea of the position you’re in to re-invest in the business. Do you have the money to develop new products? Can you invest in expanding your presence into new markets? Are you able to buy back stock or pay dividends to keep investors happy? Is there an opportunity to acquire a company to improve your business?
These are all questions you can discuss internally depending on whether or not you have good visibility into free cash flow.
But on the investor side, free cash flow matters because it gives people an idea of how healthy your business really is. It gives investors a quick look at your company’s profitability and the starting point for deeper analysis of your business model.
Ultimately, they’ll want to see that you’re putting free cash flow to good use in terms of generating shareholder value. That doesn’t mean you always have to have positive free cash flow — but it does mean that you have to strategically invest profits to continue growing.
What’s Considered “Good” Free Cash Flow?
Free cash flow can tell you many things, but it helps to understand what’s considered good free cash flow within your industry. To have a healthy free cash flow, you want to have enough free cash on hand to be able to pay all of your company’s bills and costs for a month, and the higher above that number, the better. Some investors and analysts believe that a good free cash flow for an SaaS company is anywhere from about 20% to 25%.
We often talk about using the SaaS rule of 40 to quickly gauge your balance between growth and profitability. That’s great for companies that are progressing toward an IPO and can work even beyond that point.
But you should also consider evaluating “good” free cash flow in terms of Bessemer’s efficiency score — the sum of your growth percentage and free cash flow margin percentage. Like the rule of 40, anything above 40 in this calculation is considered “good.”
Challenges in Tracking Free Cash Flow
The main challenge of tracking free cash flow is adding the necessary context to tell your company’s financial story well.
Free cash flow doesn’t come with the same disclosure requirements that you see in other areas of finance reports, which means it’s not as straight forward as the rest of your financial statement line items. This leaves investors to calculate free cash flow manually if you don’t parse it out on your own.
The result could be a misunderstanding of the company narrative by analysts and investors. For example, you may have a significant drop in free cash flow year-over-year — but it’s actually a positive event because you acquired a company that dramatically expanded your total addressable market.
Manual calculations across the entire financial reporting process can make it difficult to focus on the narrative when you present to investors and board members. By automating the tedious data collection and calculation processes month-to-month and quarter-to-quarter, you’ll be able to spend more time crafting the narrative of the true health of your business.
A Better Understanding of the Health of Your Company
With an in-depth awareness of your company’s free cash flow, you’ll have the ability to make effective decisions for the future of your business, as well as understand how investors will view your company’s financial health.
Mosaic can help make calculating and tracking important metrics like free cash flow even easier by automating the process. By pulling together data from your existing systems, Mosaic significantly reduces the time your team spends compiling data and calculating metrics while reducing the possibility of human error. Instead, your finance team can focus on what’s happening with your company’s finances in real time and easily model future scenarios with the click of a button that can help your company focus on growth.
Instead of relying on spreadsheets and manual calculations to track the health and growth of your business, consider Mosaic. Get a personalized demo to see how Mosaic can provide a comprehensive overview of the health of your business.