Feast and Famine: How To Handle Money Cycles In Your Business

Raise your hand if you've ever said the following:

“I just want to get out of the feast and famine cycle, you know?”

Business owners who make this lament are referring to periods of time with strong sales, followed by periods with few to none. Feasts, followed by famines.

Let's look at that.

Feast and famine cycles occur because consumer buying behaviour follows trends.

Electronics sell well in December. Gym memberships are strong in January. My oldest son used to get one haircut a year in June. Many toy manufacturers may as well not be in business for the first eleven months of the year.

Those are macro trends. They're big. They affect entire industries, entire countries.

There are also micro trends – things that affect individuals or subcultures. Products and services that have nothing to do with weather still sell well in April and May simply because higher temperatures tend to bring optimism. Optimism brings hope and forward thinking, which leads to sales. (In cold climates, it's also easier to get to your car in April and May. You gonna shovel yourself out from eight inches of snow to go to the mall and walk around aimlessly in January? No, you're not.)

Then there are minifeasts. Yes, nail polish sells well in the summer because it's pedicure season. Nail polish also sells well around the holidays because of holiday parties and Christmas stockings. Fall's not bad either, because of the new fashion season. And if I had to guess, I'd estimate there's a bit of a climb around Spring Break, too.

Regardless of what trends are at play, all goods and services sell more during a few times and less during the rest. That includes your goods and your services.

Now, you can play around with it a bit.

It's not totally out of your control.

A company with a particularly affectionate following can soften the famine effect. People are paying attention to YOU even when they're ignoring the rest of the industry, so you pick up some extra sales.

Alternatively, a really great promotion can engineer unnatural spikes throughout the year with or without loyalty or affection. (ABC Electrical puts window air conditioners on monster sale in October and somebody's going to buy them, even if it's not peak season.)

But ittybiz owners and personality brands tend to want to avoid that. They will often say they “don't want to rely on sales and promotions”. They want nice, steady sales throughout the year with no hoopla.

Tragically, no. Not going to happen. Apple can't do it. Baskin Robbins can't do it. Individual business owners like you and me can't do it, either. Them's the breaks.

Unless the bulk of your income comes from a continuity or recurring billing, there will be peaks and valleys. The differential between those peaks and valleys is going to be wide.

(And continuity people? You're still not exempt. As a rule of thumb, continuities don't sell for crap without a launch or promotion. It sounds like it will work – just let people sign up whenever they want! Yeah, but they don't. So you're still in peaks and valleys, even if the billing gets spread throughout the year.)

To deal with feast and famine, you need to identify what it is about the cycle that bothers you.

Let's look at a few possibilities.

1. Do you hate that it's not reliable?

Well, it usually is reliable. I can rely on a lot of money around now from coaching clients, peaks during class registrations, a Black Friday spike and a huge payday the last week of December. It's like clockwork. When a business owner says that feast and famine cycles aren't reliable, they usually mean the amounts aren't predictable. They would feel safer if they had a consistent amount of revenue in January, February and March. That way they can use that data to tell themselves April, May and June will be just fine.

This is a natural thing to wish for. You're not an idiot for wanting that. But it's not going to happen. Cycles are cycles. And even if it did happen, a strong Q1 does nothing to secure an equally strong Q2. The bottom can still drop out at any time. So the desire for “reliable security” is really just the desire for more elegant ways to delude ourselves that everything's going to be just fine.

2. Do you not have enough money to get you through the famines?

Then you don't have a famine problem, you have a feast problem. Make your feasts bigger and they'll float you. Some of my clients make literally every penny of their annual income in a two week launch. THAT is feast and famine, but the feast is so big that it gets through the famine.

If you find yourself with this issue, you don't need to get off the roller coaster – you need to get sales up. What do you care if they come in January or June? If they're high enough, it doesn't matter when they come.

3. Do you struggle with a huge workload some of the year and nothing to do the rest of the time?

Yes, that's a tricky one, especially if you're in service or you manufacture by hand. But that's the nature of the beast. If you want to be there for little Olivia's ballet recital in April, perhaps a career in tax accounting isn't for you. If you want to see your family during daylight in Q4, get off Etsy. (And don't even get me started on photographers.)

But again, that's not a famine problem, that's a feast problem. Hating the demands of a busy season does not spontaneously move people to buy mittens in May, and taking more business training will not change that. It's tragic, but it's true.

The problem with feast and famine actually has nothing to do with the famine.

It has to do with feasts, and how you manage them. Manage your feasts better and you won't have a famine problem.

  1. Spend your famine time strengthening your foundation for a more lucrative feast.
  2. Psychologically make peace with rhythms and cycles.
  3. Get some help (or request forgiveness in advance) to deal with busy times.
  4. And save your money when you make it. If it's good enough for Apple, it's good enough for you and me.

It may seem like a vicious cycle, but there's nothing vicious about it.

Rhythms in consumer buying behaviour are no more vicious than summer following spring. Commit to implementing the relevant parts of the four steps above and the world gets a lot less vicious.