Skip to main content

Diverse industries use financial modeling to complete their strategic plans and make informed decisions. In this article, I'll explain what financial modeling is, what it's used for, and how to get started.

What Is Financial Modeling?

Financial modeling is the process of using historical data, assumptions, and mathematical formulas to simulate a business's future financial performance, using an interactive model.

The goal is to help businesses assess different scenarios and their impact, make better decisions, reduce risks, and increase profitability. Financial modeling is a forecasting and planning tool that looks at factors such as revenue, expenses, and growth projections to help businesses assess their current financial position and predict future outcomes.

Why Is Financial Modeling Important?

Financial modeling fulfills these vital functions: 

  • Providing a structured approach to assessing the financial implications of strategies, plans, and investments 
  • Creating an instrument for projecting future scenarios to reduce risk 
  • Providing a means of optimizing resources and funding to deliver value
  • Supporting transparent communication with stakeholders, like potential investors 

What Is a Financial Model Used For?

Models are used in many industries, including finance, investment banking, real estate, and corporate finance, and they provide different insights in different contexts. There are, however, some common applications across all industries:

Budgeting and Forecasting

Financial models are widely used to create budgets and forecast future financial performance by bringing together clean historical performance data, market trends, and growth projections. This can help your business set realistic targets, allocate resources effectively, and identify potential gaps between actual and projected performance.

Valuation

Modeling is also used to help value projects and assets, providing a systematic approach to estimating the inherent value of an investment opportunity. 

Factors such as the cash flow model, free cash flow, risk, market conditions, and other fundamentals are factored in to help determine the fair value of an investment and facilitate informed decision-making.

Risk Analysis

When it comes to assessing and managing financial risks, financial models are instrumental in simulating different scenarios and performing sensitivity analysis. It can be used to identify potential risks and their potential impact on financial performance, which allows your business to develop risk mitigation strategies and make informed decisions to protect its financial health.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Financial modeling can also be crucial in analyzing and evaluating potential mergers and acquisitions. Financial models:

  1. Can help your company assess the financial impact of a merger or acquisition on both the acquiring and target companies
  2. Enable stakeholders to evaluate synergies and estimate the potential return on investment
  3. Help determine the optimal terms of the transaction

Types of Financial Models

There are different types of models used by financial analysts, investment bankers, or other finance professionals, depending on the purpose and complexity of the analysis.

The most common types you'll come across are the:

Join North America’s most innovative collective of Tech CFOs.

Join North America’s most innovative collective of Tech CFOs.

  • By submitting this form, you agree to receive our newsletter, and occasional emails related to The CFO Club. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more details, please review our Privacy Policy. We're protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

4 Key Benefits of Financial Modeling

Besides making you think through decisions a bit deeper, modeling contains some pretty specific benefits for operators. Some key advantages and real-world examples include:

Enhanced Decision-Making

Financial modeling provides a structured approach to decision-making. Systematically analyzing financial data and projecting future scenarios can helps facilitate more informed decisions that drive growth, optimize resource allocation, and enhance profitability.

I know, this sounds obvious, but if you think about it... how often is this part skipped? When you make models, you're slowing down the decision-making process to ensure you have enough data to make a truly informed decision.

Example: Stanley Works, a maker of tools and other products for construction, leveraged data and analysis tools to improve financial performance and decision-making. 

Results: Stanley's gross margin grew from 33.9% to more than 40% in six years and delivered over $200 million in incremental value.

Improved Resource Allocation

Effectively allocating resources requires better insights into the financial impact of different strategies and initiatives—after all, you don’t have unlimited money to work with in most situations. 

Financial models enable your business to optimize resource allocation and prioritize projects with the highest potential for value creation. This is done by assessing the potential return on investment and factoring in budget constraints.

Risk Mitigation

With the right model, your company can quickly identify and manage financial risks, by understanding what the biggest impact risks are, what scenarios make them appear, and how they can be avoided. 

You just take the model, apply different scenarios to it, and see what happens to your projected results.

Stakeholder Communication

Financial models promote effective communication with stakeholders by providing a clear and concise representation of complex financial information. Whether presenting a business plan to potential investors or explaining the financial impact of a specific strategy to the board of directors, financial models enable better understanding, transparency, and collaboration among decision-makers.

Financial Modeling Challenges

Financial modeling offers numerous benefits, but it can also present specific challenges like these:

Lack of or Low-Quality Data

Financial modeling relies on accurate and reliable data, but data availability and quality can be a significant challenge, especially for complex analyses or industries with limited data sources. It is crucial to ensure that the data used in financial models is accurate, up-to-date, and representative of the business or industry.

Assumption Sensitivity

Financial models are built on assumptions, which can significantly impact the outputs and conclusions. However, assumptions are subject to uncertainties and changes over time. Sensitivity analysis can help you address this challenge by assessing the impact of changes in necessary assumptions on financial outcomes.

Model Complexity

Financial models can become complex, especially when dealing with large datasets or incorporating multiple variables. Managing model complexity requires careful organization, clear documentation, and appropriate tools and software to enhance efficiency and reduce errors.

Interpretation and Communication

Interpreting and effectively communicating the outputs of financial models can be challenging, especially when dealing with complex analyses or technical terminology. It's crucial to present the outputs clearly and concisely. Consider using visual aids, charts, and tables to enhance understanding and facilitate decision-making.

Time-Consumption

Modeling can slow down decisions. Data must be collected, assumptions layered, and financial models tested, which can be costly and slower than just moving ahead with a decision. However, making decisions without due diligence can be far more expensive and time-consuming to fix.

How To Get Started With Financial Modeling

Creating a financial model requires careful consideration of relevant factors and a systematic approach. Here’s a step-by-step guide you through the process:

1. Define the Objective

In my experience, starting with the endpoint in mind and then building your roadmap backwards works best. Defining your objectives will help you identify the problems or questions you want to address, the information you need to analyze, and determine which financial model to use. 

Without this step, you could choose the wrong financial model, leading to unintended and erroneous results.

2. Gather Data

Identify and collect all relevant financial data and market information. This may include historical financial statements, market research reports, and industry benchmarks. Ensure the data is applicable, accurate, up-to-date, and reliable.

3. Identify Key Assumptions

Identify any key assumptions that will drive your financial model. These may include growth rates, pricing strategies, cost structures, market trends, and seasonality. 

  • Document your assumptions
  • Get feedback from other functional teams
  • Ensure each assumption is realistic and fact-based

4. Build the Model

Design the structure of your model and input the relevant data and assumptions. 

  • Consider adopting and modifying industry-specific templates to save time
  • Use appropriate formulas and functions to calculate the desired outputs 
  • Organize your model in a logical and transparent manner
  • Make it easy to understand
  • Update it regularly, as your situation changes

5. Test and Validate

Test your financial model by running different scenarios and sensitivity analysis. 

  • Ensure the outputs align with your expectations; if not, understand why
  • Validate the model against historical data or industry benchmarks
  • Make necessary adjustments to improve the accuracy and reliability of your model

6. Document and Present

Document your business model and financial model, including assumptions, formulas, and data sources. This will help ensure transparency and facilitate future updates.

  • Present your financial model's outputs clearly and concisely
  • Use charts, graphs, and tables to enhance understanding and visual impact

Modeling Best Practices

It's essential to follow best practices to ensure financial models' accuracy, reliability, and usability. Here are some best practices you should consider adopting:

Clearly Define Objectives

Avoid jumping to a model right away. Take the time to clearly and thoroughly define your objectives and any metrics for success to ensure your financial model aligns with the problem and goals you want to address. 

This will guide your model's structure, inputs, and outputs and ensure it provides relevant insights. 

💡 Measure twice, cut once

💡 Measure twice, cut once

Taking the time to define your objectives helps document your thought processes and map out your process, giving you (and others) the chance to spot weaknesses in the plan.

Use Consistent and Transparent Formulas

When you're creating your financial model, use consistent and transparent formulas and calculations throughout. Avoid hard-coding numbers. Use references to inputs or assumptions to enhance transparency, ease of understanding, and flexibility for future updates.

Document Assumptions and Data Sources

Document your financial model's assumptions and data sources to promote transparency, facilitate future updates, and allow others to understand and validate it. I've worked with many financial models created by others and found that they lacked the proper documentation necessary to follow and adjust. 

One of the most overlooked best practices is clearly documenting your work and assumptions. Factor in these things to help other stakeholders understand your work and provide valuable feedback:

  • The formulas and calculations  
  • Logic used in your model 

Validate and Test the Model

Validate your financial model against historical data, industry benchmarks, or alternative models to ensure accuracy and reliability. Run different scenarios and sensitivity analyses to assess the robustness of your model and identify potential risks and opportunities.

Review and Update Regularly

Regularly review and update your financial model to ensure it remains relevant and accurate. Update inputs, assumptions, and formulas as needed to reflect changes in the business or industry. Document the updates and validate the outputs to maintain the integrity of your model.

Use Financial Modeling Tools

Financial models that software builds for you makes your job much easier. Look for flexible tools that meet your industry-specific needs and are robust enough to handle complexity. 

Stay Up-To-Date 

Nothing stays the same, especially in the business world. It is vital to stay current with financial modeling, financial planning, and forecasting trends through courses and webinars. 

Here are some of the best professional finance courses and finance certifications you should take to stay current and advance your career. 

Subscribe For More Financial Modeling Insights

Ready to compound your abilities as a finance leader? Subscribe to our free newsletter for expert advice, guides, and insights from finance leaders shaping the tech industry. 

Moira Alexander
By Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is a recognized thought leader and the founder of PMWorld 360 Magazine and Lead-Her-Ship Group, a digital content marketing agency.

Leveraging her 17 years of experience in accounting, financial reporting, and financial systems implementation, Moira has written content for fintech businesses for over ten years and been named one of the top global female B2B content thought leaders and influencers.