Break-even analysis is a good tool for quickly determining if an idea has any legs under it. It is not meant to be used alone as a sole decision making tool. Most business formula-tools work better when tracked over time and compared with other decision making tools, including the owner's gut instinct.

Break-even needs you to track your direct costs. Direct costs are expenses that only occur when you sell a product. Examples of direct costs are cost of products you sell and supplies. Once you subtract these costs from your income, you know how much each sale contributes to pay for your overhead (another term for indirect/fixed costs) costs. Business terminology can get confusing but hang in there.

This can also be done with percentages.

Step 1 is to subtract your direct costs from your income to get a number called Gross Profit.

Step 2 is to divide the gross profit number by your income to determine its percentage of income; e.g.

$2,000 of income minus $500 of direct costs equals $1,500 of gross profit.

$1,500 divided by $2,000 equals 75%. This means that 25 cents of every $1 of sales goes to paying direct costs (products and supplies) and that 75 cents is left over to pay for all the other expenses (indirect costs) plus your profit.

If your company has rent, advertising, utilities, and auto expenses (all indirect costs) of $1,000.

Then $1,000 divided by .75 equals $1,333 (this is the sales volume necessary to pay all your indirect costs and your profit equals zero.

The $1,333 level of sales in this case represents your break-even point.

How can you use break-even info? Using the above example, say you want to hire a helper that is going to cost you $800 per month. How much more income do you need to pay for this helper?

$800 divided by .75 equals $1,067.

You need $1,067 additional income per month to pay the $800.

Break-even analysis is a great way to set sales goals for your sales staff. The base salary you pay would be an indirect cost and any commission would be a direct cost.

Lets use the above example.

$800 for base and you are going to offer a 20% commission on all sales.

The 20% would have to be added to the direct costs (25% + 20% commission = 45%).

The new gross profit as a percent would be 100% (total sales) - 45% = 55% gross profit.

$800 base salary divided by .55 = $1,455 in additional sales to pay for their base salary and commission.

Lets say you want $5,000 per month for yourself. Add the $5000 to the indirect costs and then divide by the Gross Profit % and you now have a pretty good idea of what your sales volume needs to be to provide you with $5,000 a month income.

Let's build on the salesperson example.

$5,000 plus the indirect costs of $1,800 equals $6,800.

$6,800 divided by the gross profit % of 55% or .55 = $12,364 in monthly sales volume should provide you with $5,000 in monthly income.

Break-even analysis is a linear tool and assumes that operational relationships between sales and expenses will remain the same (as laid out in the formula). Decisions involving longer terms or with multiple variables are more difficult to predict and should be re-analyzed over time.

Bruce Hunter is the CEO of CORE Magazine CORE is the leading online source for starting up a new business Visit our free online resource center now to get free access to information on loans for small businesses