How to Read A P&L Statement: Startup’s Guide to Profit and Loss

What is a P&L Statement?

A profit and loss statement, also known as a P&L statement or income statement, is a financial document that offers invaluable insights into a company’s financial health. It provides a view of the business’s financial performance during a specific period of time, usually a month, quarter, or year. Whether you’re a budding entrepreneur or an investor, few documents are as crucial to understanding a business as the income statement, so let’s dive in and help you decipher how to read a P&L statement and chart your business success.

How to Read a P&L Statement

Reading a P&L statement begins with understanding the basic components included in this vital business report. Next, you need to analyze the P&L numbers and compare them to previous periods and industry standards to identify trends and gain a complete and accurate picture of your company’s financial health. Read on to learn more!

Basic Components of a P&L Statement

Before diving into intricate details, let’s familiarize ourselves with the eight fundamental components of profit and loss statements:

1. Revenue or Sales: This is the money a company earns from selling its products or providing services.

2. Cost of Goods Sold (COGS): This includes the direct costs associated with producing the goods or services being sold as well as the indirect costs (overhead costs). It often includes the cost of materials, labor, and manufacturing expenses.

3. Gross Profit: This is what’s left after subtracting the Cost of Goods Sold from Revenue or Sales.

4. Operating Expenses: Also known as Operating Costs, these are the day-to-day costs incurred in running the business – such as rent, utilities, salaries, and marketing expenses – that are not directly tied to production or sales.

5. Operating Income or Loss: Calculated by subtracting Operating Expenses from Gross Profit, this represents the profit or loss generated from the business’s core operations.

6. Other Income/Expenses: This includes any additional revenue or expenses not directly related to the company’s main operations. For example, credit card cash-back rewards, interest earned from a bank account or tax penalties, and payments to settle lawsuits.

7. Taxes: This shows the amount of income tax the company must pay.

8. Net Profit/Loss: The final profit or loss after taking into account all expenses and revenue.

Basic Components of a P&L Statement
This figure demonstrates the calculations performed on a basic P&L statement to arrive at a company’s net profit or loss.

Understanding Key Components: A Deeper Dive

Now that we have an overview, let’s delve into the specifics of profit and loss statements:

Revenue or Sales

Revenue or Sales in a P&L statement represents the amount of money a company earns during a specific time period. It includes the company’s total income from selling its products or providing services. This income is also known as revenue or sales.

In a Profit & Loss statement, revenue is the money earned from the company’s primary business activity, such as selling products or services, as well as any non-operating revenue. Non-operating revenue includes other sources of income that do not directly relate to the core business, such as rental income or interest earned from investments.

When analyzing an income statement (P&L), it’s important to look at all the sources of income to get a complete picture of the company’s financial performance. This includes examining the revenue from the primary business activity and any one-time or recurring revenue. One-time revenue refers to income that may not occur regularly, such as a large contract. Recurring revenue, on the other hand, represents income that the company expects to receive regularly, such as monthly subscriptions or repeat customer purchases.

Cost of Goods Sold

Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) is an essential concept for understanding a Profit & Loss (P&L) statement. It helps us know how much it costs a business to produce the goods or provide the services they sell.

COGS includes direct expenses that are directly related to producing goods or providing services plus manufacturing overhead. These direct expenses may include materials like wood, fabric, or ingredients and labor costs like wages paid to workers.

Cost of Goods Sold is important because it directly affects a business’s gross profit margin and bottom line. When COGS is high, it means that it costs the business a lot of money to produce the goods or provide the services. To increase profit margin, finding ways to reduce COGS is essential.

Business owners can reduce COGS by finding cheaper suppliers for materials or negotiating better prices. They can also explore ways to be more efficient in their production process to reduce labor costs. Businesses can improve their financial performance and achieve their goals by finding strategies to reduce COGS.

Gross Profit

Gross profit is a term that helps us understand how much money a business makes from selling its products or services. It is calculated by subtracting the cost of goods sold (COGS) from the total sales revenue.

Think of it this way, if you have a lemonade stand and you sell cups of lemonade for $2 each, your sales revenue would be the money you earned from selling the lemonade. Let’s say it costs you $0.75 to make each cup of lemonade, including the cost of lemons, sugar, and cups. The COGS for each cup would be $0.75.

To find the gross profit, you subtract the COGS ($0.75) from the sales revenue ($2). In this case, your gross profit would be $1.25. This means that for each cup of lemonade you sell, you make $1.25 in profit before any other expenses are taken into account.

It is important to note that the gross profit only shows how much money is left after subtracting the COGS. It does not include other operating expenses, such as rent, utilities, and employee wages. To understand the overall profitability of a business, we need to look at other financial figures, like net income, which takes into account all the expenses.

Operating Expenses

Operating expenses (also known as “operating costs” or “selling, general, and administrative”) are the costs a business incurs to keep the operations running smoothly. These expenses include:

SELLING: Sales Salaries, Sales Commissions, Advertising, Marketing

GENERAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE: CEO/CFO Salaries, Office Staff Salaries, Office Expenses, Office Lease

Understanding your operating expenses is crucial because it helps you identify areas where you can cut costs or make improvements to increase profitability.

Operating Income

Operating income shows how much money a business made and spent during a specific period of time. The way operating income is calculated depends on whether the business has costs associated with producing its goods or services, also known as Cost of Goods Sold (COGS).

For businesses that have COGS, Operating Income = Gross Profit – Operating Expenses.

Sample P&L statement with Cost of Goods Sold
Here’s an example of a P&L Statement with cost of goods sold (COGS).

For businesses that do not have COGS, Operating Income = Revenue – Operating Expenses.

Sample P&L statement without COGS
Here’s an example of a P&L Statement for a business without cost of goods sold (COGS).

Operating income is important because it gives us an idea of how much money a company is making from its core operations, before other expenses like interest and taxes are taken into account. It helps us understand the profitability and efficiency of a business.

Other Income/Expenses

Now let’s look at the “Other Income/Expenses” section in a P&L statement. This section includes revenues and expenses that are separate from a company’s normal operations. These may include gains or losses from the sale of assets, interest and dividend income from investments, and other unusual or infrequent revenues and expenses.

Gains or losses can happen when a company sells something like a building or a piece of equipment.

Interest and dividend income can come from investments that a company has made, such as money it has in a savings account or shares of stock in another company.

Sometimes, companies may also have other unusual or infrequent revenues or expenses that are not a part of their regular day-to-day operations.

Understanding this section of the P&L statement helps us get a complete picture of a company’s financial performance. By looking at the gains or losses, interest and dividend income, and other unusual or infrequent revenues and expenses, we can see how these affect the overall profitability of the business and determine if the business is profitable based on its core business or must rely on other forms of income to be profitable.


Taxes are expenses that a company must pay to the government.

There are different types of taxes that can be included in a P&L statement. One type is income tax, which is the tax that companies pay on the money they earn. Other types are payroll taxes, which are the taxes on the wages and salaries of employees used to finance social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and real estate taxes, which is the tax that companies pay on real property they own.

Payroll taxes and real estate taxes are inevitable, and there are no strategies for reducing these types of taxes. On the other hand, companies can implement numerous tax-saving strategies to reduce the income tax they owe. By lowering their tax liability, businesses can keep more of their profits to reinvest in the business or fund growth.

The tax expense section of a P&L statement helps us understand how much money a company needs to set aside to pay taxes. It also shows how taxes affect the overall profitability of the business.

Net Profit/Loss

The net profit/loss is the bottom line of the P&L statement. Net profit/loss is the difference between how much money a company brings in through sales (revenue) and how much money it spends on things like supplies, employee salaries, and bills (expenditures).

It tells us whether the business is successful or not. If there is a net profit (positive bottom line), it means the company is making money. If there is a net loss (negative bottom line), it means the company is losing money.

So, when we look at the net profit/loss in a P&L statement, we can see whether a business is financially successful. It gives us a clear picture of how well the business did during a specific time period.

Analyzing A P&L Statement

Numbers don’t lie, but they can mislead. Always look at trends over multiple periods. Is revenue growing? Are expenses ballooning? Understanding margins, like gross and net profit margins, can also offer valuable insights into efficiency. As a result, it is essential to review your financial statements on a regular basis.

P&L statement analysis begins with looking at the net profit or loss at the bottom line. A positive (net profit) indicates that the company is making money, while a negative (net loss) suggests financial difficulties that may prevent reaching business goals.

Next, examine the revenues and expenses in more detail. Revenues represent the money earned from the sale of goods (physical products) or services, while expenses include the costs associated with running the business. By comparing these two figures, one can determine the profitability of each business line and identify any areas that may need improvement.

Additionally, consider the gross profit margin, which is the percentage of revenue left after deducting the cost of goods sold divided by revenue. This measure provides insights into the company’s pricing strategy and efficiency.

Finally, assess the operating expenses, such as rent, salaries, and utilities, to understand the impact of these costs on the company’s financial health. With a thorough analysis of the P&L statement, business owners can gain a complete and accurate picture of their financial performance, identify trends, and make strategic decisions to achieve their financial goals.

Common Mistakes When Interpreting A P&L Statement

Interpreting a Profit and Loss (P&L) statement is an essential step in understanding a company’s financial health and performance. However, there are common mistakes that people often make when analyzing this important financial document.

One common mistake is only focusing on the bottom line, which is the net profit or loss. While the bottom line is important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of the company’s financial performance. It’s crucial to analyze each component of the P&L statement, such as revenue, cost of goods sold, and operating expenses. This allows for a deeper understanding of where the company stands financially.

Another mistake is not comparing the statement to previous time periods or industry benchmarks. By comparing the current statement to previous ones, trends can be identified, and potential problems can be addressed. Looking at industry benchmarks can help determine how the company is performing in comparison to its competitors. A software company’s P&L will look very different from a restaurant’s.

Additionally, failing to understand the difference between cash-basis and accrual-basis accounting can lead to misinterpretations. Cash-basis accounting recognizes revenue and expenses when cash is received or paid, while accrual-basis accounting recognizes them when they are earned or incurred. Knowing the accounting method used in the statement is crucial for proper analysis.

Another mistake is confusing revenue with profit. High sales don’t always equate to high profits. A common problem we see with small businesses and startups is that they have decent sales but are not making much profit. As a result, they find themselves working harder and longer but not making the kind of progress toward their financial goals that they had hoped.

Overlooking or misinterpreting one-time or extraordinary items is another mistake when analyzing a P&L statement. For example, a company might have a great year due to selling a subsidiary—this isn’t repeatable revenue. But that might not be immediately evident without comparing the current P&L to previous statements.

Avoiding these mistakes requires careful analysis and attention to detail. By thoroughly understanding each component of the P&L statement and comparing it to previous time periods or industry benchmarks, business owners can make informed decisions to improve their financial performance.

A Real-World Example

Let’s consider a tech startup’s P&L. High research and development (R&D) costs might initially overshadow revenues, leading to apparent losses. However, this could be a strategic play for long-term growth. That’s why it’s vital to review each component of the P&L statement, compare it to previous time periods, and understand sector-specific nuances.

In conclusion, a P&L statement isn’t just a bunch of numbers. It’s a story of how a business operates, where it thrives, and where it struggles. Regularly reviewing and analyzing this document can provide actionable insights for growth and improvement.

If you feel like your business isn’t performing as well as you’d like or need help understanding your P&L statements, schedule a consultation with us. We will review your statements and provide insights and recommendations to help you improve your financial situation.

Further Reading and Resources

If you’d like to learn more about financial statements and how to read and interpret financial reports, you might enjoy the following books.

Accounting software tools like QuickBooks and FreshBooks offer visual breakdowns of P&L statements, making it easy to see where your money is going at a glance.

Dive deep, keep learning, and remember that every number tells a story. Happy analyzing!

Avatar for Scott Meister, CPA

Scott Meister, CPA

I help small businesses, accountants, bookkeepers, office managers, and business owners with their accounting needs. I’ve used QuickBooks since 2002 and train folks on how to use it efficiently. I create high-quality video training tutorials for QuickBooks and post them on Certifications include: Certified Public Accountant (CPA) | Certified Bookkeeper (CB) | Advanced Certified ProAdvisor for QuickBooks Desktop | Advanced Certified ProAdvisor for QuickBooks Online | Certified ProAdvisor for QuickBooks Enterprise | Certified ProAdvisor for QuickBooks Point Of Sale