When and how much revenue to recognise in a firm’s accounts is one of the most contentious and important issues in financial accounting. The issue is especially acute for tech firms since early-stage tech firms may not yet have reached profitability, thus revenue and revenue growth will be key financial metrics. In addition, technology firms often sell intangible products and services which can be more difficult to determine a revenue for.
The first thing to note is that there is no clear-cut consensus on revenue recognition, there are only a set of broad principles which need to be applied. The overarching rule is that revenue should be recognised in a firm’s accounts only when a valid order has been received, there is a strong likelihood of receiving payment and the product/service has been delivered.
The relevance of a valid order is relatively simple – a firm must have received a product/service order if it is to consider the revenue earned. Firms will sometimes ship products to potential customers in anticipation of an order, if the potential customer does not wish to keep the product they can return it at no cost. In this scenario, shipping the product is done without a purchase order and there has clearly been no valid sale and no revenue should be recognised. In the digital world, a close relation to shipping in advance of an order this would be free trials of an online service which entail no obligations from the user and no revenue should be booked for these.
To recognise a sale as revenue the full payment does not need to be received but an assessment must be made about the likelihood of receiving the payment. If it is likely that a payment will be made then the firm may book the sale as revenue. For example, an app purchase on the Apple App Store can be booked as revenue immediately despite the fact the the funds will not be received for one month.
The delivery of the product/service is usually the area when most confusion and disagreement arises. If there is a physical product then it could be considered as delivered when it is delivered to the customer or when it is shipped (either dispatched from the firm’s warehouses or, more conservatively, when received by the customer).
Delivery of digital goods is more difficult to define. For a software application, the customer must have taken dilvery of the application and accepted it. However, for more digital products such as software applications, the product itself is not the sole deliverable. Typically, there is support, training and upgrades included with the purchase. In such circumstances the firm must make an assessment of the fair market value for each of the bundled services and only recognise the portion of income associated with each element when it has been fully delivered.
Consider, for example, Microsoft’s accounting policy :
Microsoft’s earned revenue reflects the recognition of the fair value of these elements [ie the individual components of the order such as upgrades and technical support] over the product’s life-cycle.
The payment received for the product which has not yet been recognised will be held on the Balance Sheet under ‘Deferred Revenue’. For example, if a software firm sells a software application including one upgrade in a year’s time for $100 and it is determined that the value of the upgrade is $20 then the firm will show the $100 in its Bank/Cash on the Balance and $80 in Revenue in the Income Statement, the balance of $20 will be in Deferred Revenue on the Balance Sheet. In one year’s time when the firm’s obligation to deliver the upgrade has been fulfilled then the $20 in Deferred Revenue will be removed and $20 will be added to Revenue.
Note that this type of accounting is appropriate for vendors selling pre-built software applications. For vendors selling software development services such as third-party app developers, a contract method is appropriate whereby the revenue is recognised on a percentage-of-completion basis.
Digital goods represent an accounting challenge as there is often no real-world analogue. Deloitte, although not a regulatory body are the auditors for many vendors of digital goods such as Zynga and issued a detailed guideline on digital goods accounting. In general, an assessment should be made on the period over which the good will be used. Revenue will then be recognised over that lifetime. A key issue with this is that the firm itself is responsible for estimating useful lifetimes and this estimate is difficult to test or evaluate since the data used will be internal to the firm and not publicly available. Subsequent changes in these estimates will directly impact the firm’s Revenue and earnings, for example Zynga has repeatedly reduced the estimate of the months a player will play its online games, this in turn reduces the lifetime of the digital goods the player purchased and essentially accelerated the recognition of revenue.
Exchanges and Marketplaces
A sale of a $30 book by Amazon will create $30 of revenue for Amazon, whereas a $30 book sale by eBay will only create approximately $1.5 of revenue for eBay*. The difference is that Amazon is consider the principal in the transaction whereas eBay is an agent.
The seller is considered the principal if it takes ownership of the product, establishes the sale price, assumes the risk of collecting payment from the customer and processes. The principal can recognise the full sales amount as revenue. Otherwise the firm is considered an agent in the transaction and may only recognise the commission or agency fee for the sale.
For this reason Groupon was required to restate its revenues in its financial accounts. Groupon’s direct sales business offers goods and services at substantial discounts, orders placed on its website are routed to third-party vendors who are then responsible for dispatching the goods and handling returns. Groupon initially booked the entire sale value as revenue but was forced to restate this and only recognise its commission for each sale since it did not take ownership of the products prior to sale.
Returns and Cancellations
An important issue to consider for both physical goods and for services, is the rights of return/cancellation. If there is a right of return or cancellation then revenue can still be recognised provide the sale price is fixed, the buyer is still responsible to pay in the event of theft or destruction of the product and most importantly that the returns can be estimated. Thus the firm should have some history of returns and estimate a percentage of returns, this percentage should then be used a provision on the Income Statement (thus the full amount of the sales would be recognised as revenue and a provision for returns then deducted as an expense further down the Income Statement).
As always, there is a potential issue when a firm makes estimate using internal non-public data (in this case returns/cancellation rates). The provisions are frequently insufficient or can even be used to smooth earnings over time – largers than necessary provisions can be make during good periods and subsequently reversed during lean periods.
*This assumes a 1.5% total fee charged by eBay and that the Amazon purchase was from Amazon directly not a third-party on the Amazon Marketplace