Small businesses are the core of the American economy. Perhaps the hardest job in America is running your own business. The Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov) defines a small business as fewer than 500 employees and such business represent 99.7% of all employees in the United States! Of these businesses, 53% are home-based.
Virtually all small businesses start out very small—one or two people. In the 2000 census, there were about 7.1 million businesses in the United States. Of those, 3.4 million (48%) had 0-4 employees. Another one million businesses (14.6%) had 5-9 employees. (www.census.gov/epcd/www/smallbus.html)
If you run a small business, you face many challenges. Taxes alone will keep you employed full time! When I hired my first employee I made up a “tax calendar” for myself so I wouldn’t miss any filings for federal withholding, unemployment insurance, quarterly state and federal forms, etc. Between state and federal, employer and regular income taxes, deposits, tax returns, and sales tax, I had 49 filings or payments due in one year! And I was small, so I only had quarterly deposits and quarterly sales tax returns. Now I do them monthly! That’s over 60 filings a year, or five a month.
I wonder some days how anyone stays in business.
Well, here are a few basic tips that will make your business life easier. As with everything else in life, you need to focus, set specific goals, and make a commitment to yourself. Here are ten pieces of advice to make it all work more smoothly:
Get a good accountant. It is penny-wise and pound-foolish to “save money” by taking care of all your finances without the advice of a good accountant, CPA, or enrolled agent.
A good financial person will keep you on the right side of the law, help you make many decisions, and be a generally good business counselor. Unless you’re a tax accountant or CPA, you will save more money by having a professional handle your taxes than if you do it yourself.
Print up decent business cards. And stationary. You don’t have to have elaborate business cards, but you should have good, professionally-printed cards. Don’t use the laser-perf, make-your-own cards. They look home made. You can get nice cards printed at office supply stores, printers (obviously), or even online. One outfit, VistaPrint, will print a small batch of cards for free if you let them put their logo on the back. See www.vistaprint.com. If you don’t want their logo, then it might cost you $25-50 for full-color, great-looking business cards. If you’re not ready to invest $50-$100 in making your business look professional, you’re probably not ready to be in business yet.
Resolve immediately to keep up on the paperwork. If you are to succeed, you need to keep track of money coming in, money going out, taxes paid and owed, bank accounts, etc. When you put off this paperwork it becomes very difficult to catch up. Sometimes impossible.
I am surprised at the number of people in business for themselves who don’t know whether they are making money or losing money. If you’re losing money, you need to know how fast and how long you’re willing to do that.
Be professional. Give customers a receipt with your business name and phone number. Dress like you’re the boss and not the mail clerk. And related to this . . .
Get Certified or Join a Professional Organization. If your profession has a recognized association, you should be a member. Most of these organizations have very low fees ($50-$100 per year). In addition to guaranteeing that you get their literature and magazines, most of them allow you to use their logo on your business cards. Always a nice touch.
If there are obvious certifications that may help you, develop a plan and acquire them. Taking an evening course or passing an exam might seem like “time off task” for your business, but such efforts always pay you back.
Get a mailbox. If you work out of your home, you may wish to rent a box at Mail Boxes, Etc. or a similar store. Unlike a Post Office Box, you will get a “real” address that can accept Fed Ex and UPS packages. You may also want to get a Visa with this address since many companies will only ship to the billing address of the Visa if you buy online.
Hire a Payroll Service. If you have employees (or are incorporated and you are the only employee), let someone else file all the state forms and taxes, federal forms and taxes, figure out the withholding, unemployment, etc. You are certainly smart enough to figure all this stuff out for yourself. But for a few bucks a month, you can save yourself many hours of labor and hassles. This is a thing you don’t have to do alone.
Run Financial Reports Every Month. The specifics are up to you. You may wish to chart sales, profit (loss), number of leads, items sold, or many other measures of your success. I have always tracked my ten largest customers for the one-month, three-month, and 12-month periods. In addition to dollars, I calculate what percentage of my business comes from these ten clients. It is useful to see new clients rise on the “charts” as well as to see who moves onto and off of the chart.
You need to consider which measurements are most meaningful for your business. At a minimum, every business owner should have a good idea of how much money you made (lost) last month and last year. You should also know instinctively which products or services make the most money for you. It also never hurts to know what your biggest costs are.
Put together a Portfolio. Whether you’re just starting out, or you’ve been in business awhile, put together a folder with endorsements from your clients, examples of your work, etc. You might even include advertisements you’ve done and reprinted. Hint: For most small businesses, most traditional advertising will not pay off soon enough for you to associate the cost with the benefit. So, if you put ads in newspapers or magazines, create an ad that is “timeless” enough for you to reproduce yourself on colored paper and use again and again as a flyer.
Relax, Focus, Succeed. You guessed it. Take time for yourself. Relax and consider where you’re going and what you want to do in your personal life. How does that mesh with your new business? Remember that you will be overwhelmed by your new business. Take time to stop, put things in perspective, and keep focused on the enjoyable part of this big adventure. It won’t be fun every day, but you better enjoy it overall or you might be in the wrong business.
Focus on what needs to be done. What are your goals for “phase one,” “phase two,” and so forth? Where do you want your business to be in five years? In three? One? Six months? Don’t forget your personal life! You also want to accomplish goals personally in five years, one year, etc. Again, how do these things mesh?
Revisit “relaxing” and “focusing” over and over again as you synthesize your personal and professional lives. You’ll be amazed at how much extra energy and enthusiasm you have when there’s a consistency among these elements of your life.
Succeed. This is almost inevitable. Have a plan. A realistic plan. Set goals. Focus on the goals. Work hard. Remember the relaxation element that makes it possible to bring all these together.
Start today. There’s no reason not to.