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// by Bridget Weston Pollack / Nov. 27, 2015 0 comments
retirement planning

Think small business owners can’t save for retirement? Think you can’t help your employees save, either?

It’s time to rethink your old suspicions -- and and get in the retirement savings mindset.

TJ Houppert, an accredited retirement plan consultant who works with business clients and their employees at Paychex, offered the grim reality of retirement savings on the latest episode of the SCORE Small Business Success Podcast:

“Savings rates for Americans could use some work,” She admitted. “Currently they’re at 5 percent. We’re not saving enough.”

If you think that five percent of your annual income is going to snowball into a healthy retirement nest-egg, it’s time to get out a calculator and start planning realistically for retirement.

Save for your own retirement

Just because you don’t have an employer to provide a benefits package doesn’t mean you can’t have one. “If you are a business owner, you can have a 401(k) plan,” Houppert said. “You have a right to start a 401(k) plan because you’ve taken on that risk as a business owner.” She likes the flexibility and affordability of a 401(k) plan, which allows you to save up to about $18,000 per year before company matching.

Of course, there are many options available for small business owners, from IRAs to 401(k)s and more. Visit the Department of Labor for a breakdown of different options, and ask your SCORE mentor about programs that may work best for you.

Most importantly, don’t assume the eventual sale of your business will net you millions, or that you’ll be able to work until you’re 95. Taking action now can help ensure a comfortable lifestyle long after your tenure as a small business owner.

Help your employees save, too

Houppert said it’s not as expensive as you think to offer retirement plans to employees -- about the cost of a smartphone bill each month. Administering your plan takes even less time and energy if you tie your benefits package in with your payroll service.

There’s even a tax incentive just for offering 401(k) plans for your employees. You can receive a credit of $500 per year over three years if you set up a 401(k) plan for your business of 100 or fewer employees. That credit can cover a big portion of your administrative costs.

Not ready to match employee contributions? Don’t worry. You’re still encouraging employees to save and providing a systematized way to do it. “The biggest thing is that you’re saving, period,” Houppert said.

For Beatriz Bonnet, offering a more robust set of employee benefits has helped her to recruit and retain qualified employees for her translation company, Syntez Language Group. By using a third-party 401(k) administrator, Bonnet’s employees can select their own mutual funds. “I want people to feel invested in the company,” she explained in a SCORE case study

Meet with a SCORE mentor to learn how you can best save for retirement -- and help your employees save, too. 

Bridget Weston Pollack
Vice President of Marketing & Communications
SCORE
Bridget Weston Pollack is the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at the SCORE Association. In this role, Bridget is responsible for all branding, marketing, PR, and communication efforts. She focuses on implementing marketing plans and strategies for the organization to facilitate the growth of SCORE’s mentoring and trainings services.
// by OnDeck / Nov. 25, 2015 0 comments
Financing

Accessing capital is a challenge for many small business owners—particularly for startups. Of course there are options, but some of them are potentially more risky than others. While I have seen successful small business owners use one or two of these financing approaches, the need for capital, the long-term financial risk involved, and the potential value the financing might provide should be thoroughly evaluated before taking one of these steps.

Accessing Home Equity

Many small business owners turn to a home equity loan to get things off the ground. Growing up in the family business I know that’s how my dad got the seed capital he needed to start his business and years later, when I started my first business, that’s what I did to get my own off the ground.

With a reasonably good personal credit history and a fair amount of equity in your home, adding a second mortgage or refinancing your home is a pretty straightforward proposition. In fact, it’s fairly simple. There are however, a couple things to carefully consider before you tap into your home equity.

1. You’re putting your home at risk: Entrepreneurs as a group are a fairly optimistic bunch. With confidence in a new business idea, it might not feel like borrowing home equity to get things started is very risky, but it is. Of the businesses that start today, roughly half of them will survive the first five years. What’s more, many of these failed businesses are piloted by smart, hardworking entrepreneurs just like you. And, like you, they were confident their business idea would be a success. If, for some reason, you are continually late on your second mortgage payment or default altogether, you run the risk of losing your home.

2. You increase your need for personal income: For many small business owners, the first few years can be financially challenging as they try to keep personal expenses low so business income can be reinvested to help the business grow. The burden of an increased mortgage payment can make that difficult for new business owners who don’t have a good second source of income. If you decide to use home equity to seed your business, it may be a good idea to make sure you have an additional source of income to ensure the mortgage payment is made on time every month.

3. Using your personal credit just isn’t a good idea: While using personal credit, like your home equity might be expedient in some circumstances, it puts your personal credit score at risk and doesn’t do anything to build your business credit, which can make small business financing more challenging down the road.

These cautions aren’t to suggest that a disciplined business owner can successfully leverage their home equity into successful startup capital, but rather to point out there are some serious risks that should be considered first.

Leveraging Your Retirement Savings

Some business owners dip into their 401k or other retirement savings to find capital. There are even companies that will help a business owner roll some of their retirement funds into a business loan—maybe even avoiding the penalties typically associated with accessing retirement funds early. Although this may be a legal use of retirement funds, consulting your tax advisor before borrowing from your 401k is important.

While borrowing from your retirement savings is a source of capital accessed by some business owners, it puts your retirement funds at risk and the long-term consequences of pushing back the money your retirement account could otherwise be earning should be considered before taking this option.

Using Personal Credit Cards

Many business owners use their personal credit cards to access capital for their businesses. Any time you use your personal credit to pay for business expenses you should consider it meeting a short-term need with long-term consequences. While it may be convenient, the higher balances typically associated with business expenses can hurt your personal score even if you pay off the balance every time a payment is due. And, that’s assuming you have the discipline to regularly pay off the balance on time. If you don’t, your personal credit will take additional beating.

What’s more, like leveraging your home equity, using a personal credit card doesn’t do anything to help you build a strong business credit profile, which can make it more difficult to access business credit down the road. Building a strong business credit profile, especially in the early years of your business, is very important.

Do You Really Need the Extra Capital?

Having been there myself, I understand how access to extra capital can make running a small business a lot easier. However, in a recent conversation I had with John Sperry, CEO of InMoment, he suggested, “You have to find creative ways to work on the cheap without the need for a lot of cash.”

Now a very successful 13-year old tech company, he added, “We did a lot of things … to make it less expensive for us to do business. Some of those things even helped improve our ability to build the best product in the end. We had to do a lot of outside-the-box thinking, which was very good for us.”

Choosing the right type of financing for your business requires the ability to look objectively at the risks compared to the potential rewards to determine if it makes sense. After weighing both, you may even decide that waiting is the best option. In the end, it’s really creative problem solving, not money that builds the most successful businesses.

OnDeck
by Ty Kiisel
SCORE Corporate Patron
Ty Kiisel contributes to the SCORE blog from OnDeck. OnDeck offers business loans and business lines of credit to small businesses across the United States. OnDeck analyzes businesses differently than traditional lenders, which means that they can make more loans than traditional lenders, and they can fund businesses within hours or days – not weeks or months.
// by Rieva Lesonsky / Nov. 24, 2015 0 comments
Sustainability

How green is your business? The answer to that question could make or break your company in the coming years. According to a new survey, Millennials care more than other generations about whether companies practice sustainable business — that is, environmentally friendly practices such as conserving resources and using energy efficiently.

About two-thirds (62  percent) of small and midsize businesses in the second annual Cox Conserves Sustainability Survey have implemented sustainable business practices—pretty much unchanged from last year.

The top five ways that small and midsized businesses are supporting sustainability:

1. Using supplies efficiently, such as printing on both sides of paper — 62 percent
2. Using energy-efficient lighting and equipment — 60 percent
3. Offering paperless billing — 56 percent
4. Offering recycling programs — 54 percent
5. Holding meetings virtually — 45 percent

Among the top benefits of sustainability are cost savings (cited by 46 percent), demonstrating a commitment to the environment (40 percent), and enhancing the company's public image (38 percent). So what's holding small and midsize businesses back from becoming more environmentally friendly?

Unwillingness to pay higher upfront costs for sustainability is a key factor, as is the fact that other priorities are taking precedence. However, according to Millennials, older generations are also standing in the way.

While Millennials know more and care more about sustainability than any other age group in the survey, and are more committed to increasing sustainability, the Millennial's surveyed say that they don't yet have enough influence in business and management to effect change. And 53 percent say at the companies they work for, their leaders (primarily Baby Boomers) are hampering efforts toward sustainability.

A survey from Microsoft shows that being sustainable helps you attract Millennial employees. An overwhelming 88 percent says they want to work for companies with “clearly define values and a strong mission.”

As a Boomer myself—one who as a teenage sold “Save the Environment” buttons on the streets of New York City, I find it surprising that the generation that first focused on environmental sustainability is dropping the ball. Whether this is actually true or just a perception among Millennials, Cox suggests four ways that you can make your small business more sustainable.

  • Review your baseline energy usage. Contact your utility company to get detailed records of what your energy usage is. Some utilities will also conduct an energy audit for you, assessing wasteful practices and suggesting ways to improve energy savings.
  • Look for government programs to help. There are many tax credits, rebates and other incentives for businesses that can make becoming energy-efficient more affordable. Go here for more information.
  • Take advantage of nature. Use low-tech solutions to save energy. For example, if the sun blazes into your office windows at sunrise every morning, try closing the window blinds at night so the office will be cool when employees arrive. Have ample natural light? Turn off your lights during part of the day and rely on natural sunlight.
  • Involve your employees. As the survey shows, today's employees — especially younger ones — are passionate about sustainability. Pick their brains for ideas and suggestions about ways you can make your business more sustainable. Also encourage them to practice sustainable business with simple acts such as turning off lights when they leave the room, powering down their equipment at the end of the day, and using reusable coffee mugs.

Need more ideas for saving money, energy and the planet? Your SCORE Mentor can help. Visit www.score.org to get matched with your mentor today. 

Rieva Lesonsky
Columnist and CEO
GrowBiz Media

Rieva is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company specializing in covering small businesses and entrepreneurship. She was formerly Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine and has written several books about small business and entrepreneurship. 
GrowBizMedia.com | @rieva | More from Rieva

// by Hal Shelton / Nov. 23, 2015 0 comments
Budget

You’ve heard the saying: you need to spend money to make money for a reason.

Especially when you’re first starting your business, you’ll have a lot of initial costs that require you to spend in advance of receiving payments.

For example, you buy/lease a truck to deliver goods that will be subsequently billed for and funds collected, build out a retail store before opening the doors for business, hire staff before they can produce goods or offer services, and advertise to generate leads for future sales.

In a reverse situation, a nonprofit typically has a large fundraiser at the beginning of the fiscal year and then hopes sufficient donations are received to cover expenses for the rest of the year.

A budget will help you match these early expenditures with subsequent receipts so you know what to expect, especially with regard to cash availability, and thus you will know where any cash shortages need to be addressed.

Preparing a budget is usually the one time a year that a small business focuses on the year ahead rather than today’s challenges.

You prepare a budget as a tool to help you lead, manage, and control the operations and finances of your business. There may be secondary users of the information, like your staff, who need to understand the company’s goals and progress. And if you have a bank loan, your banker will probably want to see the budget and the actual results.

What is a good budget format?

When you picture a budget, you likely see spreadsheets with many numbers. But more important than the numbers are the assumptions that drive the calculations.

Therefore, the first page of your budget should be these assumptions — what products/services are being sold at what prices and volumes, and what the key drivers are for expenses, like the number of staff and locations, various marketing initiatives, etc.

In essence, you have both an operations and finance budget, and the two are closely intertwined.

There are two primary financial formats you can be use: income statement and cash flow statement.

If you own an established business, use both, plus any accounts receivable and inventory from the balance sheet. If you own a new business, focus on just cash flow.

These formats will help you determine how much revenue you need to cover costs and make a profit so you can pay yourself, and how much, if any, cash you will need to fund cash shortfalls.

A budget will give you advance notice of when these shortfalls might occur so you can start early lining up funds to cover them, such as from personal resources or a bank loan.

To determine the level of detail for the budget, it should sync with your monthly reports on actual revenue and expense.

Often in a business startup there is not enough information to have intelligent budgets in less than a year increment. So work toward this goal: if last year’s budget was for the whole year, this year do it by quarters. Likewise if last year was by quarter, this year go for monthly.

Where does budget information come from?

If you own an established business, you have the results from last year, and you know where you exceeded or fell short of last year’s budget.

This is your starting point for the current year. In your assumptions, state what market and operational changes are anticipated along with any initiatives you plan.

Also, if you did one budget for the whole company last year, and you have a team, try slicing the budget by areas of responsibility and engage team members in helping to develop budgets for their own areas — it will help with commitment and accountability.

If you are a new business, budgeting is more challenging, as there are not ready reference points. Hopefully you prepared a business plan, and in the finance section there is a forecast. Use the first year of that forecast for your budget starting point.

Using and Maintaining a Budget

For each reporting period, usually a month, prepare a report — easy if you are using accounting software — with the actual results, the budgeted amounts, and the difference for both the current month and year to date.

Usually, the budget numbers do not change, even if there are major market or operational changes, since it is important to know what the original plan was. However, in a small early-stage company there needs to be flexibility, so I suggest looking mid-year at what has happened year to date and what is anticipated for the final six months of the year, then revise the budget as appropriate.

Budgeting Tips

Following are ideas I use in preparing budgets and which I share with my SCORE clients.

  • Write down the key assumptions before spending much effort calculating all the monthly details. In other words, develop the general road map before crunching the calculator.
    • For revenue, list the major products and services you offer and the number of current and expected customers by end of the year. Most important, list the product pricing and volumes expected in the coming year. List the key components of the marketing plan that will cause these sales to occur — sales team, advertising, website, email marketing, channel partners, use of social media, etc.
    • What is important to know about these sales? For example, are there freight charges that are important to track, how about returns? If you charge sales taxes, keep these amounts separate as this is the government’s money. Are they cash sales or do you provide credit terms?
  • List the three cost categories separately in your budget: variable costs (those directly associated with the production of a product like labor and materials), semi-fixed (like advertising, that can be increased or decreased over time), and fixed costs (rent, insurance, most staff, audit, etc.)
  • Expenses are usually easier to forecast than sales, so provide contingencies. For example, over the year you might reduce budgeted sales by 20 percent and increase expenses by 10 percent. It is better to under promise and over deliver.
  • While a budget can be handwritten in a notebook, it is best to use software, either created with your accounting system or with an Excel spreadsheet. Preparing a budget is an iterative process. It is unlikely you will like the results of your first try, so you will tweak the assumptions and then change the numbers accordingly. Be careful not to fool yourself by changing numbers to get desired results without changing assumptions and then testing the reality of the new assumption.

Key Takeaways

  • Budgeting is to help you manage and control your business in particular focusing on the cash received and spent — all looking a year ahead. So you will know of possible cash shortfalls well in advance.
  • Budget in the same level of detail and format as you report actual results
  • Mid-year examine year-to-date results and next six months forecast to determine if your budget should be updated.
  • Be conservative in budget assumptions as revenues usually take longer to achieve than planned while expenses are usually ongoing.
Hal Shelton
Author and Mentor
SCORE

Hal is a SCORE mentor who is passionate about helping small businesses start and grow. He has been a CFO and board member for NYSE/NASDAQ publicly traded companies and nonprofits. He is currently an active investor in early-stage technology companies and is the Amazon bestselling author of The Secrets to Writing a Successful Business Plan.
secretsofbusinessplans.com​ | Washington D.C. SCOREMore From Hal

// by Bridget Weston Pollack / Nov. 20, 2015 0 comments
Retail Space

After 22 years in the Air Force, Tom McMahon was ready for a change. Rather than take a government contracting job upon his retirement, McMahon was inspired by family members who had opened retail small businesses.

A Washington, D.C.-focused gift shop became McMahon’s dream for the next part of his career. Together with his SCORE mentor and other experts, he was able to make his dream a reality.

First step to success: evaluate needs

McMahon had passion, but knew he needed help to properly launch his business. His mentor, retail expert Richard Rose, started meeting with the aspiring shop owner to make a startup to-do list.

Their top priorities: finding a location with the help of a leasing agent, developing a letter of intent, negotiating a lease, and ensuring the landlord’s responsibilities for the property were fair.

“A surprise to me, the leasing agent is completely free to the tenant to be,” McMahon admitted after Rose helped him find an agent who could narrow down on the right neighborhood for his shop. “The leasing agent was there at each step along the way until we occupied the space,” he said.

Seek negotiation help

Once they discovered a space where McMahon could picture his shop, he worked with his leasing agent and mentor to develop a letter of intent, which begins the discussion for the most basic -- but essential -- aspects of the lease, like rent terms. McMahon’s letter of intent experienced several rounds of revision as both parties negotiated.

“If I had been on my own,” McMahon admits, “out of ignorance I would have likely just accepted the terms that the landlord presented in his initial letter.” Those terms could have sunk McMahon’s business before it even opened: the landlord had initially asked for a full guarantee, meaning McMahon would have been responsible for the full term of the 10-year lease even if he went out of business.

McMahon was also able to negotiate for several months of free rent. “Any new business needs a few months to get going, and my SCORE mentor stated that it was absolutely common and reasonable for me to ask for several months of free rent in order to posture for a successful beginning,” McMahon recalled.  After receiving three months of free rent to build out the space and prepare to open, “We were able to open for business without being tens of thousands of dollars further in debt.”  

Invest in experts

Once it was time to start negotiating the official lease, McMahon called on another expert: an attorney. “In addition to the lawyer reviewing every part of the lease with a fine-toothed comb, my leasing agent and SCORE mentor were there every step of the way, providing inputs and recommendations,” McMahon said. “Using a lawyer for lease development allowed us to proceed with decreased anxiety, knowing that we were entering into this new venture in the best legal position possible.”

The final part of the lease process was determining that the landlord and tenant had fair responsibilities for taking care of the property. “Without having any experience in this realm combined with dealing with a 100-year-old building, the build-out process could have been disastrous,” McMahon said of the initial terms, which put all permitting and build-out duties on McMahon. But the thoroughness of his letter of intent and lease development meant McMahon was protected from such great responsibilities. “The space was ultimately delivered to us in a condition that we could immediately start working in,” McMahon said. 

“Without the assistance of SCORE, Urban Dwell may never have come to be, or would either still be in the development phase or worse, in a situation that put us in a very compromised position,” McMahon reflects. “I recommend that anyone starting a business utilize and leverage the years of invaluable experience that a SCORE mentor brings to the table.”

Have a leasing question? Team up with a SCORE mentor to make sure your small business plans are on the right track.

Bridget Weston Pollack
Vice President of Marketing & Communications
SCORE
Bridget Weston Pollack is the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at the SCORE Association. In this role, Bridget is responsible for all branding, marketing, PR, and communication efforts. She focuses on implementing marketing plans and strategies for the organization to facilitate the growth of SCORE’s mentoring and trainings services.
// by David Lee / Nov. 19, 2015 0 comments
New Product

It’s no secret small business owners wear many hats. They are marketers, managers, and much more. Perhaps their most important role is that of product developer. New products promote business growth and enables business owners to respond to industry trends and consumer demand. This makes product development the vehicle that allows small business owners to direct their companies into the future.     

As Vice President of Product Development at The UPS Store, my expertise lies in defining the strategy and executing the process behind product development. There are several key steps that small business owners need to consider when developing a new product, such as evaluating whether or not a product is right for their brand, providing employees with the right training, and anticipating what’s to come in the future.

Evaluate the idea

Product development always starts with an initial concept or idea. For small business owners, that idea might be an entirely new product or an enhancement to an existing one. In either case, you need to determine whether the idea is right for your business.

First, you need to assess if the product is a long term strategic fit for your brand and whether it supports your business goals.  Don’t look to incorporate products that are only going to be around for a short period of time or that would be an odd fit for your business. Next, ask yourself if the product would appeal to your customers and fit within your business goals. In certain cases, it might make sense to enhance a current offering or add an additional product within an existing menu of services, rather than create something entirely new.

Finally, it’s important to consider the impact to the footprint of your business. Will the new product require additional machinery or space for your business? As a franchise model, we consider the ease of implementation and whether or not the product is one franchisees would want to offer. In most cases, new products should complement and be easy to implement with your current product mix.

Train employees

After you have determined a product is right for your business, the next steps are to develop the product and train employees on communicating. When developing a new product or service, remember that it’s okay to advance in stages and to fine tune the product as you go. It’s very rare to release a product that will never be refined.

Employees are often the first touch point for customers, so it’s important for them to know how to talk about the product and how it will be used. Small business owners should develop product communications with the end user in mind. It is important to address the customers’ concerns rather than your own. Once you determine what customers are looking for, train employees on how to communicate to them in a way that satisfies their wants and needs.

At The UPS Store, we train franchisees in a variety of ways, including webinars, reference guides and in-person meetings.  Training also gives small business owners the opportunity to solicit feedback from the employee and improve the product development process more quickly.

Look to the future

When the product finally makes it to market, it’s time to think about what’s next for your business. Not many businesses that focus on one single product have a long shelf life. Diversifying and staying engaged with customers is key to business growth and success.

Pay attention to how customers are acquiring your products. Businesses need to offer products that satisfy customer needs but also make those products easy to purchase. Consider if there are alternative ways to market and sell your products, such as online. It’s also helpful to stay informed on industry trends and on what your competition is up to. Doing this will help small business owners develop the right product development portfolio and subsequently grow their businesses and direct their companies into the future.    

David Lee
Vice President of Product Development
The UPS Store

David Lee joined The UPS Store, Inc., in June 2002 as a franchise consultant in the Central Region. In 2014, Lee became the vice president of product development and print services. He holds a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from DePaul University in Chicago and a master’s degree in business administration from the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management.
The UPS Store | @TheUPSStore | Facebook

// by OnDeck / Nov. 18, 2015 0 comments
Loan Documents

Depending upon your lender and the nature of your loan, you may or may not need all of these documents to apply. Below are listed some important documents—some may be required by your lender. Regardless of whether or not you need them all, because depending upon the type of lender you choose they may or may not require all of them, it’s a good idea to have this information at your fingertips.

What’s more, even though most people don’t start a small business because they’re super excited about the financial reports that are part of the operation of a business, it’s important to make sure you have a good understanding of what the included reports on this list are telling you about your business. I once spoke with a loan officer who said, “If I can tell more about a business by looking at the financial reports than the business owner, I don’t approve the loan.”

1. Your business financial statements: These include a current Profit and Loss (P&L) Statement including any supplementary schedules from the last three fiscal years, a Cash Flow statement, and your Balance Sheet. All of these reports should be current within the last 60 to 90 days.

2. Bank Statements: In addition to the above-mentioned financial statements, some lenders require the last three months of your business bank statements. Many lenders want to verify that you have a business banking account and that you have the cash flow to make the periodic payments.

3. Any current loan documents or lease agreements: If you currently have a small business loan or equipment lease, you’ll want to disclose those current commitments and be prepared with those documents. It’s also a good idea to have your business lease, if you lease the property where you do business or the mortgage on your business property if you own the property.

4. Income tax returns: You’ll need the last three years of signed income tax returns for both your business and your personal taxes. Many online lenders are willing to work with a business owner who has only been in business for a year, so you may not need three years of business tax returns if applying with an online lender.

5. Your personal financial information: For most small business owners, your personal financial history will be part of the criteria many lenders use to evaluate your credit-worthiness. This is particularly true if your business is very small or hasn’t been in business for many years. You should also expect to sign a personal guarantee if you are offered a loan. It’s also a good idea to know your personal credit score.

6. Ownership and affiliations: Be prepared to disclose any other businesses you have a financial interest in, and if you have partners, they may need to sign any documents related to the loan you’re applying for. If this describes you, the lender may want to see the documentation associated with those ownerships and affiliations.

7. Your business license: You’ll want to have your business license handy, and if you’re business is incorporated, your corporate seal. Many lenders will also need to see proof of a business checking account.

8. A business plan: Although many lenders don’t require a detailed business plan, it is a requirement at many traditional lenders like the bank. The SBA will often require a business plan when applying for a loan within one of their loan guarantee programs. Nevertheless, whether or not it’s a requirement, it’s a great exercise to go through and well worth the effort as you plan for your business success.

Having this information at your fingertips when sitting across the desk, or on the phone, with a loan officer will help streamline the application process—particularly if you’re prepared to answer questions about the documents. And, while some lenders won’t require all these documents and others might need more information, this is a great way to demonstrate to any lender that you are prepared to seriously talk about a small business loan.

OnDeck
by Ty Kiisel
SCORE Corporate Patron
Ty Kiisel contributes to the SCORE blog from OnDeck. OnDeck offers business loans and business lines of credit to small businesses across the United States. OnDeck analyzes businesses differently than traditional lenders, which means that they can make more loans than traditional lenders, and they can fund businesses within hours or days – not weeks or months.
// by Rieva Lesonsky / Nov. 17, 2015 1 comments
New Challenge

If there's one thing all entrepreneurs have in common, it’s the ability to find the silver lining in any cloud. Sometimes, that saying can be interpreted literally—for example, entrepreneurs in my area of Southern California are already taking advantage of the coming El Niño storm season.

El Niño is a severe weather system that brings torrential rains. The last time a strong El Niño hit Southern California back in the 1990s, freeways flooded, cars floated away and homes slid down hillsides. Apparently, people have learned from that experience, because they're taking El Niño more seriously this time around. In recent weeks in my neighborhood, I've seen new windows being put in, rain gutters being cleaned, and roofers frantically hammering away to replace or patch roofs before the rain hits.

It's a funny turnaround, because all summer long, entrepreneurs were benefiting from Southern California's unprecedented drought. I saw dozens of lawns being replaced with xeriscape (drought-tolerant landscaping), solar power installers going door to door to help customers cut their air-conditioning bills, and even lawns being dyed green so they could look fresh without watering.

You don't have to be in Southern California to benefit from the growing number of extreme weather events that are taking place around the country. Look back over the past decade or so, and look ahead to coming weather predictions, and you'll be inspired with many ideas for ways a small business could help Americans protect themselves from storms, floods and snow. Here are just a few of them:

  • Sell emergency preparedness kits, ranging from first-aid supplies to freeze-dried food.
  • Provide emergency training for schools, churches or other community organizations that are responsible for vulnerable populations.
  • Retrofit buildings to protect them from potential disasters endemic to your region.
  • Consult with small businesses to help them develop disaster plans for protecting their equipment, employees and data in case of emergency.
  • Start a business to digitize valuable personal records, such as Social Security cards, birth certificates, insurance papers, loan documents and more so they can be stored in the cloud, protected from natural disaster. (This is the kind of thing everyone means to do but never gets around to actually doing.)
  • Sell pet safety kits to help people feed, protect and transport pets during an emergency.
  • Stock up on products to help people deal with the coming severe weather. You wouldn't believe how many people in Southern California I've heard talking about buying industrial-strength rain boots—something you rarely see at all around here. Entrepreneurs who have them on hand are likely to win big.

Whether you're looking to start a business or already have one, smart entrepreneurs can turn any type of adversity into opportunity. All you have to do is think about what people are likely to need in that situation, and what they'll have trouble finding that you can provide. That goes for services as well as products. Severe weather causes uncertainty, worry and fear. If you can ease people's minds by helping lessen their fears and worries, they'll turn to your business for help—and you'll be able to turn lemons into lemonade.

You can probably brainstorm dozens of other ideas yourself. Your SCORE mentor can help you come up with others. Visit www.score.org to find a mentor today.

Rieva Lesonsky
Columnist and CEO
GrowBiz Media

Rieva is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company specializing in covering small businesses and entrepreneurship. She was formerly Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine and has written several books about small business and entrepreneurship. 
GrowBizMedia.com | @rieva | More from Rieva

// by Jeanne Rossomme / Nov. 16, 2015 0 comments
Meeting

Picking the right people is critical to a productive planning session.  Including too many and you will have a hard time getting to a distilled set of initiatives.  Inviting too few may leave out important insights and buy-in.  Here are a few tips to help you get your invite list and set the right expectations:

Go back to your goals - what critical voices need to be in the room? Each person in that room needs to have a role, a contribution.  Is the Voice of the Customer represented? Do other major functions like Finance or Engineering need to be there?  Who will do the work AFTER the meeting?  Do you need them there to get their full buy-in?

Understand the WIIFM for each participant.  Before the meeting starts it is best to individually speak with each participant.  Here it is best if the interviews are conducted by an outside the group person who is perceived as neutral and impartial.  Each person is then free to state his opinion and potentially derailing issues can get flushed out in advance.  Ask what he wants to get out of the meeting.  What issues does he see as critical for the team to work on?  Also the interviewer should look out for any hidden agendas. For example, the person calling the meeting really wants to see how her team works together or how each member is contributing, while one participant is there to see if his boss will make difficult decisions.  Another participant may want to see if she can make a case to get her budget.

Planning meetings are not the platform for addressing dysfunction in the team.  While the meeting may help the team get focused around a common goal, it won’t fix all issues that may exist among teams. It is best to be realistic about what the team dynamics and issues are and determine if they need to be addressed before the meeting.  If people have a valued HR leader, they should always be on the design team for the planning session.

Consider personality styles.  You are likely to have a wide variety of people together – some verbal and outgoing and others thoughtful and reserved.  Is the meeting structured so that quiet introverted members have a voice and talkative members do not monopolize the time?  Ground Rules can be created to set the tone for the group from the start.

You also need the right information in the room. Without data the team dynamic becomes a collection of war stories and personal opinions.  What data is needed to ground the group to tackle the issues you are discussing?  Analysts may not need to be in the meeting, but make sure their data – and the story it tells - is. 

Foster constructive, directed conflict.  Once you have a group together it is very much like driving a herd of very independently minded animals (if you have a good culture). You actually want to foster conflict, difference of opinion and even heated debates.  The magic and beauty of team dynamics is that, if done right, out of all that messiness and chaos, something new is born - and it is much better than what any one person could have created.

If you would like to hear a podcast of this series, go to http://www.holleycreative.com/business-goals-for-2016/

Jeanne Rossomme
President
RoadMap Marketing

Jeanne uses her 20 years of marketing know-how to help small business owners reach their goals. Before becoming an entrepreneur, she held a variety of marketing positions with DuPont and General Electric. Jeanne regularly hosts online webinars and workshops in both English and Spanish.
www.roadmapmarketing.com | @roadmapmarketin | More from Jeanne

// by Bridget Weston Pollack / Nov. 13, 2015 0 comments
Taxes

Are you preparing now for tax-season success in the spring? Our latest podcast episode tackles a ton of tax-related questions for small businesses so you can stress less over the next few months. Host Dennis Zink teamed up with Burt Seither, SCORE mentor and vice president at 1800Accountant, for expert advice.

Starting and growth both require attention

If you’re just starting a business, Seither says now’s the perfect time to think about your business structure. While it doesn’t cost anything to set up a sole proprietorship, this entity is taxed very heavily. “It can leave you scratching your head at the end of the year, saying ‘What happened to all my money?’” he said.

An LLC or S-corp may be a better option for you. Seither doesn’t advocate for a one-size-fits-all approach, but notes the simplicity of maintaining an LLC, which as a hybrid entity doesn’t come with an inherent tax structure. That means you get to choose which set of tax forms -- sole proprietor or corporation -- you use at the end of the year.

You need to choose within 75 days of forming your LLC by making an entity classification election. But you miss the window -- Seither said a lot of people don’t know about it -- you can make that classification between January and March of the following year. Once you decide on a method of taxation, you must maintain that method for at least five years.

Consult with an attorney or other professional to determine the best filing option for you.

For the veteran business owner, remember that there are initial investments and losses are normal for the first few years of a business. “It doesn’t mean you’re not successful or you’re not making money” Seither said. Don’t forget that you’re probably reinvesting a lot of your revenue into your business to help it grow.

Tax-time red flags

Seither offered a number of red flags the IRS is watching out for in your tax filings.

  • While some business expenses can be deducted immediately, some pieces of equipment may depreciate over time and be deducted over the course of a few years. Talk to your accountant or other professional before making a large purchase for your business.
  • Seither advises against abusing “meals and entertainment” deductions. For a new business owner, it can be fun to put a business lunch or outing on your card and write it off. But you can only deduct 50 percent of these social meetings. Seither recommends writing details of the meeting or event on the back of the receipt that you file away, on paper or electronically, for use at the end of the year.
  • If you bank electronically or pay for most expenses on a company card, remember that bank and credit card statements are not enough documentation for the IRS if you get audited. Err on the side of having more information than less, Seither noted, by retaining itemized receipts alongside your monthly statements and accounting software records.

“Pick and choose your deductions wisely and understand not only the benefits of writing off or claiming a deduction, but also the potential consequences.” Seither said.

Above all: Partner with a professional, whether a CPA, accountant, or enrolled agent, so you have a trusted person to call on when you have a question or concern. “Don’t view the money you’re paying that [professional] as an expense,” Seither said. “View it as an investment.”

Want to learn more about how you can prepare for a low-stress tax season? Join us for Year-End Tax Planning: 5 Clever Moves to Make Now to Reduce What You Owe in April. This live webinar, presented by CPA Micah Fraim, will take place on Tuesday, November 17. Sign up today

Bridget Weston Pollack
Vice President of Marketing & Communications
SCORE
Bridget Weston Pollack is the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at the SCORE Association. In this role, Bridget is responsible for all branding, marketing, PR, and communication efforts. She focuses on implementing marketing plans and strategies for the organization to facilitate the growth of SCORE’s mentoring and trainings services.