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Business Planning 101: Keep it Simple

In a famous Far Side cartoon a school boy asks to be excused from class because he says, “My brain is full.” Whose isn’t? In today’s information- and communication-heavy world most people are operating on perpetual overwhelm. So it’s no surprise that if something feels even remotely complicated our unconscious kicks in to steer our already too full brain to less taxing waters… like lying on the couch watching (and then subsequently feeling like) the Biggest Loser, playing mindless computer games, or compulsively checking email.

Even people who desperately want to ditch their day job and work for themselves procrastinate because it feels too… well, hard. All that paperwork, the government red tape, all the complicated legal and accounting issues, writing a big business plan, getting a loan… Ai yi yi!

If I actually had to think about all that stuff my brain would be full too. But that’s the thing – despite being self-employed for over a decade now I don’t think about any of it. Why? Because other than seeing my accountant once a year at tax time, my business – like most small home-based businesses – was incredibly simple to set up and is even simpler to run.

I’m not alone. Most small businesses and home-based businesses especially, are not terribly complicated to start. Businesses like consulting, art making, web site design, or freelance writing don’t require you to rent space, hire a bunch of employees, or otherwise building an empire. Yet, I’ve seen far too many aspiring self-bossers retreat to their cubicles after receiving overly complicated – or sometimes wildly flawed – advice from “business experts.”

For example, if you plan to start a small, one-person home-based business you can probably ignore the advice of business experts to run out and hire a high priced attorney and accountant. Don’t get me wrong. Both advisors can be useful. But in the eleven years I’ve been in business, I’ve used an attorney only once and that was to review a licensing agreement.

I also have an accountant. I see him exactly once a year at tax time. Other than that, like me, you can probably do everything right on your home computer using a simple bookkeeping program like Quicken or Quickbooks. (Tip: If you plan to do online banking, you may want to check to see which software your bank syncs with.)

For the first nine years of my business I did my own bookkeeping – and I hate anything remotely mathematical. But if you can handle the basics of personal banking – deposit your earnings and pay the bills – then you can manage a business checking account. Better yet, pay a local bookkeeper $25-$35 an hour to come in a couple times a month. It will be well worth the money and you can use your time to build your business. Whether you do your own bookkeeping or hire it out, to ensure you take advantage of every possible tax deduction I suggest you have an accountant prepare your taxes.

A Common Sense Take on Incorporation

Any advice offered here is based on a combination of my own personal experience and common sense. Everyone’s situation is different, so do your homework before making any decisions about your business structure and/or the need for professional advisors.

Having said that, it drives me crazy when business start-up experts advise aspiring entrepreneurs to run out and hire a pricy attorney and incorporate. Obviously some businesses should be incorporated. In addition to liability issues, in some cases there are certain tax advantages and disadvantages to incorporation. (For a comprehensive article on the pros and cons of incorporation from Entrepreneur magazine, click here or go to TinyURL.com/gcleg.)

In my case any tax breaks from incorporation are not worth the hassle of the additional paperwork and filing required. My guess is, unless you plan to own a brick and mortar business, see clients or customers in your home, open a skate board park, or otherwise start a business where liability is a factor, you probably don’t need to incorporate either.

Take my client Marcelle. For the past few years Marcelle had been saving money to start a business offering personal empowerment workshops for other women of color. It broke my heart to hear Marcelle tell how she’d just dropped over $2,000 to have an attorney incorporate her one-person workshop business as a limited liability corporation (LLC). When I asked what on earth compelled her to incorporate, Marcelle told me an attorney had “put the fear of God” into her. All it would take, said the attorney, was one lawsuit, and Marcelle and her husband could lose their house.

I’m not an attorney. But unlike Marcelle I’ve been at this training business for over twenty-five years. Common sense and personal experience tell me that the chances of being sued by a disgruntled workshop attendee are so remote as to be laughable. Over the past two-plus decades I’ve conducted hundreds of workshops attended by literally tens of thousands of people. During that time not only has no one sued me, but the likelihood of my ever being sued is next to zero.

Unless Marcelle’s workshop includes some high risk activity like fire-walking or she makes some very specific claims that, for example, guaranteeing workshop participants that her program will reap them a certain level of financial success, it is all but inconceivable that she would ever see the inside of a law office never mind a court. If a workshop participant doesn’t like Marcelle’s seminar then the worse case scenario is they’ll ask for a refund – which, like any reputable business person, Marcelle would promptly give them.

What Is In a Name?

Years ago I created a line of greeting cards under the name Making Waves. Turns out there was a hair salon a few towns over with the same name. Since our two enterprises had nothing to do with each other, I didn’t care and neither did they. Marcelle hadn’t thought much about her business name until her attorney convinced her to pony up another $300 for the attorney to conduct a legal name search meant to once again keep her from landing penniless on the streets as a result of an expensive lawsuit.

Naturally if you’re planning to spend thousands of dollars on signage for your storefront or on a big ad campaign you should definitely do a name search. But, if like Marcelle, the biggest investment in your business name is $25 for business cards, then that’s exactly how much you’ll be out if you have to print new ones.

Paying for a name search goes back to common sense and proportion of injury. If it turned out that another company actually does have a legal claim on Marcelle’s business name do you really think their first course of action would be to drag her into court? No company wants to spend money on attorney and court fees if they can help it. A far more likely scenario is that the offended company would have their legal counsel send Marcella a letter telling her to cease and desist using their name – at which point she would.

Was Marcella’s attorney trying to take advantage of her? Not at all. Instead like any good attorney she was doing what she was trained to do, which is to protect her client against possible litigation. Common sense tells us though that the risk of losing a home as a result of a disgruntled attendee at a personal empowerment workshop or the inadvertent use of an existing business name is next to nil. The $2300 that Marcelle spent on unnecessary legal protection could have been better invested in marketing her business.

For example, instead of protecting her business name Marcelle could have used her hard-earned cash to get a great name! If you want to be confident that your business name is not already taken or you are still shopping around for a name, marketing guru and “Head Stork” at NamedAtLast.com, Marcia Yudkin can help. Marcia offers an impressive list of resources for Do-It-Yourself-Namers allowing you to search the availability of company names in the U.S., Canada, U.K, Australia, and New Zealand, find books and other products, and check out the originality of tag lines. (For information on how non-profits can get a free name and tag line see Resources for a Change.)

Or, for a very reasonable $997, Marcia and her crack team of international “storklets,” will come up with ten original names from which you can choose. Now that’s what I call money well spent!

Are there times when you need to incorporate, retain an attorney, or hire an accountant? Of course. But most businesses really can Keep it Simple. Spend your money on things that will grow your business – building your expertise, hiring a good copywriter, getting a professional looking web site, finding a killer business name. Keep it simple and your head really will be full – with ideas!

Take a break from figuring out how to change your life by changing someone else’s life: VolunteerMarch.com is a national clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities. For Katrina specific opp’s CommonGroundRelief.org

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