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3 Simple Steps to Turn Forecasts into Management Decisions

By Tim Berry, Guest Blogger
Published: August 25, 2015 Updated: August 25, 2015

You need sales forecasting to run your business better. The forecast becomes your budget, and then the budget is tracked, and tracking leads to watching results and constant corrections. Below budget sales are an alert to problems. Above budget sales are a window to opportunities. To get to the opportunities you have to forecast.

The math and structure of a sales forecasting is easy. Think of a spreadsheet with lines of sales or products along the left, from top to bottom; and time frames like months, quarters, or years along the top, from left to right.

Photo 1

You can see from the illustration that the math is pretty easy. Divide your sales forecast into categories. Project average monthly units. Estimate average prices per unit. Multiply units times price to calculate sales.

The secret that I’ve found, working with forecasts through the years, is in the categories and averaging. I’ve gradually learned three mix-and-match secrets that make forecasting much easier.

1. Start With Your Sales Drivers

Drivers are different for each business, and you need to understand your special drivers. For my online software business, it’s web and mobile traffic and conversion rates. For a retail store, it might be foot traffic. For a product business selling through retail chains, it might be average units per store per month. In the small restaurant example above, it’s dividing the business into useful groups of items: coffee, lunches, beverages, and all other.

2. Match Your Forecast to your Accounting

It should be obvious: Make sure the way you organize the sales forecast matches the way your accountant (or bookkeeping) tracks them. That doesn’t mean you have to leave the drivers out, as in point 1; it means that both the accounting and the drivers should match reality.

Match your chart of accounts, which is what accountants call your list of items that show up in your financial statements.

If the accounting divides sales into meals, drinks, and other, then the sales forecast should divide sales into meals, drinks, and other. So if your chart of accounts divides sales by product or service groups, keep those groups intact in your sales forecast. If bookkeeping tracks sales by product, don’t forecast your sales by channel.Photo 2

If you’re planning for a startup business, coordinate the bookkeeping categories with the forecasting categories.

Get your last Income Statement (also called Profit & Loss) and keep it in view while you develop your future projections.

  • If you don’t have more than 20 or so each rows of sales, costs, and expenses, then make the rows in the projected statement match the rows in the accounting.
  • If your accounting summarizes categories for you – most systems do – consider using the summary categories in your business plan. Accounting needs detail, while planning needs a summary.

If your categories in the projections don’t match the accounting output, you’re not going to be able to track plan vs. actual well. It will take retyping and recalculating. And you’ll lose the most valuable business benefit of business planning: management, steering your company.

3. Regularly Compare Your Actual Results to Your Forecast

As long as your forecast structure matches your real sales drivers and your accounting too, then you have an always-available opportunity for useful updates. All bookkeeping and accounting software gives you sales reports that divide your sales results into the categories you established in your chart of accounts. If you forecast categories match your bookkeeping/accounting, then (once again) the math is simple.

Pull up last month’s sales reports and compare them to your original sales forecast for that month.

  • At the top level, if actual sales are better than what you had forecasted, you have the opportunity to explore why, what went right, and take advantage of increased sales to increase marketing. Or simply enjoy higher profits.
  • Also at the top level, if actual sales are lower than what you’d forecasting, you have an alert to look at costs and expenses. Check your marketing programs to see whether something went wrong with execution. Explore causes.
  • Look at the sales categories and drivers, row-by-row, line-by-line, to explore which categories did better than expected, and which did worse. Explore your costs and expenses to examine the causes. Consider the differences between actual sales and forecasts as early alerts to events to come. Look for trends.

Now You Have Management

Too often people lose track of the point of sales forecasting, which is better management. It’s not about guessing the future correctly; it’s about setting down your assumptions on drivers and relationships so you can track results and see changes easily. Management is like steering, and steering is a matter of frequent course corrections.

If you have a sales forecast, and you regularly track the difference between your forecast and your actual results, then, even if you don’t have the big formal business plan text, you have planning in your business.

About the Author:

Tim Berry
Tim Berry

Guest Blogger

Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software and bplans.com, on twitter as Timberry, blogging at timberry.bplans.com. His collected posts are at blog.timberry.com. Stanford MBA. Married 44 years, father of 5. Author of business plan software Business Plan Pro and www.liveplan.com and books including The Plan As You Go Business Plan, published by Entrepreneur Press, 2008.

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The Difference Between Benefit Corps and Certified B Corps (And Deciding What’s Right for Your Business)

By sfield
Published: August 17, 2015

Most people start a business with one key objective in mind – making a profit. Yet some companies seek out not only to profit but also to provide a tangible benefit to society and the environment. These companies, depending upon a few specific criteria, are classified as Benefit Corporations or Certified B Corporations.

Confused by the difference between the two? Didn’t even realize there was a difference? You’re not alone – it’s one of the most confusing aspects of a recent movement for companies focused on giving back. Benefit Corporations and Certified B Corporations have a lot in common, but there are a few key differences. 

Benefit Corps

To date, 31 states as well as Washington, D.C. have passed laws creating a new type of corporation – the Benefit Corporation (often referred to as “Benefit Corp”).  Benefit Corporation status involves a separate process available to companies in every state. These companies pledge to think about people and the planet in addition to profit (most are committed to a specific social mission), but Benefit Corporations voluntarily work against standards of corporate purpose, accountability, and transparency. 

Benefit Corporations have a corporate purpose to create a positive impact on society and the environment, and are required to consider the impact of decisions on workers, the greater community, shareholders, and the environment. And while Benefit Corporations are required to provide an annual benefit report that is available to the public, benefit corporations do not have to be audited or certified.

In addition to 31 states and Washington D.C., five additional states are currently working on laws for benefit corporation status. You can explore your state’s Benefit Corporation law status here, but as always, it’s best to consult your tax advisor or attorney if you’re considering transitioning to Benefit Corp or Certified B Corp status.

Certified B Corps

Certified B Corporations are similar to Benefit Corporations but not identical. Certified B Corporations (also referred to as “B Corps” or “B Corporations”) are for-profit companies that pledge to achieve social goals as well as business ones and are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to have met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. It’s similar to USDA’s certification for organic milk or a LEED certification for a green building, with one key difference – a B Corp certification evaluates the entire company (environmental footprint, community involvement, governance structure, worker engagement, etc.) rather than just a single aspect like a building or a product in the examples above.

The broad evaluation is key because it helps to distinguish the companies that are focused on doing good from companies that just happen to do good marketing. There are now more than 1,000 Certified B Corps in the United States, including well-known companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia. All of these companies share a similar goal in that they are working to redefine what business success is – they are hopeful that companies will continue to compete and do what is best for the world around them.

The government categorizes Certified B Corps as 501(c)3 nonprofits. To become certified, your business may need to amend its governing documents or adopt benefit corporation status (see above) to meet the legal requirements for certification for your state of incorporation and corporate structure. And as with any restructuring, your business should engage key stakeholders, legal counsel, and investors about the usefulness and implications of adopting these legal changes for raising money, selling your business, and directors’ liability. If your business is a corporation, you’ll need to file your amended articles with your Secretary of State within one year. 

Business Benefits

The belief that businesses exist solely to make a profit can have an impact on how companies operate. Focusing on your business’s positive impact on society and the environment comes with benefits. Here are a few to consider:

  • Benefit/B Corp status can help companies attract and retain top talent and customers
  • Millennials, which represent half of the global workforce, want work with meaning – a recent study by Intelligence Group found that 64 percent of millennials would rather make $40,000 annually at a job they love and care about than $100,000 at a job they find boring or less meaningful
  • According to BBMG, 73 percent of consumers consider the company, not just the product, when making a buying decision
  • Consumers often align purchases with their values – 86 percent of consumers are more likely to trust a company that shows the impact of its cause efforts, according to Cone Communications

Drawbacks

There are also some drawbacks to consider if you’re exploring the pros and cons of Certified B Corp/Benefit Corp status:

  • If you have shareholders, you will also have expanded reporting requirements in order to provide shareholders with enough information to determine if your business is achieving its stated purpose
  • If you have shareholders, they can bring charges against the company for not carrying out its social mission (just as they could sue directors of traditional companies for violations of fiduciary duty)
  • These designations are fairly new as far as legal entities go, so it’s not entirely clear how courts will interpret mandates to not only seek profits, but to consider potential benefits to society. As such, the impact on raising capital and on how angel investors and venture capitalists could react is still unknown

Getting Started

There are a few legal requirements to consider when thinking about Benefit Corporation or Certified B Corp status. When it comes to your company name, Benefit Corps and Certified B Corps do not need to make any reference to benefit status within the corporate name. You won’t need to alter the name you’ve chosen for your business, nor would you need to tailor your name brainstorming any differently than if you were considering a standard C Corporation. You will be required, however, to state your Benefit Corp/B Corp status in your articles of incorporation, and you may want your articles to highlight a specific purpose (like benefitting the arts, improving public health, etc.)

Finally, the share certificates of a Benefit Corporation must specifically state the benefit nature of the corporation. Certified B Corp and Benefit Corporation legal requirements may vary between states, especially when it comes to provisions relating to shares and their transfer, so be sure to research your local laws.

For entrepreneurs, business owners, workers, and consumers, the introduction of Certified B Corps and Benefit Corporations is an exciting development, because it enables community- and environmentally-minded business owners to preserve their social goals without sacrificing the ability to make a profit. 

Are you using your small business as a force for good?

About the Author:

sfield
Sarah Field
I am an author and moderator for the the SBA.gov Community. I'll share useful information for your entrepreneurial endeavors and help point you in the right direction to find other resources for your small business needs. Thanks for joining our online community here at SBA.gov!

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Celebrating International Youth Day: 3 Ways to Get Involved With Local Youth

Published: August 12, 2015 Updated: August 13, 2015

Happy International Youth Day!  Since 2000, the United Nations has used International Youth Day to draw attention to youth issues worldwide. This year the theme is Youth Civic Engagement. Young people will share their stories, swap ideas, and participate in events on civic engagement activities. They are future business owners, partners, and customers. As youth around the world explore how to engage in civic, political, and social spheres, here are three ways that small business owners can engage and help improve the lives of youth locally, all while building credibility for your business.

Contact Your Local Youth Center

Many of us have roots at the local Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, or other recreation centers. Check in with your local center to see if there are opportunities to contribute to character and leadership building activities. These initiatives will enable you to use your know-how as a go-getter to be a living example to youth in your community. If you do not have time to be a part of programming, you should be able to become a sponsor.

Another option is to check in with your local homeless shelter. Many offer courses that teach life skills to youth and parents. As a small business owner, you can pass on your knowledge on leadership, decision-making, business etiquette, interviewing skills, technology, and communication.

Reach Out to Local Colleges and Universities

Most colleges have an internship program for their students and many now have entrepreneurship programs. Reach out to the career center or internship office at your local university and speak with a counselor about hiring a student. There may even be a local high school that has students who might be interested. Working with your small business will provide valuable professional experience for students and a young mind and fresh set of eyes for your business.

Become a Mentor

Mentoring is a great opportunity for personal and professional growth, not to mention a tremendous way to give back to the community. You may already know a young aspiring entrepreneur. If not, reach out to your network, or simply search “become a mentor [insert your city]” to find opportunities near you. Additionally, sites like Volunteer Match and Big Brother Big Sisters of America are great places to start your search.

Is there someone in your life who empowered you as a young person? What are some ways you have engaged with the youth in your community?

If you’d like to take part in International Youth Day programming, find out what’s happening near you.

About the Author:

mbramble

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5 Ways to Improve Your Business Credit Scores

By Marco Carbajo, Guest Blogger
Published: August 11, 2015 Updated: August 11, 2015

Having strong business credit scores and ratings are key to getting approved for trade credit and financing for your company. In the same way that personal credit scores serves as a financial report card, your business credit scores grade the creditworthiness of your business.

A statistically derived algorithm designed to determine risk based on multiple factors calculates your scores. Although each business credit-reporting agency utilizes its own scoring model there are several common factors that are used to calculate your business credit scores.

Here are 5 ways to improve your business credit scores and ratings:

Make Prompt Payments

The promptness with which a company pays its bills is one of the driving factors that impact business credit ratings. For maximum impact, pay invoices ahead of the due date. The greater the number of days a company pays sooner than terms the greater the impact it will have on its business credit scores. For example, a business that pays its bills promptly will have an 80 D&B Paydex® Score, while another company that pays 30 days sooner than terms may have a 100 D&B Paydex® Score.

Add Positive Trade References

Adding positive payment experiences that your company has with suppliers, vendors, or business partners may have a positive impact to your business credit ratings and scores. Although not all vendors and suppliers share payment data with a business credit-reporting agency; you have the opportunity to add trade references to your company’s Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) credit file.

Did you know the number of trade references reporting on your business credit report is what generates a business credit rating? For example, it takes a minimum of three trade references to generate a Paydex® Score with Dun & Bradstreet.

Improve Your Credit Utilization Ratio

A company’s credit utilization ratio is one of the important factors credit scoring models use to calculate business credit ratings. Lenders view a business with a high utilization rate as a greater risk of not being able to repay its debts. Work to keep your credit utilization low, preferably under 30%, is a good number to shoot for. The fact is lenders want to see that your company can properly manage its debts. Low credit utilization ratio may cause a lender to be more willing to extend credit because there is much less credit risk.

Increase Your Credit Limit

Of the various ways you can improve your business credit scores, increasing your credit limits is one strategy you can implement immediately. Usually after the first six months of opening a credit account you can request a credit limit increase. Keep in mind, some card issuers do periodic reviews to determine whether or not a customer should get an automatic increase. You can either request a credit limit increase online or by phone. An increase in credit availability lowers your credit utilization ratio, which ultimately improves your business credit ratings.

Keep Your Business Profile Up-to-Date

Similar to a personal resume you use to apply for a job, your business profile is the resume you use to apply for credit. Not only does your business profile contain your company’s banking and payment data, it also contains critical information that other businesses, suppliers, and lenders use when deciding whether to extend credit to your company and on what terms.

No one knows your business better than you so it’s essential that your profile is accurate. Information such as the number of years you have been in business, number of employees, and gross annual sale should always be up to date.

Improving your business credit scores and ratings is one of the most important steps you can take as a small business owner. Doing so will enable your business to maximize its funding potential and obtain the most favorable terms possible.

About the Author:

Marco Carbajo
Marco Carbajo

Guest Blogger

Marco Carbajo is a business credit expert, author, speaker, and founder of the Business Credit Insiders Circle. He is a business credit blogger for Dun and Bradstreet Credibility Corp, the SBA.gov Community, About.com and All Business.com. His articles and blog; Business Credit Blogger.com, have been featured in 'Fox Small Business','American Express Small Business', 'Business Week', 'The Washington Post', 'The New York Times', 'The San Francisco Tribune',‘Alltop’, and ‘Entrepreneur Connect’.

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Nonprofit Success Depends on Your Business Mindset

By bridgetwpollack, Guest Blogger
Published: August 6, 2015

Running a nonprofit takes passion dedication, and a big heart. Whether you’re working to save endangered animals, slow climate change, or help your neighborhood prosper, it’s easy to let your mission take center stage. After all, tirelessly serving that mission is key to your nonprofit’s success.

But are you looking at your nonprofit like a business?

While the mission-focused work of your organization is essential, that on-the-ground progress simply won’t happen unless you’re in a business mindset. Money, paperwork, and procedures all add up to help your daily work have a greater impact on the causes you care so much about.

As you put plans in place to launch your nonprofit, keep these three essential business components in mind:

Cash flow

When you start a nonprofit, you have to start separating your automatic association between “making money” and “profit.” You’re not in this business for the millions, but cash flow can make or break your meaningful work in the nonprofit sector.

Along with good money management, responsible funding at a nonprofit leaves room for reinvestment. If you’re planning to receive grants or other funding specific to particular projects, you may not be able to plan for “extra” money in the bank. But it’s wise to think of ways to put money back into your nonprofit, just like you would think about how to invest revenue back into a flower shop or consulting firm.

That reinvestment might come in the form of launching a new program, boosting a social media campaign, or budgeting to give a dedicated employee a raise. By keeping costs in check, your nonprofit can manage its funding to go the furthest possible distance.

Staff Salaries

Nonprofit executives can get a bad rap for taking large salaries. But try not to think about the extreme cases of poor fiscal responsibility. Think about the people who work with you, and the tasks you rely on them to perform. Who takes care of your annual reports, IRS form 990 filings, and audits? Who oversees marketing so that your organization gets the word out about your efforts?

A team of entry-level staffers may be eager to work, but in many cases it’s worth the higher price tag for a seasoned professional. When you review job descriptions, make sure that your team is making salaries comparable to their colleagues in the private sector. Providing healthy compensation for those professionals who are essential to your nonprofit mission builds the strength of the entire organization, while keeping your staff excited to come to work each day.

Don’t leave yourself out of the salary equation, either. As much as you we might wish and hope, passion alone can’t pay the bills.

Business Plan

You may not be expecting huge returns like a for-profit business, but your nonprofit will need a plan for growth. A complete business plan for a nonprofit should cover your cash flow -- including how you intend to raise money to support your work -- along with realistic salaries and anticipated rent or lease costs. Don’t forget administrative expenses, and the little things like copy paper that add up quickly.

When it’s time to apply for grants or reach out for other forms of funding, that business plan can help you make a solid case for your nonprofit.

But no good business, whether for profit or a worthy cause, was magically built overnight. Many SCORE mentors across the country have worked in nonprofits, as executives or as founders -- and sometimes both.

Your local office can match you with a mentor that can help with your specific needs, or you can browse email mentors who are versed in the nonprofit world.

So go ahead, kick your feet up onto your desk and start thinking of the big picture for your nonprofit. How can you apply for-profit business lessons to your work for the greater good?

About the Author:

bridgetwpollack
Bridget Weston Pollack

Guest Blogger

Bridget Weston Pollack is the Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the SCORE Association. She is responsible for all branding, marketing, PR, and communication efforts. She focuses on implementing marketing plans and strategies to facilitate the growth of SCORE’s mentoring and trainings services. She collaborates with SCORE volunteers and develops SCORE’s online marketing strategy.

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Effective Business Signage: 6 Factors

By Rieva Lesonsky, Guest Blogger
Published: August 3, 2015 Updated: August 4, 2015

What’s the first thing that prospective customers see when they approach your business? Your signage tells them where you are, draws their attention and attracts them into your business (or possibly drives them away). Summing up your business brand for the world to see, your business signage creates that all-important first impression. How can you ensure it’s a good one? Whether you’re developing signage for a new business, or updating signage for an existing business, here are some things to consider.

  1. What are the constraints affecting signage in your area? Your city’s local zoning ordinances will typically govern the type of signage a business can have. For instance, there may be restrictions on the size of a sign, how it can be lighted and even the colors used. Your business location (such as a strip center, mall or downtown pedestrian area) may have its own restrictions. For instance, in one shopping center near my home, all businesses’ signs have to use the same font and a limited palette of colors to create a more uniform look.
  2. What do you want to include in your sign? Your sign is a 24/7 branding tool, so ideally, you want to include your business logo and use your business’s color palette so that your signage harmonizes with the other visual aspects of your brand. However, if you have a complex logo or can’t use it for other reasons (such as zoning restrictions), try to at least use fonts and colors that tie in with your brand.
  3. Think practical. We’ve all seen examples of the business whose store sign is in a beautiful script that looks pretty, but is impossible to read—especially if you’re whizzing by in a car going 45 miles an hour. Always remember that the purpose of your sign is 1) to help customers find you and 2) to get prospects to notice you. A hard-to-read sign might attract attention of prospects with time on their hands (“What’s that say?”), but it will only frustrate customers trying to find you. Make sure your business signage is large enough, contrasting enough and the font clear enough to be easily readable from across the street, across the parking lot or wherever else your customers may be coming from.
  4. Consider placement. Where your signage is placed has a big effect, too. A sign that’s easy to read when lit at night may be hard to see in the bright light of day, when there’s a lot of glare or when the sun hits it from a certain direction. Before investing in a permanent sign, try testing a banner with the same colors, fonts and font sizes in different places on your building. You may discover that you need signs on two sides of your building; that tall trucks parked nearby block the view of your sign; or that a neighbor’s awning obstructs it from the street. Best to learn this now before you spend money on permanent installation. 
  5. Investigate additional signage options. Talk to your property landlord about options for additional signage to help attract more attention to your business. For instance, if your business is far off the street in the back of a big shopping center or office park, it may be impossible for customers to see from the road. In this case, see if the center will consider putting up directional signs at the center entrances listing which businesses are where. Strengthen your case by getting other businesses to ask for the same thing.
  6. Keep it up. Once your sign is up, spend the time and money to maintain it. Replace burned-out bulbs promptly and keep it clean. Nothing turns prospective customers off like a broken or partially burned-out sign. It tells people you don’t care—and when they see that, they won’t care to do business with you.

About the Author:

Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky

Guest Blogger

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and President of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Follow Rieva at Twitter.com/Rieva and visit SmallBizDaily.com to sign up for her free TrendCast reports. She's been covering small business and entrepreneurial issues for more than 30 years, is the author of several books about entrepreneurship and was the editorial director of Entrepreneur magazine for over two decades

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Summer Slowdown? Make the Most of It

By sfield
Published: July 29, 2015 Updated: July 29, 2015

While some seasonal businesses hit primetime during the summer, many others see a major slow-down as clients and customers go on vacation (and as new projects are postponed until after said vacationing.) Never fear – here are a few steps your business can take to make the most of the summer months.

Inventory and Audit

If your business is slower during the summer, take advantage of the free time by conducting a summer audit.  While your time isn’t necessarily “free,” it’s important to use the downtime you do have to verify product inventory in advance of busier months ahead. 

Summer is also a great time to conduct a simple audit with your team, your stakeholders, and yourself. In addition to regular team meetings, schedule an off-site lunch or group activity and give your team the opportunity to provide feedback on what is working well for the group and what you can improve by the holidays. You can also connect with customers and outside stakeholders to ensure that you are meeting expectations, engaging on a regular basis, and collecting valuable feedback. Most importantly, you can use the summer months to look at your personal goals.  Have your goals changed since your last performance review? Are you tuned in to all of the resources available to your business? Business owners often worry so much about pleasing customers that they forget to take care of themselves. 

Liability Review and Tax Prep

All small businesses should consider liability insurance. Since most of available information comes directly from providers, the summer months are a good time to do extensive research on your liability insurance options. Check out this blog post for things to consider as you work to ensure that your business is protected. 

You might not intuitively think of July as an important time for taxes, but there are many things you can do during the summer months to work toward achieving a good outcome for the year. Take your time reviewing the first half of your year, catching up on paperwork and forms, and meeting with your tax advisor.   

Networking and Outside Sales

Summer is a great time to network in person, so take the opportunity to catch up on face-time with contacts, colleagues, and prospects. It’s also a great time to host your own networking event. Any type of open house or get together is a great way to not only celebrate and thank your customers and colleagues, but to find new ones. 

And of course, while sales commonly slow down during the summer months, there are always new ways to get creative and boost sales. One option is ramping up your social media efforts to create new leads. If appropriate, consider a contest or social campaign through Facebook to increase your presence and attract attention for your business. Or try a new social network. If you only have a Facebook page, consider Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, or Pinterest.

Summer can also be a great time to try a fun promotion or special offer. Offer discounts to new and existing customers – or even better, existing customers who refer new business. Remember that seasonal slowdowns are temporary, and that things will eventually get back to normal. In the interim, a promotion or special seasonal offer may boost sales and engagement, and it could even land you some new customers who will stick with you well beyond Labor Day weekend.

About the Author:

sfield
Sarah Field
I am an author and moderator for the the SBA.gov Community. I'll share useful information for your entrepreneurial endeavors and help point you in the right direction to find other resources for your small business needs. Thanks for joining our online community here at SBA.gov!

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7 Tedious Office Tasks You Can and Should Automate

By smallbiztrends, Guest Blogger
Published: July 23, 2015 Updated: July 23, 2015

Why work harder when you can work smarter instead?

Several office tasks are perfect candidates to automate -- without sacrificing the well being of your business. 

In fact, some of these tasks not only save time, but also can actually be done better through automation. Automation makes it less likely that (a) you’ll forget; (b) tasks will fall through the cracks if an employee leaves; (c) mistakes will occur through repetitive entry of information.

Here are seven tasks that you can and probably should consider automating to get things done faster and more reliably:

1. Paying Bills

Instead of spending your limited time paying bills each month, use a service like Bill.com to manage all of your payments.

The service works with any bank and even integrates with Xero and Quickbooks. You won’t have to go cut checks or manually enter them into your accounting system.  You can manage all of those payments online in one place. Bill.com claims that it can cut users’ bill-paying time in half.

Or, just check directly with your bank.  Many now offer bill payment services, sometimes at no extra charge.

2. Delegating Customer Support Issues

Handling customer communications via email can become a nightmare as your business and the volume grows. Instead of letting one employee’s inbox get buried in messages, while other members of your team are in the dark, employ a ticketing system or online help desk like Groove or FreshDesk.

Help desk solutions provide a central place to access customer issues and communicate.  Set up a contact form on your website, and route communications by type to central inboxes, where assigned individuals on your team can answer them.  These solutions also help you create a knowledgebase of commonly asked questions. This becomes a self-serve portal for customers, eliminating the need to answer many questions individually.

3. Managing Marketing Communications

Those who successfully use marketing automation report that it’s like having another employee or two in your business.  Marketing automation software like Infusionsoft and Hubspot gives you a way to automate large chunks of your online marketing, by establishing a series of steps for generating leads on your website, and then designating follow-up activities. For instance, you can send a series of follow-up emails to people who have visited your site and filled out a lead form for one of your free downloads. 

4. Filling Out Online Forms

This is a personal productivity enhancer. Inputting your name, company, address, and contact information time after time in online forms can be tiresome. A software program like Roboform stores your data so you don’t have to manually enter it each time you come across one of those pesky online forms.  Or simply use the similar functionality built into browsers such as the Chrome. 

5. Backing Up Data

Despite our good intentions, too many of us forget or put off this important activity until it’s too late.  And it’s not just us -- what about our employees?  

Today there are so many inexpensive tools on the market that automatically back up data at scheduled intervals (example: Carbonite), that there’s no excuse for data loss.  Or if your company’s data is mainly in the form of documents, pictures and similar files, use one of the central cloud storage platforms, such as Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, or Apple iCloud, to store everything in the cloud.

6. Scheduling Meetings

When scheduling meetings with many people, finding a time good for everyone’s schedules can be a daunting task. Instead of going back and forth in a long email chain, set up a scheduling app like ScheduleOnce to simplify the process.

ScheduleOnce allows users to connect their existing calendars from sources like Google or Outlook. So when you need to schedule a meeting or appointment, you can invite others to view available dates and choose an open time that works for them.

7. Managing Your Inbox

Email can be one of the most time consuming tasks on an office worker’s daily to-do list. When it comes to sorting emails, you can set up labeled folders for different types of emails, like newsletters and communications with clients. You can even enable Smart Labels within Gmail, so that the platform will automatically sort some of your emails, like promotions and social notifications, into separate folders.

When it comes to responding to emails, there are likely some responses that are going to be the same or at least similar. Set up canned responses in Gmail or email templates in Outlook instead of re-typing those messages over and over again.

About the Author:

smallbiztrends
Anita Campbell

Guest Blogger

My name is Anita Campbell. I run online communities and information websites reaching over 6 million small business owners, stakeholders and entrepreneurs annually, including Small Business Trends, a daily publication about small business issues, and BizSugar.com, a small business social media site.

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4 Tax Actions to Take in July

By BarbaraWeltman, Guest Blogger
Published: July 16, 2015 Updated: July 16, 2015

Like most small business owners who don’t think of July as an important tax time, you may not be thinking about taxes right now, but you should be. Here are four things to do now to help achieve a good tax outcome for the year.

1. Review the first half of the year

If Shakespeare was right when he said, “what’s past is prologue,” then your business income and expenses for the first half of the year can provide guidance to you on what to expect for the rest of the year. This will enable you to make accurate estimated tax payments to cover your tax bill for 2015 that are still owed for the year (the third installment is made September 15, 2015, and the fourth by January 15, 2016). Doing this will help you avoid penalties for underpaying, ensure you have the cash to make your payments, and enable you to reduce payments where possible.

Review your income and expenses through the first two quarters of the year. Ask yourself:

  • Are my estimated taxes sufficient to meet my projected tax bill? You may be paying enough to avoid penalties but may need to save for a lump-sum payment when you file your return
  • Do I need to increase estimated taxes in the last two payments? This helps you avoid estimated tax penalties for underpayments
  • Should I reduce estimated taxes for the last two payments? This action may be advisable if your income fell short of what you expected it to be (so you won’t overpay your taxes and have to wait until you file your return to recover your overpayment)

2. Revise policies for same-sex couples

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf) that every state must recognize same sex marriages. This change impacts same-sex couples living in states with income states that previously failed to recognize their marital status.

It also affects businesses in states that previously did not recognize same-sex married couples. Employers should revise state income tax withholding for affected employees. Review any other employee benefit changes that are needed in light of the Court’s decision.

3. File 5500 forms

If you have a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k) plan, you may need to file an annual information return with the Department of Labor using an IRS form (usually Form 5500 or 5500SF) for this purpose. The return for a calendar-year plan for 2014 is due July 31, 2015.

Whether your business is incorporated or unincorporated, if your plan covers only you, your spouse, and partners – and does not provide any benefits to other employees – you can file a simplified form (Form 5500-EZ). This form is not required if the plan’s assets at the end of the year are no more than $250,000. However, regardless of the amount of assets, you must file a form for the final year of the plan. Find more information in the instructions to Form 5500-EZ (www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/i5500ez.pdf).

Note: No filing is required for SEPs and SIMPLE-IRAs, regardless of the amount of plan assets.

4. Meet with your tax advisor

Summertime is usually a great time to schedule an appointment with your tax advisor. Take this opportunity when your business may be slow and when your advisor is readily available to go over your tax picture. Learn from your advisor what tax planning moves you should make to lower your tax bill for the year. The sooner you do this, the more time you have to implement these moves. Actions to cut your taxes include:

  • Adjusting deductible compensation. You may want to increase wages—for cost of living adjustments, in anticipation of increases in the minimum wage, or for any other reason—if your business can afford to do so
  • Buying or leasing equipment. While the rules on writing off the cost of equipment purchases in 2015 are still uncertain (rules that expired at the end of 2014 have yet to be extended for this year), at a minimum, a first-year expensing deduction up to $25,000 (the amount that will apply if there’s no extension of last year’s $500,000 limit) will apply. This dollar limit is certainly sufficient to cover the cost of mobile devices and other technology equipment for you and your employees
  • Adopting a qualified retirement plan. Company contributions for employees are deductible up to set limits
  • Obtaining health coverage for staff (even though you’re not subject to the employer mandate for large employers). This could generate a tax credit

Note: If you take these actions, they can reduce your estimated tax payments, as discussed earlier.

Final thought

The more attention you pay to your taxes now, the more likely you’ll be able to save taxes for the year as well as avoid penalties.

 

About the Author:

BarbaraWeltman
Barbara Weltman

Guest Blogger

Barbara Weltman is an attorney, prolific author with such titles as J.K. Lasser's Small Business Taxes, J.K. Lasser's Guide to Self-Employment, and Smooth Failing as well as a trusted professional advocate for small businesses and entrepreneurs. She is also the publisher of Idea of the Day® and monthly e-newsletter Big Ideas for Small Business® and host of Build Your Business Radio. She has been included in the List of 100 Small Business Influencers for three years in a row. Follow her on Twitter: @BarbaraWeltman.

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Get health coverage for your small business employees anytime with the SHOP Marketplace

By Stephen Morris, SBA Official
Published: July 15, 2015

This blog originally appeared on Healthcare.gov.

If you’re a small business owner, you know how important it is to offer high-quality, affordable health and dental coverage that meets the needs of your business and your employees. The Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Marketplace can help you do that by offering flexibility, choice, and the convenience of online application and account management.

The SHOP Marketplace is currently open to employers with 50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees (FTEs), including non-profit organizations. In 2016, the SHOP Marketplace will be available to larger businesses with 100 or fewer FTEs. You can enroll in the SHOP Marketplace at any point throughout the year, and there’s no restricted enrollment period when you can start offering your enrollees SHOP Marketplace coverage.

Here are 5 benefits of the SHOP Marketplace:

  • Everything’s online. Visit HealthCare.gov/small-businesses/ to apply for the SHOP Marketplace, choose a plan or plans, complete your coverage offer, manage employee participation, and pay your premiums. Your enrollees can apply online too.

  • Flexible coverage options. You control the coverage you offer and how much you pay toward employee premiums. You choose whether to offer dependent coverage and dental insurance. You choose how long your employees’ Open Enrollment Period is, and the waiting period before new employees can enroll.

  • There’s help to apply and enroll. Licensed agents and brokers registered to work with the SHOP Marketplace can help you apply and enroll for coverage. You can also continue to use your current agent or broker as long as they complete the SHOP Marketplace registration requirements. Working with a SHOP-registered agent or broker doesn’t cost you or your employees a dime. When you apply, you can search for agents and brokers registered to sell SHOP Marketplace plans by name and ZIP code.

  • Employee choice. In all states, you can offer one health and one dental plan to your employees. In some states, you can choose a coverage category, like Bronze or Silver, and let your employees select the plan that meets their needs within the category that you choose.

  • You may be eligible for a tax credit. The SHOP Tax Credit Estimator can help determine if your business may qualify for the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit worth up to 50% of your premium costs. The tax credit is available only for plans bought through the SHOP Marketplace.

See if you qualify to offer SHOP Marketplace coverage to your employees, and learn how to enroll.

About the Author:

Stephen Morris

SBA Official

Stephen Morris is online media coordinator for the U.S. Small Business Administration where he manages digital outreach to the small business community.

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