8 Tips for Building Your Business Support System
Whether you are just branching out or gearing up for your umpteenth year in business, it never hurts to have a supportive network around you. Owning a business can not only be stressful but lonely. Not every family member or friend will understand or emphasize with your entrepreneurial journey. The key is to surround yourself with like-minded individuals who can offer advice, share opportunities and listen to your big ideas. Go beyond your typical inner circle and broaden your network of support.
Consider the following strategies in either engaging with people you hope to connect with or need to re-engage to strengthen the support around you as well as to look for new business opportunities.
1. Alumni: Reconnect with college and/or high school staff and classmates by letting them what you are doing now and what you have accomplished or plan to accomplish in your business. There might be opportunities to collaborate with university or community college by speaking at the school, hiring seasonal workers or bidding on a project.
If you have children or are engaged in your local community, this strategy applies to reaching out to the parents and teachers association (PTA) or a similar group within the school.
2. Chamber of Commerce: Join a local or state chapter and meet and support business leaders. Becoming an active member can expose you to other industries, opportunities and like-minded contacts.
3. SCORE: Supported by the SBA, SCORE is a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs launch and grow their business. There are SCORE locations throughout the U.S. Between workshops and mentorship business owners can access professional support year-round.
4. Faith-based community: Your spiritual relationship with the members at your place of worship can have a positive effect on your personal life and business goals. Lean on faith-based organizations and activities that promote a healthy, productive lifestyle.
5. Extracurricular groups: It’s easy to forget that we form bonds with people we meet through leisure activities like sports leagues, volunteer and travel groups. When not working on or in your business, it’s essential to have a release.
6. Former co-workers: If you’ve shared ideas or worked well with previous coworkers and staff, re-engage them to share your current business venture. Their skillset might be useful in your next idea or they can provide insight or contacts that you may have not consider.
7. Professional organizations or conferences: Depending on the nature of your work and business, there might be an established network of professionals who meet annually. Conferences and professional groups are instant support systems because they bring together small and large crowds of people who are similar. You can get a lot of inspiration and information by not only attending events but potentially sponsoring or speaking at one.
8. Online groups via forums, private Facebook groups or Slack communities: Thanks to the internet and social networking, interfacing with other business owners across the world is reality. Building connections that go beyond day-to-day business matters, can provide new ideas and a different perspective.
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How to Organize Your Small Business Startup Costs
Launching or transitioning your side job into a full-time venture is stressful, demanding and exciting. One of the first steps is to consider your startup costs, or expenses in the beginning phases of entrepreneurship.
Startup costs will vary from industry to industry and may fluctuate during different seasons within any given year, but particularly the first few years of operation. Think about some of these questions:
Do I have enough capital or other resources to maintain a living? Do you have marketing materials? Should I invest in training programs or professional conferences? Is a lawyer necessary? What are my liabilities? Are my contracts protecting my business and assets? Should I hire staff or do all the work myself?
These type of questions and this line of thinking is good to establish early on to avoid messy financial situations. To keep yourself accountable and organized, place startup costs in categories included but not limited to the following list:
Legal/Paperwork– lawyer meetings and fees, business certificates and related documents
Taxes and any documents related to business-generated income as well as 1099 or similar forms from contracted workers and employees
Professional Development & Education like conferences, trainings, certificate programs
Transportation costs like traveling via train, plane, or cab as well as parking fees.
Equipment like office furniture, trucks, vans, real estate, phones, etc.
Marketing materials such as business cards, website(s), social media management, etc.
Miscellaneous items like business clothing, paying for lunch or dinner meetings, etc.
By listing groups of related business activities and then categorizing them, you can begin to shape the areas in which you need to prioritize your finances, save for a rainy day or completely eliminate or postpone costly expenditures.
For example, if your business focuses on providing creative services like web development, you will need to strategize on what resources you need upfront to complete the job as well as how to minimize expenses to keep more money in your pocket. Unforeseen situations like website or server crashes or hiring additional staff can hurt your income projections but preparing in advance with either a business savings account or itemizing potential expenses, that includes unexpected issues, can alleviate stress and help create efficient systems.
Instead of waiting to cover costs later or jumping into projects without thinking through the financial implications. Entrepreneurship is an ongoing learning experience and journey that involves successes and failures from the very start.“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”, a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin that still rings particularly true for small business owners.
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5 Key Tips on Sales Forecasting for Business Owners
Don’t underestimate the value of a sales forecast for running a business effectively. Even if you do nothing else in the way of planning, having just a sales forecast plus regular review and revision can go a long way towards better business management.
Here are five tips that have helped me integrate the sales forecast into my management process for decades.
1. Set the bar right from the beginning
One of the biggest problems with sales forecasting is the idea that it’s supposed to be accurate months in advance. That’s not the point. It’s about connecting the dots between sales and related expenses, finding the drivers (see #4 below) and tracking results so you can see changes as they happen.
It’s unlikely you will set a sales forecast and then live with it, unchanged. As in tip #5 below, you set the forecast and then watch, carefully, for interruptions, fluctuations, etc.
What you forecast for sales next summer, while you work on it for the present month, is a matter of getting the interrelationships written down so you can track progress and manage change.
In the real world, when you do your forecasting right, you’ll have lots of revisions as time and other factors affect your predictions. Just get it down early, so you can review results later. If you don’t forecast, you’re running blind.
2. Find the right level of aggregation and summary
Don’t forecast your sales as one number, in dollars. Don’t forecast sales as 100 detailed lines of sales. Find a level of sales groups you can manage. This has to do with the way we, as humans, think. We can’t work with too much detail; but it’s still useful to break things down enough to offer meaningful insights.
The most obvious example is breaking sales into units and price per unit. With that simple breakdown we can later analyze, whether the difference between planned and actual results were caused by price differences, volume differences, or both. And natural divisions, such as channels of distribution, or major product categories, can be very useful.
Find the level of summary and aggregation that works for your business. You’re unique and so is your business. There are no hard and fast rules on this. Make it so it works.
For example, with my software business, we don’t forecast sales broken into dozens of different sub-versions and options; we forecast our three main lines, aggregated and summarized.
The restaurant ought not to do a sales forecast broken down into each of the 75 items on the menu; but rather major sales categories, such as meals, drinks, appetizers, and other; perhaps it could be breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The bookstore ought not do a sales forecast for each book. Imagine how difficult and inefficient. It might be more useful to forecast for paperback versus hardback, fiction versus nonfiction, books versus magazines.
3. Match your accounting
Most of the benefit of the sales forecasting comes from the ongoing management of the difference between planned and actual results (as in #5 below). Therefore, to ensure your sales projections is worthwhile, make sure the organization of the forecast in rows or items or groups matches the way your accounting or bookkeeping tracks them.
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 business plan should reflect those divisions. if your chart of accounts divides sales by product or service groups, keep those categories intact in your sales forecast. If bookkeeping tracks sales by product, don’t forecast your sales by channel instead.
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 twenty rows of sales, costs, and expenses, then make the rows in the projected statement match the rows in the accounting.
- If your accounting software 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 versus actual as well. It will take retyping and recalculating. You may lose the most valuable benefit of business planning: management.
4. Look for your specific sales drivers
Most every business has the so-called drivers that lead to sales. For some businesses, it’s foot traffic; for others, it’s web traffic. Maybe for you it’s downloads. Some traditional businesses look at lead generation, leads, presentations, and closes. Others consider the pipeline related to direct sales deals in the cycle from lead to close.
Use the concept of sales drivers to help develop a sales forecast and then manage the business process that generates the drivers. It will help you track and manage your business better.
For example, in our software business we look at organic web traffic, pay-per-click web traffic, and traffic generated by affiliates, all of which we measure in visits. And we look at conversion rates, which we measure as the percent of web visitors who end up purchasing software.
And, as another example, back in the 1990s when retail sales were important, we measured unit sales per month per store.
Think about what factors drive sales for your business; and how you can use the measurements of those factors to improve your sales forecast.
5. Review and revise often
Don’t let your sales forecast sit unused. Schedule a regular time for sales forecast review and revision at least once per month. Get your forecast and compare it to actual results. Look for surprises both good and bad. Reward people whose work influenced the good surprises, and talk to the people responsible for bad surprises or poor performance. Revise your sales and marketing programs to take advantage of what’s working well, and correct what isn’t.
Sales forecasting, done right, is a fundamental part of planning. And planning, done right, is management.
As former president and military strategist Dwight Eisenhower once said: “The plan is useless; but planning is essential.”
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3 Technologies for Streamlining Customer Communications
Ask the typical small business owner which methods his or her company uses to communicate with customers, and email is likely to be at or near the top of the list.
But what happens as your business grows? If your business is anything like mine, the volume of email starts reproducing faster than a warren of rabbits.
Without even realizing it, you and your team may be spending hours each month hunting through inboxes just to find and organize important information. Email becomes a source of frustration; important communications are buried in individual team members’ inboxes, while the rest of the team doesn’t have a clue who is communicating about what with the customer leading to duplicated effort and potential opportunities falling between the cracks.
In short, email becomes the problem instead of the solution. As valuable as email is, businesses were never meant to be run out of inboxes That’s when you need specific software applications to help organize the flow of information and track and streamline activities.
Here are three types of software applications that I consider essential for growing businesses today:
A CRM or Customer Relationship Management system will help organize your sales efforts, especially if you gather leads from multiple sources and need to act on those leads.
Beyond organizing the sales process, a CRM application also puts power into your hands to tap into your existing customer base for upselling and repeat sales. CRM also manages and tracks the effectiveness of your marketing efforts, with the best ones enabling you to measure the ROI from your marketing campaigns.
And finally, the best CRM apps integrate leads and contacts from a variety of sources. One of the problems inside many businesses is “siloed information.” You may have lots of data but it is spread out here, there, everywhere -- in individual inboxes, in your email marketing system, in your social media profiles, in order entry systems, and elsewhere. Look for a cloud-based CRM where all team members can log in to and view information pulled from multiple sources and collected in a single place.
Project Management System
If you are using your inbox to process orders, and coordinate deliverables to customers, you’re doing things the hard way.
A good project management system will enable you to set deadlines, create tasks and make assignments to the appropriate team members. Look for a project management application that can be set up to automate workflow by notifying parties of new tasks automatically, sending reminders, and generating reports -- without manual intervention needed. You will not need to worry about things falling through the cracks internally.
Also, consider a project management app with strong customer communication features. Good customer service often involves managing expectations, including when deliverables will be completed. The best project management systems are cloud based. This enables you to give customers direct login access for whatever information you deem it important they have. Don’t want to give direct access? Set up emailed status reports for customers to receive automatically.
Help Desk Software System
The third application that can streamline customer communications dramatically is a help desk software. Help desk enables you to receive all customer support inquiries and issues in a central place, where they can be assigned to someone on your team to handle.
Look for help desk software that offers the strong ability to set up automated responses to inquiries. That way customers know that their inquiry has been received and when to expect a response.
Beyond that, look for a system that includes good knowledge-base features, so that FAQs and common issues can be addressed with information published on your website. Many customers appreciate having self-serve information available 24/7. An added benefit: good online help information can cut down on live customer service calls and the attendant expense.
Those are my three key applications for small businesses that can streamline customers. Of course there are other applications. Which applications have helped you streamline communications with YOUR customers?
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5 Ways to Support Staff with Education and Development
Back-to-school refrains are in the air, making it a great time to think about how you can help your staff get the education and training they need to improve and be better employees. In deciding how you want to help employees with education, keep in mind that there are some ways that are tax free to employees and do not entail any employment taxes (FICA, FUTA, or state unemployment tax). As a reminder, consult your tax advisor and/or attorney for specific guidance and questions.
Pay for work related courses
You can pay for the cost of any education and training that is work related. This benefit is fully tax deductible by the company and tax free to employees as a “working condition fringe benefit.” A working condition fringe benefit is a payment that if, made by the employee, would be personally deductible by him or her. In the case of education, it’s deductible as long as it maintains or improves job skills and does not lead to a new trade or business.
For more information, see IRS Publication 15-B, Employer’s Tax Guide to Fringe Benefits.
Pay for education
You can create an education assistance plan to help employees in a more limited way. This plan can reimburse employees for their education costs, whether or not job-related. Tax-free reimbursement is capped at $5,250 per year per employee. The payments can be used for tuition and fees, as well as for books, equipment, and supplies. If reimbursements exceed this dollar limit, the additional amounts are treated as taxable wages unless they qualify as a working condition fringe benefit explained earlier. Again, amounts paid by the company are fully deductible.
Caution: The plan cannot favor highly-compensated employees and can’t provide more than 5% of its benefits annually for shareholders and owners. For more information, see IRS Publication 15-B.
Even if you don’t pay for any part of an employee’s education, you can take note of the accomplishment by giving the graduate a promotion and a raise if appropriate. Rewards of this nature can be motivational.
From an employer perspective, rewarding an employee who achieves a higher education level is a way to retain him/her with the company. Without tangible recognition in the form of a higher pay grade, the employee may seek employment elsewhere where compensation reflects the person’s education.
Provide on-site training
A higher education degree may not be what’s needed by workers in your company. Job training to keep up with technology, learn sales techniques, or improve safety at the workplace is beneficial to employees and your business. Job training helps your staff adapt to changes in the workplace, operate more safely and efficiently, and achieve increased job satisfaction.
Today, on-site training can be done through online courses or bringing trainers in-house. The cost of this training is fully tax deductible by your company. For more about this, read 8 Tips for Training Your Small Business Employees on a Budget.
Help with student loans
The Wall Street Journal reported* that a number of employers are now helping employees pay off their student loans. Currently, this type of compensation is taxable to employees and subject to employment taxes. However, the Employer Participation in Student Loan Repayment Act (H.R. 3861) (and a companion bill in the Senate under S. 2457), which is pending in Congress, would create an exclusion from gross income for employer repayments of student loans for workers. The bill does not contain any dollar limit on the amount that can be repaid tax free.
Currently, employees that receive reimbursement and are taxed on it can deduct their student loan interest up to $2,500. However, if the measure is enacted, employees who enjoy this repayment benefit would not get a double benefit; they could not deduct the interest on the loans repaid by employers.
Former Secretary General of the U.N., Kofi Annan, said “Education is the premise of progress.” If you want progress in your business, consider supporting the education of your employees. In doing so, be cognizant of the tax implications to you and your staff.
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Summer Reading for the Business Minded
Whether you are on a much needed vacation or in an effort to spur inspiration, the summer months provide an opportunity to reflect and re-engage. From starting a home-based business to handling taxes, these top SBA blog posts will give you options to rethink, reimagine and perhaps recommit yourself to your business needs and goals.
7 Inspiring Home Business Ideas for Stay-at-Home Moms or Dads
Being a parent is a full-time job but if you carve out time and some office space, you can use your parenting skills, network or other professional resources to launch a venture from kitchen.
How to Change Your Business Name – Legal and Regulatory Steps Explained
If you have set up shop for some time but recognize a shift in your business or industry, then perhaps you will need a new business name. Make sure to do it the right way!
6 Things You Need to Know About Your Tax Responsibilities as an LLC
Establishing a limited liability corporation is a popular choice for small business owners and entrepreneurs. With that in mind, understand the financial and tax implications of an LLC. Consider seeking professional advice to cover your bases.
Three Popular Start-Up Financing Options
How to Estimate the Cost of Starting a Business from Scratch
Depending on the type of business or industry, starting a new business can be costly. Explore different financing options beforehand as well as determine upfront expenses.
How Do I Find an EIN?
If you have a checklist of items to take care of as you launch your business, securing an EIN should be near the top.
Use the summertime to unwind and catch up on the numerous resources that SBA.gov has to offer new and experienced business owners.
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5 Things Business Owners do Better with Lean Business Planning
Don’t think of a business plan as a formal document that’s hard to do, useful only for startups, bank loan applications, and seeking investment. Think of it as a lean plan that’s just lists and tables and is vital for optimizing business management.
1. Manage strategy
Strategy is focus. Most small businesses have trouble setting and maintaining focus on priorities because there’s always a new crisis interfering, or a new opportunity, real or perceived, distracting them like a shiny new thing.
Not that opportunity is bad. But a lot of the shiny new things that seem like opportunities are just distractions. Pursuing them dilutes the focus and weakens the business. Trying to do everything is too often a quick path to failure.
What to do? Manage strategy with planning. Set strategic priorities thoughtfully and use a simple planning process to manage them. Have a monthly plan review. Take time to reflect on results and assumptions and change and adapt carefully.
That starts with a plan that sets the key points of strategy. Make it a lean plan, just bullet points, extreme summaries. You do it for yourself, not outsiders. So keep it simple.
2. Align strategy and tactics
It happens so often. You set back to develop strategy, but get back into the routine and don’t follow up with real tactics, real business decisions and activities, to execute strategy. For example, the computer store decides to focus on small business owners who appreciate service, but continues to advertise low prices, doesn’t insist on installing every system, and doesn’t offer good training and frequent upgrade reminders. The tactics don’t match the strategy.
To manage strategic alignment, do a lean business plan that lists tactics in simple bullet points. Tactics include pricing, channels, messaging, product and service mix, and so forth. Make sure the tactics execute the strategy.
Then review tactics and compare plan to actual results every month in a planning review meeting. Check strategic alignment as strategy, tactics, and assumptions change. Expect to revise often.
3. Manage execution
Thing of ongoing business management, and strategy and execution, as a process of taking steps towards goals. Goals include short- and medium-term goals you can call milestones. In your lean plan, you set the milestones you can see for the near future. You list important milestones for the team. You assign dates, deadlines, budgets, performance expectations, and responsibilities.
Then you manage progress towards milestones during the monthly lean plan review meetings. Bring up the milestone schedule, discuss progress, revise as necessary, and manage the ongoing flow from plan to meaningful activities to results.
4. Manage people
People work better when objectives are clear and measurements are specific. People like to control their own performance numbers (also called metrics) so they can see their own progress towards goals and level of performance. Which would you rather have for yourself: an objective numerical goal you can see and share, or the subjective approval and review of your supervisor?
With lean planning, you have the regular review of expectations and results. It’s an easy forum for reviewing performance of team members, revising expectations, and applying both management and, where appropriate, peer pressure. Once a month you review results and compare them to expectations. Sometimes the plan was too ambitious and expectations too high, so you revise the goals. Sometimes the review turns up problems in execution and poor performance.
That’s where management comes in. Make expectations explicit, review results, and make people accountable for performance. All of which is built into a healthy planning process.
5. Manage cash
Cash flow is critical to a healthy business and it’s not always as simple as profits. Businesses that manage products and inventory can be profitable on paper but have all the working capital tied up in inventory. Businesses that sell to other businesses can be profitable on paper but have all their working capital tied up in Accounts Receivable, waiting for their business customers to pay their invoices.
A good lean planning process lays out expectations for money coming in and money going out to manage cash flow. Each money you have a plan vs. actual review to highlight developments, re-allocate spending as the need comes up, and make sure the cash flow is running as expected.
Conclusion: Planning is Management
Forget the myth of the big formal business plan that makes most business owners grateful they don’t have to have one. Instead, think of business planning as a simple lean business plan – bullets and tables for strategy, tactics, milestones, metrics, and essential projections – with a process that includes regular review and revision.
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3 Biggest Problems Implementing a CRM System, and What to Do About Them
CRM or customer relationship management systems can be an incredibly powerful tool to grow your business. With CRM you can track sales leads, turns leads into closed sales faster, manage customer support issues and better market to your customers for follow-on sales and renewals.
And that’s just a few of the things a CRM system can do. In my company we are in the process of evaluating CRM systems. We know we need help organizing sales leads and following up on sales leads. Any system would be better than what we have. Today we rely on a hodgepodge of disconnected, hard-to-find emails, chat messages and calendar reminders.
Without a system to see “end to end” sales leads, inevitably fall through the cracks. Important commitments are not followed up on. Opportunities we work hard on disappear. The sad truth is, we’re not alone. CRM adoption by small businesses is low. According to industry analyst Brent Leary, a partner with CRM Essentials, CRM adoption by small businesses “definitely lags that of larger companies.” And it’s not because CRM is less useful to small businesses.
Rather, there are three significant problems small businesses face when it comes to implementing a CRM system.
Problem 1: It’s hard to figure out what different CRM systems do
All CRM systems are not created equal. The good news is, there are dozens of CRM systems on the market. The bad news is; they each do different things well.
Some are great at managing sales leads. Others are focused more on managing relations with existing customers. Some are focused on marketing automation, i.e., automating your follow-on marketing. Others are simple and mostly help you keep track of contacts. Some do better at helping you maximize your social media networking.
Make sure you devote enough time up front to evaluating CRM providers, with a well-organized and focused approach:
- Focus on YOUR needs. Don’t get dazzled by shiny objects. Write down your two or three primary pain points that you want to fix.
- Organize your evaluation. Set up a spreadsheet and list each CRM you evaluate, noting your impression of how well it meets your needs. Use live chat and take advantage of demos and free trials -- most providers offer some combination of these.
- Evaluate price. While isn’t everything, in a small business it’s very important. In fact, a pricey CRM system often delivers a double whammy, because it may be loaded with bells and whistles that can make it overly complex to implement in a small company.
Problem 2: The perception that CRM is too costly and too complex to use
According to analyst Leary, many small business owners perceive CRM systems to be costly and overly complex. And indeed, we’ve found some are complex and expensive. Those are better suited to larger enterprises.
Here’s how to deal with the cost and complexity issues:
- Analyze price as a key factor in your decision tree. Leary points out there are even a number of cloud-based systems you can use for free making it “pretty painless to start.”
- To deal with the complexity issue, look specifically for CRM systems that mention small business on their websites. The more they focus on small business as their core market, the more likely the functionality will be in keeping with what a small business needs. And if you go for a free cloud CRM, the added advantage is that the free version may be more entry level. That means it won’t be overkill when you go to implement it.
Problem 3: Not budgeting enough resources for a proper implementation
It all gets back to being prepared. “Take the time up front to understand at a detailed level what challenges you're trying to solve, and know what success is and how to measure it,” advises Leary. If you do that, you’re more likely to stick with the implementation and recognize when it’s starting to help your business.
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Email Marketing Basics for Small Business
Email marketing is just one of many ways to engage customers and ultimately lead them to purchase a product or service. Building and maintaining a healthy email list is important in learning more about your customer base and how they respond to your business, as well as generating potential new business. If your business has not explored nor maximized the possibilities of email marketing, read more about how to leverage your existing and future contacts. If you are a small business owner looking to try a different tactic or introduce something new, why not use a change in season to test new ideas.
Test and then test again
Once you focus on the subscribers who remain on your list, regardless of how many subscribers, there is an opportunity to experiment with different type of sales copy, promotions, visuals, etc. A simple way to test subject lines or a specific merchandise is to A/B test a call-to-action (CTA), time of day, or even the email’s layout. Send two emails to similar groups within your email list but hold a variable for testing. Make sure to have predetermined goals and review the analytics of open and click through rates of hyperlinks, especially those tied to your website.
Incorporate seasonal trends
If weather or the time of year affects your sales or potential new business, tailor email marketing accordingly. For example, if you manage a summer camp for teens, then you may target different groups to include school staff, parents, and community officials to inform them of your offerings, cost and availability. A common example of seasonal emails is small businesses and big brands using holidays like Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day to generate sales and customer interest about their products and store specials.
Integrate email marketing as part of an entire plan
A small business may not have a lot of marketing resources but to maximize your efforts, it’s important that email marketing and subsequent campaigns are connected to other business goals and marketing objectives. Think about social media, advertising, events, SEO, and other strategies that can work in tandem with your email marketing.
Email marketing can have many layers and may require knowledgeable staff or additional resources. Starting with the basics can help small businesses take advantage being present in their customers’ inboxes. Don’t lose sight of the chance to engage them, delight them and to make a sale.
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Helping Employees TaxWise Who Work from Home
According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com,* 3.7 million employees (2.8% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time, and the number of work-at-home employees has grown 103% since 2005. If your business has employees who work from home, understand the tax rules they face for claiming a home office deduction and what you can do to help them.
Overview of the home office deduction
A home office deduction enables a person to treat otherwise personal costs as a deductible business expense. The deduction can be based on the actual costs allocated to the portion of the home used for business or on an IRS-set allowance of $5 per square foot up to 300 square feet (a maximum deduction of $1,500). The employee claims the deduction as a miscellaneous itemized deduction on Schedule A of Form 1040.
An employee working from home can qualify for the home office deduction only if he or she meets the following three tests:
- The home office must be the principal place of business or a place to meet regularly with customers, clients, or patients (there’s also a “separate structure” rule not discussed here).
- The space must be used regularly and exclusively for business. The space cannot be used for personal purposes when not being used for business, so a kitchen won’t qualify.
- The use of the home office must be for the convenience of the employer and the employee does not rent the space to the employer
Special conditions for employees
Condition number 3, above, is only for employees; self-employed individuals working from home don’t have this concern. An employee who chooses to work from home because it better suits his/her lifestyle and family responsibilities or believes he or she can get more work done at home may not be eligible for a home office deduction. The choice must be the employer’s. Thus, an employee who finds it helpful and appropriate to do work in the evening at home probably can’t take the deduction.
But if the employer requires an employee to work from home—all the time or at certain times—the employee may be eligible for the tax break. More specifically, working from home must be a condition of employment, necessary for the employer’s business to function properly, or needed to allow an employee to perform his or her employment duties. Examples of situations where the use of a home office likely is for the convenience of an employer:
- The employer requires an employee to work from home because there is no office space for the worker.
- The office is locked at the end of the business day but the employer requires an employee to do work (e.g., be on call to answer customer questions) after hours or on weekends and holidays.
A company policy supporting an employee working at home can be reflected in a letter to the employee to this effect. For example, when I was an offsite part-time employee of a publishing company, I received a letter defining this work arrangement; there was no space for me at the company’s office and I was not required to work there.
The employee cannot charge the company rent for his or her home office. Thus, if you are the owner-employee of an S corporation and work from home, you can’t charge the corporation any rent if you want to take a home office deduction. Doing so means you must report the rent as income (and the corporation deducts the rent payment) but you can’t take a home office deduction.
While it’s great to help an employee nail down a home office deduction, this write-off may be worth little or nothing to the employee. The employee must itemize to take the deduction. And assuming he or she does itemize, only miscellaneous itemized deductions over 2% of adjusted gross income are actually deductible. As an employer you can eliminate the need for a home office deduction by reimbursing the employee for home office expenditures. If you do this through an “accountable plan,” the reimbursements are not treated as compensation to the employee and there’s no employment taxes involved. You can still deduct your reimbursements.
To be treated as an accountable plan, all of the following conditions must be met:
- The expenses must have a business purpose and are paid or incurred while performing services as an employee. Thus, paying an employee’s home office costs must reflect company policy.
- The employee must account to the employer for costs within a reasonable time (usually within 60 days after the expense is paid or incurred).
- If the company advances payments, the employee must return any excess reimbursement within a reasonable time (usually within 120 days after the expense is paid or incurred).
Reimbursements must be limited to actual business costs of the employee, such as charges for Internet access. Reimbursements under an accountable plan cannot include payments for personal expenses.
While the tax law doesn’t require any special type of written plan, it’s highly advisable to craft your own. Be sure that it contains the elements of an accountable plan and that the working-from-home arrangement is reflected in the document.
Companies are increasingly offering telework opportunities to employees. For example, FlexJobs* found that there was a 36% increase in telecommuting job listings from 2014 to 2015. Helping employees with tax rules on their home office will be much appreciated. The home office deduction is explained in IRS Publication 587. Details about an accountable plan are in IRS Publication 463.
*Denotes a non-governmental website link
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