Every business has different needs when it comes to using an accountant. Indeed, some may decide not to use one at all.
Only a limited company with a turnover of more than £6.5m and a balance sheet total exceeding £3.26m needs an audit – which would require an accountant. Most other businesses can do their own accounts and tax returns, if they so choose. However, running a business is hard enough without having to learn every accounting and tax rule, regulation and law.
Most businesses need their accountant to complete what we accountants call “compliance work” – basically, filing your accounts and tax returns (eg statutory accounts, annual return, VAT, Self Assessment, Corporation Tax, PAYE, etc) in correct format, ahead of deadline.
Most small businesses have very simple accounting and tax needs. Accounts usually consist of:
So how many individual transactions would this be a year? 100? 200? 500? Not too many, really. Add a free or inexpensive accounting system to your PC to record these transactions and you won’t have to face the nightmare of bags overflowing with receipts, invoices, statements, etc.
You can save a lot of money simply by doing your own bookkeeping, of course. Modern PC-based systems also grant better control of the financial side of running a business. Thanks to accounting software (or even just a basic Excel spreadsheet system), you no longer have to wait several months after the year-end to find out how your business has performed.
Keeping your accounts up to date in this way allows you to make better decisions based upon current financial data. It also allows your accountant to provide appropriate advice based upon your current trading rather than on previous accounts, which could be two years or so out of date.
Occasionally, you might need clarification on a financial or tax matter – so being able to quickly pick up the phone to ask your accountant questions can be hugely beneficial.
Accountants like to give this advice the grand title of “tax planning”. For some businesses (ie those with a high turnover or value), it’s important to have a clear and documented tax strategy. But in most cases, a tax planning strategy can be quite simple.
Your accountant should also make sure you claim all allowable costs – those that are “wholly and exclusively for business”. Many myths exist about what you can claim (eg clothes, all lunches, etc). Some seem to think that unless you hire an ‘expensive’ accountant, you won’t get the right advice on allowable costs. Utter nonsense! The advice you get depends on the accountant – there are good and bad ones – whatever price you pay!
Planning for the long term may give you a different tax plan, for example, if you intend to build up and sell your business. In addition, your circumstances could change and it may be necessary to discuss your tax plan with your accountant if, for example, you separate from your spouse, want to retire or buy property, etc.
Trying to account for “ifs, buts and maybes” in a tax strategy can make it unnecessarily complex. Taking into account events that may never happened can lead to a flawed plan, so keep things simple, based on what you know and what is likely to happen. Make sure you keep your accountant informed of any likely or forthcoming changes in your circumstances. This will help them ensure your tax plan remains valid.
There’s no need to pay fancy fees for specialist services you’d rarely, if ever, use. You can get the best of both words by making sure your accountant provides the service you need as and when you need it – at a fair price. An accountant with core trained and qualified staff, plus access to specialist services, should easily be able to do this for you.
A while ago, a complaint appeared on the SellerDeck customer forum about a third party who was spamming our customers using somewhat dubious methods. We got in touch with the offending party and they were totally dismissive: “All’s fair in love and war” seemed to be their attitude.
A few days later, the tone had totally changed. When anyone searched for their company name on Google, the first result returned was the thread on our customer forum. And it wasn’t good for them that every mention was a howling complaint. Swallowing larger chunks of humble pie than I had ever seen before, they promised to reform their ways and begged us to remove the comments about them. It was hard not to feel smug.
But the point of this is not the humbling of one company, it’s that things have changed. It is now much harder to be a bad boy (or girl) and get away with it. In fact, with Twitter, Facebook, review sites and online forums, you can guarantee that your dirty washing will be aired within minutes. Taking an ethical approach to all aspects of business has never made more sense.
So here are my six top tips of some of the things to do and not to do to if you want to avoid being branded a “business bandit”.
Secondly, companies get a reputation within an industry and once you’ve got a bad name it’s hard to shake it off. Then you may need a favour from your suppliers one day. If you’ve always behaved badly, they will be strangely unavailable when needed, or particularly hard to negotiate with on contract renewal. What goes around comes around.
In the early days of my company when we were desperate for sales, one of our few customers returned his purchase. We handled the situation courteously and quickly. The customer turned out to be a journalist, and they sang our praises in print for years afterwards.
My final thought is this. Most of us want to do a good job for our customers. If we stick to these points, we will not only run a more successful business, but we’ll also feel better about it.
Most (if not all) business advisors will recommend networking to business owners. Networking comes is so many forms these days – everything from sporting events, such as dinners at football games and golf days, to formal referral and presentation-style roundtable networking.
In fact, every time you talk to someone about your business idea you are networking, so most of the networking you do won’t cost a penny. The more people they hear about your business, in theory, the more people will be aware of it and the more sales you will make. If no one knows about your brilliant new business idea, you will never make any sales.
As most business-owners will probably agree, you could spend all your waking hours at networking events. Before you commit to a networking event try to find out who would typically go (ie business size, business sector, etc) to see if they will match your business marketing requirements. Be careful though, because networking is not just about the person to whom you speak, but also the people they speak to afterwards. A person might be irrelevant to your business, but their contacts could be your next big customer.
At your next networking event, try a different tack from just selling your business idea. Don’t sell your business, but try and help other people's businesses. Ask them why they are at the event, whom they want to meet and how you might be able to help them. Businesses will remember you more for helping them in this way than for the sales pitch you gave in a networking session.
And one last tip: get feedback from all of your enquiries so you can analyse how successful each networking event has been. Don’t just consider direct sales either. You might have made indirect sales that may have come from personal referrals at an event.
Read more about networking:
The internet is now helping people reach their business goals quicker and easier than ever before, and this is one of IT’s true achievements over the past couple of years, with much credit due to resources already available on the market. My top ten favourite web applications and tools (in no particular order) which could help your business are:
If you’re like me, your work location changes from day to day. For years I was frustrated by having to remember to put important documents I might need while out of the office onto a memory stick. What happens when the memory stick was full? You'd have to start deleting.
Dropbox is a virtual hard drive. No matter where you are, as long you have synced with the cloud-based tool, you can access your files. Even if you haven't synced, get your hands on an internet connection and you’re good to go. It's also great for sharing files without having to worry about emailing large attachments. Dropbox offers free and paid hosting solutions and is a must have for any start-up.
Keeping on top of projects and delegating tasks can be complicated and time-consuming. Basecamp is a great tool for project management and is full of great features that keep you on top of all of your projects.
It let's you do things such as assign specific tasks within projects to people and monitor their progress. The application has a great feature that allows you to exchange notes on each individual projects that you use a lot, brilliant if you have people working on projects in various locations. You must pay for the application, but it's worth it.
When we first launched, we found it hard to keep on top of all our customer service emails. Email Center Pro provided the solution. It gave us a virtual mailbox that could be accessed online from anywhere. The application is accessed through most web browsers and is full of features such as assigning emails to different members of staff, notifications of new emails, conversation tracker, etc. There are many more features included as standard. This is a paid-for service, but it’s incredibly cheap.
Knowing what you are meant to be doing, when and where is vital when running a business, but staying on top of all appointments can be hard. Google Calendars works well for us – and it’s free. Although it's not the most all-singing and all-dancing calendar application available, it does exactly what we need it to do. We can make appointments, invite attendees, email and send SMS notifications. It's basic, but sometimes that's all you need.
Blogging is now very popular and with cutting-edge applications such as Wordpress, it's easy to set up your own blog site. Blogs are a great way to interact with customers and keep them up to date in more detail than Twitter and Facebook. We decided to use Wordpress because it's growing at an incredible rate, there’s a huge amount of plug-ins and support. It's available as a free hosted solution on wordpress.com or you can download the application for free and host it on your own server.
Keeping Facebook and Twitter pages updated used to be a pain and, in my case, often ended up not happening. Now with the help of Tweetdeck, we can update both our Twitter and Facebook accounts from a nice desktop application. It's so easy to use and available for pretty much all interfaces. You can create an account for access through different machines and it also has a web browser version you can use when your on the road. Also there is support for many other web services such as Buzz, Myspace and LinkedIn.
Brianstorming is a massive part of many businesses’ growth ambitions. Evernote lets us share our notes with others and allow them to participate in our brainstorming efforts. There is a web version and desktop application available for most operating systems and a great mobile version for the iPhone. Free and Premium versions are available.
We needed a telephone number that offered two things – ability to put calls through to multiple extensions and a voicemail service. We chose eReceptionist. With this web application we chose our telephone number, set up our extension landline diverts and set our open and close hours. We were up and running in less than an hour. If a customer calls out of hours they are transferred to our voicemail and we can also divert calls to another landline at a different office if there is no one available. It's a great application and works well for us.
Dale Broadhead, Ink Spark Limited
If you are considering starting a business, my first advice is to study some relevant and successful entrepreneurs. If you also have a burning desire to make the world a better place, you should definitely talk to some very particular people: vendors of The Big Issue.
It is a common misconception that The Big Issue is a charity; in fact, it is a social enterprise. The vendors first have to raise the cash to buy the magazine and then persuade people to part with their cash, the classic model for entrepreneurship.
The people behind The Big Issue are highly focused entrepreneurs with a social conscience. John Bird was raised in an orphanage, went to prison and slept rough on the streets. In 1991 he founded the magazine with successful Body Shop entrepreneur Gordon Roddick.
His foil is Nigel Kershaw, a printing expert who first became involved when they were looking at producing the magazine themselves. Then, they worked on various entrepreneurial ideas, such as Big Issue vendors manufacturing fair trade candles for The Body Shop.
Finally, they followed the path often taken by successful entrepreneurs: to have even more fun by investing in other people’s businesses and Big Issue Invest was formed.
Any entrepreneur with an established track record, a fully functioning management team and a genuine market opportunity can potentially grow their company by taking on inward investment.
My own advice is invariably for them to scale back their ambitions and try to grow the company organically from revenue, or do everything they can to retain at least 51% of their company.
If you question this sound counsel, you should spend some quality time with an entrepreneur who came to work one day only to be suddenly, and often correctly, fired by their investors.
If your business would benefit from inward investment, has the potential to make some serious money and also has a genuine social purpose, then you should talk to Kershaw at Big Issue Invest. They have been running a social enterprise loan fund since 2005 and have recently launched a new investment fund.
Their process is no different to any other venture capital firm. Experienced investment professionals will first examine your plan to see if it stands a good chance of making some serious money and therefore provide a healthy return for the investors.
Then, they will check that the enterprise has a demonstrable social purpose; the day-to-day business activities of the company must also make the world a better place. Big Issue Invest will measure and report to their investors on the enterprise’s social impact.
Kershaw is looking for people with the right stuff, or as he nicely defines it, are ‘six-thirty people’. These are business veterans, who spend eight a.m. to seven p.m. making money and then at 7.01 attend a charity event or undertake voluntary work.
Kershaw reckons that at six-thirty these people have the right combination of business and altruistic mindsets, and therefore might make successful social entrepreneurs and investors.
The terms of business from any investment fund always have specific requirements.
In the case of Big Issue Invest, this might include a commitment to interview or train a specific number of Big Issue vendors for future employment.
This makes complete sense to me; when I walk up The Strand I always make a point of avoiding eye contact with the irritating ‘charity muggers’ but always buy a copy of The Big Issue, as I am always interested in meeting aspiring entrepreneurs.
More importantly, the magazine is always a cracking good read and excellent value for money, well worth the £2 investment.
Big Issue Invest can be found at www.bigissueinvest.com.
Originally published in The Financial Times. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.
Thanks to the global economy and the internet, the world is a smaller place. And now, hiring staff is insanely easy thanks to the rise of the remote-working freelance.
For a start-up owner especially, the rise of the freelance is absolute gold. Talent is available with a few clicks of a mouse, from the most difficult of tasks to the most trivial. Freelancing platforms such as Freelancer.co.uk give you an almost unlimited pool of ranked and reviewed suppliers willing to bid for your job.
The key benefits are cost-effectiveness and flexibility. As an entrepreneur I have hired freelances for numerous tasks over the last few years, everything from research to SEO, web design to data entry. Using self-employed people has enabled me to match the business needs as and when required, often at lower cost and at short notice.
While this works for me, I know there are a lot of cynics, especially around the topic of hiring overseas at low cost. My response is simple: I want the best expertise I can afford. Sure, I have employed freelances in China and India, but have often hired in the UK and US, too. You have to take a pragmatic approach.
Hiring freelance staff also makes sense where you have an ongoing, specialist job such as PR, SEO or accounting. There are independent experts in every field and outsourcing to one means you are freed up to concentrate on the core aspects of the business.
I know one new company, an email marketing provider, where the MD has a virtual, freelance team to run every aspect of the operation. It keeps his overheads low and makes him very nimble in a crowded marketplace.
The global economy is transforming the way we work. Could freelances transform the way your start-up works?