New Year's Resolutions are all about habits. Breaking some bad ones — smoking, drinking excessively, binging on fast food — and starting new ones — working out, eating more Brussels sprouts.
Businesses, like individuals, develop bad habits over time that need correction, while success in business over the long run usually means adopting good management habits and sticking with them year after year.
Here are my 2016 New Year's Resolutions for business owners.
Do Your Annual "Legal Review". It isn't enough to hire a good lawyer and pray you don't get sued. Every business has laws and regulations you need to know about, and it's your responsibility to learn about them so you can prevent lawsuits before they happen. Take your lawyer to lunch sometime in January, tell him or her everything your business did last year and is planning to do this year, and find out what laws have changed since last year.
"Know the O". 2016 is another big year for the Affordable Care Act year, employers with more than 100 full-time employees must offer health insurance to 95 percent of them (up from 70 percent in 2015), or pay a penalty on their federal income tax return. Mid-sized businesses of 50 to 99 full-time employees will also be required to offer coverage to 95 percent of qualifying employees after being exempt from the penalty in 2015. Businesses with 49 or fewer full-time employees will still be exempt from Obamacare penalties, as are part-time employees (defined as working 29 or fewer hours per week), so if you're close to the limit, consider changing some of your full-time employees to part-time status.
But here's the "big chill" for 2016: the Obamacare "employer mandate" is going into effect. Under the employer mandate, businesses must provide their full-time employees (and their children up to age 26) health coverage options, and ensure that those options cover at least 60 percent of total allowed medical costs. If the cost of healthcare premiums exceeds 9.5 percent of a full-time employee's income, then you will be responsible for providing a subsidy to cover the difference. Businesses that fail to comply with these new rules could be looking at some very steep fines that range between $2,000 and $3,000 per full-time employee.
Sign 'Em Up; Nail 'Em Down. You've got a part-time salesperson or administrative assistant working in your business one or two days a week. While they're there, you tell them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. You believe this person is an "independent contractor", so you don't withhold money from their paycheck each week. Bad idea! The IRS is very likely to look at this person as a part-time employee, and they will come down on you like Thor's hammer if they find out. Now's the time to have this person sign a one-page employment agreement "effective Jan. 1, 2016" (your attorney can draft this for a couple of hundred dollars), and add them to your payroll.
What should the agreement say? At the very least, it should clearly state that the employee serves "at will" and can be terminated at any time, with or without a reason.
Become a Local "Celebrity". As a famous Hollywood actress once said, "there is no such thing as bad publicity". Do anything and everything you can to generate positive local press and PR for your business. Volunteer to speak at local business luncheon meetings. Sponsor a charity event at your business location. If you run a butcher shop, call your local cable TV news show and volunteer to do a segment on "how to carve your holiday turkey" — people love that stuff, and news reporters love it when you make their lives easier by suggesting story ideas. Since 2016 is an election year, consider running for public office against a popular incumbent so there's no chance you will actually win the election (but be careful: a lawyer friend of mine did this years ago and the incumbent died two weeks before Election Day, sweeping my friend into office unexpectedly).
However you do it, get out in front of your marketplace and let them see you. If you aren't visible to your customers 24/7, you are invisible.
Market on Social Media. I think it's time we finally "bite the bullet" and admit that social media isn't just a passing "fad". Make 2016 the year you learn which social media platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram — are right for your business, and take at least one course on how to market effectively on those platforms. Commit to building a fan base or following of at least 1,000 people by the end of this year.
If your business already has a strong following on social media, consider making a crowdfunded offering of stock to these people under the new SEC crowdfunding regulations that will go into effect May of this year.
More next week .
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Tony Webster