When you stop to think about it, New Year's resolutions are all about habits, breaking some bad ones (smoking, drinking excessively, binging on fast food when you've had a bad day) 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 2019 New Year's resolutions for business owners.
Do an 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 the owner needs to know about, and it's the owner's responsibility to learn about them so he or she 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 get some education on how to do things better.
Tax Law Changes. Last year, we all had to figure out a whole new tax law that turned a lot of things upside down. This year ... who knows?
With a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats, it's almost a certainty we will be seeing a new tax bill in 2019 that will try to overturn some of last year's tax law changes (keep your eye especially on the $10,000 limit on deductions for state and local taxes, which a lot of Democrat-controlled states are furious about). Much as we don't like to think about taxes except once a year (and, frankly, not even then), 2019 is one year when you have to keep your eye on what's going on in Congress. Consider subscribing to a congressional update service like www.govtrack.us — by signing up for its free new-laws alert, you will be among the first to know when something has changed — or asking your accountant to send you notifications of tax law changes that affect your business.
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 she's there, you tell her what to do, when to do it and how to do it. You believe she is an independent contractor, so you don't withhold money from her paycheck each week. Bad idea! The IRS is very likely to look at this person as a part-time employee, and it will come down on you like Thor's hammer if it finds out. Now's the time to have her sign a short employment agreement effective Jan. 1, 2019 (your attorney can draft this for a couple hundred dollars) and add her 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.
If the part-timer is your first employee, don't forget to have your accountant sign you up for federal and state withholding and payroll taxes, and your state unemployment compensation system. You may also have to provide worker's compensation insurance; your insurance agent can help you with that.
Loosen up Your Vocal Cords. One of the best ways to distinguish yourself from your competition, especially if you are a consultant, is to become the local expert in your field. Volunteer to speak at local business luncheons. Teach a course at your local community college. If you run a butcher shop, call your local cable TV news show and volunteer to do a segment on how to carve a holiday turkey — people love that stuff, and news reporters love it when you make their life easier by suggesting story ideas. However you do it, get out in front of your marketplace and let them see you. Not only will you build your self-confidence as a public speaker but you will also get tons of free publicity for your business.
Finally, record your presentation; break it down into segments by topic; and put the segments up on your website as downloadable podcasts.
Update Your Web Presence. Look at your business website and social media pages, and make at least five changes that will make them more attractive, fun and cool to prospective customers. Post some content-rich articles answering commonly asked questions about what you do. Put up some videos (and post the videos on YouTube) demonstrating in an entertaining way how to do (or not do) something. Start a blog where your customers can talk to one another about the stuff you do, with you acting as the all-knowing moderator. Hire a search engine optimization (SEO) consultant, and learn what you can do to get your web presence higher in the Google search rankings.
At the same time, delete things from your website that are boring, are difficult to access or do nothing to address your customers' fears and passions. If you are a lawyer or accountant, nobody cares what you look like or where you went to school, so get rid of the website photo and biography. Put up your fee schedule instead, because clients DO care about how much you are going to charge them for your services!
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 webpage at www.creators.com.