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 2014 New Year's resolutions for business owners (one for each of the 12 Days of Christmas).
1. 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 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 get some education on how to do things better.
2. Know the "O." 2014 is a big year for the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, employers with more than 50 full-time equivalent employees must offer health insurance to all of them or pay a monthly penalty on their federal income tax return. If your business has fewer than 50 total employees, you're probably exempt from the mandate. But watch out if you have lots of part-time employees: the calculation of full-time equivalent status under Obamacare is very tricky.
Have your accountant do the calculation, get it in writing and plan on attending at least one employer-oriented webinar on Obamacare this year (for two excellent recorded programs, see www.nfib.com/webinars/healthcare-update and www.shrm.org/multimedia/webcasts/pages/1013aca.aspx).
3. 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, 2014 (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.
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 for your state's unemployment compensation system. You may also have to provide worker's compensation insurance; your insurance agent can help you with that.
4. 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 luncheon meetings. 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 your 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, you will get tons of free publicity for your business.
Finally, record your presentation, break it down into segments by topic, and put them up on your website as downloadable podcasts.
5. 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 to do) something. Start a blog where your customers can talk to each other about the stuff you do, with you as the all-knowing moderator. Hire a search engine optimization 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, difficult to access or that 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 Web page at www.creators.com.