How to Get FREE Small Business Advice

Starting and running a small business isn’t exactly a piece of cake. It takes passion, commitment, and know-how. But knowing everything is too hard, and being good at everything is impossible. At some point you’ll want to get some help, and the sooner the better. But what’s the best way to get help?

Have you heard of SCORE? 

SCORE is a partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and is dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, grow and achieve their goals through education and mentorship. SCORE volunteers give freely of their time, energy and knowledge to help others, donating over 1 million hours of their time each year to support their communities.

I have just recently begun to take advantage of the services that SCORE has to offer. I have been in business for over six years, but as my customer base grows and my business evolves, I have so many questions!  Especially in the finance department. So I met with a mentor, took a money strategy class, an e-commerce class, and enrolled in their ‘Successfully Starting a New Business‘ workshop, which covered some aspects of my business that I enjoy the least, like:

  • Business Entities
  • Licensing
  • Insurance
  • Finance
  • Research
  • Marketing (which I actually love.)

I’m not going to go over everything they talked about, because I think you should consider taking the class. Not only will you learn a ton, but you might just decide to get yourself a mentor! But here’s an overview…

Business Entities – What’s the best choice for your business?

There several business entities you can chose from. The differences between them mostly have to do with liability, transfer of interests, reporting requirements, and taxes. For most small businesses and solopreneurs, here are some options:

Sole Proprietorship

Sole proprietorships, where only one person is running a business, is the fastest and simplest one to set up. Because a business run as a sole proprietorship does not have any legal separation between the company and the business owner, the business owner is responsible for all debts and legal obligations of the business.

LLC

LLC stands for Limited Liability Company. The company becomes its own legal entity and is therefore not (typically) held personally responsible for debts or if legal action is taken against the business.

Score has a good article describing the differences.

S Corporation

An S Corporation is considered a pass-through entity and is actually a tax designation.  So you can be an LLC and elect S Corp status. This is a pretty cool option if you meet the requirements and bring in enough income to make it worthwhile. As an S Corp only wages paid are subject to FICA tax for Social Security and Medicare. Other net earnings that pass-through to the owners are considered dividend income and you are not required to pay self-employment taxes on these dividends, which is a tax savings of about 15.3%. Check out this article on the Score site that gives you all the details about S Corporations.

It is a good idea to seek expert advice when choosing your business entity, as their are pros and cons to each.

Licensing

Regardless of the type of entity, you need to get a business license. You can apply for a Washington State Business License online. Make sure you register any other names you want to use in your business as a “doing business as” name.

Anyone doing business in Seattle must have a Seattle business license tax certificate. Here’s more info on Seattle Business Licensing.

Insurance

This is way too big of a topic to cover here, and differs vastly based on the type of business you operate. But here are some links to some great articles from Score:

Finance

My way of doing business for many years was to wrack up as many billable hours as possible and send out invoices either at the end of a project, or tally up my hours and send out invoices at the end of every month. When I did my taxes on April 14th, I’d discover how much money I’d made, and what quarterly taxes I’d owe for the next year.

But things are different now, and they keep evolving, as they should. Now I offer more services with different ways of billing for each. And I have more expenses. So as things get more complex, I need to spend some more time dealing with and understanding my finances. Here are some very basic things I learned from SCORE:

  • Keep all business activity separate from my personal finances. Set up a bank account for your business, with separate checks and credit card.
  • Keep track of all of your business deposits and receive 1099s from all of the businesses that paid your more than $600 during the year.
  • Keep receipts for all of your business expenses, and track your business miles.

One key message I’ve heard over and over again is…

Know your numbers!

It’s okay to hire someone else to do your finances, in fact it’s a really good idea, but YOU NEED TO KNOW YOUR NUMBERS. You don’t need to be an expert in accounting, but you need to understand your finances. You need to be able to understand and work with your income statement, balance sheet, and cashflow statement. If you don’t know your numbers, then you’d better get someone to help you, like a SCORE mentor!

Create a strategy

When you know your numbers, you can make a plan for growth and work towards running a financially healthy business. Where do you start? With a strategy. Here’s what I learned from SCORE…

  1. Define what success is for you. Is it to make enough money for your lifestyle? To make millions? To sell your business for a profit?
  2. Where are you now? Are your revenues growing while your expenses are flat? Do you have reserves in case of an emergency? Getting new customers regularly while retaining the old ones? It’s important that you have a system in place that provides you with timely and accurate financial data that shows you the health of your business. If you don’t, this should be your first goal. Here is a good overview on understanding your financial reports.
  3. Create a cash flow forecast. Identify your fixed costs (not dependent on sales) and your variable costs (dependent on sales) and estimate the number of customers you’ll get over the next week, month, and year. This cash flow template can help you with this.
  4. Plan for capitol needs. If you need outside capital to keep you going, plan for that sooner then later – don’t wait until there’s a crisis. Research what you will need for debt or equity financing. Here are some options from the SCORE blog.
  5. Manage profitability by creating standard processes for reviewing your financial data so you can make adjustments early if needed.

Research

One of my favorite parts of SCORE’s Successfully Starting a New Business workshop was learning about all of the business research tools available at the Seattle Public Library. I had no idea! Did you know you can schedule a meeting with a librarian with business training who can help you with all of these resources? And all you need is a library card to access them. What a bargain!

Here are examples of some of the resources available:

  • Information about companies: clients, partners, or competitors
  • Information about customers: demographics, typical expenditures, lifestyles
  • Statistics on markets: forecasts, trends, opportunities
  • Industry classifications (SIC and NAICS codes), set up by the federal government, to help you do research on your industry
  • Sample business plans: real-world examples
  • All kinds of information about public companies and industry reports
  • Census information
  • Business ratio books: ratios of typical financial data for various industries
  • Online learning from Lynda.com
  • General business guidebooks

Marketing

Marketing is a fascinating topic to me, because you have to tap into how people think and feel. You need to know your audience. You need a strategy and you need to invest in that strategy. Marketing is an enormous topic, but here’s a good starting point for new businesses.

Psychographics

SCORE’s Successfully Starting a New Business workshop also taught me about Psychographics, which I thought was a really interesting for targeting your customers. Psychographics is a method used to describe consumers’ psychological traits, and the major types are:

  • Belongers: People who like to be part of a group or community. They love to spend time with family and friends, are slow to embrace change, hard working, conventional and conservative. This is the biggest of the groups.
  • Achievers: Power, wealth, and hard work drive these people to get ahead. They consider themselves separate form the mainstream and buy top of the line products. This is the smallest group.
  • Societally Conscious: These people read labels carefully and seek information. They like socially responsible companies and products. They are not easily swayed by overt advertising.
  • Emulators: This group is status conscious and they emulate others. They want to fit in and be accepted. They buy products that make them feel cool.

And here is some recommended reading form my SCORE workshop:

So, as you can see, I am a big fan of SCORE. All of the mentors I have met and the people teaching the classes have been amazing. They truly want to help you be successful. They have been successful with their businesses and now they are paying it forward. Please take advantage of this resource, and then hopefully some day you will pay it forward too. I know I hope to.

Oh, and one last really great resource from SCORE: 10 Resources Every Startup Should Know About.

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