Category Archives: Monthly Business Tips

Avoid these 3 social media newbie business blunders

The internet is where people go to discuss their favorite sports teams, politicians, recipes — you name it. This is especially true for customers. You can find out how much people love or hate your business by what you see via Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and other social media platforms.

More and more of your customers will be tech-savvy folks who expect businesses to engage with them using these platforms. But when your company steps into the no-holds-barred world of social media, be sure to avoid three common blunders:

  • Setting up too many accounts. Don’t assume your target customers will be trolling every available social media site. Identify two or three platforms that your most-sought-after clients favor, then learn the strengths and weaknesses of each platform.
  • Blending personal and business accounts. Once in a while, your customers may enjoy a personal photo. But your politics may offend. They may go elsewhere when you post comments about a recent Hawaiian vacation, or your favorite politicians. To avoid appearing unprofessional or trivial, keep your company’s social media site separate from your personal account.
  • Using social media for the hard sell (right away). Think of these internet gathering places as a casual party. You don’t walk in, immediately hand out business cards and grab the microphone from the host to advertise your latest product. Take it slowly. Get to know the attendees first. Educate, entertain and add value. Then talk about your business in response to a customer’s expressed needs.

Expect to spend at least three months of concerted effort to see tangible business results using social media platforms. The more time you dedicate to getting to know your clients and potential customers, the better you’ll be at providing them the products and services they want.

How to avoid layoffs and still be profitable

If your company’s revenue starts to falter, payroll may be a place you look for spending cuts. But before opting for layoffs as a quick and easy means of recovering profitability, consider this: the decision to lay off employees carries its own set of costs.

For example, the more people who are laid off, the more remaining employees may find reasons to seek employment elsewhere. If skilled and productive workers leave the company, product quality and customer service may suffer. Those left behind may feel overworked and suffer from diminished morale, which can lead to production errors. Certain direct costs, such as severance pay and unemployment insurance rates, may actually increase. And when business picks up again, your company may incur additional costs to hire and train new employees. In the long run, layoffs may actually hurt profitability.

So before taking steps to reduce the size of your workforce, consider these five alternatives for reducing payroll and overhead expenses:

  1. Curtail nonessentials. Temporarily suspend company-provided meals and transit subsidies. Reduce travel and overtime as much as possible. Postpone buying the state-of-the-art equipment you’d like.
  2. Reduce work hours. Go from a five-day workweek to a four-day workweek to cut payroll costs by 20 percent. Give employees unpaid leave time, especially during school holidays.
  3. Hire interns. Some students may need to complete an internship to graduate from college. In exchange for college credit, they may be willing to work for minimal pay.
  4. Offer sabbaticals. Challenge your established employees to step away from the office for a period of time at reduced pay to attend training.
  5. Consider a virtual office policy. Perhaps some of your employees can work from home, enabling you to free up office space and the associated leasing costs.

Above all, keep your staff in the loop. Let them know why you’re making changes. Communicate the benefits of any short-term cuts, and stress your desire to avoid layoffs whenever possible.

Increase your odds of getting a small business loan

As any entrepreneur will tell you, financing a business is no small undertaking. Pulling funds from personal bank accounts, liquidating assets, talking to friends and relatives about your venture — these are all actions you might take to get your business up and running. Banks and other financial institutions could also play a role.

In fact, for many small businesses, some form of debt is essential. According to a recent study by the Harvard Business School, about 48 percent of business owners reported a major bank as their primary financing relationship. Another 34 percent identified a regional or community bank as their main capital financing partner.

Understanding the following factors — fundamentals that loan officers scrutinize — could increase your chances of getting a small business loan:

  • Cash flow. Lenders want assurance that your business will pay back the loan without fail. Your job? Convincing them that your company won’t default. Calculate cash flow at least quarterly and try to optimize those numbers before applying for the loan. Understand the support for your financial statements and be able to defend any projections.
  • Collateral. This is the asset or group of assets a lender can recover to offset loan losses. In the case of a mortgage, it’s the market value of the property underlying a home loan. To bolster your case to a loan officer, consider getting independent appraisals of major assets to be used as collateral. Those assets might include inventory or company-owned real estate.
  • Credit history. Any competent loan officer will examine your credit history before approving a loan. Sometimes otherwise strong businesses face financial troubles due to problems beyond the owner’s control. But know that if your credit is less than stellar, banks may be reluctant to lend. So plan early and make every effort to fortify your credit report. Paying off old loans or renegotiating supplier contracts may lift your credit score and increase the likelihood of loan approval.
  • Expert advice. Lenders want assurance that you’re serious about the future of your business. Let the bank know that you’re seeking financial guidance from your accountant and other knowledgeable advisors.

Tips to slash shipping costs for your business

Scrutinize your operating budget and you may discover that shipping expenses — ever present and necessary for obtaining inventory and delivering products to customers — are squeezing your bottom line and cutting into profit margins. Taking some time to trim those costs may offer significant opportunities for savings.

Comparison shop and negotiate

The biggest names in the shipping industry — UPS, FedEx, DHL, and the U.S. Postal Service — aren’t the only games in town. And because they all compete with each other, it’s wise to shop around for the best price. If you ship large volumes of merchandise, you may find that some shippers are willing to lower your costs. Generally speaking, pricing schedules are based on volume. The more you ship, the lower your rate.

Shipping account number

Ask suppliers to use your shipping account number. This approach has two major advantages. First, it tends to increase the shipping volume on your account, which can lower your overall rate. Secondly, it can also keep vendors honest. For example, if you ship via FedEx, request that the supplier use your FedEx account number, so you can check online to verify actual shipping expenses. Include this requirement with each purchase order and your suppliers may not be tempted to pad their delivery invoices.

Other costs

Shipping is expensive. Fuel surcharges, recipient signature fees, and extra charges for Saturday deliveries are common. Your pricing should reflect those costs. If you’re selling online and can’t afford to offer free shipping, consider increasing the price of your products to cover delivery expenses. Buyers may balk at paying $8 to ship a $15 item, but may be willing to spend $3 for shipping to obtain a $20 product. Your company garners the same sales revenue either way.

Slash packaging expenses

Your customers will gladly inform you that shipped items were damaged in transit, as they should. But ensuring that your products arrive in pristine condition requires well-designed and costly packaging. How can you reduce packaging costs? Consider using packages provided by your carrier. You won’t run afoul of their size regulations or end up paying “dimensional fees.” Order several boxes of each size to determine the optimal packaging for your needs. Other options that may work for you include recycling previously used containers or shopping online auction sites for inexpensive packaging materials.

Shipping costs will likely always be a part of your company’s expenses, but implementing a few of these ideas may reduce your bottom line.  Please call Carl Heinemann, your Chattanooga CPA, for more information.

4 warning signs of business failure

According to the Small Business Administration, about half of all newly established businesses last five years or more. Only a third survive to the ten-year mark. For a variety of reasons, companies that possess the stamina and skill to endure the early years of growth sometimes flounder as the business matures. Why? In all too many cases, business owners disregard four warning signs.

Core business distraction

You start a business with a great idea. It catches on. Orders start rolling in and profits climb. But somewhere along the line you get distracted. You start diverting resources and time to other pursuits. An example of a company diverting resources comes with the history of the Boeing Company, one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers. In the aftermath of World War I, Boeing built furniture and watercraft to bolster its bottom line. What if, during that season of dwindling revenues, the company had diverted all its limited resources toward sideboards and sailboats? Maybe we wouldn’t be boarding Boeing jetliners today.

Excessive employee turnover

If you’re routinely replacing and training new staff, you may be headed for trouble. Besides the added cost of recruiting, interviewing, and educating new employees, high staff turnover can adversely impact customer service and sales. Too many unhappy customers and your once-thriving business may begin to falter.

Cash flow setbacks

It’s great that your profit-and-loss statement shows an upward trend in net income. But that’s not the whole story. The cash flow statement is often a better tool to diagnose your company’s overall financial health. It shows how much money is coming into the business and where the funds are being spent. For example, you might have an aggressive sales staff that racks up orders. But if customers aren’t paying their invoices in a timely fashion, you may struggle to cover payroll and accounts payable. As the old saying goes, “Cash is king.” Uncollected accounts receivable won’t pay the bills.

Changing markets

Technologies come and go. Customer needs fluctuate. Today’s hot-selling product becomes tomorrow’s obsolete inventory. It’s true that determination and drive are crucial to the success of any business. But if those traits lead to inflexibility in the face of changing conditions, the company may be headed toward bankruptcy.

If you have further questions about strengthening your company’s long-term prospects, call Carl Heinemann, your Chattanooga CPA and let’s have a conversation.

Office equipment — lease or buy?

For many companies, the decision to lease or buy office equipment bears directly on cash flows and profits. Copiers, phones, computers, printers, and networking software all must be either purchased or rented. How do you decide which is the best option for your business?

Pros and cons of leasing. When you lease your equipment, you sign the lease agreement and start making payments. It’s simple. The company that leases equipment to you (the lessor) generally promises to maintain it. The lessor may even cover insurance and other costs during the lease term. With a lease, your business won’t need to take out a loan or make a down payment to use the equipment. Lease terms often roughly coincide with the expected service life of the leased assets. So by the time the equipment is returned to the leasing company, it may be fully depreciated. When the technology becomes obsolete, your firm won’t be stuck with equipment you can no longer use. You can return it.

Nevertheless, over the long run, leasing is often more expensive than buying. For example, you can buy desktop computers today for $1,000 each. Leasing the same equipment for three years at $50 per month will cost $1,800. Keep in mind, too, that your lease contract will likely require lease payments even if you stop using the equipment. (Breaking the lease may be an option, but often an expensive one.) Moreover, unless you establish the right to buy the equipment at a bargain price when the lease expires, your company won’t have equity in the leased items.

Pros and cons of buying. When purchasing a piece of equipment outright, you’re responsible for maintenance, insurance, loan payments and associated costs. But if the equipment retains its value, you can continue using it after any loans have been paid off. You don’t have to continue making lease payments and there’s no penalty for breaking a lease contract. When you no longer need the equipment, you may recover a portion of the cost by selling it to the highest bidder.

However, purchasing equipment requires cash today. To buy a telephone system, for example, you may need to deplete cash accounts or divert revenue to cover loan payments. That’s money that won’t be available for advertising, salaries, utilities, and all the other costs of operating your business.

The best way to determine if leasing or buying is right for your company is to determine the approximate net cost of the equipment, carefully including tax breaks and resale value. After this, consider other possibilities, like the product becoming obsolete or your need for the assets expiring before the lease does. If you would like to discuss the details, Carl Heinemann, your Chattanooga CPA, is here to help.

Avoid these common mistakes made by business start-ups

Although most small businesses fail in the first year of operation, business survival rates tend to improve as a company ages. According to the Small Business Administration, about two-thirds of businesses with employees survive at least two years. About half make it through the first five years. You can increase your odds of weathering those initial start-up years by avoiding a few all-too-common mistakes.

  • Inadequate planning. Many factors go into your business strategy: the company’s structure, market demographics, capital requirements, and expected cash flow. When it comes to a start-up, it’s all about attention to details. Develop a realistic budget forecast. Research the marketplace, and know what sets your product apart. Family expectations can also be important. Hold frank discussions with family members to avert misunderstandings when business requirements claim more of your time and energy.
  • Insufficient cash. Don’t rely on credit cards or bankers to bail you out if cash flows don’t meet expectations. Before opening your doors to the public, establish a cash reserve that’s three times your first year’s estimated need. All sorts of unforeseen expenses can cripple your business while you build your customer base. A healthy cash reserve can make the difference between a viable business and a failure statistic.
  • Inflexible management. Adapt your business model to varying conditions. If customers, competitors, or markets change, be willing to change with them. Last year’s tactics shouldn’t be sacrosanct. Experiment and consider new ideas. Evaluate how your product or service is currently addressing market demands. Modify or discard your original idea if it’s clearly failing. As your company grows, don’t be afraid to hire employees who are willing to challenge your long-established strategies.
  • Incompetent advice. Don’t assume you can download free online guidance that will address specific legal or accounting issues — it’s worth paying for expertise. Hire a lawyer trained in small business matters. Set up accounting systems with the aid of an accounting expert. If you ever decide to sell your business or are faced with a lawsuit, you’ll be glad you paid for professional legal advice. If you want a clear understanding of your business expenses and tax issues from year to year, don’t scrimp on accounting expertise. And remember to schedule regular consultations with your experts to ensure the company stays on track.

Starting a business is never easy. Learning from the mistakes of other start-ups may help your business grow successfully through the most challenging early years.

Refine the power of your business website

Why do people visit your business website? Generally speaking, potential customers want to know three things: What you’re offering, how much they can expect to pay, and whether the items are currently available.

Studies have shown that online visitors who peruse business websites tend to form an opinion of a company’s brand in about three seconds. A well-designed website may entice them to stick around for an additional 10 to 20 seconds. In other words, you don’t have much time to get and hold their attention.

Give visitors the information they want and you may make a sale. Annoy them, and they’ll look elsewhere. That’s why it’s crucial to consider the needs of busy customers when designing your website. Keeping those needs in mind, consider the following tips to create a website that generates business for your company.

  • Focus on the customer, not the company. The company’s history and the CEO’s credentials may kindle positive feelings in you, but potential customers may find such details irrelevant. Remember that visitors want answers. Provide those answers quickly or they’ll click elsewhere.
  • Keep it updated. Have you ever scanned to the bottom of a webpage and discovered that the latest revision happened three years ago? If the content on your website isn’t current, people may not trust the site’s information about products, services, and prices.
  • Make navigation easy. Each webpage should have the same “look and feel.” Don’t make visitors wonder how to get back to the home page or main menu. If potential customers get disoriented in your website’s confusing maze, they’ll exit.
  • Use text wisely and avoid data-hogging graphics. Most of the content on your site should be quick-to-load text. Don’t bombard visitors with flashing words or unnecessary distractions. A few strategically placed and relevant graphics can enhance an otherwise dull website. Remember: Short attention spans are the rule in cyberspace.
  • Proofread. A website that’s riddled with typos, poor grammar, spelling errors, and bad formatting will give potential customers an unfavorable impression of your company and its offerings. Visitors may wonder, “If this business doesn’t care about the quality of its website, how can I trust the products in its warehouse?”

Once your website is built, don’t ignore it. A well-maintained, user-friendly website can build loyal customers who keep coming back.

Bolster your company’s cyber security

Workers routinely and unintentionally put their employers at risk by engaging in sloppy computer security practices. In one recent study, a research team placed 200 USB thumb drives in high-traffic public places in Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., and tracked what happened to them. Nearly one in five of these small devices were plugged into someone’s computer. Imagine if one of these USB drives belonged to your company and contained highly sensitive information.

Fortunately, you don’t need expensive hardware upgrades or new software applications to bolster cyber security at your office. Here are four relatively low-cost suggestions.

  • Employee education. When new employees join your team, make sure they’re trained in strong security procedures. They should be trained to avoid using weak passwords; sharing login credentials; installing unauthorized applications on work computers; uploading company files to unencrypted devices; and being careless with emails. Use ongoing training to reinforce your company’s computer security policies and expectations.
  • Single Sign-On (SSO) service. Most people find it difficult to manage the overabundance of business and personal passwords. So they cope by making easy-to-access Excel spreadsheets or placing sticky notes within reach of their computers. A long list of unsecured passwords can easily be stolen or misplaced. Instead, use an SSO to allow employees to access multiple work-related applications with a single strong password, reducing the need for less secure workarounds.
  • Monitor access. According to one study, 89 percent of workers who leave a company continue to have access to one or more of their former employer’s computer applications. Be sure to create a procedure to immediately revoke access to all company databases and applications when an employee resigns or is terminated. Bottom line: always know who can get into your company’s databases and applications, and develop the ability to shut off access quickly when warranted.
  • Make reporting easy. Employees should know how to report suspicious behavior or security concerns. Consider adding a link to your email platform that allows staff to forward questionable emails directly to your IT department or management team.

Cyber criminals are always trying to find new ways to access sensitive data of companies like yours. Implementing a few of these suggestions could keep your company safe from a security breach.

Motivation matters: Encourage your employees with the right policies

Keeping your staff motivated and productive can be difficult even in the best of times. One recent study found that only 30% of U.S. workers feel “engaged and inspired” by their careers. But motivating your employees, and making them feel appreciated, engaged, and fulfilled, is critical to employee retention. Are you up to the task?

Take a walk around your company and observe your employees. Do they interact? Do they appear engaged by their work? If not, your personnel policies may be at fault. Here are suggestions for improving them.

  • Eliminate unnecessary rules. Do company rules hinder productivity and communicate mistrust? If your policies are riddled with over-zealous attendance rules, unreasonable internet usage guidelines, and petty parking lot decrees, consider rewriting them in a way that shows you trust your employees to perform in a professional manner.
  • Hire the right people. A team with broad experience, training, and a common vision can perform wonders. Give employees the benefit of working alongside like-minded professionals who have the training and skills that allow everyone to succeed.
  • Inspire top performance. Set the bar high. Establish goals for each of your employees and schedule regular performance reviews to keep them on the right track toward reaching those goals.
  • Value differences. Do you know what motivates individual employees? For some, a public pat on the back is a real incentive. Others might prefer to stay in the shadows and receive kudos without fanfare. Be a perceptive manager, and take time to understand these differences.
  • Focus on leadership. Be the kind of boss you’d want to work for. Avoid excessive control, harsh behavior, and arrogance. Remain accessible and open to feedback. Understand the day-to-day work your staff performs, give employees a sense of autonomy, and treat everyone as an integral part of the team.
  • Provide long-term career opportunities. If the workplace seems stagnant and career paths are nonexistent, a loss of motivation is not far behind. To counteract flagging morale, create paths to promotion in as many roles as possible. Challenge employees with new tasks that will prepare them for the next level of career advancement.
  • Open communication. Communicate with your employees. Provide clear and timely updates and feedback, even when presenting bad news. Keeping everyone in the loop will stop rumors from spreading, and help your employees develop as a team.

For more tips on how to build a productive and motivated workforce, give Carl Heinemann, your Chattanooga CPA, a call.