When I’m working with people on their businesses, the comment I get more than any other is, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” When you start going down that rabbit hole researching all the things, it can seem like there is just too much to do. What do you do first? My best advice is to not overthink it. Start simple and grow as you’re able. You don’t have to have it all figured out ahead of time. And sometimes you don’t even want to because as you start doing more business, you realize what needs to change. You learn as you go. You make adjustments and you keep going. You make more adjustments and you keep going. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I emphasize this because I like to have everything in order before I launch anything. But in the past, that put me in the habit of wasting time. Time that I could’ve been spending actually doing business and not just planning for it. I couldn’t even count the number of times in the last 5 years that I’ve changed my focus, my website, my services, my internal processes, everything about my business. It’s constantly evolving, and I love that. I’ve had to learn to trust and accept that you can’t know everything ahead of time – you have to get in there and start doing. That’s the best way to figure out what you don’t know.
That being said, you have to start somewhere. So start with the basics. But even if you’ve already started and are running your business, don’t tune out just yet. I’m going to talk about two of the most important things that all self-employed business owners should be doing, and I find that a lot of people aren’t. First, and most importantly, be clear on what your business is.
DECIDE ON A NAME
Decide on a name and get the matching domain. If it’s not available, you might consider a different direction. People try to get creative sometimes, but you want to make sure it’s searchable and easy to spell. If it’s too close to something else, it could make it harder for people to find you. Set up an email address with your domain, too. Yes, you can use gmail, but it doesn’t have the same professional feel, and sometimes that matters to your potential clients. If you’re still using the same AOL address you’ve had since 1998, it’s definitely time for an upgrade. I’d also recommend keeping your business email separate from your personal one, so it’s easier for you turn work off when you need to.
HAVE A STRONG LOGO & WEBSITE
Make sure you have a strong logo & website. These are the visual representations of your brand and should fit the look and personality of your business. Your logo is the first thing people will see and your website is the likely the first stop when someone is considering working with you. These are two areas where I don’t recommend going the “cheaper services” route. It’s worth hiring a professional to design a logo and website that will serve you well from the beginning. Sometimes it’s better to make the investment up front to save you in the long run. I know too many people who went the do-it-yourself route or hired someone for way too cheap on Fiver, just to end up spending a ton of time and money down the road to “fix” everything.
The exception would be if you’re still fleshing out your business and you’re not entirely sure what it’s going to be yet. Then you might want a simple landing page with your contact info. But otherwise, don’t be stingy. We all need to save on costs, but think about the value of your own services and how you feel when someone goes with a competitor who is undercharging. But that’s a topic for another episode.
I’d also say to choose a web designer who will train you on the basics of editing if you want to make minor changes to your site – basic copy, changing out photos, things like that that fit into the existing design. There are some who like to hold you hostage so they can charge you a high hourly rate for every little change, and that’s not always practical to maintain. I personally use the team at Tansy Aster Creative and strongly recommend them if you need a quality logo, website, or brand strategy. Tell them Aardvark Girl sent you.
BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR SERVICES & PRICING
On your website, you need to show what services or products you will be offering. Are you clear about what these are? Can you write succinct descriptions to explain to others what you do? Do you know what you’re going to charge? Will you offer hourly rates, project rates, bundles, or some other pricing structure? Again, this can all change but you want to have a general idea to get started, because it’s usually one of the first questions a new client is going to ask.
Do you have a basic one-page business plan? There’s a lot of information in your head, and sometimes getting those thoughts out in writing can really help you clarify your steps into manageable pieces. The foundation of your business, and all these supporting ideas, can be the most intense part of getting started. The rest is basically paperwork. It’s not fun but it’s not as complicated as you might think.
GET A CPA
Now this is where a lot of people get stuck. In every business workshop I’ve taught, the same questions are asked: Should I be a sole proprietor? Should I form an LLC? Should I incorporate? There’s not one answer that’s right for everyone – it really depends on your specific situation. I always advise discussing this with your CPA or tax professional before you decide. If you don’t have a CPA, getting one should absolutely be on your list of things to do.
A lot of people shy away from hiring someone because they’re afraid it will be too expensive, they’re fine paying one of those generic services, or they think they can do it on their own. But when you’re running a business, you want some more personalized attention – someone who understands your industry and will review your numbers to advise you on how to maximize your money. Even if you’re capable of doing it yourself, it’s always good to have a fresh set of eyes on your reports, and someone whose job it is to stay on top of the tax rules that are constantly changing. If you keep good records, which I’ll talk about soon, it shouldn’t cost you too much. Besides, CPA fees are tax deductible for businesses.
SOLE PROPRIETOR VS LLC
The most common place to start is by being a sole proprietor, which is a completely legitimate type of business. And it’s the easiest one. You don’t really have to do much but just start. If you want to use a business name, you can file a fictitious firm name application for a small fee. I’d recommend applying for an EIN, which is an employer identification number, from the IRS. You don’t have to have one – you can use your social security number – but you have to consider if you want that number on the W9 you send your clients. Most people prefer to have an EIN.
Another option is to form an LLC. The liability protection is appealing to many – it means if you ever get sued for something, they can’t come after your personal property. It’s an extra layer of separation between you and your business. But, whether you have an LLC or not, you should absolutely have business insurance – general liability if you work outside of your home, and professional insurance if you provide services. Depending on what you do, you might need other protection as well. You can’t rely solely on that limited liability. An LLC does require more extensive setup and fees. I would suggest hiring a CPA or attorney to set it up for you, so you don’t pull your hair out dealing with all the information and paperwork, but many people opt to do it themselves or through a service like Legal Zoom. It’s really up to you.
If you’re wondering about taxes, an LLC is treated the same as a sole proprietorship, unless you elect to be taxed as a corporation. It’s called a “pass-through” entity, meaning your business profits and losses pass through to you as the owner, and you report them on your personal return. This is something you should always discuss with your CPA. The decision about whether to be taxed as a corporation will depend on your specific situation – if you are earning enough, it can save you money and provide you with additional benefits. But that’s far more complicated than this current topic of getting started.
GET YOUR BUSINESS LICENSES
Regardless of whether you decide to move forward as a sole proprietor or LLC, you should get the appropriate business licenses for your state, city & county (every place is slightly different so it’s best to research your state requirements and fees). Before I go any further, sometimes people will stop me here and say something like, “Well, my friend has been doing so and so as a business for years and he doesn’t have a license.” Yeah. A lot of people do business without getting the proper licenses, either because they don’t think they have to or they don’t want to spend the money. You can get fined for operating without a license. But that’s not the only reason to do things properly.
If you want to take advantage of the perks that come from owning a business, like the tax deductions, you have to prove to the IRS that your business is legitimate and not a hobby. There are certain steps to take to help show that. The EIN and business licenses are a good start. But these next two are the most important.
KEEP SEPARATE ACCOUNTS
First, you must keep separate accounts for your business and personal income and expenses. Commingling funds is a huge red flag to the IRS. If you are reporting your business income on your personal return, it’s easy to think everything goes to the same place, so what does it matter. But it matters. All of your business income and expenses should go through dedicated business accounts. You can still transfer as much of that income as you need to your personal account to pay your bills. It’s called an Owner Draw. But it needs to flow through that business account first. I recommend having separate checking, savings & credit cards (if you can use it responsibly – I only suggest credit cards if you pay the balance in full every month. If you do that, you can take advantage of some great rewards).
Some banks will not let you open a business account unless you have an LLC or Corporation. They don’t HAVE to be business accounts. Sometimes business accounts do come with extra perks and protection, though, so you might want to look into some options. The point is to have accounts for your business that are only for your business, and keep your personal accounts for everything else. Looking good to the IRS is one thing, but this also makes it easier to track your business performance, which is important for your decision-making and growth.
GOOD BOOKKEEPING WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE EASIER
The other important part of this equation is keeping solid bookkeeping records – track all of your business income and expenses throughout the year. All of your invoices, bills, receipts, purchase details, etc. need to be tracked and recorded. The best and easiest way to do this is through accounting software. I know, if you’re even still with me at this point, you’re probably cringing. But this will make your life easier. I don’t know a single successful business owner who doesn’t use accounting software.
For years, I have recommended Quickbooks Online. It’s the most commonly used software, it’s been around a long time, and most accountants prefer it. I use it for my own business, and all but two of my bookkeeping clients use it as well. I also suggest checking out Freshbooks, which some find much simpler and easier to use. Full disclosure, I am a Freshbooks affiliate so use this link if you want to check it out and help me at the same time. But, I recently found Wave Apps, which is free and offers all of the functions most business owners need. So check that out, too – there’s no excuse to not have a system in place. And it’s much easier to set up when you’re getting started, when you don’t even have your first client yet, than when you’re well underway and too busy to go back and enter everything.
People fight me on this because they don’t want to do it, but I promise it will help you. It’s really helpful to have everything in one place so you know what you’ve billed, who has paid you, what you owe, what your account balances are, and more. You can easily create the profit & loss statement and balance sheet you’ll need to do your taxes (which will make your accountant happy). You can send your invoices directly from the software and your clients can pay online via ACH or credit card. These options make it easier for you to get paid.
And before you complain about the fees for accepting credit card payments, directly or through a service like PayPal, it’s a cost of doing business. The fees are tax deductible. Build them into your pricing so you’re covered. It’s up to you, but I encourage you to do whatever you can to make it easier for your clients to pay you. No one wants to spend time chasing down a check because they didn’t want to lose out on 3%. I hate fees, too, but it’s the practical thing to do.
A lot of times, people will say “I’m not making any money yet, so I haven’t bothered to track anything.” Yet they’re spending a ton of money on equipment, software, logo & website design, business cards, professional fees and more… which can be deducted as business expenses. The IRS understands that businesses aren’t always profitable right away. There are a lot of initial costs before you have your first client. You can file a loss for 2 of any 5 consecutive years. Beyond that, you could run into some issues, but that won’t happen to you, will it? But if you don’t have solid records, you won’t be able to take advantage.
PUT MONEY ASIDE FOR TAXES
One last piece of advice, and this is part of a bigger money discussion, but I want to mention it here. When you’re getting started, plan on putting at least 35% of all income aside (some states like California require more). I’d say aim for 50% so you’re covered. Remember that when you’re self-employed, you are responsible for all the taxes. You pay the employer AND employee portions of social security and medicare. It adds up fast so it’s best to take that portion and put it into a savings account as soon as you get it so you’re not tempted to spend it. It’s not “saving” money, because it’s not technically yours – you will owe that money either way. You should put extra away for savings & retirement.
It sounds like a lot. I know. It can be intimidating, but if you start getting into the mindset of a proper business owner now, you will be much better prepared to move forward. It does get easier as you go. So if you want to start a business, get these things in order, stop thinking about it, and get going.