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 some new ones, like working out or eating more Brussels sprouts.
Just like individuals, businesses develop bad habits over time that need correcting, while success in business over the long run usually means adopting good management habits and sticking with them year after year.
Without further ado, here are my 2005 New Year's resolutions for business owners:
1. Learn more about your legal environment. 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.
Call your state or local bar association, and get on their mailing list for announcements of new "continuing legal education" or CLE seminars, and sign up for a few that are relevant to your business. They aren't just for lawyers, the speakers will use plain English, and hey, the fees are tax deductible.
2. 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'll come down on you like Thor's hammer if they find out what you've been doing. Now's the time to have this person sign a one-page employment agreement "effective January 1, 2005"-your attorney can draft this for you for a few hundred dollars-and add them to your payroll.
What should the agreement say? At the very least, it should clearly state (1) that the employee serves "at will" and can be terminated at any time, with or without a reason, (2) that the employee cannot work for a competing company while they're on your payroll, and (3) that the employee will not hire your employees or solicit business from your customers for one year after the employment relationship is terminated for any reason.
If this part-time person is your first employee, don't forget to have your accountant sign you up for payroll taxes (IRS Forms 940 and 941), and for your state's unemployment compensation system. You may also have to look into worker's compensation insurance; your insurance agent can help you with that.
3. Loosen up your vocal cords. One of the best ways to distinguish yourself from your competition, especially if you're a consultant, is to become the local expert in your field. So 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'll get tons of free publicity for your business.
4. Take over your bookkeeping. Now before I get tons of hate mail from bookkeepers around the country, I am not advising you to fire yours. I'm only suggesting that many bookkeepers spend too much of their time-and your money-doing stuff you should be doing for yourself, such as recording transactions, refining your chart of accounts and so forth.
If you don't know QuickBooks, make 2005 the year you learn it. Most local community colleges have excellent hands-on evening courses for about $100, and after taking a simple class, you can start doing the mindless stuff yourself: On the last day of each month, take all your paper receipts, checkbook registers and credit card statements for the month and input them into QuickBooks so you don't have to do a whole year's worth in January.
After you're done, show your work to your bookkeeper and ask for their comments and suggestions to make it better. Your bookkeeper will love you for it because they'd rather do the tasks-such as preparing your financial statements or analyzing your operations-that really add value to your business. You'll also learn eye-popping things about your business ("We spend that much on office supplies?") that you wouldn't find out any other way.
5. If you run an eBay antique or collectibles business, start getting more high-quality stuff from estates. As an eBay businessperson, one of your biggest challenges is most likely finding high quality stuff to sell at a profit. Here's a tip: Get to know your local "trusts and estates" attorneys. These are the lawyers who draw up people's wills and probate their estates when they die. Very often, these lawyers are approached by grieving relatives who need help "disposing of Mom's stuff" but the estate is too small to justify hiring a big estate auction firm like Sotheby's or Christie's.
Why not let these attorneys know you're available to help them sell their clients' small estates on eBay, for a consignment fee, of course? I can almost guarantee your competition hasn't thought of this (unless they read this column, too) and that you'll get a warm welcome from these lawyers if you make the effort. For a listing of your local trusts and estates attorneys, call your local or state bar association.
6. Renew your web address. If your business is dependent on the Internet, make sure you check Network Solutionsat least once every year to make sure your web address hasn't expired. They send out renewal notices, but often these get picked up as spam by your anti-spam software so you never see them. Then you're in danger of having your Web address expire and get grabbed by someone else. So pick a date that's easy to remember-like your birthday-and renew each of your important web addresses on that day.
7. Update your software twice a year. Just about every software program gets updated by the manufacturer at least once or twice a year, but not every software developer sends you an e-mail announcing the latest updates. Make it a point to visit the website home page of each software company whose products you license, and look for a button that says "check for updates" or something like that. It just may save your PC, and it will certainly help you keep on top of the latest changes.
8. Sheath your cell phone. Make 2005 the year you stop being a "cell phone slave." Set some rules about when you'll use your cell phone-and when you won't-and stick to them. Among those I highly recommend: Don't use your cell phone while driving a motor vehicle; use your cell phone only for outgoing business calls; and don't use your cell phone in public places where your conversation may be overhead by total strangers with evil on their minds or even by people who may just be annoyed by your rudeness.
9. Get some free local publicity. Do at least one thing this year that's noteworthy enough to get your business written up in the local news media (in a positive way, that is!). Donate something to charity, sponsor a local contest for school kids or run for local political office if you have the stomach for it, and make sure your local news media know about it. As you brainstorm some ideas, keep in mind that it should be something a reporter will find newsworthy and that will get you quoted as "Joe Blow, owner of Joe's Deli on Main Street."
10. Get involved in government. Whatever your political views, if you don't like taxes or government regulations that stifle your business, complaining about them and voting against them just ain't enough. If you think you don't have time to attend board meetings or hearings, find the time. Join the same organizations-like your local Rotary or Kiwanis clubs-that your local "politicos" join, and make sure they know you're there. As my Dad used to say, you're only as good as the nonsense you tolerate in life. If government nonsense just "burns your breakfast," stop tolerating it, become an activist, and help government come up with better solutions that will benefit, not harm, your business.
is a syndicated columnist, author and host of the PBS TV series MoneyHunt. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. Copyright 2005 Clifford R. Ennico. Distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.