Wednesday, 29 July 2009

What perks for no commute?

My friend and fellow accountant Shaun McGuinness of Tax Sorted writes about some of the perks that employees can receive from their employers without also receiving a whacking great tax bill.

One of them is a tax-free bicycle to ride to work and a tax-free breakfast when the cyclist arrives at work. (And hopefully the employer would also provide a changing room and shower.)

And cyclists who provide their own bike get a 20p/mile allowance, compared to 40p/mile for the first 10,000 miles driven in your own car and 25p/mile thereafter. That sounds generous to me.

Shaun says:
We have thus far waited in vain for the introduction of joggers’ breakfasts and walkers’ breakfasts!
I agree - there's no mileage rate at all for walking to work and no provision for a tax-free breakfast for those who use shanks's pony to get to work.

And what about those of us whose commute is a walk into the dining room / spare room / down the garden to the shed - home business owners and homeworking employees? How about a tax-free breakfast for us Mr Darling?!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

What do you want from your accountant?

The clients who've so far come on board with me have wanted the same things from their accountant.

Someone who'll help them keep good records so that they know how their business is doing and keep the Revenue happy.

Someone who'll make sure they fill in the right forms and pay the right amount of tax at the right time.

Someone who'll give them advice on how to save tax, like buying a new piece of equipment just before the year end instead of just after it, so you get the tax relief a year earlier.

Someone who won't talk endless accountantese, or drown them in generic information sheets and newsletters.

And someone who charges reasonable fees for a small home-based business.

That's what I'm aiming to offer to my clients.

But I'd be interested to hear if there's anything else that home-based businesses would like from their accountants.

What makes you choose your accountant? Why did you pick that one? What would you like them to do differently?

Please tell me using the comments box.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Business equipment on a shoestring

Emma Jones's book Spare Room Start Up, one of the books on my recommended list, gives a breakdown of how you can start your small business for under £500 - and that includes the price of a bottle of bubbly to celebrate!

The most expensive item on her list is a £335.99 laptop.

But you really don't need to spend that much on a computer.

It's not unknown for big organisations to off-load their old computer equipment in return for a small donation to charity. £25 to the Air Ambulance, and hey presto, I have a desktop. OK it's a few years old, but that doesn't worry me. In fact, I'm glad it's an older model, because it's running XP, not Vista.

And sometimes people even post computer equipment on Freecycle, and that means you could get it for nothing.

You don't need a top-of-the-range Apple Mac, or even a mid-range laptop, to be successful in home business. Spend your money where it will really make a difference - on a good website, or professional business stationery.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Business cards with pizazz

Duane Jackson, MD of KashFlow, blogged some time ago about business cards.

Here's what he had to say:
Your business card should have your logo, web address and contact details - it doesn’t need much more than that.

It doesn’t need to fold out into an origami duck, it doesn’t need to be inserted into a CD drive, it doesn’t need to tell us about your 10% discount to new customers, it doesn’t need to play the national anthem whenever it’s picked up and it doesn’t need to taste of strawberries when you lick it.

Putting anything on the back of your card is a big no-no too.

Well, Geoff Ramm would have a blue fit if he read that. His view is that business cards should have a bit of punch and a bit of pizazz. Because that's what makes them stand out from the dozens of other business cards that are dished out. And if they can be a different shape then so much the better.

And personally, I agree with Geoff.

I'd like to share two examples of great business card shapes with you.

First is a book-binder's in Haltwhistle, Northumberland. Their business card is shaped like a bookmark. Fab. It's relevant to the business, and as it's used as a bookmark, the reader remembers the company.

The second, which I was given last night, is for The Utility Warehouse, a company that saves you money on all your utility bills.

Here's their business card.

Shaped like a smiling fat pink piggy bank.

(The grey background is my printer, not the card.)

And it's headed up with the tagline, "Let's put money in your Piggy Bank".

That card grabbed my attention right away and made me laugh. And it ensured that if I'm looking for that sort of a company, I'll think of the one with the piggy bank card.

I did think of making my own cards shaped like a plus-sign, but my printer wasn't keen :-)

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Mobile broadband; setup

One technological advance that's been at least partly responsible for the huge numbers of home businesses in the UK is broadband Internet connections.

Because I travel about a fair bit on business, I finally took the plunge yesterday and signed up for a mobile broadband connection, because my battered old laptop refuses to connect to any WiFi (even though it is wireless-enabled).

I chose a deal that gave me a free netbook, one that would be light enough to carry easily on the train, that I could just pop into an ordinary bag (sadly important for security, given I'll be travelling alone), and that could be used for web browsing and working on documents in Google.

No bells and whistles are needed, and I'm not planning to load any more programs than anti-virus software and my preferred browser (Firefox), so I opted for a straightforward Dell Inspiron.

The very helpful guys at the Carphone Warehouse in Carlisle checked my home postcode and said that the only network that offered any sort of mobile broadband coverage there was 3, which has the best overall coverage in the UK.

3's a new one for me. My personal mobile phone is with O2 and my business mobile phone is on what my brother calls "Skodafone". But apparently standard mobile phone coverage won't give you enough capacity for mobile broadband. It needs to be better than that. And 3 is the only network giving enough cover in my neck of the woods.

So I duly signed up to 3.

When I got my new netbook home and began setting it up, I discovered that there are two possible broadband speeds depending on the coverage in your area - fast or slow.

Guess what. In my area I get the slow one.

Which, speed-wise, is comparable to dial-up. Chug chug chug.

So the anti-virus software took till 8pm to download. Ow.

By which time I was fed up with the slow connection. So I unplugged the mobile broadband dongle and hooked up the netbook to my trusty landline broadband from BT.

Anti-virus update then downloaded in 5 minutes instead of 5 hours. And Firefox downloaded before I could say "Mozilla".

So my netbook is now all ready for taking on the train - and here's hoping that in the areas I go to, I'll be able to get the faster 3 speed.

But at least it means I can work on the train, even if I can't get the faster speed. I must just remember to do any downloads and updating here at home using the landline connection.

Moral; if you're off the beaten track, mobile broadband may be best for travelling and emergencies only.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Dressing for homeworking

When you're working from home, one of the great advantages is that you don't have to follow an office dress code.

You can work in your pyjamas if you want to (Liz Jackson admits that's what she used to do when she started her business from home). You can wear a favourite old sweater when it's cold, or pad around in shorts and bare feet when it's hot.

Some home business owners do prefer to dress up smart every day, to help them get into a "work" frame of mind.

But the point is, it's up to us. We don't have to do what some poor goons have to do and wear matching suits all day, even in the heat of summer.

And when you're your own boss, you get to pick what to wear when you visit your customers/clients. You can decide what image you want to project. I try and avoid the stereotypical "accountant" look of a pin-striped suit and white blouse. For one thing, I look ghastly in black and white, and for another, I'm not your average accountant, so I don't want to look like one.

My two smart jackets are 1) bright red and 2) deep rose pink. So I look smart and professional, but cheerful and approachable.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

New magazine for home business

At a home business event yesterday, I was handed a copy of a new magazine for home business owners. It's the Home Business Network's magazine which is being distributed monthly with the Saturday Telegraph - or you can register FREE on their website and get the magazine online without having to buy a newspaper.

I've registered so that I can have a good read of the magazine, which is full of useful articles, case studies and tips, all written in straightforward, non-patronising terms, and share some thoughts.

Here's my thinking about the first issue.

There are some "Top Tips for Business Sellers" aimed at businesses trading on eBay. One of these tips is;
Think and act like a business
Starting your own business means you need to master a whole load of skills from basic accounting to marketing. Too many traders don't know basic maths and this can cost them dearly in the future.
It is true that you do need to learn a lot of new skills when you have your own business. You'll be chief sales(wo)man, chief marketer, production manager, chief coffee-maker, etc. etc. Some of it you can outsource (see below), but some of it you'll want to keep and do yourself, because nobody else has the same passion as you for your business. It's your baby.

But you don't need to learn basic accounting, even if you choose not to outsource your bookkeeping. You didn't go into business to be an accountant. Instead I'd recommend you use a nice simple software package that will help you with your figures and add everything up for you. I use FreeAgent for my clients, or you could try KashFlow.

And talking of KashFlow, the Home Business Network site also mentions that you get a free trial of KashFlow if you sign up to the HBN. Sorry folks, this isn't a benefit of HBN. Every new user of KashFlow gets a free trial!

Also in the magazine was an article about bespoke tailor Harold Rose. He mentions how he doesn't directly employ staff, but instead outsources his bookkeeping, "web design, SEO, website management, accounts, warehousing and 'office reception'."

That's what I do too. I outsource my telephone answering to the excellent Moneypenny and my websites to 1973 Ltd (for my video business) and Greg Coltman, my brother-in-law, for Home Business Accountant. I'm not a web designer, and Chris, Dave and Greg know far more than I do about websites, CEO and design.

Don't be fooled by the government organisations who judge a business by the number of employees it has. You don't need to employ anyone if you don't want to. There's bound to be someone whose business it is to provide the service you need.

To quote Emma Jones at Enterprise Nation:
Do what you do best, and outsource the rest!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Why it's good to do the books

When you're running a home business, or even more so, setting one up, there always seem to be a thousand and one jobs to do.

"Doing the books" - keeping track of the money coming into and going out of the business - is just one of these jobs.

Hands up all those for whom "doing the books" is something you enjoy, look forward to doing, and put aside time for.

Now hands up everyone who thinks "doing the books" is a chore and a bore and puts it off as long as they can.

And finally, hands up those who are terrified of "the books" and ignore them hoping they'll go away if you leave them long enough.

Well the books might go away, if they get mouldy enough to grow feet and walk, but I'm afraid HM Revenue aren't going anywhere.

That's one reason for keeping your books up to date. If HM Revenue come sniffing round - and they do now have the power to visit us home-business owners at home - then you need to have some nice, neat, up-to-date records to show them. It's actually illegal not to.

The second, and what I think is the most important reason, is that if you keep your books up-to-date, you have a much better grasp of how the business is doing. Can you remember everything about your business's figures?

Did Mrs A pay you for digging her garden? How quickly? Do you need to collect cash from her next time because she took ages to post you a cheque? Did you remember to pay that bill from the gas man? Are you sure? And are you paying out too much to make your business worthwhile? Is the game worth the candle?

You won't know any of that without a good set of up-to-date figures.

And the third reason is that it keeps your accountant happy. In my career I've seen dozens of sets of inaccurate, messy, behind-schedule records. That really doesn't help client-accountant relationships. Because if the records are a mess, I'm cross with the client before I get even an hour into preparing their accounts, and by the time I've finished, I'm more inclined to show the client the door than to help them save some tax.

That's why anyone who'd like to be a client of mine needs to be ready to keep their books accurate. I want to build a good relationship with you and that'll be impossible if your records are rubbish!

Don't worry though, you don't have to be any good at sums. FreeAgent will take care of all that for you and it comes inclusive in my prices. And I'll teach you how to use it, so there really is nothing to worry about.

So those are my three reasons for why it's a good idea to keep your books accurate and up-to-date.
  • It's illegal not to.
  • You're much more aware of how your business is doing.
  • It makes your relationship with your accountant so much happier.
And that has to be good news!

My own accounts; Why I recommend FreeAgent to clients

Another month end has passed, a statement has arrived from my business bank.

Guess that means it's time to do my own businesses' accounts. Because apart from the many excellent reasons why it's good to keep your accounts up to date (and more about that soon), it's also not much good me encouraging other home-business owners to keep their books up to date if I don't do it myself.

I keep Home Business Accountant's books on FreeAgent, the same software that I offer, inclusive as part of my fixed monthly fees, to my clients.

I'm getting more and more keen on FreeAgent as I go on using it.

Today, I had several out-of-pocket expenses to record, and the data entry for them is so quick and easy. I've talked more about this on my other blog, here.

And also, compared to other online software products I've seen, it's so simple to use, with lots of clearly written explanations.

It has only the "bells and whistles" that micro businesses really need. Out of pocket expenses? Check. Bank statement imports? Check. Stock control? Nope. Explanations in accountantese? Not on your nelly. They were written by non-accountants and it shows.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Insurance for home-based businesses

One dilemma for us home-based business owners is insurance.

Will the standard buildings and contents insurance policy cover
  • home business equipment,
  • stock,
  • a flood that makes it impossible to work from home and means you have to pay for an alternative place to work while repairs are on-going,
  • suing by visiting clients who trip over a pair of wellies left in the porch?
Equipment and stock might be particularly difficult to get cover for if they're what insurers call "attractive to thieves", e.g. a laptop computer, the stock of a jewellery maker.

So I was pleased to find, thanks to a tip from Emma at Enterprise Nation, that Direct Line do a policy specifically for home business owners. Their site is here.

I hasten to add I'm not reselling insurance here. I get no commission from Direct Line for mentioning their policy or if anyone chooses to buy it. This is just a pointer to a site that might be useful.