Your Advisory Board

Every successful business owner benefits from the wise counsel of a select group of experts,  who offer a differential diagnosis that brings fresh air and information into the room and drags us out of the echo chamber of our auto-pilot  habits and ingrained perspectives.

Fortunately,  life equips us with an advisory board,  whether or not we recognize it as such.  Unfortunately,  most of the advice we receive is bad,  starting with what know-it-all cousin Howie and meddlesome Aunt Sheila have to say (those two will have you broke in six months!).

No,  our real advisory board must be carefully curated.  One must know whose advice generally should be heeded and whose advice basically should be ignored.  The advisory board that we consult can be informal.  It is not necessary to create a formal board unless the business demands it.  But we should check in regularly,  to find out what is new on the horizen,  figure out how to solve problems faster,  brainstorm intriguing new ideas and overall learn how to work not just hard,  but smart.

Clients

As numerous experts repeatedly recommend,  listen to your clients and receive a wealth of information.  Customers give the outside-in,  other side of the desk view and what they value most can be surprising.  You cannot always fathom what customer priorities will be and you won’t know until you let them tell you.

Customers are essential members of our advisory board.  The client represents the marketplace and when the market speaks, business owners must listen.   Ask  for customer feedback in the form of evaluations,  surveys,  or plain old Q & A over coffee.  Ask what they like about your products and services;  ask what would enhance the experience of doing business with you;  ask about upcoming trends in their organizations and figure out what you can monetize.

Employees

If you have employees,  seek out their insights and advice on how your business protocols might be improved.  Employees are in the trenches and often know better than the owner about how the business is perceived by customers.  Employees are uniquely positioned to give very valuable feedback.  Owners and managers should be smart enough to listen.  

Likewise our accountant,  attorney and other professional service providers,  through the unique prism of their specialty,  may offer useful advice that can have a positive impact on the business.   A wise business owner creates  an environment where employees know that their opinions and advice are welcomed,  respected and at least occasionally implemented.

Competitors

Do speak with experienced people within your industry,  including competitors.  Many will be happy to share a few pearls of wisdom with you,  especially if they operate in another geographic locale.  Marketing tips and other promotional strategies can be  good topics to discuss,  as could the types of services that resonate most with clients these days.  If your summer vacation means travel,  don’t be afraid to do some soft-touch networking.  You might get some timely advice from a seasoned pro.

Roundtables

Additionally,  I think you will find it useful to have also a structured advisory board esperience and for this I recommend membership in a peer group,  also known as a CEO forum or roundtable.  Groups consist of perhaps a dozen business owners in non-competing industries,  are often segmented by number of employees and annual revenues and usually meet monthly for about 2 hours.  The idea is to assemble a group of business owners who share a  similar profile and who therefore have the  perspective to offer relevant advice and support to fellow members. 

When properly facilitated,  group members function as each other’s board of directors.  There is guidance and support on decision-making.  Members celebrate successes.  New ways to consider and resolve business challenges are put forth.  Opportunities may be discovered,  goal setting is encouraged and members hold one another accountable for progress and achievement.  Peer roundtables can provide a welcome source of support and inspiration and do much to overcome the isolation that many business owners experience.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

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How to Hire a Freelancer

 This week,  we flip the script and examine the thought processes and procedures that ought to be followed when we are hired for a project.  How do ya  like them apples?

1.)  Determine what work needs to be done.  This  should be obvious,  but a surprising percentage of  project managers do not have a clear idea of the scope of the job.  They may furthermore have an unrealistic  view of the time,  resources and information needed for successful project completion.  These are the managers who hire a Freelancer to work 10 hours /week for 4 weeks,  when 20 hours /week  for 8 weeks is what the project requires.  This information is imperative for accurate project budget development.

2.)  Determine the relevant qualifications most likely needed to successfully perform tasks associated with the project.  Resist the temptation to gratuitously demand degrees and certifications  simply because in a tight economy it is possible to do so,  under the mistaken notion that this will ensure that the best candidate will be hired.  Pieces of paper are not necessarily an indicator of ability.  Experience is  a  much more reliable indicator of competence and therefore should be the primary qualification sought.

3.)  Research the price range for consultants within the  specialty.  This information is also necessary for accurate budget development.  Verify that adequate funds will be in hand,  so that Freelancer invoices can be paid on time.

4.)  Interview three or four candidates if  this project has not been outsourced previously.  First,  gauge what level of talent is available.  Second,  learn to recognize candidates who are  able to do the job.  In this economy,  there is  a large pool of  high quality talent available within most specialties.  These  individuals can bring skills and insight to a  project that  a  hiring manager may not have considered and they may be able to effect a better outcome than was originally envisioned.  Some candidates  may have a better understanding of what is needed to successfully complete the project than the manager.

5.)  Clearly describe the project scope to those who are interviewing and review again for the Freelancer who is ultimately hired.  Again,  this seems obvious,  but a disappointing number of project managers fail to disclose certain specifics of the project.  Inevitably,  this results in disappointment and frustration for all concerned.  Failure to accurately describe project specs is most unfair,  because whose   “fault”  is  it when expectations are not met?

6.)  Confirm the availability of the Freelancer most likely to be hired and speak with one or two of his/her clients as  a  reference check.

7.)  Develop a written contract/proposal  that clearly details project specifications and expected outcomes or delieverables,  hours /week,  project start and end dates and pay scale.  In some situations,  the Freelancer hired will provide this document.  Both the project  manager (or responsible organization representative) and the Freelancer should sign the contract/proposal,  with a photocopy given to the Freelancer.

8.)  Require that the Freelancer hired signs a confidentiality/nondisclosure agreement.  This will allow staff to feel comfortable to candidly discuss pertinent business matters in the presence of the Freelancer.  Find a template online or ask an attorney to prepare a standard template that can be generally used for consulting needs.

9.)  Introduce the Freelancer to staff,  starting with those with whom he/she will regularly work or encounter.  It is  a  good idea to inform staff that  a  Freelancer will  be hired for the project.  It is a better idea to verify whether there are staff  in-house who have both the ability and time to take on the project,  if only the  manager was smart enough to ask! 

Thanks for reading,

Kim

The Living is Easy…

And so we are drifting through the summer doldrums.  As heat and humidity rise,  our focus and motivation fall.  Summer is the slowest period for Freelancers and most others,  with the exception of  landscapers, building contractors, wedding planners and those in the tourist industry.

For the majority,  summer means billable hours  that evaporate like the morning dew on roses.  But who can afford 10 weeks of idleness?  Savvy business owners know it is wise to make hay while the hot sun shines and use the summer months to position themselves to create business in the fourth quarter and beyond.  A business slowdown need not mean no business activity.  Summer is the perfect time to pick up the thread of what slipped off the radar screen earlier in the year.

You may start this productive cycle by reviewing your business model.  How efficient is your operation?  How much does it cost to make a sale?  Just how profitable is your business,  anyway? What processes could be streamlined?  What technology could make service delivery,  customer contact and/or administrative functions easier,  faster or less expensive?

By the way,  did you meet your sales projections for the first half of the year?  Might it be time to hire help,  so that productivity can increase,  customer service improved or administrative functions executed in a more timely fashion?

What emerging  priorities and concerns  are on the horizon that may excite or agitate your clients and how might that impact your business? You have the next few weeks to catch up on industry magazines,  websites,  white papers and blogs and find out what you need to know to stay competitive and understand  what may change in your marketing message or service options and delivery.

Summer is also a great time for professional development.  Look for certifications to pick up,  or courses and workshops to attend.  If you can budget it,  use this time to boost your skill set and  make yourself  appear more of an expert to clients and prospects.  Along the way,  you’ll meet a few people you should know.

Summer is a time of more flexible schedules and despite vacations,  it’s a good time to collar people and arrange those meetings that no one had time for between January and June.  So go back through your notes and remind yourself of whom you wanted to meet with and send out a few emails.  What intriguing and mutually beneficial proposal will you present?

Finally,  summer is an excellent time to do the prospecting that you’ve been putting off  for six months.  Ask colleagues for introductions and maybe do some selective cold calling.  Make it a point to make inroads on new business development.  I’ll bet that slippery someone whom you’ve been chasing since last year is more available in July and August.

By taking the initiative,  you will see that  summer is the best time to evaluate, investigate and create business opportunities that will give you a cushion of revenue that will get you through next year’s summer doldrums!

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Kill the Deadbeats!

“Businesses don’t fail because they are unprofitable.  They fail because they get crushed on the accounts receivable side.”  Brian Hamilton, CEO  Sageworks, a  financial research firm in Raleigh, NC

A  2005  survey of American Express  small business customers found that  49%  had cash-flow concerns, with accounts receivable as the primary concern,  and  9%  of  that group worried that their cash-flow troubles were sufficiently serious to impede their ability to compete for new business.

A  2007  survey of  2000  Freelancers found that  77%  of us have had trouble getting paid at some point in our careers as independent workers.  Of  the  77%,  late payments have been endured by  85%  at least once;  42%  have been stiffed at least once;  and  34%  have received less than the invoiced amount at least once.  The survey also found that Freelancers  spend 4 hours/month on average pursuing late or unpaid receivables.

Since Freelancers are  excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which would require  the Department of Labor to assist us by investigating claims of involuntary unpaid labor (slavery!) and would authorize the Commissioner of Labor to bring criminal proceedings to recover wages owed,  we are more than a little vulnerable to this growing phenomenon.

Our options are weak.  Hiring an attorney is costly and does not guarantee payment of monies owed.  Small Claims Court is time consuming and winning a judgment does not guarantee payment.  Writing a  thorough contract,  which specifically details  services requested,  pricing,  invoice due dates and late fees doesn’t help much either if  a  client lacks the ability to pay,  or simply refuses to pay within a reasonable time frame (big corporations are infamous for this).

Smaller businesses may be caught between a rock and a hard place:  they can’t pay you until someone pays them.  Big corporations have the power to dictate payment terms favorable to their own cash-flow objectives.  Over the past several years,  including the so-called  “booming economy”  years,  many big corporations brazenly increased the turn-around time on accounts payable to their small vendors —because they could.

So what’s a Freelancer trying to maintain respectable cash-flow to do? Take every precaution and watch for signs of problem clients.  Before taking on a new client,  maybe ask around and find out if you know who’s done business with the company.  Maybe check out the BBB and find out if  a complaint has been filed and its resolution.

Milestones and money

Establish project milestones and attach an invoice to each one.  First,  discuss your project with the client and get agreement on the scope of the project and the time table.  At the contract signing,  get a deposit of 10-25 %.  At key junctures in the project,  get another 20-25% payment,  if possible.  The goal is to avoid the trap of  waiting for a large sum of money at the project’s completion,  when the client possesses the complete deliverable.  Hint:  if  the client is unable to make the initial deposit on time,  brace for trouble!

Deadbeat radar

Pay attention to client motivation—are they looking for quality work,  or the cheapest price?  If  a customer comes to you primarily for price,  then price is what will make that client leave you.  Moreover,  they will use price to manipulate you.  So do not be desperate!  It’s hard, I know, when you’re just trying to be solvent.  But customers like that pay the least money,  cause the most headaches and may not pay what they owe,  on time or otherwise. They are best avoided.

Beware the client who is in a big rush, frazzled and frenetic.  This person will appear suddenly and may also be overly concerned with price.  Once the deliverable is in hand, your invoices will be ignored,  as he/she is always  “too busy”  to deal with annoying things like paying you.  Insist on receiving as much payment up front as you can (try 50% down, including a premium for speedy delivery). You may never see the rest of the money,  or you will have to chase and wait.

Beware also the OCD type who is hyper-controlling and fussy.  If you must go there,  be excruciatingly clear about the project scope,  deadlines,  expectations,  project milestones, etc.  Put everything in writing and make sure they agree,  sign off and are prepared to make all milestone payments.  This client will be tough to satisfy and will pick you apart,  demand revisions and may withhold payment,  claiming that you haven’t delivered satisfactorily.

Put into writing how many revisions are included in the project base price plus the price for revisions.  Consider adding  25-30%  to your usual quote to make up for the time you’ll spend responding to incessant emails,  phone calls,  criticism and demands.

Recurring nightmare?

If collecting receivables is a persistent problem for you,  then it is likely that you are not qualifying clients properly or your product is considered deficient.  Clearly define your deliverable.  Set expectations for your services and make sure that you understand what the client wants and the client understands what you will deliver.  A verbal agreement should precede a written proposal/contract that specifies the work you will do,  the timetable and payment due dates and should be signed by both you and the client.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Keep Your Competitors Closer

Freelancers get business by three methods:

1). Proposals, ideally submitted by invitation and not “cold”

2.) Referrals, made on our behalf  by a source the client trusts

3). Reputation, meaning repeat business from our client roster

The most successful Freelancers skillfully promote the urban legend that we provide exceptional services, solutions and expertise that clients can absolutely depend upon. That perception creates trust and  gives our clients the confidence to bring us in when a project is approved for outsourcing.  Your client is convinced that when you are on the scene, an excellent job will be done and with a  minimum of fuss.  You will make them look good.

Competitive intelligence will provide important building blocks for your story.  One must periodically assess the strengths and weaknesses of  major competitors:  compare and contrast products and services offered, observe how they market themselves,  make note of selling points that are emphasized  and learn how you stack up.  It helps us to look from “outside in”  at how our services and business practices might be perceived by clients.

Analyze and benchmark

  • Compare your services to those of competitors:  what do they do sufficiently well that  motivates clients to hire them?
  • What do they do incompletely or perhaps poorly?
  • Who is on their client roster and which are their target markets?
  • Who are the front runners among your competitors and how did they get there?
  • What relationships and/or competitive advantages do they leverage to get business?
  • What is showcased on their websites and in other marketing materials?
  • Where do they advertise?
  • Does an internet search bring up good PR or anything noteworthy?
  • With whom do they collaborate or partner?

Define your competitive advantages

  • Catalogue what you do that clients  value
  • What services do you offer that your competitors do not and what value do your clients place on those services?
  • Audit your customer groups—have you ignored a possible niche market?
  • What relationships might you leverage to give you the edge when submitting  bids and obtaining referrals?

Create the spin

  • What common themes do you see in the marketing messages of your competitors? What do the front runners say to clients?
  • Where do you see yourself as offering the better value proposition? How can you most effectively communicate that to clients?
  • How can you  retool your message to highlight services or buzzwords that grab the clients? Reflect those in your marketing materials, advertisements and on your website.  Incorporate into your elevator pitch and sales talking points.
  • Build a PR campaign around an event that features you—a speaking engagement,  a workshop you will present, the relaunch of a service.  Send out press releases and follow up with phone calls.  Develop relationships with the business press by taking the right person to lunch or coffee and talk over ways to get your name mentioned.
  • Advertise,  however modestly,  in publications that your target audience follows.  Advertisements should lead to editorial,  however brief,  being written about you.
  • Cultivate relationships within the industries that you service,  either directly with those who may hire you,  or with those who can influence decision makers.

Keeping an occasional eye on competitors will yield many benefits.  Competitive intelligence  keeps us in the loop about which clients are hiring and the demand for workers within our field,  keeps us abreast of the activities of our professional peers,  makes benchmarking possible and helps us to sell our services more effectively.  Competitors help us to sharpen and clarify our approach to business.  They make us better.

Competitors need not be sworn enemies, despite the adversarial position that must be assumed when vying for market share.  Competitors have much to teach us about doing business.  In fact,  judiciously cooperating with competitors is good business.  There may even be occasions when competitors will collaborate.  Frenemy is perhaps the best way to describe the ideal relationship to our competitors.  Use them as you strategize to grow your client list.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

For a Few Dollars More: Up-selling and Second Helpings

Business has been rather soft for the past several quarters,  thanks to the tanking you-know-what and alas,  the sales girls at Saks and Neiman’s have not seen me for a while. When cash was in hand,  I built up quite the wardrobe.   I shopped prodigiously and wisely and my outfits still look good (thank you Donna Karan!).

Now when I look for something to wear to a meeting or party,  I must shop in my closet.  Lately,  I’ve been thinking of ways to apply that practice to my business.  How can I wring more action out of what I already have in-house?

In terms of resources expended and conversion rates,  maximizing business opportunities within one’s client roster is easier and more cost-effective.  I pretty much know what my clients want from me.  Still,  I wonder if there are ways to up-sell or entice with additional services? I wonder if I might have opportunities within other departments in an organization?

To figure it out,  I did some low cost market research.  As usual,  the best way to learn what clients need is to directly ask them.  Inviting  a  client to lunch or coffee,  away from workplace distractions,  sets the stage for a productive  exchange of information.

A good conversation opener is to inquire about new initiatives and/or challenges  in the client’s organization.  Ask next what you might adjust re: delivery of services,  service offerings and business practices that will make things easier for your client.  From there,  review the full list of your services.  Clients often will not remember all that you do.  This information alone may inspire your client to envision new roles for you,  perhaps even in those coveted other departments in the organization.

Guide the conversation to become  a  brainstorming session that will reveal where,  when and by whom value-added up-sells would be appreciated.  Arrange introductions to decision makers and obtain important endorsements of your work.  Learn the names and titles of gatekeepers and key influencers.

Client needs fall into two buckets:  anticipated and unanticipated.  The former needs are what you and your client will discuss over lunch.  You may be able to propose how your services can address some of these needs.  They are organizational goals and objectives and have a budget and timetable attached.

The latter needs require good  luck and timing on your part.  Maintaining communication will improve your odds of hitting the jackpot.  These client needs are ad hoc and often spring up suddenly.  They may constitute  a headache,  if not an emergency,  and they sometimes must be quickly addressed.

Position yourself to be at top-of-mind and viewed as the go-to problem solver by:

1). Meeting or exceeding client expectations every time.

2). Creating follow-up opportunities that are not perceived as either desperate or  annoying.

Some Freelancers like to keep a calendar,  so that they will remember to contact clients at regularly scheduled intervals,  sometimes with a newsletter.  The receipt of relevant information is usually welcome,  but my advice is to tread lightly.  Many vendors may be competing for your client’s attention in various ways and saturation point will eventually be reached.  Respect boundaries at all times.

My standard approach is to announce a new workshop to clients,  whether or not I expect them to buy.  Someone could surprise me! Client needs evolve in response to changes in the business environment,  as do yours and mine.  What was brushed off last year may be important now.

Sending news of a workshop is a  “safe” way to contact clients.  It violates no boundaries;  it demonstrates my expertise;  and it will get my name into their prefrontal cortex,  so that if an unanticipated need arises or unexpected money is dropped into their budget,  I”ll be more likely to receive an email.

A clever and indirect method of client contact is to make a referral.  You will receive  significant validation when that third party contacts your client and lets them know that you made the recommendation.

Maintaining contact with clients post-assignment is an effective strategy to mine additional revenue from your client list.  For $20.00 or less,  you can  invite your client  to update you on anticipated needs and learn about  new organization  priorities,  concerns,  fresh business opportunities for you and the decision makers and influencers who control access,  plus get advice on how to improve your business practices and hone your competitive edge.  Additionally,  you will learn how to craft a sales pitch based on selling points that you will emphasize when promoting those same services to similar clients,  new or current.

To attract revenue from unanticipated client needs,  devise unobtrusive ways to maintain the contact by offering value to the client.  Announce  new services,  speaking engagements or classes;  send a newsletter if you dare;  make strategic referrals;  maybe send links to articles that you know will be of special interest.  Make it a point to extract more sweet water from the well.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Keep Your Customers Close

Adopting customer-centric business practices is now  THE  survival mechanism of necessity for Freelancers,  as well as businesses large and small.  Particularly for service providers,  the battle to escape the dreaded label  “commodity”  is on.  No one can afford to be just another replaceable face in the crowd.  The “me, too”  era  is over.

In order to keep customers coming back for more,  Freelancers are compelled to demonstrate unique value to those with whom we do business.  It’s the best way to stay ahead of the competition and make your name come to mind when a project needs to be done or a referral made.

While providing top quality products and services that meet or exceed customer expectations is our number one mission,  another important mission is to take  a  look at our business practices from the sight lines of our customers—from the outside,  looking in.  Assess the experience that customers have when doing business with you.

To make that happen,  find out all that you can about what really brings them to your door,  or to the door of competitors.  What assumed but unspoken set of objectives and expectations do they have? What alternatives exist that might possibly allow them to achieve those objectives without you? How easy, or cumbersome,  is it to do business with you?

Your website plays a role in this process,  especially if yours is an online business,  or customers typically search the web for your category of business.  List with GoogleMaps and Yahoo Local to help customers and prospects find you.  SEO friendly algorithms and key words will also give your website presence  a boost.

Furthermore,  your website should promote and reflect your brand very well.  Display core products and services prominently,  along with information that will answer frequently asked questions and get customers on the road to doing business with you.

If anything on your site is time sensitive,  e.g. your list of speaking engagements,  keep that updated.  Present  a website that is easy to read,  conveys relevant information in clear and simple language,  is not overly text heavy,  contains an appealing  “call to action”  and is easy to navigate.

Wherever appropriate,  leverage social media tools to provide additional communication channels for your customers.  2.0 is not only for communicating your brand and  message,  but also for letting people holler back.  Another method to get the heads up on customer priorities is through the online service,  Survey Monkey.  A brief  survey that contains well designed questions will elicit useful information and may shatter a few illusions.

A thriving business is built on the customer:  retention,  satisfaction and growth.  The products and services  we sell,  the way these are delivered and the prices  we charge are all based on what our customers need and accept.  To keep the cash flowing,  stay current with customer priorities and learn their thoughts about what your business does well,  what your competitors do poorly,  what you could offer that will make their lives easier  and what they are willing to pay to have it all.  If you can solve those mysteries  Freelancer friend, you will have yourself a nice little business!

Thanks for reading.  To those who are keeping score,  Freelance:  The Consultant’s Diary reached the one year milestone on June 16, 2010.

Kim

The Doctor Will See You: Whatz Up With Health Insurance

At last,  health insurance will soon become more easily accessible to those who live in the US.  Belatedly,  we have joined the ranks of  industrialized nations by taking important steps toward providing access to health insurance for almost everyone.

The health care bill,  which was signed into law on my birthday,  is far from perfect but it is a start.  Unfortunately,  we will continue to pay too much for health plans that may not cover enough—like mammograms,  Pap smears,  prostate exams or periodontal care.  If  you should find a plan that will cover those necessities of health maintenance,  the deductible is likely to be exorbitant.

My guess is that in most instances,  we will be forced to pay more out of pocket than we would like and that we’ll pay more for our monthly premiums than we would like.  Same old story,  pay more to get less.

The insurance  companies have already begun to petition state regulators for rate increases.  Several states are bound to let them have their way because they own our political representatives—which is how we got stuck with a raw deal on health insurance in the first place (but you know that).

FYI,  here is what the health insurance roll-out will look like for Freelancers and small business owners:

2010

Freelancers with pre-existing medical conditions will be  eligible to buy health insurance at reduced rates.  By October,  insurance companies will no longer be allowed to place lifetime benefit limits on insurance coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

Businesses with fewer than 26 employees and average annual wages of $50,000 or less will receive a 35%  tax credit  IF  the business pays more than half of its employees’  health benefits.

2011

Businesses with fewer than 100 employees will be eligible to set up employee wellness programs and offer either bonuses or a maximum 30%  health insurance rate discount to employees who join the wellness program.

Employers will be required to disclose the value of employee health care benefits on form W-2.  Beginning in 2018,  holders of health insurance plans deemed  “expensive”  will pay federal taxes on their value.

2013

Tax exempt contributions to health care accounts for medical expenses will be limited to $2500/ year.  Medicare taxes will rise to 2.35%  on earnings over $200,000 for unmarrieds and earnings over $250,000/ year for married couples  (from the current 1.4%).  Employer tax deductions for the cost of retiree Medicare drug benefits will be eliminated.

2014

All citizens and legal residents of the US will be required to purchase/possess health insurance.  Freelancers and small businesses with maximum 100 employees will be able to obtain health insurance through health care exchanges that states will be required to establish.

Small Business Health Options Programs,  called SHOP Exchanges,  will allow Freelancers and small businesses with maximum 100 employees to band together and purchase health insurance as a group to (presumably) save money.  States,  however,  will be allowed to throw a curve ball and temporarily redefine a small business as one having maximum 50 employees  (through 2016 only).

Insurers will be unable to deny health insurance to anyone with a  pre-existing medical condition.  Businesses with 50+  employees that fail to offer health benefits to employees may face penalties of up to $2000/ uninsured employee.

In the meantime,  venture capitalists are looking to fund start-ups that can streamline and improve upon health care delivery systems,  especially for chronic disease management, physician/medical practice profitability tools and patient (customer) relations management.  A woman in my CEO forum operates an employee wellness program business.  She has just hired two part time staff members and is developing a sales pitch for investors.

A votre sante (to your health),
Kim

Follow the Money: How to Hire a Bookkeeper

Some business owners hire a bookkeeper because they loathe even the thought of diving into financial waters.  Their strengths are  “front of the house”  sales and marketing and not “back of the house”  accounting and finance.

While it is  smart to outsource what you know you won’t do and thus make sure that what must be done will be  done,  ignorance of business financial management  is unwise.  You may hate it,  but little by little you must learn to understand those docs and interpret what they reveal about how to effectively manage your business.

Another practical  way to keep tabs on business finances  (and make sure that your bookkeeper is honest)  is to do a monthly bank reconciliation.  Does the record of deposits and withdrawals make sense to you? Are the signatures on checks and withdrawal slips correct and authorized? Some businesses hire a separate bookkeeper to perform this function,  so that an unbiased  pair of eyes can scrutinize the financials and will be unafraid to question anything that looks questionable.

That said,  an expert bookkeeper will save you money and aggravation,  keep you out of tax and legal trouble and contribute to the profitability of your business.  It is imperative that this person is chosen carefully.  A dose of good luck is also very helpful! Here is what you can do to find the best bookkeeper for your business:

  • Learn the types of businesses that he/she has worked with.  It is useful to hire a bookkeeper who has worked with clients in your industry (but not direct competitors) or with clients of a similar profile (e.g. Freelancers).  An understanding of expectations and common practices,  typical problems and good solutions will then be brought to the table.
  • Ask  about your candidate’s  education,  certifications and professional society memberships.  Education and associations reflect the level of professionalism and priority that the candidate places on his/her career.  This quality will  likely be demonstrated in work done for clients.  See also the candidate’s web site and/or LinkedIn page.
  • Inquire about the candidate’s  employment history prior to going into business independently.  Previous employment in corporate finance is a big plus.  Especially if  this person will take charge of your books,  you’ll want someone who knows how to analyze the financials and make smart recommendations.  You want more than a data entry clerk.
  • Tell the prospective bookkeeper what you need managed.  Do you need payroll and payroll tax services,  handling of accounts payable and receivable,  financial statements and tax prep for the accountant (data into QuickBooks),  or complete management of your books?
  • Confirm the fee schedule.  Depending on your location and the services requested, expect to pay $50-$100/hour.  The more services you need,  the more per hour you will pay.
  • Find out your candidate’s availability.  Many bookkeepers have a full or part time job, or a second business.  Make sure your candidate can be there when needed.
  • Ask for references and follow up.

Best of luck and thanks for reading,

Kim

When to Hire a Bookkeeper

Occasionally,  I am asked to refer a bookkeeper.  The one time I was able to make such a referral,  the whole thing blew up in my face.  I introduced a former  student in the business plan course that I sometimes teach to a restaurant owner friend.  Unfortunately,  Ms. bookkeeper  flaked out and never came through.  The restaurant owner and I are still pals, thank goodness.  The bookkeeper’s contact info has been deleted from my files.

A couple of months ago,  a member of one of the CEO forums that I lead hired a bookkeeper whom I’ve known for 20 years (the referral was not mine).  Because my colleague is a smart cookie,  she decided to review the financial statements that were generated by her new bookkeeper.  Right away,  there was a problem.  A significant data entry error was made— yet somehow the bookkeeper managed to make the numbers balance.  Fortunately,  my colleague  was able to recognize the problem and call  it to the bookkeeper’s attention.

The interesting thing is,  her now former bookkeeper is highly regarded by many.  She has a sub-specialty in forensic  bookkeeping and regularly testifies in court proceedings.  So I guess that’s where she learned all the tricks! My colleague was mortified.  Thank God that was not my referral.

I deduce from these incidents that a  reliable bookkeeper may be difficult to find.  A sharp and trustworthy bookkeeper is a hugely valuable  asset for your business.  They can spot and resolve  money drains  and alert you to money saving practices  that you never knew existed.  A good bookkeeper is worth their weight in gold.

Like many Freelancers,  I keep my own books.  I  invoice,  make  deposits,  pay bills,  record transactions in Excel,  receive the 1099s and pay the taxes.  June 15 is fast approaching, quarterly tax time folks!  I manage to stay on top of things.

Nevertheless,  at some point it may become too expensive to perform certain administrative tasks.  Working and looking for work are the primary focus of the self-employed.  Our time and energy are best applied to making sales calls,  networking,  prospecting,  staying visible and generating income through our projects.  When administrative tasks encroach upon the time available to make money,  it then becomes  cost  effective to outsource those functions.

It is the responsibility of every business owner to develop a basic understanding of the  financial statements.  Our ability to make sound business decisions depends upon it.  A good bookkeeper (and accountant) will further analyze the data and provide more sophisticated advice for you.

Because they possess intimate knowledge of your financial history and flow of business capital,  bookkeepers know where you are most vulnerable and know  where the bodies are buried.  A dishonest or sloppy bookkeeper can really hurt you.  The best way to protect yourself  is to know what’s  going on,  so that like my colleague,  you can read  financial  statements and periodically review your bookkeeper’s  work.  You’ll  have a fairly good idea of what the numbers  should  look  like and know what questions to ask  if  things don’t quite add up.

To get started on the path to understanding financial docs,  I recommend  that  you  first examine the Pro Forma Cash Flow statement.  It’s like  a  household budget and is easy to read.  Pro Forma Cash Flow gives  reasonable  estimates of expected business income and expenses  for  a given month.  Go next to the Cash Flow Statement,  which might be generated either monthly or quarterly.  This document shows what was actually spent on business expenses and how much money was actually paid to you.

From those statements,  move on  to the Profit and Loss.  It’s  not much different from the Cash Flow Statement.  Notice that several categories on the P & L are also found on the  Schedule C tax form,  Profit or Loss  From a Business.  Lastly,  take a look at the Balance Sheet and notice it’s resemblance to a bank statement.  The Balance Sheet records your net worth at a given time,  the tally of business assets and liabilities,  and is usually generated quarterly.

Next week,  learn what you can do to make sure that the bookkeeper you hire is both a top drawer professional and appropriate for your business needs.

Have a good week,

Kim