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So Simple

Posted on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2004 by

So Simple

In a world that grows more complicated by the minute, we offer the best ways to simplify your life in the office—from accounting to the big, bad Web.

As a small-business owner, you have enough things to worry about without letting unwieldy technology and business processes complicate your life and add a day’s work for every one they promise to save. The only way out is to periodically take stock and simplify, deciding whether to eliminate unnecessary tasks, delegate, outsource or fix the problem with technology. Making those decisions, however, is anything but simple.

“In the beginning, the owners have to do everything—marketing, finance, accounting, you name it,” says Fred Abood, the Atlanta, Ga., chapter chairman of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a national organization of counselors for small businesses. “As they grow, they have a hard time figuring out when to let go of the pieces they started with.”

Small-business owners have to think about how to best use their time, says Abood, who spent 30 years as a Marriott executive before joining SCORE. “You have to say to yourself, ‘I’m spending x hours doing this, and I could be spending that time marketing and growing the business.’ People like doing things they’re familiar with and comfortable with. It may be fun, but you have to let it go.”
Sullivan Street Bakery has become a New York institution after nine years in business, attracting glowing reviews in the New York Times and counting culinary celebrities such as Martha Stewart among its fans. In reality, though, it’s just like every other business experiencing growing pains and dealing with the complications of success.

At Sullivan, simplification is not just a one-time event. “It keeps happening,” says co-owner Monica Von Thun Calderon. “It’s a constant process, where you simplify things and they work, and then you grow the business and re-evaluate. You set goals, you surpass them, and it starts all over again.”
Caught up in the growth of their firms, small-business owners sometimes continue to take on new responsibilities even when they’re already overwhelmed. Jeanne Coughlin, president of the Coughlin Group, an Avon Lake, Ohio, consultancy geared toward entrepreneurs, has experienced this problem from two angles, seeing it in her clients and in herself as a small-business owner.

“We take on too much, too soon, too fast and we get stressed—we can’t follow through,” she says. “We need realistic expectations. You have to look at the things that are dragging you down and say ‘Is this something I can fix, delegate or hire out?’

Art of Delegation

One way to clear away some of your workload is to give it to someone else. Small-business owners, however, are naturally reluctant to spend more money to hire help or bring in consultants and contractors. “You have to say to yourself ‘What’s the best use of my time right now? Is there somebody else who can do this task better or cheaper than I can?’” says Terri Lonier, author of Working Solo and president of Working Solo Inc., a New Paltz, N.Y.–based market research and consulting firm for small businesses.

In a recent study of 763 small-office workers by Working Solo, the activities people said they would most like to delegate were bookkeeping (26%), marketing/sales (26%) and tax forms (15%).

Deciding to delegate is simply a matter of “financial math,” Lonier says. “If I could devote the same time to doing what I do best, could I generate enough income to justify paying someone else to do those tasks?” For example, if you’re a graphic designer who can make $50 an hour, why spend your time stuffing envelopes when you can find a high school student to do it for $6 an hour? “You have to take a leap of faith that you’re good enough at your job that you’ll be able to find enough clients to make the cost worthwhile,” she says.
Simple Technology

“It’s a constant process, where you simplify things and they work, and then you grow the business and re-evaluate. You set goals, you surpass them, and it starts all over again.

Another area that may seem overwhelming to small-business owners is technology. Many business software solutions are aimed at large organizations that have IT support or training resources—luxuries that small businesses only dream about.

According to a recent survey of 200 small-business owners by Wilton, Conn.–based data collection firm Greenfield Online, 52 percent of companies with fewer than 100 employees think that new software packages are too hard to use and require too much training to deploy.

When Sullivan Street Bakery started out, invoices were scribbled on slips of paper. Later, Excel generated the invoices. But as the business took off and Sullivan expanded to two locations with 50 employees and more than 200 accounts, something had to be done to simplify the order-tracking process. After toying with complicated software designed for large industrial bakers, Sullivan decided on a customized, easy-to-use solution with FileMaker Inc.’s FileMaker Pro database program.

The bakery now has hundreds of thousands of records in 15 separate databases, which Calderon says are easy to maintain and even easier to use in their busy business. “You simply press a couple of buttons and it does what it has to do,” she says. “It has our invoices, recipes and all our centralized information. And if we open up another bakery, it just works—there’s nothing new to do. Now we can concentrate on getting our bread out the door.”

Simple Finances

Some businesses grow so fast that their owners become bogged down in financial paperwork. If you’re starting out small, suggests SCORE’s Abood, you might not want to take on the expense of hiring an outside accountant or—even more daunting—a full-time financial person within the company.

“In the early stages, if you want to get rid of the financial function, hire a bookkeeper,” he says. “That person takes a look at the books a couple of times a month, files tax information and does rudimentary cash-flow analysis. You don’t always need the expense of a CPA at first.”

“As a mother, it’s great to not have to go into the office to get to the financials. You can get things over the network.”

However, as you move out of the mom-and-pop phase and your finances become more complex, it might be time to bite the bullet and bring in an expert. “If you don’t have a firm grasp of the finances, then you can’t be sure if you’re making money or not,” says Abood.

Often small-business owners don’t understand how cash flow works and aren’t good at collecting receivables. In addition, complicated tax procedures and workers’ compensation issues kick in once your business grows beyond a certain number of employees. Much of this can be overwhelming, and managing it takes owners away from their core business. “Then it’s time to get some help,” Abood says.

If you haven’t reached the stage where you can bring in someone full- time, you can still take simple steps to help you manage your finances and taxes. At the very least, Abood suggests, you can set up simple accounting software such as Intuit Inc.’s QuickBooks financial software and a set of procedures to follow when tracking expenses.

Intuit also offers solutions geared toward specific industries that save time in customization and training. With QuickBooks Online Edition, a service the Mountain View, Calif., company introduced in late 2001, small-business owners can set up a Web-based accounting system that is accessible from multiple locations. This allows easy sharing of information among business partners, accountants or anyone else who needs to see the books. Since the system is Web-based, support costs are minimized, and all data is automatically backed up on Intuit’s servers daily. Best of all: The price tag is $19.95 a month for up to three users—perfect for business owners who don’t want big technology investments up front.

Pamela Swift, vice president of Tucson, Ariz.–based Next Generation Diaper Service Inc., says that QuickBooks Online is a lifesaver for her and her partner. She spends most of her time working with cloth-diaper deliveries and often needs financial information while on the go. “As a mother, it’s great to not have to go into the office to get to the financials. You can get things over the network,” she says.

In addition, the company’s accountant can log on any time to check on things. “I can call her and mention that our P&L looks a little funky and [suggest that] she should take a look.”

Swift also applauds the system’s ease of use. “My partner did not have an accounting background, and it was easy for her to catch on,” she says. “She was able to take over the finances with no problem.” The QuickBooks system has freed enough time to enable the pair to concentrate on growing their business.

 Simple Retirement Plans

Even something as daunting as employee retirement plans—which usually create a mountain of paperwork—can be manageable if you know where to look for solutions. Put into place by the Small Business Protection Act of 1996, the SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) IRA allows small companies to offer their employees a robust tax-deferred retirement savings plan without the usual reams of paperwork and documentation associated with such endeavors. The SIMPLE option is open only to companies with 100 employees or fewer and cannot be set up if you have another retirement plan in place and have already made a contribution to that plan in the current year.

In addition, employers can set up Simplified Employee Pensions, or SEPs, which require nothing more than a quarter-page form to initiate. In these plans, employers typically make contributions of up to 15 percent of an employee’s pay. Both plans eliminate much of the paperwork filing, commissions and expenses of traditional retirement plans.

Simple Marketing

Most consultants agree that sophisticated marketing plans might cost too much for most small-business owners. But with the rise of the Internet, even the simplest online presence can convey your message to a worldwide audience.

At the very least, says Working Solo’s Lonier, small-business owners should get their messages across by using simple email marketing plans or informative, well-designed Web sites.

Even with the massive shakeout in Internet service providers and Web- design companies, many companies offer turnkey Web-site packages for reasonable fees. These companies will set up small businesses with domain names and Web-hosting services; they’ll also offer services such as email marketing blasts and Web design at additional cost.

Similar services are offered by Houston, Texas–based MegaMania Interactive Inc. The two-tiered solution for small businesses is called TechPartners. In fact, MegaMania started out providing merely Web and email hosting services for $49 a month, but its customers increasingly wanted the company to handle everything from designing Web sites to sending out periodic email blasts. So MegaMania introduced a $129-a- month plan, in which the company works with customers to develop an online strategy, online coupons and permission-based email marketing. “Our customers love this,” says MegaMania President and CEO George Bogel. “They never really understood what they could get out of a great online presence, but they understand it now.”

Pasadena, Texas–based Salinas Construction turned to MegaMania last year to create a Web site explaining the variety of paving and construction services it offers. “In my kind of business, it makes it easier for our customers to see what our products and services are,” says the company’s president, Robert Salinas.

Salinas uses his Web site to simplify the sales process and save time educating potential customers. The site uses everything from Macromedia Flash animations to detailed Adobe Acrobat PDF files to explain, for instance, the difference between colored concrete and exposed pea-gravel finishes. The site also features online coupons offering discounts on various services.

But Salinas most likes the fact that the site saves him from driving around town on sales calls explaining what the company does. “It makes it easier on myself,” he says. “I don’t spend two or three hours explaining things. I send people to the Web site. There’s enough detail there so potential customers can make an informed decision.”

Simply Saying No

Sometimes the key to simplifying your operations is cutting out the unnecessary—even things that might have once seemed important. “You can’t continually add things to your plate and not take anything off,” says Lonier. “If you’re going to add, you have to say, ‘If this comes in, what has to be cut back, modified or eliminated completely?’”

Some consultants contend that businesses become complicated when they grow at a rate you can’t sustain. “It may sound strange, but growing too fast can mean disaster,” Lonier says. “If you get an order for 10,000 widgets but have no way to pay suppliers, then cash flow becomes a huge issue. It’s a gutsy move to say no to new business, but sometimes it’s the right decision.”

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