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7 steps to start a small business
January 25, 2021
By Kim Lindros & Kirsten Queen
Do you have a great business idea? Perhaps you’ve even picked out a name, found a location, and determined your target audience. Regardless of industry or market, there are several steps you can take to get your business off to a great start. Today, we’re breaking down the seven steps you should take to start a small business — let’s get started.
Step 1. Determine your legal business structure
Though thinking about the legal requirements aren’t as exciting as coming up with the idea for a business, it’s one of the most important things you can do. There are many factors to consider before choosing a legal structure, whether you choose to run a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company (LLC), corporation, or cooperative. Each type of structure affects how much you’ll pay in taxes, the extent of personal liability you’ll face, and whether you can get the funding you need.
For example, a sole proprietorship is easy and low cost to set up and gives you full control over the business, but owners may be held personally liable for any legal issues that come up for the business, while an LLC can shield personal assets from lawsuits or bankruptcies. To determine what legal structure is right for your business, it’s best to research all options. If you’re unsure which one to choose, talk to a certified public accountant (CPA) or a business attorney.
Step 2. Create a business plan
You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, and you shouldn’t build your business without a business plan. Not only is a business plan required by investors and financial institutions, but it’s also key in making your business successful.
Your business plan should describe the purpose or mission of the company, how it will operate and be managed, and how it will be successful in the industry. Business plans usually fall into two buckets: traditional and lean startup. A traditional plan is longer and thorough, while a lean startup plan may summarize the main points and may only be a page long. The plan you choose to create simply needs to fit your needs as a business owner. If you need financial assistance, plan on completing a traditional business plan and go more in-depth.
Most business plans include sections on market analysis and financial projections, which are mainly for the bank or lender if you pursue funding. Working through market analysis and financial projections also helps you determine if your business is likely to be viable. Take your time and include as many details as possible. Think through exactly how the business will run, the costs involved, and how and when you'll turn a profit. Don’t forget to include your technology needs – many small businesses rely on the internet and other tools to run smoothly. To get started with your business plan, use a template that will guide you through the process. Once you have your blueprint, you can start to build.
Step 3. Register your company
Taking steps to protect your company means making it a distinct legal entity by registering it with any local, state, or federal agencies. A unique name will be important here, so be sure to do research ahead of time to make sure your desired business name isn’t already taken.
A sole proprietorship often involves a DBA, or “doing business as,” which is a name you choose for your business if you don’t want to use your personal name. Corporations and LLCs can also operate under a DBA, too. To do business under a DBA, you must first complete a form and pay a filing fee, usually through a county or state agency.
If you choose to structure your business as a corporation, you’ll need to create articles of incorporation and file them with your Secretary of State. LLCs file articles of organization. Article documents make your company a “legal” or “official” business entity.
You also need to apply for an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employer identification number (EIN), which is a federal tax ID number that identifies your business. Sole proprietors can use their Social Security number (SSN) instead of an EIN, but the fewer instances in which you need to share your SSN the better. For example, if you hire contractors, you’ll need to issue MISC-1099s forms to them if you paid $600 or more for their services within a tax year. The MISC-1099 form requires the sole proprietor’s tax ID number. It’s much safer to use an EIN for this purpose instead of your SSN.
Step 4. Figure out your finances
Your financial needs will be as unique as your business. Unless you decide to fund your business yourself, you may need to look for a business loan or investor. It all depends how much control you want to have over your business. You can also look into small business grants.
After you have registered your small business, the next step is to set up a small business bank account. Even if you run a sole proprietorship, you should plan to maintain separate checking and savings accounts for your small business and your personal finances. Doing so makes it much easier to do taxes, prepare for an audit, and secure funding.
Unless you start with ample operating funds, you may need to secure a line of credit through your bank. After you’re approved, your line of credit is available to draw from, when needed. The beauty of a line of credit is that you can move cash from a line of credit to a checking account much like transferring from a savings account. However, a line of credit is a loan that accrues interest.
You should also consider using an accounting service to handle bookkeeping if you don’t do it in-house and you may want to retain a CPA for tax purposes.
5. Get business insurance
The type of business you operate will dictate the type(s) of insurance you need. The three main types are general business liability, workers’ compensation and professional liability insurance (PLI), but there are many others.
Where general business liability protects your business from claims involving bodily injury or property damage, workers compensation insurance covers medical and wage benefits for employees who are injured at work. PLI, also called errors and omissions, protects you and your business if you're found legally liable for failing to provide a contracted service, offered faulty advice or were otherwise negligent when providing a service.
6. Create a brand
Once you establish your legal structure and business name and file all necessary paperwork, it’s time to create your brand. A logo represents your business visually, and it’s worth the money and effort to work with a graphic artist or service to create a logo that’s clean, simple and recognizable. You should also define your brand values and messaging for customers or clients. With your brand established, you can get a start on your marketing materials, your website, product packaging, signage, invoices and letterhead.
Marketing can take many forms depending on your business. You may want to think about starting a company blog, creating digital ads, or building an email list and using email marketing. Many small businesses choose to use social media to tell their story and reach a broader audience.
7. Execute the plan
Putting your plan into action means setting up a place of business, which might be an office in your home, a coworking space, storefront or other facility. Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, start small and move up as your business grows.
Creating a business also entails purchasing or leasing computers, software, and equipment; buying small business internet, setting up a phone line, and communications with customers; and creating relationships with vendors for materials, creating products, or providing service.
Depending on the size of your business, you may need to hire employees or engage with temporary staff or contractors. Hiring employees ensures labor availability but requires your business to operate steadily to keep them employed. You can use temporary staff or contractors as needed but their availability isn’t always guaranteed. Weigh your options carefully.
From your business structure, to your business plan, to creating your brand, starting a small business requires some time and effort up front. But taking these important steps to research, plan, and organize your business will help you set your small business up for success.
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