ATTENTION START-UPS! DOES THIS SOUND LIKE A PLAN?

If asked, most successful small business owners would agree that when they started out, they were at the bottom of a very steep learning curve. Many of them, if they had to do it all again, would do some things differently but at the same time, they appreciate the lessons they learnt through experience.

However, in many cases, the lessons learnt were expensive and involved losses the business otherwise may not have incurred. Unfortunately, many start-up businesses still follow the same learning curve and for some of them, the losses mean they do not survive. Would the results have been different if these businesses had been part of a mentoring program designed specifically for them?

Business mentoring programs are offered to existing clients by accounting companies to help them build better businesses through a long-term collaboration rather than just as a problem-solving measure. There are many benefits for the clients, but the greatest is to have access to someone in the role of an unbiased sounding board and who is unafraid to challenge thinking and decisions.

To have access to such a program would be invaluable for a start-up business and, like every good idea it should begin with a plan. The first part of the plan is to meet with the client to establish conventional agreements such as professional costs, frequency of consultations, service expectations and reporting methods.

The second part of the plan should be to check that basic management tools such as accounting records are in place. This ensures that the fledgling business is starting on solid foundations. Other tools such as marketing plans, cash flow projections and others may not yet be available but should be mentioned in the planning process to be followed up later.

Planning should continue along these lines while being flexible enough to be tailored specifically to different types of business, rather than being a rigid template. The plan should also have enough structure for timelines and targets to be established.

Once the plan is finalised and agreed by the client, the next step is to designate a qualified mentor who will provide support, guidance, objective feedback and further expertise when required. This is an important role, as the success of the program depends on the professional relationship between this mentor and the business owner. Trust and confidentiality are paramount here.

This structured approach to the initial planning process would also be useful for business owners who want to set up their own self-managed superannuation funds (SMSFs). This is a complex process set down by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) with an annual reporting and auditing regime with financial penalties for breaches of the regulatory system.

For new business owners trying to get their product to the market, this would be an unnecessary distraction. However, companies such as SMSF Assure are specialists at managing the administration aspects of SMSFs for their clients. They ensure that all administration requirements are in place, leaving the business owners to work on establishing successful enterprises.

WHAT IS A FAIR PRICE FOR ACCOUNTING FEES?

Most large businesses and corporations have the financial means to employ qualified accountants as permanent staff members, but this is out of the financial reach of small businesses. For them, having a competent bookkeeper, either full or part time depending on the size of their business, is sufficient for most of the year. At tax time, or if they need more than basic financial advice, they meet with their external accountant.

Fees for these consultations can sometimes be difficult to quote upfront, especially if the work is more than a basic tax return. As the accountant begins the work it may become far more complex than was first thought, and if the business owner has agreed on an hourly rate, a couple of hours work can quickly increase from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

Some accounting firms offer fixed price agreements, which provide their clients with some certainty regarding the fees, but this is usually a private arrangement that is not universally available. For the business owner, finding out if the fees they are being charged are fair and comparable to others doing the same work can be difficult.

There are several regulatory and professional bodies that can assist. Before choosing an accountant, regardless of fee arrangements, business owners should check credentials. Ensure the accountant is a member of a professional body such as Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, Institute of Public Accountants or Certified Practising Accountants Australia.

Members must have an accredited tertiary qualification and comply with a set of professional standards. If a client feels their accountant has not complied with these standards, they can make a complaint to the relevant professional body. Business owners should also be aware that only registered tax agents can prepare and lodge tax returns. Accountants who are doing this work must also be registered with the Tax Practitioners Board.

As with most decisions, a good place to start is by seeking recommendations from other business owners, including asking them about the fees they are paying. In Australia, the accountancy profession is not regulated so there are no scheduled fees. The marketplace is the final arbitrator of accounting fees, which ensures they stay competitive.

This is also the case for companies offering their services to assist SMSF (self-managed superannuation fund) trustees to keep their funds compliant with regulatory requirements. Companies such as SMSF Assure provide administrators who understand the complexities of SMSF legislation and work with their clients to ensure that all documentation is in place and all lodging and other requirements are met.

A REGULAR, STRUCTURED ROUTINE KEEPS EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE

The management of every business, whether it is a multi-national entity, an SME (small to medium enterprise), a micro-business or a sole trader, it must have up-to-date and accurate data about every aspect of their trading operations. In these volatile times, the health of a business can be compromised overnight, so managers must have access to relevant information so they can make operational corrections quickly.

In this mix is the financial data which is always critical to the health of any business. Mistakes and omissions in entering the data into the business systems will appear in the various management reports used to make decisions. One of the most important duties of a bookkeeper is to ensure this does not happen and good bookkeepers usually have a few regular habits to keep them focused.

Making it a habit to regularly check the status of the accounting software being used, then performing updates and backups will be an important task for most bookkeepers in small companies. Larger entities will most likely have in-house computer experts to keep the software up to date, but for the others, including contract bookkeepers, the habit of setting reminders for this important task is on top of the list.

Next, is the important habit of entering all daily transactions on the day they occur, or if that is not possible, within the week they occur. Sometimes it may seem more efficient to leave customer receipts, invoices and other source documents until there is a sufficient mass to occupy an afternoon putting them into the software. This is a dangerous practice, because if management requests a report unexpectedly, none of these transactions will be there.

Also, a recurring nightmare for accountants with small business clients who do not have a regular bookkeeper is to be handed a large box full of transaction documents and be asked to prepare a yearly tax return. Leaving all the data entry until this point in the financial year not only creates a huge workload but also, the owner has missed out on the benefit of reporting information that informs key decisions.

The third important habit is to keep the filing up to date. Some micro-businesses may still use a paper-based system, but the most efficient way to keep everything readily accessible is to upload the documents into the filing systems built into the software. This still requires setting up a system of folders for each financial year, appropriately named to suit the business.

It is also important to remember that there are certain documents that the ATO (Australian Taxation Office) requires businesses to keep for sometimes up to seven years, so this habit is essential to providing the correct documents in the event of a tax audit. Also remember that any filing system is useless if documents cannot be retrieved when they are needed.

Consistency is the thread that runs through this discussion about good habits. It is also something that business owners managing their own SMSFs (self-managed superannuation funds) struggle with. Administering an SMSF is time consuming, with many reporting deadlines and other statutory requirements set down by the ATO. Many business owners are now using companies such as SMSF Assure who are specialists in the administration of SMSFs, so they can concentrate on managing their businesses.

THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION AND THE DEMISE OF PAPER FILES

Anyone who worked in the clerical/administration field prior to the introduction of computers can attest to the mountains of documents that they and their colleagues created, mailed out or received, moved around, processed then filed for legal, taxation and reporting purposes, year after year. This was followed by the annual review of archived documents and the shredding and disposal of those that had reached their disposal date.

The digital revolution started slowly with promises of a paperless office, which many laughed about for some years while paper continued to accumulate alongside computer terminals. However, technology improved over time and we now have the appropriate software and online tools to not only reduce the volumes of paper but to also deliver information and documents instantly.

Accounting and other business software has allowed businesses to generate, send and receive work orders, invoices, payments, bank statements, time sheets, pay slips and many other standard business documents electronically. The technology also saves and files these documents, and provided this is done securely using accepted protocols, they can be retrieved quickly when needed.

These advancements have changed the face of the typical office and also the way we work in that space. For example, most businesses now use the electronic lodgement system provided by the ATO (Australian Taxation Office) to lodge tax and annual returns such as company tax returns, fringe benefits tax returns, SMSF (self-managed superannuation fund) annual returns and the fund income tax returns.

It is not just businesses that appreciate the efficiency of paperless technologies. Ordinary PAYG (Pay As You Go) taxpayers can complete and lodge paperless tax returns through myTax, available on the ATO website. Information from banks, employers, government agencies, health funds etc. needed to complete individual tax returns is automatically uploaded, leaving the taxpayer to provide deductions and anything additional. Tax refunds are usually paid into bank accounts within two weeks.

SMSFs (self-managed superannuation funds) are another group that would struggle to manage multiple administration and reporting requirements without the speed and convenience of paperless technology. For example, fund trustees are responsible for ensuring that proper and accurate tax and superannuation records are kept, some for 5 years and others for 10 years.

To keep large volumes of financial reports, tax returns, investment information, minutes of trustee meetings, registers of members, declarations, reports and other documents for up to 10 years is a logistical nightmare. The whole scenario becomes much more manageable if these records are paperless.

Assisting fund trustees to manage their administration and reporting responsibilities can also be outsourced. Superannuation and taxation laws are complex and constantly changing, so specialist companies such as SMSF Assure can be engaged by trustees to ensure that all their actions are in accordance with current legislation. They will scan all fund documentation into their electronic document management systems for record-keeping and audit purposes, as well as maintain all registers and records on behalf of the fund. None of this would be possible without paperless technology.

SHAKE OFF THAT DEBT BURDEN WITH SOME COMMON BUSINESS TECHNIQUES

Every business owner struggles with competing priorities in a bid to keep their enterprise afloat in the increasingly complex world that is modern business. Not only are they keeping on top of cash flow needs, chasing bad debts, responding to customer demands, fending off competitors and managing staff, but they are also making difficult decisions about the ability of their business to grow without incurring an unserviceable level of debt.

Many successful businesses with quality products or services, solid market support and reputable trading methods can suddenly find themselves in a situation where they are being dragged down by a burden of unsustainable debt. If your business is in this situation, it is possible to turn it around with some quick action, hard decisions and good advice.

The first thing to do is to perform an objective assessment of the current financial position of the business. If you have the relevant skills, you could do this yourself, but it may be difficult to be objective, in which case you should speak to a business advisor. Comparing your budget figures with the actual results should highlight areas of concern. If you are trying to run a business without a budget, it is essential that you establish one.

Go through your list of creditors and prioritise those that must be paid now, those that you know will wait a little longer and those that may be willing to discuss a payment plan with you. At the same time, review your debtors and contact those that are outstanding. Give them a reminder and a payment date or negotiate a payment schedule. When these funds arrive, apply them to the creditors’ list that you have already prioritised.

You should have already contacted the major creditors and advised them of your position. Utilise any hardship provisions they may have, request an extension of time to pay or offer to make partial payments and start discussing a payment plan. They want to be paid without having to engage in expensive legal action, and if your business has a reliable payment record in the past, there is every chance they will assist you.

Now contact your bank and advise them of the situation, and the measures you have already taken to rectify it. Offer to provide a profit and loss statement and a cash flow forecast so they understand the issues that have brought your business to this position. You may be able to apply for an overdraft or some other financial measure to get the business back on track.

A business advisor will help you look at every aspect of the business and recommend changes. They may include staff reductions, new suppliers with better trading terms, an upgrade to management and accounting systems to give you quick and accurate financial reports, and a range of other measures.

By acting immediately, you will reduce the reputational damage to the business and return it to a profit-making entity. Close attention from that day forward to your budget, cash flow and market conditions should see you in a position to stay debt-free.

Many of these same business owners are also struggling with the regulatory requirements of managing their SMSFs (self-managed superannuation funds). They have chosen an SMSF as the vehicle for building wealth for their retirement rather than hand control over to a retail superannuation fund. They may not have realised it at the time they made this decision, but an SMSF requires a lot of time for administration and also for managing its investment portfolio.

More and more owners are now deciding to put all their efforts into managing their businesses and engaging companies such as SMSF Assure to look after their SMSF administration. If this is your situation, you may also want to consider this option. It will allow you to concentrate solely on your business and in the process, keep your eye on that goal of being debt-free all year round.