How to draft a winning game plan for your home-based business

Filed under Columns

By Greg Crabtree

Guest columnist

Greg Crabtree of Crabtree, Rowe & Berger discusses ways to structure a home-based business

Accountant Greg Crabtree discusses how to set up a home-based business for success. Photo courtesy of Crabtree, Rowe & Berger PC

Whether your home-based business is by choice or necessity, focusing on three keys will provide  a winning game plan: Define what success looks like. Choose simplicity for organization structure. And count the cost by paying vendors and taxes before you take money out of the business. As the owner, you get to make the initial decisions on how things will work. However, you have to understand the IRS defines tax implications, and “business physics” will define your economic outcome, so choose your course wisely.

Defining success

Passion over profit – These are the entrepreneurs who love the idea of a product or service they have personally experienced and they want to share it with all the people they know. Passion is great, but you will need profits to make the business sustainable unless you like working for free and have other sources of funds to keep plowing into the business. The IRS may have something to say about whether losses will be deductible if you fail to meet the general rule of profits two out of  five years. It is expensive to argue your point with the IRS if you do not meet the guidelines so your argument had better be valid and worth it.

Profit to support family –  High unemployment rates are spurring new home businesses. While a home business does provide a great opportunity to be your own boss, you still need to treat it like any business startup and follow sound business principles. A goal for the early stage is to make a profit to replace your wages. The profits you hope to live on will sometimes be in conflict with other expenses that the business needs to pay. This will add to the complexity of managing cash flows as you and the business compete for use of the same dollar.  As you gain stability and success, you can make your market wage plus make a profit on top of that.

Tax write-off business – This is the business I recommend staying away from. You probably heard someone on the radio telling you how you could deduct these expenses to not pay taxes.  Repeat after me, “To spend a dollar to save 15 to 35 cents in tax is dumb.” Deduct the legitimate business expenses you spend to produce your income, but you will never build wealth (without cheating) unless you have taxable income and spend less than your after-tax income to live on. I know this is not what you want to hear, but this is how my wealthy clients did it. They can sleep well at night not fearing an audit.

Choose simplicity for organization structure

Complex is many times the code word for expensive. Here are the guidelines for home-based businesses to use when you are consulting with your tax adviser:

Sole proprietorship – This is by far the simplest form of doing business. The activity is reported on your personal tax return and does not require a separate tax return to be filed. Since “you” are the business, it does not afford you legal liability protection that a corporation or limited liability company (LLC) does, but many of those liability fears can either be insured against or are so remote, they is not worth the additional cost of incorporating.

Limited liability company – Should you need some liability protection or you have more than one owner, this should be your next option to consider. Most home businesses do not have employees or may use contractors for spot help. An LLC taxes you just like a sole proprietorship by having you pay income tax and self-employment tax on your profits from the business (whether you take the money out or not).  As long as your profits are less than a market-based wage for you, you not have to deal with the cost of payroll tax returns. The downside is many LLC owners and sole proprietors build up taxes due before they realize it. Since nothing is being withheld from draws they take out to live on, they often have a bad surprise come tax day. The legal documents for an LLC are simple if you have one owner, but they get much more complex once you add an owner that is not a spouse.

S corporation – The main complexity with an S corporation is the requirement by the IRS for the owners who work in the business to make a market based wage. The IRS does not make you take a wage if there are no profits, but it does not want you to avoid payroll taxes by taking low to no wages and take your profits out as distributions. The IRS can find the data it needs in the S corporation tax return. If the IRS hasn’t found you yet, it might be because the agency’s resources limits how many companies it can track down each year.  Rest assured, it is adding resources and more will be paying back taxes and penalties for doing this wrong (including the tax preparers who told you to do it).

There are many other issues to consider in choosing your entity, but these are usually at the top of the list. Be proactive in explaining your goals to your tax adviser.

Count the cost

Most home-based business owners hate accounting, but this is especially the kind of business you need to keep your hand on the cash. The smaller you are, the less likely you have any room in your costs to pay an outside bookkeeper. QuickBooks has made many entrepreneurs functional (i.e. “good enough”) in accounting.  Take a class in QuickBooks and take charge of your numbers to avoid surprises. As you get bigger, then you can transition the role to a part-time outside bookkeeper when it makes financial sense.

You need to know the “four forces of cash flow” to stay out of trouble managing your cash. If you are not profitable, cash flow is just a calculation of “days until death.” Fix profitability first and then deal with the “four forces,” which include:

Taxes – Set aside your tax liability as you go. If you are taking draws as a sole proprietor or an LLC partner, you are setting aside self-employment taxes each time you take a draw. Once a quarter, you are setting aside income taxes and paying in based on IRS rules.

Get out of debt – If you borrowed money to start your business, pay it off as soon as you can.

Core capital – You need to have at least two months of operating expenses in cash with nothing in debt to be a fully capitalized business.

Profit distribution – Once I have paid my taxes, paid off my debt and built my core capital target, I can now take a profit distribution as the reward of my business success.

These principles apply to all businesses, big or small, and they will help you run one successfully.

Greg Crabtree, CPA, has worked in the financial industry for more than 30 years. He founded Crabtree, Rowe & Berger PC, a CPA firm dedicated to helping entrepreneurs build the economic engine of their business.  Crabtree leads the business consulting team, helping clients align their financial goals with their profit model and their core business values. He is the author of “Simple Numbers, Straight Talk, Big Profits.” For more information, please visit: http://www.seeingbeyondnumbers.com/.

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