Logistics are not the most exciting aspect of starting up a business, but having your logistics in order can mean the difference between success and failure. Having your books in order, your contracts buttoned up, your money safely managed and your downside covered are each critical to your personal and business future. Accountants, lawyers, bankers, insurance agents—the big four—are some of the people that can help you get organized and put you on a path to starting up smart. These service providers will be instrumental as you grow, too.
In addition to the “big four,” there are other service providers that may be vital to your business success. For example, you might need a website developer or a realtor – it just depends on your business model and plan.
Before you start your search for these service providers, it’s important to know what you want to accomplish with each of them, and to set a well-defined budget to meet your goals. Once you’ve hired these professionals, you should work with them to establish clear milestones to reach, a strict timeline for reaching them and a plan for communicating with each other along the way.
Regardless of who you retain, they should be well-versed in assisting entrepreneurs, and they should understand the nature of your industry. Most importantly, you should be able to trust them. Therefore, the best way to find these service providers is through referrals from your friends and business associates.
In this step, we will focus on nine areas of logistics:
- Legal Services
- Information Technology
- Website Development
- Merchant Banking/e-Commerce
- Real Estate
Accountants bring structure and order to your business and help you plan for current and future needs. They can help you choose a structure for your business, file the paperwork to do so, and advise you on tax-related issues and account management. Accountants can also help you set up financial timelines with potential revenue and expenses so that you can accurately project your company’s cash flow.
Once your business is formed, accountants can assist you with ongoing bookkeeping, payroll and financial analysis and management. In fact, many businesses bring in an outside accountant once a week to assist with payroll and bookkeeping.
Like attorneys, accountants generally charge by the hour or on a project basis, depending on the work. The amount charged can vary by geographic location and experience level of the accountant.
Questions to ask a prospective accountant:
- Do you specialize in businesses like mine?
- Are you qualified to prepare income tax returns as well as keep my books?
- Can you provide me with references from clients similar to me?
- Can you explain your fee structure?
- Are you a CPA (certified public accountant)?
You’ll also need an accounting software package like Microsoft Office Accounting or Quickbooks to track all of the financial transactions in your business on a daily basis. Maintaining your financials in an accounting program helps you stay organized throughout the year, and makes things much easier come tax time when your accountant needs to decipher your books and prepare your tax returns.
To find an accountant near you check out the CPA Directory.
Attorneys help you strategize and formalize key relationships with vendors, product sources, financiers and employees. They can also help you form your company, draft contracts and non-disclosure agreements with vendors or other parties, and comply with a sea of regulations ranging from zoning and securities to environmental and Sarbanes-Oxley. If you are an inventor, a patent attorney is particularly important for you, as they can help you conduct patent searches and file your patent paperwork.
You need to select an attorney who is an expert in the area of law with which you need help. The best way to find an attorney is to ask your friends, accountant, banker, business associates or vendors for recommendations. You can also check with your state or local bar association, or search a directory like the ones at Lawyers.com or Legalzoom, but these sources may not have direct experience with the listed attorneys. Therefore, it is important to interview prospective attorneys carefully yourself.
Attorneys generally charge an hourly rate for research, writing and negotiation. In addition, they typically bill for things like filing fees, telephone calls, copies, and work done by other professionals within the firm. Fees depend on the experience of the attorney, the size and geographic location of the law firm, the matter being worked on and the client’s financial situation. Some cases may be worked out on a project fee basis.
If you’re operating on a tight budget, a great option for some of your legal services is to use a source like Legalzoom. This online service charges a simple “per project” fee for things such as forming your company, setting up non-disclosure agreements and obtaining copyrights or trademarks.
Questions to ask a prospective attorney:
- Have you handled matters like mine, and can you give me examples?
- What is your track record of working with companies of my size, stage and industry?
- What will the timeline be for completion of this work?
- How will you keep me informed of your progress?
- What assurances can you give me that I will be a priority client?
- What is a ballpark figure for the total bill, including fees and expenses?
- Will you be working on my file, or will an associate work on the file to cut costs? (i.e. can junior attorneys or paralegals in your office handle some of the administrative work at a lower rate?)
- Do you have sample legal forms and agreements that I can use for my business?
- Would you be willing to work out a more creative fee structure based upon the success of my business, or perhaps accept fee for service?
To better understand how lawyers charge for their services, visit the American Bar Association.
Health insurance is a particularly hot topic these days, and it probably comes as no surprise to hear that costs are increasing exponentially each year. Health insurance costs are, in fact, one of the number one concerns of most small business owners. An economical source to consider for health insurance is your local chamber of commerce. Oftentimes, chambers group their members’ companies together to obtain deep discounts on health insurance, discounts you might not otherwise have access to on your own.
You can also obtain insurance through an agent. Insurance agents make their money through commissions on the products they sell, so there should not be any upfront cost to you. You should seek out several agents, obtain quotes and go with your gut. Insurance agents can counsel you as to what kinds of insurance you will need and the type of coverage available to you, such as health insurance, property insurance, general liability insurance, workers compensation and malpractice insurance.
Questions to ask a prospective insurance agent:
- Are you a licensed agent?
- How many companies do you currently represent?
- Are you independent or do you work for an insurance brokerage/agency?
- How long has your agency been in business and how long have you been with the agency?
- If you are independent, how many insurance carriers do you work with?
- What kind of insurance do you sell?
- Have you worked with businesses like mine before?
- What types of value-added services do you provide – employee benefits, retirement planning, wealth management, human resources outsourcing?
- Do you offer 24/7 service?
- How do you perceive your role in handling claims?
- How often will you review my policies to see if better prices or coverage are available?
For more information on obtaining insurance visit the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Even if you don’t need or qualify for a loan yet, banks do provide a suite of other products fundamental to your business that are mostly (but not completely) financial in nature. These can include business checking accounts, business credit cards and perhaps even a credit reference from your banker. Banks also have great contacts in the community and can be an excellent source of business referrals.
It’s vital for you to separate your business and personal finances early on, to simplify bookkeeping and tax returns. Open a business checking account at your local bank to start things off on the right foot.
You should also establish a relationship with your banker early on, so you can learn from him how best to position yourself for a loan down the road (if you will need one). Your banker can also keep you apprised of what other financial products might be appropriate for your particular business such as merchant banking services, payroll services, treasury management services and much more.
Information technology (IT) encompasses a lot of things, including purchasing computers, setting up computer networks, security measures, email systems, software, backing up business data, high-speed internet access, and phone systems.
The extent of the IT services you’ll need depends on your business model, and you may or may not need or want to hire an IT professional to assist you. If you plan to go it alone, tap into resources like the Small Business Technology Institute or the Microsoft Small Business Center for articles and online training on a variety of IT topics.
If you decide to hire an IT consultant to help set up and support your computer system on a one-time or ongoing basis, you should ask for referrals from business associates, your trade association or the retailer from which you purchase your computer equipment.
Questions to ask a prospective IT consultant:
- Do you specialize in my industry and in assisting small businesses?
- What will your availability be if I have an urgent problem?
- Do you charge a retainer or by the hour, and do you charge for any other expenses?
- What services do you offer – website hosting, ongoing consulting and troubleshooting?
Your website may be the backbone of your entire company, especially if you are an online retailer. And there are a wide variety of options for developing your website, so choose carefully. For example, there are online services, like Microsoft Office Live (a StartupNation sponsor) and TemplateMonster, that will provide you with the tools to create your own site using templates, and they’ll even set up your web hosting for you.
If you need a customized and complex site, you may decide to hire a website designer and programmer. Designers create the look and feel of the site, and design any artwork, while programmers are the ones who build the “back-end” of your site and make it actually function. It’s also possible to find a professional who is both a designer and a programmer, if you prefer to go that route.
Regardless of which path you take, you must first decide what you want in a website.
Here are a few things to consider:
- What is the primary purpose of the site? Do you want to sell products (e-commerce)? Do you need to provide information? Will your site contain multimedia elements like music and video? All of the above?
- Will you host the site, or do you need someone to host it?
- How often will the site need to updated?
- Do you want to be able to update the site yourself or pay someone else to update it?
There are content management systems available that let non-technical staff update images, text, and pages on a website.
- Who will develop the content for the site?
And finally, if you’re operating on a tight budget that really doesn’t allow for hiring a website development firm, you can ask if an individual developer is willing to do the work on a freelance basis.
Questions to ask a prospective website developer:
- Do you have experience in designing and programming a site similar to mine?
- Do you design and program yourself, or do you outsource some of the work?
- What is the timeline for designing and programming my site?
- How many designs will you “mock-up” for me to review?
- Do you charge by the hour or by the project?
- How many corrections am I allowed to make before you charge me for additional work?
- Will you also host the site and secure a domain name?
- Do you have experience building search-engine friendly websites, and can you provide examples of sites you’ve designed that rank well in natural search engine results?
- Can you point me toward a sample portfolio of websites you have designed?
- Can you provide me with your website address so that I can take a look? (You can tell a lot by looking at a web design company’s site. Would you hire a plumber whose own kitchen sinks is leaking? The same holds true for website developers)
If you are planning to accept credit cards as a form of payment, you must have a merchant banking account. Merchant banking accounts can be tough to come by for startup businesses.
Factors that merchant banks take into consideration:
- Whether you already have an established business
- The type of product(s) you are offering and the amount of sales volume you expect
- Your credit risk, including personal credit history
- Whether you have ever applied for bankruptcy
- Whether you appear on the Terminated Merchant File List or MATCH file
- Whether you have a website and clearly state your return policy
- Whether you have ever been convicted of credit card fraud or a related felony
To find a merchant banking service, the best place to start is your current bank. If you qualify for a merchant banking account, you will need to invest in some hardware and software to process transactions. There will also be fees associated with your application, each transaction, each statement and customer support.
If you don’t qualify for a merchant banking account just yet, and you want to operate an e-commerce business, a service such as PayPal may be right for you. PayPal let’s you accept credit cards online without a merchant account and works with many of the shopping cart systems available.
If you’re starting a business that will have you or your staff traveling frequently to trade shows and client meetings, it’s a good idea to leverage the Internet for discounted travel options. Additionally, setting up frequent traveler reward accounts with your preferred airline, hotel and car rental company will help you accrue points towards free tickets, hotel stays, and maybe even upgrades and amenities.
Going the traditional route of using a travel agent is certainly still an option, and could be the right one if you frequently have complex itineraries and no time to shop for good prices yourself. Searching websites that aggregate discounted prices from a variety of airlines, hotels and car rental companies is also a simple way to get a broad sampling of your options. But some airlines and hotels offer better deals directly at their own websites, and may not even participate in the aggregated travel sites, so be sure to shop around.
If you are opening a brick-and-mortar store or an office, you will, of course, need some real estate. You can choose to lease a property or buy one, but in either case, it’s best to begin with the Downtown Development Authority or the City’s Planning Commission in the community in which you want to locate. These entities may be able to help you identify the perfect location for your business, perhaps even one that carries some attractive tax incentives. Otherwise, you may try working with a commercial real estate agent or developer to identify the right location. A real estate agent or broker will take a commission on the sale price or lease, just as they do in personal real estate transactions.
To find a commercial real estate agent near you, ask for references from other small business owners in your community, or peruse the yellow pages.
Questions to ask a prospective realtor:
- Do you have many properties listed in my desired region?
- How often will you contact me about available listings?
- Do you have a website where I can view properties online?
- Do you represent both the buyer and the seller?
- What commission level do you charge?