If you are a small business owner, you probably try to save every dime that you can. This means that you wear many hats and do many things yourself. But, there will be some things that you’re not able to do yourself, or you shouldn’t spend your precious time trying to do them.
During my startup days, I remember that it wasn’t always clear who I should call to handle the different tasks that popped up. But, over time I learned what tasks I needed help with and who could help me. I learned how to find a small business adviser that can truly help me. Now, three decades later, I’ve prepared a cheat-sheet of the types of business advisers to look for and how they can help your business.
How much will an adviser cost me?
All advisers have different ways of charging you: hourly, per project, by retainer, etc. Be upfront and don’t be afraid to ask what their service is going to cost you.
Find a small business adviser
I have included the following trusted business advisers in this article:
- Hiring consultant
- Human resource consultant
- Insurance agent
- Marketing consultant
- Sales consultant
- Technology consultant
Unless you’re comfortable doing your own bookkeeping and accounting, even the smallest of businesses should enlist the help of a bookkeeper or accountant. Accountants are usually detailed and hardworking. I would rank accountants as one of the first advisers to bring into your world.
Among other things, accountants can:
- Handle your small business bookkeeping
- Prepare your financial statements
- Obtain your Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) and set up accounts with your state’s taxing authorities
- Advise appropriate methods of accounting (e.g., fiscal year vs. calendar year, cash-basis vs. accrual accounting)
- Analyze financing options and assist in preparing financing proposals (e.g., business plan, financial statements)
- Review debt agreements
- Setup and handle your payroll
- Help you create or manage employee time and attendance
- Prepare Form W-2 for employees and Form 1099 for vendors and independent contractors
- Calculate, deposit, and file your payroll taxes
- Assist with basic employment issues, such as handling employment forms (e.g., Form I-9; Form W-4; federal, state, and local withholding; new hire reporting)
- Prepare income tax returns for you and your business
- Calculate and file sales tax, excise tax, other business taxes
- Create a budget and projections
- Do performance measurement, trend analysis, metrics, and benchmarking
- Offer cash management advice (e.g., collections, paying bills, investing excess cash)
- File for your vendor’s license for sales tax reporting and filing
- Do some limited benefits consulting
- Help determine which business structure is best for you
- Perform risk analysis and risk management
- Implement accounting and payroll internal controls
- Provide business valuation information
- Perform audits
I’d recommend finding a general purpose business attorney who will review your operation—preferably with an onsite visit—and advise you on your weakest points. A good attorney will see problems that you hadn’t thought of.
Most of the attorneys I have dealt with are very smart and highly trained. Here are some things an attorney can do for your business:
- Incorporate your business
- Handle general business formation issues (e.g., articles of incorporation, partnership agreement)
- Register your business with your secretary of state
- Draft or review contracts
- Handle tough collections issues
- Research government regulation of your industry, licensing and permit requirements, zoning laws, and consumer laws
- Handle intellectual property protection issues, such as patents, copyrights, and trademarks
- Help with startup financing, securities regulations, selling stock, private offerings, and public offerings
- Help you buy or sell a business
- Represent you in court
- Deal with employment-law compliance
- Help with federal, state, and local law compliance
- Assist with identity theft protection and reputation management
You’ll want to find a bank that’s physically near your business. Once you pick the bank, introduce yourself to the branch manager and meet their loan officer(s).
Go ahead and start building a relationship as soon as you open an account. However, remember that your banker’s personal allegiance is to their bank and superiors first, not you.
If there’s an economic or regulatory event happening in their world, your relationship may be tossed under the bus at a moment’s notice. I have two firsthand experiences of having my cozy banking relationships turn into harsh situations overnight.
Even though I advise small business owners to be careful with their banking relationships, I still applaud banks and bankers. They serve a very useful business purpose, and you need them to establish and grow your business.
Here are some things to consider when trying to choose a small business adviser at a bank:
- Will they loan to you? Will they give you a term loan where you pay back principal and interest? Will they give you an interest-only loan, allowing you to pay only interest in the short term?
- Will they give you an open line of credit?
- What assets will you have to pledge as collateral to receive their loan (e.g., your house, receivables, equipment, buildings, property)? Will you have personal liability? What other restrictive
- loan covenants are required?
- At what interest rate will they loan you the money?
- Do they have the capability (and willingness) to expand with you if you need more money?
- Does the bank offer online services that are sufficient for your needs? (e.g., ACH, wire transfers, transfers between accounts, bank statements, account reconcilement reports, mobile banking
- services, remote deposit services, startup business credit cards, merchant services)
- Does the bank offer lockbox services?
- Does the bank have treasury management options (e.g., zero balance accounts, controlled disbursement accounts, investment options)? Will they sweep your funds that are in various
- accounts together, so you’ll earn interest on all your money in their bank?
Making good hires is key to growing your business. On the other hand, making bad hires can cripple or kill your business altogether.
Learning how to hire great employees is time consuming, draining, and expensive. Yes, you should interview every employee before you hire them. But, you don’t have to do every task in the hiring process.
Job board posting on the internet isn’t terribly hard. However, you can run into problems when there is (or isn’t) certain wording in your job advertisement. And, placing a job ad on the internet doesn’t mean that quality people are going to reply to your ad.
Once people do apply, what about your ability to read between the lines on the resumes? How much time will you waste reading stacks of resumes that are soaked in exaggerations? Will you ask the right (or wrong and illegal) questions in an interview? Even if you spend tons of time doing these tasks, are you really any good at doing them?
Most small businesses tend to do a lot of their hiring by themselves. They simply put out their help-wanted sign, and they successfully get what they pay for.
A staffing consultant specializes in sifting through the many applicants out there. The small business adviser can improve your chances of making a good hiring decisions.
A hiring consultant can advise you on many things, including:
- Helping you be realistic and determine your true hiring specifications
- Pointing you to the correct places and ways to advertise your jobs
- Reading resumes (keeping the winners and removing the less qualified)
- Performing reference checking and interpreting background checks
- Using temporary employees
- Using short-term contractors
Human resource (HR) consultants
The number of government regulations on small employers has increased exponentially in recent years. Not only are the laws extremely complex, but many of them affect small businesses with few employees. Therefore, even if you’re only going to have few employees, you will need some help with this regulation madness!
If you already have employees, I recommend that the sooner you can clean up your employment procedures and policies, the better. If you’re about to hire your first employee, I recommend that you meet with an HR adviser before you write your first job advertisement.
I advise you against trying to keep up with employment laws on your own. There are just too many laws and they’re constantly changing. Outsource employment law compliance to someone who specializes in this field.
Here is a general breakdown of the many ways an HR consultant can assist you as a small business mentor:
- Benefits and compensation (e.g., employee benefits, healthcare, retirement plans, HIPAA, health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, ERISA, HSA, FSA, compensation rates, pay
- Employee relations (e.g., dispute resolution, everyday employee issues)
- Training and performance management (e.g., performance reviews, onboarding)
- HR policies (e.g., employee handbook, workplace procedures, hiring, firing)
Every small business owner should develop a relationship with an insurance agent they can trust. My insurance agent advised me through several accidents, one catastrophe, employment issues, and more small business lessons learned than you could possibly imagine! Without my insurance agent’s help, I wouldn’t be in business.
There are several types of business insurance that you’ll need to know about. Rather than becoming an insurance expert yourself, a good insurance agent will ask you a lot of questions about your business and figure out where you have exposure. Talk with your insurance broker about things such as:
- Areas where your business has a possible exposure to liability
- Any risk exposure with your products or services
- Your commercial property, business equipment, and business assets
- Your use of vehicles for your business
- Physical security of your offices
- Risks involving your customers or prospective customers
- Risks involving employees, employment liability, and protection from employee lawsuits
- Occupational safety and hazardous materials
- Protection from any professional mistakes that you or your employees can make
Twenty-plus years ago, a small business didn’t need to hire a marketing consultant. All you needed was an ad in the yellow pages, a brochure, a business card, a telephone, and a fax machine. You were good to go!
Today, all of that has changed. Because of the internet and advancing technologies, companies and consumers find information and make purchase decisions differently. Even the smallest business needs to pay a huge amount of attention to the quality of its website, search engine optimization, social media strategy, online advertising, branding, and blogging.
I have personally have spent the last several years digging deep into online marketing, and I know for a fact that there are simply too many nuances in the online marketing realm for a small business owner to deal with alone. And, this isn’t even including offline marketing like print advertising, radio, direct mail, or TV.
Therefore, I strongly encourage every small business to enlist the help of one or more marketing consultants. You can’t do it all by yourself. And if you try, you’ll probably ignore the other areas of your business. Marketing consultants can serve as business advisers in these areas and more:
- Advertising (e.g., pay-per-click advertising, social media, mobile ads, newspaper, radio, TV)
- Building brand awareness (e.g., naming, positioning, logos, taglines)
- Digital media (e.g., graphics, photography, audio, video, film, acting)
- Public speaking (e.g., speakers, convention planning, trade shows, exhibiting)
- Social media (e.g., strategy, measurement, profiles)
- Website management (e.g., website hosting, website design, e-commerce, lead generation, lead nurturing, lead tracking)
- Website SEO and analytics (e.g., SEO strategy, marketing analytics accounts)
- Writing (e.g., publishing, blogging, content writing, press releases, guest blogging, ghostwriting)
Although I’ve never hired a sales consultant, I should have. I’m not a polished sales person, and my companies have suffered because I tried to do it all myself. I wish I would have brought more sales training in-house years ago.
The number-one reason small businesses fail is due to lack of sales. Most small business owners don’t like to sell, or can’t sell. The sales function in most businesses is somewhere between terrible and not good. Small business owners should find a small business adviser who can help in sales areas such as these:
- Finding a sales methodology
- Training your sales staff
- Developing commission structures
- Role playing
- Lead generation
- Testing and measuring
- Outsourced sales calling, cold calling
The world of hardware and software technology has been moving at a lightening-fast pace for years. The options available to you are changing by the hour. A technology consultant can help you keep up and free up time to work on your business.
I own multiple software companies, and I have dozens of technical people working with me. Shortly after college, I was in a very technical field as a systems programmer. Also, in one of my earlier companies I assembled, sold, and maintained computers.
Even though I have that background, I don’t spend my precious time trying to keep up with all the ever-changing technology. There’s just too much happening in the world of technology. In the end, technology is just a tool. Your only job should be to know how to operate the technology’s features—do what you need to do. You can then pay someone else to deal with everything else.
Here are some of the items that a technology consultant can help you with:
- Your phone system
- Your computers (e.g., hardware, software, network, wireless, internet, cable, DSL, WiFi)
- Your equipment and/or machinery that is computer controlled
- Your email, website, and odd internet-isms that steal your time
- Your smartphone
- Your credit-card processing equipment
Wrapping it up
This list of small business advisers is simply intended to give small business owners a rough idea of who to turn to, and when. There are many other types of consultants and advisers available who can provide you strength in the areas where you are weak.
Now that you know who can help you improve your small business, you can find a small business advisor.