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Wednesday, December 21, 2016
It’s that time of year again, when business owners start thinking about their tax returns – and this is when we start to notice strange things popping up in their accounts.
Over the years, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen people charging their mortgage to their business who are flabbergasted when I tell them it was taxable income. Perhaps the best effort was a client who put his au pair on the payroll. It took some time to work out because her name was just one among many employees, but I got there in the end.
The thing is…
Many business owners dip into business funds in order to pay for personal things. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable around Christmas, when people need a bit of extra cash to get them through the festive season.
And that can be dangerous.
HMRC hates this behaviour because it’s an attempt to get money tax-free.
If you decide to pay for personal items through the business you have two choices: Pay it back really quickly or be prepared to pay tax on it.
Most people know when they are wrong to charge personal items to the business, and are consciously trying to bend the rules to see how far they get. We often get asked some variation of “What can I get away with charging to the business?”
Others make an honest mistake. The rules can be complex, and people are not always aware of some of the finer points.
But that’s your responsibility. You really need to be clear about the rules – and if you’re not then you need to check. And most importantly of all, don’t push your luck and hope HMRC fails to notice.
Even within the past two years, they are taking this much more seriously. If they discover you have been taking money out of the business for personal purposes, they can charge penalties and levy punitive interest.
Even if they don’t notice, don’t do it. Taking money out of the business to fund personal expenses is a terrible, unprofessional way to run your company. You are depriving it of funds it needs to function, thrive and grow.
Even if you’ve founded the business and consider it ‘yours’, look at it as an entirely separate entity – not an extension of your personal world. Your neighbour has no responsibility to pay your mortgage or shell out for your Christmas presents – neither does your business!
There are areas where the lines might blur, but stick to this general rule of thumb: If you didn’t have the business, would you have paid that expense anyway? If the answer is ‘yes’ – for example, you would have met that friend for coffee regardless – don’t charge it.
Ultimately, claim for what you can. You should ever be out of pocket for expenses that are genuinely business-related. So, if you travelled by car to a business meeting, claim that mileage even if it was only a little. It all adds up.
But make sure you are honest and transparent about what you’re charging to the business. It’ll save you a lot of hassle in the long-run.
As Christmas approaches, everyone is relaxing – well that's the theory! – so with that in mind, I thought I’d do something a little different during this festive season, and tell you about some of my favourite business books.
Actually, that’s a little inaccurate.
Only one of the books is, strictly speaking, a business book. The others are about personal development.
Still, I consider everything they say directly transferrable to a business context. If some of these make their way onto your Kindle, or into your team members’ Christmas stockings, your business will only benefit….
1. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey
What makes certain people more successful than others?
The late American businessman Stephen Covey narrows it down to seven key habits in this bestselling classic.
Three concern mastering your own time and priorities. Three concern how you work with others. The last is about seeking continuous improvement in every sphere.
My favourite passage asks you to think about your funeral. Who would appear and what would they say? Build the kind of life which would ensure they say nice things – and do the same for your business. What would people say about it, if it wasn’t there anymore?
I’m also very keen on Covey’s time management grid. We must learn to differentiate between things that are important and things which are urgent, he says. We so often spend time on the latter that we forget to focus on the former – and that will harm any business.
2. Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard
This easy-to-read book by business consultant Ken Blanchard uses simple storytelling and parables to show you how to create a service which people will truly love.
He doesn’t want you to have customers; he wants you to have raving fans, people who not only buy your products, but spread the word to others.
Blanchard recommends a process of small, incremental improvements to your customer service. If every day, you find a way to do 1% more than your customers expect, over time, your service will improve enormously.
He runs through a useful list of areas where you can – must – do a little more, including the way you deal with queries, answer phones and generally interact with your customer base.
So think about the words your customers use to describe your service. If they say it was “fine”, you’re in trouble. You want them to rave….
3. Eat that Frog by Brian Tracey
Business trainer Brian Tracey thinks that every morning, you should eat a frog.
By that he means, take on the one thing you were dreading that day, instead of constantly putting it off.
Chances are, it will be an important task which will have a big impact. You’ll feel much better to have it out the way, and it will help your business.
Like Covey’s time grid, Tracey forces you to think about how you spend your time. This is a key challenge for many of us, as modern life – emails, social media, phone calls – can prove very distracting, and take us away from our real priorities.
Tracey provides a series of useful tips to help with time-management, and to get our priorities right.
4. The Inside Out Revolution by Michael Neill
Michael Neill has made a name for himself as a transformative coach and author. His TEDx talk, ‘Why Aren’t We Awesomer?’ is expanded upon in this book.
His main message is that people are more in control of their actions than they believe or realise.
We often assume we are victims of external events, but Neill emphasises that you are in control. No matter what situation you find yourself in, you still have the power to determine how you react.
The best example I know comes from the least business-like book I can think of, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In this classic book Frankl relates how, as a prisoner in the Nazi camps, he told himself the Nazis could physically do anything they wanted to him, but only he could control how he felt and how he responded to it.
Ultimately this rather harrowing lesson can be used to challenge yourself about your own mental habits, including in business. When your company is on the backfoot, perhaps faced with negative feedback or a setback, do you panic – or are you determined to solve the problem?
Neill’s approach will help you develop resilience.
So there you have it. A good reading list for a new year. If you have any others, get in touch. I’d love to hear about them.
Occasionally people ask me what is the biggest single step they can take towards gaining financial control of their business.
Well, as we approach 2017, I’ve spent some time re-reading the Blogs I wrote this year.
I’ve covered so many topics – from cash flow and credit control to your relationship with your bank, systematising your finances and knowing when to upgrade your accounting software.
Yet one theme came up again and again: The importance of planning your finances.
Here are some of the essential steps we talked about:
• Plan your cash: So many good businesses fail because their CEOs are caught by surprise when they run out of money.
You must get to know your figures intimately. Make sure you know what’s coming in, what’s going out, when bills are due and what your cash situation is.
We recommend a daily review of your cash position to help spot problems before they become urgent, and deal with them.
Securing your cash flow is the most important thing you can do – too many businesses go bust despite being profitable simply because they run out of cash.
• Plan your budget: Plenty of companies set ambitious financial goals as part of their budget, for example a 20% rise in revenue. Yet all too often, they have no real plan for how they are going to achieve them, so those “goals” remain wishful thinking.
Understanding what actions your business needs to take in order to fulfil their goals should be the basis of any good budget. If you know that to achieve a 20% rise in revenue you’ll need two extra salespeople, make sure that happens!
• Plan your business: Build your business deliberately rather than allowing it to develop haphazardly.
Think carefully about how you want your business to look when it’s ‘done’ – what kind of turnover do you want to achieve? How many employees? Then put the right processes and foundations in place. Your company will develop more smoothly.
• Plan for emergencies: Be a pessimist – plan for the worst financial eventuality. Make sure you have a contingency budget in place to ensure your survival in case the worst happens.
As you can see, financial planning is essential for both positive and negative reasons. It makes it easier to achieve your growth goals, and to function smoothly. It also help you pre-empt disasters that could potentially sink your business.
On a personal level, with good financial management in place, you will find running your business much less stressful.
When you’re not constantly fire-fighting…
When you don’t have to worry about nasty financial surprises….
You will feel much more in control, and have more time to devote to other tasks that are essential for growth.
As I explained a few weeks ago, there is even value in the process of planning itself. Properly planning your financial goals, budget and cash flow forces you to look carefully at your business’s priorities, structure and the way it functions. You will learn a lot about your own company, and make better decisions as a result.
So here we are, just a short while away from a new year. If there’s one thing your business does differently in 2017, I urge you to do a more thorough job planning your cash and finances.
It will make an enormous difference to the success of your business.
And if that’s something you would like help accomplishing, watch out for my regular blogs.