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The Go-Getter's Guide to Making 2015 Your Best Year Ever

We know, it's only September - but now is the time to start planning for the next year of your business. Codifying your exact plans and goals months ahead of time will allow you the freedom to optimize once you're in the thick of the year. Here are five things your business needs to be doing, right now, to prepare for 2015:

1. Develop a list of goals for the coming year.
Be specific - instead of vague comments about better serving your customers, nail down your sales goals on a month-by-month basis. The more specific you are, the easier it will be to track your progress throughout the year.

2. Do a yearly SWOT analysis of your business financials.
What worked in 2014 may not work in 2015. Conducting a SWAT analysis will allow you to assess your strengths and your weaknesses in great detail. 

3. Learn to delegate.
Figure out what tasks - such as social media marketing, or accounting - you're going to delegate in 2015. Find your new workers, if needed, well ahead of time.

4. Update your records. 
Figure out where your business stands financially, and analyze the past months to see where the potential for growth may lie.

5. Create an Action Plan.
Make a list of actions you plan to enact in order to achieve your business goals for the next four financial quarters. 

How far in advance do you plan for your small business? Tell us in the comments below.  

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This Motivated Senator Wants to Fix the Small Business Loan Gender Gap

Recent studies have shown that woman business owners have a much tougher time obtaining small business financing than their male counterparts...and one motivated Senator is on the job and fighting for change.

Maria Cantwell is the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and she's made closing this particular "gender gap" a top priority. She has recently introduced legislature that would make it easier for women-owned businesses to obtain both small business loans and government contracts. 

Her actions come at a better time: though women own more than 30% of U.S. businesses; they receive less than 5% of the money loaned to entrepreneurs. Her legislation would introduce minimums and provisions that would help to ensure that female business owners get a much more even slice of the financing that's available. 

What are your thoughts on Senator Cantwell's initiative? Tell us in the comment below. 

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Small Business Success Story: Gerald Palumbo, Seasons Floral Designs

Watch Gerald Palumbo, owner and founder of Seasons, A Floral Design Studio, a retail florist and special events business in New York, NY talk about how he used a $30,000 OnDeck loan to grow his business by taking over a second retail store. 

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Do You Classify Employees as Contractors? You May Need to Stop

Throughout the past decade, many small businesses have saved money by classifying their workers as independent contractors. They do so because an independent contractor - who, by definition, would have more rights to take work elsewhere than a standard employee - doesn't need to be afforded the same healthcare, and other costs, that a full-time employee is. However, a recent report from the Washington Post reveals that this strategy could end up costing much more than it's worth.

According to one cautionary tale, one small business hired an independent contractors for a fixed-term project, only to find that contractor filed for unemployment benefits after the fact. The owner ended up going to court, and losing the case.

Not only did she have to pay thousands in back-taxes for the contractor who filed for the benefits, an audit revealed that the owner needed to make the same payments for three other individuals who had been misclassified as contractors. 

To ensure your business never runs into this issue, here are a list of questions you should ask yourself before bringing on an independent contractor.

•    Does your contractor work for other people at the same time they work for your business? Do they identify that additional work via their taxes?
•    Does the contractor maintain a website advertising his or her specific services?
•    Has the contractor provided you with filled-out tax forms?
•    Can the contractor manage their tasks without significant oversight from you or another member of your business?

If you don't feel you can confidently answer even one of these questions, you'd likely do best to make an individual in question an employee - not an independent contractor. Otherwise, you may run into both tax and legal trouble. 

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The Top 3 Tax Changes You'll Want to Know before April 15

Tax season may be far way off – but that doesn't mean that business owners shouldn't be preparing already. Saving as much as possible on your taxes is a matter of making the right decisions all year round. You need to invest in the proper form of insurance, for example if you want a big deduction to show for it at the end of the year!

That's why all small business owners should check out this round-up from Fox Business of the latest changes to tax laws that affect small business owners. These are all things you're going to want to plan for, well before April 15.

1. The Affordable Care Act
Of course, this particular Act is about to change the way small business owners provide insurance to their employees. The mandate will begin in 2015, and businesses that are following it – if they prepare properly – can get many credits against the money they invest in their employees' health.

2. Corporate Tax Rates
Tax rates for organizations incorporated as corporations – as opposed to those that are LLCs – may be getting a big break in the near future. Many small businesses would miss out on these breaks, so be sure to think about how your company is incorporated, and do it well before tax deadlines start creeping up.

3. Deduction elimination
Finally, a number of former tax credits business owners have relied on – such as some regarding business equipment, or office furniture – are no longer available. So ensure you read up on what can and can't be recouped, before you make any more purchases for your business.

Taxes can be boring, yes – but approaching them in the right way can also lead to major deductions and those lead to major savings.

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Dear Mr. President: Small Business Owners Have Something to Say

Small business owners are often referred to as community leaders - and it's not just because their businesses serve as important pillars in their town or city. As one recent study from the National Small Business Association illustrates, entrepreneurs are an incredibly politically involved group. In fact, the stats seem to suggest that small business owners play a huge role in who does and doesn't get elected in local governments. 

According to the latest NSBA study, roughly 95% of small business owners regularly vote in national elections. Furthermore, 63% of small firms have contributed money to a candidate's campaign. In some recent years, the numbers have fluctuated even higher: in 2012, roughly 97% of small business owners voted in national elections.

The takeaway of these findings seems clear: small business owners are helping to shape the political landscape of this country. Almost 4 out of every five small business owners voted in local and city elections during the course of the past year. Additionally, almost 90% voted in state elections as well. 

Of course, it's fairly easy to understand why it's so important for small business owners to be politically engaged. The people in the local government help determine zoning laws, as well as licensing and compliance regulations.

So entrepreneurs who make sure they keep up with local politics, and who support candidates who reflect their values, are doing more than just supporting their community. They're taking an important step toward supporting their own business. One might even say political involvement is necessary for successful business owners - and as these statistics show, most entrepreneurs know it. 

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Are Millennials More Optimistic Business Owners?

Normally, you hear about "millennial" entrepreneurs creating startup tech companies like Facebook and Twitter.

However, new data shows there are more “millennial” Main Street business owners than ever before, and younger small business owners may be even more optimistic - and more likely to hire - than their older counterparts.

According to the Spark Business Barometer, small business owners of all ages are feeling more confident about the economy than they had in recent years.

However, it's the youngest business owners who are feeling the most charged up.

According to the study, roughly 40% of small business owners feel that they are in a better position right now than they were in at this point last year. And, younger entrepreneurs were even more optimistic:

•    Nearly two-thirds (62%) of millennial small business owners reported increased sales in the past six months.
•    45% of millennial small business owners are planning to hire in the next six months, when only 30% of small business owners - regardless of age - plan to do so during the same timeframe.

Do you think younger business owners are more optimistic? 

Tell us in the comments below. 

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1 Essential Tip for Becoming a Better Borrower

We've often spoken  about the factors that can help you and your business look more attractive to lenders – like having a strong business credit profile. While important, there's one major factor lenders look at that requires greater attention: cash flow.

James Good, of the Small Business Payments Company, explained to Forbes recently that small businesses need to be able to not just manage their cash flow - but they need to be projecting what it will look like weeks and months in the future. A lender wants to know that you have cash now, but they also want to be assured you have the funds needed to handle a hiccup in payroll or another area of the business. 

However, there are more reasons to project your cash flow months in advance than for the sake of small business loans. Unfortunately, managing cash flow - as Good explained - isn't something most business owners are experts in. 

"A big thorn in the side of almost every small business owner is the challenge of good cash management," Good said to Forbes. "Most small business owners didn't start their businesses to become accountants and most of the tools previously available are very complicated and difficult to use for the uninitiated, or too basic to be of much value."

When you don't have a good handle on your cash flow, there's an increased chance that you'll run into cash problems. Businesses that have a strong handle on their day-to-day finances are less likely to run into trouble because they know the costs they can and can't manage. 

So, in order to become the most attractive borrower you can be, learn the importance of cash flow projection and management. Your business - and your lenders and investors - will thank you for it!

Do you have any tips for managing your cash flow?

Tell us in the comments below. 

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Why It's Absolutely Okay to Start Planning for Retirement

With small business owners busier than ever before, planning for retirement can often get placed on the backburner. 

According to a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, many business owners think the eventual sale of their business can entirely fund their retirement. But, it can be especially difficult to place a future value on your business, especially if growth is largely dependent on a single owner. 

Even though you may not be ready for retirement today, there are some actions you can start taking to prepare yourself:

  • Groom your employees or managers so that you can get more leverage in your business - no one will want to buy a business if you are the main rainmaker 
  • Start understanding your living costs - if your business pays for expenses like your car, computer or travel expenses, those costs will become yours once you sell your business
  • Start taking advantage of financial products - like a 401(k)- to save for retirement. You can save as much as you want annually, but you should still have a separate income stream for yourself. 

What steps are you taking to start planning for retirement?

Tell us in the comments. 

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3 Essential Documents Your Business Needs at the Ready

One of the most important - albeit less thrilling - responsibilities business owners need to pay attention to is their paperwork. 

Although essential when it comes time to pay your taxes in the spring, having your key documents organized and ready is crucial for when you want to access financing. According to The U.S. Small Business Administration, these are the three most important documents you need.

1. Balance sheet
A balance sheet provides an image of what your business' finances look like at the moment, by revealing your assets. This document, in short, shows what equities remain in your business after all liabilities are removed. There are, of course, distinctions to be made between different types of assets - but the balance sheet aims to show what your business' current financial standing is.

2. Profit and loss statement
Often referred to as an income statement, a profit and loss statement shows what your net profit is by subtracting your operating expenses from your gross profit. So not only does this statement show potential investors how much money you can make with specific overhead costs attached, but it can also help individuals and potential lenders to get a handle on how much money your business could make in future months and years.

3. Cash flow statement
A cash flow statement is exactly what it sounds like - it shows how much is coming into your business in revenue, and how much is going out in terms of costs. Like all these other documents, it provides an essential snapshot of your business' financial activities - and can play a crucial role in earning your small business loans. 

What financial documents do you keep at the ready?  

Tell us in the comments below. 

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