Financial

Avoid Tax Audits… Keep Your Books Clean…

Just finished gathering my annual tax information, so taxes are on my mind. It gets shipped out tomorrow to my accountant, who (as a consultant) will do the financial magic.

Years ago my accountant advised me to keep good records and to keep them clean. One never knows when one might be audited. Sometimes it is purely random, and sometimes it is the result of an abnormal condition that flags your return. .

According to a recent news article, 1 % of IRS tax returns are audited. It is slightly higher for small businesses. It seems some business owners can’t resist the temptation to fudge the numbers, either through questionable deductions or hiding income.

My advice — do NOT do this! An audit can easily cost you thousands of dollars — fees, lost time, and lost revenues. And while you can deduct the legal/accounting expenses, you can’t deduct or recover lost revenues — they are gone forever.

Furthermore, once you fail an audit, expect to be audited again. I know one small business colleague who learned that lesson the hard way. His audits went on for several years.

More advice — use a CPA! Even if you can do the taxes yourself. Nothing like having a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) sign your tax return for credibility with the tax agencies. Or at least signal them that you have a professional tax advisor in your corner.

To keep the costs down, I keep my own books. Nothing fancy here — I used Quicken for years. Although a simple check register system, it can generate various reports. Such as the P&L (profit and loss) statement, which my CPA uses to prepare my taxes.

My CPA has helped in several other ways. Setting up a chart of accounts, sharing general business advice, filing other reports, and providing vetted referrals for insurance and financial management. It has been money well spent.

If you do get audited, don’t despair. I’ve been audited twice — once by the IRS, and once by the great state of Arizona.

The IRS audit was supposedly “random.”

The conversation went something like this:

Auditor – Which is better for you? To come into our office next Tuesday or next Wednesday?

Me — Neither. But can my CPA handle this? He prepared the return.

Auditor — Uh… yes… I guess that would work.

I suspect the audit was not random at all. But the issue got resolved, whatever it was.

End of audit.

The Arizona audit was supposedly due to high medical expenses one year.

The conversations went something like this:

Auditor – I need to verify all your medical expenses.

So I sent copies of all the bills.

Auditor – Now I need to verify all your insurance payments.

So I sent copies of all the payments.

Pretty sure the auditor thought I did not save these statements. I also included a list of expenses I had missed — a couple of drug charges, plus mileage for the various medical appointments.

I then asked if I should file an amended return to get money back.

End of audit.

Thanks to a CPA, clean books, and good records, I passed both times. And I didn’t lose any sleep over either one. In fact, it felt pretty good to put a stop to any fishing expeditions.

Keep your books clean too — it is just good business to do so!

© 2016, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Do you need a public office???

It depends… If your clients come to your office, it probably makes sense… If you go to your clients, it probably just wastes money.

In the first case, a public office adds a level of professionalism, and keeps you out of trouble with home owners associations or zoning boards. But don’t get carried away – a modest space will do just fine for the solo practitioner.

In the second case, a spare bedroom works fine. You should, however, set aside a dedicated space for your office. Working on the dining room table gets old very fast. It can also be disruptive to family life.

Some people, however, simply need a separate place to work – regardless of client contact. And some need the outside human contact that an office brings. This is often true for those migrating from the larger corporate environment.

The most important thing when starting out is to conserve resources. You don’t need fancy digs with a prestige address — you just need a safe quiet place to work with adequate resources (desk, computer, telephone, file cabinets, etc.) You are selling your capabilities, not fancy brick and mortar.

Here are some examples I’ve seen over the years:

(1) Kimmel Gerke Associates (yours truly) – Since we almost never had clients visit us, my business partner and I set up separate offices in spare bedrooms.

While we once considered sharing an office, we were both traveling so much it didn’t make sense. Besides, the telephone and the Internet worked fine to stay in contact. And we both liked our twenty foot commutes.

Our “office managers” were our wives, so we truly ran a “mom and pop” operation. Not for everyone, but it worked very well for us.

(2) Advertising A one person agency, this consultant leased about 100 square feet of space from a print shop. I used her services with good success many years ago after a misfire with a fancy downtown agency. Hire the person, not the office.

That was all the space she needed, plus the shop provided a phone line with a receptionist. It was mutually beneficial, as the print shop now could offer additional services. Besides, she did all her printing with her landlord.

(3) Sales consultant – Another one person firm, this friend leased space in a restaurant, which I found quite clever.

His office had a separate entrance on a lower walk out level. The rent was very attractive, as this was bonus income for the restaurant, and parking was never a problem. And he always had a place to take clients for lunch.

(4) Attorney – My estate attorney is located in building with other small professional firms.

He has about 300 square feet, divided into two rooms. The back room is his legal office, with the appropriate lawyer’s desk, credenza, and meeting table. The front room is the reception area with the requisite legal library, with a desk for his office manager (his wife.)

The office is nicely appointed, but not pretentious. His fees reflect the lower overhead too. I discovered him after being gouged by a large law firm with fancy digs and high overhead.

(5) Web design My web designer is also located in a building with other small firms.

He has about 200 square feet with a couple of desks for he and his office manager (once again, his wife.) He has a back office in Nepal (where he grew up) so this space is modest but more than adequate. He recently became a US citizen, and is doing very well – the classic immigrant success story.

He started out working from home, but with the birth of two children, he got “kicked out” of his office. He is still close to home, but is not distracted by family activities.

(5) Consulting engineer – Now, a not so successful example story from many years ago.

When we started out as consulting engineers, this refugee from a large government agency told us we MUST get an office. After all, HIS office was located downtown with a prestigious address. He even chided us for working out of our homes.

Within the next year, he went bankrupt.

So, as you consider YOUR JumpToConsulting, do YOU need a public office? Weigh the decision carefully. Unless you are seeing outside clients (or you simply need the private space,) I generally advise against it. But if you do decide on a public office, I’ve shared some clever (and inexpensive) solutions.

Conserve those resources — you can always move to a public office later. Unless you are like me, and just love that twenty foot commute!

P.S. – I once asked a fellow consultant sitting next to me on a cross country flight where he had his office. He looked out the window, grinned, and replied, “Well, today it is about 30,000 feet over Denver…”

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

How much is enough?

How much IS enough? The question still haunts me…

Here are three stories. All three affected my thinking. Perhaps they will affect yours.

Story 1…

The question of enough was posed by a fellow consultant several  years ago. His wife had just been diagnosed with cancer, and we were talking after a professional society meeting. He was doing some serious introspection, and as a friend and colleague I lent an ear.

“How much is enough?” he mused. He had worked hard, was successful, and had enough in the bank. His immediate priority was enjoying whatever time his wife might have.

So he backed off on the business, and they went on some cruises. She responded well to treatment, and happily, she is fine today. But it did reset his priorities on what was enough.

Story 2…

My first encounter with enough goes back 45 years. My new boss hosted a Christmas party at his new house on a lake. It was a beautiful place in a beautiful setting. Being recently married, I thought how nice it might be to someday have similar digs.

Later, I thanked him for the party and complimented him on his new house. He smiled, and then offered some fatherly advice.

“Thank you,” he said. “It is nice. It makes my wife happy too. But there is a downside. We put all our money in the house, and as a result, we can’t do anything else.” He continued, “You are just starting out. Be careful about committing to a big fancy house.”

I decided that our modest house was enough. Each time we moved we stuck with enough. And today we have still have enough. 

Story 3…

My next encounter with enough came 12 years later. I was working for a successful entrepreneur, who net worth somewhere around $50 million.

An old German who had escaped Hitler, he came to America and worked as an engineer. Following a dream, he started a business in a garage. A combination of working hard and being in the right place at the right time with the right product led to phenomenal success.

But he was still  an old engineer at heart. One evening at a trade show, he hosted a bunch of us for dinner. After a few beers (after all, he was an old German), the subject of how much was enough came up.

He said, “You know, a couple of million is probably enough for most of us. How can you spend it all? After that, you are only keeping score.”

Sadly, he and his wife divorced on his way to his riches. Was it worth it? Not in my book.

Finally, how much is enough for you? Thanks to starting my own consulting practice combined with prudent living, today I can say I have enough.

P.S. Now back in Arizona. Had fun on our RV trip, but always good to be home. 

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Small town living – a path to financial independence?

Here is a reply I left recently at my favorite financial blog, Mr. Money Mustache.  Pete, a fellow engineer, spent the last several years challenging and cajoling people to become financially independent.

He “retired” at age 30, and now does what he wants with no financial worries. Lives a nice lifestyle in nice digs, too.

His formula is simple — cut consumption and increase savings. When your income from investments equals your expenses — viola — you are now financially independent. He did it in seven years, and you can too.

So what does this have to do with consulting? You don’t need to be fully financially independent to make your JumpToConsulting, but you DO need some reserves. Assume at least six months with no income.

So if you are overconsuming and living pay check to pay check. you can’t make a JumpToConsulting, or any other jump. You first need to cut your expenses and change your mindset and your lifestyle!

One way to do this is to move to a small town. That is what my older son (the inspiration for this blog) did this year. Here is his story:

Don’t overlook small towns – particularly those about 100-150 miles from a major city.

After living in the city, my older son recently moved to a small town in Minnesota – population 5000. About 100 miles from Minneapolis, it is beyond commuting distance so it is no longer a suburb. But it still close enough for city resources (hospitals etc.) or a big city “fix” if needed.

They bought a nice house for 1/2 the cost in the city. The grade school and a park are across the street, and the high school is a few blocks away. The kids love it – they can bike all over town with their new friends. His commute is under ten minutes of country driving. His wife works in the high school as a teacher’s aide, and loves it.

They were concerned about leaving the city, but have been pleasantly surprised. Small town festivals –wineries — microbreweries — parks with uncrowded campgrounds. It may be rural, but there is still plenty to do. And the big city is still only two hours away.

Looking for a job change, he stumbled – almost by accident – on an executive opportunity with a small medical manufacturer. The company was delighted to get someone with his talent and experience, and they pay him accordingly. The school was delighted to hire his wife too. Big city wages with small town cost of living — how great is that? Plus the quality of life.

These opportunities abound, but you must seek them out. So if you are not yet financially independent, consider this as one way to speed things up — and enjoy the journey immediately. My son admits he never dreamed they would live like this.

A few more details on my son. After taking a company through a complex acquisition, he no longer had a job. Small thanks for helping grow the firm by 10x in a couple of years as their financial guru.

So he took his MBA in finance, his experience, and his proceeds and hung out his shingle as a consultant. The early discussions with him were the catalyst for this blog.

Although he was building the business, it was going slower than hoped. When one of his clients make him an offer he couldn’t refuse as the VP of Finance for a start-up, he jumped at it. Besides, like his dad, he has a love of small business.

But after a couple of years, it became obvious the start-up was stalling. Furthermore, there was friction with the founder, who was unwilling or unable to make necessary changes. (Been there myself.) So rather than wait for the axe to fall, he started a job search.

One interesting opportunity was with a medical device manufacturer in a rural community. As both he and his wife grew up in the city, there was some reluctance to purse it. Still, the job sounded interesting, so they decided to go in a new direction. So far, so good.

I’m proud of my son for taking that chance, and for working hard, like a good consultant, to make a positive impact on the world.

I’m also proud of his brother. A financial attorney in a large Manhattan firm, he recently took a chance and initiated a special project on alternate currencies. As their “Bitcoin-guru”, he too is working very hard to make a positive impact on the world.

Well done, both of you!

P.S. Thanks to the Internet and Fed-X, one can easily consult from small towns. And depending on your niche, you may even find plenty of clients right in you own backyard. 

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Should you take equity in lieu of cash?

Here is a reply to a post by Michael Zipursky over at Consulting Success, where Michael discusses the pros and cons (mostly cons) of accepting equity or shares as payment for services.

Either way, both Michael and I do NOT recommend this. 

I completely agree! Never took stock, nor did I ever agree to work for free on proposals, with the idea that I would get the business if the company won the project (sometimes suggested by defense contractors.)

If asked, I simply explain that I’m too small to carry anyone for free. Better to pursue paying jobs than to lose opportunities being tied up with freebies. Besides, if they really need you they will find the money.

While I have a soft spot in my heart (or maybe my head) for startups, I’ve avoided them and pursued Fortune 1000 clients instead. Even then I’ve been burned (bankruptcies), but only twice in 28 years. Great post!

As a new consultant, you will run into this sooner or later, particularly with smaller firms. Some are strapped for cash — probably not good clients anyway. Others may be testing you — assuming you are hungry for business.

Neither are a good deal. Better to focus your time on real paying prospects.

Remember, you are a professional, just like your dentist or doctor. Very doubtful they would go for this either.

 

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Some comments on fees…

Here is my reply to a post at Consulting Success regarding fees. Good info on this site — but with an emphasis on business/management consulting rather than on technical consulting.

As consulting engineers, we’ve used “project fees” for years. When quoting, we provide a budget and a general estimate for time. We use an internal hourly rate for estimates, but don’t include that in our quotes.

To me, hourly rates are useless. For example, if I’m getting a kitchen remodel, I don’t care what the contractor’s hourly rate is — I just want to know how much the project will cost. BTW, I’ve used that analogy on procurement people when asked about hourly rates.

Finally, we don’t bid “fixed fee.” Rather, we include a statement that “we will not exceed the budgetary estimate without client approval.” This gives us some room for contingencies or small changes. Clients and procurement people seem to like it too.

Hope this helps. I always appreciate Michael Zipursky’s insights.

Do you have questions of fees?  Ask away…

P.S. Been a crazy week here, as Mary broke her arm. On the mend after surgery…

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Rating your clients…

Do you treat all clients the same? That question was posed recently on Succeed, a small business forum on LinkedIn. Always ready to share my opinions, here is the answer I posted there.

Like so many have said already, we strive to treat all our clients with respect. But in reality, some clients are better than others.

So, we divide our clients into three categories: A, B, and C.

Everybody starts out on the “A- list”, regardless of income potential. Size doesn’t matter. We’ve had small clients turn into large clients and/or great referral sources.

— Those who pay promptly and are pleasant stay on the A-list.

–Those who pay late drop to the B-list.

–Those who pay REALLY late or are difficult in other ways drop to the C-list.

Since much of our business is repeat business, it helps us prioritize our responses. Most of our clients are a sincere pleasure to work with. As for very few who are not — well, life is too short to put up with them.

Some further clarification. Just because they look like a good client does not make them one. Over the years, we’ve had to move a couple of well known companies to the C-List. Usually the problem lies with the bean-counters, not our direct clients.  But getting paid on time is important – and it shows appreciation and respect for your work!

Take care of your GOOD clients — and they will take care of you!

© 2013, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Consulting as a Path to Financial Independence – Part II…

In my last post, I discussed how consulting eventually led me to Financial Independence. The primary focus was prior to making my JumpToConsulting. In this post, I’ll elaborate on things done at and after my break for freedom.

First, I put away a startup stash. This is key, as there is nothing worse than having to give up too soon because you’ve run out of money. In my case, I had enough for six months with no revenue, or a year with half revenue.

Although I was pretty sure I’d make it this time (after a false start a few years earlier), a safety net still made sense. That also made Mrs. JTC more comfortable, although she was behind me right from the start. Plus as an engineer, it is always good to have a Plan B.

As it turned out, we never really needed to dig into the startup stash. Thanks to all the plans and a couple of startup contracts, we ran in the black right from the start. And although I stepped out first, my business partner was able to join me in a few months.

Next, we watched our income/outgo like a couple of hawks. No fancy offices – we both used spare bedrooms in our homes. No fancy cars either. Neither were really necessary, as most of our business was on-site, and often out of town.

Each month we would review both our bookings and our billings. The latter is really important for cash flow. Unfortunately, clients often delay paying (particularly their smaller vendors), so you need to stay on top of your the payables.

We did spend money on necessities, such as collateral (business cards, brochures, etc.) but even then we did not overspend. No fancy multicolor brochures — just two colors (blue and gray) on gray stock. We did hire a graphics artist for a logo and typesetting, and it all turned out very professional looking.

After two years, we set up retirement accounts. By that time, we knew we were going to make it, and the income was more predictable. Our accountant suggested Keogh plans, which let us put away up to 25% of our income in tax deferred accounts.

To even out the personal cash flow, we both drew modest salaries – about 80% of our previous corporate salaries. This forced us to be frugal, and helped maintain a cushion in the business account for slow months. It also assured that the Keogh funds would be available at year end.

Any additional profits were distributed as a bonus. Since we were a Subchapter S corporation, these were not “retained earnings” so we paid taxes on the bonus. These funds were put into our regular savings/investments.

At our accountant’s advice, we eventually hired a “fee only” financial advisor. Good thing we did — when the market went sour, he minimized our losses. That lets us focus on making money, while he manages it. Like us, he is a professional who knows his stuff and does his job well. We consider it money well spent.

A word of caution! You need to discuss these issues with financial professionals – your accountant, attorney, and financial advisor (if you have one.) The laws are constantly changing, and unless you are a financial professional yourself, you need their advice. The last thing you need is to tangle with the IRS.

Finally, we didn’t win the lottery — our incomes were comparable with corporate salaries for engineers, plus a reasonable profit for our risk. It was the combination of regular savings in the tax deferred retirement plan plus self-enforced frugality that eventually led to Financial Independence.

You can do it too, and you don’t need to be a consultant. But you do need to exercise some financial discipline and planning. Trust me, it is worth it! Good luck…

© 2013 – 2014, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Consulting as Path to Financial Independence…

Since it is the Fourth of July, a rant on independence seemed appropriate. After all, it was my overwhelming desire for Occupational Independence that got me into consulting in the first place.

When I started my consulting practice, I was NOT Financially Independent (FI) — which I define as being able to quit one’s job and live off one’s investments. That came later. But the consulting practice put me on the path to FI.

There are two ways to achieve FI save/invest more, and spend less. When your investment proceeds equal or exceed your cost of living — viola — you have become FI.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you quit working — but it does man you no longer need to do so. It happened to me after about ten years in my own business. One day, reviewing my finances, I realized I was there. Trust me, it is a great feeling!

With a wife, two kids, and a mortgage I had been locked into a job like so many others. As an engineer, the job was good and paid well. But having grown up less than affluent (my dad died when I was a teenager) I had learned to be frugal. For somewhat similar reasons, so had my wife.

No, we were not paupers. We lived in nice houses, but they were always less expensive — and ostentatious — than many of our peers. We drove decent cars, but most were used — and we drove them into the ground.

We took fun vacations, but many were with a used tent camper — no  expensive ski trips or cruises for us. (We did go to Hawaii and Disneyland a couple of times — on free frequent flyer tickets.)

We remodeled, repaired, gardened, and generally had a good time. Because education was important to us, we sent both kids to college, where they graduated debt free. Savings, scholarships, part time jobs, and state universities all helped there.

We did stash other money away. At first, it was not enough to become fully independent. But it was enough to make my own JumpToConsulting in 1987. I figured the start-up stash would last six months with no income, and a year or more with any business at all.

As it turned out, the stash was more than enough. As an aside, I had tried this once before, without enough stashed away. After three months, I threw in the towel and went back to work at a regular job. The second time, however, I was better prepared (and wiser for having tried the first time.) More details here.

Starting any business (consulting or otherwise) does focus you financially. Resources are scarce, and you can’t squander them. You carefully evaluate purchases, and you make tradeoffs. You do NOT waste money!

Incidentally, Warren Buffet did the same thing — even as a child he often traded spending a dollar today for ten dollars in the future. I guess he has done OK.

On a smaller scale, Mr. Money Mustache (a fellow engineer) retired at age 30 by following the same practices. Actually, he didn’t really retire —  he now just does what he wants to when he wants to, but with no financial  worries.

Hop over to his blog to learn more– lot’s of good practical advice backed up with engineering data and mathematical “rules of thumb.”

  • I particularly like his Rule of 752 — save a dollar a week today, and in ten years you will have $752. For monthly expenses, use 173.
  • Another rule – save 50% of your income — and retire in 17 years. Better yet, save 75% and retire in 7 years, which is what MMM did. Yes, it is doable – you just need to do it. (Kind of like dieting… down 20# here in the last six weeks… perhaps a future post?)

Finally, consulting is just one of many paths to achieve FI. By being financially prudent, living beneath your means, and stashing away as much as you can, you too can become Financially Independent.

Happy Independence Day! Start today, and you’ll get there a day sooner than if you wait until tomorrow!

P.S. See more details in the next post – Financial Independence – Part II .

© 2013, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Question on Referral Fees…

Should you pay referral fees? That question was recently posted at LinkedIn on the Business Consulting Buzz group:

Referral Fees for Independent Consultants?

Interested in your opinions: As an independent Consultant, would you be willing to pay and/or receive referral fees?

Here is my reply:

As consulting engineers, we are concerned that referral fees might be perceived as conflicts of interest. As such, we do not accept (nor pay) any fees from the vendors serving our technical community.

When asked for vendor recommendations, we give clients at least two. If asked for our preference, we will share that with an explanation. Our vendors understand that no fee is expected, but we hope that the courtesy of a recommendation will be reciprocated.

We do, however, pay a referral fee to marketing partners for consulting business. These currently include a manufacturer’s rep (we are on their line card), and a training firm (we are in their catalog.) We also have agreement letters in place.

The percentages vary from 10 to 30% of the fee, depending on the effort. 10% is for a qualified lead that we pursue/close; 20% for a purchase order; and 30% for collecting the payment and sending us a check for our share. We pay referrals only when we get paid, and only on the fee (not expenses, as we do not mark up client expenses.)

Also, we don’t partner with consulting colleagues. We tried sub-contracting for a while, but it was more hassle than it was worth. When appropriate, we simply pass along leads with no strings attached. We make sure our clients understand that no money changes hands on referrals, and that we are out of the loop. In other words, we passed along a name — please make your own business decisions.

Hope this helps. Feel free to contact me. Been at this consulting gig 30+ years, happy to share, and still learning…

If you are on LinkedIn, you may want to join this group. If you are not on LinkedIn, what are you waiting for?  LinkedIn is where the professionals hang out.

© 2013, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.