Advice for a New Consultant or Small Business Owner Setting Up Shop

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I recently answered a posting on LinkedIn from a colleague who was just starting her consulting business and had some questions about how to keep track of everything.  These are just little systems and steps I set up for myself a long time ago in order to help my single person shop manage everything. 
I've since added other ideas that I have given other consultants; small business owners and startups along the way. I hope you find some of these suggestions practical and useful in your day-to-day. 
1.  Get or modify a contract template that is specific to your service.  I use an independent contractor template from a Nolo Press book and then I worked with a lawyer to tailor the language & terms to my business.  Make sure that you get the client to sign it, even and especially, if they are a friend.  It is not only for your protection but for theirs as well.  It is contracts which help resolve disputes, issues and miscommunication.  They are not the cause.  Take this to heart.  Plus...clients will take you more seriously if you are serious about your business.

2.  Get a copy of Quickbooks and learn how to use it!  I put everything in there - estimates; invoices; expenses; petty cash; everything.  Then, when it's time to do my taxes, I just give a copy of my file to my accountant and he takes it from there.

3.  To manage the paper (bills, receipts, etc.) every year, I get a looseleaf binder, 12 dividers (1 for each month of the year) and 12-pockets.  I put everything in the month that it is paid in (not billed in).  If you work at home, save your utility bills (PSE&G, Con Edison, etc.) you should be able to claim a portion of these as a business expense.

4. On my computer and in my filing cabinet, I keep a record of each client's work, a copy of the contract and my work.  You never know when they will come back in a year or more and ask for something that you did for them long ago.

5.  Make sure you separate your business from your personal.  Separate bank account.  Separate credit card, etc.  I set up an LLC specifically to separate my personal assets from my business assets.

6.  I use a great piece of software which I've been using since NYU Medical Center days called Time & Chaos (or now Chaos Intellect.  It's a personal information manager and I keep track of every meeting; trip, engagement, etc.  This really helps me when I get behind in my books and I need to figure out what all of those little pieces of paper are for.

7.  The rules in NJ are different from NY.  I have to maintain general liability and worker's comp insurance which is not required in NY I believe.  Check your state for what is required before you hang your shingle.  Do it right the first time and you never have to worry about it again.
8.  This is a new one but really important for those of you who are behind the times.  Buy a smart cellphone.  By that I mean one that you can retrieve email, text messages and get to the internet in a pinch. Text messaging took awhile to catch on in the States but it's now, often the best way to send a quick message to someone without interrupting what they're doing.  If you have the phone but not the for it, don't be a skinflint.  From a smart phone you can do just about everything critical you might do in the office and your ability to be responsive will be appreciated by your client.
9.  Join LinkedIn.  Fill out your entire profile.  Think of it as your online resume.  If you have not already done so, this is very important for business networking.  It's really fascinating to see how many people you are connected to from your circle of influence.  It is also a good way to gain an internet presence and become an expert.
10.  Join Twitter.  I know, I know...I'm still figuring it out myself but here's one of the things that Twitter can do for you that no other technology can.  You have the opportunity to make direct contact with someone completely outside of your circle -- an author; a celebrity; someone you would never meet otherwise.  If you are interesting enough and can navigate the morass of stuff that is Twitter, you can make a name for yourself in 140 characters or less.  It's free....just try it.
11.  Have a blog even if you don't have a website.  This is for those people who love to write or talk or both.  I guess I'm in the both category.  Google loves blogs.  And even better, Google rates referrals to your blog even higher than the blog itself. write something and someone comments on your blog from their blog, perhaps.  Google says....boy that must be really important because someone else is referring to that blog.  Try will be amazed and didn't you always want your own column?  Now you can have one with international presence, for free.
Okay...that's it for now.  I kind of like this list.  Will consider adding to it as things come up.  Until the next time.

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