“The good lawyer is not the man who has an eye to every side and angle of contingency, and qualifies all his qualifications, but who throws himself on your part so heartily, that he can get you out of a scrape.  ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Deciding Whether to Go Legal

As a former full-time practicing attorney and now a small business owner, I have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to the legal issues a business owner may face.  This provides me with the distinct advantage of knowing when to call in an attorney for assistance, as opposed to using another professional, such as an accountant, financial planner, insurance agent, or business coach — or perhaps handling the matter myself.  In addition, my background helps me to select an attorney that is the best fit for the business matter at hand.  Many entrepreneurs have had limited experience deciding whether a matter needs legal attention and, if so, what type of attorney to retain, how to find the best match, and how to maximize the attorney-client relationship.  As an entrepreneur, it is imperative that you understand when to “go legal,” and if you do, how to find and work with an attorney that is the best fit for your issue.   

If you are confused about whether your matter needs legal attention or whether you can handle it yourself, try researching the matter on the American Bar Association’s Self-Help online center at www.abanet.org.  Go to Public Resources, then Legal Help, and then Self-Help.  The section is organized by state and is a user-friendly resource for determining whether a matter is complex and needs a legal expert, or whether it is something you can handle yourself. 

In addition, a good business coach, especially one with a legal background, is a great sounding board to assist you in determining whether an issue is truly legal in nature, and if so, which type of attorney to retain.  You would be surprised how many issues appear legal in nature, but turn out to be business decisions instead.  So don’t be hasty when deciding whether to go legal!

Not All Attorneys Are Created Equal

So, assuming you have decided to “go legal” and retain an attorney, which one are you going to call?  If you broke your arm, would you make an appointment with an allergist?  If you had an ear infection, would you seek the advice of a surgeon?  Of course not!  Yet, everyday, many entrepreneurs contact and use attorneys to handle matters for their businesses that are completely outside the realm of what that attorney specializes in.  Yes, attorneys specialize. 

First, there is the main issue of whether your matter is civil or criminal in nature.  Generally (and, thankfully!), the average legal matter an entrepreneur will face is a civil matter.  Thus, you will be dealing with a civil attorney (hopefully in more ways than one).  However, civil law is a huge umbrella.  Typical small business matters may include incorporation, intellectual property (trademark, copyright, and patent), contract drafting and enforcement, employment or labor law issues, etc.  Thus, look for an attorney that specializes in the area you need help with.  Don’t be tempted to use your cousin, who is a residential real estate attorney, to assist you with a complex trademark issue.  While this may be tempting in terms of saving money, it may (and often does) cost you more money in the long run if the matter is not handled properly.  So match the attorney to the problem, and you are on the right track.

If you are unsure what type of legal issue you are even facing, speak up!  Talk to a friend or business colleague that is an attorney, and ask his or her advice on the type of issue you are dealing with.  You can also call the local bar association, or do some basic internet research to find out the area of law you are dealing with There are several sites that provide basic legal information for non-attorneys, such as www.nolo.com, www.findlaw.com, and www.legalzoom.com.  This background research will arm you with enough terminology and basic knowledge to make the best match with an attorney whose legal practice covers the area of your business issue.

Finding an Attorney

So, now that you know the area of law, how do you find a good lawyer that practices in that area?  The same way you find any other professional to assist you with your business.  Referrals from friends, family and colleagues are a fantastic way to find a reputable attorney.  You can also ask your local chamber of commerce, local law school, and local and state bar associations.  Still can’t find an attorney that is a great match?  Try Martindale-Hubbell’s Lawyer Locator online at www.martindale.com.  

Money Matters

If you’ve never worked with an attorney before, here are some basics of the legal profession with regard to money matters.  Most attorneys charge by the hour, so ask what the hourly rate is, and an estimate of how many hours the matter may take.  If the matter is small, or a typical one that the attorney handles often, there may be a flat fee for the entire transaction instead of an hourly rate.  Be prepared to pay a fee for the initial consultation, which is standard, but not a hard and fast rule.  In some cases, the attorney may require a retainer, which is money that you provide upfront that the attorney works off of as the matter progresses.     

One thing to consider is that law firms are typically broken down into partners and associates.  Partners are essentially co-owners of the firm, while associates are employees, albeit high level professional ones.  Who demands the highest rates?  Usually, the partners.  Thus, ask yourself if you truly need a partner, or can an experienced associate handle the matter.  Do you need the best litigator in the firm?  Often times, the best litigator may be an associate that is still active in the courtroom, as opposed to a partner that may be more of a rainmaker bringing in business for the firm. 

In some cases, for very small matters or legal research, even a law clerk or paralegal may do.  Ask who is the best match, and don’t assume it is always the person whose last name is on the door.

Maximizing the Attorney-Client Relationship

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of accurate, concrete, and timely record keeping and documentation when preparing to work with an attorney, and during the relationship.  An attorney will need to go on a fact-finding mission in order to best represent you and your business.  Help your attorney do his or her job better by coming to the table with all of your ducks in a row.  Be prompt in providing requested information, as often legal timelines are at play.  Honesty is also vital when working with an attorney.  The best attorney-client relationships are built on mutual trust and, thus, withholding information can make or break your case.  An attorney needs all of the facts in order to make tough decisions with you about the best course of action for your business matter.

“Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.” ~ William Feather

When the economy is slow, many business owners tend to pull back. Some even throw in the towel. But what if you change your mindset, and look at this recession as an opportunity to “reinvest” in your business? If you have funds set aside for slow periods, good for you. If not, then all you have on your side now is time. If business really is slow, chances are you aren’t working as much. This may be the perfect time to do some of the business-building activities that you never have the time to do when you are too busy working in the business. This may also be a golden opportunity for professional development, reflection, and brainstorming.

If time is on your side, here are some ways to reinvest in your business during the downturn in the economy. They will stimulate and rejuvenate your business. When the economy picks up again, and you get hit with a ton of new business, you will be in a better place than before.

  1. Incorporate Your Business – If you have toyed with the idea of incorporating or becoming an LLC, now is a great time to do so. You will be able to research which business entity makes the most sense, work with a business coach or attorney, and file the necessary paperwork. Come boom time, you will have all of your ducks in order.

  2. Hire an Overqualified Employee or Try Out an Independent Contractor – If you have been grappling with the idea of hiring an employee or independent contractor for a while, now is an ideal time. Due to the many layoffs, there is a large pool of qualified professionals just waiting for a career opportunity to come their way. Take the time to interview properly and try someone out before you get so busy again that it becomes a distant and fleeting thought.

  3. Familiarize Yourself with Tax Deductions – You just filed your taxes, but still never took the time to really learn which tax deductions can be taken. Even if you have an accountant, a basic understanding of what deductions you can take will help you track expenses better throughout the year. Take the time to learn how to maximize business deductions and keep more money in your pocket when business starts booming again.

  4. Get Testimonials From Clients – We all know how powerful testimonials can be, but when many business owners get busy, they forget to ask. Do it now, while you have the time. Then put those testimonials to good use on your website and in business marketing materials.

  5. Get Out and Network – When business owners are crazy busy with work, they often do not make the time to network and feed the funnel. This is a great time to attend live networking events with chambers of commerce, business networking groups, and the like. Be visible, so when the money starts flowing again, your business will be top of mind.

  6. Develop a New Product, Program, or Service – If you have been itching to add on a new product, program, or service, develop and test it now. When business picks up again, your new offering will be in place and ready to go.

  7. Attend a lectureSharpen Your Skills – We all know how important professional development is to success, but many entrepreneurs short change their professional development when business is booming. If time is abundant, attend a conference, or take a teleclass or webinar. There is a plethora of offerings available in every price range nowadays. This may be the time to get certified in your area of expertise, take continuing education courses, or just explore some educational options that would be beneficial to you and your business.

  8. Audit Your Business – Do you have adequate insurance in place? Is your client contract in need of some revamping? Are there any policies or procedures that need tweaking? This is a great time to examine your business to see if there are any areas that need improving and get to work on them.

  9. Update Your Marketing Materials – Have you been eager to create a new logo, redesign your website, or get new professional photographs taken? The time for this could not be better. Due to the recession, there are deals to be had. Approach professionals that can assist you with these projects. You may be pleasantly surprised at the rates you can secure.

  10. Keep Advertising – The first thing most business owners do when the economy takes a nosedive is to stop advertising. Don’t jump on the bandwagon. Why? Because if all the other business owners are pulling ads, you will be the last one standing. If a prospect is looking for what you have to offer, they will find you. There will be less competition and clutter for a prospect to sift through. If you have refrained from advertising in the past due to the expense, check again. You may very well be able to afford it now.  

I just found out that I will be presenting at the 2010 National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) Conference to be held in Columbus, OH. My presentation is titled, “Don’t Go It Alone: It Takes a Village to Run a Successful Organizing Business.” It will focus on delegating, outsourcing, developing strategic partnerships, engaging in coopetition, etc. I had the pleasure of presenting to peer professional organizers at the 2008 NAPO Conference in Reno, NV, and am thrilled to be chosen to present again next year. Giving back to the professional association and industry that I belong to is an honor.

And in honor of next year’s presentation, below is the article of the same name that prompted the idea to submit the presentation in the first place. I hope it gives you some great ideas for your own business, regardless of the type of business you run.

Meet Your Board of Advisors

“Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.” ~ Helen Keller

Imagine a group of people that are available to bounce business ideas off of, to help you make pivotal business decisions, and to serve as a sounding board.  Major corporations have a Board of Directors.  Non-profits have a Board of Trustees.  Why can’t the solopreneur or small business owner too?  You can!  How?  By developing a Board of Advisors for your business.  You’ve heard of Mastermind groups, through which like-minded peers share ideas and support each other’s business endeavors?  A Board of Advisors is similar, but usually consists of individuals from outside your industry, even clients.

Striking the Right Balance

I am a Certified Professional Organizer, Business & Life Coach and Motivational Speaker.  I’ve been in business for seven years, am structured as a Limited Liability Company, and consider myself a solopreneur, in that I have no employees working for me.  My Board of Advisors consists of an individual with a marketing background, an individual with a publishing background, two other successful professional organizers with a very different business model and focus than mine, two long-time clients, and my very supportive, objective husband.  A good number to strive for is 5-8 members.  Be careful not to include anyone on your Board of Advisors that pushes your buttons, saps your energy, or is competitive.  In addition, try not to surround yourself only with “yes” men and women who nod approvingly at everything you do, and never challenge you or hold you accountable.  You want members that challenge you to stretch your entrepreneurial muscles.

Do not confuse your Board of Advisors with your official team of advisors.  Your team of advisors is usually made up of people that you retain to assist you with certain aspects of your business operations, such as a lawyer, accountant, graphic designer, webmaster, etc.  These are paid professionals that you hire to provide services to your company, as opposed to an individual that is voluntarily providing assistance to you and your business.  Yet another category of people that may provide assistance to your business are what I call power partners.  These are vendors that you refer your clients to, or that you partner with on a project basis.  Again, these partners are extremely valuable to a small business, but do not serve as a Board of Advisors.

What Does a Board of Advisors Do?

What can your Board of Advisors help you with?  Everything and anything.  A Board of Advisors can push you when you need a nudge, lift you up when you lose focus or faith, and help to keep you on track.  Mine assisted me with the re-branding of my company last year, including the design of a new logo, business card, brochure, and website.  Yes, I used a graphic designer and web designer to actually create the promotional materials, but it was my Board of Advisors that helped me to capture the overall vision and message I wanted to achieve.  A Board of Advisors can act as a sounding board for the future launch of programs.  When I was developing my signature approach to organizing, DECIDE®, my Board of Advisors provided invaluable feedback.   

You can also use your Board for market research.  These days, we have a plethora of resources available online, including social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, survey tools such as Survey Monkey, as well as forums provided by professional associations (for example, as a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, I have access to the NAPO Chat, which is an invaluable resource).  All of these are fantastic resources, and serve a relevant purpose to a small business.  But, there is something magical about a consistent group of people that can go deep with you, gets to know your business intimately, and is vested in some way in your success.     

What Are The Rules That Govern a Board of Advisors?

When I recommend to a small business client that he or she create a Board of Advisors, invariably the client will ask me what the rules are that govern this type of relationship.  It is entirely up to you and your Board of Advisors.  Communication is key, so think about how you will communicate with your Board members.  Do you hold in-person Board meetings, or communicate virtually? Should you develop a special online membership forum or website to communicate?  I communicate with members of my Board of Advisors in numerous ways — by email, telephone and in person, as some are local.  I have never convened a full Board meeting, although that may be in my future plans.

What are the benefits to your Board members?  Some just want to be a part of a growing, successful business.  Others may want tangible benefits, such as the ability to take your workshops for free, or buy products at a discount.  Ask what they want in return.  Find a way to acknowledge or reward the members of your Board of Advisors to let them know they are an asset to your business. 

On the flip side, if you are asked to serve on a Board of Advisors, take the request seriously.  I recently had to turn down an invitation because I knew I could not actively participate at that time.  I appreciated the offer and confidence in my feedback, but passed it onto someone else that was a better match. 

Take your time putting together a great complementary Board of Advisors and experience the positive affect it will have on your business.  Now, go forth and create your village!

Continuing with my series of business articles in honor of my presentation to entrepreneurs at the IRIS Conference in Denver, below is the second article. It is all about creating an Operations Manual, an idea I will be sharing with the attendees of my workshops this afternoon. I hope it prompts you to blueprint your business soon!

Can Your Business Run Without You?
What would happen to your business if you became ill for an extended period of time?  Could someone else man the shop for you easily?  Would you be more relaxed on vacation (or at the very least, take a vacation!) if you knew that the business could be better taken care of while you are away?  Have you ever thought about hiring an employee or assistant, but are overwhelmed with the thought of training someone in all of your business systems and processes?  Are you holding onto too many tasks that you know you could be delegating, but don’t have the infrastructure in place to effectively delegate without taking up too much of your precious time as the business owner?  If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you are in need of a business blueprint!  It’s time to create an Operations Manual.
What is an Operations Manual and Why Do I Need One For My Business?
Before you started your business and in the early stages, you probably did a lot of planning.  Most likely, you were told to draft a business plan, and you may have even done so.  Unfortunately, most small business owners rarely look at their business plan after creating it, thereby rendering it meaningless on a daily basis.  A business plan is a static document, as opposed to a living and breathing one that serves as a guide to your business systems and processes.  Developing systems and taking the extra step to document them is vital to a business running smoothly and automatically.  Unfortunately, most businesses are lacking in this area.  Business owners get caught up in the daily activities of running the business, and do not take the time to document or blueprint the systems in place.  In the E-Myth Revisited, author Michael Gerber sets forth the idea that all businesses need to be “franchised” in the sense that they can run automatically, deliver a consistent experience to customers, and can be maintained, at least to some extent, without the owner’s hands-on involvement.  While you may not literally be franchising your business, Gerber’s concept broadly translates into developing an Operations Manual for your business.
What Are the Advantages of an Operations Manual?

An Operations Manual makes it easier to delegate and run your business.  However, even if you have no employees, independent contractors, or assistants of any kind, the importance of an Operations Manual should not be overlooked.  It provides structure and clarity by helping you examine the big picture and how each part fits into the whole.  It is also a handy tool for reminding yourself of your business systems when things get busy and you are overwhelmed.  The manual serves as a central location for vital business information, making it easier for you to find what you need in one fell swoop.  In a nutshell, an Operations Manual helps promote a consistent experience for your clients, and helps you avoid reinventing the wheel. 
What Format Should an Operations Manual Be Stored In?
An Operations Manual can be hand written if that is your absolute preference, but I would not recommend it.  As this document is so vitally important to your business, you should maintain it in electronic format.  It is easier to revise, send as an attachment when necessary, and be backed up to avoid loss of data.  Some clients prefer to create their Operations Manual using a 3-ring binder approach.  While this may be tempting, if that binder is destroyed or lost, there goes all of your hard work in creating an Operations Manual.  Do yourself a favor and store the manual on a computer (and back it up!) or online at a secure site.
What Should an Operations Manual Include?

An Operations Manual is the manual of all manuals.  It can be as comprehensive as you want and need it to be.  It should serve as a blueprint of your business for you, your employees, assistants (virtual or on-site), and anyone else that is on a need-to-know basis.  The Operations Manual essentially covers everything that goes on behind-the-scenes of your business.  Here are some examples of what an Operations Manual may include, but as you develop one for your business, you will undoubtedly think of many more items to include. 

  • Passwords to all of your online and offline business accounts
    (be sure to give some thought to maintaining proper security measures);
  • List of frequently used business supplies with purchasing/ordering information;
  • List of business documents;
  • Prospects intake process;
  • Client intake process;
  • Sample email templates;
  • List of all team members and their contact information;
  • Procedures for hiring new team members and training them;
  • Preparing for client sessions, proposal pitches, speaking engagements, professional association meetings, etc.
  • Client follow-up process.
Take the time to draft an Operations Manual.  It will be time well spent, and you will reap the benefits of it long after you finish the blueprint.

In honor of my speaking engagements this week in Denver for the IRIS Conference for interior redesigners and home stagers, I decided to post some of my best articles for entrepreneurs. Here is the first one. Hope you find them useful for your own business!

“It is better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret.” ~ Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Regardless of what stage your business is in, chances are you can use some reminders of vital ways to protect your business. The following is a list of 10 ways to protect your business regardless of size, location, or stage of your business. Use it as a checklist to measure your business protection quotient against. If you are doing all of these, then let this serve as validation. If not, then add these tips to your list of business items that need focus. 

  1. Think Big – Do not get caught up in the thought process that your business is too small to incorporate. Entrepreneurs often make the mistake that because the business is a one-person show, it is too small to have a structure that provides protection. Think “big” even if the business isn’t big. Even the smallest company can incorporate or form an LLC.
  2. Put it in Writing – If you are an entrepreneur offering services, develop a basic written agreement to use with clients. An agreement promotes consistency of policies, exudes professionalism, and clarifies the understanding of the parties. It does not need to be fancy or long, but should be understandable.
  3. Make Friends with Tax Deductions – Try to familiarize yourself with all of the basic business tax deductions so that you can maximize your tax write-offs. Even if you use an accountant to prepare your taxes, it will benefit you greatly to be aware of the various deductions that are permitted. It will certainly force you to keep better records!
  4. No Commingling of Funds – Do not use business funds for personal expenses or visa versa. Keep separate bank accounts and credit cards for business and personal. The IRS likes to see the bifurcation of business and personal finances. Give the IRS what it wants, and keep ’em separated!
  5. Proceed With Caution When Hiring or Retaining – If your business is growing and you want to hire an employee or retain the services of an independent contractor, proceed with caution. Be slow to hire. Take your time to interview, check references, do a background check (with permission), etc. It will be time well spent.
  6. Classify Team Members – If you have individuals that work for your business, you need to determine whether they are employees or independent contractors. The IRS has a wealth of information on this topic on its website at www.irs.gov, and you can also check with an accountant. Get the answers you need. Do not guess because if you are incorrect, it will be a costly mistake.
  7. Pad Your Bank Account – In this time of economic uncertainty, it is wise to keep extra funds in the bank “just in case.” If your business should suffer a down turn, are you financially set for several months? Will you be forced to close shop? Think through and be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and then when it does not occur, feel relieved.
  8. Be Insured – If you are in business, you need business insurance. Period. If you do not have business insurance, do yourself a favor and take a look at it. Work the cost into your budget. Yes, some industries are not as high risk as others, but why take the chance? It is generally considered a valid business tax deduction, and gives you the peace of mind of knowing your business is protected.
  9. Get Credit – If you create a fixed work through your business, give yourself credit. Use a copyright symbol on your fixed works to let the world know that you are the owner. You can get even more protection if you file the copyright with the US Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov), although registration is not required.
  10. Snag Your Domain – If you do not own the domain name for your business, buy it now. If you wait, it will most likely be taken. Then, your choices are to pay a lot of money to buy it, wait until it expires, or think of another domain name. For those of you that already have the domain of your business name, buy your tag line, slogan, moniker, or any other name that you feel embodies you or your business. In the world of domain names, you snooze, you lose. Play it safe and act now!  

Next Thursday and Friday, September 24 & 25, I will have the pleasure of presenting at the Interior Redesign and Industry Specialists Conference (IRIS) in Denver, CO. This will be my second year presenting at the IRIS Conference, and I am very much looking forward to sharing my expertise with such a great group of entrepreneurs.

I will be conducting two workshops – Branch Out: Grow and Expand Your Interior Redesign & Home Staging Business by Adding Organizing Services to the Mix, and 3 Steps to Next Level Business Success for Entrepreneurs. Full details of both presentations can be found on the IRIS Conference site.

If you are an interior redesigner, home stager, or professional organizer, or are thinking of starting a business encompassing any of those services, this conference would be a great fit for you! My “Branch Out” presentation is a good match for anyone interested in adding organizing services to his or her existing menu of services, whether an IRIS or NAPO member. My “Next Level Business Success” presentation covers how to juggle all of the hats of being a business owner, how to leverage your services, and many other tools and tips to help you take your business to the next level.

So, meet me in Denver! I look forward to seeing you there.

Lisa - signature

“Our life is frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

When I am conducting an organizing, time management or business related workshop, I often ask if anyone has heard of the Pareto Principle. I usually get a room full of blank stares. However, if I ask if anyone has heard of the 80/20 Rule, many people nod their heads yes, and have a better idea what I am talking about.

The Pareto Principle takes its name from a 19thcentury Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto. In the late 1940s, business management guru Joseph M. Juran suggested the principle and named it after Pareto, who observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto studied the unequal distribution of wealth in his country in order to offer suggestions as how to improve its disparity.

Pareto’s Principle (or the 80/20 Rule as it is often called) has expanded over the years to include many examples of unequal distribution. Essentially, the 80-20 Rule now stands for the proposition that in any grouping of items or events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Or stated in the reverse, 20% of the items or events is always responsible for 80% of the results.

The 80/20 Rule has become a common business principle, resulting in the oft-repeated phrase, “80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients.” Conversely, 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your clients, and 80% of the profits made in your industry come from 20% of the businesses.

The Pareto Principle also applies to a variety of other items and events: we only wear 20% of our clothing, we spend 80% of the time with 20% of our acquaintances, 80% of our interruptions come from the same 20% of people, 20% of the work we do consumes 80% of our time and resources, etc. You can apply the 80/20 Rule to almost anything, from business and time management principles, to clutter and physical possessions. The exact percentages may vary, but the overall gist of the principle remains the same.

The Pareto principle was also featured in the book, The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. Ferriss recommends focusing one’s business activities on the 20% that contributes to 80% of the income. Boldly, he also recommends firing the 20% of clients that take up the majority of your time and energy, and cause the most trouble, often referred to as ‘toxic clients.’

I personally love the way Joseph Juran described the phenomenon in the 1940s — the “vital few and trivial many.” The 80/20 Rule means that in any grouping of items or events, a few (20%) are vital and many (80%) are trivial. 80% of our results come from 20% of our activity. That means that of all of the daily activities you do, and choices that you make, only 20% really matter (or at least produce meaningful results).

What is the takeaway that we can learn from the Pareto Principle?

Identify and focus on the 20% that matters! When life sets in and you start to become reactive instead of proactive, remind yourself of the 20% you need to focus on. If something in your schedule needs to be deleted or not completed with your fullest attention, try your best to make sure it’s not part of that 20%.

Use the Pareto Principle as a litmus test to constantly check in and ask yourself: “Is this truly part of the 20% that matters?” Let the Pareto Principle serve as a powerful daily reminder to focus 80% of your time and energy on the 20% of your work and life that is really important and delivers positive results.