Starting a business can be as easy as selling a ceramic bowl you created or having friends pay you to clean their house. If your product or service is good and you’re friendly and professional, chances are more people will want to hire you or buy your products.

But what are the first steps you should take if you want to get serious about your small business?

As professionals who help small business owners all the time with their accounting, bookkeeping, and tax questions, we get this question a lot. Many people think the first step is incorporating, but that’s not necessarily true. There’s a lot to do before you get to that point.

First, you need to set up the legal, tax, and bookkeeping structure of your business, so that when the time is right, you can move up. The process is the same for most businesses, but the timing may be different, depending on how fast your business grows.

Here are some steps you can follow to get your business off the ground.

  • Open a business checking account. This should be a requirement. Deposit every check and all cash you make, and use the account only to pay business expenses. To be treated like a business, you need to act like one.
  • Acquire and use some method to keep track of your gross income and expenses. Software like Quickbooks is ideal for small businesses. Almost every tax accountant can use a backup of your data to efficiently prepare your tax return—and “efficient” usually translates to “less expensive.” If you don’t use software, then at least use a spreadsheet or a manual bookkeeping system. Keep all your receipts—really, we mean all receipts.
  • Get a business license from your local government, and check on any zoning issues for your business type. Don’t get shut down because you forgot to check on the regulations in your community.
  • Add a rider to your homeowner’s insurance policy to cover your home office and any new equipment you purchase. A client of ours built out his garage for his new business, and someone broke in and stole everything. He had a $28,000 insurance claim denied because he failed to add this rider to his policy.
  • Up to this point, you have been self-employed or worked as a subcontractor, and your Social Security number is on your bank account and your tax return (meaning the Schedule C filed with your Form 1040). If you intend to hire someone to work for you, then you need a federal employer identification number (FEIN). Apply with the IRS for this number—it’s free—and be sure to use it in place of your Social Security number going forward.

It is also important to organize and form your company under your applicable state formation laws. You may consider a corporation, LLC or other business entity. Your tax professional or enrolled agent can help you determine the best format for tax purposes and an attorney can guide you for liability purposes. There are many options from which to choose, and every business is unique. You need to understand the tax implications as well as your legal liability, and for that, it’s best to talk to a professional who can handle entity formation as well as retirement planning, health insurance, and other perks for small business owners.

Bill Nemeth and Merry Brodie are both Enrolled Agents and the founding partners and owners of Tax Audit Guardian, an Atlanta-based group of professionals who specialize in assisting troubled taxpayers. The married couple also recently sold their 24 Jackson Hewitt Tax Service franchises. Additionally, Brodie works with small businesses as owner of Brodie Accounting Services and Nemeth is active in education and membership arms of the Georgia Association of Enrolled Agents.

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