Make Your Small Business Part of the Community

One of the most talked-about issues in business today is corporate social responsibility (CSR), where a company strives to have a positive effect on the public interest. But CSR isn’t just for large companies. Small businesses have a long and proud tradition of “making a difference,” particularly on the local level.

The benefits of community involvement go beyond simply feeling good because you helped a worthy cause. It raises the profile of your business, creates a positive buzz, and opens the door to new networking opportunities. These activities can also reinforce employee morale, fostering a spirit of teamwork and collaboration that will enhance on-the-job performance.

A good starting point for finding community involvement ideas is your local Chamber of Commerce. They frequently sponsor events that offer opportunities for advertising or in-kind service donations. And nothing beats the chance to meet and network with fellow small business owners! Cities like Dunedin and Safety Harbor have frequent community events in their downtown areas, and they always need volunteers.

Civic groups and charitable organizations are also great sources of community activities. You could sponsor youth sports teams, 5K races, and parade floats; contribute to food drives and roadside clean-ups; supply giveaways stamped with your business’s name and logo…the possibilities are endless. Here in Pinellas County, Habitat for Humanity helps people build houses, and St. Vincent de Paul provides food for needy people and families. Look for a cause that you, your employees, and your customers can relate to.

These events almost always require volunteers, so why not encourage your employees to pitch in? Many will do so willingly, but consider offering an incentive such as a few hours off to compensate for their time. Supplying them with custom t-shirts or hats will reinforce the teamwork bonds, and provide another way for your business to stand out.

Then there are schools. They too have events that need sponsors, as well as career days, student tutoring and mentoring programs, and extra-curricular clubs. Look for a direct tie-in to what your business does, or the skills you utilize. A clothing store might do something related to fashion design, while math and science-related activities would be ideal for an engineering firm.

Not all of this work has to take place in school. Consider hosting a “shadow student” who spends the day at your business for a taste of the “real world.” If feasible and appropriate, hosting a class-size field trip may be in order.

Don’t worry if you’re a one-person business. You can still be as much a part of your community as your town’s largest employer. Examples include volunteering for an event or school program, donating money or supplies to a local charity or animal shelter, “adopting” a small park by regularly picking up trash.

These groups will actively thank their sponsors, so consider issuing a press release about your involvement and mention it on your website. Just be sure your business takes a back seat to the community benefits.

A great idea for every type of business is to contact SCORE, a nonprofit association offering a wealth of information resources, training, and free counseling designed to help entrepreneurs nationwide build productive, profitable businesses. For more information about taking advantage of these valuable services, visit www.score.org. Find local information at www.scorepinellas.org.

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Business Expenses: It’s Deductible…or Is It?

The old adage, “it takes money to make money” goes by another name—the cost of doing business. Generating revenue requires spending money for materials, labor, advertising, and so forth. What’s left is profit—the amount that small business owners always hope to maximize.

For the most part, the tax rules governing business expenses are pretty straightforward. An expense may be deductible if it is both “ordinary” (common and accepted in your field of business) and “necessary” (helpful and appropriate for your business).  Here are a few examples:

Office Supplies—this is an easy one. Pens, pencils, paper, envelopes, copier toner, printer ink all qualify.

Office Equipment and Furniture—these are deductible if they’re used exclusively for your business. But here you have a choice. You can either deduct the entire amount in the tax year they’re purchased, or deduct a portion of the expense over several years by calculating the depreciated value. This is known as a Section 179 deduction (for the defining portion of the IRS Tax Code), and also covers off-the-shelf software, business vehicles, property, and other qualifying items. Several resources explain Section 179 deductions in full detail: irs.gov, sba.gov, and section179.org.

Your Car—this is an important deduction, particularly home-based entrepreneurs. Be sure to keep detailed records of business-specific mileage, including date, destination, purpose, and miles traveled, especially if you use the vehicle for personal trips. Most small business owners figure the deduction by multiplying the total business miles by the IRS mileage rate. (Note that this rate often changes during the year.) Also be sure to log and keep receipts for tolls, parking fees, and transit.

Your Travel—when you hit the road for business, more deductions are available: lodging, cabs, air or train fare, dry cleaning, etc. The key is the purpose of your trip. If it is entirely for business, then these expenses are 100% deductible. If the trip mixes in personal activities or vacation time, then you can only deduct a proportion of those expenses (e.g., one day of business meetings during a five-day trip = 20% deductible).

Your Meals—while you’re on the road, you may deduct 50% of your meal costs. Meals around home don’t count, unless you’re meeting with a client or current/potential business partner to talk business. Then the 50% deduction applies.

Many other “ordinary” and “necessary” business costs qualify as deductions. They include business-related classes, seminars, and conference fees; employees’ pay; rent; interest; repairs; retirement plans; and others. IRS Publication 535 (Business Expenses) has complete explanations of all types of deductions, and when they may be applied.

You can get help with taxes or any other small business-related issue by contacting SCORE. Dedicated to aiding the success of the nation’s small business community, SCORE offers wealth of information resources, training, and free counseling designed to help entrepreneurs start, grow, and succeed nationwide. For more information about taking advantage of these valuable services, visit http://www.score.org.

Small Business Resources Are Ready to Assist Veterans

If you’re a veteran or about to leave the military, you’ve already served your country proudly. Now, it’s time to create a sound future for yourself and your family. And a great way to do that is by starting a small business.

Entrepreneurship is a challenging and rewarding career path that has attracted thousands of veterans over the years, especially in the past decade. While veterans have an inherent advantage with their discipline and commitment to doing a good job, many have been able to directly apply skills gained during their active duty service toward achieving their small business dreams. Others take advantage of various government-funded education and training programs to augment their knowledge base.

Best of all, there’s a wealth of small business resources and expert assistance available designed specifically for veterans. At the U.S. Small Business Administration’s website (www.sba.gov), for example, the Office of Veteran’s Business Development serves as a central access point for a wide range of training, counseling, and other assistance. Service-disabled veterans can also consult sba.gov’s special section on Business Resources for People with Disabilities, including start-up, financing, and operating information.

Then there’s http://www.vetbiz.gov, established by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to assist veteran entrepreneurs with starting and expanding their businesses in the federal and private marketplace. The site also includes a database listing businesses that are majority-owned by veterans or service-connected disabled veterans—a valuable tool for promoting a new business to potential federal and private-sector customers

In addition to these online resources, veterans can get in-person help at any of the 15 SBA Veterans Business Outreach Centers located around the country. These centers provide outreach, assessment, long and short-term business training, counseling, directed referring, electronic or on-line assistance and other technical assistance services.

Then there’s SCORE, a non-profit association made up of more than 13,000 business experts who offer free mentoring and other resources. Many SCORE volunteers are themselves veterans with first-hand experience in transitioning to civilian life and starting successful small businesses.

SCORE’s vast range of small business information insights and information can be accessed online (www.score.org) or at hundreds of local SCORE chapters, many of which have special programs tailored specifically to veterans, National Guard members, and military reservists start a new business, or restart one that was shelved when they entered the service.

And to give veterans a head-start on getting their small businesses up and running, SCORE has teamed with the Wal-Mart Foundation to create the Veteran Fast Launch Initiative. This innovative partnership provides veterans, spouses, and immediate family members with free or discounted resources such as name-brand computer software and online resources. Scholarships are also available for veterans to attend SCORES’s Simple Steps for Starting Your Business workshops.

You don’t have to be a veteran to benefit from the information, training, and expert mentoring services offered by SCORE. For more information, visit http://www.score.org.