A Strong BYOD Policy Combines Convenience & Security

It’s easy to understand why more and more businesses are taking a “bring your own device” (BYOD) approach to the smartphones, tablets, and laptops many employees rely on to do their jobs. BYOD can boost employee efficiency and satisfaction, often while reducing a company’s IT costs. But the approach isn’t without risk for both you and your staff. So, it’s highly advisable to create a strong formal policy that combines convenience with security.

Primary concerns

As an employer, your primary concern with BYOD is no doubt the inevitable security risks that arise when your networks are accessible to personal devices that could be stolen, lost, or hacked. But you also must think about various legal compliance issues, such as electronic document retention for litigation purposes or liability for overtime pay when nonexempt employees use their devices to work outside of normal hours.

For employees, the main worry comes down to privacy. Will you, their employer, have access to personal information, photos and other non-work-related data on the device? Could an employee lose all of that if you’re forced to “wipe” the device because it’s been lost or stolen, or when the employee leaves your company?

Important obligations

A BYOD policy must address these and other issues. Each company’s individual circumstances will determine the final details, but most employers should, at minimum, require employees to sign an acknowledgment of their obligations to:

  • Use strong passwords and automatic lock-outs after periods of inactivity,
  • Immediately report lost or stolen devices,
  • Install mandated antivirus software and other protective measures,
  • Regularly back up their devices,
  • Keep apps and operating systems up to date, and
  • Encrypt their devices.

The policy also should prohibit the use of public wi-fi networks or require employees to log in through a secure virtual private network when connecting via public wi-fi. You may want to forbid certain apps, too.

In addition, you need to spell out your rights to access, monitor and delete data on employees’ devices — including the types of data you can access and under which conditions. In particular, explain your wiping procedures and the steps employees can take to protect their personal information from permanent erasure.

Protection now

Nearly everyone who works for your company likely has a smartphone at this point. As such devices integrate themselves ever more deeply into our daily lives, it’s only natural that they’ll affect our jobs. Establishing a BYOD policy now can help prevent costly mistakes and potential litigation down the road. We can provide further information.

Dig Out Your Business Plan to Prepare for the Year Ahead

Like many business owners, you probably created a business plan when you launched your company.  But, as is also often the case, you may not have looked at it much since then.  Now that fall has arrived and year end is coming soon, why not dig it out? Reviewing and revising a business plan can be a great way to plan for the year ahead.

Six sections to scrutinize

Comprehensive business plans traditionally are composed of six sections. When revisiting yours, look for insights in each one:

  1. Executive summary. This should read like an “elevator pitch” regarding your company’s purpose, its financial position and requirements, its state of competitiveness, and its strategic goals. If your business plan is out of date, the executive summary won’t quite jibe with what you do today. Don’t worry: You can rewrite it after you revise the other five sections.
  2. Business description. A company’s key features are described here. These include its name, entity type, number of employees, key assets, core competencies, and product or service menu. Look at whether anything has changed and, if so, what. Maybe your workforce has grown or you’ve added products or services.
  3. Industry and marketing analysis. This section analyzes the state of a company’s industry and explicates how the business will market itself. Your industry may have changed since your business plan’s original writing. What are the current challenges? Where do opportunities lie? How will you market your company’s strengths to take advantage of these opportunities?
  4. Management team description. The business plan needs to recognize the company’s current leadership. Verify the accuracy of who’s identified as an owner and, if necessary, revise the list of management-level employees, providing brief bios of each. As you look over your management team, ask yourself: Are there gaps or weak links? Is one person handling too much?
  5. Operational plan. This section explains how a business functions on a day-to-day basis. Scrutinize your operating cycle — that is, the process by which a product or service is delivered to customers and, in turn, how revenue is brought in and expenses are paid. Is it still accurate? The process of revising this description may reveal inefficiencies or redundancies of which you weren’t even aware.
  6. Financials. The last section serves as a reasonable estimate of how your company intends to manage its finances in the near future. So, you should review and revise it annually. Key projections to generate are forecasts of your profits and losses, as well as your cash flow, in the coming year. Many business plans also include a balance sheet summarizing current assets, liabilities, and equity.

Keep it fresh

The precise structure of business plans can vary but, when regularly revisited, they all have one thing in common: a wealth of up-to-date information about the company described. Don’t leave this valuable document somewhere to gather dust — keep it fresh. Our firm can help you review your business plan and generate accurate financials that allow you to take on the coming year with confidence.

Are You Ready to Expand to a Second Location?

Most business owners want to grow their companies. And one surefire sign of growth is when ownership believes the company can expand its operations to a second location.

If your business has reached this point, or is nearing it, both congratulations and caution are in order. You’ve clearly done a great job with growth, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to expand. Here are a few points to keep in mind.

Potential conflicts

Among the most fundamental questions to ask is: Can we duplicate the success of our current location? If your first location is doing well, it’s likely because you’ve put in place the people and processes that keep the business running smoothly. It’s also because you’ve developed a culture that resonates with your customers. You need to feel confident you can do the same at subsequent locations.

Another important question is: How might expansion affect business at both locations? Opening a second location prompts a consideration that didn’t exist with your first: how the two locations will interact. Placing the two operations near each other can make it easier to manage both, but it also can lead to one operation cannibalizing the other. Ideally, the two locations will have strong, independent markets.

Finances and taxes

Of course, you’ll also need to consider the financial aspects. Look at how you’re going to fund the expansion. Ideally, the first location will generate enough revenue so that it can both sustain itself and help fund the second. But it’s not uncommon for construction costs and timelines to exceed initial projections. You’ll want to include some extra dollars in your budget for delays or surprises. If you have to starve your first location of capital to fund the second, you’ll risk the success of both.

It’s important to account for the tax ramifications as well. Property taxes on two locations will affect your cash flow and bottom line. You may be able to cut your tax bill with various tax breaks or by locating the second location in an Enterprise Zone. But, naturally, the location will need to make sense from a business perspective. There may be other tax issues as well — particularly if you’re crossing state lines.

A significant step

Opening another location is a significant step, to say the least. We can help you address all the pertinent issues involved to minimize risk and boost the likelihood of success.

Prepare for Valuation Issues in Your Buy-Sell Agreement

Every business with more than one owner needs a buy-sell agreement to handle both expected and unexpected ownership changes. When creating or updating yours, be sure you’re prepared for the valuation issues that will come into play.

Issues?  What issues?

Emotions tend to run high when owners face a “triggering event” that activates the buy-sell. Such events include the death of an owner, the divorce of married owners, or an owner dispute.

The departing owner (or his or her estate) suddenly is in the position of a seller who wants to maximize buyout proceeds. The buyer’s role is played by either the other owners or the business itself — and it’s in the buyer’s financial interest to pay as little as possible. A comprehensive buy-sell agreement takes away the guesswork and helps ensure that all parties are treated equitably.

Some owners decide to have the business valued annually to minimize surprises when a buyout occurs. This is often preferable to using a static valuation formula in the buy-sell agreement, because the value of the interest is likely to change as the business grows and market conditions evolve.

What are our protocols?

At minimum, the buy-sell agreement needs to prescribe various valuation protocols to follow when the agreement is triggered, including:

  • How “value” will be defined,
  • Who will value the business,
  • Whether valuation discounts will apply,
  • Who will pay appraisal fees, and
  • What the timeline will be for the valuation process.

It’s also important to discuss the appropriate “as of” date for valuing the business interest. The loss of a key person could affect the value of a business interest, so timing may be critical.

Are we ready?

Business owners tend to put planning issues on the back burner — especially when they’re young and healthy and owner relations are strong. But the more details that you put in place today, including a well-crafted buy-sell agreement with the right valuation components, the easier it will be to resolve buyout issues when they arise. Our firm would be happy to help.

Close-up on the New QBI Deduction’s Wage Limit

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) provides a valuable new tax break to non-corporate owners of pass-through entities: a deduction for a portion of qualified business income (QBI). The deduction generally applies to income from sole proprietorships, partnerships, S corporations, and, typically, limited liability companies (LLCs). It can equal as much as 20% of QBI. But once taxable income exceeds $315,000 for married couples filing jointly or $157,500 for other filers, a wage limit begins to phase in.

Full vs. partial phase-in

When the wage limit is fully phased in, at $415,000 for joint filers and $207,500 for other filers, the QBI deduction generally can’t exceed the greater of the owner’s share of:

  • 50% of the amount of W-2 wages paid to employees during the tax year, or
  • The sum of 25% of W-2 wages plus 2.5% of the cost of qualified business property (QBP).

When the wage limit applies but isn’t yet fully phased in, the amount of the limit is reduced and the final deduction is calculated as follows:

  1. The difference between taxable income and the applicable threshold is divided by $100,000 for joint filers or $50,000 for other filers.
  2. The resulting percentage is multiplied by the difference between the gross deduction and the fully wage-limited deduction.
  3. The result is subtracted from the gross deduction to determine the final deduction.

Some examples

Let’s say Chris and Leslie have taxable income of $600,000. This includes $300,000 of QBI from Chris’s pass-through business, which pays $100,000 in wages and has $200,000 of QBP. The gross deduction would be $60,000 (20% of $300,000), but the wage limit applies in full because the married couple’s taxable income exceeds the $415,000 top of the phase-in range for joint filers. Computing the deduction is fairly straightforward in this situation.

The first option for the wage limit calculation is $50,000 (50% of $100,000). The second option is $30,000 (25% of $100,000 + 2.5% of $200,000). So the wage limit — and the deduction — is $50,000.

What if Chris and Leslie’s taxable income falls within the phase-in range? The calculation is a bit more complicated. Let’s say their taxable income is $400,000. The full wage limit is still $50,000, but only 85% of the full limit applies:

($400,000 taxable income – $315,000 threshold)/$100,000 = 85%

To calculate the amount of their deduction, the couple must first calculate 85% of the difference between the gross deduction of $60,000 and the fully wage-limited deduction of $50,000:

($60,000 – $50,000) × 85% = $8,500

That amount is subtracted from the $60,000 gross deduction for a final deduction of $51,500.

That’s not all

Be aware that another restriction may apply: For income from “specified service businesses,” the QBI deduction is reduced if an owner’s taxable income falls within the applicable income range and eliminated if income exceeds it. Please contact us to learn whether your business is a specified service business or if you have other questions about the QBI deduction.

Could a Long-Term Deal Ease Your Succession Planning Woes?

Some business owners — particularly those who founded their companies — may find it hard to give up control to successors. Maybe you just can’t identify the right person internally to fill your shoes. While retirement isn’t in your immediate future, you know you must eventually step down.

One potential solution is to find an outside buyer for your company and undertake a long-term deal to gradually cede control to them. Going this route can enable a transition to proceed at a more manageable pace.

Time and capital

For privately held businesses, long-term deals typically begin with the business owner selling a minority stake to a potential buyer. This initiates a tryout period to assess the two companies’ compatibility. The parties may sign an agreement in which the minority stakeholder has the option to offer a takeover bid after a specified period.

Beyond clearing a path for your succession plan, the deal also may provide needed capital. You can use the cash infusion from selling a minority stake to fund improvements such as:

  • Hiring additional staff,
  • Paying down debt,
  • Conducting research and development, or
  • Expanding your facilities.

Any or all of these things can help grow your company’s market share and improve profitability. In turn, you’ll feel more comfortable in retirement knowing your business is doing well and in good hands.

Benefits for the buyer

You may be wondering what’s in it for the buyer. A minority-stake purchase requires less cash than a full acquisition, helping buyers avoid finding outside deal financing. It’s also less risky than a full purchase. Buyers can, for example, push for the company to achieve certain performance objectives before committing to buying it.

Integration may also be easier because buyers have time to coordinate with sellers to implement changes — an advantage when their IT, accounting, or other major systems are dissimilar. In addition, in a typical M&A transaction, decisions must be made quickly. But under a long-term deal, the parties can debate and negotiate options, which may improve the arrangement for everyone.

What’s right for you

There are, of course, a wide variety of other strategies for creating and executing a succession plan. But if you’re leaning toward finding a buyer and are in no rush to complete a sale, a long-term deal might be for you. Our firm can provide further information.

Ask the Right Questions About Your IT Strategy

Most businesses approach technology as an evolving challenge. You don’t want to overspend on bells and whistles you’ll never fully use, but you also don’t want to get left behind as competitors use the latest tech tools to operate more nimbly.

To refine your IT strategy over time, you’ve got to regularly reassess your operations and ask the right questions. Here are a few to consider:

Are we bogged down by outdated tech? More advanced analytical software can eliminate many time-consuming, repeatable tasks. Systems based on paper files and handwritten notes are obviously ripe for an upgrade, but even traditional digital spreadsheets aren’t as powerful as they used to be.

Do we have information silos? Most companies today use multiple applications. But if these solutions can’t “talk” to each other, you may suffer from information silos. This is when different people and teams keep important data to themselves, slowing communication. Determine whether this is occurring and, if so, how to integrate your key systems.

Do we have a digital asset-sharing policy? Businesses tend to generate tremendous amounts of paperwork, but hard copies can get misfiled or lost. Sharing documents electronically can speed distribution and enable real-time collaboration. A digital asset-sharing policy could help define how to grant system access, share documents and track communications.

Do we have a training program? Mandatory training and ongoing refresher sessions ensure that all users are taking full advantage of available technology and following proper protocols. If you don’t feel like you can provide this in-house, you could shop for vendors that provide training and resources matching your needs.

Do we have a security policy? A security policy is the first line of defense against hackers, viruses and other threats. It also helps protect customers’ sensitive data. Every business needs to establish a policy for regularly changing passwords, removing inactive users and providing ongoing security training.

Do we evaluate user feedback? A successful IT strategy is built on user feedback. Talk to your employees who use your technology and find out what works, what doesn’t and why.

Answering questions such as these is a good first step toward crafting a total IT strategy. Doing so can also help you better control expenses by eliminating redundancies and lowering the risk of costly mistakes and data losses. Let us know how we can help.

The TCJA Changes Some Rules for Deducting Pass-through Business Losses

Tax losses generated buy businesses are not uncommon, but the losses that can be deducted are limited by tax law in some situations. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) further restricts the amount of losses that sole proprietors, partners, S corporation shareholders, and, typically, limited liability company (LLC) members can currently deduct — beginning in 2018. This could negatively impact owners of start-ups and businesses facing adverse conditions.

Before the TCJA

Under pre-TCJA law, an individual taxpayer’s business losses could usually be fully deducted in the tax year when they arose unless:

  • The passive activity loss (PAL) rules or some other provision of tax law limited that favorable outcome, or
  • The business loss was so large that it exceeded taxable income from other sources, creating a net operating loss (NOL).

After the TCJA

The TCJA temporarily changes the rules for deducting an individual taxpayer’s business losses. If your pass-through business generates a tax loss for a tax year beginning in 2018 through 2025, you can’t deduct an “excess business loss” in the current year. An excess business loss is the excess of your aggregate business deductions for the tax year over the sum of:

  • Your aggregate business income and gains for the tax year, and
  • $250,000 ($500,000 if you’re a married taxpayer filing jointly).

The excess business loss is carried over to the following tax year and can be deducted under the rules for NOLs.

For business losses passed through to individuals from S corporations, partnerships and LLCs treated as partnerships for tax purposes, the new excess business loss limitation rules apply at the owner level. In other words, each owner’s allocable share of business income, gain, deduction or loss is passed through to the owner and reported on the owner’s personal federal income tax return for the owner’s tax year that includes the end of the entity’s tax year.

Keep in mind that the new loss limitation rules apply after applying the PAL rules. So, if the PAL rules disallow your business or rental activity loss, you don’t get to the new loss limitation rules.

Expecting a business loss?

The rationale underlying the new loss limitation rules is to restrict the ability of individual taxpayers to use current-year business losses to offset income from other sources, such as salary, self-employment income, interest, dividends and capital gains.

The practical impact is that your allowable current-year business losses can’t offset more than $250,000 of income from such other sources (or more than $500,000 for joint filers). The requirement that excess business losses be carried forward as an NOL forces you to wait at least one year to get any tax benefit from those excess losses.

If you’re expecting your business to generate a tax loss in 2018, contact us to determine whether you’ll be affected by the new loss limitation rules. We can also provide more information about the PAL and NOL rules.

Four Ways to Encourage Innovation in Customer Service

When business people speak of innovation, the focus is usually on a pioneering product or state-of-the-art service that will “revolutionize the industry.” But innovation can apply to any aspect of your company — including customer service.

Many business owners perceive customer service as a fairly cut-and-dried affair. Customers call, you answer their questions or solve their problems — and life goes on. Yet there are ways to transform this function and, when companies do, word gets around. People want to do business with organizations that are easy to interact with.

Here are four ways to encourage innovation in your customer service department:

  1. Welcome failure. Providing world-class customer service involves risk, and inevitably you’ll sometimes fail. For example, many businesses have jumped at the chance to use “big data” to develop automated systems to direct customers to answers and solutions. But the impersonality of these systems can frustrate the buying public until you establish the right balance of machine and human interaction. Remember, every failure opens the door to better strategies for serving your customers.
  2. Link compensation to employees’ contributions. Companies that fail to reward innovation aren’t likely to retain their best customers or establish a good reputation. Because customer service employees tend to be paid hourly or relatively nominal salaries, consider a cash bonus program for the “most innovative idea of the year.” Or you could hold semiannual or even quarterly innovation challenges with prizes such as gift cards or additional time off.
  3. Praise the groundbreakers. Employees who challenge customer-service tradition may find themselves at odds with management. But don’t be too quick to reprimand those with new ideas or methods. Fresh language and modes of communication enter the public consciousness regularly. Give company-wide recognition to those who find ways to adapt — even if their initial efforts bend the rules a bit.
  4. Be the customer. Among the most simple and practical ways to innovate your customer service is to simply pretend you’re a customer to get a firsthand view on how your employees treat those who contact your business. Business owners can make these calls themselves or, if your voice is too recognizable, find someone who’s less familiar but capable of taking detailed notes of the interaction.

Finding new ways to improve your company’s customer service isn’t easy. But innovations are always just one bright idea away. If you’d like more information and ideas about building your bottom line, contact our firm.

Tax Document Retention Guidelines for Small Businesses

You may have breathed a sigh of relief after filing your 2017 income tax return (or requesting an extension). But if your office is strewn with reams of paper consisting of years’ worth of tax returns, receipts, canceled checks and other financial records (or your computer desktop is filled with a multitude of digital tax-related files), you probably want to get rid of what you can. Follow these retention guidelines as you clean up.

General rules

Retain records that support items shown on your tax return at least until the statute of limitations runs out — generally three years from the due date of the return or the date you filed, whichever is later. That means you can now potentially throw out records for the 2014 tax year if you filed the return for that year by the regular filing deadline. But some records should be kept longer.

For example, no statute of limitations applies if you fail to file a tax return or file a fraudulent one.  Therefore, you’ll generally want to keep copies of your returns themselves permanently so that you can show that you did file a legitimate return.

Also bear in mind that, if you understate your gross income by more than 25%, the statute of limitations period is six years.

Some specifics for businesses

Records substantiating costs and deductions associated with business property are necessary to determine the basis and any gain or loss when the property is sold. According to IRS guidelines, you should keep these for as long as you own the property, plus seven years.

The IRS recommends keeping employee records for three years after an employee has been terminated. In addition, you should maintain records that support employee earnings for at least four years. (This timeframe generally will cover varying state and federal requirements.) Also keep employment tax records for four years from the date the tax was due or the date it was paid, whichever is longer.

For travel and transportation expenses supported by mileage logs and other receipts, keep supporting documents for the three-year statute of limitations period.

Regulations for sales tax returns vary by state. Check the rules for the states where you file sales tax returns. Retention periods typically range from three to six years.

When in doubt, don’t throw it out

It’s easy to accumulate a mountain of paperwork (physical or digital) from years of filing tax returns. If you’re unsure whether you should retain a document, a good rule of thumb is to hold on to it for at least six years or, for property-related records, at least seven years after you dispose of the property. But, again, you should keep tax returns themselves permanently, and other rules or guidelines might apply in certain situations. Please contact us with any questions.