By Elizabeth Wasserman
More and more people own home-based businesses. And these days, Web-based services make it even easier than ever before to get your small business up and running. “It used to be, back then, that you would be embarrassed about working from home,” says Barbara Weltman, an attorney and author who started a business in her Millwood, N.Y., home in 1983 and has since written numerous books on small business, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Starting an eBay Business. “You took an outside address so it wouldn't sound like you were out in the suburbs. But that's not so anymore.”
Web-based tools can now help you start a business, get legal work done, professionalize your accounting and billing, and collaborate with others. If your home business still needs to get out of the dark ages -- or you want to get off on the right foot -- here is how Web resources can help you get organized:
Step 1: Research how to start your business.
If you're just launching your business, the Internet is a great place to start your research. For basic information and resources, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) offers tips on setting up a business, getting financing and whether there are any government programs for which your business may qualify. In addition, the Business Owner's Toolkit helps you select a business, write a plan, get loans, market your work and more.
Step 2: Make sure your business is legal.
Most state government websites allow you to download the forms you need to incorporate or to form a limited liability company (LLC). You can always hire a lawyer to help, but a lot of do-it-yourself resources online make such paperwork easy to navigate. BizFilings or Legal Zoom feature resources you can use to make your own legal decisions -- such as whether you should file for an LLC versus other types of corporations like a C Corp.
For tax liability issues, Weltman recommends turning to government tax websites, such as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and state tax departments, to research any obligations that you may have to meet. You can download the tax booklets you need and place an online order for a federal employer identification number or state sales tax number.
“You also have to be aware that if you have any employees, including yourself, and you incorporate, there may be labor rules you need to know about,” adds Weltman. She recommends federal and state labor department websites to research labor laws.
Step 3: Get cloud-based finance and accounting services.
Many home businesses rely on popular accounting desktop software, such as QuickBooks from Intuit. But QuickBooks now has a cloud-based subscription offering, which means that all your business financials can be maintained online. So if your computer gets stolen or crashes -- or you’re on the road -- you can still access and download your records from any online computer. And so can your bookkeeper or accountant.
One free product that Weltman recommends is MyBizHomepage which extracts information from your QuickBooks software and displays it on your computer screen in an easy-to-understand “financial dashboard” graphic. “It lets you follow -- for free -- all your cash flow, so you know when things are going to be collected and when things are owed,” says Weltman.
Outright.com is another free online accounting service for light accounting needs, such as tracking income expenses and tax obligations. Bill.com costs $25 per month for one user and automates many aspects of small-business accounting.
Step 4: Stay organized.
One of the drawbacks to running a business from home has traditionally been the difficulty of staying on the same page with others. But not anymore. You can get organized with a bevy of cloud-based tools. For starters, you may already be using an online calendar tool, such as Google Calendar, which you can share with clients or business partners to schedule meetings.
iGoogle is free too and lets you bring all your tools together in once spot including Google Tasks or apps you select like SmartSheet, which offers template spreadsheets you can use to manage and share projects online. Or you can manage projects, contacts and documents with a cloud-based tool like the $99-a-month suite from Highrise -- which you can also access from your mobile device. And if you need a truly “virtual assistant,” Onebox manages your calls, faxes and conferencing entirely online for between $49.95 and $99.95 a month, depending on how many extensions you need.
Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer, editor and online media consultant with more than a dozen years of experience reporting on technology, entertainment and the media. She is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine and writes for a variety of online publications.
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