10 Things About Owning A Business

  1. The Must-Have.  Don’t go into business with others unless you have an owners’ agreement.  You can’t see the future, and you can’t be certain that you and your business partners (or their spouses or heirs) will always agree on everything. 
  2. Why So Formal?  Company formalities are important to limiting your personal liability for the company’s obligations.  Have separate company bank accounts, separate company financial records, separate company e-mail addresses, and whatever else needed to clearly separate the company’s life from your personal life.  If you don’t respect this separation, the courts might not either.
  3. This Time, It’s Personal.  Lenders and financing companies almost always require the owners of a closely held business to sign personal guarantees.  This means, they can sue the company, the owners, or both.  Do what you can to limit personal guarantees.  If you leave the company, understand what happens to your personal guarantees (and try to terminate them).
  4. Get Secure.  Unless you get paid in full at the time goods or services are delivered, get security for future payments.  Security might take the form of an escrow deposit, a personal guarantee, a bank letter of credit, or a pledge of the purchased goods or some other collateral.  Whatever the security, have a written agreement that clearly states your rights in case of nonpayment.
  5. Business Straight-Jackets.  In many cases, restrictive agreements are enforceable (provided they are reasonable in duration and geography).  Know what restrictive agreements apply to you and the people you hire.  Use restrictive agreements yourself to ensure that the person you hire today isn’t competing against you tomorrow.
  6. Protect the Good Stuff.  You don’t have to be the latest dot-something tech company to have valuable intellectual property.  IP may include your name, slogans, website, plans, and just about anything else you (or someone else) has thought of.  If someone else develops your IP (that web designer, for instance), make sure the creator assigns all the rights to you.
  7. What’s in a Name?  Not much, when it comes to “independent contractors” or “employees.”  Whether a person is an employee (which requires tax withholding and other administrative burdens) or an independent contractor (which doesn’t) depends on what he does and how he does it.  If you can tell a person how, when, and where to do her job, she’s probably an employee.
  8. The Tax Man Cometh.  Collecting taxes and delivering them to the taxing authority is a big deal.  Employment taxes you withheld and sales taxes you collected are not yours, they belong to the government.  The government will get them, with penalties and interest (or worse!) if they’re late.
  9. Fresh Stock for Sale!  Selling equity (stock, units) in your company may seem like a great way to raise capital.  It’s also a great way to have financial investors and security regulators looking over your shoulder.  Don’t sell equity if there’s a better way, and there’s probably a better way.
  10. Here’s the Catch.  Even if you have the right written agreements, it costs money to enforce them.  Your agreements might provide that legal fees and costs go to the prevailing party (most of them should), but you won’t get that until the end (and only if you go to court).  Litigation is always an expensive last resort.
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