All posts by Cam Birch

E-mail from Anywhere

How do you access your e-mail on the go?  Do you have multiple computers that depending upon where you are and what time of day you use to access your e-mail?

Honestly this is an issue that until recently I didn’t have any good answers for.  Actually I’m still working on perfecting my answer because there are a few small items that aren’t quite up to my expectations.

Most people access e-mail through an account created by their ISP or possibly a company specific e-mail account.  The general problem is we all need far more e-mails than there is space on the server to store them.  Thus the e-mails are downloaded to our computers and magically get deleted from the server.  For the most part this works quite nicely, except if you use multiple computers or would like to access your e-mail (and history) while on a business trip.

Most small businesses have to deal with this problem all the time and generally solve it the easiest way possible.  Ignore the issue and hope it doesn’t come back to bite you.  While this is certainly the simplest solution it doesn’t really solve the problem.

What you need is a simple way to access all your e-mails online.  So to do that you need one of 2 things.  An online e-mail service like Google.  Google actually offers a domain e-mail solution that combines your web domain and their e-mail services.  Or you need your own e-mail servers.

Personally I actually use a combination of the 2 solutions.  For personal consumption I use Google since it is just so simple.  And I would recommend any small business to take a serious look at Google for domain e-mails.  It pretty much just works and the cost/investment is pretty much zero.  For business I actually have my own Microsoft Exchange server.  This is an ideal situation since Exchange has high powered web mail capabilities as well as excellent integration into Microsoft Outlook.  My new solution is actually to use Exchange and enable the Exchange IMAP functions.  With IMAP almost any mail client can connect to my e-mail accounts so I now have my mail on every one of my many computers.  Its even fully accessible on devices like smart phones.

The really nice thing about having your e-mails accessible from anywhere is that you are no longer restricted to your laptop or desktop.  And if the computer crashes you don’t spend a pile of time crying about lost e-mails.

Centralizing your e-mail may cause a little bit of short term pain.  The benefits so outweigh the problems you may have in the short term though.  No loosing e-mails in a computer transfer.  No longer end up out of touch on the road.  No panicked requirements for a Blackberry.  Most of all it also means that the number of e-mails you store is now only limited by the number of hard drives your willing to stuff into a server, or the amount of space a generous e-mail provider like Google will give you.

For setting up a self hosted solution like MS Exchange you will likely need an IT expert.  I have considered writing up a bit of a tutorial for doing such but I am concerned it may be a little to technical for this blog, opinions would be welcomed.

Thinking About Cheating On Your Taxes? Benford Will Catch You

As many smart business people know, cheating on your taxes is really just an express train to destruction.  The tax department employs thousands of people who’s only job is to catch you cheating.  Simple math will point out that the benefit of cheating is far outweighed by the punishment (jail, fines, etc) and the high likelihood of getting caught.

In the past the tax department has always had to manually look for fraud or inaccurate statements.  With the rise of cheap computer equipment this has changed.  You can expect that your tax return will be analysed by not just people but very advanced computer programs designed to find fraud.  One such method is checking your government returns like income statements, taxes collected and remitted, bank records, etc against your reported earnings and expenses.

The tax department also has millions of people filing their taxes, so you can even expect things like statistical analysis of standard returns.  Things like looking at the average tax return from the last few years and comparing how far from average yours is.  Too far and you’ll be flagged.

There is a new, or actually old (discovered as far back as 1881), tool that has recently been added to the tax departments war chest for finding cheaters: Benford’s Law.  Basically Benford’s Law states that in naturally occurring numbers, the number one will appear as the first digit more often than other numbers.  The number 1 occurs as the leading digit 30.1% of the time.  The number 2 occurs significantly less at about 17.6%.  This continues all the way down to the number 9 which actually only appears as the leading digit about 4.6% of the time.  (source: wikipedia)

This counter intuitive approach to numbers is completely opposite of how most people would invent numbers.  Most people would create numbers by making sure they look approximately random, which would typically mean that each number would appear about 11.1% (1/9) of the time as the leading digit.  While this does make for a random number it would seem that random is actually not how the real world works.

What does this really mean for you?  Essentially it means that cheaters are going to get caught.  It also means that if you are still really wanting to commit fraud you will have to become even smarter.  The tax department has years to keep re-examining your tax returns so you not only have to beat the system now, you have to keep beating the system for years to come.

Fortunately, those who follow the laws don’t have to use statistics to make sure they don’t get taken to court because of some “math”.  Facts and tax law are still the only way the government will reassess you or take you to court.  The new advanced math methods are simply used to flag possible issues for further analysis.  A false positive may only result in the tax department manually checking your returns or possibly contacting you for some clarifications.

Benford’s Law can also be useful in other situations for a business.  Keep a watch as I cover those opportunities coming up.

Bookkeepers, Your Lifeline Or Your Failure

Bookkeeping.  The word itself can send shivers up the spine of the small business owner.  It can be a terribly tedious task that no-one likes, but we all know should happen.  Your bookkeeper is either incredibly unappreciated or they are terrible at their job.

I am my own bookkeeper, and honestly I fall into that second category.  Bookkeeping is the worst thing and I put it off till the year end (making it even worse).  The effect of which means I often end up missing out on all the best deductions as well as filing everything with the government (like taxes) at the last possible moment.  This is the worst thing anyone can possibly do.

There really isn’t any magic pill or spell that will fix your broken bookkeeping come the end of the year.  Getting caught up is your only option and the headache that will ensue is your reminder to fix the system so you don’t do it again next year.  Getting caught up for me means spending a few very stressful days finding every single receipt that I didn’t throw away and entering them into my accounting system.  Photocopying the ones that might fade.  Hoping I can read the ones that have already faded.  Basically its the worst thing.  Anything, including the dishes or beating ones head against a brick wall for fun or profit is more fun.

The race for receipts is unavoidable at this point, you’ve fallen behind on bookkeeping and without those receipts you cannot prove your expenses and your pretty much out of luck.  So, just do it.  Once finished you need to fix the system that so this isn’t repeated year after year.

So that is what I have done.  I have contracted out a bookkeeper.  Looking for one proved to be fairly simple (Google, my best friend) and honestly they are far cheaper than I would have imagined.  If you have fairly simple expenses (and most small businesses do, or should) and you update your bookkeeper whenever you make purchases or bill people you will find that a bookkeeper will only cost you a few hundred dollars a month.  This is honestly the best investment you can make in your business.

For only a few thousand dollars a year you completely eliminate the receipt dance.  You also eliminate the headache and days of emergency bookkeeping.  For that small investment, my life is 100 times better.  Quite honestly if you have a great bookkeeper you need to appreciate them, they are making your life so much better.  And if you or your bookkeeper keeps messing up and making your life more complex than it needs to be, get that fixed!  A good bookkeeper should only need a few hours a month to manage simple books and they should be able to accomplish that with almost no input or direction from you.

Also, FYI, listen to your good bookkeeper.  They may provide advice for how to organize the information you submit to them, if so, follow it.  This advice isn’t meant to make your life more complex it is meant to save you money and keep your business above board and audit resistant.

I’ll be providing some updates over time as my bookkeeping experiment continues…

I’m Back

After long last I am finally able to return to my blogging schedule.  Business can be an interesting thing where it just sneaks up on you and steals away all your time.

I’m quite sorry I left everyone hanging for so long.  Its been an interesting few months where my company has required quite a bit of my time and I was just left exhaused whenever a free moment was available.  Things are now better managed and I’ll be going though some of the mistakes I made and provide some helpful hints so the rest of you can avoid these pitfalls.

Next post will be all content, I promise.

Technology Helping Or Hurting Business

The Internet has been changing the landscape of businesses dramatically.  Especially lately with far more widespread adoption of high speed Internet access in both the home and at the office.  In most business environments now people have direct access to the Internet.

How are we as small business owners taking advantage of this?  Are we using technology to our advantage or are we regularly fighting with it?

If you are fighting with technology you really don’t have very many options, either dump it altogether and loose out on the options and opportunities offered or get some help.  Really I don’t quite understand why people choose to do absolutely everything themselves in small business.  I understand that money is often tight but if you could free up lets say 2 hours a day could you possibly find a way to earn more money with that spare time?

Chances are you are wasting more than 2 hours a day with technology that is either poorly suited to you or just plain crappy.  Free software and old cheap computer hardware can be one way of saving money but more likely you are being penny wise and pound foolish.  Buying or building the proper technology for your business will not only make you more productive but it will make your life more enjoyable.

Rather than fighting with whatever piece of techno-crap you have cobbled together you may want to consider actually finding a savvy computer person to perform a little consulting for you.  I’m not talking about spending weeks of time and recommending a million dollar investment, I mean just take a look at what you have setup and see if they have some recommendations that could make life better.

A complete overhaul of your operations from a technology standpoint may be exactly what you need but obviously money isn’t unlimited so start small and build.  When you get technology though make sure you are purchasing for a purpose, saving money just because you can will often come back to bite you with technology.  Quality hardware and software does cost money and having a techno geek around to advise what is actually quality and what is overpriced will be worth it.

Remember technology can either waste your time or free your life.  If you want to achieve freedom you will have to spend effort on getting the right stuff for your business, or find a technology consultant to help.