Small business start-ups: 9 steps to get your business on track
Starting a small business has never been easier – but at the same time, starting a small business is anything but easy. There are so many things you will need to keep in mind! In this post, we’re offering advice about some of the main things you’ll need to do to get your business off the ground, and to avoid any potential fines that you might inadvertently find yourself with if you forget to do something.
We’ll be covering what you need to do in terms of registering your business, tips for choosing a business bank account, how to deal with accountancy necessities such as payroll, tax and business rates, how to start looking for funding for your business and how to go about assessing your strategy periodically. It’s a big post, so you might want to bookmark this one to come back to as you complete each thing on our list!
Registering your business
When you’ve decided to set up your business, there are a few things you will need to do. First up is registering your business with HMRC. You can decide to set up as a sole trader, a partnership or as a company. There are benefits to registering as each, so be sure you have made the right decision for your business aims.
If you set up as a sole trader, you can register with HMRC pretty quickly and easily. As part of the registration process, you can register for tax, and for VAT if you’re going to be VAT registered – more on that further on in the post.
If you set up as a partnership, you will need to choose the name for your business, and choose the ‘nominated partner’ who will take care of keeping your business records and ensure your taxes are paid correctly. When you register with HMRC, you’ll register for tax, as well as VAT if you’re going to be VAT registered.
If you set up as a company, you’ll need to choose directors and adopt articles of association. There are templates available, and your accountant can assist you with this. Then you can get your company set up with HMRC, and you will register for corporation tax, as well as VAT if necessary.
If you’re unsure which is the right way to set up your company, you can get advice from your accountant. Getting this right is crucial, and changing the format of your business down the line can be time-consuming. It’s a good plan to do plenty of research, and fully understand the implications of each before you make your decision.
Trademarking your business name
When you’re choosing your business name, you’ll have checked that there isn’t already a business that trades under that name – especially in the same field. Searching online is a good place to start (and we expect you will have already done this!), but also trademark registries can ensure no one ensure you don’t end up in trouble for using the same name as another.
You might decide to trademark your business name and logo in order to legally prevent others from mimicking your identity. If you’re planning on investing a great deal of money and making your business widely known (perhaps to even become a household name), then you want to prevent anyone from taking advantage of your success and trading on your name.
Applying for a trade mark in the UK is the first step, but in different overseas markets, different laws apply – so you should take advice from an appropriate legal professional. We spoke about trademarks in this post, so you can start to understand the necessary steps there.
Your company finances
Aside from your business plan and the strategies you create to ensure your business keeps moving forward, keeping your finances in order is going to be the biggest task for your success. We’ve put these points in a logical order, but you may tackle them in a different way, depending on what your business needs are, and what your accountant advises.
Find a great accountant
Whether you’re going to do the majority of the number crunching or you want to outsource every aspect of your finances to a company that can do your bookkeeping as well as your payroll and tax returns, having a great accountant on your side is essential for your business.
A really good accountant doesn’t just take care of the more time-consuming aspects of your business though. A great accountant also provides business advice, will help you to monitor your cashflow, keep your records up to date and provide tax advice. Since they’re offering so much value, it really does pay to find one that is approachable, that you get on with, and provides the services that you need for your business.
Here are a few tips for finding the right accountant for your business:
- Know what you need from them – if your accountant doesn’t provide a service you need, you might want to reconsider, or find another. It is much more efficient to find a business that can meet all your needs.
- Get a recommendation – if you can’t find a personal recommendation, check reviews on websites like Trustpilot and Feefo, ICAEW, or consult your local Chamber of Commerce.
- Meet with them – you wouldn’t take on an employee without having talked to them, the same applies to your accountant. Make sure you know their fee structures, what you will need to pay and when, how often you will talk to them, what experience they have in your industry and so on.
- Be sure they understand your requirements – before you decide to work with them, ask them how they can save you money, or the recommendations they would make for your business. You need to know going in that they understand your business and that they’re going to make recommendations that will actually benefit your business.
- Be sure they are legitimate – you should be able to see their professional qualifications, and they should also be happy to provide you with references of current, and past clients who can vouch for their work.
- Choose someone you like and respect – you’re going to need to talk to your accountant relatively often, even if you’re doing most of the legwork, so being able to approach them when you need them is important. They need to give you (sometimes brutally) honest advice, and so you need to be OK with the harsh truths they may provide.
- Know which system they use – most accountants work with either Xero, Sage or QuickBooks. Not all accountants will work with every system, so make sure your accountant works with your preferred one – or be prepared to simply work with the system that your accountant prefers.
- Get the fee agreed in writing – your accountant is going to provide you with a lot of support, and so it is not advisable to find the cheapest and go with them – especially if they don’t provide all the services that you need.
- Decide on a review period – set up meetings on a periodic basis, even if they are by phone or Skype. Quarterly meetings are ideal – they’re a good amount of time to review and assess what has happened. These meetings will help you to keep your business on track, and can serve as a useful point for you to review your business operations during that time.
Your accountant is likely to be able to guide you on every other aspect of what we’re going to be talking about in terms of finances – so we can’t recommend finding a really good one highly enough.
Track your expenses
Keeping track of what you’re spending is really important when you’re starting a business for the first time. You’ll be able to claim some expenses back from HMRC, especially those that are classed as start-up expenses. Keeping track of receipts, tickets and invoices can be a complete nightmare – and your accountant won’t be impressed if you present them with a file of unsorted receipts (or indeed a carrier bag, as we know some accountants receive!)
Keeping track of your expenses is easier than it ever has been though. There are expense tracker apps that allow you to keep tabs on your receipts while you’re on the go, and then all you need to do is pass that information through to your accountant when the time is right.
When it comes to choosing your expense tracker, there are so many to choose from! It is a good plan to check which system(s) your accountant recommends (or which they are prepared to work with) before you make your decision.
A few expense tracking apps that we know are well regarded and widely used by accountancy firms include QuickBooks (from £5 per month, free trial available) Xero (from £10 per month, 30 day free trial available) and Sage (£12 per month, 3 month free trial available). Others are available, but these are the main ones that accountants tend to prefer, since they are already integrated with the accounting software.
Establish how you’re going to do your bookkeeping
The type of company that you’ve set up will determine the sort of bookkeeping you need to do. Sole traders will mostly just need to keep track of their income and expenditure, and at the end of their financial year the expenses are subtracted from the income to establish how much profit they made. HMRC then set the rate of tax depending on the level of profit that is required.
Limited companies and partnerships are a little bit more complicated. If you’ve set up your company this way, you’ll need to keep more detailed records, pay out dividends, and file your accounts with Companies House. The main things you will need to do are:
- Tracking your income and expenditure – as we’ve just mentioned
- Filing self-assessment income tax. This is based on the income you make from your business
- VAT-registered businesses will need to complete VAT returns and payments every quarter (we’ll get to that in a moment)
- If you have employees, you will need to calculate income tax and national insurance for them. This is called PAYE
When you’re deciding how you are going to do your bookkeeping, you can think about doing it manually – on paper and in a file – but this requires a lot more effort! If you want a quick crash course in bookkeeping that will help you to get started, The Open University offers an eight hour online course for free.
What is a lot more time-efficient is to do all your bookkeeping in an accountancy package. We mentioned QuickBooks, Xero and Sage when we were talking about tracking your expenses, and for good reason – they are the most mainstream packages that accounting firms use, and they are designed to save time and money.
Some packages are able to automatically calculate your profits, calculate asset depreciation, tackle PAYE and national insurance for your employees, take care of calculating corporation tax, VAT, self-assessment income tax, amongst so many other functions that you probably don’t realise you’ll need just yet! All you need to do is be sure you are entering the right figures when you’re adding the information to the system.
If you really aren’t confident about completing your figures and you’re concerned that something will go wrong, you can work with a bookkeeper or your accountant to take care of everything for you. If your business is pretty hands-on and you don’t have a lot of time to think about the numbers, you can work with either a bookkeeper or accountant. You can choose to employ someone for a couple of hours a week, or you might work out a monthly payment with an accountancy firm – especially if you need someone to take care of your payroll for you too.
Set up payroll
Although you might start out as a company of just one person, if you anticipate growing your business further, you’ll need to consider how you’re going to pay your employees in the future. Payroll isn’t a straightforward thing to do, and can be pretty time consuming. That’s why so many businesses outsource their bookkeeping and accountancy requirements – it frees their time to grow their business further.
There are more details about running payroll on this page, but when you need to pay an employee, the process is as follows:
- Record the pay for each employee – you will need to include their salary or wages and any other pay, such as bonuses or tips.
- Calculate any deductions from their pay, like tax and National Insurance.
- Calculate the employer’s National Insurance contribution that you’ll need to pay on their earnings above £183 a week.
- Produce payslips for each employee and ensure each employee receives their payslip (you can use different software if yours does not have this feature).
- Report their pay and deductions to HMRC in a Full Payment Submission (FPS).
If you pay an employee less than £120 a week, you will usually only need to record and report their pay (unless they have another job or receive a pension).
Your employees will need paying, and they need to be paid on time, every time. If you’re using QuickBooks, Sage or Xero, the ability to run payroll is already built in – and your accountant will be able to advise you on the right way to go about this.
Understand your tax obligations
Like with your bookkeeping, how much you need to pay in tax really depends on how your business is set up. Getting advice from an accountant, or tax professional is a good idea, especially if you’re new to running your own business. Getting it wrong can be a costly mistake, since HMRC hand out large fines to companies that neglect to pay their taxes correctly.
Almost all employees and business owners will need to pay Income Tax in some way. The personal tax allowance is £12,500, so anyone earning that amount that is under the age of 75 will need to pay.
- Company employees will pay Income Tax through the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) system once they are earning more than £12,500 per year – although people who work for more than one company may start paying sooner
- Sole trader tax is paid on the profit that the business makes each year once the business is earning more than £12,500 per year
- People who are self-employed or have a particularly high income, may need to pay Income Tax via Self Assessment, and complete a tax return each year
- Owners of limited companies may need to pay Income Tax on any salary or dividends they draw from the company. How much is paid depends on how much is taken out
Although technically National Insurance isn’t a tax, it is a non-optional payment that is required to be paid once an employee is earning more than £183 per week.
- For those that are self-employed, you’ll need to pay National Insurance contributions once you make a profit of over £6475 per year.
- For sole traders, there are two kinds of National Insurance to be paid – a flat weekly rate, called Class 2 NI – unless you’re under the Small Profits Threshold. The Class 2 NI is currently £3.00 per week. You’ll also need to pay Class 4 NI once your profits are more than £8,632 but less than £50,000 – you will pay at a rate of 9% on the profits of your business. If your profits are over £50,000, then you’ll pay 2% on profits over that amount.
- If the business is a limited company and you are paid a salary, you will pay Class 1 National Insurance to HMRC – this is set at 12% of earnings between £8,632 and £50,000, and an additional 2% for earnings over £50,000.
- If the business is a limited company and you are a director that is paid dividends, you will pay National Insurance contributions from your annual earnings – you can find out more about the expectations here.
If you’re not employed elsewhere and so aren’t paying National Insurance contributions when you’re starting your new business, you might need to consider making voluntary contributions to ensure you have paid in enough years to claim a full pension when you retire.
As with all tax considerations, it can be a costly mistake to make to get National Insurance contributions wrong. It is worth that time and money to sit down and get advice from your tax professional or accountant!
All limited companies are expected to pay Corporation Tax on their profits. There isn’t a threshold that you need to operate under when it comes to Corporation Tax – the moment you earn any profit, you have to pay on your earnings. The amount of Corporation Tax that you pay will depend on the amount of profit the company makes. You can find out more here, but as we keep mentioning – your accountant will be invaluable to help you understand what you will need to pay in the way of Corporation Tax.
Good news for sole traders – they do not pay Corporation Tax.
VAT stands for value-added tax, and it is applied to the cost of almost everything in the UK. Some businesses will need to register for, and collect VAT, and as your business grows it becomes much more likely that you will need to do so. Even if your business doesn’t quite meet the requirements for needing to pay VAT, getting to grips with it now is a good idea, so you’re prepared when the time comes.
As you probably saw as a result of a huge government campaign, HMRC has changed the way tax works in the UK. The Making Tax Digital campaign is part of a much bigger plan to make all business tax transactions digital. Once you’re registered for VAT, you need to keep your records digitally and file all your VAT returns using MTD-compatible software.
How does VAT affect your business?
You might need to add VAT to the prices of your products, and you may need to send that money to HMRC. For some business supplies, you will be able to claim the VAT back from HMRC.
How much is VAT?
It depends – the rate of VAT that is charged is different for different items.
- 20% is the VAT rate that is applied to most goods and services
- 5% is applied to some health, energy, heating, and protective products and services
- 0% is applied to certain products and services that are linked with health, building, publishing and clothing for children
Other goods and services that don’t get charged VAT include insurance, finance and credit, education and training, fundraising events by charities, subscriptions to membership organisations, selling, leasing and letting of commercial land and buildings – although this exemption can be waived.
You are likely to need to pay VAT on goods that you import to the UK, and that is likely to be added to the price of the goods as you pay customs. When you submit your VAT return, you can usually claim that VAT back. If you’re selling to customers inside the EU, you will probably need to pay export VAT too, and the rate for that will depend on what, and to whom you’re selling.
Do you need to register for VAT?
- In the UK, you are obligated to register for VAT if your turnover is above the £85,000 threshold.
- There are some businesses that it makes sense to register for VAT even though their turnover is below the threshold.
- Businesses who only sell VAT-exempt goods or services are not allowed to register for VAT.
What happens if you should register for VAT but don’t?
If you don’t register, there’s a good chance that your business will be fined – and currently the penalty is a minimum of £50, but is generally a percentage of the VAT due from the date that you should have registered to the date that HMRC received your notification or became aware that your business should be required. The percentage that is applied as a penalty depends on how late you registered:
- If you registered less than 9 months late, the penalty will be 5% of the VAT due
- If you registered between 9 months and 18 months late, the penalty will be 10% of the VAT due
- If you registered more than 18 months late, the penalty will be 15% of the VAT due
Considering how much VAT could be due for a successful business over an 18 month period, it is a good plan to get registered on time. Although you can appeal against such a decision, the definition of reasonable excuse for late registration is pretty subjective, so it is best not to chance it.
Benefits of registering for VAT
Although not many of us actually like paying tax, there is a good side to being registered to pay VAT. Once you have registered, you don’t pay VAT on business expenses. You pay the VAT-inclusive price at the time you buy something, but you can claim the VAT back when you file your VAT return with HMRC.
How do you register for VAT?
You will need to get together a few things before you can register for VAT:
- Your National Insurance (NI) number or your Unique Tax Reference Code (UTR)
- Details of any other businesses that you have owned within the previous two years
- Your business bank account details
If the business was bought, rather than created from scratch, you will also need to provide the records of the sale, so be sure to have those to hand too.
The easiest way to register for VAT is to do so online, but you can download a VAT1 form and send it to HMRC. If you’re unsure of how to go about registering for VAT, you may be able to nominate your accountant to act as an agent to deal with HMRC on your behalf.
What happens after you have registered for VAT?
There are a few things you will need to do once you’ve registered for VAT.
- Use standard VAT accounting – recording the VAT collected and the VAT paid on each purchase
- Submit a VAT return to HMRC every quarter
- Pay VAT that is due to HMRC
- Add VAT to your prices
- Issue invoices to customers
- Keep all your records digitally and your VAT account up to date
There are some other options you may find useful, depending on your business. Investigate whether:
- You can use annual VAT accounting – however you’ll still need to pay quarterly based on your last VAT return, or an estimate.
- You can join a flat-rate scheme to pay a percentage of your turnover as VAT. Definitely check with an accountant, bookkeeper or tax professional to see whether this makes sense for your business.
- You can use a cash accounting scheme – again, it is definitely best to check with an accountant, bookkeeper or tax professional before deciding this.
Decide how you’re going to be paid
If you’re going to be taking a salary from the company, this will be relatively straightforward – you’ll just set yourself up on whichever system you’re using for payroll and pay yourself as you would any other employee.
If your business is set up as a limited company and you’re going to be taking dividends, there are several things you will need to do, including holding a director’s meeting to declare the dividend, and keeping minutes of the meeting – even if you are the only director for the company. Once you’ve completed this, you’ll need to create paperwork, including a dividend voucher that shows the date, company name, the names of shareholders that are paid a dividend, and the amount that is being paid. The voucher needs to have a copy given to the recipient of the dividend, and one must be kept in your company records. You can find out more here.
As we keep saying – your accountant is your expert, and they will be able to advise you about the most tax-efficient way to take the money from your business.
Get a bank account with a good deal
Even if you’re a sole trader, you’re going to find things an awful lot easier if you keep your business and personal banking separate. Not only that, the terms and conditions of many personal accounts don’t allow you to use them for business purposes – and using a personal account for business could end up with your account closed down.
Business bank accounts often come with a monthly fee, but there are many that come with a good introductory offer. A good place to start your search is on a comparison website like MoneySuperMarket, or MoneySavingExpert.
When you’ve identified the bank that you want to use, you’ll need all these documents ready to show as a minimum:
- Proof of ID (passport, photo driving license or national ID card) for all named company directors
- Proof of address (utility bill, council tax statement, recent bank statement).
- Full business address (including postcode)
- Contact details
- Companies House registration number (for limited companies and partnerships)
- Estimated annual turnover
Depending on the bank you want to use, you might also need proof of a clean credit and banking history.
It is unlikely you’ll be able to open a business account online, but there is normally the facility to start your application on the bank’s website before you go into the branch to complete your application in person. Some branches may allow walk-in appointments but generally you’ll need to make an appointment ahead of time – especially with the recent situation with COVID-19.
What should you look for from your business bank account?
A business account isn’t quite the same as a personal account, and your decision shouldn’t be as simple as picking the one that has the best rate of interest or best perk. Here are a few things to look for when you’re making your decision about your business bank account:
A personal advisor
When you’re starting your business for the first time, you’re almost guaranteed to have questions somewhere along the way – and many of those questions will be related to your finances. By having a personal advisor at your bank with your business account, you’ll be able to get advice about your financial affairs – and won’t have to check with your accountant, who may charge you for their time.
Many business bank accounts have monthly fees, and you might encounter additional fees for some transactions such as paying cheques in. Accounts that charge a fee usually cost between £5 to £10 per month. Not all these accounts are equal though, so don’t just head straight for the cheapest – you may find a more expensive account provides you with value that is worth paying a bit extra for.
A fee-free introductory period
A lot of the big banks providing business accounts have an introductory period when you can use their account with no fees applied. The longest free period might not be the right move, depending on the fees after the introductory period ends. You don’t want the extra hassle of having to switch accounts when the initial offer expires – at that point you’ll be busy day to day, and won’t want to give up time to go to the bank.
How can you manage your account?
You need to be able to manage your finances quickly and easily when ‘business as usual’ means you’re growing your business. Most banks today have an app and offer telephone banking – but if the account you’re considering doesn’t provide these then you might want to look at a different one.
An overdraft facility
Sometimes, you might need a bit of breathing room with your finances. You don’t want to find a bill goes out just a bit earlier than you expected, and then you end up with huge charges from the bank, setting you back further. Knowing how much your overdraft facility is, and how much it will cost you in the way of fees and interest will mean that when you’re in a pinch, you’re able to make a decision about your next move.
When you’re growing your business, at first you might not think about having customers outside of the UK. But it is becoming easier than ever to reach customers overseas, and so you’ll need to consider whether your bank account can dal with foreign currency transactions. Be sure to check whether there are any fees associated with international transactions, and whether they are affordable.
When your business is operating from an office, or retail premises, you may be required to pay business rates. This is similar to Council Tax, but for business properties rather than homes.
If you’re starting out at home, generally you won’t need to pay business rates in addition to council tax – unless:
- You are employing staff who work from your home
- You are selling goods or services to customers who visit your home
- You have adapted your home (or part of it) to work there. This includes converting your garage or shed
- Your property is part business and part home – such as a pub or shop that you live above.
Again, if you are unsure you may need to take advice – either from your local council, or from a tax professional. You can find out more on this page, and you can estimate how much the business rates for your premises are likely to be on this page.
Apply for loans or funding
Not many people who are starting out in business have a lot of cash to put into their business. And even if you do have some money aside to help start your business, it is unlikely that you will want to risk all your savings – or that your savings are enough to reach the heights you want to at the speed you want to achieve them. If you need some capital to get your business really going, then you’re probably going to need to look at one of a few options: a loan, an investment scheme, or a grant.
These are available to businesses that are in the first start-up stages, and can offer loans at lower interest rates or can offer longer repayment periods. If you take a loan, it is wise to keep some budget aside so that you can ensure your repayments are met – having a few payments to one side can mitigate disaster if something unexpected happens or you have a few lean months.
Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS)
This is one of four venture capital schemes that are supported by the UK Government. The SEIS is designed to help businesses raise money when they start trading by offering tax relief to investors that buy shares in their company. The SEIS can award up to £150,000 to businesses in the UK that carry out a new qualifying trade, as long as the business is not trading on a stock exchange when the shares are issued. Other rules apply – find out more on this page.
Enterprise Zones are specific areas in England that are able to provide tax breaks and some Government benefits to help new and expanding firms. You may be able to receive benefits such as business rate discounts and enhanced capital allowances that can enable businesses to make investments.
Small business grants
The UK government has different types of grants available for new businesses. Some are available in the form of cash, while others are tax relief schemes.
Generally, you can find these types of government grants available for new businesses:
Equity finance – these can give start-ups and young businesses reductions on their Income Tax and investments. They are usually awarded to businesses that are less than two years old, and have 25 employees or less.
Direct grants – these are funds that are given to new businesses directly to cover their essential start-up purchases. This can include equipment and staff training, but many of these type of grant will expect you to provide up to 50% of the value of the grant – so you will need to be prepared to source the other 50% if you go down this route.
Soft loans – these are loans that are usually more generous in their terms than those on offer from banks or building societies. You could benefit from lower interest rates, or have longer terms, so that you have longer to repay the loan.
There are lots of different options across the UK, and here are some resources that you may find useful when you’re looking for finance for your business:
- The UK Government’s business finance support finder
- The Local Enterprise Partnership Network provides funding and advice for businesses across England
- The Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise both provide support for Scottish businesses
- The Scottish Government’s Funding Opportunities
- Businesses in Northern Ireland can consider NISPO II’s Proof of Concept grant and Invest NI grants, as well as getting support from Enterprise Ireland
- In Wales, Business Wales has a finance locator that can help find grants to apply for and gives detailed information about the application process
Check your strategy still works for you
Your business, and your goals are going to change as it grows. You might find that you achieve your goals at a very different rate to what you expected, whether you meet your targets much quicker than expected (in which case, hurray! Well done you!) or much slower – especially if you launched right before a global pandemic, for example. Periodically, you should review your strategy, and your goals – taking stock of your SMART targets, and your KPIs.
Consider questions like these:
- What progress have we made towards our goals?
- What areas of our plan are still relevant?
- What objectives have been completed?
- What objectives are not relevant, or not needed now?
- Can we complete the objectives that are still in scope?
- Do the KPIs set still measure the progress we want and need to make?
- Where we missed a target, why did that happen?
Although it can be a time-consuming exercise, it is well worth carrying that your review out. By regularly reviewing your performance, you’ll benefit for at least six reasons, if not more. Your review can help you to:
- Reach your goals more efficiently
- Understand what works well for your business – and what doesn’t
- Understand the data for your business
- Revise and renew your strategy so that you know where you need to improve
- Take a snapshot of the data, which can help you plan in the future (and may be useful to look back on!)
- Make your business stronger by knowing your weak points, which can help you to address them
Changing and updating your strategy from time to time is not in any way a sign of failure – it is merely recognising that change has occurred and that your goals are being adjusted to help to continue to move the business forwards.
Starting a business is a time consuming thing, but the rewards can be incredible. If you follow some of the points we have mentioned in this post, you’ll be onto a winner.
- We can’t stress enough how valuable a great accountant can be for your business– so make sure you choose a good one that can help guide you. It is a good idea to take advice from an accountant or tax professional when you’re setting up your company, and work with them regularly to review your finances
- Understanding your tax obligations is essential – so if you don’t work with an accountant from the beginning, make sure you clearly understand what your business should expect any outgoings to be
- Getting a business bank account with the right terms will help to ensure that you avoid unnecessary fees as your business grows
- If you need to get loans or funding, don’t assume that your bank is the only option – investigate local and national grants and Government backed loans for better rates
- Review and revise the strategy for your business regularly to ensure it stays firmly on the path to success
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