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There’s a dilemma when you are starting a company. There are lots of boring essentials like company formation, VAT, Data Protection Act, employment law and, depending on which industry you are in, a host of other legislation. Yet complying with these doesn’t help you to sell anything, build a customer base or most importantly turn a profit.

It’s incredibly difficult to find the balance between being too gung ho about regulations (with risks starting at inconvenience and ending in prison), or over egging things, with a bigger risk of business failure. Hovering around are lots of professional advisers with fees to match – that’s the accountants, lawyers and consultants. Unfortunately it’s hard for them to be entirely impartial as their business is about charging fees.

Here are my top tips for getting this balance right.

  1. First you need to understand the issue. You need to know what laws may apply to you. Books and the web are the cheapest forms of education along with free seminars from Business Link or professional advisers offering free consultations in the hope of getting your business.
  2. Then make sure you stay legal with the minimum of work and elaboration. Remember your principle aim is to serve customers, not produce a gold encrusted employment or health and safety manual.
  3. Be appropriate. If you work in an industry that is potentially hazardous, then actually health and safety is the top priority. If you are selling cuddly toys over the internet, just make sure they don’t contain dangerous substances or harmful parts.
  4. Until you are cash positive, don’t worry about issues that can wait until tomorrow.
  5. Once you know that the business has a future and you can afford it, start employing the professionals to help.

When you’re starting off, anything that isn’t directly related to making sales or pushing the business forward is an irritant. But completely neglecting other issues can cause huge frustration when you are forced to comply; it can also substantially reduce the value of your business or may even cause its demise.
It’s different if you are well capitalised and have had previous business success. But if this is your first start up, then these tips are well worth a thought.

Chris Barling, Actinic

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Tax is never a popular subject – made even less so by recent revelations that HMRC has got many of our tax codes wrong, meaning excessive charges for some. Mistakes by HRMC aside, ‘tax doesn’t have to be taxing’, as the saying goes. If small firms take the time to keep their books in order throughout the year, a mad dash at key dates in the taxation calendar can be avoided.

2010 has only just begun, so now is the perfect time to turnover a new (bookkeeping) leaf. Start by buying yourself some filing equipment, with different folders for sales invoices, paid and unpaid bills, bank statements and VAT returns, plus wages, if you have staff.

Now you have some inviting looking new folders, go through your in-tray – at least once a week – and put all your bits of paper in the appropriate place. If you set aside a small amount of time to sort out your books, weekly – or even daily – it shouldn’t become too much of a chore. Bookkeeping needs to be part of your routine, like reading emails, otherwise it can be all too easy to find something else to do instead.

Keeping accounts isn’t just sensible, it’s a legal obligation. Companies must keep all records relating to their VAT returns for a minimum of six years after the tax year to which they relate. As a minimum, you must record any income earned or expenses incurred by the company and retain all related documents, including receipts, cheque stubs, invoices, bank statements, PAYE records, etc.

To get a clear picture of where your money is going, your transactions must be recorded in a meaningful way. You should give your ‘expenses’ record a sheet of its own, with columns representing categories such as ‘rent’, ‘utilities’, ‘travel’ and ‘stationery’. This will give you an ongoing sense of where you might be over-spending, which can help you to cut unnecessary costs

Why rely on books or bits of paper when there is a wide variety of accounting software available? For a more simple and cheaper solution, an Excel spreadsheet is a perfectly useful tool for keeping records on your computer.

Keeping your records on a spreadsheet or using bookkeeping software enables you to see your total transactions in an instant. You can also search for a figure among your costs should a mystery debit appear on your bank statement and even produce projections based on the average transactions made in previous months.

You should be using your bank statements as a reference point, checking every figure in your bookkeeping records against transactions on your bank statement. This is a great way to identify missing receipts, while giving you a consistent monthly deadline to follow for getting your records in order.

Make sure you note all key deadlines for filing with HMRC. Set reminders on your computer, so you don’t have to rely on remembering to check your diary. The next one to note is the PAYE deadline on 19 May, when employers must register with HMRC to file online. HMRC is supplying free software so small businesses can file their employee data securely. For more information visit the HMRC website.

If you really can’t commit to the above, it may be time to call in an experienced bookkeeper. Of course, there will be an expense associated with this, but since it could free up your time and give you better information with which to make business decisions, it could be worth the investment.

Anita Brook is director of chartered certified accountancy firm Accounts Assist. Follow her on Twitter.

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When to register for VAT

There are many excellent articles around on when to register for VAT, including the one on the Start Up Donut, so I’ll try not to repeat what is already available.

So, you’ve recently set up or are about to start your business and you want to know what to do about VAT. You should do this when you draw up your business plan and cashflow forecasts, because it could affect your profitability.

What’s the first thing you need to do? Find out the VAT treatment of what you’re selling. The key questions are: would you have to charge VAT if you were VAT-registered? If not, is that because your supplies are exempt from VAT or zero-rated?

This latter point is an important distinction. In simple terms:

  • if they are zero-rated, you can reclaim VAT you pay on your expenses.
  • if they are exempt, you won’t be able to register or reclaim the VAT on your expenses.

If you fall in the latter category, there’s no need to read on.

Otherwise, what you do is liable to VAT at 0%, 5% and/or 17.5%. How do you work out when to register?

The registration limit is based on the value of your taxable supplies (ie the value of what you’ve sold that attracts VAT, in the past 12 months).

Keep track of this by recording at the end of each month what your taxable turnover has been. Add up the past 12 months to see whether you’ve gone over the registration limit. If so, you need to apply for VAT registration within 30 days of the end of the month in which your turnover went over the limit.

If you went over the registration limit in less than 12 months, you should still apply to register at the end of that month. Don’t wait for the end of a 12-month period or you might find yourself liable to a penalty.

Should you apply to register for VAT before you go over the registration limit? That’s a very difficult question to answer and one that can only be determined by you with help from your advisers. There can be benefits to being registered for VAT, particularly where you customers are wholly or mainly businesses that are VAT registered. They will be able to recover the VAT you charge. Some suggest that being registered gives your business a certain credibility, after all, who would register for VAT unless they had to?

One thing that makes this decision a bit of a no-brainer is if you are only selling things that are zero-rated because you will get back the VAT on your expenses, but not have to account for VAT on your sales. This way you get paid by HMRC when you put in a VAT return. The only thing you should consider is whether you will be claiming back enough VAT to make the hassle worthwhile.

Robert Killington, VATark

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Just as you were getting used to the VAT rate at 15 per cent, it’s nearly time for the rate to change again. From the 1 January 2010, the rate will be going back up to 17.5 per cent, after 13 months at the lower level.

Many businesses are already using the change to encourage customers to make purchases before the start of 2010, but there are other ways to benefit from the lower VAT rate.

The VAT rate that applies is established by the tax point. If the tax point is before 1 January, then the rate to apply will be 15%. The tax point is the earlier of the date the invoice is issued, the date money is received and the date that the goods are delivered or the service is completed. As an exception, if an invoice is raised within 14 days of the supply of goods, then the invoice date will become the tax point. Therefore, you may wish to consider the following options that may be attractive to customers:

  1. You may accept a deposit or a pre-payment before 1 January 2010, which will be charged at 15 per cent.
  2. You provide goods or services in December and more than 14 days before the issue of the invoice. For instance, you must apply VAT at 15 per cent for goods or services supplied before 18 December, for invoices raised on 1 January 2010.
  3. Where you supply a service over a period spanning the rate change, it is possible to charge VAT according to the value of work done before the 1 January. Be careful, though, because you must be able to show that the way that you have split the value of the work is fair.

There are special rules to prevent avoidance of VAT by establishing a tax point before the new rate comes into force. Under the rules, a 2.5 per cent VAT charge will apply where:

  • The total value of sales are more than £100,000 (and the advance invoice or pre-payment is not normal commercial practice)
  • The supplier and customer are connected
  • Payment is due more than six months after the invoice date or
  • you provide funding for your customer to make a pre-payment.

HMRC has indicated it will only seek adjustment to an error on a VAT return relating to the rate change where there has been an overall revenue loss.

With careful planning, there are ways to reduce the impact of the VAT change on your business, but the fact of the rate rise is unavoidable. To prevent misunderstanding, it may be prudent to start making your customers aware as early as possible of the VAT change and any increase in prices that will result.

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In his last Pre-Budget Report before the general election, Chancellor Alistair Darling unveiled a number of measures aimed at bringing about economic recovery in the UK economy.

For individuals, the allowances will remain frozen at 2009/10 levels, although the pledged increase in income tax for those earning over £150,000 will be introduced on 6 April 2010.

There will be a rise in National Insurance of 0.5% from 6 April 2011, affecting all those with earnings over £20,000. The temporary VAT rate cut will cease on 31 December 2009 and at the same time the stamp duty holiday will end. Due to a lack of rise in property prices the inheritance tax allowance will be frozen at £325,000 until 2011.

For businesses there will be a deferral of the increase in corporation tax and an extension of the empty property relief and of the Enterprise Finance Guarantee for a further year.

Income tax rates and allowances
Income tax rates and thresholds for 2010/11 will be unchanged from 2009/10, with the notable exception of a new 50% rate that will apply to income above £150,000. With the tax thresholds static, the effect of any inflation will cause a real terms reduction on net income.

Pension contributions
The proposals to restrict the pension relief on contributions for those earning over £150,000 were confirmed for 6 April 2011. The Chancellor also announced an immediate measure to prevent high earners from avoiding the restriction by receiving pension payments instead of salary before the new rules take effect. This anti-avoidance move applies to those with income over £130,000.

National Insurance
The increase of 0.5% in National Insurance planned for 6 April 2011 has increased to 1%; double the amount announced in the 2008 Pre-Budget Report. The higher rates apply to employees, employers and the self-employed from 6 April 2011. The limit at which an individual starts to pay national insurance will also increase by £570 on the same date. As an overall effect, those with earnings below £20,000 will not be any worse off.

Corporation tax
At last – some good news. The 1% rise in corporation tax for small companies, which was due to take effect on 1 April 2010, has been postponed until 1 April 2011.

VAT
The VAT rate will revert to 17.5% from 1 January 2010, but no other VAT changes are proposed. For businesses using the flat rate scheme, the percentages are also changing on 1 January 2010. Most flat rates will go back to being the same as they were before 1 December 2008. For certain businesses it may be beneficial to leave the scheme in the new year, which can be done voluntarily. We can help you to decide whether it will stay worthwhile to use the flat rate.

Business rates
The exemption from business rates will be extended one year to 31 March 2011 for all empty properties with a rateable value below £18,000. The increase in the threshold from £15,000 to £18,000 reflects the rise in rateable values from 1 April 2010.

Furnished Holiday Lettings
The tax benefits available to furnished holiday lettings will be removed from 1 April 2010 for companies and 6 April for unincorporated businesses. The changes will not affect hotels or bed and breakfasts. The withdrawal of the treatment will mean that with respect to furnished holiday lettings:

  • Losses will only be available to reduce profits from other property income.
  • Profits will not count towards income on which pension relief can be obtained.
  • Special treatment for capital gains tax purposes will no longer continue.

Stamp duty
The increase in the limit on which an individual starts to pay stamp duty, announced in September 2008, will finish at the end of the year. From 1 January 2010, stamp duty will be payable at 1% on residential properties over £125,000.

Stamp duty is normally charged at the completion date or the date on which an individual takes possession of the property. To avoid stamp duty of 1%, transactions on properties between £125,000 and £175,000 will usually need to be completed before 31 December 2009.

Inheritance Tax
The threshold on which an estate is exempt from inheritance tax was due to rise to £350,000 on 6 April 2010, but it will now be left at £325,000 for a further year. The government has sited a lack of improvement in the property market as a reason for the change.

Other tax changes
Backing from the government for loans to small businesses through the Enterprise Guarantee Scheme will be extended by another year to 31 March 2011.

Banks will pay tax on all discretionary bonus over £25,000 at 50%. The ‘super-tax’ will be payable by banks in addition to income tax and will take immediate effect.

An employee’s use of an electric car will be a tax-free benefit in kind for five years from 6 April 2010. In addition, where a company acquires a new electric van from 1 April 2010, it will be able to deduct the full cost from its profits for tax purposes. Meanwhile, the tax cost of providing non-electric cars and vans as a benefit will increase from the same date.

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Like every area of business these days, there’s lots of red tape and ecommerce has its own rules and regulations. Just remember, though, it’s up to you to comply with the law. Here are my tips to help you ensure your online store meets UK regulations.

1 VAT
If your annual revenue exceeds £68,000 you must be VAT registered. If you’re below this threshold, you don’t have to worry about charging VAT and it would actually be against the law to do so. There are some finer points to be aware of, too. For instance, if your products are a mixture of those requiring VAT to be charged, and those exempt from VAT, VAT charged on shipping should be in proportion. Make sure your ecommerce solution can handle all of the tax rules.

2 US import rules
The UK is part of the EU, obviously, so we’re bound by its rules. It’s not the same when handling US orders. The individual US states might want to charge tax on sales into their area, but it’s their responsibility to levy this tax. You don’t have to charge this “use tax”, which is between the buyer and the state where they live. As a UK business, you can sell into the US tax free – but you should make your customers aware that they may be charged tax on the goods when they’re imported.

3 EU Distance Selling Directive
Under this Directive, you must provide full contact details – including an address, phone number, email and company and VAT registration numbers – where applicable. Do it anyway – it helps to build trust.

The same Directive dictates that you must accept return of any items purchased within seven working days and failing to inform buyers of their rights has penalties. But why not make this a selling point?

4 Data Protection
You must register with the Information Commissioner’s Office if you hold data on people (eg customers). Registering takes some time and effort, but is inexpensive and fairly straight forward.

5 Email opt-in
If you want to email newsletters or offers to prospective customers, you must gain their consent in the form of a statement that the customers agree to receive communications. You must also give them an option to decline.

Emails involved in fulfilling orders or answering specific sales enquiries do not need this provision. When you send marketing messages there must be a free method of opting out each time you send an email. This itself can be by email. The regulations apply to communications with individuals, not businesses.

6 Disability legislation
Since 2004, by law, businesses have had to take “reasonable” steps to provide access to people with disabilities – and this includes your website. Ensure all images have alternate text tags, so visually impaired people can still navigate your site.

7 Libel on social media
Libel laws also apply to blogs, Twitter, Faceback, etc. Remember also that your words remain on record forever – so think before you type that competitor put-down.

8 PCI DSS
Protecting payment card data is crucial and the banks require compliance under the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). Compliance is compulsory for anyone who accepts and stores debit/credit card details either on computer or on paper.
More information on PCI DSS can be found at https://www.pcisecuritystandards.org.

You can meet PCI DSS in one of two ways:

  • Use a payment service provider (PSP) such as PayPal, WorldPay or Actinic Payments (if you use my company’s shopping cart). Your customers and employees only ever enter card details into the site of the PSP. That way, the PSP does most of the worrying about compliance and you are left with some straight forward actions. This is the best option for small retailers.
  • Make your own infrastructure fully compliant. This is a difficult route and for the majority of smaller businesses, achieving proper compliance will probably not be practical or cost-effective. The total one-off cost is likely to exceed £45,000 plus ongoing fees.

9 3D Secure
3D Secure – known as “Verified by Visa” and “Mastercard SecureCode” – is a sort of online chip and PIN system. Online buyers are prompted to enter a password whenever they use their card. The password is sent directly to Visa or Mastercard and they approve the transaction (or decline). This is gradually becoming compulsory and you should consult your bank and PSP on how to comply.

10 Let the world know
Finally, assuming you are legal and decent, let the world know. Anything that adds to your credibility will help you online, so list all of the things that you have done under the heading “We comply with the following legal and tax regulations”.

If you are a start-up, these rules may seem to big a mountain to climb. But there are two things to remember. Firstly, do your best to comply. Secondly, if you’re correctly challenged, then immediately take corrective measures. With the exception of VAT transgressions, in most cases this will be enough to avoid business damage or prosecution.

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