This is part 6 of a 7 part guide on how to start a small business. In this lesson, you’ll learn about small business accounting and bookkeeping.
Probably the most boring and tedious part of running a business is keeping track of earnings, expenses and maintaining “the books”. For me personally, I hate tallying up the numbers and documenting all of my expenditures, mileage etc…
Hell, I have enough problems making sure that my checking account is balanced every month! But over the past few years running our online wedding business, I have come to realize that while keeping accurate numbers is boring, analyzing the numbers is actually fun and eye opening!
That’s why I let my wife take care of the books while I just look at the reports:)
Small Business Startup Guide
Rather than bore you to death defining mundane accounting terminology or explaining the nitty gritty of accounting and bookkeeping, I thought that it would be more interesting to let you in on how we keep track of and utilize the data we maintain for our online wedding linens business.
Two Main Ways To Keep The Books
First off, there two main ways to maintain your books, the cash method and the accrual method. In general, a business that carries inventory must use the accrual method of accounting which is why we use this method for our wedding linens business.
What this means is that income and expenses are treated and taxed when it is earned rather than when the money is actually received.
For our wedding linens business, let’s say that I received a $10000 deposit in 2009 to make 100 dozen handkerchiefs for a customer to be delivered in 2010.
Under the accrual method, I can’t declare this money as income in 2009 because I haven’t delivered yet. Conversely, if I need to spend $2000 dollars upfront on the materials in 2009, I must take this as an expense in 2009 and not 2010.
The opposite of accrual accounting is called cash accounting in which income and expenses are taken when things are actually paid for.
In general, the cash method is only used for service oriented businesses but can be used for any business that is unincorporated and has annual receipts of less than a million bucks.
The cash method is a more intuitive way of keeping track of the books because it represents an accurate assessment of your cashflow.
Why does all of this matter? Because the IRS says so. We chose the accrual method because my wife used to use the accrual method while working as a financial analyst for a Fortune 500 company.
How We Track Expenses
The way we keep track of expenses is extremely high tech and requires a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering to implement. In our office, we have 3 bins. One bin is labeled entertainment, one bin is labeled cash expenses and the third one is labeled assets.
Whenever we travel, go out to eat or spend any money on entertainment, we throw our receipts into the “entertainment” bin.
The date and amount is usually already printed on the receipt but on the back, we also jot down the business purpose and the business relationship with the person we are entertaining. This extra information is important in case you ever get audited.
Whenever we make a business related expense outside of entertainment, we throw the receipt into the “cash” bin. This includes things like office supplies, ISP bills, internet charges, thread etc…
Finally, the third bin is reserved for business expenses that fall under the category of capital equipment or furniture. Leafing through this bin right now, we have a receipt in there for a sewing machine, a desk chair and some computer equipment.
Basically, anything in this bin is an asset that might potentially need to be depreciated over time. Under normal circumstances though, we don’t have to depreciate anything thanks to section 179(You can read about section 179 in our small business taxes article).
In each of our cars, we carry a notebook where we jot down the number of miles we’ve driven on behalf of our business. For each entry, we make sure to write down the date, the beginning odometer reading, the ending odometer reading and the place that we drove to.
Each mile is worth around 50 cents(check the IRS for the exact deduction), so we make sure we write down every last mile. For more information on how to expense a vehicle, please refer to my article on How To Deduct Your Vehicle On Your Taxes.
How We Track Income
All of our income is tracked automatically in our shopping cart software. At the end of the month, our website creates a report itemizing everything that we sold, at what price and to which customer.
Our shopping cart also lists any related fees associated with each transaction such as paypal fees, credit card fees and shipping fees.
My wife then takes this data and imports this information into her master spreadsheet which includes the cost of goods and other information extracted from our receipts in the expense bins.
Everything outside of manually entering and scanning expense data from receipts is more or less completely automated.
What We Do With The Data
The fun part about having all of this data is that you can use it to recognize trends with your business. Here are some of the useful ways we use the data that we gather from our business numbers.
- Pricing – Every quarter, we analyze our top selling products to see if there are any obvious trends. At this time, we also play around with the prices a little bit by increasing prices of items that are selling well and reducing the prices of products that aren’t moving that well. By analyzing the results of our pricing experiments, we then make corresponding adjustments. It’s an iterative process, but over time we can usually get a good idea what the optimal pricing sweet spot is for the majority of our products.
- Seasonality – Certain items in our store sell better during certain times of the year. For example during Thanksgiving, sales of our linen napkins go through the roof. We discover these trends by creating product trend graphs with our numbers. By analyzing these graphs, we know when to stock up on certain items during certain times of the year so we can carry less inventory.
- Reducing Taxes – By knowing the finances inside and out for our business, we can usually make well timed purchases. For example, if our business profits are especially high for the year, we will sometimes push up the timetable for some of our purchases. Depending on our profit level, I might decide to go ahead and upgrade my computer or purchase that laptop a little bit early to offset our business earnings.
- Avoiding Tax Penalties – By keeping track of our profit level, we can make sure that we don’t get penalized come tax time. Since I have a full time job, my wife and I don’t actually pay estimated taxes for our business at the present time. Instead, I increase the withholdings from my paycheck in order to cover the tax bill for the business. Keeping accurate profit/loss statements are essential in order for me to know how much to withhold.
- Demographic Data – By analyzing our sales, we’ve noticed that many of our customers live in specific areas of the United States. While we don’t currently use this data, we might choose to launch demographic based advertising in the future to target local customer sweet spots.
- Experimentation – Keeping accurate numbers allows us to see the direct effect of any experiments we choose to run. For example, last year we added cross selling to our list of strategies and noticed a quantifiable increase in order size. Sometime in the future, I plan on implementing a plugin to recover lost sales and keeping accurate data will allow us to analyze the impact on our top line
- Outsourcing – We are currently looking into hiring an answering service to take some of our phone orders. Since we keep track of all of our phone conversations including time, date and length of call, we can easily make an accurate assessment of how much it’s going to cost us and whether outsourcing makes economic sense.
Tools Of The Trade
Here are some tools to help with your small business bookkeeping
- Quickbooks – The defacto standard for small business accounting
- Intuit Online Payroll – This is company we use for payroll
- Turbo Tax – This is what we use to do our taxes
Running Reports Is Fun
Keeping the books is boring, but recognizing and taking advantage of patterns with your numbers is quite fun and fulfilling! Bookkeeping is not just for the IRS.
Maintaining accurate numbers is essential for the livelihood of your business as well!
Next up: Small Business Resources And Where To Find Help
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Steve Chou is a highly recognized influencer in the ecommerce space and has taught thousands of students how to effectively sell physical products online over at ProfitableOnlineStore.com.
His blog, MyWifeQuitHerJob.com, has been featured in Forbes, Inc, The New York Times, Entrepreneur and MSNBC.
He's also a contributing author for BigCommerce, Klaviyo, ManyChat, Printful, Privy, CXL, Ecommerce Fuel, GlockApps, Privy, Social Media Examiner, Web Designer Depot, Sumo and other leading business publications.
In addition, he runs a popular ecommerce podcast, My Wife Quit Her Job, which is a top 25 marketing show on all of Apple Podcasts.
To stay up to date with all of the latest ecommerce trends, Steve runs a 7 figure ecommerce store, BumblebeeLinens.com, with his wife and puts on an annual ecommerce conference called The Sellers Summit.
Steve carries both a bachelors and a masters degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Despite majoring in electrical engineering, he spent a good portion of his graduate education studying entrepreneurship and the mechanics of running small businesses.
20 thoughts on “Small Business Accounting And Bookkeeping Can Be Fun – The Ultimate Small Business Startup Guide Part 6”
Nice Guide.. It helps a lot ^_^
I would love to see some type of income/expense template that you use in excel. This is what I find the hardest, trying to get a good template working is key. Also do you use Quickbooks at all? or is everything done in excel?
Love your blog by the way…
We do all of our finances with excel because that is what my wife is comfortable with. She used to work at Intuit too! Eventually, we will transition to Quickbooks so that everything is a bit more portable. For most people, I don’t recommend Excel but my wife happens to be an expert. In fact, understanding our spreadsheet is way beyond the scope of my abilities. Perhaps I can have my wife comment on this later. I’ll see if she has time later today.
One point that comes out here is using the accouting data for management reporting purposes – this helps with identifying trends etc.
For good reporting there are lots of accounting packages, some of which are free in their most basic form.
Phil – there are some excel templates out there on the web, but if you want reporting for management purposes, Excel is not the best way forwards I am afraid.
As Steve mentioned, I used to work at Intuit so I strongly believe in their products. We in fact own both QuickBooks and Quicken Home and Business, though I still tend to do most of our reporting out of Excel. Reasoning behind this is partly because of my comfort level. I’m an expert in Excel and have worked many years as a planning and reporting analyst for several large Fortune500 companies. At these companies you would be surprised to know that Excel is still widely used as a reporting tool; though the data is coming from different sources. Plus I didn’t want to over complicate the process if I didn’t have to. Our financials are really straight forward; we work with a very limited number of vendors so tracking our expenses is very easy. Plus our shopping cart handles our inventory, tracks payments, handles our customer data and creates our invoices. I then port this over to Excel which I have then automated to create several reports.
QuickBooks is excellent if you need something to create invoices for you, track payments, and also manage your expenses. It’s also a must if you don’t have a good handle on your inventory levels. I strongly encourage folks to use that if they are not familiar with Excel or are not “finance savvy.” It’s very user friend and there is a version of QuickBooks that you can download for free (assuming you have very simple financials and not many customers).
Thanks for your reply, I am currently managing my business finances using Quickbooks for A/R and A/P, it is great for balancing the checking account, keeping track of bills, etc. The biggest problem I have is that I have several websites that generate income for me so each of these sites have their own shopping cart or payment system. I have to manually enter all of these sales into QB so everything balances out there. It is very tedious and time consuming to do this but I don’t know of any other way to do it so I can see a complete picture of my business. If I only had one website generating income it might be easier but now-a-days you need more than one source of income unless your only source is doing really well like your business appears to be.
Once again, thanks for your reply and this whole blog in general!
I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada and am looking at starting an online business selling virtual strategic planning tools to Canada and the USA. My question is about paying sales tax on online sales. I have been doing research and apparently in February of 2010, many of the US states started collecting sales tax on online sales. There are varying rules, depending on the state. But what I am wondering, is who do I contact in each state to find this out, and how do you manage the diversity of sales taxes charged by individual states? Secondly or was that thirdly, hmmmm, well is there yet a federal sales tax in the USA on online sales, or is that still coming down the pike?
Thanks I appreciate your wisdom on this issue.
While most states now require the vendor to collect sales tax from customers for internet sales you are only required to do so if you have a “nexus,” a physical presence, in that state. So if Steve sells something to me in Indiana and he doesn’t have any type of shop or presence in Indiana then he can not be required to collect Indiana sales tax.
Aside from that, if your product is delivered entirely over the internet (no physical item) most states don’t collect sales tax on that. If you want more detail I did a post on internet sales tax for my blog; feel free to come by and take a look.
I’ve been running my own online business for about a year and helping out with my parents’ small business over the same amount of time and, let me tell you, there’s nothing I loathe more than keeping the books. It’s the most tedious, annoying task ever, and it just piles up if you don’t do it on time.
But you make a good point. It’s worth it not only because you have to do it for the IRS, but also because well kept books give an excellent overview of how the business is doing. And I didn’t know about deducting your vehicle mileage, I’m going to start doing that.
I would say too that is important to make copies of receipts that tend to fade away with time, as the the ones that use thermal papers. It’s enfuriating to look for a receipt three months from now and find a blamk piece of paper.
My brother will be having his own firm and wants everything to be organized. It was discussed here that there are two ways to keep the books. Furthermore, it’s advisable to hire professionals for business accounting services.
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