Small business owners face many uncertainties as the new year gathers momentum. They have to prepare for under-construction health care reform, face the consequences of the fiscal cliff resolution and make the best of an economy dependent on those key moving parts.
Here are two areas that experts say small-business owners should watch in the coming year.
HEALTH CARE: This year, small-business owners will need to make decisions related to health care reform and plan for its 2014 implementation. Owners can also expect an increase in related fees and taxes.
"They are going to have to educate themselves, plan for the impact, and educate their employees as much as possible," said Kevin Kuhlman, legislative affairs manager for the National Federation of Independent Business, which has more than 350,000 members. NFIB argued against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act when Congress was considering it and was the prime litigant in the U.S. Supreme Court case in June.
The act requires that all Americans have minimal health care coverage by 2014 or pay a penalty. Employers with 50 or more employees, or the equivalent, will have more responsibilities, but employers with fewer workers will also feel the impact, Kuhlman said.
In 2013, businesses will have to determine whether they fall in the "large" or "small" category for the employer mandate. A sole employer with multiple businesses that are unrelated but employ 50 or more full-time employees will likely be counted as a large employer, Kuhlman said.
Businesses will also have to determine whether employees are full time -- average about 30 hours a week -- or part time, and apply a new counting requirement to ultimately determine an employer's size. For example, if six employees work five hours per week, they will count as one full-time-equivalent employee.
David Crump, president of Employee Benefits Consulting Co. in Raleigh, N.C., said as more information is released over the year, large employers need to take a close look at their group medical coverage and determine how their rates will be affected and whether it would be more affordable to pay a penalty and not provide insurance.
"Business people are always going to do the math, and they are going to do what costs them the least," Crump said.
GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES: Small-business owners should explore both conservative and optimistic scenarios in 2013, said David Grant, president of Raleigh SCORE, a nonprofit organization that offers free counseling and workshops to small businesses. That way, Grant said, business owners "don't lose opportunities that may be forthcoming."
Many business owners in recent years have tried to cut and manage costs, Grant said.
"People have to think a little differently as to how to start to grow again and get out of the mold of cost cutting," Grant said.
Businesses also should think about expansion strategies, including improving customer service, incorporating social media and a mobile website, securing additional capital, and exporting.
"Tremendous opportunities" exist in foreign markets for some small and midsize businesses, said David Robinson, special counsel for Nexsen Pruet, a Carolinas law firm that helps businesses with exporting. "More so than in previous years because some of the bigger players have retrenched and pulled back from markets. And so I think there is market share up for grabs for those that are nimble enough to pounce as the world recovers."
Businesses also need to be mobile-ready, said Martin Brossman of Martin Brossman and Associates, a Raleigh company that provides business coaching and integrated Web marketing.
"If you have got to take your fingers and spread them out on a smartphone, it is not mobile-ready," Brossman said.
Greg Lewis, a Raleigh-area chef and owner of Catering By Design, set up a mobile website for his business, and he plans another for his restaurant in 2013.
The site allows customers to find and contact him easily, Lewis said.
Internet marketing, along with a quality staff, has allowed his catering business to grow from 15 percent to 40 percent annually, while the economy has been shrinking, Lewis said.
"It gets people to contact you; it gets people in the doors," he said. "But once they are in the doors, you have to be able to perform."
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