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So You Want Set Up a Business as an Agile Coach?
You’ve been coaching for a few years, and have decided that you want to set up a business as an independent Agile Coach. A small business of one person - you. You start looking around to see what it takes to get a small business started and find that you will probably spend more time trying to understand accounting, legal and government regulations than you would do consulting. There is a lot of advice out there, often conflicting. You want to get started - “Just tell me what to do!”
This article is for you. Make no mistake, I am not an accountant. I am not a lawyer. You will want to get help from these experts and should defer to their opinion in the event that what you read on this page differs from their opinion. This page is aimed at heading you in the right direction. The advice I received when I started was “choose a name, get a domain and label it with ‘under construction’, get some business cards… you’re a consultant now.” Since then I’ve set up my business and helped others through the basics and have learned that there is a little more it than this.
One note: I offer this article from a particular context:
- You are interested in setting up in the United States.
- You are interested in setting up a business where the main offering is the (Agile) consulting services of one person.
If you have a different context, this article may not be useful to you.
In the following section we will look into the basic process to set up an Agile Consulting covering:
- Decide on a business name
- Validate you can use the name
- Claim your domain
- Establish a legal business entity
- Establish your logo
- Set up federal taxation
- Establish your LLC as an S-Corp
- Establish your website
- Find a small business accountant
- Find a small business lawyer
- Establish a business banking account
- Setup accounting tools
- Get business insurance
- Other tools you might be interested in
Decide on a Business Name
Actually, the advice I was offered wasn’t too far wrong. The first step is to decide on a name. There are three basic approaches here:
- Use a name that describes what you do. Something “Agile”. Or “Agile” something. Examples include “Agile64, LLC” or “Focussed Agile, LLC”.
- Use your own name. It’s a small business and you are basically the business, so you develop the brand around you as a business. An example is “Tom Perry, LLC”.
- Use something that is a label that you are going to build your brand around. Examples include “nuCognitive, LLC” and “FiveWhyz LLC”.
If you listen to product naming folks, there are pros and cons associated with each of these approaches, and most would recommend 1 or 3. But I will say that in my experience given the kind of company we are it is more important that you like what you choose, and feel comfortable representing this as your entity.
Validate That You Can Use The Name
You want to make sure that you can use the name you’ve chosen in multiple ways - a registered name, a website, in Linked In, in Twitter, in Facebook, etc.
The starting point for this is, of course, a Google search.
A word of advice here. If you have ever done product naming, you know that you can spend months on the name, working through candidates, understanding and working toward name meaning, working through focus groups, understanding international translations, and so on.
Do not do this.
While the name is important, in most cases you are a one man band working in a particular location and language. For this exercise get something you like and are comfortable with. You will find that a lot of the obvious names are already taken. Don’t fret it - just move on to another idea.
Once it looks like you have something that passes the Google test, you need to see whether is works in various social media locations. Some of this will be already covered by the Google search but it is worthwhile to take it one step further.
Let’s say that you have decided that “FiveWhyz” is the name you like - we did:-) In most cases you can cover most of these in by direct log into various applications to test out your chosen name. In the United States, you will want to validate (at a minimum):
- Domain name: FiveWhyz.com
- Twitter username: @FiveWhyz
- Linked-in username: FiveWhyz
- Facebook username: FiveWhyz
There are also services that can help:
- Check the Domain through NameMesh.com
- Usernames (eg Twitter handle @FiveWhyz) through NameChk.com
Usernames (eg Twitter handle @FiveWhyz) through NameChk.com
How long will the naming process take? A bit of brainstorming, a bit of discussion, some serious validation and it really should take more than 24 hours to settle on a name you like.
Claim Your Domain
You will want to set up a website for your new company based on your name. There are a lot of different domain types out there, but for simplicity reasons we all went for the “.com” domain name. For us this meant we needed to have the FiveWhyz.com domain.
To set this up you need an Internet Service Provide (ISP). FiveWhyz folks have used:
No matter which you choose, the process is pretty much the same - you key in the name to see if it is still available, you request that domain, hand over a credit card to secure the name, and then you have it. With that, you have secured the domain name for a period of time, typically 1 to 3 years (depending on how much you have paid). The cost to register a domain (at the time of writing) will be around $20-$50 depending on the ISP and the features you select.
Now if you actually go to that website, you will find… well nothing. That's because you haven’t built the website. Most of the time you will want that website to be hosted. What this means is that you will load files onto the ISP server that will be the content of your website. More on that later. Hosting is an additional cost to the domain registration and if it hasn’t been set up as a result of the domain registration process, is usually controlled through a “manage domain” type panel on the ISP’s website. The cost of hosting is all over the board, so start simple and add more if you need it. If you do this the cost (at the time of writing) is around $120 - $200 per year.
In addition, hosted sites usually offer some form of email server. Typically, you will want to set up your email so that people can connect with you and you usually will want your business email to be separate from your personal email. For us, this meant setting up email mailboxes with names like info@FiveWhyz.com or email@example.com. Most ISPs offer some form of Web based access to this email, but you will usually also want to access this through a standard email client. Again the ISPs will have instructions on how to set up email client access to your new email mailbox.
Establish a Legal Business Entity
We have a domain. But let’s face it, in the eyes of the Government we are exactly nothing. We need to register the business with the Government.
Above you will have noticed that each of the names we talked about was suffixed with “LLC”. This stands for “Limited Liability Company”. What is means is that from a legal perspective if something happens and, for example, one of your customer’s sues the company, they can only come after the company and not your personal assets.
There are other legal structures out there, but most coaches settle on an LLC, including the founders of FiveWhyz LLC.
This part is a little tricky as how this works will vary based on where you are setting up the business. Each state has their own quirks and there are often different municipal considerations as well. I will not write about the details here as you can get help at How to Set Up a Limited Liability Company
Again, help is available if you want it. In the past I’ve used services like LegalZoom to help, but have to say that services cost a significant amount of money and the reality is that if you don’t mind filling in some forms usually straightforward to do it directly.
One note. Your organization requires the name and address of a “Registered Agent”. Your agent is the person designated to receive legal papers in any future lawsuit involving your LLC. There are organizations that provide this service for you, but the reality is that it can be you, and this is by far the cheapest way to go.
It usually takes some time for the government to validate and approve the name. You will need formal government approval, etc. to set up a business bank account, register with the IRS and so on, so while you are waiting on this there are other things that you can be doing. You will typically end up with a piece of paper or two showing that you have the name, and also have a State ID number which will be used for example when you want to pay state taxes. Make sure you keep these various papers around as there will be a number of situations where you need these. Cost for registration (at the time of writing) could be anywhere from $150 - $900 depending on where you set up.
Establish Your Logo
Some of this advice depends on how much you are trying to establish a brand. In general, I’ve found that each of the people I’ve helped through the process has wanted to at least have a level of professionalism associated with their presence on the Web, their intellectual property and materials, and so on. The start of this is a logo for your site which will probably also establish the color design etc. for your materials and website.
This can be an expensive process and so often you might settle for a design that you come up with or use an online tool like Tailor Brands to get started. No matter what you end up with there is no problem with this so long as you feel it represents your professional image. You can always change it at a later stage.
If you want to get a more professional result we’ve used DesignCrowd to good effect. DesignCrowd is true to its name. It’s a crowdsourcing service for designs. One service they offer is to set up a design competition. To get a logo, you set up a project with a design brief explaining what you are looking for. You then decide how many designs you want to see (more dollars means more designs) and then sit back and wait. Over the next week or so a whole bunch of designs will pour in from all over the world. You then select the design you like and the designer who work you like gets paid the money you’ve established at the beginning of the project. Once paid the designer will send you the completed designs. Cost for this service at the time of writing was about $500.
Setup Federal Taxation
After the state has approved your business you will also need to register with the Federal Government and get an Employer Identification Number (EIN). This is also known as a Federal Tax Identification Number, and is used to identify a business entity. Businesses need an EIN. You get the EIN by applying online at IRS EIN Application. Surprisingly, this is a free service offered by the Internal Revenue Service and you can get your EIN immediately. I suppose the IRS wants to make it easy for you to pay taxes.
Establish Your LLC as an S-Corp
An S corporation (or S-Corp) is the most common corporate structure for small businesses. S corporations are beneficial to small businesses due primarily to the tax benefits and legal protection afforded to its shareholders. Shareholders of S corporations report the flow-through of income and losses on their personal tax returns and are assessed tax at their individual income tax rates. FiveWhyz owners LLCs are therefore also set up as an S-Corp.
In order to become (elect status of) an S corporation, the corporation must submit Form 2553 Election by a Small Business Corporation . Again, this is a free service, from the Small Business Corporation.
Establish Your Website
As you work to develop your business, you will want to be able to point people to your website so they can find out more about you. You might also be interested in working Web search engines so that, when particular search phrases are keyed in by people, your site is a hit (search engine optimization or SEO). The implication here is, of course, that you have a website.
While that is possible, unless you already have experience in this space, you will want to use a website generator. These are tools where you design web pages through a simple drag and drop interface. When ready, you publish the site you have developed to the hosted site.
Most ISP’s have a tool they offer to do this and in most cases this is sufficient to get started. If that doesn’t work for you then the granddaddy of these applications is Wix.com. The tools usually operate in a similar way - you select a basic template, set up page tabs for different categories of information. For example, to start with a typical Agile consultant’s website has:
- A “home” tab with tag line and your unique offering
- A “service offerings” tab with sub-tabs describing coaching and training offerings you have
- A “resources” tab with additional information such as publications you have and other information you think your clients will be interested in
- A “blog” tab where you will publish ideas aimed at establishing your credibility
- A “about” tab with values, principles, and philosophy
- A “contact us” tab where people can fill in a form, for example, to ask for more information.
If you use these tools, you will find that the pricing model is pretty much the same. They are free to set up and in most cases publish your website for a period of time, and then charge if you want to make changes after that time has passed. Cost (at time of writing) is about $120 per year for this service.
While these tools offer user interfaces aimed at making the design of a website simple you will find that there comes a point where they just don’t seem to do what you want them to do. At this point you have a choice. You can work around the problem, or you can consider engaging Web design services. This choice will often be driven by how important the website is to your business. To start with, this should not be an issue, so start simple and experiment over time.
Find a Small Business Accountant
Each of us at FiveWhyz uses an accountant, but this is an optional step. We use them for a couple of reasons:
- To help with taxes when that time of year comes around
- To advise us on setup so we maximize the tax advantages we can get as a result of owning a business
For us, this is a trade-off. While we could try and do it all ourselves, the reality is that a good accountant will more than pay for themselves.
What you are looking for is not just a pure accountant. You want to find someone who can help you understand the various options of running a business and how to maximize your money. You want someone who will offer suggestions and not just help you count dollars. For example:
- You will probably be interested in saving for your retirement. The way this works is that you will set up something like an SEP-IRA (this is not a normal IRA). The IRS has rules associated with how much money you can contribute to these vehicles and it is based on how much you pay yourself. This means that you will need to set a payroll payment from your LLC to yourself, so you can contribute to the SEP-IRA. But the really good news is that when you do this it is treated as a business expense and so means that the business won’t be taxed on this amount. And this is why the IRS has rules to say how much you can set up this way. A good accountant will help you navigate these waters.
- You will find that if you don’t follow taxation rules to the letter, you will end up being fined. Sometimes it seems like you will be fined for rather strange things. For example, I once got fined for paying my taxes early (I kid you not). A good accountant will help you navigate these waters and ensure that you have a smooth schedule for payments.
- You will probably be interested in health care coverage for you and your family. This is a pretty fraught area in the US - coverage for a single family has no economies of scale for the insurance companies and so it is very expensive. Again, your account should be able to help set this up so that it is at least treated like a business expense.
There are two basic approaches to finding an accountant:
- One of the big boys: HR Block in particular seems to offer services for small businesses.
- Local accountant: Find an accountant who deals with small, professional business such as lawyers and has knowledge of working professional issues across state borders. An example is Melvin, Bibb, & Segars
Once you have selected an accountant, ask them about what accounting software they like to use. Sometimes there is will be a strong preference for a particular tool, so you’d be advised to consider using that tool as well.
Find a Small Business Lawyer
Again, this is an optional step, but again the owners of FiveWhyz all have access to a lawyer. The main use of a lawyer is to help you work through contract documents as you engage in the consulting business.
Areas in which we typically need help with as we engage in consulting include:
- Contracting: When we offer a service to an organization will will need to write a contract.
- Intellectual property: Let’s face it, most of our business is in our heads. We have intellectual property. This can create problems as we work. For example, if you build a training course, while consulting for a customer, who do you think owns that presentation. Depending on the contract you are operating under, the answer might surprise you. One contract I worked with proposed that “all intellectual property developed under this contract is owned by the company” which didn’t make any sense to me, so clearly a discussion is required. But this just scratches the surface of the issues that could arise. For this reason you might want to talk about it with a lawyer so that you can understand impacts and also potentially change contracts as part of a negotiation.
- Non-compete: As coaches we often work through other consulting organizations. We typically are not employees of these companies (to use the parlance, we are not “W2’s”). Instead, we invoice these consulting companies for our services (we are “1099’s”). There are a number of consulting organizations that will contract with you to provide coaching and training services. For many new coaches it is often convenient to work through one of these firms as, in return for a taking some of your consulting fees, you do not have to worry about business development, sale closure, contracts, and so on. Since these companies do the business development, they are concerned that you (and the end client) might choose to contract directly cutting them out of their margin. For this reason they will often put in place non-compete clauses in their contracts with you. While this all makes sense in a general sense, some of these non-competes can be so broadly written that you almost become an employee of the consulting company. Again, a good lawyer will help you work through this.
Unlike the Accountant, we don’t use “big boys” lawyers. Here we tend to focus on finding a local lawyer that can help us read and understand the contracts we are working.
Setup a Business Bank Account
Once the state has approved the business and you have an EIN, you will want to set up a business bank account. The most basic setups a checking account and a debit card. This will allow you to accept payments via electronic payment or check and purchase things your business needs from Website domains, to tools, to business cards, to travel, to … You should also think beyond the basics. So you might want a business credit card, and a business savings account (to park money).
To set up a business account, you will typically need the organization papers, EIN number, various identification numbers and so on. The best approach is to select which bank you’d like to work with, and then visit the bank to set up your account. This process is relatively simple - most banks want your business.
Setup Accounting Tools
Tracking your business so you can understand the profit, costs, how much tax to pay and so on is a necessary part of any business. There is no doubt that you can start a business with some pretty basic tools to track income and expenses such as Excel. In the end you will probably want something a little more robust than this.
What you are looking for is a system that allows you (at a minimum) to:
- Track and categorize (e.g. consulting, reimbursement) income
- Track and categorize (e.g. marketing, travel, etc.) expenses
- Download data from your business bank account so you don’t have to enter all the data manually
- Generate and track invoices
- General accounting reports such as a General Ledger so you can complete taxation filings
There are two basic tools you should look into:
- The cheap Quickbooks: The granddaddy in small business accounting tools is Quickbooks. The only real downside of this tool is the fact that it costs to use, say about $10 a month for a one person business.
- The free WaveApps: If you are worried about spending money WaveApps offers similar capabilities for free. FiveWhyz folks also use this
FiveWhyz folks use either of these tools to good effect. If your accountant has a favorite tool, then the best bet is to go with that tool.
Get Business Insurance
Let’s face it, the work we do is not exactly life and death as, after all, the final decision to do something is still with the customer. This does not mean there isn’t any risk to you. No matter how good you are at what you do, sometime expect results don’t quite materialize, or your advice leads to a client losing money, with the result that your business can get slapped with a lawsuit. To mitigate this, you should consider getting business insurance. In fact, you’ll find that many companies will not contract with you unless have, and they have seen a certain level of business insurance.
There are two basic types of insurance that you will need:
- Commercial general liability (CGL) insurance: this is broad coverage for lawsuits related to third-party bodily injury and property damage. This insurance covers the cost of paying medical bills and replacing damaged property, as well as your legal defense if you are sued. If you are required to pay a settlement or judgment from a lawsuit, your general liability policy pays up to your policy limits. Typical coverage required is $1M for an Agile coach.
- Business consultant professional liability insurance (or errors and omissions insurance) provide protection if a client sues you for negligence related to your work. It covers defense costs, settlements, and judgments. Typical coverage required is $2M for an Agile coach.
There are two basic approaches to setting up business insurance:
- website direct: There are a number of direct to customer insurance companies out there. Owners of FiveWhyz have had good results with HISCOX.
- Through a broker: Again, there are a number of brokers out there. Owners of FiveWhyz have had good results with Tech Insurance
The cost for both of these combined will be about $120-$150 per month.
Other Tools You Might Be Interested In
One of the interesting things we’ve found as we set up our businesses is that we also needed a number of others tools and services to get things done. What is nice is that these are often a click a way, and that the bigger issue is finding something that is good, and not expensive.
Here are some tools that you might find useful as you set up your business:
- Trello: Useful Kanban board for all kinds of purposes. FiveWhyz people have used this to track personal and business work, business development pipeline, and so on.
- Slack: Chat tool for groups of people to discuss things. You may not find it useful for a one person business, but if you start collaborating with other coaches, for example, you will find a lot of coaches use this.
- Zoom: Effective web based video conferencing and webinar tool. It is always useful to be able to set up a video conference to work with people.
- Idea Boardz: Useful “card” oriented board to collaborate and brainstorm. Very useful for retrospectives, especially in remote situations.
- Instant Agenda: Useful tool “lean coffee” oriented tool to collaborate and brainstorm.
- Pexels: As you do presentations and build we sites, you will probably want to use high quality images. Pexels offers a searchable library of free images.
- Pipe Drive: Simple customer relationship management (CRM) system based on Kanban style cards.
- Dokuwiki Wiki system: I like the idea of a place where I can store information that is beyond a file service - a knowledge base if you like. This is a place to capture knoweldge and ideas. See HansSamios for example.
We hope you find this a useful guide and that it gets you started on the path to being an independent Agile consultant.
Feedback is important so if you have any comments, suggestions, corrections etc please drop us a note at Hans@FiveWhyz.com