For small business owners: Why this is the worst time to be thinking about taxes

Are you a small business and not a tax expert? That’s okay. Your focus is probably on your business, and not on tax rules and regulations. As a result, tax time can be a time of panic and stress as you scramble to get receipts together in order to meet deadlines and avoid penalties.

The key to minimizing tax woes is to treat taxes like any other business practice: Think about it as an ongoing process that needs attention throughout the year in order to be successful. When you begin to think this way, preparing for tax time on a continual basis will allow you to focus on what you’re passionate about: Growing your business.

As a former small business owner, I know first-hand how difficult tax preparation can be. What ultimately helped me make tax season more manageable was using technology to help automate my processes and finances, and working with a professional. With that in mind, I’ve listed out eight tips that will help you prepare for tax season all year long.

1. Get started now: After you complete your 2013 taxes, schedule time on your calendar to establish better habits for next year and beyond. You may have promised yourself last year that you’d never again wait until the last minute to file taxes, but just like anything else, life happens and things fall through the cracks. Make the commitment to keep better track while the tax season is fresh in your mind.

2. Ditch the shoebox: Collecting receipts in a shoebox or other container is highly inefficient and can make year-end even more stressful. Do you even know what’s in there? Can you find it?  Start recording everything electronically so you’ll have an archive ready when it’s time to file next year.  And, since now all your information is stored electronically…

3. Back up your electronic records: What would happen to your data in the event of a manmade or natural disaster? Backing up your records and files on a routine basis to a remote location, like in the cloud, saves valuable business information. You can back up on-site as well, but it’s important to keep information stored away from the office. The IRS won’t forgive you because your records are missing, so be sure to have a contingency plan, just in case.

4. Work with an accountant: An accountant can be a trusted advisor throughout the year to help you plan properly for tax season. This partner can also provide sound business advice throughout the year, as many have specific industry expertise. Build a relationship with an accountant who you trust so that you can tap into their expertise all year long. Your bottom line will thank you.

5. Use online banking: Most banks let you download all of your transactions. Go in every month and mark the transactions that are tax deductible. When next spring rolls around you’ll have a comprehensive list of tax-deductible items ready to go.

6. Automate the accounting process:  If you aren’t using an accounting solution, it’s time to consider one. For me, software was instrumental in driving efficiency and accuracy all year long. When I operated my business, I used installed desktop software, but now there are many online solutions available. Using online accounting will eliminate the need to invest a large amount of money upfront and you’ll always have access to the latest version of the tool. Your accountant can help you determine the best fit. Bonus points if the solution lets your accountant have access to your real-time data.

7. File online: It makes good sense to file your taxes online because it’s faster and you’re less likely to make errors. And in many cases, it’s the law. There are certain forms that are required to be filed electronically, which is where your accountant comes in with an understanding of specific tax requirements for small businesses.

8. Don’t be late: How do you ensure you’re not late for regular meetings or appointments? You likely have them marked in your calendar and you prepare for them in advance. Do the same thing when it comes to filing taxes, otherwise you might face hefty penalties. These can be be avoided with the proper planning.

Working with an accountant and using tools that make the process easier will not only help you handle tax time, but give your small business a competitive edge, and let you get back to doing what you love.

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Mapping the brain, one video game at a time

If you were born at some point after 1976, and grew up in anything but the most unlikely of circumstances, there’s a good chance that an adult of some kind—a parent, a teacher, an aunt—told you that you should stop playing video games because they were really bad for your brain. Forgive these finger-waggers: there was no way, after all, for them to imagine something as groundbreaking as EyeWire, a video game that harnesses the passions of hundreds of thousands of players to achieve no less exalted a task than the mapping of the human brain itself.

Like so many other great inventions, EyeWire, was born of frustration. Working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a team led by neuroscientist Sebastian Seung grew weary of the time it took to map each of the brain’s cells. Eager to advance this momentous undertaking, they managed to cut down the time it took to map each single cell—a long and complicated process that previously consumed thousands of hours—into a mere two-day stretch.

Ever the scientists, Seung and his crew did some simple math: if the brain had around 80 billion cells, and if each cell took about 50 hours to map, that still meant that a team of 100 researchers, using the most recent computational technology and working every single hour of every day of the week without sleep or break, would still require upwards of 500,000 years to complete the project. Worried that mankind will never fully understand the magnificent processing unit that powers each of us to learn and love and communicate with each other, they looked elsewhere for sources of inspiration.

Almost immediately, they stumbled on video games. Hundreds of millions of people, they knew, spent billions of hours—as many as three billion hours per week, according to some calculations—playing games online. What if one of these games would involve the actual cartography of actual neurons and synapses?

Thus was born EyeWire. The game takes images of retinal cells that connect the eyes and the brain, and challenges gamers to identify their wiring. The faster and more accurate they get, the more they’re rewarded by receiving points and unlocking special powers.

“It’s a fun kind of game because no two cubes look alike,” says Amy Robinson, the project’s executive director. “It’s a challenging puzzle, and as you play it you help discover a never-before-charted area of the brain.”

Gamers agree: to date, more than 200,000 of them have become EyeWire devotees. Which, Robinson notes, is still a far cry from the number of gamers who flock each day to, say, World of Warcraft; still, those who get hooked on EyeWire tend to develop a special connection to the game, seeing it as much more than mere mind-numbing entertainment.

“One player built a bot to answer FAQs,” Robinson says, recalling a helpful bit of user-generated software that immediately identified new players and directed them to helpful resources to aid them in their efforts to better master the game. “He hacked our system in such a wonderful way.”

That’s the kind of dedication you get when your game promotes perhaps the greatest scientific undertaking facing mankind at the moment; remember that next time anyone tells you video games are a waste of time.

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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The True Star of the Nets Season? The Center-Hung

The faint antiphonal murmur of the Barclays Center control room floats above the basketball court, which is visible through a long glass window that feels a lot like a one-way mirror looking into an interrogation room. The only light comes from a series of 30 or so monitors and switchboards sticking out of the walls, or planted at an angle on the network of connected desks that snake through the room. In one corner, a technician is skillfully rewinding game tape to piece together an instant replay. In another corner, an engineer is preparing a sound reel to get the crowd animated. These are the men and women who run the jumbotron. Logan Meier, who commands the room during sporting events, corrects me: “People in my industry sort of cringe when we hear the word jumbotron. Here we simply call it a ‘center-hung.’”

While the Brooklyn Nets may have once again failed to prove their NBA playoff mettle, after being bounced in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks, the Barclays center-hung operators may be the most skilled in the NBA. Their instrument comprises an upper LED ring, a scoring matrix board on which the game score is posted, a standard video board, and finally a smaller LED display ring at the bottom. The modern day arena center-hung, Meier explains, is in a state of constant evolution: the first were simple scoring devices with an arrangement of bulbs. Gradually, color was introduced, then video components—”simple things, like the sort of displays you might see outside a carwash.”

The stream of replays, player highlights, sponsor messages, and digital explosions, each stacked upon one another on different pieces of the center hung, are all the part of a careful science, the heart of which sits in the control room and at the skilled hands of its 15 operators carrying out the orders of the floor producer, who organizes a script for the center-hung program in the two days leading to every game. “An entertainment show has its own personality,” Meier tells me, describing the Barclays ethos. “Some of that philosophy is handed down to us, but we do get some creative freedom.”

The center-hung’s carefully constructed script must include spots for the Center’s corporate sponsors, audience shots, player information, and instant replays; the script must also account for the on-court entertainment like t-shirt tosses, audio elements—which, as of late, has included crowd pump-up music by a local DJ. The director must also monitor the feeds of four cameramen dispatched throughout the arena. Paul Kamras, the Senior Director of presentation for Nets games, has playfully dubbed this art of taking each of these components and organizing them into a deployable script a “carefully planned spontaneity.” He thinks of each game script as a puzzle: “You get 1,000 pieces and have to put them into place in a way that makes sense.” And though the cameramen must be at certain, agreed-upon locations during different moments to accommodate the game script, they must each be on the lookout for enthusiastic fans worthy of making it onto the video board of the center-hung. The Nets have already developed a cadre of dedicated fans and personalities, on whom the cameramen can rely for good in-game shots.

Though the script is prepared two days in advance, often Meier and his team do not receive a final draft until the evening itself. Even that is subject to change. One of the greatest last-minute challenges Meier and the producer must face are those involving player trades. “When we traded Kevin Garnett for Thaddeus Young,” Kamras says, “we needed to remove Garnett from our game introduction video. We didn’t have footage of Young and had to quickly set up a green screen shoot. We shot it after Young’s first practice as a Nets player.”

The operators’ craft consists of creating a centerpiece of attention that remains, almost against its nature, understated. The notion that at every moment the audience members will have both eyes fixed on the center-hung and that every moment must therefore be accounted for creates a sort of reverse-panopticon effect of sports entertainment. Over the course of an evening, we inevitably grow familiar with the persona of the soft-spoken star that is at the center of it all. Meier and his producer must thrive on the relentlessness of the task; after all, as Zarathustra said, “one must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” And what is the center-hung if not a dancing star? It is even possible that next year, the stars on the Brooklyn hardwood will shine as bright.

Photo courtesy of Barclays Center

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Delivering Solar Power to Southeast Asia’s Remote Villages

After traveling across Southeast Asia, New Jersey native Maggie Doyne was inspired by a young Nepalese girl who had been separated from her family because of civil war. Nine years later, Doyne helped found the Kopila Valley School in western Nepal, bringing better access to education to scores of children.

Making it all possible was SunFarmer, a company that brought solar power to this remote part of the region.

Andy Moon, co-founder of Sunfarmer, says Doyne’s story reminds him of the importance of his organization’s work.

“SunFarmer’s mission is to make solar the most reliable and affordable source of energy in the developing world,” says Moon, a WeWork Fulton Center member. “Prior to putting solar at Kopila, Maggie and her team were struggling to even print lesson plans. They couldn’t use lights, charge phones, or even refrigerate food.

Now, two years after their inception, the SunFarmer team has worked on 10 similar projects across Southeast Asia, all of which focus on bringing electricity to the developing world.

“We started by targeting only hospitals, but now we’ve expanded into schools, farms, and local businesses,” says Moon.

Andy MoonA former management consultant, Andy spent time doing market finance at SunEdison, a solar energy company that has become one of the largest of its kind in the world. It was at SunEdison that Moon first grew interested in solar energy and met his future SunFarmer co-founder Jason Grey.

“There are over two million people without electricity,” Moon explains, a statistic that inspired him to make a radical change in his career path. “Without electricity, you can’t run hospitals, farmers can’t grow crops, businesses can’t run factories to employ people.”

Moon describes his company as a “nonprofit social enterprise,” meaning that while its mission is social in nature, it does charge customers for electricity.

“Donated solar projects have failed all over India and Asia,” Moon says. ”So our customers pay with affordable installments over five-year periods. We plan to complete 4,000 projects by 2020, and the only way is by raising money by charging customers for the electricity we provide.”

In the wake of Nepal’s recent earthquake, the SunFarmer team developed a separate donation-based project aimed at bringing clean water and electricity to the country.

Having put down strong roots in Nepal, Moon reveals this nonprofit work is very close to his heart.

“We’ve met so many truly inspiring nonprofits there,” says Moon.

Moon says his team has worked with a health clinic run by midwives that couldn’t obtain government-issued medical equipment because of the lack of electricity. Without proper tools or overhead lighting, these women were forced to deliver countless babies by flashlight.

“Electricity is one of the big problems that we face today,” Moon says. “It’s one of those big issues—like health, agriculture, and education—that our world should really be talking about. We take things for granted in the developed world, but being able to work with such an awesome team on such a huge problem is what keeps our team driving forward.”

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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Can’t find a parking space? That’s no problem with Spot

People are making cash on Airbnb by renting out their rooms. They’re lending their cars to strangers for some extra dough through RelayRides. Now Mark Abramowicz and Braden Golub are giving people yet another way to profit from stuff they’re not using at the moment.

Abramowicz and Golub are the co-founders of Spot, an app that lets people rent out their unused parking spots. It’s already up and running in Boston, where they live and work, and boasts just under 15,000 users.

“We’re bringing an underutilized asset to the public market,” says Golub. “All cities want more people coming in, as well as more tax dollars.”

By mid-July, the co-founders said they plan to launch Spot in Chicago, and, by the end of the year, they’re aiming to be in other major markets like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington, D.C. According to their website, Spot owners can make hundreds of dollars per month on their space.

Golub thought of the idea for the app after noticing the parking situation in his own neighborhood.

“One night I was coming back from my girlfriend’s place a half a mile away from my house,” he says. “I walked past my parking lot and saw that 10 out of 25 spots were empty. I was thinking that I could put my girlfriend’s car in one of those spots and I could pay the owner. That was my aha moment.”

Since they started developing the app, Abramowicz and Golub have been tweaking it based on feedback from their users.

“These early users are our bread and butter, says Golub. “We’re engaged with them on a daily basis. We ask them what they like or don’t like about Spot. We’re a small company and we can react pretty quickly.”

Right now the two are looking into insurance that would protect users in case their property was somehow damaged. They also have a process of verifying each user and spot owner and can retrieve details about a renter’s car.

Above all, they’re hoping to contribute to this new economic ecosystem and provide their users with another avenue for revenue.

“It’s about putting the power of this sharing economy into the mainstream hands,” says Braden. “We think that’s very valuable.”

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