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The Lowdown on Obama's Small Business Plan

The president is right that current rules make it very hard for growing businesses to raise money. Will Congress really cooperate to change them?
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Yesterday, President Obama presented the details behind one of his State of the Union initiatives: to make it easier for small businesses to raise money and to grow. Most of the president's initiatives fall into two camps: those that change the nature of what it means to be a public company, and nick-and-tuck adjustments that aren't going to make a huge difference for small businesses. 

The first set of rules, which would make it easier for small companies to raise money, is by far the most promising. These efforts already have some bipartisan support, but this Congress is hardly known for its ability to cooperate. And while some entrepreneurs will no doubt welcome the tax cuts, they're not going to make a huge difference.

Making fundraising easier

Sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo have proven that crowdfunding is a viable way for small companies to raise money. But existing regulations make it almost impossible for entrepreneurs to offer shares to individuals who aren't wealthy. Entrepreneurs who use Kickstarter to launch their company instead offer t-shirts, ad space, discounts, and whatever else they can come up with. Making it easier for entrepreneurs to actually sell shares could change the ecosystem. The Obama administration is calling for a 'framework' to allow this--but that's something that's not going to happen immediately.

Similarly, big regulations can take effect when companies raise more than $5 million. The president would raise that ceiling to $50 million. And after companies do go public, the president wants to have public-company regulations kick in gradually rather than all at once, to make going public a bit less onerous. All of these initiatives could really help small companies raise the money they need to grow.

Tax cuts that won't matter

Then there are the tax cuts. The first, which is actually a tax credit for job-creation, is highly unlikely to persuade any business owner to make additional hires that they wouldn't have already made. It's just too much work to bring a new hire on board, never mind letting them go if it doesn't work out. And financially, the tax credit doesn't help that much: The president wants to give employers a 10 percent tax credit for new hires, but then the business will have to pay about 7.5 percent in payroll taxes for that same employee (not including unemployment tax). The only thing that will make business owners start hiring is stronger demand for their goods and services.

The president also wants to expand the range of "key" investments in small businesses that are exempt from capital gains tax. This would make a similar provision, enacted in 2010, permanent. This will only be meaningful if the range of eligible investments is dramatically expanded. Currently, the investment has to be in a business structured as a C corporation. Given that all 50 states have passed LLC legislation, that excludes a lot of businesses. Businesses that rely upon the skill of the owner don't make the cut either, which means entire industries such as financial services, consulting, and engineering are excluded. Plus, the exemptions from capital gains apply to those who invest in small companies--which is not necessarily the entrepreneur.

The other tax cuts are more straightforward: Letting business owners deduct $10,000 (rather than $5,000) in start-up expenses, and allowing business-owners to take 100 percent depreciation on some equipment in the first year.

Then there's the president's proposal to add $1 billion to the amount of federal funding available to SBICs, or Small Business Investment Companies. SBICs invest money in small companies, and do a pretty good job of channeling that funding to low-income areas or minority or women entrepreneurs. In 2011, 34 percent of SBIC investments went to companies that fit one of those descriptions. These investments have a great track record of repayment. Why argue with this one?

Helping entrepreneurs right from the start

To really help entrepreneurs get a fair shake from the tax code, the president should seriously consider a long-time proposal from the National Association for the Self-Employed: Stop penalizing self-employed people (and entrepreneurs who have just taken the leap to start out on their own). They can't deduct their healthcare expenses the way big companies can and they pay both the employer and the employee share of the payroll tax. Ideally, self-employed people will eventually build their companies and hire others. It's tough enough for them to get health insurance, credibility, and everything else needed to run a business. Instead of giving them a hand, we're handicapping them right from the start.

IMAGE: US Embassy New Zealand/FLickr
Last updated: Feb 1, 2012

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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