Small Business

2015 may be the year you actually start that business

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If your New Year's resolution was to start a small business, time may be on your side in 2015.

Optimism among small business owners increased last year, reaching 98.1 in December 2014, the highest reading since February 2007, according to the National Federation of Independent Business. Experts say a number of factors could boost Main Street optimism and entrepreneurship rates further in the new year, among them access to cash, low fuel costs and a number of tax incentives.

Nigel Thomas, 38, left his career as a software engineer to soft launch his New York City-based business in November 2014. This year, Thomas plans to expand his company, GoLocker, which allows consumers who don't live in buildings with doormen to use lockers to intercept packages, so they don't have to wait around for delivery.

Access to capital

Thomas so far has two sets of lockers in bodegas in Brooklyn, and plans to open three more locations in the first quarter of this year. Tax credits were a key part of why Thomas decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge.

"New York City has great incentives around green initiatives, and as our business expands we would like to take advantage of those tax credits," he said.

Nigel Thomas left a software engineer career to soft launch his business, GoLocker, in New York City.
Photo: Stephen Tyler

Another factor encouraging entrepreneurship is low interest rates.

Historically low interest rates and its impact on small business owners should not be overlooked, says Gene Marks, founder of small business consulting firm The Marks Group. For example, the U.S. Small Business Administration is zeroing out fees on loans of $150,000 or less through fiscal year 2015, Marks says.

"Some banks are still wary about giving small-business loans, but they have created a market for the micro and alt lenders of the world," said Marks, adding there are more options to access capital.

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Alternative lenders including OnDeck Capital and Lending Club can have looser lending standards and quicker turnaround times for cash, although interest rates can be quite high.

Low fuel costs

Lower energy prices also are making starting a venture more enticing.

While low gasoline prices may give consumers more cash to spend, lower fuel prices also mean fewer worries for small business owners, Marks says. Energy costs are a top business expense for small businesses.

The U.S. average for regular gasoline is about $2.19 a gallon, the lowest since May 2009, according to AAA data.

Taxes and retirement incentives

In other cases, tax incentives are luring potential entrepreneurs.

One tax incentive that start-ups can take advantage of in 2015 is the Small Business Tax Credit. This is for small employers that offer workers health insurance through the Small Business Health Options exchange setup under the Affordable Care Act. To qualify, workers must have fewer than 25 workers all making an average of $50,000 or less. Employers who offer their workers coverage through the exchange are eligible to receive up to 50 percent back on those premiums, says Mike Trabold, director of Compliance Risk at Paychex, a payroll and human resource services firm.

Small businesses that start a new 401(k) plan can claim a federal tax credit for the first three years of the plan to offset their start-up costs, including costs to set up and administer the plan, as well as costs to educate employees. Trabold also points out that the maximum contribution has increased in 2015 to $18,000.

Finally, Trabold says energy investments and tax credits are worth considering.

If a small business buys an energy system including solar panels, fuel cells or wind system, business owners may qualify for these tax credits under the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008's Business Energy Investment Tax Credit. This credit applies to energy systems installed on or before Dec. 31, 2016.

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Taking the plunge

Of course, entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and the job market has picked up. That suggests some workers may feel less pressure to become their own boss out of necessity. In the latest jobs report from the Labor Department, 321,000 jobs were added in November, the 10th consecutive month of gains of more than 200,000 jobs. The unemployment rate held steady at 5.8 percent.

Despite an improved employment outlook, some entrepreneurs including Thomas can't resist the allure of incentives and the chance to be their own bosses.

"It's difficult to sit behind a desk and not be able to use your creative side," Thomas said. "But if you're a real entrepreneur, you will never be truly happy working for someone else."