It’s a common refrain among online entrepreneurs: 

“I had no idea how much I would need to know about so many different things.” 

The amount of information we have to stuff into our brains to successfully navigate a business through all the ups, downs, and sideways stuff that gets thrown at us is astonishing! 

It’s why I don’t judge when other business owners tell me they’ve sort of glossed over “legal,” – but I do want to educate them on why they need to fix that ASAP. 

Because while there is undeniably a lot to know, there are also a lot of ways legal trouble can spell the end for your venture. 

You don’t have to become an attorney or even consume a bunch of dry, dense books written in legal-ese. 

There are tons of engaging resources out there for you… 

And as we come into year-end biz planning mode, I’ve rounded up 24 of them in 5 different categories to help you navigate the legal trials and tribulations of being an online business owner. 

So you can soar into 2024 with confidence. 

(If you’d rather just jump ahead to the 24 resources linked throughout this article, head to the bottom of the page.) 

**Real quick before we jump in: 

Everything I share is legal education and information. It’s not business, financial, or legal advice, and it doesn’t create an attorney-client relationship between us.*

1. Simplify written contracts for your online biz.

 This is the first category I want to cover because it’s one of my absolute non-negotiables when it comes to setting up and running a successful business.  

You need written contracts to look like a professional and set boundaries (like what the deliverables are, what the timeline looks like, what the payment terms are, how cancellations will be handled, and even when you can be contacted.) 

Plus, your brand assets are only as good as the protection you provide them with solid legal contracts. 

There are 6 contracts you need for a legit online business: 

  1. Client Agreements
  2. Independent Contractor Agreement
  3. Nondisclosure Agreements
  4. Website Privacy Policy
  5. Terms and Conditions for your website
  6. Terms of Use for digital products and memberships

There are also a few contract basics you’ll want to understand so you can use your agreements confidently (and correctly): 

–Contracts are governed by state law.

This comes into play when you work with clients across state lines. It’s important that you indicate which state rules apply in your client agreements. 

–Don’t start work until your contract is signed. 

This may seem like a no-brainer, but just because your contract is floating around does not mean it’s safe to start working. 

–Make sure both parties sign the contract. 

It’s common for the contract owner to forget to sign their own contract (and you need a fully executed contract for easier enforcement). 

–Sign the business contracts on behalf of your entity to maintain limited liability. 

If you’ve got an LLC, you want to sign as your LLC. 

–All important business relationships should have a contract. 

They aren’t just for clients but also for vendors, partners, independent contractors, and employees. 

You can draft your own client agreements (just make sure you include these key provisions), but you definitely can’t copy and paste them. 

Even the ones that seem basic at first glance, like your privacy policy and terms and conditions for your website. 

But the good news is that you also don’t need to spend a fortune on having an attorney write bespoke contracts for you. 

You can use attorney-drafted templates as a savvy and more economical way to CYA.

2. Understanding intellectual property (IP) – your most valuable business asset

You may have seen a lot of recent online outrage over plagiarism on social media.  

People (rightfully) get really heated over this because plagiarism is theft of intellectual property.  

Intellectual Property (IP) is an umbrella term that covers creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce. 

The 3 big types of IP include: 

  1. Trademarks, which act as identifiers for specific products or services;
  2. Copyrights, which protect original works of authorship, and;
  3. Patents, which protect innovations and inventions.

It’s important to point out that ideas are not automatically protected. They have to be expressed in a medium to be protected.  

In other words, you can’t copyright a thought or patent an idea that only exists in your head. 

But once it’s expressed, you want to be really careful you aren’t infringing on someone else’s copyrights.  

Trademarks have their own legal nuance to navigate. 

You have trademark rights as soon as you start using the mark, but there is little to moderate legal protection that comes with a Common Law Mark. 

There’s a spectrum to determine how strong your trademark is and a whole process for successful registration that includes a thorough trademark search before you get started. 

Federally registering your trademark comes with a host of benefits, including the ability to: 

  • Use the ® symbol to alert potential infringers of your registration;
  • Sue for infringement in federal court;
  • Recover attorney’s fees and damages if your infringement lawsuit is successful;
  • Have an easier process registering your trademark internationally;
  • Secure a valuable asset for your company.

 So when should you actually register your trademark?

 There are 3 questions I encourage you to consider before you spend the time (and money) pursuing federal registration. 

  1. Do you have a profitable product or service?
  2. Do you intend to stick with your product or service?
  3. Do you plan to stop others from infringing on your trademark?

And, of course, it always helps to have a solid understanding of IP and why you should prioritize the protection of your valuable business assets.

3. How to hire help for your business (the right and legal way)

It’s exciting when you reach a point where you need to hire help for your business. 

It usually means you’re making a healthy, sustainable income, and you’re ready to grow some more.  

But, like anything else business-related, you need a solid strategy in place before you dive in. 

First, it’s important to understand that an independent contractor is not the same as an employee. 

The biggest difference between the two is how they’re taxed (and the IRS plays a huge role in that determination, which is why you need to be crystal clear on who you’re hiring and how they fit into your business structure). 

Most small online business owners start out by hiring contractors like VAs, copywriters, graphic designers, accountants, and so on. 

If you’re ready to outsource something outside your zone of genius, consider the legal aspects of: 

–Intellectual property (you want to make sure the copyright on work produced belongs to you)

–Liability insurance (to protect from potential legal issues and help cover any associated legal costs)

–SOPs (standard operating procedures will make your and your independent contractors’ lives much easier by keeping expectations clear) 

In my experience, you’ll be much happier with your contractors if you have a plan in place before you hire them.

4. Dealing with less-than-ideal clients

Sooner or later, you will have to deal with a less-than-ideal client. 

(I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news if you haven’t actually met this client yet.) 

There are 6 red flags I warn business owners to watch out for: 

  1. They won’t sign your contract.
  2. They won’t pay your deposit.
  3. They ignore your questions.
  4. They don’t respect your boundaries.
  5. They aren’t being honest with their own clients.
  6. Something just doesn’t “feel” right.

The earlier you can catch these red flags, the less painful – and messy – things will be for you. 

Sometimes, when a client does escape your red flag detection, it results in a business owner’s worst nightmare: 

“My client won’t pay for the work I delivered.”

My hope is that if this does happen to you, you’ve got those solid written contracts in place, like we talked about earlier. 

In which case, you can take the following steps to get paid: 

–Send a “friendly collection letter” letting them know that payment is due.

–Speak with an attorney to send a letter on official letterhead paper if the first notice is ignored.

–Review the next steps outlined in your contract and make a decision about collections, arbitration, or court proceedings.

And if in doubt, get advice from an attorney in your area.

5. Navigating mistakes because they will happen

 One thing I swear no one ever tells you about being the boss is that mistakes will happen, and you’ll be the one who has to figure out how to deal. 

It pays to be prepared and know what potential pitfalls could lay ahead for you. 

Some of the most common mistakes you may have to navigate are issues caused by: 

–Inadequate or inaccurate documentation 

–Poor client communication

–Missed deadlines (without prior consultation/communication)

–Lack of pricing or billing transparency

–Overconfidence or misrepresentation of your abilities

You can probably see how setting your business up with legal parameters can significantly reduce the odds of these mistakes happening. 

Or at least lessen the severity when they do. 

Bookmark this resource in case you find yourself navigating a business mistake in the future. 

(And if you’re lucky enough to have a trusted mentor or business coach, you can always ask them, too!)

RECAP: 24 resources to round out your legal know-how right now

Want to jump ahead to the resources you need? 

Here they all are, by category: 

Written contracts for online business owners 

  1. Setting Boundaries in Business with Solid Contracts
  2. Contracts You Need for a Legit Online Business
  3. Keeping Your Business Info Secret with an NDA
  4. What the Heck is a Privacy Policy? And Do I Need One?
  5. Terms and Conditions – Why Your Website Needs Them and 7 Key Provisions to Include
  6. Terms of Use for Your Digital Products
  7. 5 Contract Basics Every Business Owner Should Know
  8. Why You Need a Written Client Agreement and 5 Key Provisions to Include
  9. Can I Copy and Paste My Terms and Conditions
  10. Should I Use a Legal Template for My Online Business?

Intellectual Property for online business owners 

  1. Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patent: An Overview of 3 Different Types of Intellectual Property
  2. Copyright Issues Every Business Owner Needs to Know Before Using Photos Online
  3. Are Common Law Trademark Rights Enough to Protect Your Brand?
  4. How to Choose a Strong Trademark for Your Bran.
  5. Worried Your Trademark Registration Will Be Refused?
  6. Why a Thorough Trademark Search is Essential to Your Business
  7. When Should I Get a Trademark?

Outsourcing for online business owners 

  1. You Need to Know What “Independent Contractor” Means
  2. What Every Small Business Owner Should Know About Outsourcing

Dealing with difficult clients as an online business owner 

  1. 6 Red Flags That Tell You If It’s Time to Fire a Client
  2. What If My Client Doesn’t Pay?

Navigating mistakes that happen to online business owners 

  1. 5 Common Mistakes Online Service Providers Make and How to Handle Them Like a Pro
  2. The Importance of a Mentor for Your Business
  3. Why You Should Have a Business Coach – No Matter Which Industry You’re In

If you’re ready to get more involved in the legal protection of your brand: 

Grab your attorney-drafted contract templates

Take the legal mini-course

Sign up for the exclusive podcast – Uncomplicating Trademarks

 And bookmark this article so you can refer back to the resources you need to navigate the legal trials and tribulations of an online business owner with ease.

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