Solopreneurs: Do NOT Allow Regulations to Kill Your Online Business
In 2015, the United States government published over 1,000 pages of new rules, regulations and proposals. Per day.
Over three years, the European Commission published 3,600 new regulations and directives, totalling 13 million words. That would take you three months just to read.
Many of those regulations don’t apply to online businesses, of course. But if you think that the Internet protects you from bureaucracy, think again…
Many regulations DO apply online. And laws made in the United States or Europe are frequently aimed at all online businesses, irrespective of where they’re located.
Seriously… your most valuable commodity as a solopreneur is time. Your biggest enemy is the lack of it. So guess what? If you are NOT spending your “time dollars” on one of these three tasks…
- generating traffic
- engaging the heck out of your audience
- selling stuff
… you’re as good as burning those dollars.
True, you’ll never escape administration completely. There’ll always be targets to set and boxes to tick.
But if you want to eliminate a huge, time-sucking chunk of “admin” from your working days, here’s what you need to do…
Lose Your Fear of “Big Brother”
George Orwell only had it half right…
Yes, Big Brother is watching. But he’s not watching YOU in particular – not if you’re a solopreneur. No offence, but he’s got bigger fish to fry!
Don’t believe that? Then you have a potentially business-killing problem that we need to work through.
Let’s start by considering these three regulations that the solopreneur has had to figure out all alone…
- The EU Cookie Law. If you use web cookies (and who doesn’t?) you need to obtain consent from your European visitors to use them.
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Guidelines. If you endorse products on your site as an affiliate, you need to disclose your relationship with the retailer “clearly and conspicuously.”
- The EU VAT Rules. If you sell digital goods to EU buyers, you have to collect proof of their location at checkout and charge Value Added Tax at the buyer’s local rate.
Never heard of some of those? Sorry, but ignorance of the law won’t wash with Big Brother.
To keep him happy, you need to…
- Keep up with all the latest online business news on the web, so that you’re aware of any new regulations that affect your business.
- Research new regulations in detail to understand what they mean and what you have to do. (And don’t expect anything as simple as a single document setting out your responsibilities in plain language.)
- Figure out how to actually meet the new regulations.
What’s the net effect of all that? A GIANT suck on your most precious commodity: Time!
And it gets worse…
Following these regulations to the letter will frequently result in a poorer experience for your users. They’ll need to take more steps to perform simple tasks, put up with more pop-ups, jump more hurdles.
That’s the bad news.
The good news? It is perfectly possible for the time-pressed solopreneur to “stick to the rules” WITHOUT threatening the very existence of their online business.
Here’s the first thing you need to do…
Get Someone Else to Be Your Eyes and Ears
Monitoring the web for news of laws and regulations and guidelines that you may (or may not) need to follow is a never-ending task.
Digging into those new laws to understand what you need to do, and how you should do it, is more thankless still (unless you happen to be fluent in legalese!)
Solution? Get somebody else to do the heavy lifting for you!
Here at SiteSell, we keep a constant eye on the web, particularly for news that’s relevant to solopreneurs. And we make sense of all that legalese for you, too.
Last year, for example, we were the first to cover the EU VAT Laws in depth and suggest common-sense solutions for solopreneurs.
We also provided additional VAT help to SBI! owners in our private forums, including regular updates throughout the year.
The EU Cookie Law? Yup, we covered it on the Blog. AND we developed the EU Cookie Widget for SBI! users, allowing them to comply with the law in a click-simple way at no additional expense.
The FTC guidelines? Our best practices for affiliate disclosure are spelled out in our “Monetization HQ” in plain language.
Bottom line? As a solopreneur, you cannot do everything yourself. Delegating the “complicated stuff” to SiteSell (or another company you trust with its finger on the pulse) leaves YOU free to concentrate on what counts… BUILDING your business!
So far, we’ve freed up a nice chunk of your time!
But what about the problem of giving your users a poor experience by following all these pesky rules and regulations to the letter?
That’s where the next piece of advice comes in…
Understand That Big Brother Is NOT Watching You, the Solopreneur
Legislation that seems HUGE at the time it is released, threatening the very existence of small businesses online, is largely ignored by the vast majority of these businesses. It’s not that solopreneurs are a law-breaking bunch by nature – just that the laws themselves are impractical for the solopreneur to implement.
Realize that if something is a huge headache for you, it’s huge for millions of other solopreneurs. And if it’s impractical for millions of solopreneurs to follow the latest piece of legislation to the letter, it’s equally impractical for Big Brother to act.
Worst case? You may receive a letter. And the letter may, in extreme circumstances, be a tad stern. But even then…
Don’t get your hopes up!
Not convinced? Then let’s zero-in on the EU Cookie Law to make the point.
(Don’t worry, we’ll keep it at a high level!)
There’s actually no such thing as an EU Cookie Law. The European Commission merely passed a “directive,” which was then turned into 28 separate laws by each of the 28 EU countries. Needless to say, each country interpreted the directive in a slightly different way…
- A handful of countries (e.g., France) insisted on “explicit” consent. Here, no cookies can be stored on the user’s computer until they give their explicit consent.
- Other countries (e.g., Austria) issued no clear guidance whatsoever.
What does that mean? It means that there is no such thing as Big Brother in the European Union. There are 28 “Little Brothers,” many of whom disagree with the others.
And added to THAT…
The Little Brothers have very limited resources. In the UK, for example, the responsible body is the ICO (the Information Commissioner’s Office). The ICO doesn’t actively hunt down the law breakers (not enough resources). It merely responds to “concerns” about cookies.
How many cookie concerns did the ICO receive in the first quarter of 2015? Um, 39. Compare that to the 37,561 concerns it received about “unwanted marketing communications.”
Did the ICO come down hard on the 39 businesses who had received a complaint? No, not exactly. In the ICO’s own words…
“We’ll look at the risks if and when customers complain to us. If a websites’ cookie and privacy is a risk to many people, we may then take action.”
What action, precisely?…
“It’s highly unlikely that organisations will get into trouble because of one cookie or just a few complaints, but we would seek to address any potential issues with the company concerned.”
A letter, in other words! And if you’re a solopreneur, you probably won’t even get that. The ICO, by its own admission, focuses its efforts on…
“… sites ranked in the 200 most visited in the UK, as these will have the greatest impact on consumers.”
None of this is meant to poke fun at the ICO. Indeed, they’ve done a great job in making their response to the “problem” of cookies proportionate to the low level of public concern about them.
Is the situation the same throughout the rest of the EU?
It seems so, yes…
To date, only three fines have been issued across the entire continent. Yes, three! And even they had little to do with cookies.
Unless you are near-insanely averse to risk (to the point where your health is suffering), there is no need to stick to the letter of every new regulation.
You could, for example, play it hyper-safe by seeking explicit cookie consent from your users (as a few EU countries say that you should). But…
- Your visitors will have a worse user experience.
- The regulators don’t have the resources to invest in such a low-priority issue. And where they do invest resources in the issue, they don’t waste them on solopreneurs.
If the odds of having the regulators spoil your day are slim indeed, isn’t it best to ignore all regulations totally?
Good question! But not so fast…
Ignore Regulations At You Peril
Some regulations, such as the EU VAT Laws we mentioned earlier, are both ill conceived AND unenforceable beyond the European Union.
For obvious reasons, we can never recommend that people ignore laws totally. But we can point out, as we did in our Definitive Guide to EU VAT, that non-EU solopreneurs are indeed beyond the reach of European regulators.
(For solopreneurs working within the EU, it’s a different matter. But we suggest a range of easy-to-implement solutions in the post.)
What about ignoring the EU Cookie Law?
As we’ve seen, your chances of being fined by the European regulators are as good as zero. But there’s another Orwellian figure you need to keep in mind…
After most businesses (and virtually all solopreneurs) had been happily ignoring the EU Cookie Law for years, Google spoilt the party by introducing its EU User Consent Policy.
In a nutshell, it said that anyone using a Google product – such as Google AdSense or Google Analytics – was now required to follow the pesky cookie laws.
Strange, when you consider Google’s icy relationship with the Europeans. Or maybe entirely predictable.
Either way, the possibility of losing access to your AdSense or Analytics accounts is no laughing matter. Hence the next recommendation…
If In Doubt, Take a Common-Sense Approach to Regulations
Whether Google will make any effort to enforce its policy is anyone’s guess. Though almost three months after the compliance deadline, there are no reports of anyone having an account disabled.
Still, if Google products are important to you, why take the chance?
If you take Google’s website on how to deal with the cookie laws at face value, it’s easy to get spooked into OVER-reaction. They start off by saying this…
Google then says this…
“In many cases these laws also require that consent be obtained.”
That’s a reference to the fact that some European countries (like France) insist that you obtain explicit user consent. And that’s NOT so good, because it would blitz that smooth user experience you’ve worked so hard to create.
Fear not, though…
Further down the page, Google suggests a variety of cookie solutions. And guess what? Most of those solutions are only suitable for obtaining implicit consent, not the strict explicit consent that they referenced at the top of the page.
If you’re massively risk-averse, or if you don’t have anyone to help you “read between the lines,” you may feel pressured to obtain explicit cookie consent – and mess up your user experience while you’re at it.
For most, though, an unobtrusive widget that provides the necessary information on cookies without detracting from the user experience is clearly the “best fit” solution.
Our own EU Cookie Widget for SBI! users is one such solution. Google provides links to others (both free and paid) on its cookie site.
Let’s take this home with a quick look at one more “common-sense” approach that we recommend…
This one concerns the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines on proper affiliate disclosure.
Not heard of that one? It basically says that if you recommend a product as an affiliate, you have to make it clear to your users that you stand to gain financially from any sale.
Yes, you could ignore the guidelines totally and NOT declare that you have an affiliate interest in a product. But we don’t recommend that.
You could also bury your disclosure at the bottom of some obscure page on your site – one that no user is likely to find except by accident. But we don’t recommend that, either.
Why not? Because the FTC guidelines make sense! Your users should be aware that you have a financial interest in any product that you recommend, right?
But don’t go too far…
If you get hung up on the legalese and the gray-zone cases in the FTC guidelines, you’ll waste your precious time AND implement over-engineered, experience-killing solutions.
Remember, no one is after the solopreneurs. The FTC has limited resources, too, and will focus on the biggest and worst offenders.
So apply “best fit” principles…
Be honest. Be open. Be creative by turning lemons into lemonade. And forget about Big Brother watching you.
He isn’t, at least not if you’re a solopreneur.
If that changes, we’ll be sure to let you know!