Looking to start a small business in Wisconsin? You may need to obtain one or more state licenses or permits, or complete one or more kinds of state registration, as part of the start-up process. Here’s a quick look at some of the main informational resources available and a few of the steps you may need to take.
The Business Creation Resources section of the Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) website has links to many other websites that are helpful to Wisconsin small businesses. Included are links to:
There are also many other linked items.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has a district office in Wisconsin. The office’s website lists upcoming events, resources, and news for small businesses. The SBA also publishes a Wisconsin-specific Resource Guide for Small Business that you can download from the SBA website.
The Wisconsin Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has guidance on how to start, manage, and grow your business. The Wisconsin SBDC is part of a national network of small business development centers. Similarly,Wisconsin SCORE is part of a national organization that provides training and consulting services for small businesses. (SCORE previously was an acronym for Service Corps of Retired Executives, but now presents itself as “SCORE, Counselors to America's Small Business.”)
Not every Wisconsin business needs a license. However, many types of business either can or must get one or more license or permits. Speaking very generally, some licenses and permits are regulatory in nature (covering specific business activities) while others are for professions and occupations. Professional licenses are covered below.
Different regulatory licenses and permits are issued by different state agencies. Some of the most important of these licenses and permits relate to taxes, the environment, and health and safety, but there are many other types of regulatory licenses as well. You can find out about tax-related licenses through the Department of Revenue(DOR). You can apply for these licenses through the DOR’s Business Tax Online Registration. Many other regulatory licenses and permits are handled through the Department of Natural Resources and divisions of the Department of Health Services.
In addition to state licenses and permits, some required licenses and permits are issued locally. The requirements vary depending on the city or town involved. You can find more details by checking the website for the city where you’ll operate your business. Some businesses may be exempt from local licensing requirements under state or federal law.
Beyond obtaining required licenses or permits, some legal forms of business, such as corporations and limited liability companies (LLCs), are required to file records with the state. More specifically, corporations, LLCs, and certain other types of businesses must file organizational documents with the DFI. Check the Forms section of the DFI website for more details.
If you’re a member of any one of many professions and occupations, you’ll need to be licensed by the State of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) has information about the full range of the state’s licensed professions and occupations. The DSPS website has general sections for Business Professions, Health Professions, and Trades Professions, as well as for things like Renewal Information andEducation and Exams. In each of the Professions sections, you’ll find long lists of licensed professions. For example, the Business Professions section has a list running from “Accountant, Certified Public” to “Warehouse for Cemetery Merchandise.” By clicking on an item on a list, you’ll be taken to another page with detailed information about rules, regulations, and licensing for that profession or occupation.
Example: Carmen wants to work as a licensed auctioneer. She’ll need to apply for a license through the Auctioneer Board. She can find detailed information and a copy of the license application by clicking on the link for Auctioneer on the DSPS website.
Many small businesses don’t simply operate under the names of their owners. Instead, they operate under a business name. In addition, some businesses, such as corporations and LLCs, may originally register with the state under one name (sometimes called the registered name, actual name, or true name), but later choose to operate under another name. Depending on where you’re doing business and how your business is structured, this alternative business name technically may be known as an assumed name, a fictitious name, a trade name, or a DBA (for “doing business as”). Wisconsin corporations, LLCs, and certain other domestic (Wisconsin-organized) business types that intend to operate under a trade name must register that name with the DFI. For additional information on state requirements, check the Trademarks and Tradenames section of the DFI website. Other business types, such as sole proprietorships and general partnerships, may register an assumed name with the Register of Deeds of the county where the business is located.
Example: Harry originally organized his car repair business as a Wisconsin corporation named Harry’s Milwaukee Garage, Inc. He now wants to operate the business under the name Lake Michigan Foreign Auto Repair, Inc. Harry must file Form DFI/TRD101, Registration of Tradename/Trademark, including the filing fee, with the DFI.
There are separate legal definitions for trademarks, service marks, and trade names. However, speaking very generally, trademarks, service marks, and trade names are used to uniquely identify goods (products), services, or a business. This includes distinguishing a product, service, or business from potential competitors. You can register trademarks with the State of Wisconsin. (This is distinct from federal registration.) You can find more information by going to the Trademarks and Tradenames section of the DFI website.
Example: Charlene wants to sell her coffee-cocoa candy bars under the name “Charlie’s Cocoa Espresso Buzz Bars.” So—after checking to make sure the name isn’t already in use—she files a Form DFI/TRD101, Registration of Tradename/Trademark, including the filing fee, with the DFI.
This article covers only the very tip of the iceberg regarding small business licenses and registrations in Wisconsin. You can find much more information in the many other articles in the Small Business section here on Nolo.com. Many of those articles are part of 50-state series—so you can get plenty of information that’s specific to the State of Wisconsin. You can also find expanded information in many Nolo books, such as Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred S. Steingold, and The Small Business Start-Up Kit, by Peri Pakroo.