Get all of the information you need to start and run a small business.
Here's an overview of the key steps you'll need to take to start your own business in Wisconsin.
Take time to explore and research ideas for your business. At this stage, take into consideration your own interests, skills, resources, availability, and the reasons why you want to form a business. You should also consider the likelihood of success based on the interests of your community, and whether your business idea will meet an unmet need. Read our article for more tips on how to evaluate business ideas.
After you select an idea, consider drafting a business plan to determine your chances of making a profit. When you create a plan, you will have a better idea of the startup costs, your competition, and strategies for making money. Investors and lenders might ask to review your business plan before providing financial assistance. To learn more about the benefits of business plans, and how to create one for your enterprise see Why You Need to Write a Business Plan.
The most common legal structures for a small business are:
There also are special versions of some of these structures, such as limited partnerships and S corporations. You'll want to consider which business entity structure offers the type of liability protection you want and the best tax, financing, and financial benefits for you and your business. Read our article for information on how to choose the best ownership structure for your business.
For LLCs and corporations, you will need to check that your name is distinguishable from the names of other business entities already on file with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI). You can check for available names by doing a business entity search on the DFI website. You can reserve an available name for 120 days by filing a Name Reservation Application (Form 1) with the DFI. There are certain name requirements for LLCs and corporations (like including a word such as "LLC" for LLCs or "Company" for corporations). See How to Form an LLC in Wisconsin and How to Form a Corporation in Wisconsin for more information.
Is your business a sole proprietorship or partnership that uses a business name that is different from the legal name of the business owner (for a sole proprietorship) or surnames of the individual partners (for a partnership)? If so, you have the option to file a Registration of Firm Names with the Register of Deeds in the county where your business is located.
If you plan on doing business online, you may want to register your business name as a domain name. See Choose and Register a Domain Name for more information. In addition, to avoid trademark infringement issues, you should do a federal and state trademark check to make sure the name you want to use is not the same as or too similar to a name already in use. See How to Do a Trademark Search for more information.
Tax Registration. If you will be selling goods in Wisconsin, you must register with the Department of Revenue (DOR) to collect sales tax. If your businesses will have employees, you must register with the DOR for employer withholding taxes. You can register for both types of tax, as well as other business taxes, online via the state's One Stop Business Portal or the DOR's Online Registration site (depending on your business type). You can also register on paper using Form BTR-101, Application for Wisconsin Business Tax Registration.
EIN. If your business has employees or is taxed separately from you, you must obtain a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. Even if you are not required to obtain an EIN, there are often business reasons for doing so. Banks often require an EIN to open an account in the business's name and other companies you do business with may require an EIN to process payments. You can get an EIN by completing an online application. There is no filing fee.
Regulatory licenses and permits. These cover areas such as:
Different licenses and permits are issued by different agencies. You can find out about — and apply for — tax-related licenses through the Department of Revenue. Some of the state's other important regulatory licenses and permits are handled through the Department of Natural Resources and divisions of the Department of Health Services. For information about local licenses and permits, check the websites for any cities or counties where you will do business.
Professional and occupational licenses. These cover people who work in various fields. The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) has information about the full range of the state's licensed professions and occupations.
You'll need to pick a location for your business and check local zoning regulations. Before you commit to a location, take time to calculate the costs of running your business in the desired spot, including rent and utilities. You can refer back to your business plan to evaluate whether you can afford your desired location during your company's early months.
It is important to verify that the spot is zoned for your type of business. You might find zoning regulations for your town or city by reviewing your local ordinances and contacting your town's zoning or planning department. Read our article for more tips on picking a location.
One alternative to opening your business at a new location is running your company out of your home. If you decide to run a home-based business, again check your local zoning laws. In addition, review your lease (if you rent your home) and homeowners association rules (if applicable), either of which might ban some or all home businesses.
Wisconsin taxes every kind of business. That includes a so-called economic development surcharge that applies to businesses with $4 million or more in gross receipts. See Wisconsin State Business Income Tax for more information on state business taxes in Wisconsin.
Sole proprietorships. Pay state taxes on business income as part of their personal state income tax returns (Form 1).
Partnerships. Partners pay state taxes on partnership income on personal tax returns. In addition, most Wisconsin partnerships also must file Form 3, Wisconsin Partnership Return.
LLCs. Members pay state taxes on their share of LLC income on personal tax returns. In addition, LLCs themselves have to file an additional state tax form. The specific form used will depend on how the LLC is classified for federal tax purposes. Wisconsin LLCs also are required to file an annual report with the Wisconsin DFI. See Wisconsin LLC Annual Filing Requirements for more information.
Corporations. Shareholders must pay state taxes on their dividends from the corporation. A shareholder-employee with a salary also must pay state income tax on his or her personal state tax return. Moreover, the corporation itself is subject to Wisconsin corporation franchise tax. Finally, corporations must file an annual report with the Wisconsin DFI.
If you have employees, you must also deal with state employer taxes.
Business insurance can protect your company and your personal assets from the fallout of unexpected disasters, such as personal injury lawsuits or natural catastrophes. An insurance agent can help you explore the different coverage options for your business, which may include general liability insurance to protect you against claims relating to bodily injury or property damage, or malpractice insurance for professionals such as doctors and lawyers. To learn more, see Nolo's article, What Types of Insurances Does Your Small Business Need?
No matter the type of business you form, you should consider opening a separate business account to make it easier to track your income and expenses. For some business types, like LLCs and corporations, a separate bank account is necessary to maintain your liability protection. To learn more, see Opening a Business Bank Account.