You’re about to embark on a long and exciting journey, one full of hard work and rewards: starting a new business. With wide eyes and big dreams, you’re about to enter the world of business ownership.
But beyond the initial thrill of the startup decision, there’s a lot to consider. In fact, if you’ve never done it before, starting a business can seem like an intimidating mountain of work. Out of all your responsibilities and tasks, you might not even know where to start.
But have no fear. The good news is that once you have everything planned out and understand the process, the formation process is smooth sailing. And this is your go-to guide.
Everything you’ve been wondering about, everything you need to do, every question you have – it’s all right here. By the time you’re through these 16 steps, you’ll be a bonafide business owner who’s prepared for sustained success.
1) Write a Business Plan
Jumping into this endeavor without goals, directives, or a sense of direction can lead to a scattered, unproductive business.
A business plan lays the groundwork for your future success. It helps you analyze key elements of your business and forge pathways to achieve your goals. Here are a few things you should consider including in your business plan:
- Executive Summary (a separate document that gives a complete overview of your business’ purpose, plans, goals, competition, opportunities, etc.)
- Company description
- Market Analysis (opportunities, competition, etc.)
- Managerial or organizational structure
- Products and/or services
- Marketing strategies
- Funding goals
- Financial projections
Business plans aren’t just great for internal operations, but they give your business legitimacy in front of potential investors, customers, partners, and more. Need help? Check out this guide from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
2) Decide on a Business Name
You might’ve come up with the perfect name right away. If so, consider yourself lucky.
Sometimes, deciding on a business can be difficult, requiring brainstorming meetings and late-night rap sessions. That’s because your name is your business’ identity and reputation. It should be something that’s unique and memorable but also defines your business purpose.
Whether you’ve decided on a business structure (see step 3) or not, know that each one comes with its own naming rules. For example, according to D.C. law, an LLC name must include “‘limited liability company’ or ‘limited company’ or the abbreviation ‘L.L.C.’, ‘LLC’, ‘L.C.’, or ‘LC’”. You can find a complete list of business structure naming restrictions in the Code of District of Columbia § 29–103.02.
You can carefully follow all of these requirements, however, and it won’t make a difference if your desired name is unavailable. Your first move should be to search for it through the D.C. Business Center website. If no other businesses are using it, go ahead and reserve it or use it on your formation documents and it’s all yours.
3) Decide on a Legal Structure
There are only a few types of business structures, but each one dictates some important parts of how your business will run.
The most popular types are the sole proprietorship, general partnership, limited liability company (LLC), S corporation, and C corporation. Most small businesses go with the LLC because of its unique blend of flexibility and personal asset protection.
However, you shouldn’t make this decision without reading up on all of your options. We’ve done plenty of research on each business type and developed side-by-side comparisons. Check out our LLC vs. Corporation and LLC vs. Sole Proprietorship comparison guides for a closer look.
4) Choose a Registered Agent
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs needs a point of contact for your business, someone who will be available at your registered office address during typical business hours – 9am to 5pm.
This person is called a registered agent, and they serve as an intermediary with the district, receiving all of your company’s important legal communications and relaying them on to you. A D.C. registered agent ensures that no important district documents, deadlines, or payments fall through the cracks, so you’ll want to choose a person or company you trust.
You can choose either an individual or a business entity as your registered agent in D.C., but they must:
- Be an individual D.C. resident or a corporation authorized to do business in the district.
- Have a physical address in D.C.
- Have a mailing address in D.C. (no P.O. boxes allowed).
Wise choices for an individual registered agent include attorneys, managers and other professionals who understand business maintenance procedures. However, the district’s requirements are fairly broad, so friends and family members are also valid registered agents.
Or, you can choose a registered agent service instead. These companies take care of all your registered agent responsibilities, and some will even handle your business formation and biennial reporting as well.
Important: You must continuously maintain a registered agent on file with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. If your agent resigns or you appoint a new one, you’ll need to notify them by filing the appropriate documents.
5) Register Your Business
This is the big one, the step that officially creates your business. No matter which business type you choose, you’ll need to register it with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Corporations: Instead of an Articles of Organization, D.C. corporations must file an Articles of Incorporation. Just like the Articles of Organization, you can file this form online or as a hard copy.
Sole Proprietorship/General Partnership: There are no official forms or fees to register as a sole proprietor or general partnership. Simply start doing business and that’s it! While this is obviously faster and easier, we recommend incorporating your business because of the personal asset protection LLCs and corporations provide.
Foreign Entities: But you might not be forming a new business. You might already have an established business in another state, and you’re expanding your operations to D.C. In this case, you would need to foreign qualify it instead of filing any formation documents. This means submitting a Foreign Registration Statement (Form FN-1) by mail or in person for $220.
6) Get an EIN
The Employer Identification Number (EIN) is your ticket to doing district and federal taxes. It’s a nine-digit number, much like a Social Security Number, that identifies your business on tax documents.
If you’re forming an LLC, it will be considered a “pass-through” entity, so the business itself won’t pay federal income taxes. Instead, you and the other members will report income and losses on your personal tax returns.
But this doesn’t mean you can go without an EIN. If your LLC pays any type of business taxes – like Sales, Use, or Unemployment Taxes – or hires employees, you’ll need to get one.
Unsure if you need one? The IRS provides a useful “Do I need an EIN?” link on this page, where you can also apply for an EIN. If you go through the online application process, you’ll receive your number immediately.
Otherwise, you can submit a Form SS-4 by fax to (855) 641-6935 or by mail to :
Internal Revenue Service Operation
Attn: EIN Operation
Cincinnati, OH 45999
7) Open a Business Bank Account
LLC and corporation owners are required to keep their personal and business finances completely separate, or they risk losing their personal asset protection. To do so, you’ll need a business bank account.
The good news is that opening a business bank account is pretty simple. Just pay a visit to your bank’s local branch and sit down with one of the bankers there. You will need to present your formation documents, an EIN number, and some personal information. Then, you can direct all of your business income and expenses to that account instead of a personal one.
It doesn’t really matter which bank you choose, whether it’s a national giant like Chase or Bank of America or a small, local bank. However, it’s usually easiest to go with the one where you have existing accounts.
8) Handle Any Tax Obligations
Ah, taxes. They’re always part of the picture, especially when you run a business.
Familiarizing yourself with your business’ tax requirements will help you establish a solid financial plan going forward. LLCs don’t need to file a corporate tax return and pay federal income taxes, so you’ll handle these taxes as part of your personal return.
Corporations, on the other hand, will need to pay a Corporate Income Tax, while sole proprietorships/general partnerships will need to pay self-employment taxes.
There are a few other taxes your business may owe in D.C., depending on its activities and circumstances. Here are a few of the most common:
Franchise Tax: All businesses registered in D.C. must pay an annual Franchise Tax. The rate is 8.25% and there’s a minimum tax of $250 for businesses with less than $1 million in gross receipts as well as a $1,000 minimum for businesses with greater than $1 million in gross receipts.
Sales and Use Tax: Every business that sells goods in the District of Columbia must pay a Sales and Use Tax at a rate of 5.75%.
Visit D.C.’s Office of Tax and Revenue website for additional information.
9) Find an Accountant
Sometimes it’s easier to hand off your financial responsibilities to a professional. Not only will an accountant ensures that your taxes are filed and paid correctly, but they might also find a few ways to save your business money.
Bookkeeping and tax procedures are time-consuming and require some specialized knowledge. Balance sheets, financial reports, cash flow, audits, and much more – an accountant can ensure that your company operates smoothly and streamlines its expenses.
This can be expensive depending on the complexity of your finances, but the benefits an accountant offers can be well worth it.
10) Create an Operating Agreement
An operating agreement constructs a framework of procedures and standards for your business. This is where you can lay out processes for member conduct, asset allocation, compensation policies, voting procedures, dissolution, and much more.
While operating agreements aren’t technically required in D.C., they are essential to your business’ stability and success. They provide a safety net in legal disputes and legitimacy in front of banks, courts, government agencies, and other businesses.
You can either draft one yourself using an online template, or you can hire an attorney or an incorporation service to take care of it for you.
Once you’ve drafted your agreement, it must be approved by each of your LLC’s members, then filed with the rest of your business documents. You do not need to submit it to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
11) Acquire the Necessary Licenses
After filing your formation documents, your business is legitimate, but it might still need specific licenses before opening its doors in D.C. The licenses and/or permits your business needs depend entirely on its activities, but there are a few common license types you should know:
Basic Business License: This is a standard business license required for almost all business activities in the district, so your company will need one before commencing activities. You’ll need to renew this license every two years. There are multiple categories for licensure, and if your business doesn’t fit into any of them, you’ll apply for a General Business License.
Environmental Permits: If your business activities affect the land, air, or water in D.C., it will likely require one or more environmental permits through the Department of Energy and Environment.
Professional Licenses: Certain occupations must obtain licenses through specific licensing boards before doing business in D.C. You can find a complete list here.
Building Permits: Businesses that build or renovate structures must obtain building and/or zoning permits through the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Local Licenses: Your specific city, county, or municipality might have its own licensing requirements. Take a look at your local government’s website to find out.
12) Consider Business Insurance
Even though it’s not pleasant to consider, there’s always a chance that unforeseen events might take a toll on your assets.
While forming an LLC or corporation offers some personal asset protection, additional business insurance can also protect your business assets in cases of lawsuits, damages, etc. You can acquire insurance for your business products, vehicles, specific occupations and much more.
If you hire employees, you’ll also need to get workers’ compensation insurance. SBA.gov has a useful guide for determining which forms of insurance your new business might need.
13) Build a Website
Your company’s digital presence is just as important as its physical one. Like it or not, most potential customers will find your business online, and if you don’t exist online, you’re missing out.
But don’t worry, you don’t need to be an HTML or web design expert to build a website. Sites like WordPress and Squarespace make it easy to construct an elegant and responsive website, no coding necessary. But if you’re not comfortable or confident doing it on your own, you can always hire a professional web designer to take care of it for you.
14) Launch Social Media Accounts
Making your mark on the digital landscape doesn’t start and end with your website. Most successful businesses also have a robust social media presence on multiple platforms. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all great ways to connect organically with potential customers and develop your brand voice.
Just don’t forget to publish consistent social media content, or you’ll have trouble building a base of followers.
15) Understand Ongoing D.C. Requirements
After you’ve launched your business, things will likely be moving at 100 miles per hour as you evolve and grow. But in all of the excitement, you can’t forget your district’s ongoing compliance requirements. Every state has its own annual or biennial business requirements.
D.C. businesses must submit a Biennial Report by April 1st every other year for a fee of $300 per report. After you form your business, you’ll file an Initial Report (the same form as the Biennial Report) before the first time April 1st rolls around. After that, you’ll only need to file every other year. You can file an Initial or Biennial Report online or with a paper form.
16) Check Out D.C. Small Business Resources
You’re not on this journey alone. There are plenty of free resources available to make starting and growing your business a smoother, easier process.
A little support can go a long way, and there are a ton of resources available to your budding business if you know where to look. SBA.gov can point you in the right direction. Check out the Washington D.C. district office page, which includes this resource publication, for information on business development centers, loan opportunities, financial advising, networking opportunities, and more. You’re bound to find the right resources to elevate your business.