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.
Washington Entrepreneur Hack
When you form a business through business formation services (Example: ZenBusiness and LegalZoom), they’ll register your business with the state and help you check off most of the startup-steps in this list. They assist you with everything from building a website to opening a business bank account.
If you’d like to cut through the clutter and compare the best LLC services, see our comparison of the top 7 deals.
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.
When you choose a business structure (see step 3), it will come with its own naming requirements. So, whether you choose a limited liability company, a corporation, or something else altogether, you will need to adhere to certain rules, which you can find in RCW 23.95.305.
And you shouldn’t run with a particular name until you’ve determined that it’s available in Washington. Search for your desired name to see if anyone else is currently using it. If so, it’s back to the drawing board. If not, 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 Secretary of State 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 state, receiving all of your company’s important legal communications and relaying them on to you. The Washington registered agent ensures that no important state 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 Washington, but they must:
- Be an individual Washington resident or a corporation authorized to do business in the state.
- Have a physical address in Washington.
- Have a mailing address in Washington (no P.O. boxes allowed).
Some wise choices include attorneys, managers, and other professionals because they understand the particulars of business maintenance. But Washington’s registered agent parameters are fairly broad, so you can appoint a friend or family member instead if you’d prefer.
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 annual reporting as well.
Important: You must continuously maintain a registered agent on file with the Secretary of State. If your agent resigns or you appoint a new one, you’ll need to notify them by filing the appropriate documents.
Special Offer: Right now ZenBusiness is offering a discounted rate for just $99 the first year (normally $199) to act as your agent and handle legal responsibilities.
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 Secretary of State.
LLCs: Your Washington limited liability company isn’t legitimate until you file a Certificate of Formation. Once approved, this filing formally registers your LLC with the state. It’s available both online and as a paper form. Hard copy submissions cost $180 while electronic ones cost $200. This price difference is because online filings are processed quicker, usually within 2 business days.
Corporations: If you choose a corporation, you’ll have similar filing processes but a different form, called the Articles of Incorporation. Like the Certificate of Formation, this form is available online and as a paper form.
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: What about businesses that are formed in another state and expand into Washington? These are considered foreign entities rather than domestic ones, and they have a different registration process. Instead of any formation documents, these entities must foreign qualify by filing a Foreign Entity Registration for $180. Like other business documents, this is available online and as a hard copy.
6) Get an EIN
The Employer Identification Number (EIN) is your ticket to doing state 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.
Washington doesn’t have personal or corporate income taxes, nor are there any “franchise” or “privilege” taxes. However, there are a few other taxes your business may owe, depending on its activities:
Business & Occupation Tax: This is essentially a gross receipts tax required for all business types. According to the Department of Revenue website, it’s measured on the “value of products, gross proceeds of sales, or gross income of the business.”
Sales and Use Taxes: Every business that sells goods in Washington is subject to Sales and Use Tax. The rate may vary depending on your location and the type of goods.
Unemployment Taxes: Hiring employees means your business will be responsible for employer taxes. Since Washington doesn’t have an income tax, you won’t have to pay a withholding tax, but your business will still owe an Unemployment Tax through the Employment Security Department.
Property Taxes: Does your business own property? Then it will need to pay a Property Tax to its county treasurer.
Other Taxes: The state maintains several other, less-common taxes on particular business activities and goods, like tobacco products and natural gas use. Take a look at this complete list of other taxes from the Department of Revenue website.
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 Washington, 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 Secretary of State.
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 Washington. This depends entirely on your business type and purpose, but there are three main state licenses you should know:
Business License: After starting your business, you must register it with a few other departments by filing for a general business license. Apply for this license through the Department of Revenue.
Professional Licenses: Particular occupations require licensure through their respective state boards before commencing business activities in Washington. The Department of Licensing has a full list of licensed professions.
Building/Zoning Permits: If your business is building or renovating any structures, it will need a building permit from your county or city.
Environmental Permits: Businesses whose activities affect Washington’s land, air, and/or water often need to obtain specific permits through the Department of Ecology.
Local Licenses: Your specific city, county, or municipality might have its own licensure 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 Washington 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 state’s ongoing compliance requirements. Every state has its own annual or biennial business requirements.
To keep its business records up to date, the Secretary of State requires that all Washington businesses file an Annual Report each year. It’s due by the last day of your company’s anniversary month (the month that you originally formed it) and costs $60. The state provides options to file online or by using a paper form (find both here).
16) Check Out Washington 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.
When you’re looking for resources and support, SBA.gov is arguably the best place to start. They’re a gold mine of state-specific resources that can help you elevate every part of your business. Check out the page for Washington’s district office, where you’ll find this resource publication, containing everything from business development centers to loan opportunities to networking events. Using this guide and SBA.gov, you’re ready to get your new business on the road to sustained success.
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