Starting a Business in Wisconsin in 6 Steps
Looking to start a business in Wisconsin? That’s a great idea. As of 2017, the Badger State was home to over 440,000 small businesses, according to the SBA, which made up 97.7% of all businesses in the state. And there’s always room for more. In this guide, we’ll show you exactly how to go about starting a business in Wisconsin so you can put your own stamp on your home state’s map.
From coming up with a business name to registering for taxes (and everything above, beyond, and between those steps), we’ll walk you through how to set up your business in Wisconsin the right way. Let’s get to it.
Got your business plan in hand? Awesome. Now, you can move onto officially starting your business in Wisconsin. Here’s how to do it in six steps.
1. Determine Your Business Structure
In order to register your business with your state’s Department of Financial Institutions (DFI), you need to first determine your business’s entity type. Your business entity determines your ownership structure, how your business is taxed, and your degree of legal protection, among other factors—in addition to the registration process itself. Each entity type also has their own, unique ongoing requirements in order to remain in good standing.
In Wisconsin, the three most common business structures are LLCs, business corporations, and statutory close corporations, though you have several other options, too.
Also, keep in mind that you’ll have to pay a small fee when you submit your registration application online, and that amount differs depending on the entity type you choose. For instance, online filing fees for LLCs cost $130 plus a $1 portal fee, and registering online as a business corporation or statutory close corporation costs $100 plus a $1 portal fee.
If you’re unsure which business entity type is best for your business, consult with a business attorney familiar with your industry before you proceed.
2. Name Your Business
If you haven’t done so already, now’s the time to choose your business name. For some entrepreneurs, this is one of the more fun processes involved in starting a business; for others, it’s a real challenge. Understandably, too: Your name is your potential customers’ first impression of your business, and that can be a make-or-break moment. (No pressure!)
Whether you’re stoked to flex your creative muscles or you’re absolutely dreading the process, take a look at our guide on how to come up with a business name. There, we run you through some key components of a successful business name, advice from fellow entrepreneurs, and some brainstorming activities to get you started. Do keep in mind, however, that Wisconsin has certain restrictions around naming your business. Make sure your name is in keeping with those requirements.
Importantly, too, you’ll need to find out if your business name is actually eligible for use in Wisconsin (and the world). To do so, start by doing a simple Google search of your potential name. If there’s another business operating under that name somewhere in the world, you might want to come up with something different. If nothing else, it’ll make it easier for clients to distinguish between you and the other business when they look you up online.
Next, run your business name through the business entity search on the DFI website. If another entrepreneur in Wisconsin has already filed that name, then you’ll have to go back to the drawing board. And if you plan on trademarking your business in the future, it’s a good idea to run a name search through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Once your name is officially cleared for use, consider purchasing your domain name. Most business website platforms, like Squarespace, make it easy for you to search and buy a domain—and then go ahead and build that website. Even if you’re not running an online business, having a business website with the appropriate domain name is a crucial aspect of your marketing plan.
3. Register Your Business
With your business entity and name all set, you’re ready to make your business official with the DFI. You can do so easily online through the Wisconsin One Stop Business Portal.
Along with registering with the DFI, this application also enables you to register for business taxes with the Department of Revenue. In order to register for business taxes, you’ll need to have your social security number, EIN, or individual taxpayer identification number handy, depending on your entity type. The latter two are quick to apply for through the IRS, so don’t stress if you don’t have those ready yet.
You’ll also be able to apply for a seller’s permit, consumer’s use tax certificate, use tax certificate, and withholding tax number, depending on your business activities. You may also need to register for unemployment insurance with the Department of Workforce Development. But again, that’s all determined through the registration process.
After you register online, your application will be reviewed the next day. The whole process is simple and streamlined (it is a really, truly a one-stop portal).
4. Obtain Business Licenses, Permits, and Insurance
Depending on your industry, business activities, and services you’re offering, you may also need to obtain regulatory licenses and permits in order to operate legally, both at a state and local level. For this step, we would highly recommend working with a business accountant, attorney, or advisor. Navigating licensing and permitting can be tricky, and the consequences of non-compliance can be incredibly damaging to your business. If you don’t have an accountant or attorney you can reach out to, heading to your local SBA or SCORE chapter (either in person or online) is a great, free option.
Professional and occupational licenses are also required for certain fields, such as accounting, cosmetology, and engineering. It’s likely that you’re already licensed in your particular field, but we’d recommend that you check out the Department of Safety and Professional Services’ professions list regardless. This directory outlines which industries or positions require licensing in the state of Wisconsin, and a comprehensive guide to the types of licenses and rules and statutes required for each field.
Considering all the work you’ve put into launching your business thus far, we’d recommend protecting it in any way possible—and that means purchasing business insurance. Our guide to small business insurance breaks down the nine most common types of coverage. We’d recommend reading it through to gain some fluency in the subject and a preliminary understanding of your needs before you approach an insurance broker.
5. Separate Your Finances
Establishing separate bank and credit card accounts for your business is important for streamlining your accounting processes (and, by extension, making tax season a lot easier). Depending on your entity type, creating a clear separation between your business and personal finances may actually be legally required. Either way, you should do it. Both processes are surprisingly simple, too.
We’d recommend opening a business bank account with the bank that holds your personal accounts, if you’re satisfied with their business offerings, as most banks offer special deals and discounts for their consumer clients who open business checking or savings accounts. Beyond that, banks are more inclined to extend business loans to their most loyal clients (provided those clients are otherwise qualified for that loan, of course)—something to consider if you plan on applying for a loan down the line, which most entrepreneurs inevitably will. Banks typically require that you open an account in person, but due to COVID-19, many more are making it possible to open accounts online. Check your bank’s website to find out about their new policies.
Getting a credit card is arguably an even easier process, since you can pretty much always apply for a business credit card online. The toughest part of the process is probably figuring out which card to apply for in the first place. Lucky for you, we have tons of guides to help you determine which business credit card is the right fit for you, depending on your qualifications and desired perks. But across the board, we recommend that new entrepreneurs consider a card with a long 0% intro APR period, as you can essentially use your card like an interest-free loan during that introductory period.
6. Look Into Your Funding Options
We would venture to guess that you’ve already started thinking about how to get your business off the ground, financially speaking. Still, it’s worth setting aside some dedicated time to look into your startup funding options.
Many new entrepreneurs fund their ventures through a combination of zero-debt financing methods, since they typically have a tough time getting approved for traditional business loans. For the most part, that involves self-financing, loans from trusted friends and family, and good, old-fashioned bootstrapping. Crowdfunding is another, approachable option. It’s unlikely that you’ll gather all the funds you need solely through crowdfunding, but this approach provides valuable insight into your customer base and helps you gauge interest in your product.
If you’re willing to put in the extra work, seeking an angel investor can provide you with all the startup funds you need in one fell swoop. Do know, however, that equity financing most often requires that you sacrifice some portion of your business’s ownership, management, or decision-making to your investor. Not all business owners are willing to cede control over their businesses. You’ll need to determine for yourself what you’re willing to sacrifice.
Another amazing option is to apply for a grant (aka free money). Check out our master list of small business grants to find out if there’s a program your business can qualify for.
Now that all your logistical ducks are in a row, we’d recommend doubling down on your marketing campaign. Hopefully, you bought your domain name and built your business website back in Step 2. Now, spend some time promoting your business on social media, create a Yelp and Google Business profile, and consider creating an email newsletter. And don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth marketing—spread the word about your business to your friends, family, and colleagues, and encourage them to talk up your business to their own network.
If you need help navigating this step, take a look at both our comprehensive guide to small business marketing overall, as well as our guide to online marketing in particular. Of course, marketing your business is not a one-and-done task—it’s something you’ll need to continue doing, in earnest, throughout the life of your business. But these guides can help you find your initial footing, and help you put together a longer-term plan.
We hope this guide has given you the tools, information, and encouragement you need to get your Badger State business off the ground. Remember that we’re here to support you throughout your entrepreneurial journey, not just its inception. Whatever you need from here on out—whether that’s hiring your first employees, applying for a bank loan, finding an accounting software, or so much more—our extensive resource library has you covered. Good luck!
- SBA.gov. “Small Business Profile: Wisconsin”