Starting a Business: The Complete Guide

One of the first decisions a business owner makes is the structure of the company. There are several different types of business entities, one of which is an LLC, which is an abbreviation for limited liability company. But, what is an LLC? How does it operate? How is it registered with the state?

To help entrepreneurs understand the ins and outs of an LLC, this guide provides an excellent introduction to this kind of business entity and answers frequently asked questions. 

What is an LLC?

An LLC, or limited liability company, is a type of business entity that offers limited liability protection to the owner. As the name suggests, personal liability is provided in the event of a lawsuit or financial crisis. Personal assets like the owner’s home, bank accounts, and car are kept separate from business assets, so if the company is sued or falls into bankruptcy these assets are safeguarded. 

The extent of liability protection does vary by state, so it’s a good idea to speak with a lawyer in your area to make sure you understand what is and isn’t covered. 

To the IRS, an LLC is considered a pass-through tax entity, which means the LLC itself doesn’t pay federal taxes. Instead, they pass-through to the owner. Taxes are paid on the owner’s share of the profits or personal income gained from the company.

Why form an LLC?

There are many advantages for a small business to form an LLC. This kind of business structure offers the following benefits:

Limited liability protection

As mentioned, an LLC offers a layer of protection for your personal assets. Essentially, it keeps personal assets and business assets separate, which is crucial if the company has financial trouble or is sued. 

Lax recordkeeping

Compared to other business structures, like a corporation, for example, an LLC isn’t required to keep or submit much paperwork to state or federal officials. Unlike other entities, an LLC doesn’t have to hold meetings and keep notes, which keeps paperwork to a minimum. 

Taxed once

Your LLC is only taxed once, as opposed to a corporation, for example, which is taxed twice. An LLC has pass-through taxation, which means the company itself isn’t taxed. The owner pays taxes on his or her profits, but that’s all. Avoiding double taxation is often considered one of the biggest perks to LLC formation. 

Flexible management

An LLC can have an unlimited number of owners and isn’t required to have a board of directors or officers. The management structure of an LLC is flexible and can be altered to suit the business; a luxury that’s not given to all business entities. 

Lax profit sharing

LLC owners can decide how to share profits. Other entities must distribute profits equally based on the number of shares held in the company. If two LLC owners want to do a 60/40 split of the profits because one owner handles more tasks than the other, that’s fine. Flexible profit sharing is yet another benefit for business owners.

LLC compared to other types of businesses

Ready to make your startup ideas a reality? If so, one of the first things you must decide is what kind of business structure the company will take. The type of business selected can impact many things like taxes, compensation, and roles of internal management. To better understand the different types of businesses, here’s how other structures compare to an LLC:

LLC vs. sole proprietorship

A sole proprietorship is one of the easiest business structures to set up and maintain. This kind of entity isn’t registered with the state, so there’s no paperwork to submit or annual reports to consistently file. No filing fees are paid either. 

Setting up an LLC must be done through the state with certain paperwork required and filing fees paid. While there is more paperwork to file with the state, an LLC provides personal liability protection, which means personal and business assets are separated. If the business racks up debt or is sued, the owner’s personal assets aren’t used to rescue the business. 

LLC vs. S corporation

It’s common for people to hear LLC and S corporation mentioned together. An LLC is a type of business while S corp is a type of tax classification. In other words, an owner can form an LLC and choose to file taxes as an S corp. This works best primarily when business owners are company employees. S corp owners/employees pay themselves a wage and pay taxes on it. Additional profits are doled out as distributions and aren’t subject to Medicare and social security taxes. 

An LLC owner that doesn’t opt to file taxes as an S corp is considered self-employed and pays taxes on the entire share of company profits through personal tax returns. 

LLC vs. corp

An LLC and a corporation are different in both their ownership abilities and taxation. In an LLC, one or more members can own the company. In a corporation, shareholders own the company. 

A corporation is considered a separate legal entity, so it can collect its own income. As a result, a corporation must pay taxes and the owner must pay taxes, which is referred to as double taxation. While paying more in taxes isn’t ideal, corporations do have perks. Corporations can deduct 100% of their business expenses, for example, which could be a big win for some companies. It’s best to speak with an accountant to understand how this choice will impact your new business and finances. 

How to start an LLC

Forming an LLC isn’t difficult, but there are a series of things that must be done to set one up. To officially launch an LLC, here are the steps to take: 

1. Pick a name

Every company needs a name. Do you have one in mind? Whether you settled on a name years ago or are still weighing your options, there are several rules to be aware of. For starters, the business name must have “LLC” or “Limited Liability Company” in the title. 

Second, most state laws won’t allow two businesses to have the same name. Most states require business names to be “distinguishable from one another” so even similar names are often rejected. Most states let prospective business owners conduct a business name search to check the availability of a certain name. Usually, these search-based sites can be found on the secretary of state’s website. 

Owners can usually pay a small fee to reserve an LLC name for 90-120 days. For owners who don’t plan to register their LLC immediately with the state, this is a good option to preserve the name until you’re ready to file. 

2. File Articles of Organization

To start an LLC, the company owner must file an official formation document, usually called Articles of Organization. (Some states call it Certificate of Organization or Certificate of Formation). Most states allow owners to file the document online or download and mail it in. 

Expect to pay a filing fee as well. The fee ranges from $50 in Arizona to $500 in Massachusetts. The proper paperwork and filing fee amount can be found on the secretary of state website. 

The Articles of Organization ask for the company name and address, the registered agent’s name and address, a list of managing members, and a brief description of the business. The owner must digitally sign the document, if it’s filed online, and pay the fee with a credit card. 

Once submitted, expect it to take 2-7 days for the state to approve the document. Its approval marks the official start of an LLC. 

3. Pick a registered agent

As mentioned, Articles of Organization ask the owner to list a registered agent. A registered agent is a person or company that accepts official documents for a company. For instance, a registered agent could receive tax documents, filing updates from the secretary of state’s office, or legal documents. 

Most states require a registered agent to be either an adult or a professional registered agent service with a physical address. Since some documents must be delivered in-person or even signed for, a P.O. box cannot be used. 

A registered agent service charges an annual fee to accept important documents and notifies the company owner when items arrive. Some services offer additional assistance with compliance documents, like filing annual reports for an additional charge. 

4. Create an operating agreement

With Articles of Organization filed, small business owners should move next to an operating agreement. An operating agreement explains how a business is run and should include the company’s hierarchy, an explanation of how decisions are made, and a summary of day-to-day operations. The document should also provide financial direction, explaining how profits and losses are managed. 

States don’t require owners to file an LLC operating agreement, however, business experts strongly advise owners to create the document before opening to the public. The document can answer questions and solve potential feuds in the future. 

If you aren’t sure how to write an operating agreement, you can speak with an attorney or search for a downloadable template online.

5. Obtain an EIN

Most businesses need an EIN, or an employer identification number, to function. This nine-digit number is issued by the IRS and required for many financial transactions including paying taxes, hiring employees, or applying for a bank loan. 

Obtaining an EIN is simple to do. Visit the IRS website, fill out a quick form, and the number is instantly provided at the end of the session. A company EIN is unique to your company. Think of it as a social security number, but for businesses.   

6. Inquire about state licenses and insurance

Depending on your business, it likely needs one or several licenses to operate. Each state is different in its requirements. Check with state and local officials to see which business licenses are required. 

In addition, it’s a good idea to research insurance. While setting up an LLC does provide limited liability protection, insurance can provide further asset protection. You might consider property insurance to protect the building or property that houses your company and vehicle insurance for company-owned cars. There are even policies that are geared towards home-based businesses. An insurance agent can provide specific advice for your company. 

7. File an annual report

Most states require LLCs to file an annual report with the state. The report is meant to keep state officials informed about your business and points of contact. Should the state need to reach business owners to deliver notices or updates, the report provides that contact information. 

The report takes seconds to file online and is often completed just like the Articles of Organization. For owners who would rather not handle this kind of chore, registered agent services can often file these documents for you. It’s an additional fee, but owners rest easy knowing that the document is handled yearly. 

Failure to submit an annual report, and its associated filing fee, can cause problems for an LLC. Some states charge late fees if it’s not filed on time and will dissolve a business if it’s not turned in. 

Frequently Asked Questions

To further your knowledge of this kind of incorporation, here’s a look at common questions asked about LLCs: 

To form an LLC, must it be registered with the state?

Yes. If you plan on doing business in the state and want to obtain the perks of an LLC, like limited liability and pass-through taxation, you must register the company with the state by filing formation documents usually known as Articles of Organization. 

Is an attorney required to set up an LLC?

No. An owner can file the paperwork for his or her own business. However, an owner can seek the advice of a lawyer or work with a business formation company to have the document filed with the state as well.  

Who manages an LLC?

Typically, a manager is selected from within the company or hired from outside. Owners are called members. If one owner is selected, the LLC is referred to a single-member LLC. A board of directors isn’t necessary for an LLC. 

Can I serve as my LLCs registered agents?

Yes. The owner of an LLC can serve as his or her company’s registered agent. The registered agent is responsible for accepting important notices on behalf of the company. To name yourself, simply list your name and address on the Articles of Organization. 

If at any point you’d like to elect another person or pay a registered agent service to fill this role, you can file an update (usually called a Statement of Change) with the secretary of state’s office.    

How much does it cost to form an LLC?

The cost to form an LLC varies by state. Most states require owners to pay a filing fee when they register. This filing fee can range from $50 to $500. The average fee is $132, but it’s important to research the cost in your state. 

If an owner decides to work with a business formation company, which can file the formation paperwork on behalf of a company owner, expect to pay a flat fee to file the document as well as the state’s filing fee. 

Is an EIN the same as a federal employer identification number?

Yes. The two terms mean the same thing. The IRS website can provide an EIN.

How is an LLC maintained?

In most states, an LLC must file an annual report and pay a filing fee or franchise tax. The rules vary by state. How do you find out what’s required in your state? The best place to start is to search the secretary of state’s website.

Business formation companies that help form an LLC 

Launching an LLC requires the owner to file certain compliance paperwork. Everything from Articles of Organization to annual reports must be filed in a timely manner. Failure to do so can be costly. To help with these tasks, and other tasks related to starting a company, here are eight businesses that could help along with reviews of each:

Northwest Registered Agent 

Northwest Registered Agent is a national company that provides registered agent services and can help submit LLC formation documents to the state. The company’s experience and customer service are its strengths.

See our full Northwest Registered Agent review here.

Incfile 

Incfile is a known name in the industry, which started in 2004. The company has helped 500,000 businesses launch and provides some free services to startups. 

See our full Incfile review here.

ZenBusiness 

Zenbusiness can file all of your business paperwork and offers services in states across the nation. Starter packages begin at $49.

See our full ZenBusiness review here.

Swyft Filings 

Swyft Filings can save a company time and money by filing business paperwork with the state. It gives business owners peace of mind knowing that all forms are delivered on time. 

See our full Swyft Filings review here.

LegalZoom 

Don’t be fooled by the name, LegalZoom can help with legal matters but it can also help an owner form a company. From LLC formation documents to wills and trademark paperwork, LegalZoom offers many useful services for entrepreneurs.

See our full LegalZoom review here.

BizFilings 

BizFilings offers all the services that a small business needs to get started and stay in compliance with state-mandated filings. 

See our full BizFilings review here.

Harvard Business Services 

With competitive price points and multiple features to choose from, Harvard Business Services is a good choice for entrepreneurs who need a little help. Traditional formation services are offered along with a vast library of startup content.  

See our full Harvard Business Services review here.

MyCorporation 

MyCorporation offers packages that start at $99 and is best for business leaders looking to hand off filing duties. The company can also help you obtain an Employer Identification Number, which is required to hire employees and apply for bank loans. 

See our full MyCorporation review here.