If you’re looking to start a business in Wisconsin, then you might be feeling a little overwhelmed about how the process works. A lot of entrepreneurs choose to create an LLC (short for Limited Liability Company).
Here’s why: compared to a corporation, an LLC is simple to run—no complicated bylaws, shareholder regulations, board meetings, and so on. But, an LLC still gives you personal asset protection, which means you won’t lose your house or savings if something goes wrong with your business. That’s a win-win.
But to get the advantages of an LLC, you’ll need to form one officially. That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll walk you through all the steps you’ll need to complete to create your LLC in Wisconsin. Once you’ve finished, you’ll be all set to succeed!
Before we jump in: know that you don’t have to do this alone! Paperwork can be tedious and overwhelming (especially at the start). Thankfully, there are many fantastic LLC formation services that can form your LLC on your behalf. And with the top registered agent services, you can keep your business in good standing, worry-free.
These convenient online business services offer a lot of bang for your buck, allowing you to focus on what matters: running your business.
Creating a Wisconsin LLC
Creating a Wisconsin LLC is exciting, but it’s also a legal process. Thankfully, though, there’s not a whole lot of “legalese” involved. Follow these steps, and creating your Wisconsin LLC will be a cinch:
1. Name Your LLC
Your business’s name is a big deal—it goes on all of your official documents, your advertising, and it’s how your customers will get to know your business.
Name recognition goes a long way, right? And when it comes to what name you pick, the sky’s the limit…mostly. There are a couple general best practices to follow, and of course, there are a couple Wisconsin-specific restrictions, too.
For example, a business name should be…
- Easy to say and spell
- Tell customers what good or service you offer
- Something you like!
Every name must also include the words “Limited Liability Company,” the abbreviation “LLC,” or some variation of the business type designation.
One last note: if your name includes specific words like Education, Academy, Bank, or something similar, you may need to get additional approval from the state’s banking division or Department of Education.
Beyond that, there are a few Wisconsin-specific rules you’ll want to follow. Most importantly, you cannot use a name that’s already been claimed by another business in Wisconsin. Thankfully, you can check if your desired name is still available by running a Name Availability Search. If you’d like further guidance about naming your business, check out the Name Availability section of Wisconsin’s FAQs provided by the Department of Financial Institutions.
If your desired name is available, you shouldn’t hesitate to claim it! Ultimately, you’ll officially claim the name when you file your Articles of Organization (see Step 3). But if you’re not quite ready to file the Articles, you can reserve your name with the state. Simply fill out the Name Reservation Application form and pay the applicable $15 fee. This will protect your chosen name for 120 days, giving you time to prepare anything else you need.
2. Choose a Registered Agent
In your Articles of Organization, you’ll be required to list the name and address of your registered agent. “Registered agent” sounds fancy, but don’t let the name overwhelm you: an agent acts as your primary contact for all official communications.
A registered agent accepts what the state calls “service of process” on your behalf. Basically, if your business ever falls out of good standing (or something similar), the state will send an official alert to your registered agent. Because of that, the registered agent needs to be available during all regular business hours.
In Wisconsin, you can serve as your own registered agent, but we don’t recommend it. You’d be tied down to your listed address, or worse, you might run the risk of missing an important letter. Plus, appointing someone else keeps your personal address private and cuts down on junk mail.
If you’d like to hire a registered agent, we have a few recommended services.
3. File the Formation Documents
Once you’ve chosen your name and appointed a registered agent, you’re ready to file your Articles of Organization. This all-important filing is what will legally create your business in the state of Wisconsin, so it’s important to fill it out carefully.
Wisconsin needs a lot of important information from you, including:
- Your chosen business name
- Name and address of your registered agent
- Management structure for your business
- Name and complete address of each organizer
- Name of the individual drafting the document
- Effective date for your filing (if applicable)
- Email or address for a filed copy of the document
- Daytime phone number
You can file your Articles online or by mail. Either way, you’ll need to pay the $170 filing fee. You can pay by check, money order, or by credit card. All checks should be made payable to the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions.
Wisconsin also offers a unique filing for LLCs started by student entrepreneurs. If you can provide proof that you are enrolled in a postsecondary institution (and you’re at least 18), then you can file using the Student Entrepreneur Articles of Organization form. This filing is free, making it a little bit easier to start your business while you’re still in school.
Congratulations! Your LLC is now officially recognized by the state of Wisconsin.
After You Set Up an LLC in Wisconsin
Your LLC is now an official entity in Wisconsin, but don’t get too comfortable. There’s still plenty of work to be done if you want to set yourself up for long-term success. Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list, and you may need to address some requirements that are unique to your industry.
1. Get an Employer Identification Number (EIN)
If you have one or more employees (or expect to in the future), you should get an EIN from the IRS. This filing is actually pretty simple, and it’s completely free. You do need to complete the application in one sitting (you can do it online here), so be sure to have your valid Taxpayer Identification Number on hand.
If you file the form online, you’ll receive your number almost immediately.
2. Obtain any needed licenses and permits
Depending on your industry and location, you may need to obtain licenses and permits for your business.
Unlike a lot of states, Wisconsin does not have a state-level general business license that every business in the state needs to obtain. Instead, most of the licensing requirements come on the industry-specific level. For one thing, Wisconsin upholds all federal-level licensing requirements. For example, business owners in industries like alcohol and agriculture need to get licenses from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and U.S. Department of Agriculture respectively.
There are plenty of industry-specific licenses regulated by the state, too. And there’s a very good chance that one of the licenses will apply to your business, too. For example, Wisconsin requires licenses for elevator mechanics, cosmetologists, manicurists, and more. Discovering which licenses apply to your business takes some research, though. The Department of Safety and Professional Services is a good place to start, but you may also want to consult the Department of Health Services and the Department of Natural Resources.
Wisconsin does take away some of the guesswork with Wisconsin One Stop Business Registration Portal. They provide step-by-step guidance to starting a business in the state—business licenses included.
3. Meet zoning requirements (if you have a physical location)
Cities and counties across Wisconsin have careful regulations regarding how land and property is used.
For example, some properties can only be used for residential purposes, not commercial. It’s vital to check the zoning requirements for your physical location (or before building on your property) to ensure that you’re not violating zoning requirements.
To learn more about zoning requirements in your area, we recommend checking out your county and city websites.
4. Draft an Operating Agreement
An operating agreement is almost as important as your Articles of Organization, but you don’t have to file it with the Secretary of State.
Here’s why the Operating Agreement is so important: it details just how your LLC is going to succeed. For example, the Operating Agreement will describe how profits are distributed to members of the LLC, how members can join (or leave), ownership policies, the rights and responsibilities of each member, and more.
Even if you’re a single-member LLC (you’re the only one running it), you should draft up an Operating Agreement. Who knows? Your business might grow, and an Operating Agreement will ensure you’re ready to bring new members into the game.
On top of that, a lot of banks request to see your Operating Agreement before you can open a business bank account.
You can hire a business attorney to help you draft your Operating Agreement. But if you’d like to save money, there are plenty of free templates online that you can customize to meet your LLC’s needs.
5. File federal and state taxes
Nobody likes taxes. We get it. But it’s part of life while running a business. Every year, you’ll need to pay taxes on the federal, state, and local levels. And on top of that, you’ll need to make reports of your business income.
We’re not accountants, so we won’t go into a ton of detail about taxes here. But we do want to give you a good idea of what you’ll be up against in terms of taxes.
First off, it’s important to note how you’ll pay taxes. By default, members of LLCs will report the profits they get through distributions on Schedule C of their individual tax forms. They then pay individual tax rates on those profits. However, LLCs can also elect to be taxed as corporations, and if they do, the LLC itself will pay taxes at the corporate income tax rate.
Regardless of how your business is taxed, you’re required to register with the Department of Revenue. This is known as the Business Tax Registration, and there’s a $20 fee. You’ll renew it every 2 years (for $10). By registering, you help set your business up for other taxes, including the most common taxes, income taxes.
In Wisconsin, your income tax burden will largely depend on your taxation structure. The individual income tax rate currently ranges between 3.86% to 7.65%. But if you’re taxed as a corporation, you’ll be subject to the Franchise Tax instead. This tax rate is 7.9%. Beyond that, you’ll also be expected to collect and pay the state sales tax. The statewide rate is 5%, but some counties charge an additional 0.5%. You can read more about the state and local sales tax rates here.
Employers in Wisconsin are also required to make regular contributions to the state unemployment insurance fund. (Technically speaking, it’s not a tax; but it acts like one, so we’ve listed it here).
Last but not least, you may need to pay some industry-specific taxes. For example, Wisconsin has unique taxes for cigarettes, rental vehicles, alcohol, and more. You can find out more about these taxes at the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.
6. File your annual report
In addition to filing your annual tax reports and renewing your business tax registrations, you’ll also be required to file an additional report to update the state about the current standing of your business.
This filing is called the annual report, which you can file easily online. If you’d rather file a paper form, your registered agent will receive a paper copy by mail. Mail-in filings avoid the $1 convenience fee, keeping your fee at just $25.
The due date for your annual report depends on what quarter you began your business in. Every LLC must file the report by the end of the tax quarter when they filed their Articles of Organization. For example, if you started your business in November, your report is due by December 31st. An LLC with an anniversary in February would need to file by March 31st.
7. Understand business insurance requirements
Wisconsin has two primary insurance requirements for businesses.
First, all businesses with employees must get worker’s compensation insurance. This policy protects you and your employees if someone ever gets injured on the job. If you’d like to learn more about the state’s policies regarding worker’s compensation, check out the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Second, if you have any company-owned vehicles, you must get a commercial auto insurance policy.
Beyond that, you can pick and choose what insurance policies you’d like to get. Which policies you choose depend on a lot of things: your own risk tolerance, how dangerous or risky your industry is, how much capital you have, and more. In general, it’s a good idea to get a general business insurance policy. Accidents, while (hopefully) rare, happen. Insurance will help protect all the time and money you’ve invested in your business.
8. Start a business bank account
Even before you have your grand opening, you’ll want to set up a bank account that’s unique to your business. A business account presents several advantages. Most importantly, these accounts keep your personal and business finances separate (mixing them is a major legal no-no).
Plus, a business bank account gives you credit and debit cards and checks under your business’s name. For some customers, writing a check out to a business (instead of a person) is more comfortable. The business name feels more legitimate.
Most banks will request to see your Operating Agreement before they’ll give you a business bank account, so be sure to tackle Step 4 (Draft an Operating Agreement) before you go!
Setting up an LLC can seem overwhelming, but if you follow the right pre- and post-formation steps, you’ll set your business up for success. We hope this guide has helped take out some of the scariness of creating your business.
These steps are the do-it-yourself route to forming an LLC. It’s completely legal to complete the process yourself, and it can save you a lot of money. But if you’d rather enlist some help to get your business up and running, you’re not alone.