Starting a Business in California

Last Updated: January 11, 2018

Business Start-up Checklist in CaliforniaPerhaps the most important, but often undervalued step to starting a business in California is writing a business plan.  While the business plan is most often thought of as something that is required to get a business loan, it can also serve as a roadmap for your business.  Starting and running a business is complex and there are so many parts in motion, it’s next to impossible to keep track of everything – and that’s where the business plan comes in. 

When most people think of business plans, most think about a formal document that’s as thick as a text book.  Those don’t happen much anymore because they just aren’t useful.  If you are writing a business plan for the bank, some formality is in order but you should also have a business plan that you can use to execute your vision, even if it’s just scribbled on notebook paper.

For some resources on business plans including business plan templates, free sample business plans and more, click here.

Select a Business Entity in californiaThe second step in starting a business in California is selecting a business entity which is also known as the business structure.  The business entity is how a business is legally organized to do business.  The four primary types include the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation and LLC.  Each has pros and cons and a short description of each is below.

Sole Proprietorship: A sole proprietorship is an individual that decides to go into business.  This is easiest and least expensive of the four to set up but has a serious potential downside which is unlimited liability.  This unlimited liability opens the business owner up personally should the business be sued.   There is no filing for a sole proprietorship in California.

General Partnership: A general partnership is similar to the sole proprietor, except it involves two or more people conducting a business together. Like the sole proprietorship, there is no formal filing and also like the sole proprietorship, the partnership has unlimited liability.

Corporation: The corporation is a more complex business structure than than the sole proprietorship or partnership but that complexity provides the owner with the ability to protect their personal assets through liability protection. If the corporation gets sued, the owner’s personal assets should be safe.

The initial cost to form a corporation in California is $100, paid to the Secretary of State.  There is also an annual minimum tax of $800 that varies based on the income of the corporation that is paid to the California Franchise Tax Board.

Click for more details about forming a corporation in California.

Limited Liability Company (LLC): The LLC is similar to the corporation because of the liability protection but provides the ease of operation of a sole proprietorship by eliminating the administrative requirements of the corporation.

The initial cost to form a California LLC with the California Secretary of State is $70.  Additionally, there is an annual minimum tax of $800 that varies based on the income of the LLC to the California Franchise Tax Board.

Click for more details about forming an LLC in California.

Register a Business Name in californiaAfter deciding on a business entity, the next step in to start a business in California is to register a business name. 

HOW TO FILE A DBA IN CALIFORNIA FOR SOLE PROPRIETORSHIPS & GENERAL PARTNERSHIPS

If you are a sole proprietorship or general partnership in California and doing business under your full first and last name, John Smith for example, there is no filing, but if the business will operate under a trade name/business name like John Smith’s Handyman Service, Mr. Handyman, etc, you will need to file an Fictitious Business Name Filing, commonly known as a DBA (Doing Business As).

The County Clerk in the county where the business is located to apply for the Fictitious Business Name filing.  

HOW TO RESERVE A BUSINESS NAME IN CALIFORNIA FOR A CORPORATION OR LLC

Corporations and LLCs have to pick a name at the time of filing for the entity and each corporation/LLC has to be uniquely named. 

To check the availability of names, visit the  California Secretary of State

Registering does not necessarily keep others from using the business name.  For more details on registering a business name and protecting it with a trademark, click here.

How Do I File an EIN in California?

The Employer Identification Number or EIN (sometimes referred to as the Federal Employer Identification Number or FEIN) is a unique nine digit number from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to identify a business operating in the U.S.  Much like what a social security number is to a person, the EIN is essentially a social security number for a business.  While most businesses will need to get an EIN, some do not need to. 

Businesses that are required to get an EIN include partnerships, corporations or LLCs OR sole proprietorships with employees.

A sole proprietorship with no employees isn’t required to get an EIN and would simply use the owner’s social security number instead. 

For more information about how to apply and to see our video with step by step directions check out how to file for an EIN

how to get a business license in californiaStarting a business in California may require special permits and/or licensing, potentially from a variety of agencies before legally operating.  Some of the most common licenses a business may need in California could include;

Local Business Licenses – Most cities, towns and/or counties in California require a business to register, even some home-based businesses.  Each local entity has its own rules for business activity, so requirements vary depending on location as some require a business license while others have requirements for zoning, building/ building improvements, signage requirements, liquor licenses, etc.  

The city hall, county clerk, mayor or economic development office are all good places to contact and find if you need a business license in your community. 

California Seller’s Permit – Businesses in California must obtain a seller’s permit if they are involved with any business activity in California and/or intend to sell or lease tangible personal property that would ordinarily be subject to sales tax if sold at retail.

More information on the California Seller’s Permit is available from the California Department of Tax & Fee Administration.

Professional Licenses – A variety of professionals in the state are regulated such as auto repair shops, cosmetologists, pest control and many more.

Click for more details on California business license requirements

Finding Financing for a Business in California

Getting the funds together to finance a business start-up can be a time consuming process.  Similar to getting a home loan, the bank is going to want lots of documentation on your personal finances in addition to a solid idea and business plan.

As a rule of thumb, banks will want to see the owner invest 15%-25% of their money (equity) into the total start-up costs of a business.  That can include cash but also any buildings, tools, vehicles, inventory and equipment that will be used in the business. 

There are a number of small business loan options, but the primary ones that are used by small businesses include: 

Conventional Bank Loans – These are available at most local banks and are where most entrepreneurs start when looking for a loan. 

Loan Guarantee – When a loan is riskier than the bank wants to take on, many have the option to use the Small Business Administration (SBA).  This is a federal program that provides a guarantee to the bank that will pay a percentage of the loan should the business owner default.  

Alternative Lenders – A newer type of lender has emerged to make business loans online. 

Revolving Loan Funds – Several communities, economic development agencies, etc. offer revolving loan funds to businesses as a way to encourage investment and job creation.  They are often low interest and approval is typically not as strict as a bank since job creation in the community is a priority.  

Expect the loan approval process to take anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months (and possibly more) depending on the amount being borrowed, complexity of the project and owner’s personal financial condition.

Credit Score
Before stepping into a bank for financing, it is a good idea to know your credit score.  A major factor in getting start-up business loan approval is the owner’s credit score.  Typically scores above 650 are considered viable so if you aren’t sure, get a copy of your credit report. 

More details about different loans for businesses is available on our financing a business page.

accounting taxes start business californiaDepending on the type of business, there are a variety of taxes a company in California needs to be aware of with the most common being sales tax and self-employment taxes.

California Sales  Tax – The California Department of Revenue is the state body responsible for collecting taxes.  You must obtain a seller’s permit if you:

– Are engaged in business in California, and
– Intend to sell or lease tangible personal property that would ordinarily be subject to sales tax if sold at retail.

Self-Employment Taxes – Sole proprietors, partnerships and LLCs that elect to be taxed as such will be required to pay state and federal income taxes, Social Security, and Medicare based on the profits generated by the business.

More details are available on our Accounting & Taxes in California page.

How Do I Hire Employees in California?Before hiring employees, there are several items that a small business owner needs to be familiar with before making their first hire.    

Register as an Employer – Employers will need to register with the IRS (EIN number) California Employment Development Department (Withholding Tax Number & Unemployment Number)

Fill Out Paperwork For New Employees – When hiring a new employee there are four forms that will need to be filled out; New-Hire Reporting Form (California Employment Development Department), I9 (Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification), W-4 (IRS’s Publication 15 Employer Tax Guide), and the DE4 (California Employee’s Withholding Exemption Certificate).

Federal & State Income Tax Withholding – Employers withhold money from each employee’s paycheck to pay that employee’s federal and state income taxes. The employer pays no part of the withholding tax, but is responsible for collecting and remitting the taxes that are withheld.

Social Security & Medicare – To comply with the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), an employer must withhold the employee’s portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes and the employer matches.

Federal & State Unemployment Insurance – Employers are responsible for paying taxes to compensate workers who have recently lost their jobs, which is through federal & state unemployment insurance.

Worker’s Compensation Insurance – Workers’ compensation provides compensation benefits and covers medical costs to employees injured on the job.    Worker’s Compensation Insurance is administered through the California Department of Industrial Relations

Labor Laws – Employers should also understand the various regulations and laws pertaining to employees. If you plan to hire employees, learn the rules that apply to your business. Federal laws, depending on your sales volume and number of employees, may supersede state laws.

Consult with the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and U.S. Department of Labor to learn more. If you are unsure of your obligations, an attorney’s guidance can be also useful in assisting you to meet legal requirements.

This is a very brief overview and more information is available on our Hiring Employees in California page.