Illinois is a fantastic place to do business. With the 5th largest economy in the United States, The Prairie State is an economic powerhouse. Plus, the state has a low-income tax rate, and with Chicago’s clout comes excellent access to venture capital and other funding sources.
Chicago is home to some of the largest companies in the nation. But it’s not just big businesses that thrive in Illinois. Small businesses make up 99.6% of Illinois businesses, and there are a whopping 1.2 million small businesses in the state.
If you’re considering joining the ranks of Illinois entrepreneurs, you may be wondering how to start. This guide will guide you through the process, showing you how to start a business in Illinois.
Decide on a business idea
First and foremost, you’ll need to decide what kind of business you want to start. Chances are you already have something in mind, but if not, here are some things to consider:
- What are you talented or naturally skilled at? Could this talent make you well suited to a certain type of business?
- What business does your community need? Have you talked to people to find out?
- What are you interested in? Can you combine any of your passions with a business idea?
- Is this going to be a full time business, or more of a side hustle?
These are questions to ask yourself when deciding on a business idea. Once you have decided, move on to the next step.
Plan your Illinois business
Now it’s time to start planning. This means coming up with a business plan, naming your business, researching locations, and more. There’s a lot to cover here, so let’s break it down:
Select a business name
One of the first major steps you must take is to select a name for your new company. You should take your time with this process, as you want to choose a memorable name that is a good fit for your business.
In addition to being memorable, you want a name that is unique. In fact, this is required. Illinois requires new businesses to choose names that are distinguishable from other businesses already registered in the state. To confirm whether your desired name is available, use this Illinois business name search tool. You can also confirm the availability of up to 3 names at a time by using this request form.
There are various other rules to comply with, including:
- The name must be unique from other businesses already registered in the state
- LLC names need to contain “limited liability company”, or approved abbreviations like “LLC” or “L.L.C.”
- Corporation names need to contain “corporation”, or approved abbreviations like “corp” or “inc”
- Certain financial words and phrases may require additional written permission. This includes financial terms like “bank” and “trust”
- Other rules may apply.
When you have selected a name, you can move on to the next step.
Alternatively, if you’re not quite ready to move on, you can reserve the business name. This temporarily reserves the name so that you can think about it, without losing the right to the name if someone else registers it.
Illinois Assumed Names
Illinois does allow for the use of “assumed names”, otherwise known as Doing Business As (DBA) names. Once your business is registered, you can register additional trade names, which you can then legally do business under. Learn more about trade names in Illinois here.
Register a domain name
Once you choose a name, you should immediately register a domain name for your new business. In most cases, getting a .com domain name is ideal, but there are many other extensions (.biz, .net, etc.) that are worth considering.
You can use a tool like Namechk to search for an available domain name and find a great deal on the registration cost. You may find that your desired names are taken, so you may need to get creative.
Complete market research
Once you have an idea, you’ll want to do some market research. You want to gain a better understanding of who your customers – and competitors – are. You can achieve this by conducting online research, running focus groups, sending out surveys, and more. There are also companies that can help you complete market research, for a fee.
Select a business location
Unless you plan to run a remote/virtual business, you will need to find a physical location for your company. Research commercial property in your area, and take note of typical costs. For customer-facing businesses (retail and some services), location is very important, so take your time in selecting the right area for your business.
Create a business plan
You will now need to create a detailed business plan for your new venture. This plan is helpful for your own purposes, and will also be necessary in order to obtain funding from a bank. A good business plan should contain these elements:
- Finances: How much funding does the business need to get started? How many sales does it need each month to break even on expenses?
- Product: What do you plan to sell? Is it a product or a service? What problem does your business solve, and how is it distinct from your competitors?
- Marketing: How will you drive sales? What marketing and sales efforts do you plan to employ? How much money will you set aside to fund marketing efforts?
- Staff & Partnerships: How many people will you need to hire, and what skill sets do they need to have? Will you have any partnerships or arrangements with other local businesses?
If you need help, you can find business plan templates online that will help walk you through the steps you need to take to draft a detailed business plan. If you plan to seek funding, you may also wish to call your bank to see what they require in terms of business plans.
Decide on a business structure
Before you form your business as a legal entity, you will need to decide which business structure you will use. There are a few different types of businesses, each with its own pros and cons.
Sole props are single-person operations. Examples include freelancers, gig economy workers, and consultants. A sole proprietorship business is very easy and inexpensive to form, and tax reporting is also fairly simple. As a sole proprietor, your business taxes are reported as part of your personal tax return.
The downsides to a sole prop are that you cannot hire employees, and you don’t have the legal liability shield that something like an LLC or corporation would provide. 100% of the debts and liability of a sole proprietorship go to the sole owner: you.
A general partnership is an unincorporated business structure similar to a sole proprietorship, except with two active owners/participants. Partnerships do not have liability protection.
Limited Liability Company (LLC)
A limited liability company, or LLC, is a popular choice for business owners because it provides liability protection to the owners. It separates the business from the owners, which means the personal assets of owners will not be at risk if the company gets sued or goes into bankruptcy.
LLCs are also a bit easier to form than corporations. Even so, there is definitely more work involved with an LLC than there is with a sole proprietorship.
A corporation is owned by its shareholders and is a separate entity. There are a few different types of corporations (C-corp, S-corp, etc), with the main differences being the way they are treated tax-wise.
Corporations are more regulated than LLCs, which makes them more attractive to outside investors. For this reason, most large companies are corporations. The downside is that it takes more effort, and more paperwork, to form a corporation.
A nonprofit is a legal entity that is set up with charitable status, meaning that its goal is not to make a profit, but rather to address a certain cause. Nonprofits are funded by donations, rather than investors, and are subject to many regulations. They are exempt from most forms of taxation, although tax returns must still be filed.
Register your business in Illinois
Next, you will need to actually register your new business with the state of Illinois. You will need to work with the Illinois Secretary of State and can be handled through the CyberDrive Illinois website, or by filing forms through the mail.
There are two ways to go about this process:
- Doing the work yourself (see the steps below)
- Using a professional business formation service
If you choose to use a service, you will have to pay a bit extra. However, this is well worth the cost for most entrepreneurs, as it can save you a lot of time.
Services like Northwest Registered Agent, ZenBusiness, and Incfile are all great options. These companies specialize in new business formation and help walk you through all the required steps to get your new company formed.
If you choose not to use a service, the broad steps include:
- Choosing a name for your business
- Choosing a Registered Agent for your business. This agent is responsible for receiving legal documents and correspondence for your company
- Filing formation documents with Illinois’ Secretary of State department
- Applying for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- Applying for other necessary permits or licenses
The specific steps you’ll need to take depend on what type of business you are opening (LLC, corporation, etc.) Find details on each business structure below.
Form an Illinois sole proprietorship
Follow these steps:
- Decide if you will operate under your legal name, or use a trade name
- If you use a name other than your own, you will need to register a trade name
- Apply for a business license and/or other necessary permits from local governments (city/county)
- Find more information on how to register a IL sole prop here
Form an Illinois LLC
Follow these steps:
- Name your LLC
- Choose an Illinois Registered Agent (or use a service such as Northwest Registered Agent)
- File the LLC Articles of Organization online, and pay the $150 filing fee. The form can also be filed by mail
- Draft an LLC operating agreement
- Apply for an EIN with the IRS
Form an Illinois corporation
Follow these steps:
Apply for business licenses and permits
Registering your business and forming an LLC or corporation is an important part of starting your business – but in order to operate legally, you will likely also need to obtain certain permits and/or business licenses.
The specifics vary depending on the type of business you are running, as well as your location. For example, restaurants will need health permits, bars will need liquor licenses, and medical service providers will need various professional licenses and federal permits. You will need to research the specifics that relate to your business type.
There are different requirements at each level of government:
- Local: Cities and counties may require certain business licenses or permits. Contact your county clerk for details.
- State: Illinois may require certain permits or licenses. Check the Illinois Business Portal website and local city/county government websites for details.
- Federal: Federal permits/licenses may be required for certain regulated industries, such as construction, medicine and legal services. Check the Small Business Administration (SBA) guide for more details.
At this time, you should also apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN). An EIN is a federal tax ID that is required to hire employees. You can apply for an EIN online with the IRS – the application is free and quick.
For most businesses, some startup funding will be necessary in order to get started. In step #2, you should have calculated your funding needs while drafting a business plan. Use this information to determine how much funding you need to raise.
For bootstrapped companies, you may be able to get by with your own personal savings, or some seed investments from friends and family. If your funding needs are small, this is likely your best route.
If your business plan indicates that substantial funding is needed, you will likely need to apply for a loan and/or a grant.
- Small business loans are offered by banks, credit unions and other lenders. They can range from as little as a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. Specifics will depend on your business, as well as your personal creditworthiness. Most small business loans are issued in a lump sum, and paid back on a monthly basis, with interest.
- Small business grants are offered by government agencies and some nonprofits. They are essentially business loans that don’t need to be paid back – but they usually have substantial fine print. It’s worth looking into, however, as there may be grants available, particularly for businesses serving an important social need, or for underprivileged entrepreneurs starting their first business.
Set up your business finances
Beyond securing funding, there are other routine tasks that you need to take care of to get your business’ finances in order. This includes:
- Opening a business checking account. You should have a separate business bank account that you use solely for business purposes. You can open this account at most banks, credit unions and financial institutions. Call ahead to see what documents will be required to open this account.
- Open a business credit card or line of credit. This is not strictly necessary, but most businesses can benefit from having a business credit card, and/or a business line of credit. This can be used for day-to-day expenses and purchases, and may also earn you some rewards.
- Set up your accounting system. As a business owner, you will need to keep very detailed records about all revenue and expenses. To do this, you’ll want to set up the proper foundation from day one. This could be investing in an account software such as QuickBooks or Xero, hiring a bookkeeper, or at the very least establishing a spreadsheet to track everything. If you do not have any accounting experience, it’s wise to hire a professional to help.
- Purchase business insurance. Most businesses should have some form of liability insurance, and potentially other forms of business insurance as well. Insurance policies can help protect your equipment and buildings from costly damage, and help shield your company from liability if a worker or customer is injured or otherwise harmed. Speak with a local business insurance provider to get started.
Create a business website
In this day and age, having a solid web presence for your business is very important. And social media profiles, while important, are no replacement for an actual website. You will want to build a professional business website that you can use to drum up business, inform your customers, and stay connected with your clientele.
The simplest way to build a website is to use a website builder from a web hosting provider. When you register a new domain name, look for a provider that also offers web hosting and a site builder, so that you can purchase everything at once and get your site set up quickly.
Unless you plan to operate a solo business (with you as the only worker), you will likely need to hire employees. To do this, you will need a federal employer identification number (EIN), which is a free tax ID number issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Once you have an EIN, you will be able to legally hire employees. With each new employee, you will need to report the new hire to the DCSS. You should also ensure that each employee is legally authorized to work in the state and that they hold all the professional licenses needed for their position.
At this point, you also should look into setting up your payroll system – whether you handle it yourself, or use a payroll service.
Run and grow your business
Now it’s time to get down to business and engage with the day-to-day activities that are sure to bring your business success. This means marketing your products and services, maintaining good relationships with your return customers, and setting yourself apart from the competition.
Illinois business FAQs
Still have questions about running a business in Illinois? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions.
What are some business resources in Illinois?
Illinois entrepreneurs have a variety of resources at their disposal. A great place to start is the Illinois Small Business Development Center (Illinois SBDC). This resource provides free business advisor services, webinars and training, and many other useful resources. Other good resources include the SCORE Chicago and the US Small Business Administration (SBA).
What is the minimum wage in Illinois?
The Illinois minimum wage is currently $11 per hour in 2021, and will increase by $1 per year (on January 1st), up until 2025 when it hits $15 per hour. New employees may be paid $0.50 less per hour for the first 90 days of employment.
Illinois does have a tipped minimum wage, which allows employers of workers who receive tips to pay slightly less per hour (currently, they can be paid 60% of the minimum wage). There is also a lower hourly rate for youths working under a certain hour threshold per year. More information can be found here.
Keep in mind that individual cities and counties are able to impose their own minimum wage laws. For instance, Chicago has a higher minimum wage than the state as a whole. Check with your local city/county governments to ensure that you are compliant with all local laws.
What business taxes does Illinois have?
There are a variety of taxes that IL businesses must pay. Any business that sells taxable goods or services must pay the Illinois sales tax, and taxable goods that are used or consumed by the business may be subject to use tax.
How do I dissolve an LLC or Corporation in Illinois?
If you end up needing to close your business, you will need to dissolve it. To do this, you must close down all your tax accounts with the state of Illinois, and file any outstanding tax returns. You must also file the LLC Statement of Termination with the state in order to formally close your Illinois company.
Closing a business can be a complex process. It’s a good idea to work with a certified public accountant (CPA) for help with this process, to ensure that everything is handled correctly.
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