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How to Start a Sole Proprietorship in Massachusetts
The most basic legal structure for a Massachusetts business with only 1 owner is a sole proprietorship. While starting a sole proprietorship in Massachusetts does require legal paperwork to be filed, there are additional filings like registering your Massachusetts business name and obtaining relevant federal, state, and local business licenses and permits. This 5 step guide will help to covers the process and filings you’ll need to complete to get your Massachusetts sole proprietorship started the right way.
Please be aware that Massachusetts sole proprietorships don’t have personal asset and liability protections. To get limited liability and personal asset protection you can form a Massachusetts LLC rather than a sole proprietorship. LLC’s also offer additional tax flexability that sole proprietorships aren’t eligible for. For more info, review our LLC vs Sole Proprietorship comparsion.
1. Come Up with a Business Name
As with any business, the first step to starting a sole proprietorship is determining your Massachusetts business name. Having a memorable and unique business name is very important to success. Even if you have a name already in mind, it’s a good idea to brainstorm at least a few different names in case your preferred name is already in use. For more inspiration, check our our how to come up with a business name guide, where we go over 15 different tips to inspire your creativity.
Conduct a Business Name Search
After you have a couple names that you like, you’ll want to ensure that no one else is using those names by completing prelimary searches:
2. Register Your Business Name
As a sole proprietor, there is no legal separation between you as an individual and your business. As a result if you plan to operate under a business name other than your own personal name, you’ll need to file a DBA to register your Massachusetts business name. DBA stands for “doing business as” and is a way for a business to operate under a name different than their legal name. In Massachusetts you may also hear a DBA referred to as a “Business Certificate Name”.
DBA’s for sole proprietors in Massachusetts are filed at the town level. To complete the registration of your Massachusetts DBA, file a Business Certificate Name application with the town clerk's office. The DBA (Business Certificate Name) filing fee for sole proprietors is $30-65 (varies from town to town).
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3. Obtain Business Licenses and Permits
Sole proprietorships are subject to business and professional licensing requirements. Business and professional licenses are issued at the federal, state, and local levels. The types of licenses and permits your business is required to file will vary widely depending upon the nature of your business and how it operates.
Federal Licenses and Permits
Most common types of businesses are not subject to federal licensing, however if manufacture or sell products that are regulated at the federal level you will need the relevant federal license before you begin operating. Below is a list of federal agencies from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) that issue federal permits and licenses :
- U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Federal Aviation Administration
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service
- Federal Maritime Commission
- Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement
- U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- Federal Communications Commission
- U.S. Department of Transportation
Massachusetts State Business Licenses and Permit Resources:
For information on state-level licenses and permits in Massachusetts visit the Mass.gov: Professional Licenses & Permits website.
Local Licenses and Permits
Local licenses and permits vary widely depending on where your business operates and the nature of the business, however the most common types of local licenses and permits include:
- Operating License
- Building Permits
- Zoning and Land Use Permits
- Health Licenses and Perits
- Signage Licenses
If you work in a regulated profession you may also require a profressional license. These licenses are required to show proof that you have completed the required training or possess the required expertise to work in the field. There are a wide variety of industries where a professional license is required but some of the most common are:
- Financial Advisors
- Hair Stylists & Barbers
- Insurance Agents
- Medical Professionals
- Real Estate Agents
With how complex and time consuming the business license research process can be, we recommend using a service to determine which licenses you’ll need to apply for.
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4. Get an EIN from the IRS
If you have employees, you are required to get an EIN. EINs are a nine-digit ID number issued by the IRS to identify businesses for tax purposes. You can apply for an EIN for free online using the IRS’ EIN Assistant.
If you don’t have employees, you are not required to get an EIN as a sole proprietor. However, it can be useful to get an EIN. They are often required to open a business bank account and can be used in place of your social security number for most business applications.
Important Note about Sole Proprietor EINs:
Since sole proprietorships are not viewed as separate from an individual, sole proprietor EINs are issued under their names, not their DBA names. As a result, you will only be issued 1 EIN as a sole proprietor for your lifetime. This will be used for any and all businesses you will operate as a sole proprietor. If you apply for an EIN as a sole proprietor and receive reference error 101, this likely means that you have already been issued an EIN previously. If you cannot recall your EIN or have not been issued an EIN previously, you will need to call the IRS Business and Specialty Tax Assistance line at 1-800-829-4933 and use the prompts related to reference number 101.
5. Open a Business Bank Account
The final step to making your California sole proprietorship a reality is to open a business bank account. It’s important to keep your business and personal transactions separate to prevent the co-mingling of funds. The easiest way to do this is to open a designated business bank account and use it only for business transactions. This will make it easier for you to complete your accounting and bookkeeping tasks.
Check out this helpful guide to learn how to opening a business bank account.
Other Items to Consider
Once you have established your sole proprietorship, you will also want to complete these important tasks:
- Setup Credit Card Processing:
Considering that over 60% of transactions are done via debit and credit cards, it’s essentially a requirement to accept credit card payments. We go over how to do this in our How to Accept Credit Card Payments guide.
- Establish an Accounting System:
You’ll need to determine the accounting method you will use for your business: cash basis accounting vs. accrual accounting. To learn more, check out our guide on small business accounting 101.
- Get Business Insurance Coverage:
As a sole proprietor, you lack personal liability protection, so getting adequate business insurance could be your only financial protection method. Learn more about business insurance here.