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Whether or not your handmade business needs a business license to operate is a common question and a topic surrounded by a lot of confusion. And that’s because…it depends.
I’m going to shed a bit of light on the subject and related subjects.
If you’d like more in-depth answers and a guide to other laws you must follow as a handmade business, you can download:
CAN I SELL HANDMADE CRAFTS WITHOUT A BUSINESS LICENSE?
It’s very unlikely you can legally sell crafts without a business license.
Most jurisdictions will require you to have a business license if your intent is to earn a profit. So if you consider your handmade business a “business” and you’re setting out to earn an income from it, there’s just no way around it, you’ll likely need a business license.
However, laws vary by jurisdiction so check your local laws.
There are many handmade businesses operating without a proper business license/permit, aren’t properly registered, are infringing on trademarks/copyrights, etc. That doesn’t mean it’s legal or that they won’t get caught.
>> Check out: 3 BIGGEST LEGAL MISTAKES CRAFTERS MAKE
Government officials do conduct their own research. They may stumble upon your business online and decide to visit your home office to ensure you have the proper licenses/permits and are properly following regulations.
Someone may also complain about your business. It could be a shopper at a farmers’ market who notices you don’t have the proper permits displayed or doesn’t think you made your cupcakes in a sanitary kitchen with a valid health permit. It may be your neighbor who’s tired of cars being parking in front of their home and always seeing people coming and going from your place. Or a competitor may decide to complain because they believe you haven’t jumped through the same hoops they had to in order to get their business properly set up.
>> Check out: LAWS YOU MUST FOLLOW WHEN PACKAGING HANDMADE PRODUCTS
Being caught without the proper licenses and permits or registration can result in hefty fines. You can’t expect mercy because you’re a small business and only sell a few items a year.
DO YOU NEED A BUSINESS LICENSE TO SELL AT CRAFT SHOWS?
You will more than likely need a business license to sell at craft shows. You can go over the list below to determine if your business requires a business license, and if it does, you definitely want to apply for one before you start apply to and selling at craft shows.
You may have the craft show organizer checking to make sure you have the proper business licenses, permits, and tax ID number before they’ll accept you as a vendor.
As explained in LAWS FOR SELLING HANDMADE, each state/province will have its own set of rules you must follow, which vary depending on where you operate your business and where you sell your products (e.g. do you only sell to customers within your state or are you shipping products outside of your state?).
Even if the craft show organizer doesn’t require proof of the proper licenses and permits, you’ll want to be sure you have them for each craft show.
You may have a city inspector stop by your booth and start asking questions about where you operate your handmade business, how you label your products, if you’re charging sales tax, etc.
You may even get a competitor who has already jumped through all the license and permit hoops and spent money getting set up properly, and now they want to ensure you’re not getting away scot-free. They may report your business to the city if they think you’re operating without the proper business licenses and permits.
Although craft fair organizers may not be “checking at the door” for your business license, it doesn’t mean your craft business doesn’t require one to legally sell your handmade goods at craft shows.
DO I NEED A BUSINESS LICENSE TO SELL ON ETSY?
If the laws require you to have a business license, you’ll need one to sell on Etsy. Platforms such as Etsy or Shopify don’t check that every business using their site has the proper licenses, permits, registration, etc. to do so. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need them.
If your handmade business is considered a business and not a hobby, you’ll require a business license, and you must file taxes for your earnings. In most jurisdictions, your business is considered a business, and not a hobby, if the intent is to earn a profit from it.
Online businesses generally must follow the same rules as offline businesses.
The laws can actually get a little more complicated when selling online. For example, you must follow the laws regarding product regulations based on the country you’re shipping the item to, not just the country you’re producing it in.
Sales tax becomes a little more complicated when selling online as well (which I explain more in LAWS FOR SELLING HANDMADE). If living in the US, you must know whether you live in an origin-based state or destination-based state, as that determines how you charge your customers sales tax.
You must understand how to charge, collect, and remit sales tax for not only your jurisdiction but also for jurisdictions your customers are in.
DO I NEED A BUSINESS LICENSE TO SELL CRAFTS ON FACEBOOK?
If you’re required by law to have a business license to sell your handmade goods, you’ll need one before you start selling on Facebook. Selling crafts on Facebook is similar to selling crafts through Etsy or craft fairs. Facebook isn’t checking to ensure your business has the proper business licenses and permits before you’re allowed to set up a Facebook page.
However, when you put your craft business online, it has the potential to be exposed to a lot more people.
This is great for making more sales; not so great if you don’t have a business license yet and are required to have one. More exposure means more opportunities for your craft business to be caught operating without the proper licenses.
You also must consider that Facebook may introduce your business to customers outside of your state. It’s unlikely you’re going to turn down a sale because a customer lives a state or two over, so you must be aware of tax laws and charge and remit sales tax properly (if required).
That means following local tax laws as well as the laws of any states you’re shipping your products to.
You also want to have a safe and secure way to sell your crafts through Facebook and accept customers’ money. You may want to look at a platform like Ecwid, which allows you to create listings and then sync those listings with a Facebook page, Instagram account, website, marketplace, or even accept payments in-person.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I NEED A BUSINESS LICENSE TO SELL CRAFTS?
Your business most likely needs a license and/or permit(s) to legally operate; even if you’re operating a sole proprietorship and running it out of your home. Some factors that determine if you need a license and/or permit are:
- PRODUCT OR SERVICE YOU SELL
- BUSINESS ACTIVITIES
1 – JURISDICTION
Where you operate your business will determine if you need a business license or permit and which ones you require. You’ll have to look up the laws for your area/where you’re operating your business.
2 – WHAT YOU SELL
The type of product you sell and how it’s regulated (e.g. by state law) will determine if you require a license. Selling food or drink items, working with flammable materials or production processes that disrupt air and water quality also likely require you to have a permit.
3 – BUSINESS ACTIVITIES
Although I didn’t have employees and I never had customers visit my home, I did require a business license to legally operate my handmade business out of my home. If you plan to have customers/clients visit your home/studio/commercial space, require parking space, want to put up signage, etc. you’ll likely also need zoning permits.
4 – FINANCIALS
Your bank may require proof of proper licenses and permits to set up a business bank account or apply for a loan.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BUSINESS LICENSE AND BUSINESS REGISTRATION?
The difference between a business license and business registration is that a license gives you permission to operate your business while registration is more so claiming your business. In most jurisdictions, you’ll need both a business license and you’ll need to register your business.
To help explain, let’s consider a similar license/registration scenario.
The first thing a cop will ask when they pull someone over is for their license AND registration. They may also ask for proof of insurance.
- Your license tells the cop you’ve been approved to operate the vehicle.
- Your registration tells the cop the vehicle belongs to you. (If it doesn’t, they’ll check to be sure you have permission to be driving it).
- Insurance tells the cop you’ll be able to pay for any expenses that arise from an accident.
Your business’ license, registration, and insurance act in a similar way.
- A license or permit gives you permission to operate your business.
- Registration allows you to claim the business and business name as yours.
- Insurance, in most cases, is not mandatory but helps cover your costs in the case of an accident.
DO I NEED TO REGISTER MY HANDMADE BUSINESS?
In most cases, you’ll be required to register your handmade business. Here are some of the factors that will determine whether or not you must register your handmade business:
- BUSINESS STRUCTURE
- BUSINESS NAME
1 – JURISDICTION
Where you plan to do business will determine if you need to register your business. Some locations do not require you to register your business if operating as a sole proprietorship or partnership and using your legal name (e.g. Jane Smith).
2 – BUSINESS STRUCTURE
There are different ways you can structure your business. Some of the most common business structures for small businesses are:
- Sole Proprietorship
- General Partnership
- Limited Liability Company (LLC)
If you are setting your business up as anything other than a sole proprietorship or partnership, you must register your business. Most jurisdictions don’t require the registration of sole proprietorships or general partnerships if they’re conducting business as the owner’s legal name (see next point).
It’s important you choose the right business structure for your business, as it will determine the type of protection you have, how you pay your taxes, etc.
For example, if you make skincare products or baby items, you have a higher-risk business because your skincare products could cause an allergic reaction and attract a lawsuit, or your baby items could cause a choking hazard.
If you’re selling higher-risk products (i.e. more likely to attract a lawsuit), it’s best to set your business up as an LLC or Corporation so you have limited liability. Meaning, in the case of a lawsuit, your personal assets are protected.
This is not the case if your business is set up as a Sole Proprietorship as you have unlimited liability and may have to sell personal items (like your car or house) to pay your business debts.
More on business structures and which one is right for you in LAWS FOR SELLING HANDMADE
3 – BUSINESS NAME
If you’re operating your sole proprietorship or partnership as anything other than your personal name(s) you likely must register a trade name (also known as a DBA (doing business as) or fictitious name).
For example, if I start a sole proprietorship and call it Erin Mooney, I would not need to register it in Alberta. If I call my business Erin Mooney’s Jewelry, I do have to register the name as a DBA/trade name.
You would also register a DBA/trade name if your LLC or Corporation uses a name other than the one it was registered with. For example, McDonald’s legal business name is “McDonald’s Company” but they do business as “McDonald’s”.
Registering your business name also gives you *some protection from another business coming along and using it.
*To better protect your business’ name you may want to register it federally, incorporate and/or trademark it (more on protecting your intellectual property and ensuring you’re not infringing on another business’…*ahem, selling Disney characters*…is found in LAWS FOR SELLING HANDMADE.
You also want to do your due diligence to ensure the name you choose isn’t infringing on another business’s name or trademark.
If you build a business using a name that’s already in use, registered and/or trademarked, that business can file a lawsuit against you.
4 – TAXES
You may be required to register for a tax ID number to file income taxes and/or sales tax. Whether or not your business is required to collect sales tax and/or file taxes will depend on jurisdiction, how you operate your business, what you sell and where you sell it; important to note if you ship your products out of state or country
Tax registration is covered in LAWS FOR SELLING HANDMADE
5 – PROTECTION
You may want to register for a trademark, copyright or patent to protect your work. You absolutely want to be aware of other’s registered trademarks, copyrights, and patents so you do not infringe on them.
6 – FINANCIALS
If you plan to set up a separate bank account or apply for a loan, you’ll likely require proof of business registration.
DO I NEED INSURANCE TO SELL CRAFTS?
In most cases (but not all), you’re not legally required to have insurance for your handmade business, but may want it based on the following variables:
- WHERE YOU OPERATE YOUR BUSINESS
- WHAT YOU SELL
- BUSINESS STRUCTURE
1 – WHERE YOU OPERATE YOUR BUSINESS
If you have clients coming to your home, studio or even a separate office space, you may want additional coverage.
Homeowner’s insurance policies don’t cover home-based businesses. This means, if someone comes to your home, trips and falls and has medical bills to be covered, your insurance policy won’t cover it if that person was in your home because of your business.
Some craft shows may also require you to have proof of insurance to be accepted as a vendor. If someone is injured in your booth or your tent blowing over at an outdoor event damages property, someone must cover that. If the event doesn’t provide blanket insurance, you’ll likely be on the hook.
2 – WHAT YOU SELL
Some products are more prone to injury, damage, and lawsuits than others, such as bath & body products, candles, children’s products, etc. Product liability insurance can help protect you and your business if someone gets a rash from your soap and decides to sue.
3 – BUSINESS STRUCTURE
You may also want insurance based on the type of structure your business is set up as. If you choose a business structure that does not offer limited liability, it means your personal assets are not protected.
For example, if someone sues a sole proprietorship or partnership (which do not offer limited liability), the owner’s car, home, and other personal assets can be at risk. Liability insurance can help lower the risk. Although LLCs and Corporations do have limited liability, they may also be interested in liability insurance to lower their risks even further.
4 – FINANCIALS
Banks may require proof of insurance before approving a loan.
For more information on each area covered in this article, as well as other legal topics related to operating a handmade business, please download LAWS FOR SELLING HANDMADE. Details on what’s inside LAWS FOR SELLING HANDMADE can be found here.
You may also be interested in reading: 3 BIG LEGAL MISTAKES CRAFTERS MAKE