What Is a DBA & Who Needs It
This article is part of a larger series on Starting a Business.
The DBA (doing business as) is the public facing name of a business. For a sole proprietor, a DBA allows them to market a business other than their legal name. For an LLC, a DBA allows the owner to market a business with a name other than the registered name. Several states and counties use the term “fictitious name” or “trade name” instead of “doing business as.” Expect to spend anywhere from $10 to $150 a year to register your DBA.
How the DBA Works
From the sole proprietor’s point of view, a “doing business as” registration provides privacy. A sole proprietor may not want their personal name to be the public-facing name of the company. They can register a DBA with the state (or county) to keep their name private.
Why does a sole proprietor need a DBA if the business name is different from their personal name? It’s because there’s no record of the business name. When a sole proprietor pays taxes, it’s under their Social Security number, not an employment identification number. There’s no way for the government to track down the business, if needed.
Note: Operating a business without registering its name as an LLC, corporation, or DBA is against the law. For example, in Florida this violation is a second degree misdemeanor.
From the limited liability company (LLC) owner’s point of view, a DBA provides the ability to market a company with a name different from its registered name. A business owner can also operate several unrelated businesses under one LLC name.
For example, if a business owner operates a pawn shop, storage facility, and property management company, each business may have a DBA under one LLC. Having three DBAs helps with marketing—each business can have a separate name.
It’s important to note that a DBA is not a business structure. It does not replace a sole proprietorship or LLC. The DBA is a legal step in addition to being a sole proprietor or LLC.
From the customer’s point of view, the DBA provides consumer protection. If a consumer has a poor experience with a business, they can look up that business in an online database and report it to the state. Also, the DBA system allows potential customers to look up a company’s information before engaging in a transaction.
Who Should & Shouldn’t Get a DBA
Sole proprietor with a business name other than their legal name
A sole proprietor with the same business and personal name
LLC or C-corp owner with multiple types of businesses
An LLC or C-corp owner with the same registered biz name and public biz name
A business owner who recently changed their business name
You want to save money on the legal entity registration (LLC or C-corp)
Note: If your business carries liability, don’t opt for a sole proprietorship with a DBA instead of an LLC. The sole proprietor business structure puts your personal assets at risk if a lawsuit were to occur against the business.
DBA Pros & Cons
Don’t have to operate a sole proprietorship by your personal name
Personal finances are not legally protected
Provides security for the business owner
Possibly pay more in taxes
Can operate multiple business names under one LLC
May be expensive if you have to register DBA in multiple counties
Easy to renew every year
Business name not legally secured
How to File a DBA
Let me first say that some states have a difficult process to register a DBA. For example, Georgia runs DBA registration through the clerk of courts office in each county. The “doing business as” documents may have to be submitted in person. If you operate a business in numerous counties in Georgia, you will have to file for DBAs in multiple counties—it will be a lot of paperwork. DBA fees are required for each as well. For Fulton County (Atlanta), it’s $119 a year for only one DBA. For the typical “doing business as,” you’ll spend anywhere from $10 to $150 every year.
Fortunately, most DBA registration processes are straightforward:
- Go to your state’s official business registration website and search current business names to see if your desired name is available.
- If the name is available, submit the required documentation and fee to the state either through the website or in person at the appropriate local government office.
- Check with your county clerk’s office to determine if you need to submit an “intent to use a new business name” or a “notice of your new name” to the local newspaper. This notice is somewhat of an archaic process, but still a requirement for some counties.
How to Secure Your Business Name
Submitting a DBA doesn’t mean you legally secured your business name. You have little legal protections if a competitor uses your business name or a close variation. A more legitimate way to secure your business name is by registering a legal entity, such as an LLC or a C Corporation.
The most legitimate way to secure your business is to obtain a trademark for your business name. Most small businesses don’t submit a trademark because there are protections built into the LLC.
Another reason to get a trademark is if you have a national or worldwide audience for your product or service. A larger customer base brings more competition and a likelihood of someone using your brand. If you’d like to obtain a trademark, it will cost anywhere from $225 to $2,000.
Alternative to the DBA
I have to reiterate that the DBA for a sole proprietorship should only be for a business that carries low liability. If you’re engaging in activities where a customer, employee, or vendor could sue your business, you need to register your business as an LLC (or possible C-corp).
You can register as a legal entity before you start your business and after you’ve already started. By registering an LLC, you get the opportunity to legally name your business with the state. If you’re an LLC, you only need to submit a DBA (or multiple DBAs) if you’re operating multiple businesses under the LLC.
Similar to the DBA, you can register your LLC through your state’s official business registration website. Or, if you find your state’s website difficult to navigate, you can use an online legal service. IncFile is a legal service that will submit your LLC documentation to the state for free, plus any state fees.
Your personal meaning of a DBA varies depending on the type of business you own. If you’re a sole proprietor, you will need a DBA to indicate your business name is different from your personal name. If you own an LLC or C-corp you’ll need a DBA if you’re operating multiple businesses. You can file a DBA through your state or county’s official business registration website or through an online legal service such as IncFile, for a small fee.