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Permission, Please

You might be your own boss, but you still have to answer to a higher power: the licenses and permits you need to make your business legal.

OK, let's review the checklist for opening your business's doors to the public. Got your signage? Check. Business cards and fliers? Check. Inventory? Check. Licenses and permits? Er, hold up on that one. What licenses and permits?

That's the question 17-year-old Justin Wilkinson found himself asking the day he received a letter from the Iowa Department of Agriculture. Wilkinson raises more than 100 songbirds, which he sells to local pet stores and bird lovers through his DeWitt, Iowa-based business, J.A.M. singers.

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J.A.M. Singers, which began as a project for the FFA (originally the Future Farmers of America), quickly took off. Wilkinson entered a national business plan competition and was named Youth Entrepreneur of the Year. Afterward, he was the center of attention, receiving newspaper publicity--even a letter from the governor of Iowa.

And then there was that other letter, the one from the Iowa Department of Agriculture. Not only did they want to know if he had a license to sell birds, but they also told him that a state inspector would soon be paying him a visit. "I didn't even have a clue that I needed a license," says Wilkinson.

Fortunately for Wilkinson, the problem was easily remedied. The state inspector found everything in order. Wilkinson paid a $50 fee for the pet shop license his business requires. He's a lot wiser now and knows that, by Iowa law, he must have a license if he sells six birds a year or makes $500 in profit.

Ready for Anything
The Iowa Department of Agriculture isn't the only government organization to spring inspections on unsuspecting business owners. Dolly Jane Barnes, the 17-year-old owner of Blue Ribbon Honeybees in Selmer, Tennessee, has to be prepared for surprise visits by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. "Sometimes they call and let us know they're coming, and sometimes they just drop by, so we have to be ready," she says.

Because inspectors can show up anytime to inspect her bees, Barnes is always ready. To keep her bees healthy, she keeps a close eye on her eight hives and participates in a voluntary bee inspection program through the department of agriculture.

Like Barnes, Chad Williams, the 19-year-old owner of The Juice, a restaurant in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, has to be ready for anything. Like most restaurants, The Juice had to pass an inspection by the health department and secure a food establishment permit before it could open. The annual fee for the permit is $75, and Williams has to be prepared for surprise visits from the local health inspector, who rates the restaurant and employees on the way food is handled and the cleanliness of the kitchen.

As part of some new health regulations, Williams also had to take a two-week course on safe food handling taught at the University of Massachusetts Extension Service. He then had to pass a test to get certified as a food protection manager, as the health department requires that a certified food manager be on hand at all times. Williams is expected to train another employee to enforce food safety regulations when he can't be there.

By law, Williams must display his food manager certificate and his food establishment permit where everyone can see them. Although his permit could be revoked if he fails to comply with regulations, he rarely has any problems. "I know what they're looking for, and I'm ready," he says.

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