No Exemptions for E-Businesses

Online businesses still need to adhere to real-world tax and license regulations.

I've received quite a few e-mails recently from e-business owners who seem to think that just because their business is conducted online or from the comfort of home that the rules and regulations that govern brick-and-mortar businesses don't apply to them.

The following e-business questions are the ones I get most often. They don't involve building websites or conducting e-commerce-they're more what I call the "do I really have to" line of questions.

1. Do I really have to get a business license? This is one requirement that many e-business entrepreneurs think they can skirt because they don't have a brick-and-mortar establishment.

Sorry, Charlie. Operating an e-business out of your office or home doesn't get you off the hook when it comes to licensing. Depending on your location, you may need a city and county license. Luckily, such licenses are relatively easy to obtain and aren't expensive. For local licensing requirements, contact your city or county government offices.

Homebased businesses are also subject to zoning laws that regulate how property can be used and may restrict various activities. You should check local zoning requirements and property covenants. You can find this information at the courthouse or by calling your local license department.

Legalities aside, the best reason to get a business license is that it allows you to set up a business bank account using what's called a DBA. A DBA is another name that you use in the operation of your business instead of your personal name. For example, your name might be Joe Jones, but you might use Jones Internet Services as your business name. Having a business license will enable you to set up a business account and get checks printed with your business name, giving you that all-important air of professionalism that many e-businesses lack.

2. Do I really have to get a tax ID number? Online companies with a physical presence, or nexus, in a state are required to collect and report taxes on sales of taxable goods made to customers living within that same state. For example, if your online business is based in California, you must collect and report sales tax derived from fellow Californians making purchases on your site.

For this reason, you'll be required to have a tax ID number if you're selling taxable goods. (Most services are not taxed.) Getting a tax ID number is usually a simple process of filling out a form and paying a nominal fee. You'll file quarterly reports and remit any sales tax that's due.

One word of warning: Many entrepreneurs have gotten themselves into deep trouble because they saw fit to spend the sales tax they had collected instead of sending it to Uncle Sam. This can mean death to your business and jail time for you. Many times, this mistake is innocently made when a business owner commingles funds collected as sales tax with their normal business checking account. Open a separate bank account and deposit sales tax monies into the account and don't touch it until the time comes to send the money in with the quarterly report.

3. Do I really have to pay taxes on income from my website? We've talked about this before, and the answer is still the same: Just because your income is derived from an e-business doesn't mean the income isn't taxable. It's not manna from heaven. It's income, so report it.

The point to remember is this: The "e" on the front of "e-business" doesn't stand for "exempt." In the eyes of the law, your e-business is susceptible to the same laws and regulations that govern the corner mom-and-pop store, so make sure your conduct your business as such.

Tim W. Knox is the founder and CEO of three successful technology companies: B2Secure Inc., a Web-based hiring management software company; Digital Graphiti Inc., a software development company; and, an online organization dedicated to helping entrepreneurs launch and prosper from their eBay or online sales business.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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