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On Red Tape and Getting a Business License in Roanoke

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I officially work for a great small company in Orange County, CA, even though I currently live here in Roanoke. I have no complaints about the company whatsoever, and the arrangement we have is about the best I could possibly imagine (unless they spontaneously decide to pay me more). However, I have always had a small side “business” doing the same kind of work—programming, but not in a competitive way—for side jobs that occasionally come up.

I have had my own sole proprietorship business for this purpose since before I started working for my current employers seven years ago. Most of the time, I don’t have any active business, but it’s professionally handy to have an official business instead of just my name. It makes some people more comfortable.

Of course, just doing occasional programming work for somebody else is very easy to do unofficially. But it becomes less so when you have to deposit a check that’s made out to a business name. Then things get complicated. I got just such a check this past Wednesday. I could have simply asked for a new check, but I’ve been meaning to jump through this official hoop for quite a while, and so I figured, why not use this check as a catalyst to create the motivation I’m obviously lacking?

In Orange County, it is actually incredibly simple to have a sole proprietorship with a fictitious business name (i.e. a name other than your own). All you need to do is file a form with the county clerk and pay $17. You only have to renew it every 5 years, and doing so is free. You can take that official form to a bank and open a business checking account. Ta-da!

In Roanoke, it’s not quite so easy. You need a business license, even for a sole proprietorship. That’s $50 per year, unless your gross receipts are over $100,000 yearly. The FBN filing is only $10. But you also need to get zoning approval, no matter what you’re doing, where you’re doing it from, or whether you have any employees. Huh?

So, since Thursday is my “errand day” because I have lunch with my brother and friends in downtown Roanoke, I made a few research phone calls on Wednesday and planned to take care of everything on Thursday after lunch. The planned trip involved one stop at the city courthouse for the FBN, and one stop at the municipal building next door for the zoning approval and business license, followed by a stop at the bank to setup an account and deposit the check.

Here’s how things actually went.

  1. Find free place to park for unlimited amount of time approximately one half mile away from destination.
  2. Walk to vicinity of destination.
  3. Locate correct building (the courthouse) and enter.
  4. Empty pockets to go through metal detector and pass through without a problem.
  5. Discover that small Swiss Army knife was in my pocket the whole time. Oops.
  6. Take elevator up to 2nd floor and eventually find correct desk.
  7. Sign form in front of attendant to avoid notarization requirement, and be told that ATM is only available in municipal building. Cash-only fee, d’oh.
  8. Go downstairs and out front door with paperwork in hand.
  9. Enter municipal building and withdraw $20 from non-branch ATM.
  10. Return to courthouse, getting the knife caught in the metal detector this time. (It stays at the security desk.)
  11. Return to desk on second floor, finish payment, receive FBN receipt from city. Yay!
  12. Exit courthouse after picking up knife, enter municipal building and locate first floor, which is actually one floor down from the front entrance.
  13. Locate zoning commission room and finish filling out the forms in hand.
  14. Discover through conversation with attendant that I don’t live in Roanoke City, just Roanoke County. Jurisdictions are different, as is the place I actually need to be.
  15. Leave municipal building and walk half mile back to car.
  16. Drive to vicinity of Roanoke County administrative building.
  17. Make a U-turn after using GPS how it was designed to be used, and locate building.
  18. Find Business License room and converse with office worker.
  19. Discover that I need a new FBN for the county, and FBN requests for the county are processed in Salem. D’oh.
  20. Fill out all possible business license and FBN form fields in office, with promise of a streamlined process completed simply by phoning in FBN receipt number upon success.
  21. Take zoning forms (also required for county) up one floor to county zoning administration.
  22. Talk to zoning desk attendant about rules and regulations, nature of business, gross receipts, advertising, customers, etc.
  23. Discover that I need a written permission letter from property managers due to leasing, not owning, the property.
  24. Discover that said permission letter must be signed and notarized. D’oh.
  25. Take care of car property tax while in the correct building and I have someone to ask about it.
  26. Exit building and drive home with new to-do list.

Good grief. In my defense, my car registration is in fact officially in Roanoke City, and all of my mail is addressed to “Roanoke, VA.” How on earth I am not in Roanoke City is beyond me, but then again, these are the same people who have one street with five names in a 20 mile stretch.

So now, I have the following list of things to do in order to finish the process:

  1. Await response from property management as to whether they’ll let me run a low-volume freelance programming company over the internet from the apartment.
  2. Get approval letter from property management signed and notarized.
  3. Drive to Salem and obtain FBN from Roanoke County.
  4. Drive back to county administrative building and file remaining paperwork.
  5. Finish up at the bank.

So, for the record, if you want to run a sole proprietorship in Roanoke, first make sure whether you’re in the city or the county, then make a note of whether you own the property or not. It makes a big difference in where you need to go and which steps are actually required.

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