Everything in life is black or white, wrong or right, delicious or disgusting, no?
Well, maybe if you are my five-year old son.
As adults however, we are reminded almost daily that the solution to so many of the issues we encounter falls somewhere in that oft referred to gray area. This so called gray area is defined by ambiguity, uncertainty, and confusion. In other words, the answers that fall into this category are what my relations like to refer to as “clear as mud.” It really does sound dreadful, but take heart, we can dig our way out, and in order to do so we get to use our hard earned judgment! By combining our judgment with due diligence and a mindset of being better safe than sorry we can ensure our business is protected while also creating graphically pleasing marketing materials! Yay!
The gray area
The reason for the ambiguity in the answer to this particular question is due to the fact that these guidelines are set by each state. And even within each state it is not totally clear where you may or must use the term LLC. What is clear however is that by taking the additional steps necessary to set up your photography business as an LLC, you saw value in and sought the protections provided by this particular formation, and rightfully so. As we covered in an earlier post, the benefits of an LLC are numerous and in my opinion well worth the additional cost and effort.
So now what? I like to focus on the things I do know, to determine answers to the things I don’t. In this case, it is clear that one of the primary benefits of an LLC and one of the main reasons to choose this form is that it provides the owner(s) with the same personal protection from responsibility as owners of incorporated businesses. In order to ensure you receive this protection however, it is imperative that you meet all of the requirements of an LLC, one of which that is particularly relevant to our question is to make the status known. In other words, in order to receive the benefit of the LLC, you have to let people know that it is in fact an LLC. The most obvious, important, and required place to do this is on ALL legal documents such as contracts, leases, and even bank accounts. See your states filing guidelines for more guidance on which documents require that you use the officially registered name.
So what about my website, business cards, and other marketing materials?
This is where the better safe than sorry mentality comes into play. While you are certainly diligent in using your full business names on legal documents, often times these are not what the client first sees or pays close attention to. If your marketing materials are doing their job, this is where clients first familiarize themselves with your company. Although using the LLC may not sound as catchy, it is good practice to use it on every piece of collateral.
It’s not as bad as it sounds though. So let’s start with the website. I’m not suggesting that your main headline display in big, bold type your business’s full legal name, but the contact page and footer area of your site are good options for placement that are visible yet discreet. This strategy can be used across the board on brochures, business cards, and event photo folders and portfolio items.
Another great reason to embrace this recommendation is that you deserve the credit! Going the LLC route was certainly not the easiest but you did it to protect yourself and your business. There is added assurance and legitimacy provided to clients when they realize your business is an LLC, and it may help them choose you over a competitor.
Still not convinced? Then let’s discuss the DBA option.
If you chose your business name before you considered how it would work, look, and sound on marketing materials, then you still have the option of registering a ‘Doing Business As’ name. This is not necessary in every state so depending on where your business is incorporated, you may not have to go through this process in order to achieve the same results. In states where this is required however, you can choose a name different from that listed as your business’s official legal name. While you will still be required to use your officially registered name on all legal and government documents, it will provide you with a bit more flexibility on how you market your business. All this to say it is still wise, even with a DBA, to include your full legal name in places such as your website and most printed collateral in the areas discussed above.
And so here we are, still in the gray area but armed with a bit more information and hopefully a clearer understanding of how to determine where you should include the full, legal name of your business and where you can opt to drop the LLC or use your DBA.