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Establishing credit for your new business—distinct from your own personal credit—can be critical to your new venture's ability to grow, and it can help protect your personal credit.
Like a personal credit score, credit reports and credit scores for businesses are based on factors that include on-time bill payment, length of credit history and how you're using your debt. Importantly, though, business credit reports also assess the overall health of your business by looking at the size of your business, whether you're involved in any lawsuits, your risk of bankruptcy and many other factors.
Here's how to get started building your business credit.
What Is Business Credit?
Much the same way a consumer's credit score comes from an analysis of their credit history, a business develops a credit profile based on its track record making payments and managing credit. Business credit reports maintained by Experian and other companies (Equifax, FICO and Dun & Bradstreet) look different from consumer credit reports, but serve a similar purpose. Like a lender looking at consumer credit scores before extending credit, investors, lenders and vendors may check a business's credit score before entering into an agreement.
Many businesses start out as one-person sole proprietorships, in which the business and its owner are one in the same. In that situation, the owner's personal credit and the business's credit are also one in the same. If a sole proprietor applies for a credit card for their company or seeks a business loan, lenders may check the owner's personal credit score to help decide whether to work with them.
If you're a sole proprietor who hopes to grow your business, it's important for both your business's future and your personal financial welfare that you begin to build a business identity separate from your own.
Establishing credit for your small business will give your company opportunities to finance future growth, set up credit accounts with partners and suppliers, and secure credit cards and other revolving credit accounts to help manage cash flow. Independence from your personal credit file helps protect your business in case any missteps or mishaps, such as identity theft or a forgotten medical bill sent to collections, lower your personal credit score. Conversely, if your business experiences a down cycle and gets overextended on credit, your personal credit score won't suffer as a result.
Steps to Establishing Business Credit
Taking these steps will help your business credit grow, which will be important when it comes time to take out a business loan or lease a new building.
- Incorporate your business. Incorporation creates a legal entity separate from its owner(s). A corporation has much of the legal standing an individual does: It can enter into legal contracts, sue (and be sued), and it's obligated to pay taxes. There are many types of U.S. corporations, each with different legal requirements and status. Consult your legal adviser before you decide which makes the most sense for your business.
The simplest form of incorporation is the limited liability corporation (LLC). This is often the type of corporation pursued by small businesses, even those that adopt different corporate structures later. In most jurisdictions, registering an LLC is a simple matter that requires choosing a name that isn't already in use, filling out an articles of organization document that explains who's who at the business, and paying a fee (typically a few hundred dollars).
- Secure an employer identification number (EIN). An EIN is the unique identifier the federal government uses in reference to your business. You'll use it on corporate tax filings, much the way you use your Social Security number as a personal tax ID.
- Get a separate phone number and address for your business. The company's number should be posted prominently online: on your business website, Facebook, LinkedIn, community listings and search engines.
- Register a D-U-N-S Number® with Dun & Bradstreet (D&B). D&B specializes in compiling business credit information. Obtaining a D-U-N-S Number establishes a D&B credit file for your business, and lets your creditors report your payments and other activity.
- Begin establishing a business credit history. Any vendors who supply your company with goods and services and bill you afterward are technically creditors. Payments to creditors are part of your company's credit history, but they'll only help your company build credit if they are reported to commercial credit bureaus. Encourage your suppliers to report your payments to Experian and other business credit bureaus, and get in the habit of doing the same for your clients and customers.
- Apply for a business credit card. Although the goal is to separate personal and company credit, your first company credit card likely will be based on your own personal credit, will require your personal guarantee of repayment, and will probably result in activity being reported to both your personal credit reports and the company credit reports. Before applying for a company card, then, make sure you check your personal credit reports and credit scores and, if necessary, take steps to improve your credit score in pursuit of the best possible borrowing terms.
- Monitor your company credit. Once you've established a business credit history, you should keep an eye on your business credit scores just as you do your personal scores by monitoring your Experian business scores directly. As with your personal credit reports, you should check them regularly (at least annually), and request corrections of any inaccuracies.
In establishing and maintaining a good business credit score, you'll be flexing many of the same muscles you do in maintaining your personal credit scores. Apply for company credit cards to establish a company credit history that credit bureaus will use to score your business. On-time payments to creditors and vendors make a big impact. Keep an eye on your business credit scores so you quickly can address any negative marks and minimize their impact. If it's the right move, incorporating your business can help protect you by legally distinguishing you from your company.
Keep your business payments current and use your credit wisely, without getting overextended, and you'll slowly but surely establish a strong, independent credit identity for your company. When it comes time, begin seeking loans and additional credit in the company's name, and you'll eventually be able to maintain separate personal and company credit profiles.