OK, so it isn't exactly the fun part of forming a company, but getting the legal stuff right is crucial. Here are some tools to help.
When you're in the dreaming stage of forming a company, it's only natural to spend most of your time thinking about things such as your logo, the company name, the marketing plan, etc. That's the fun stuff. Few entrepreneurs sit around dreaming about obtaining the correct licenses, filing trademark paperwork, or naming a registered agent in an LLC filing.
But those mundane steps are necessary evils--and state and federal requirements. Fortunately, there are a number of online services that can streamline those processes, guiding you through the steps one by one. One word of warning: Even with these sites, you should consult an attorney.
This extensive site can help you file for trademarks and patents, or form an S corporation or C corporation (or an LLC); it can even help with annual reports and copyrights. After you create an account, the service walks you through the process, almost exactly like one of those business tax programs would. Each section explains most of the nitty-gritty details (such as why you need to name a registered agent) and includes links to find more information. Costs can vary depending on what you need to do. Filing for a trademark will run you about $169.
Similar to LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer offers forms you fill out online and submit. One major difference is that Rocket Lawyer charges by the month to use the site, not per document. There are a few extra offerings, such as an NDA form for a product announcement and hiring contracts. The site also provides attorney referrals so you can fill out a form and then have your doc reviewed.
This site is focused on company filings and trademark searches. You can search for a business name and see if anyone else is using it in your state. There's a section for "business maintenance" tasks such as creating an annual report and filing for tax-exempt status.
Licensing is one step that's easy to overlook. License123.com provides a free search tool to look up your specific industry--everything from auto repair and consulting work to contracting and retail shops. You select your industry and state, and then can download the proper forms. Most cost about $50 to download.
The parent site of License123, DocStoc contains business forms for just about any purpose: forming a company, filing trademarks, and even creating an advertising plan. You can use the site to store your own forms and documents, which is handy because you can access them all in one place. Like Rocket Lawyer, the site offers a premium membership plan for $20 per month to use any of the docs.
For about $20 per month, LivePlan.com is laser-focused on helping you start and manage a business plan. This document, which you might use to find investors or secure a bank loan, usually follows a specific format in which you calculate some of the start-up costs, create a plan for advertising and sales, and name those who will be involved. You can adjust plans as your business grows.
What online tools helped you start your business? Let me know in the comments.