I'm thinking of starting a non-profit organization, but I don't know much about non-profit vs. for-profit and whether it makes sense for me to go after a for-profit company. My sole purpose is not to make money, which is why I'm very interested in a non-profit. On the other hand, I don't want to be prevented from doing the kinds of business I'd like to do.
What kind of business can a non-profit not do? Can a non-profit organization be a fast food chain, TV channel, e-commerce company, book publisher, manufacturer, and so forth?
A non-profit or not-for-profit is any organization that by design does not distribute profit to shareholders but re-investments them in the mission of the company. A non-profit has a board accountable to it's members (can be the same group). They can have staff.
In the US you can declare yourself as a nonprofit by intent -- but this really means very little. You can run any type of legal business with any type of grandiose mission you can imagine.
What is meaningful in the world of "non-profits" is designation of the IRS as a non-profit in accordance with section 501. There are different classifications based on the type of organization and the intent of the mission. With IRS designation comes certain benefit and responsibilities.
As a IRS designated non-profit one of your benefits is not paying income on your revenue which exceeds expenses. But with this benefit comes a host of rules. One is that the revenue come from mission related enterprises. For revenue which is not mission related you will have to pay taxes. There are lot of other minutiae about percentages of overall revenue from mission related income and more associated with keeping your IRS designation.
California has 3 types of non-profits: (1) Public Benefit (2) Religious (3) Mutual Benefit.
You probably mean #1 when talking about non-profit. Note that the reason society allows you to not pay taxes (i.e. be non-profit) is because society benefits somehow.
Mutual Benefit non-profits (clubs, unions) have fewer benefits (like tax-deductibility of donors' donations); if your non-profit exists solely for your personal benefit, it's probably #3.
Fed and state benefits/rules differ.
Get the book How To Form a Non-Profit Corporation in California (assuming that applies) published by NOLO PRESS. all the advice and details are there, including do-it-yourself forms. (That's my source for this answer)