What Is A Sole Proprietorship?

Before you launch your business, you have to check a few items off your to-do list. Perhaps you have to purchase inventory, find a commercial building to lease, and explore different types of business software. Maybe you operate a home-based business so your list isn’t as extensive. No matter what type of business you plan to open, though, there’s one thing all business owners must do: select a business structure.

There’s no getting around choosing your business structure. The way your business is set up determines both how you’ll file your taxes and how much you’ll pay. Your business structure may provide you with personal liability protection against the debts and obligations of the business. It will also determine specific requirements for your business, from registering with your state to ongoing requirements (like holding meetings and recording meeting minutes).

If your business has just one owner, one business structure to consider is the sole proprietorship. But before you make that critical decision, it’s important to understand what a sole proprietorship is, registration and paperwork requirements associated with this structure, and the benefits and drawbacks of being a sole proprietor.

While the business structure you choose should ultimately be what’s best for your business, we hope to make the decision process a little easier by breaking down exactly what to expect as a sole proprietor. Keep reading to find out more.

Sole Proprietorship Definition

Merriam-Webster defines a sole proprietorship as “a business owned and controlled by one person who is solely liable for its obligations.”

Let’s break down this definition. A sole proprietorship is a business that belongs to and is run by only one person. If your business has multiple owners, you’ll be unable to operate as a sole proprietorship.

In a sole proprietorship, the owner alone is liable for the obligations of the business. A sole proprietorship is not a separate legal entity. This means that the owner  — you — is responsible for the debts, obligations, and liabilities of the business. Your personal assets may be seized to fulfill debts, and lawsuits can be brought against you personally.

Many people choose this structure because a sole proprietorship is the quickest, easiest, and most inexpensive way to start and operate a new business. A sole proprietor is not required to register with the state. Simply engaging in business activities legally establishes a sole proprietorship. However, the sole proprietor is still required to apply for the appropriate business licenses and permits needed to legally operate in their state.

Sole proprietors can operate under their own legal names or can create a fictitious trade name when doing business. Using a trade name does not establish a separate legal entity, and the business owner will still be held responsible for the liabilities of the business.

Sole proprietors do not have to file separate tax returns for their businesses. Instead, these business owners report business profits, losses, and expenses on a Schedule C form. Self-employment tax for the sole proprietor is reported on a Schedule SE. The Schedule C and Schedule SE are both filed with the business owner’s Form 1040.
We’ll dive deeper into the benefits and drawbacks a little later in this article.

Next, we’ll compare sole proprietorships to other business structures so you can better determine which works best for you.

How Is A Sole Proprietorship Different From A Partnership?

The biggest difference between a sole proprietorship and a partnership is the number of owners of the business. A sole proprietorship has a single owner. A partnership has two or more owners.

Comparing a sole proprietorship with a limited partnership (LP) and limited liability partnership (LLP) reveals a few additional differences. With these types of partnerships, limited partners are protected from personal liability. These partnerships are also more expensive and more complicated to form because they require registering with the state.

Other than the number of owners, a sole proprietorship and a general partnership (GP) are very similar. Neither has to be registered with the state to exist. The profits and losses for a sole proprietorship and general partnership are also filed on personal tax returns.

How Is A Sole Proprietorship Different From A Corporation?

A sole proprietorship is very different from a corporation. A corporation is the most expensive business entity to form, whereas a sole proprietorship is very inexpensive. Corporations must be registered with the state. There are also multiple ongoing requirements corporations must meet, such as holding meetings and having a board of directors. Sole proprietors do not have to register and there are no ongoing requirements.

Corporations may have multiple owners, whereas a sole proprietorship has just one owner. Corporations can also raise capital through the sale of stock — something a sole proprietor can not do.

Corporations also offer the best personal liability protection for its owners. As previously discussed, sole proprietors are held personally responsible for the liabilities of the business.

Another big difference between sole proprietorships and corporations is how each business structure is taxed. Sole proprietors are able to report business profits and losses on their personal tax returns. Corporations are taxed differently — a corporation is the only business structure that must pay separate income taxes. If dividends are paid to shareholders, shareholders must report this on their personal tax returns, resulting in double taxation for the corporation.

How Is A Sole Proprietorship Different From An LLC?

A limited liability company, or LLC, combines benefits of different business entities. An LLC must register with the state, and there are some fees associated with starting an LLC. This is in contrast with sole proprietorships, which are not required to register and are the least expensive to start.

Another difference between the two is that LLCs have liability protections in place to protect the personal assets of the owners. Sole proprietors do not receive these same protections. LLCs may also have multiple owners, whereas a sole proprietorship is limited to a single owner.

There may also be differences in how the LLC is taxed. Owners of an LLC can choose how they are taxed. In some cases, they may opt to be taxed as a sole proprietorship. In other cases, however, owners may choose to be taxed as a partnership or corporation.

What Types Of Businesses Are Sole Proprietorships?

A sole proprietorship is best for businesses with one owner that wants full control of the business without complicated requirements or additional expenses. Self-employed business owners, home-based businesses, independent contractors, and even some franchise owners may choose this business structure.

Any business can be a sole proprietorship provided there is just one owner and the owner is aware of the benefits and risks of this business structure. Smaller businesses are better suited for sole proprietorships. Companies that plan to grow much larger and want to take out business loans or raise large amounts of capital in the future would benefit from another business structure, such as a corporation or LLC. Some common small businesses that are sole proprietorships include:

  • Home Healthcare Businesses
  • Catering Companies
  • Housekeeping Services
  • Virtual Assistants
  • Freelance Writers, Editors, Or Designers
  • Tutors
  • Computer Repair Technicians
  • Landscapers
  • Bookkeepers

Regardless of what type of business you operate, the business structure you select should be based on the long-term needs and goals of your business.

Benefits Of Sole Proprietorships

After breaking down the definition of a sole proprietorship, you should have at least some idea of why business owners would choose this structure. However, let’s take a closer look at the full list of benefits of operating your business as a sole proprietor.

  • Less Expensive: Sole proprietorships are the easiest and least expensive forms of business structures. This is ideal for business owners that aim to keep their startup costs as low as possible.
  • No Registration Required: Sole proprietors simply need to participate in business activities to exist. No state registration is required. However, any applicable permits and licenses will need to obtained to legally operate in your state.
  • No Ongoing Requirements: Sole proprietors are not required to hold meetings, record meeting minutes, or have a board of directors.
  • Full Control Of The Business: As a sole proprietor, you will be the sole owner of your business. There are no additional owners or shareholders to consider. You get to make all business decisions and you receive all of the profits.
  • Easier Tax Returns: Sole proprietors can file their business profits, losses, and expenses on their personal tax returns with just two additional forms.

Drawbacks Of Sole Proprietorships

While being a sole proprietor definitely comes with its benefits, there are also drawbacks to consider when you’re weighing out your decision. Those drawbacks include:

  • No Liability Protection: As a sole proprietor, you will be held responsible for the debts, obligations, and liabilities of your business. If you default on a loan, lenders can come after your personal assets, such as your bank account, vehicle, or real estate. If your business goes bankrupt, your personal finances could be affected. Finally, lawsuits can be filed against you personally, which would also put your assets at risk.
  • Financing Challenges: As a sole proprietor, getting business financing can be a challenge. Most lenders — from traditional lenders like banks to online alternative lenders — only provide financing to registered entities. Sole proprietors also can’t sell stock in the business as a way to raise capital. As a sole proprietor, you may have to get more creative with your financing, such as launching a crowdfunding campaign or taking out a personal loan for business.

Final Thoughts

For many aspiring business owners, operating a sole proprietorship is the right path to entrepreneurship. However, what works for some doesn’t always work for others. After weighing out the pros and cons of a sole proprietorship, consider consulting with an accountant and/or attorney to help determine if a sole proprietorship will meet the needs and goals of your business.

Ready to learn more? Download our free beginner’s guides for business. You can also learn more about the different types of business structures to help you further pinpoint which option is best for you.

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