Starting a Sole Proprietor Business

Advantages and Disadvantages of Sole Proprietorship

Repairing boot
••• shironosov / Getty Images

Most small businesses are sole proprietorships because this type of business is the easiest and least expensive way to start a business. But what is a sole proprietor? Should you start a sole proprietor business? 

Are You a Sole Proprietor?

If you haven't selected a specific business form and registered it with your state, you are most likely a sole proprietor. You can stay as a sole proprietor your entire business life, or at some point, you may want to consider a different business form, for several reasons. This article reviews the advantages and disadvantages of the sole proprietor business, to help you decide when to move to another business form.

What is a Sole Proprietorship? 

A sole proprietorship (or “proprietorship”) is a form of business in which an individual starts a business under his or her own name. In a sole proprietorship, you are the business; that is, the business is not a separate entity from you.

If it sounds simple, it's because it is. The sole proprietorship is the oldest and simplest form of business ownership. To start a sole proprietorship, all you need to do is:

  • Create a business name and decide on a location for your business
  • File for a business license with your locality, and get permission from your locality if you want to operate your business from home
  • Set up a business checking account.

You don't need to prepare any legal documents because you are not in business with someone else, and you don't have to set up an elaborate business structure: no board of directors, no meetings, no minutes, no complicated accounting for shares in the business.

If you decide to set up your new business as a sole proprietorship, follow the Startup Steps, and you will be ready to go.

Advantages of Sole Proprietor Form

The advantages of forming a sole proprietorship include:

  • Use of Losses
    • Because you are including your sole proprietorship income/loss on your personal tax return, you can use any business losses to offset personal income from other sources (a spouse's salary, for example). You do need to be careful not to run up against the IRS restrictions on "hobby" businesses which generate losses for years, but if you can prove your business is legitimate and not a hobby, those losses can lower your taxes.

Disadvantage of the Sole Proprietorship

The primary disadvantage of a sole proprietorship is that your personal finances and those of your business are one and the same. You cannot file bankruptcy for your business without filing personal bankruptcy. You cannot expect to shield your personal assets from liability for the debts of the business, nor can you avoid being sued personally for negligence due to some problem with your business.

For example, if your sole proprietorship cannot pay its bills, your personal credit card will probably come into use. And filing bankruptcy for your sole proprietorship, whether it is a reorganization (Chapter 11) or liquidation (Chapter 7) means involving your personal assets. As stated by the U.S. courts website (in the Chapter 11 section): "a bankruptcy case involving a sole proprietorship includes both the business and personal assets of the owners-debtors."

For many business people, the issues of personal liability and involvement of personal assets outweigh the advantages of sole proprietorship structure. If this is the case with you, consider forming a limited liability company (LLC) or corporation.

Taxes and Sole Proprietorships

Another disadvantage of the sole proprietorship is the tax situation. The sole proprietor pays income taxes on all of the net income of the business. If your business is profitable, you may want to consider becoming a corporation or S corporation. 

Check with Tax and Legal Advisors

Even if you have a very small solo business, you should check with your tax and legal advisors before settling on a business form.