Sole Proprietorships and Partnerships
The most basic and fundamental type of business organization is the sole proprietorship. Within these types of businesses one individual, the sole proprietor, exercises complete control over the business and is legally and financially responsible for the activities of the business. If a customer trips and breaks a leg, the proprietor is sued; when it’s time to expand, the proprietor must secure the loan under his or her name.
A slightly more complex form of business organization is a partnership. Under this arrangement, two or more individuals combine their efforts and share the profits of the business. They also share all of the risks, as well as the financial and legal responsibilities. The details are generally spelled out in a letter of agreement between the partners.
Within a partnership, one individual is not held entirely responsible for the activities of the business. But for the most part, sole proprietorships and partnerships are very similar. The business is an asset owned by the owner or owners, it has no existence separate from the owners, and any financial or legal problems encountered by the business are the legal responsibility of the owners. All of the owners’ assets, even those not involved in the business, are at risk. Liability is unlimited.
That issue of liability is the single biggest reason why many businesses choose to incorporate; a corporate structure (read on to the next page for more) protects the business owner from individual liability if things go wrong with the business. Sales go in the toilet while costs shoot through the roof? Somebody wipe out on your sidewalk and sue you for millions of dollars worth of "pain and suffering"? If your business is a sole proprietorship or partnership, you might end up losing everything. But if you've incorporated, the business may be toast but you, as an individual, are protected.
Businesses with zero employees grew 32% between 2002 and 2007.
Why It Matters Today
Ever think about starting your old small business? Maybe even something as simple as mowing lawns or babysitting neighborhood kids? If you wanted to set yourself up legit, you'd probably start with a sole proprietorship. It's simple, it's easy, and it's cheap.
Later, if your lawn-mowing or babysitting business really takes off, you may outgrow the basic structure of the sole proprietorship. Once you have employees, or grow large enough to fall under government regulation, or begin to worry about liability issues, it's probably time to incorporate.
Sometimes, a Song Says it Better: We are the Champions, by Queen
“We are champions – my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting – till the end”
That’s the spirit when you run your own business!