Sole Proprietorship 101: The Easy Guide to Setting One Up

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September 18th, 2020.
Sole Proprietorship 101: The Easy Guide to Setting One Up

73% of U.S. businesses are owned and operated by sole proprietors or sole traders. Many entrepreneurs love sole proprietorships because of the ownership they have over business decisions and revenue and how easy and cost-effective they are to set up.

So, what’s the low-down on sole proprietorships, and how do you start one? I’ve got an easy guide for you below. Before you start a business, however, it’s important to have a business plan. Here’s an easy-to-use business plan template to begin.

Types of Sole Proprietorships

  • Independent Contractor - An independent contractor is a self-employed sole proprietor who takes on projects on a contract basis with clients. They have the freedom to choose which clients they take on, but they are often 
    subject to the processes and methods that the client requires.
  • Business Owner - Business owners can also be self-employed sole proprietors, but unlike the contractor, there is much more autonomy in how the work is completed for clients, and the operation itself may even be more complex with employees and/or intellectual property.
  • Franchise - Franchise owners may also be sole proprietors. The franchisee benefits from the guidance, brand, business model, etc. in exchange for royalties paid to the franchisor.

Starting a Sole Proprietorship

Step 0: Decide what kind of business you’ll start.

Because they’re free and easy to start, many people use sole proprietorships to turn their side hustles into something a little more serious -- and lucrative. A variety of businesses are operated as sole proprietorships. Here are some examples of common sole proprietorships:

But sole proprietorships are strapped with big risks. Increased personal liability, difficulty raising capital, and a perceived lack of professionalism are a few of a pitfalls sole proprietors must navigate.

Step 1: Ensure a sole proprietorship is right for you.

Choosing the right business structure is key to your venture’s success. As the SBA points out, “The business structure you choose influences everything from day-to-day operations, to taxes, to how much of your personal assets are at risk.”

Sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs), corporations, and cooperatives are just a few of the ways you can structure your business. While sole proprietorships and LLCs are two of the most common business structures, there are key differences between them. Here are a few of the top benefits to starting a sole proprietorship:

And here are a few of the disadvantages to structuring your business as a sole proprietorship:

Once you’ve determined a sole proprietorship is right for you and your business, it’s time to talk to the experts.

Step 2: Talk to your nearest Small Business Development Center.

Before you establish your sole proprietorship, reach out to your nearest Small Business Development Center to understand the steps your state, city, or county require in order for you to operate your business legally.

Step 3: Choose a name

Choosing a name is the fun part -- researching whether or not it’s taken and trademarked is where things can become difficult. Search the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to learn whether your chosen name has been trademarked. If it hasn’t, consider filing your name with the USPTO to get a trademark on it, so no one else can operate under that name.

Step 4: Register your DBA.

As a sole proprietor, the legal name of your business is your personal name. However, if you want to operate under a different name, say, “Global Business Consulting Services,” you’d want to register a fictitious or “doing business as” name, also known as a DBA.

In many cases, you’re required to separate business and personal funds. A DBA is often necessary when opening a bank account or credit card for your business. Your state might also require follow-up steps after registration.

Most commonly, you’ll be required to publish the name you’ll be doing business under publicly -- and then provide proof of publication to your local government.

A DBA also ensured no one else in your county is doing business under the same name. Bottom line? Register your DBA and do it soon.

Step 5: Purchase a domain.

Once you’ve picked the perfect name, it’s time to go after a domain. For an easy client experience, your domain name should be the same as your business. Search to see if the domain you want is taken using these SBA-accredited databases. Even if you’re not ready to build the website, reserve or buy your domain name so no one else can.

Step 6: Register for a business license.

Even sole proprietorships need a business license to operate, in most cities. Don’t skimp here. The fines on operating without a license can be steep. You might also need your business license to open a bank account -- but more on that below.

Step 7: Check on other permits or licenses.

The fees associated with not have the correct licenses or permits can be crippling to a young business. Check here for federal licenses and permits and here for state licenses and permits. These might include:

  • A health department permit for preparing or serving food
  • A federal license for transporting animals
  • A health and safety training for opening a daycare
  • A certification exam to become a financial advisor
  • A zoning permit to operate your business from home
  • Registration with the state tax authority if you have employees or collect sales tax

Do the legwork up front and find out what licenses and permits you need. The fees you’ll pay during this process are nothing compared to the fines you’ll pay if you haven’t filed the right paperwork.

Step 8: Get an employee identification number (EIN).

If you operate alone, you might not need an employee EIN and can operate and file taxes under your social security number. As soon as you hire an employee or set up a retirement plan, however, you must file for a federal employer identification number (EIN). Its free and can be obtained online.

Step 9: Open a business bank account.

It’s important to keep personal and business expenses separate when running a sole proprietorship (especially if you get audited). Opening a business bank account ensures a certain level of protection for your business funds, allows customers to pay with a credit card and make checks payable to your business, and allows your business to build a good credit history.

You want to be able to prove to the IRS you’re running your business to make a profit. This ensures the losses you experience during the first few years will remain tax deductible.

It’s also wise to build good credit history before actually starting your business. While credit cards can help you out in your company’s early days when cash flow is low, the interest adds up quickly and can easily become overwhelming.

A personal loan is often a better option, and good credit history is necessary for securing a loan of this type.

Step 10: Load up on insurance.

Because one of the biggest risks to starting a sole proprietorship is the liability it burdens the owner with, having adequate insurance is a must.

Consider property and liability coverage, auto insurance, health coverage, and disability coverage, at the very least. This can get expensive, but it ensures you and your personal assets are protected from lawsuits and professional setbacks, should they arise.

Check out this SBA article to learn more about the coverage you need.

Step 11: Pay your taxes.

As a sole proprietor, you’ll pay income tax on all income your business nets. File your sole proprietorship incomes taxes by using Schedule C on your Form 1040 and adding the income or losses your business incurred to the other income you record.

You can use any business losses to offset other sources of income, like a salary from your day job or a spouse. But be careful not to step into “hobby business” territory with the IRS. You must prove your business is not a hobby in order to lower your taxes. When your business becomes profitable, it might be time to file for corporate status or become an S corporation.

Remember, because you’re self-employed, your paychecks don’t have proper withholdings taken out at the time you’re paid. Instead, you can expect to pay quarterly estimated tax payments, and cover the difference or receive a refund for any shortage or overage come tax season.

Because of this, you should be setting aside money from each paycheck to cover those quarterly and annual expenses.

Starting a business is one of the biggest choices you’ll ever make. Build a strong foundation to ensure lasting success. 

Editor's note: This post was originally published in September 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.