Types of business

Jemma Smith, Editor
December, 2020

There's a lot to think about before becoming self-employed but one of the main things to consider is what type of business you'll run. There are a number of business structures to choose from so you'll need to do your research

Self-employment is most common in the accountancy, banking and finance, creative arts and design, healthcare, information technology, law, leisure, sport and tourism, and media and internet sectors.

It's important to understand that not all companies operate in the same way and there are three main types of business that those seeking self-employment can look to establish: sole trader, partnership and limited company - but be warned, your selection will have tax implications and will affect your legal responsibilities.

Each type of business differs in terms of the paperwork you must complete, the tax you must pay, the way in which profit is distributed, and your personal responsibilities if the business makes a loss.

Sole trader

This type of business is owned and managed by one individual. There's no legal distinction between the owner and the company, meaning that all debts and after-tax profits are personally yours - this is called 'unlimited liability'. Specialist service providers such as plumbers, hairdressers and electricians are often sole traders.

Sole trader businesses are easy to establish and discontinue, are subject to relatively few regulations, give the owner freedom to make decisions and typically have relatively low running costs. The owner is responsible for keeping day-to-day financial records, but hands responsibility for the end-of-year accounts to a professional accountant.

On the downside, sole trader businesses can be difficult to keep afloat, and owners will often work long hours and take few holidays. There's nobody to share responsibility with either, meaning any business weaknesses you have may be exposed.


Similar to sole traders in the sense that they are subject to unlimited liability, partnerships differ in that they involve two or more people pooling their expertise to own and manage the business together. Professional service providers such as dentistsdoctorssolicitors and accountants often fall into this category.

A deed of partnership usually states how much capital each individual has contributed, how profits and losses are to be shared, and which partner is tasked with bookkeeping. Each partner pays tax and National Insurance on their individual profit.

Partnerships usually offer the advantages of shared responsibility, reduced time pressure for each individual, and an increased level of financial clout and specialisation. However, making decisions can be difficult. What's more, one partner may feel that another isn't putting in sufficient effort, or is earning a disproportionate profit.

Limited company

There are two types of limited company: private limited companies and public limited companies. The former are often small businesses that don't trade on the stock exchange, while the latter are usually well-known businesses that do.

Unlike sole traders and partnerships, these businesses are registered at Companies House and have their own legal rights and obligations. Ownership is divided into equal parts called shares. Anybody who owns one or more shares is a shareholder.

Limited companies offer limited liability - which means that the business, rather than its owners or managers, enters into contracts, employs people, takes debts and profits, and is liable to prosecution if criminal offences are committed. A limited company's owner isn't necessarily involved in the day-to-day running of the business, unless they are elected to the Board of Directors.

Other business structures

There are several other types of business, some of which must still be registered as one of the three business structures outlined above.

  • Franchise - This is an already established company, such as McDonald's, KFC and Hertz, which is owned by a franchisor but managed by a franchisee. The franchisor sells the right to use their business model to the franchisee, who pays an ongoing fee. Workload and start-up costs are usually lower, business finance is more easily acquired, and relationships with suppliers, distributors and marketers already exist. However, large ongoing fees restrict franchisees' long-term profits, cheaper operating methods cannot be used unless sanctioned by the franchisor, and any negative action by a fellow franchisee may damage business.
  • Freelancer/consultant - These individuals have the skills, knowledge and experience in a particular field to charge organisations for their services. The most common jobs for freelancing or consultancy include performing arts roles such as actor, dancer and musician. Media jobs, such as broadcast journalist, magazine journalist, writer and photographer. Other popular freelancing roles include acupuncturist, barrister, fine artist, osteopath, graphic designer, translator, interior designer, textile designer and web designer. To find out more, see freelancing.
  • Social enterprise - This type of business is operated to benefit society or the environment, and must transparently reinvest profits to achieve its objectives. There are around 471,000 social enterprises in the UK according to a recent government report, employing almost 1.44million people and contributing £60billion towards the UK economy. There are several types of social enterprise, most notably cooperatives, credit unions, development trusts, employee-owned businesses and housing associations. Two well-known social enterprises are The Big Issue Foundation and the Eden Project.
  • Charity - While the trading arm of a charity can be classified as a social enterprise, the charity itself cannot. This is because it differs in the sense that income is attained through grants and donations, rather than trade. Charities pay reduced business rates and receive tax breaks, and are normally run by trustees who don't themselves benefit from the charity. Learn more about the charity and voluntary work sector.

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