Start-up legal basics: Getting the right structure


Over the coming weeks, StartupSmart will be running a five-part series that covers the legal basics involved in starting a business.


This first instalment, by Lachlan McKnight, CEO of LegalVision, looks at the crucial decision of choosing a legal structure for your venture.


Launching a new business is all-consuming. Unfortunately, in the rush to develop a viable product and sales strategy, many entrepreneurs forget to complete a crucial task: choosing an appropriate legal structure.


As with anything in life, choosing a legal structure requires trade-offs. The simpler structures (sole trader or partnership) are cheaper and easier to set up but less flexible in the long term.


Setting up a company, and potentially a family trust to hold your shares in it, is more complicated and expensive, but if your start-up does turn into the next Instagram you will benefit from your foresight.


This article will give you a brief rundown on the benefits and drawbacks of the three most popular structures in Australia – sole trader, partnership and company. We will then discuss the benefits of using a family/discretionary trust structure to hold the shares in your company.


Small and simple – sole trader


A sole trader is an individual who operates a business in their own name.


There are very few legal or taxation requirements to setting yourself up as a sole trader. A sole trader controls and manages the business. Any profits made during the operation of the business, as well as on its sale, are counted as the income of the individual who is the sole trader.


Setting yourself up as a sole trader can make sense if you’re launching a business that will generate limited revenue, you don’t plan on taking on many liabilities and you are operating in an industry where the risk of being sued is low. A good example would be a PR consultant who works by herself.


The key downside to being a sole trader is the fact that you, as an individual, take on all the risk of the business. This means that, for instance, you personally owe suppliers and lenders any unpaid amounts. Additionally, if you have a great year and generate over $180,000 in profit, a portion of your earnings will be taxed at the top marginal rate.

If you’re more successful than expected you could end up with a huge tax bill!


All together now – partnership


A partnership is a group of individuals and/or entities that run a business together as partners. Although a partnership is not a separate legal entity (and as a consequence each partner pays tax on their proportion of the partnership income in a financial year), it must have a TFN and an ABN and it must lodge a tax return.


Setting up a business as a partnership is cheap and easy, but only a limited number of businesses should consider this structure.


The key downside to a partnership is the fact that each partner is legally responsible for all the liabilities and losses of the business (including taxation obligations and superannuation contributions), even if another partner incurs those liabilities. This means that each partner’s assets are at risk.


When launching your business with a partner you will probably think nothing will ever go wrong – but this is rarely the case!


If businesses start to fail it is not unusual for entrepreneurs to take on risks, hide these from their partners, and end up saddling the partnership with huge liabilities. Unfortunately, if you’re in a partnership, the debts your partner incurs become yours.


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Since 2010 StartupSmart has been Australia’s no.1 publication for the startup community and those interested in the startup movement globally. Publishing news, information and advice daily, and placing itself squarely at the centre of the government’s national innovation agenda, StartupSmart is a leading participant in the momentum that surrounds the world’s focus on technology, creativity and entrepreneurialism.