Hobby Or Business– What’s The Difference And Does It Matter?

Michael Buckworth, founder of Buckworths and the author of Built on Rock, an entrepreneur’s legal guide to start-up success, explores the difference between a hobby and a business and contemplates whether or not it really matters.

Some of the most successful businesses have come about because the founder was trying to solve a problem that they had experienced, often just for their own benefit. There is nothing wrong with setting up a money-making project as a hobby, and no need for a hobby to necessarily turn into a full-fledged business. But it is worth understanding your own motivations and being clear with yourself about what you want to achieve.

What is the difference between a hobby and a business?

There are no hard and fast rules that distinguish between a hobby and a business. For me, it is a state of mind – what are you trying to achieve? Is this a project to fill time, or are you single-minded in your desire to set up a successful business? It’s an important point as businesses take time and devotion. Many businesses fail because their founders aren’t prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to make the business a success. 

What business structure should I use?

There are a large number of potential legal structures available for people setting up a profit-making enterprise. However, in most cases, only two are relevant: sole trader and limited company. 

A sole trader is when an individual begins to trade in their own name. For example, I decided to set up a coffee shop, and call it “Beans Coffee”: the business would be “Michael Buckworth trading as Beans Coffee”. Setting up as a sole trader is a quick and easy way to get up and running: all you have to do is notify HMRC that you are now self-employed. You can find out how to do that here

Limited companies are separate legal persons meaning that they exist separately from their owners. They can enter contracts, borrow money, and are liable to pay tax on their profits. You can register a company easily by filling in an online form and paying £12. One of the most important differences between a sole trader and a limited company is that a limited company has limited liability whereas a sole trader doesn’t. With a sole trader, if something goes wrong, you are personally liable for all the debts of the business, whereas (in most cases) if a limited company can’t pay its debts, it goes bust, but the assets of its owners and directors are protected. 

Which one to choose? As a rule of thumb, it is fine to operate a (low risk) hobby via a sole trader. However, if you are planning to grow and scale a business, I would suggest incorporating a company from the get-go. There is one footnote to this advice: once you incorporate a limited company you have to make an annual filing with Companies House and file accounts each year, so there is a cost associated with it. It isn’t a problem if your business is going to grow and scale, but it could be an unwelcome cost if you don’t intend to generate more than modest amounts of revenue. 

Are any profits I make on a hobby tax-free?

There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. However, there is a small allowance for people making modest amounts of money from hobbies and side hustles. If you have earned less than £1,000 from your hobby (and any other side hustles you may have in play) during a tax year, you don’t need to declare that to HMRC as income. However, any more than that must be declared, and you have an obligation to keep track of your earnings to make sure that you don’t exceed the limit. 

Do I need to worry about contracts and insurance for my hobby?

In my view, any business should have in place contracts with its customers as soon as it starts to trade. Contracts are hugely important as they limit your liability if something goes wrong and protect your revenue stream (as well as providing protection in a number of other important areas as described in detail in my book, Built on Rock, an entrepreneur’s legal guide to start-up success.) Most businesses will also want to have in place insurance to provide protection if something goes wrong. 

Whether you need insurance for your hobby depends on what you are doing, and the likelihood of you becoming liable if something goes wrong. Imagine you sell face creams online: you would want insurance in case a customer suffered an allergic reaction to your cream and sued you for personal injury. By contrast, if you are selling birthday cards online: you probably don’t need to bother with insurance as the risks are minimal and can be covered off in a simple customer contract. The key questions for you to consider are “what can go wrong?” and “what is my likely exposure if something does go wrong?”

What happens if I change my mind and want to flip my hobby into a business idea?

If your hobby really takes off and you realise that this is something that could make a viable business, congratulations! It probably makes sense to flip the business into a limited company sooner rather than later. Why? Firstly you can’t raise investment from third party investors as a sole trader – you need a limited company to do that so that you can issue them with shares. Secondly, you probably want the protection of limited liability if you are going to try to scale up your idea: the more customers you sell to, the greater the risk. Thirdly you want to make sure that the intellectual property rights in your business idea (the intangible stuff that you create as you develop your business such as your logo, the design of your product and the source code in any software you create) are created in and belong to your company, as this optimises the chances that you will later be able to qualify for a bunch of tax reliefs for start-ups. 

I have no business experience: can I really set up a business?

Over the years, as founder of Buckworths, I have spoken to many would-be entrepreneurs who worry that they don’t have any business experience, or the skills to be able to run a business. The good news is that it generally doesn’t matter. You can figure out the answers to most problems through research and  by speaking to people who have already figured it out. It doesn’t matter if you are a student, a stay-at-home mum, a retiree or a person working a 9 to 5 job. You have a uniquely personal experience that has led you to come up with your idea; you have a set of skills that can be harnessed to get your idea off the ground, and you have as good a chance as anyone else of making a success of it. Grab the bull by the horns, launch yourself onto its back and enjoy the ride. 

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