I was reading an article in this month’s (June 2012) Entrepreneur magazine by Ann C. Logue entitled “Beyond the Handshake- Having a business partner can be valuable. Having the wrong-or no-partnership agreements can be disastrous.” It details the experiences I hear every day by founders, entrepreneurs, and startups. Most know they need quality legal and business advice in the early stages of their growth, but don’t want to spend the money on it. With the advent of online document and template sharing, discount legal document prep companies, and companies out there like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer offering low-cost or free legal documents, I very often hear and see the impact that is having. I have worked both in the trenches of many a cash-poor startup and also as an attorney advising these same type of companies or founders and wanted to give some additional guidance and solutions from both perspectives.
Education and information are some of the most critical areas for any start-up. They need to know their product, know their market, learn how to commercialize their product or service, and how to go from idea to a functioning business. I put together a handbook with some of the common areas operationally, administratively, financially, and legally in my Startup Bootcamp 101 e-Book (Click to download free pdf) to provide some basic education on those aspects of business start-ups. There are web resources that I have tried to compile as well at this Blog, but there are tons of resources in the form of books and online materials. Some recommended books are Venture Deals by Brad Feld, the Lean Startup by Eric Reis, and the Startup of You by Reid Hoffman. I will discuss some of the do’s and don’ts when trying to stay within a “lean startup” mentality, but also when you do yourself a disservice by trying to cut corners to save money.
So a major issue faced by many startup founders, especially when they are bootstrapping, self-funded, or just watching their cash, is how they can get legal or other services with little to no cash. The fall back position is to give the advisor or service provider a “piece of the action.” The founder often wants to use stock in the company they formed or stock options to avoid using cash, but still obtain needed advice and guidance. Here are the main problems you will run into:
1) Valuation– You will have a difficult time agreeing on a valuation of the company’s stock (see Section on Valuation). The founder often feels that they have the next greatest invention or idea of all time and the company is already worth billions despite having no business model or revenue (just watch an episode of Shark Tank on ABC). The valuation is what you use to determine the value of the stock in comparison to what the services are worth. (e.g. 1,000 shares of stock valued at $1 per share in exchange for $1,000 worth of services) The service provider or advisor may have a different idea of what your company or idea is really worth. If you can’t come to some agreement on the value of the stock, you won’t get them to sign on.
One of the biggest questions small business owners or founders have when it comes to early stage business issues is when do they need to hire an attorney and how do they pick one. I will explain what I think are important qualities and how an attorney can be invaluable, even before the company is formed.
A good startup (some people spell start-up, some use startup) or business attorney needs to be able to see a wide variety of potential issues the company may face and be able to address those with the company or founders. If they simply form a corporation and provide some initial shareholder agreements, bylaws, resolutions, or other initial documentation, that is a valuable service, but there is much more to be examined and addressed in an early stage business. There are many legal or business issues, such as what intellectual property protection is or needs to be in place (e.g. patents, trademarks, non-disclosure agreements), advise the founders about securities laws relating to issuing stock or raising money, preparing for human resources and hiring (e.g. explaining that you can’t just call someone an independent contractor or 1099 and avoid payroll tax withholding obligations), and when to get someone involved in drafting or reviewing contracts. While it is true that “startup law” is really mostly about basic formation and protection of business entities and possibly help with closing initial rounds of funding, the attorney should have a wide general knowledge of many aspects of business and law.