Many entrepreneurs and founders are hesitant to talk to an attorney for fear of the dreaded hourly billing or unknown costs. The other concern is that many people fear or don’t want to deal with lawyers, either because they don’t know what to expect or there have been bad experiences they have experienced or have heard about. That is why many people avoid getting initial legal work complete when they are working on a startup idea. Learn more
Many small business owners or other entrepreneurs start out with a great idea for a new product or service. They start a business and focus on doing whatever it takes to make the company successful. Many don’t take the steps necessary to properly protect the business from creditors or don’t really pay much attention to what they sign when they are making deals. The ones who do read the fine print may just have the attitude that they are so confident in the business’ success, who cares if they use their own personal credit to get some working capital. With the economic downturn over the last few years, many business owners have had to close their doors because they couldn’t get the funds they needed to even cover the simple things like payroll or rent.
Use of Personal Credit
Many entrepreneurs feel that they should put some ‘skin in the game’ by contributing some of their own money into the business. In fact, the Small Business Administration backed loans often require the founders to contribute at least a certain percent of their own assets or some other major contribution in order to qualify for a business loan. When the owner doesn’t have available cash, they look to other sources to get the money to contribute. That can lead to things like taking out a home equity line of credit or using personal credit cards to help fund the business. Obviously that is pretty risky, but often necessary to get early access to this seed money to start and grow. The banks that issued the credit did so based upon the owner’s personal credit rating. Just because the credit card may have the business’ name on it doesn’t mean the bank hasn’t covered their bases by making sure they can sue the owner personally if the business defaults in payment.
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.