Archive for January, 2009

The Case of the Late Co-Founder

January 13th, 2009

This situation comes up for me all the time and it is really hard to manage in a way that makes everyone happy.

The scenario is that founders A and B start a company and split the initial shares.  Time passes, business happens.  The company may or may not take on investors or issue equity to employees, but the business grows one way or another to the point that even by the most conservative valuation methodology- free cash on the balance sheet- the company can no longer justify the super-duper-low stock price the founders paid.

Person C them comes into the picture.  C is an extremely high-powered executive who can bring tremendous value.  A and B want to treat C as effectively a co-founder and give her a share of equity equal to theirs.  The challenge is that since the company now has real value, C’s share of it can be expensive.

A, B and C come to me and say “please do your legal magic and make this all work out right”.  Sadly, there is no magic here, just a bunch of unhappy compromises.  There are three main intertwined issues: how much the stock costs, when to pay for it and what the tax consequences will be.  Here’s my shot at acknowledging them and pointing out the options in 500 words or less.

What the Stock Costs
This is simple on its face.  Per share value = company valuation / number of shares.  The valuation number is the toughest variable to work out, and the methodology we use depends in part on IRS rules.

When to Pay For the Stock
Wherever possible, we want to buy the stock early.  Owning stock outright starts the capital gains clock ticking and that can make a big difference when the company is sold (the SEC’s Rule 144 holding period starts at the same time).  Owning a stock option does not count toward the capital gains period until the option is exercised.

What are the Tax Issues to Dodge?
The two big ones are capital gains rules, which require the stock to be held for one year before it is sold, and Section 409A, which imposes a penalty on stock or options issued as “deferred compensation” (i.e. basically any equity issued now and paid for later) if the stock or options are issued at a price deemed below fair market value (more on 409A here).

And here are the preferred ways to handle this situation, with their attendant drawbacks.

Buy the Stock
This is the cleanest option.  Buying the stock outright avoids 409A issues completely and starts the capital gains clock.  In my experience, though, most people do the math and decide that a year or two of sweat equity is one level of risk, but cash is something else entirely.  Most people opt not to take this option, especially when the price is in the 5, 6 or 7 figure range.

Stock Options
This used to be everyone’s favorite way to handle this situation, and it may still be the best.  If the company has real value, co-founder C could have a huge bill to get her stock.  Options let her defer payment of the price until she knows the company is going to be worth something (esp. the night before the company is sold).

409A throws up one roadblock here.  To avoid the 20% penalties, the company will need a valuation of its stock.  This is often manageable, though no one likes paying ~$10,000 for the valuation.

The bigger drawback is that she will probably lose her shot at capital gains treatment.  She would need to exercise a year before the company is sold to get into capital gains land, and if the exercise price is high that may not be feasible.

Historically, more of my clients have elected this option than any other.  No one likes paying taxes, but at least this option limits the risks (assuming the 409A issue is handled well).

Promissory Note
Back in the dot-com days this was popular.  Executive buys the stock and gives the company a promissory note for the purchase price, intending that the company would either forgive repayment or Executive would repay it from sale of the stock in a merger or IPO.  When the companies hit the wall, however, bankruptcy trustees seized on these notes as collectible debt and a number of very unhappy conversations followed (“you mean I got almost no salary, my stock is worthless *and* I need to pay you $200,000?!?”).

A promissory note would work for C’s purposes, but it carries a lot of risk.  It is a promise to pay the company and if things don’t go as expected C can find herself not merely uncompensated for her time spent with the company, but actually owing money to it.  Once in a while a situation arises where this arrangement can make sense, but it is rare.

Is That It?
That’s what A, B and C always ask me when we talk through the possibilities.  Unfortunately the answer is yes.  We use the most favorable valuation we can justify to bring the price down (assuming we have any flexibility there), but in the end the whole purchase price must be paid.  C can pay up front or she can pay later, but there is no way to do what clients really want- which is to sneak C in at the original founder price.

The lesson?  There are two, I think.  (1) get in as early as possible; and (2) get your stock documented right when you arrive before the deal gets any worse.

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Doing Something About Twitter User Name Conflict

January 9th, 2009

I have recently lamented the lack of clarity around user name ownership on Twitter and other social networks.  My friend Erik Heels has a proposal to do something about it- namely to create a uniform username dispute resolution policy promoted by the major social networking sites.

One of his main points is that trying to differentiate user name conflict from domain name conflict is wrong.  Companies have brands and use those brand names as domain names and user names.  E.g. yahoo.com is also twitter.com/yahoo.

User name policies have a Wild West feeling right now.  Businesses are just figuring out how to work with lightweight social networks.  It won’t take too long for them to get tired of fighting the same user name battles over and over.  Erik has a great proposal.  Heavyweight advertisers everywhere take note: start leaning on the social networks to get their acts together and set some clear rules for the game.

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Contract Management Strategies

January 6th, 2009

Enterprise software companies sooner or later accumulate a lot of paper governing customer contracts.  Maybe half the time customers accept a company’s standard sales or license agreement without substantive comment, but the other half gets negotiated- sometimes a little, sometimes heavily and sometimes the customer insists that its own paperwork govern.

Managing all these terms is complex and painstaking work.  I know a few large companies that take a draconian approach to the task- they only circulate agreements in pdf form (to prevent changes) and any revised terms go in an amendment instead of the original document.  The theory is that the presence of an amendment flags the fact that there are non-standard terms.

In practice this makes a giant mess.  It should be possible to draft amendments that are very specific and clear about which terms have been changed and how, but it never seems to work that way.  I think the companies that get to the stage of doing this get overly caught up in process, the lawyers making the changes are not connected to the deal being done and the terms end up more confusing than they should be.

You need to be a really big company to take that approach in any case, so what works better for the average company?  As with many other things, the answer is to make sure that the information doesn’t live only in the heads of certain people.  Write it down.  Put someone in charge of collecting signed contracts and tell that person to make up a spreadsheet (for starters, at least) that notes any variations from standard.

As the lawyer I wish I could tell the sales teams they won’t get paid until they tell the contract managers about any wrinkles, but I know I’d get overruled.  Still, collect the info right when the deal closes before everyone forgets about it, then work on keeping it up to date.  It’s an ugly “uh-oh” when you realize you have inadvertently been in breach of a contract’s terms because you didn’t know it was non-standard.

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Digital Rights Progress in the So-called Internet-Speed Era

January 1st, 2009

I just watched this video of Lawrence Lessig’s talk in 2007 at the TED Conference (thanks LA). It gives a brief history of copyright and recorded media, going back to John Philip Sousa’s vehement opposition to the very first audio recordings for fear that they would cause people to stop playing music and singing on the porch at night, and eventually lose their vocal cords entirely  (!).

The thing that really grabbed me was a fight between ASCAP and upstart copyright clearinghouse BMI in 1939.  ASCAP have the “top shelf” artists and recordings locked up, but was so afraid of radio that it kept raising royalty rates beyond what any broadcasters were willing to pay.  BMI had second-tier content, but its pricing was better so it got its music on the radio and forced ASCAP in 1941 to cave in to the new radio-driven marketplace realities.

Contrast this with the RIAA today.  They have been fighting online distribution of music for 10 years now (the Napster case was decided in 2001) and the battle shows no sign of ending soon.

The issues are different and more complex these days for sure (where *exactly* is the line between fair-use mashups and flat-out copying songs without paying for them?),  but still- it’s gone on far enough.

One of Lessig’s best points is that the battle has created two extreme polar mindsets: the “sue ’em all” studios on one side and the “all music should be free” zealots on the other.  Let’s just agree now that digital music is going to cost less than it did on CD, most people will still pay something for it and a few will persistently refuse.  Then we can all focus on finding new and interesting ways to increase the ratio of buyers to non-buyers instead of harassing bands’ biggest fans.

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