Use a Low-Cost Filing Service Instead of Me? Sure, Why Not?

September 30th, 2009

I talk to a lot of people about forming new corporations.  Some of them ask me “why do you charge $2,500 – $3,000 to form a new corporation when I can have it done by ABC filing service for $375?  The answer is that you get different things when you use a filing service versus me and there may be good reasons to use both.  Here is my rundown of what you get from a filing service, what you get from me and how to think about using your time and money most wisely.

Filing Service.  The service should provide you with the following:

* Articles/Certificate of Incorporation, plain vanilla version, signed and filed with the Secretary of State of your choice
* Statement of Incorporator naming the initial Board of Directors.  Be sure to get this!  It is a one-pager that causes big problems if inadvertently missed
* Bylaws, probably not the best form ever, but probably good enough 99% of the time
* Initial consent of Board of Directors, plain vanilla form finalizing incorporation and issuing shares to founder(s)
* Form of stock certificate to issue founder shares

Me.  Here is what I provide:

* Discussion of which state is the best in which to incorporate.  Delaware? California? Other?
* Plan for capitalization of the company, including founder equity, possible stock option plan, roadmap to potential equity financing, vesting terms for founder & early contributor shares
* Complete documentation of founder contributions to the company via founder stock purchase agreements so that there is no question that the company acquired ___ assets or that $XYZ were paid for founder stock
* Detailed Board action that reflects all the same information so that future generations of lawyers can check off all the right boxes in due diligence review
* Securities filings to document that stock was sold legally

You can see that the filing service focuses on a bare set of very generic documents, while I spend time working with clients to make sure the documents fit the plan we develop together.

I know a lot of people (of whom one was a partial inspiration for this post) who believe that services like corporate formation are going to become totally free in the future and that the model forms provided by Orrick, Cooley and probably every other firm as soon as they can get the documents published are the vanguard of this movement.  I am not totally convinced on that- lawyers have a duty of care to clients that seems hard to meet if we don’t put some effort into working through the planning items I mentioned above- but I see the point.  The forms are out there and the services are straightforward.  Costs will probably trend downward, so it is really just a question of how close to $0 they get.

While we wait for that discussion to evolve, here is how I recommend you think about how to best spend their time and money.

1)  Talk to me.  I will give anyone a (free) hour of my time to discuss plans, figure out what will work and what is going to take you down the wrong path.  I don’t try to hold back the “key steps” so that people are forced to hire me.  You should walk away thinking you could incorporate on your own if you so choose.

2) Research the costs.  Once we develop the roadmap, figure out how much it will cost to have the filing service handle your documents.  Some clients do this and decide to have a service file for them (I have sent people to getincnow.com); for others it is easier to have me handle everything.  I am fine with it either way.

3) If you decide to use the service, tell me.  I won’t be upset or offended.  I will give you the summary of information you need to do it properly the first time: how many shares to authorize, what state to file in, etc.

My job to help clients incorporate their businesses efficiently and properly.  It honestly is not a big money-making part of my law practice, but I enjoy it and get a lot of satisfaction seeing clients launch their businesses.  The important thing for me is getting it all right the first time, not whether clients use my forms or someone else’s.

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What is the Best Structure for Social Ventures?

September 4th, 2009

The SOCAP09 conference on social entrepreneurship has swamped my Twitter feed for most of this week and I had a chance to stop in Wednesday evening to check it out.  The conference is for people starting companies looking to do well by doing good.

Todd Johnson, a preeminent lawyer in this area, posed a question via Twitter last week about the best type of entity structure for social ventures.  It’s a good question and there are some very interesting developments in the staid realm of corporate law that can help these types of companies along.  At the same time, there is tremendous diversity in the types of businesses being created, so if I had to give a one-line answer it would be “whatever structure makes partner organizations yawn the most”.

That’s probably not tremendously helpful, so here is my quick survey of social venture entity structures.  I’ve posted on this topic before and will continue to revisit as the landscape changes.  If readers know of other entity structures, and especially if you have seen certain structures work well in specific environments, please leave a note in the comments.

Nonprofit.  With apologies to non-profits and their lawyers everywhere for collapsing an entire sector into a pithy sentence, what most differentiates a nonprofit from a for-profit company is that the nonprofit has no owners in the financial-return sense.  Benefits are potential tax deductions for donors to the business and pure focus on the mission without having to consider shareholder returns.  A major drawback is that if the mission changes and participants wish to take profits out of the business it can be difficult or impossible to do so.  I have worked with nonprofits only in passing, so I won’t go any further except to note that non-profits run the gamut from entirely donation-dependent organizations such as the General Assistance Advocacy Project I worked with in law school to significant revenue-generating businesses like Kiva.org.

L3C. This is a new flavor of for-profit entity intended to help charitable foundations make grants more easily.  I don’t do anything remotely like this kind of work, so I can’t speak much to it except to say that the L3C was designed to allow foundations to meet their Program Related Investment guidelines under federal tax law more easily.  The first L3C was adopted in Vermont in February 2008 and as of today (Sept 4, 2009) there are at least 6 states with similar statutes in effect or pending, so I will assume they fill a need and leave it to more knowledgeable people to advise further.

Plain Old Company.  In many cases this is a great option and all a social entrepreneur needs. A “regular” corporation or LLC is simple, well-understood and easy to form.  One drawback is that while the owner/managers can dedicate the business to social goals, there is nothing to prevent the mission from being overridden.  Many social venture experts look to Ben & Jerry’s acquisition by Unilever as an example of this shortcoming- the B&J Board had an offer that was financially rewarding, but there were apprehensions that Unilever would not retain B&J’s commitment to support communities around its stores.  In the end, the Board decided it did not have discretion to put social-welfare goals over shareholder returns and accepted the Unilever buyout.  Many of B&J’s social programs ended shortly thereafter.

B Corporation.  The good folks at B Labs are setting standards to address this problem, along with many others.  A B corporation is a “regular” corporation (or LLC or other entity) that has made a commitment its charter documents to consider factors other than shareholder returns in determining corporate actions, esp. environmental, community, social and employee welfare.  The benefit of this is that the Board can, if necessary, choose paths that may lead to a lower shareholder return if circumstances require.  The problem is that only 32 US states allow this type of language in corporate charters, so businesses in California and elsewhere need to incorporate in B-corp friendly states to get the full benefit.

Social Venture Company.  You may be able to see where this is going.  There are groups in California, Minnesota (I think) and possibly other states working on legislation to create a new type of entity that permits the broad-constituency language promoted by B corp and others.  Like England’s Community Interest Company, these entities would be separate from “plain old” corporations or LLCs by their commitment to work toward positive outcomes for shareholders and non-financial stakeholders.  We don’t know much about these proposed entities yet and many of the draft ideas are subject to change so there isn’t much to say about them currently.

Going back to the start of this post, I strongly believe that the best entity structure for a given project is the one that investors, donors and business partners can gloss over without thinking about much.  We don’t quite have a standardized approach that allows this yet.  With luck in a few more years we will.

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Reblog On Startups: Startup Salary Data from Private Company Compensation Survey

November 14th, 2008

Dharmesh Shah is an entrepreneur in Boston with lots of helpful information to share among startups. Today he posted some tidbits from a survey on the always fascinating topic of founder compensation.  How much do founders make at various stage of a company’s existence?  How long do they typically remain CEO?  How much equity does an incoming non-founder normally get?  How much equity does a founder retain in a company’s later stages?

Startup Salary Data from Private Company Compensation Survey

The comments on Dharmesh’s post are full of interesting data as well.

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Startup Valuation, Preferred Stock and Common Stock Prices

July 17th, 2008

This post may get a bit wonky.  I’ll do my best to keep it straightforward.

I have talked to a lot of people in my career who get confused by the value of shares of stock in a startup company.  A venture-oriented company has two or more different kinds of shares with different values attached.  Here’s how to keep them separate.

Pre-Money, Post-Money and Per-Share Value
When a company does a financing, it sets a value for the entire company- the “pre money” valuation before the new money comes in.  Let’s say the value is $10M.  If the company has 5M shares outstanding, this means that each share is worth $10M/5M = $2.00.  This is the price investors will pay to buy stock in the company.

If the investors are putting in $5M, they are buying $5M/$2 = 2,500,000 shares.  The company now has 7.5M shares outstanding, and the total “post-money” valuation is $15M.  We can see by the numbers that on a per-share basis (2.5M/7.5M) and a dollar-value basis ($5M/$15M) that the investors now own 1/3 of the company.

Common Stock vs. Preferred Stock Pricing
The part that gets tricky is that investors buy preferred stock, but the company also has common stock that it will issue to employees.  Preferred stock has superior rights, especially including a right to get paid first when the company is sold.  By convention and IRS rules, we are allowed to say that the preferred stock is worth more today than the common stock.  Thus, when we sell preferred stock to investors at $2.00/share, we can give options to employees to buy common stock at a much lower price- $0.30 or so.

This works well for the most part.  Investors want certain rights that employees don’t care about and pay extra for them.  Employees would rather get low-priced options than the preferred rights.  Everybody is happy.

But I Thought Each Share Was Worth $2.00?
The place people get tied up is comparing the enterprise valuation with the common/preferred stock differential. We valued the entire company at $10M, which meant that each share was worth $2.  At the same time, we say that common stock is not worth $2 and is only worth $0.30.  Which is true?  Both.  Here is how and when to use each number.

Enterprise Valuation is for the Big Picture and Financings Only
When we value the company for a financing, we put a value on the whole company as though it is about to be sold.  We take into account all of the economic preferences and assume that all stock is converted to common.  Every share is the same at that point.  In other words, if the pre-money valuation is $10M and the company has only common stock outstanding, each share is worth $2.  The valuation is really forward-looking to an eventual exit.

Common Stock Price is For Employees Today
Until that happens, though, we maintain different types of stock with different rights- common and preferred.  The preferred is sold based on the as-converted valuation, but the common has fewer rights and we can issue options at a lower price.  The company’s total valuation continues to be $10M and each share would be worth $2 on a sale of the company, but before that happens each share of common stock is actually worth $0.30.

The Simple Rule
The easiest way to think about this is that preferred stock is for investors and common stock is for employees.  Be aware that pricing is set differently for each.

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Near-Perfect Summary of Angel Financings

May 7th, 2008

Todd Vernon is the CEO of Lijit and wrote a post this morning that covers all the bases in angel financings.

http://falseprecision.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/05/angel-financing.html

I won’t rehash the whole thing, but will comment on a couple of points.

Todd’s analysis of the different types of angel investors is very insightful.  In my ten years of experience advising startups, the family investor class is the most common type, but the companies that are unable to broaden their investor base beyond that seldom succeed in raising further money.

The analogy to burning cash is a good one, though I usually use winning the lottery to make the same point.  Startup entrepreneurs should be aware that at least on some level investment in a brand-new company offers about as much hope of return as lighting cash on fire, or spending $25,000 on lottery tickets.  No one makes that decision lightly.

I mostly agree with Todd about convertible note financings, with a couple of qualifiers.  First, no company should offer convertible notes if it doesn’t intend to convert them.  Todd seems to say that some people might undertake note financings intending to pay them off in cash rather than equity.  That is a terrible strategy and borders on abusive.

Second is that I have done successful note financings.  In almost every case the Note investor(s) are also participants in the equity round and are using the Notes as a genuine bridge so that the company can get some cash while completing the steps to a larger investment.  Notes usually come with warrants or other discounts from the equity round so there can be tension between the Note investors and the equity investors.  Having the same people on both sides of the deal helps immensely to smooth that out.

Good post Todd.  I am going to send a lot of clients to read your summary.

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New Cycle Capital Having a Go at Multiple-Bottom-Line Investing

December 8th, 2007

New Cycle Capital is a new venture firm with a mandate to make money while investing in the “green economy” and underserved domestic markets. This is an area I find fascinating because it is such an intricate dance; some of my earlier thoughts on it are here.

Companies focused on a single, economic bottom line really have one big thing to think about- making money. Companies that adopt a triple bottom line approach or some variation on it are juggling almost by definition to find a profitable business that supports the non-economic goals.

I think most companies can’t really put that off very well, which is why they settle for making money in one arena and using it to do good in others. Investment funds run much the same way. The Omidyar Network, for example, cites a commitment to “creating opportunity for individuals to improve the quality of their lives”, but a quick look at its Portfolio page shows a split between for-profit and non-profit investments.

Pacific Community Ventures is a $60M family of funds trying to do things differently. Part of their mandate is that portfolio companies employ a portion of their workforces in low/moderate income communities. They invested in Timbuk2, whose bags are made by just such people in San Francisco.

The fact that PCV is not a household name may suggest that this area is a hard-to-serve niche. I’ll be watching New Cycle Capital as another entrant in the field, and hoping to see more funds taking similar approaches.

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How Greg Lemond Might Respond to Dick Costolo and Marc Andreesen

November 8th, 2007

In Founders at Work, Joshua Schachter advises new entrepreneurs to keep the product simple- do one thing and do it well, in essence. This strategy worked well for del.icio.us, which is a simple (in a good way) web tool. He built it largely on his own in his spare time while working for Morgan Stanley and that setup worked very well for him.

Mike Ramsay from Tivo, on the other hand, developed an extremely complex product (I found great humor in the section of the book where he describes the enormous back-end efforts to manage programming information for every TV service in the US, and then explains why he feels compelled to throttle anyone who describes Tivo as “like a digital VCR”) that required enormous engineering, marketing and other resources. Tivo raised significant money from VCs and went public to raise even more. Again, this has worked well for Tivo.

This pattern also reminds me of the Dick Costolo/Marc Andreesen online debate about raising outside capital that I continue to see discussed from time to time. Dick built Feedburner with a relatively small amount of outside cash, developed an excellent product with it and sold the company to Google for a solid return. Consequently, his advice to entrepreneurs is to raise enough capital to allow for a good return for founders and investors even if the business is not a home run.

Marc, on the other hand, has built two large businesses and sold each of them for over $1B- two grand slams. Both companies were heavily VC funded and Marc believes that the cash gave both businesses the wherewithal to survive difficult times, revise their business plans and ultimately become very successful. Based on his experience, then, the advice is to raise as much money as possible whenever it is available on acceptable terms.

All of these companies and people were successful, which means all of them are correct. Del.icio.us and Feedburner needed only modest capital to acheive their objectives. Tivo, Netscape and Opsware needed far more.

This brings me back to a piece of advice I picked up years ago in an entirely different context. Professional cyclist Greg Lemond wrote a book on cycling training in which he talked about one of the great fallacies of training- emulating someone else’s habits just because the person was famous or successful. As he put it “what works for ___ is good because it works for ____. That fact that it worked for ___ doesn’t mean it is right for anyone else.”

In other words, the paths to success of others are valuable for the ideas they can provide, but they are not the “right” path for everyone. Past experiences are data points to analyze, not prescriptions to swallow whole.

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