When Should a Business Incorporate?
Although this is a complex question, thinking about it sooner rather than later may help the startup survive cofounder conflicts such as equity distribution disagreements. The reality is that founders should start to think about incorporating as soon as they have seriously considered starting a business on their own, or have a group of people that are starting the business with them. Many problems can arise at the early stages and incorporating may be able to help the startup get through them. Finding a good attorney can help founders navigate the maze of legal complexities and provide guidance through the tough conversations to come.
There is no clear answer as to when is the right time to incorporate, but there are some situations that indicate a business is ready for this step.
Is there more than one founder who is contributing intellectual property (IP) or could claim equity?
If so, then it is definitely time to incorporate. When the business incorporates, an independent legal entity is created. This provides some clarity when the question of who owns the IP comes up — assuming the employees have assigned their IP to the company. The line is clearer as to who owns the IP when the business has a separate legal entity than when there is no clear separation between the business and the founder. You can read more about IP assignments here.
Finally, if there is more than one founder who could claim equity, then the business should be incorporated. Before any of the founders start to do substantial work for the business, especially in regards to technical or engineering work, it is imperative that the business incorporate. Otherwise, if there is any disagreement, then any of the founders could simply walk away with all of their work product without any legal repercussions. Also, in general, incorporating will make it easier to figure out who gets equity and how much.
Is one or more of the founders signing contracts or conducting business?
If the business is not incorporated, then the founders become personally liable if something goes wrong. When the business incorporates, it can sign contracts, borrow money and do things that a “person” could do. Because the business is a legal person, the creditors are generally only able to go after the business assets. This means that a founder’s personal assets are protected. In addition, incorporation, as mentioned above, will make it clearer to see who the business is at any point.
If one of the founders is signing the contracts, and later on, the business is incorporated into an entity such as an LLC or C-Corporation, then the founder may still be personally liable for these contracts. Because the corporation did not exist yet, it is not clear that the corporation was the one signing the contract.
Does the business have any employees? Are they getting paid with equity?
The business should be incorporated before employees are even hired, but if the business already has them, then it is imperative to incorporate immediately. This will make it easier to protect personal assets. An employer is responsible for any actions that the employee takes that is within the scope of the employment. Thus, if the employee makes a mistake or is negligent while conducting business, then the founder’s personal assets may be at risk — unless a business entity has been formed. In addition, it is easier to grant equity when the business is incorporated. Hence, if the founder is planning to grant equity as a form of payment, then it is time to form an appropriate business entity that meets those needs.
Is the business in need of investors?
Even if an investor is interested in supporting an entrepreneur, she may not be able to invest in the business if there is no legal entity to accept the investment. Furthermore, investors actually prefer certain types of legal entities and will not invest unless the company is incorporated as such. Investors want to make sure that their interests are protected; the structure of certain types of companies provide these protections.
Is there a problem if the founders wait to incorporate?
Forgotten Founder: One of the biggest issues that may arise if the business does not incorporate at the right time is the forgotten founder problem. The forgotten founder is someone who is part of the business in the early stages of the venture, but drops out. After the company goes through financing or is starting to pay off, this person comes back into the picture. Usually, the forgotten founder claims he had a substantial role in the company’s success and demands some form of payment. Snapchat, like many other companies, had to address this situation.
Equity: For co-founders, determining how to distribute equity may be one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. More than half of startups fail due to co-founder disagreements and equity distribution can certainly lead to serious disagreements. For example, after more and more time passes, one founder may start to think they are doing most of the work and deserve more equity than others. She may think this is obvious and does not address it with others. Then, when the conversation finally happens, she finds out that the her co-founders disagree. If the group cannot reach an agreement, then the founder may walk away, which could lead to the dissolution of the start up.
Incorporation forces the equity conversation to happen sooner rather than later. In order to formally incorporate, the co-founders must establish and define the roles of each member, as well as the equity each receives. This is important in order to protect the company’s interests if disagreements arise later on. In regards to the example above, if a co-founder thinks that she deserves more equity, the company has legal paperwork that is enforceable and spells out what was agreed. In addition, having these documents may be able to prevent misunderstandings.