Should Startups Incorporate as Benefit Corporations?



King Arthur Flour.

What do these three companies have in common? They are all Benefit Corporations. Increasingly, companies — particularly startups — are expressing a desire to use their businesses for social good. This desire has given rise to Public Benefit Corporations, a legal incorporation status that embraces a company’s social mission while still enabling them to grow as for-profit businesses.

The first Public Benefit Statute was created in Maryland in 2010. Today, 31 states offer the legal status and almost 4,000 companies have incorporated as public benefit corporations.


What is a Benefit Corporation?

A Benefit Corporation is a legal incorporation structure, similar to a LLC, C-Corp, or sole proprietorship. It should not be confused with non-profit status. Benefit Corporations are for-profit companies that choose to balance their financial objectives with the public mission.

Traditional incorporation forms require corporate decisionmaking to be justified in terms of creating shareholder value, commonly understood as prioritizing profit maximization over all else. However, social impact companies understand that commitment to their causes may sometimes conflict with profitability. The Benefit Corporation form provides companies with the legal protection to consider environmental and social factors in business decisions over shareholder value.

Benefit Corporation status only affects corporate governance, purpose, and accountability and does not affect how the company is treated under corporation or tax laws. Benefit Corporations must elect to be taxed as a C corp. or an S corp.


How to Become a Benefit Corporation

Becoming a Benefit Corporation is no different from other incorporation processes. To become a Benefit Corporation, companies add language to their charters and articles of incorporation requiring consideration of both shareholders and non-financial interests in business decisions. Non-financial interest can include the environment, the community, customers, etc.

However, because not all states recognize Benefit Corporations, companies must register in one of the thirty-one states which recognizes the form. Slight differences exist from state to state. One of the notable differences is the language necessary to identify the public benefit. Some states only require a general public benefit to be identified in the articles of incorporation, while other states require a specific public benefit.

Finally, most states require an annual report disclosing environmental and social impact. This report must include a third-party assessment of the companies’ impact, and, with the exception of Delaware, these reports must be publically available


Is a Benefit Corporation Right for a Startup?

An increasing number of startups, especially those created with a social mission, are attracted to the Benefit Corporation form. However, there are a number of variables entrepreneurs should consider in deciding what is best for their company.


Advantages for Startups

  • Performance: Studies suggest that Benefit Corporations perform better in the long run.
  • Consumer Trust: Consumers are more trusting Benefit Corporations after historical incidences of mislabeling and “greenwashing” by corporations. Benefit corporations are seen as more transparent because of the reporting requirement.
  • Investment: Impact investors are particularly attracted to Benefit Corporations, and other types of investors are watching the benefit sector. Investment in Benefit Corporations is predicted to grow as investors have found that social impact is particularly important to the millennial generation. Notably, venture capitalists are showing a willingness to invest in Delaware benefit corporations since the structure is similar to the Delaware C corp.
  • Attracting Talent: Companies are recognizing that social impact is important to attracting millennials as talent.


Disadvantages for Startups 

  • Certainty: The general or specific benefit required by law to be identified can be hard to gage making assessment difficult for directors, shareholders, and courts.
  • Legal Uncertainty: Because Benefit Corporations are a new form of incorporation, the law surrounding them is young and developing. The most pressing concern is that it is still unclear how much legal protection the social impact language adds since not all states recognize the form and those that do vary in their understanding of the form.
  • Benefit Enforcement Proceedings: These are proceedings that can be brought by shareholders for failure to follow general public benefit and to compel company to take a certain action. However, to date, no company has been subject to such a proceeding. Additionally, unless stated in bylaws, boards of directors and the company are not liable for monetary damages if the company fails to carry out mission under benefit corporation status
  • Profit Margins: Committing to a Benefit Corporation status does pose a threat to near-term profit which may trouble potential investors. Thinner margins may result in committing to social good. Entrepreneurs should be prepared to manage investors’ expectations and be able to communicate why thinner margins in the near-term are a smarter business decision in the long-term.


The Difference between Benefit Corporation and a Certified B-Corp

Registering as a Benefit Corporation should not be confused with attaining B-Corp certification.

“Certified B Corporation” is a third-party status administered by the non-profit B-Lab. It’s like the “fair trade” label you may see on your bag of coffee. B-Lab independently assesses companies based on a B Impact Assessment, which looks as a company’s social and environmental impact in relation to a variety of metrics. B-Lab awards the B-Corp certification to companies who receive an appropriate score.

B-Corp status brings additional credibility to social impact companies. Many Benefit Corporations also have B-corp certification, but it is not necessary to attain the certification to function as a Benefit Corporation. However, if companies that are not Benefit Corporation wish to attain B-Corps certification, and if they are incorporated in a state that recognizes Benefit Corporations, B-Corps certification requires that they incorporate as a Benefit Corporation within 2 years of attaining the certification.


Forming an LLC: Member-Managed or Manager-Managed?

After considering advantages and disadvantages of different forms of an entity, you have now decided that forming an LLC (limited liability company) would be the best option for your company. However, you have to go through one more step to be completely done with the entity selection process: Should you form a member-managed or manager-managed LLC?

Basically, you may choose one of two different management structures for an LLC: Member-managed vs. Manager-managed. Member means an owner of an LLC in this context. In Michigan, the default management structure of an LLC is member-managed, as is the case in most other states. However, you may choose to form a manager-managed LLC instead by designating it in the Operating Agreement.


Member-managed vs. Manager-managed LLCs

Member-managed LLCs:

If you choose to form a member-managed LLC, all members have an equal right to participate in managing and operating the company unless the operating agreement states otherwise. A member-managed LLC essentially leaves no room for outsiders to jump in and interfere. Consequently, a member-managed LLC allows every member to vote in the decision-making process and enter into binding agreements and contracts on behalf of the company as its agent. However, members may choose to form an LLC with different classes of members where one class would have a different level of rights than the other classes. Also, the operating agreement can limit the scope of authority that each member has in a member-managed LLC. For instance, the operating agreement may require a majority or unanimous vote of members to make certain business decisions such as contracts and loan agreements.

Member-managed LLCs also do not have boards of directors unlike manager-managed LLCs. Also, member-managed LLCs tend to be more cost-effective than manager-managed LLCs due to their decentralized management structure.

Therefore, a member-managed LLC could be a better option for you if every member of your company wants to play an active role in running the business. However, a member-managed LLC also has some downsides due to its management structure: 1) it might be inefficient if the company is too large or complicated for all members to take a part in managing and operating the business; 2) it can also turn out to be inefficient if some members are not well-versed in business management; and 3) the expulsion of a member could be difficult since it would require an unanimous approval of all the other members unless specified otherwise in the operating agreement.


Manager-managed LLCs:

On the other hand, manager-managed LLCs have one or more managers to manage the company and arrange business affairs on the company’s behalf without getting the members’ consent or approval first. Only designated managers have the authority to make determinations on behalf of the LLC in manager-managed LLCs. Thus, manager-managed LLCs have a more centralized management structure and enable the company to be managed more like a corporation. For this reason, manager-managed LLCs would be preferable if your company is large and complex, since getting all the members together to vote and make decisions as a whole could be inefficient for large companies. Hence, a manager-managed LLCs would streamline the decision-making process and enable members to focus more on works of their choice in such cases.

Members may select one or more of the members as managers of the LLC, or they may hire professional managers who are not members of the LLC but have adequate expertise and qualifications. Having professional managers with experiences in business management can also be beneficial for your business in terms of protecting the company’s interest, attracting investors, and protecting the investors’ money. The members may specify details such as the number of managers, required qualifications, and resignation procedure in the operating agreement.

Since manager-managed LLCs allow managers to make decisions on behalf of the LLC without acquiring members’ consent first, this management structure would be more suitable if members of your company wish to take a more passive role. For instance, if some members of your company are investors and do not want to get involved in day-to-day management of the company, manager-managed LLC could be a better option for your company. If members of your company wish to select some of the members as managers, it would be advisable to designate more active members as the company’s managers. Members who are designated as managers may also receive a separate compensation as an employee.


Fiduciary Duties

Members of a manager-managed LLC as well as managers of a manager-managed LLC, including both professional managers and members who have been designated as managers, owe fiduciary duties to the LLC. In Michigan, a person who manages an LLC does not owe fiduciary duties to the members of the company. Fiduciary duties mean duties of trust that mandate people who owe such duties to place the company’s interests above their own or other parties’ interests. However, the members may agree to waive some fiduciary duties by specifying that in the operating agreement.

The two most important types of fiduciary duties owed to an LLC are 1) the duty of loyalty and 2) the duty of care. A person who owes the duty of loyalty to an LLC is expected to place the company’s interests above his or her personal interests and goals. He/she also needs to conduct any transactions and deals on behalf of the company in good faith. Also, he/she must not compete directly with the company or take advantage of the company’s internal information, commercial activities or business opportunities in an inappropriate manner to earn secret profits.

On the other hand, the duty of care requires one to act prudently in good faith and exercise reasonable care when performing their work on behalf of the company. If a member of a member-managed LLC or a manager of a manager-managed LLC makes a business decision with negative consequences for the company, that person would be protected from liability as long as he/she made the decision in good faith and exercise reasonable care during the process.


What’s So Great About a Delaware C-Corporation?

If you’ve spent any time looking at U.S. companies, you’ve likely noticed that an unusually large number are organized as Delaware C-Corporations. Similarly, many startup founders seeking to choose a business entity are counseled to form Delaware C-Corporations. But with so many great states to incorporate in, you’re probably asking yourself, “What’s so great about a Delaware C-Corporation?”

For many decades, Delaware has made itself the destination of choice for U.S. companies through its General Corporation Law. Delaware corporate law favors directors and minority shareholders relative to other states, provides for tough antitakeover laws, and protects the identifies of shareholders and directors. These policies are thought to attract businesses on the theory that the directors and managers enjoy better flexibility and protections. Additionally, Delaware’s non-taxation of royalty payments allows corporations to avoid some tax in other states by transfering intangible assets to Delaware.

Once a business is based in Delaware, disputes are litigated in front of the Court of Chancery, perhaps the most well-known advantage of doing business in Delaware. The Chancery Court is one of the nation’s oldest equity courts and it spends almost all of its time hearing corporate cases, typically without a jury. As a result, the five judges of the Chancery Court are some of the nation’s leading experts in business law who are capable of hearing and deciding complex corporate cases with remarkable efficiency and understanding. Additionally, the extensive case law coming out of the Chancery Court has created a well-known and predictable set of rules for corporations in the state.

It is important to note, however, that Delaware is not the only state competing for businesses and there is some evidence that the benefits of a Delaware C-Corporation are minimal or fail to justify the costs. In the face of this evidence, the fact that Delaware continues to be the go-to state for C-Corporations illustrates one of its most significant advantages – inertia. Delaware’s long-standing reputation means that today’s corporate lawyers often choose Delaware by default. Venture capitalists and angel investors generally require a Delaware C-Corporation, as do many investment bankers looking to take a company public. In general, a Delaware C-Corporation is a signal to the market that you’re a “serious” company. For all of these reasons, Delaware is unlikely to lose its favored status in the near term.

The benefits of a Delaware C-Corporation include the state’s corporate and tax laws, the Court of Chancery, and the inertia created by decades of developing a business-friendly reputation. While a Delaware C-Corporation doesn’t make sense for many startup companies, a significant portion of successful startups will end up converting to that form. In any case, these advantages illustrate why so many companies are formed as Delaware C-Corporations and why that that will continue to be the case in the foreseeable future.


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.


Entity Selection for Startups: A Tax Perspective

The entity classification regulations under Internal Revenue Code section 7701, otherwise known as “check-the-box” regulations, allow startups to choose their classification for Federal tax purposes. Although the filing process itself is extremely simple (one simply checks the appropriate box, dates, signs, and submits the form), the tax implications of the choice of entity can be extremely significant.

This article will assist startups in choosing an entity by comparing and contrasting the tax implications of organizing as a C corporation, S corporation, or limited liability company (“LLC”). Sole proprietorships and partnerships will not be covered in this article as they do not provide full limited liability to owners, and other entities better meet the needs of most startups.


Startups that Expect Venture Capital Funding or Expect to do an IPO

The most significant tax feature of a C corporation is that it is taxed twice: first, the corporation is taxed on its net income, and then shareholders are taxed when they receive dividends. Though double taxation is unappealing, the first taxation layer prevents the corporation’s income from “flowing-through” to shareholders, which is why C corporations are the investment entity of choice for venture capital firms. Most venture capital firms raise money from tax-exempt entities, and if the firm invests money in a flow-through entity—such as an S corporation or LLC—then its tax-exempt investors would receive disadvantaged tax treatment.

If a startup plans on issuing shares through an initial public offering (“IPO”), then it should incorporate as a C corporation, as opposed to other corporate forms. An S corporation is unsuitable for an IPO because it cannot have more than 100 shareholders. LLCs are byproducts of state law, and thus it is extremely difficult to do an IPO of an LLC. Unlike a C corporation, which has unlimited life and free transferability, there is a risk that a LLC will dissolve when a member dies. Some states require all LLCs to dissolve after a set period of time. Furthermore, even if a LLC manages to become publicly traded, it will lose its status as a flow-through entity and lose it tax advantages.

In addition, if ownership interests in the startup will be provided to employees, tax law gives favorable tax treatment to incentive stock options (ISOs) granted by a corporation. An ISO holder does not have to pay taxes on the value of the stock options when she receives the options; the holder incurs tax liability only when the shares are sold. At the time of sale, the recognized gain is taxed at the long-term capital gains rate, which is more favorable than the ordinary income tax rate.

Thus, if the startup expects to receive funding from venture capital firms or do an IPO, then incorporating as a C corporation is the clear choice. However, choosing an entity becomes less straightforward in cases where venture capital funding or an IPO is not expected.


Startups that Expect to Initially Operate at a Loss or Distribute Current Earnings

As discussed above, S corporations and LLCs do not pay corporate tax because it passes income directly to its owners and investors. Because current earnings are taxed as ordinary income, startups intending to distribute current earnings and profits to their owners would avoid double taxation by organizing as a flow-through entity. On the other hand, if a startup expects to initially operate at a loss, then its owners will be able to deduct losses from their individual taxable income.

If a C corporation distributes current earnings, the amount cannot be deducted by the corporation except as salary (or other reasonable compensation) to shareholders who are also employees of the company. Thus, startups that expect to operate at a loss initially or to distribute current earnings should not incorporate as a C corporation. Instead, they should organize as a flow-through entity.

For startups that seek to build long-term value by accumulating or reinvesting earnings, other factors become more important. But in this case, since stock held for more than one year is taxed at the long-term capital gain rate—which is lower than the ordinary income rate—incorporating as a C corporation should be considered. Moreover, if a C corporation that qualifies as a small business corporation holds stock for more than 5 years, it will likely cut its capital gains tax rate in half.

As mentioned above, in certain cases there are tax benefits in organizing as a flow-through entity. Next, we will examine the implications of organizing as an S corporation versus an LLC.


Incorporating as an S Corporation vs. a LLC

As flow-through entities, S corporations and LLCs enjoy similar tax benefits. Neither pays corporate tax on earnings, and owners in both can deduct losses from individual tax returns. There are important differences, however, in ownership and formalities.

The IRS subjects S corporations to more restrictive ownership regulations than LLCs. First, S corporations can have no more than 100 shareholders, can only have one class of stock, and may not have non-U.S. citizens or residents as shareholders. Also, S corporations can only have one kind of shareholder: individuals. This limits startups that would otherwise consider raising capital from institutional investors. Comparatively, an LLC is unrestricted in the number of its members, can have foreign members, multiple classes of stock, and institutional investors as members. Therefore, LLCs are much less restricted in its ownership regulations. Additionally, LLCs can be incorporated tax-free for even more flexibility. For instance, after its owners and investors have deducted the initial startup losses, the LLC can incorporate in order to obtain funding from a venture capital fund.

Moreover, S corporations are corporations—which mean they must adopt bylaws, issue stock, hold initial and annual director and shareholder meetings, and keep meeting minutes with corporate records. LLCs, on the other hand, are not required to take any of these steps, although they are recommended.

Generally, because LLCs are flexible, require minimal formalities, and are easy to set up, any startup looking to establish itself as a flow-through entity should probably organize as an LLC,



Incorporating as a C corporation is recommended for startups that expect to receive venture capital funding or do an initial public offering. This explains the wide prevalence of C corporations on the West Coast, where venture capital funding is abundant. On the other hand, organizing as an LLC is recommended when startups expect to operate at a loss initially or distribute current earnings. Although S corporations are also flow-through entities, LLCs are generally better suited to startups because of the ownership restrictions and additional formation requirements for S corporations.