Legal Mistakes That Cost Entrepreneurs Time, Money and Headaches…And How to Avoid Them
Entrepreneurs must navigate through a maze of legal issues and decisions when launching a new business. At the outset, you may think some seem inconsequential – but, tragically, that would likely be your first of many mistakes. The choices you make today will have lasting effects on the viability and profitability of your new business venture. Below are some of the most common mistakes made by first-time entrepreneurs, and what you can do to avoid making them yourself.
Choosing the Wrong Business Structure
The type of business entity you select will affect your liability exposure, income tax obligations and opportunities to raise capital throughout the duration of your venture. Sole proprietorships, C-corporations, S-corporations and limited liability companies (LLC) all have their advantages and drawbacks. Sole proprietorships are simple to start up, but leave your personal assets vulnerable and offer few tax advantages. C-corporations and S-corporations shield your personal assets, and each afford different tax advantages and disadvantages. Additionally, maintaining the protection afforded by the corporate business structure requires a certain amount of record-keeping and forms which must be filed with governmental agencies. LLCs offer you liability protection, but may not be the best choice depending on various factors, including taxes, ownership structure and, in some states, professional licensure. Often, the corporate structure is the most advantageous, but this decision really should be made in consultation with a business or tax attorney.
The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” – A Handshake and Your Word
Your word may be your honor, but a written contract is the only way to be sure all parties share a mutual understanding regarding their obligations. Whether it is your best client, that independent contractor you’ve been courting, or vendors you have known for years, do not assume everything will go according to plan. Putting your agreement in writing not only ensures that everyone’s expectations are clear, it is also valuable evidence in the courtroom, should things not proceed according to plan. Bottom line – get it in writing!
Adding Partners Without a Written Agreement
It’s easy to sweep this one aside when you are passionately focused on the work of getting your business off the ground. And those new partners likely share your same passion. However, until a detailed written Partnership Agreement is drafted and signed, you may be unclear about each other’s expectations in the short term, or, if your business is wildly successful, tied up in protracted, long-term litigation, to establish who owns what (Facebook comes to mind). Redirect some of that passion, and benefit from the goodwill it creates, to negotiate a Partnership Agreement early on that covers responsibilities, ownership structure, provisions for transferring ownership, and what happens when there’s a disagreement about the direction of the company.
Sharing Ownership 50/50
Establishing equal percentages of ownership in the company sounds like a fair and reasonable arrangement. However, this type of situation makes it difficult to bring on investors, and can bring the company to a standstill if the partners cannot agree on a decision. Instead, issue shares in the company in such a manner that investors can be added later; and make sure those shares are distributed to the founders with at least a 51/49 split, giving the majo