Category Archives: Startup Strategies

Founder Leaving the Company

While founders embark on the journey of launching a company with an abundance of optimism it may be the case that their relationship does not last as long as the company, leading to the question of how to handle a founder leaving the company? This situation goes one of two ways: (1) the company and its founders entered into agreements that address this situation and the process set forth in these agreements is followed; or (2) no agreements are in place and the company and founder are left to try and work out a resolution (difficult if the departure was not amicable).

In this post we will detail two agreements to put in place early-on in a company’s life that could ease a founder’s departure:

1. Reverse Vesting Agreement. A reverse vesting agreement subjects a founder’s shares to repurchase by the company if the founder leaves/is fired from the company within a particular period of time. Each time shares “vest”, meaning that a particular period of time has elapsed and a certain number of shares cease to be subject to the company’s repurchase right. Typical terms are described as “4 years with a 1 year cliff”. This means that the agreement lasts for 4 years and that 1/4 of the shares vest after 1 year and are no-longer subject to the company’s repurchase right. After the cliff, shares typically vest in monthly or quarterly instalments for the remaining 3 years. The repurchase price is a nominal amount, typically the amount the founder paid for the shares upon incorporation (ex. $0.00001/share).

BENEFITS: If the founder leaves within the vesting period, the company can exercise its repurchase right and repurchase those unvested shares. This is especially useful if a founder leaves early, such as within the first year and allowing the company to repurchase all the founder’s shares. Without this agreement, a founder could leave the company within the first year yet retain all their shares.

COMMON MISTAKES: (1) Too short of a term, for example 2 year vesting term when the founder is needed for at least 3 years in order to complete the product; and (2) setting the repurchase price too high resulting in shares that are too expensive for an early-stage company to repurchase.

2. Shareholders Agreement. A Shareholders Agreement addresses the relationship among the shareholders and the company and may often contain clauses addressing founders specifically. Relevant to a founder’s departure, the Shareholders Agreement may contain a section permitting the company and/or the shareholders (or maybe the other founders) to repurchase the departing founder’s shares. The Shareholders Agreement would contain a mechanism for valuing the shares and a process for completing the repurchase. Additionally, even if the shares were not purchased or no purchase mechanism exists, it may contain a voting trust serving to transfer the votes held by the founder’s shares to a company designee.

BENEFITS: By including a repurchase mechanism, the Shareholders Agreement can kick-in following expiration of a Reverse Vesting Agreement, providing a way to easily repurchase shares of a departing founder once that agreement has expired. Additionally, the voting trust ensures that the founder receives the financial benefit in the future of any shares they retain but by transferring the votes associated with those shares to a company designee it ensures that only people actively involved in the company can vote on company matters.

COMMON MISTAKES: (1) Drafting the Shareholders Agreement to only apply to initial shareholders and not containing provisions whereby the agreement automatically applies to new shareholders; and (2) not creating a clear process for valuing shares and a process for resolving any dispute over share value.

In summary, if you plan for shareholder problems at the start you will be well equipped should those problems arise in the future. While founders may not want to dwell on a divorce when they are optimistic about the future they will be glad they did if things turn for the worse down the road.

The Two Questions I ask new Startups and Studios

Each week I meet with prospective clients that are excited to be launching a new startup or video game studio.  Regardless of the differences between these clients, I inevitably end up asking two important questions at the start of every meeting:

1.  Have you incorporated?

Many clients incorporate without legal counsel, which I have no problem with.  However, by incorporating without a lawyer, prospective clients are often left with a few problems that I am attempting to unearth and that I know will need to be remedied:

A. The company’s paperwork is incomplete.  While a company exists once the filings are made with the state/province/federal government (if a federal, Canadian company), there are a number of resolutions, registers, receipts and other documentation that a company requires in order to have a complete minute book.  The preparation of the foregoing is the bulk of a lawyer’s work incorporating a company and will need to be prepared, especially if the company aims to raise capital as this documentation will be requested as part of standard due diligence.

B.  Too few shares were issued.  If you incorporated a company with 1, 10 or 100 shares, too few shares were issued and should be split or additional shares issued.  This avoids fractional shareholding in the future (imagine offering someone .25% and 10 shares are issued to date) and also makes equity offers to prospective employees more appealing (10,000 shares appear more attractive than 1 share, even if the same percentage ownership results).

C.  Too many share classes created or the wrong share classes created.  I always ask clients their reasons for a particular share class as both client and lawyer should understand the reasons behind the company’s structure.  Since most startups are incorporated with a single, common, share class, I push prospective clients to explain and even justify other classes.  Additionally, if a preferred share class exists, what are the rights and restrictions associated with this class?  Inevitably, no preferred rights and restrictions were specified,requiring the creation of these rights or restrictions or, more likely, deleting the preferred share class.

2.  Have you Transferred IP to the Company?

Clients mistakenly assume that the company they incorporate automatically owns the intellectual property they create.  While someone may be a shareholder (even the sole shareholder) or a director, this does not automatically transfer ownership of intellectual property created by such person(s) to the company.  Indeed, without a contractor, employment or assignment agreement in place, each founder remains the owner of the intellectual property they create.  As a result, the company may not own a core asset and cannot be in a position to license that asset to third parties.  Additionally, by asking this question I am often told about contractors who created intellectual property for a founder or the company without an agreement in place, which will also need to be corrected.

Based on these two questions, I am often able to obtain a full picture of a company and its history and put in place the key documents required to address any issues unearthed.   If you are embarking on a new venture be sure to keep these two questions in mind – doing so may prevent future legal headaches (and fees).  Or, you could read my suggestions on corporate structure and IP assignments here and here.

Priced Rounds

As part of our day-to-day practice, we advise clients on different structures available for early-stage financing rounds.  As part of these discussions, convertible notes and SAFEs are inevitably raised by the founder yet the concept of a priced round is rarely raised and sometimes not even understood by the founder.  Priced rounds were the common approach to financing startups at all stages for over 25 years and are slowly making a comeback, which should be to the benefit of founders.

Understanding the Priced Round.  Priced rounds are simple:  the company and investors agree to a company valuation and the investors purchase shares in the company at this valuation.  Conversely, convertible notes and SAFEs are premised on the parties NOT agreeing to a company valuation, which is answered at a later date when a priced round occurs (typically the series A round) and the convertible notes or SAFEs convert.

When are Rounds Priced?  These days, priced rounds first arise during the Series A financing, where preferred shares are sold to investors.  At this stage convertible notes and SAFEs usually convert.  However, as advocated for in this post, any round can be priced including angel and seed rounds.

What are the Benefits to a Priced Round?  The company knows exactly what % of the company is being sold in the round and the founders know exactly how much they are diluted.  In a convertible note or SAFE financing there is some uncertainty as to how much of the company is actually being sold as these instruments typically convert on a fully diluted basis including the increase in option pool size required by the Series A investors yet the increase in the option pool is unknown until the Series A round.  Additionally, priced rounds eliminate the confusion surrounding how numerous convertible notes and SAFEs, with different caps and conversion terms, convert (these calculations are difficult to understand, even for sophisticated parties).

We encourage our clients to explore priced common share rounds when considering the structure for their next early-stage investment round.   Admittedly, some investors prefer convertible notes and SAFEs and others will reject a priced round valuation but accept the same valuation (or higher) as the cap on a convertible note or SAFE.  While priced rounds may not work in all situations there is no harm in floating this as a possible investment structure.  Indeed, sophisticated VCs, such as Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, agree that pricing rounds may be in the best interest of startups and their founders and should be explored rather than avoided.

NDA Pitfalls

Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are a critical part of a technology company’s legal arsenal but are often relegated to a standard template without much thought.  Too often, I’ve seen NDAs sent by sophisticated companies that contain a number of pitfalls that often negate some of the protections that NDAs are relied upon for.  While there are numerous pitfalls to be watched for when drafting and reviewing NDAs, I wanted to highlight a few pitfalls that I frequently encounter that are often missed by both disclosing and receiving parties:

1.  Duration

While it may seem obvious it bears repeating: the duration of a NDA matters.  Often the NDAs I receive specify a relatively brief duration: usually between 2 and 5 years.  Problematically, after the time-period expires the protections provided by the NDA lapse and the previously confidential information can be disclosed at will.  While you may not believe that confidential information would be valuable 5 years into the future, this could be a costly assumption – image if the Coca-Cola recipe was treated the same?

NDAs should specify a perpetual duration unless you have a specific reason for limiting the duration.  Regardless, if the NDA duration has a limit you should be very careful to disclose only information that you’re comfortable becoming public information in the future.

2.  Who Can be Disclosed to

I often encounter NDAs that classify the NDA itself as confidential information that can only be disclosed with permission from the other party.  While seemingly innocuous, this treatment of the NDA can become a massive headache when it comes time to sell your company or its technology.  For example, you could be prohibited from disclosing the mere existence of the NDA to the purchaser or its legal counsel.

NDAs should permit disclosure of the NDA itself to your professional service providers, third parties proposing to engage in transactions with your company and their professional service providers.

3.  Scope of Protection

Do not neglect the scope of the NDA’s protection.  Obviously the NDA should protect information physically disclosed or spoken to the other party but there may be certain things disclosed to the other party that don’t fall within the typical scope of “information”.  For example, you may want the NDA to protect things that are visually perceived by the other party when on-site or sounds heard by the other party (this could matter if the sound of a machine could be used to determine a key design feature).

Always consider what you are disclosing under the NDA and be sure that the scope of the NDA’s protection matches the scope of disclosure as well as inadvertent, passive, disclosures that may take place.

Ultimately, the pitfalls with a NDA, as with any legal document, originate from the treatment of the NDA as a standard templated agreement.  The NDA is a powerful document that should be carefully crafted to reflect your particular business needs and to avoid the above pitfalls.