New Cannabis Business Law Practice

We are pleased to announce that we have added a new Cannabis Business Law Practice to our firm. Now that Ohio has legalized the sale of medical cannabis, and California has legalized adult-use and medical cannabis, we have extended our service offerings to this fast-growing segment. Companies and entrepreneurs operating in the cannabis market need legal counsel with the right kind of experience in the business and corporate law issues they face. We already have been representing cannabis companies at various levels of the value chain for several months, including cultivators, manufacturers, processors, and retailers. This hands-on experience gives us the industry-specific insights and knowledge that cannabis companies need.

Our focus on transactional business and corporate law work for startups and small businesses translates closely to this new area of law. Here are some of the areas in which we can help your cannabis business:

  • Entity formation, including choice of entity (LLC vs. corporation)
  • Business financing through private placements
  • Contracts with vendors, suppliers, downstream customers, etc.
  • Commercial lease negotiation for industrial and retail space

If you would like to discuss your cannabis industry business, please contact Paul H. Spitz at phs@spitzbusinesslaw.com.

Please note that the cultivation, distribution, and possession of cannabis for any purpose is still illegal under federal law. We can only advise you with respect to compliance with Ohio’s medical cannabis program, and California’s medical and adult-use cannabis programs.

THIS IS AN ADVERTISEMENT

New Company Formation Service Available

Customers for legal services are increasingly segmented, just like customers for any other product or service. Many consumers of legal services like to do things themselves, on their own schedule. In recognition of this fact, we now offer online company formation services for DIY-oriented consumers. You can now form an LLC or corporation online in any state, through our website.

Also, you will get a one-hour consultation with me, where you can ask questions about forming and running an LLC or corporation. Other online company formation services may not provide such an opportunity.

One thing to keep in mind is that this service is limited – you get your company formed, but essential post-formation documents are not included. For example, if you are forming an LLC, you really should have an operating agreement, particularly if you will have co-founders. Similarly, with a corporation, you will need resolutions appointing directors and officers, you will need bylaws, and other post-incorporation documents may be necessary. We can provide all of those, customized to your needs, but they aren’t included in the online formation pricing.

We also offer registered agent services in all 50 states, as well as compliance services in those states where annual report filings may be required (such as Delaware and California).

Ready to get started? Simply go to our Business Formation page.

Why Should I Use You Instead of Legalzoom or Clerky?

“Why should I use you to set up my business, instead of Legalzoom or Clerky? You cost more money.”

I get that question occasionally from clients, and I usually answer by explaining that all those sites do is provide documents, which may or may not suit your needs. You may not know whether the documents are good quality, and nobody is available to explain every single sentence in the documents, much less make changes. I, on the other hand, provide legal services. And those legal services that I provide include advice on what is best for your business, as well as providing customized documentation to ensure that we are meeting your needs.

Well, last week a prospective client asked me that question, and as I started to formulate an answer, I went to the website of the document provider – incorporate.com, to see what it offered. In this case, we were talking about forming a multi-owner LLC. Incorporate.com didn’t specify as to whether the operating agreement was designed for a single-owner LLC or a multi-owner LLC. There’s a big difference in complexity, as well as in the kinds of issues you need to address, so it was a significant area of confusion on the website. Then I notice a convenient live chat function, so I decided to dig deeper. Here’s the transcript, and I think you’ll find it quite illuminating.

Thank you for choosing incorporate.com. A representative will be with you shortly. You are now chatting with ‘Jaron’

Jaron: ‪Hello, how are you?

you: fine, thanks. So I’d like to know, for your LLC formation package, is the operating agreement a single-member or multi-member operating agreement?

Jaron: ‪The operating agreement can go either way

you: Well, which is it?

Jaron: ‪Is this something you are looking to have set up today?

you: maybe

Jaron: ‪It is whatever you need it to be

you: and does it include transfer restrictions?

Jaron: ‪like heir to heir?

Jaron: ‪Or ownership?

you: like a right of first refusal if my co-owner wants to sell to an outside party

Jaron: ‪Yes, you can include that in the operating agreement. We also provide a guidebook with further instruction on that as well.

you: and all of this is the same price, regardless of what I want included? regardless of whether it’s a single-member or multi-member?

you: all for $385.95

Jaron: ‪YEs

you: How many drafts of it will you do for me, to ensure it’s the way I want it?

Jaron: ‪I can also provide priority handling at no extra charge.

Jaron: ‪Yes

you: how many?

Jaron: ‪Let me double check. Bare with me [spelling error his, not mine – another nice touch from the experts]

you: double check on all those questions, please

Jaron: ‪Sure… one moment [long delay]

Jaron: ‪You can supply the operating agreement after writing it out. We provide the template. You can update it at anytime with written consent. The only time there is a fee is if you have a third party update it

you: So you provide a basic template, and I have to make all the changes? You don’t write these in for me?

Jaron: ‪We do not. You will write them up, we will file them internally

you: So the transfer restrictions and all that aren’t in the agreement you provide. I have to write all that up for you?

Jaron: ‪Correct. We file it for you, you provide the structure that you want.

you: What do you mean, you file it? [note: you don’t file an operating agreement with anyone; it’s a contract between the business owners and the LLC]

Jaron: ‪You will supply us with the language and draft of the operating agreement. Once you notarize it and send it in, we can update it to your liking at anytime [another tip – you don’t have to notarize an operating agreement]

you: Well, if I have to write the operating agreement, why do I pay you?

Jaron: ‪We provide the template. If you want to submit it yourself without our template, than I can customize a package for you to save you money without the operating agreement

you: I want the operating agreement, but you told me you could customize it with whatever I want, and now you are saying that you can’t, that I have to provide the customized language. Is that correct?

Jaron: ‪Yes, meaning you can make the operating agreement anyway you want it. There is no structure that you are stuck to.

Jaron: ‪If you need to update or make changes, we can do that. No fee

you: But I provide the language

Jaron: ‪Yes

Jaron: ‪We provide a template. You can use it if you wish

Jaron: ‪Or provide your own language [kind of like going to a restaurant, but bringing your own ingredients and cooking them yourself]

you: One last question. On your website, you say the Ohio LLC filing fee is $125 plus a $5 document retrieval fee. But the LLC filing fee in Ohio is $99. Why the difference?

Jaron: ‪I will get you the breakdown, one moment [long delay]

Jaron: ‪Sorry for the delay

you: Yes?

Jaron: ‪$125 is the LLC filing fee of for Ohio anywhere

you: Not according to the Secretary of State’s website.

Jaron: ‪You will have to go to the Secretary of State yourself to retrieve the documents without the $5 fee in addition

Jaron: ‪Yes I see the $99

you: I’m not talking about that. I’m asking why you charge $125 for the basic filing fee, when according to the Ohio secretary of state website, the filing fee is $99 [note: the Ohio Secretary of State actually lowered the filing fee from $125 to $99 several months ago, something other states should consider doing. I’m talking about you, Illinois, Texas, and Massachusetts]

you: so please explain

Jaron: ‪I am really sorry about the confusion. I am not sure why the fee is more. All of the service companies charge the $125 rate… I honestly do not know why but I will happily discount it for you.

you: No, I’m just concerned that you wouldn’t know what the correct fee is. Aren’t you the experts?

Jaron: ‪Yes, most times there are things like “Walk in fees” that are built into the price. I think that may be the case here but for some reason it is not listed. Most of our state fees include the full breakdown. I am not sure why Ohio does not. I apologize

you: There’s no walk-in fee. Ohio lowered the filing fee several months ago, and you just don’t take the time to ensure that you are charging the correct amount.

So let’s note a few key things from the chat:

  1. The representative wasn’t very knowledgeable. That’s always a troubling sign.
  2. The representative started out by promising that I could get anything I wanted (at that low price), but quickly had to backtrack when I pressed him on the issue. By the time we were done, I was going to have to write the operating agreement myself!
  3. The company’s website was out-of-date when it came to the Ohio filing fees, and when I asked about it, the representative basically made up an answer out of thin air (or pulled it out of his ###, if you prefer). If I hadn’t forced the issue, they would have overcharged me.
  4. The representative was also completely wrong about the $5 document retrieval fee. Some state’s charge to download documents, but Ohio isn’t one of them. This is an unnecessary and dishonest fee, and you shouldn’t have to pay it.

I hope you have a better idea now of what you get with these document services, and why I charge more money.

Follow me on Twitter @PaulHSpitz

Ten Common Startup Mistakes – Part 1

Today seems like a good day to tie together a number of subjects I’ve written about in the past, as a list of the Ten Biggest Legal Mistakes Startups Make. Here are the first five:

Number 1 – Choosing the Wrong Form of Entity

All too often, I encounter startup founders and would-be founders that reflexively think they need to set their company up as an LLC (a limited liability company). So I ask them, “are you thinking about getting venture capital funding?” If the answer is yes, then right away I tell them they need a C corporation, because venture capital investors will not invest their money in LLC’s. This isn’t some well-kept secret, either. A simple internet search on the subject will quickly show that VC’s require that the startups they invest in be set up as corporations, and preferably, Delaware corporations. So it is always frustrating to me when someone has wasted time and money setting up an LLC, when he or she really needs a corporation. Even more frustrating is when that founder had a lawyer set them up with an LLC; that’s sloppy lawyering, at best. Aside from the VC issue, I find that the corporate structure is generally simpler and easier to work with than LLCs, which are really jumped-up partnerships with complex tax issues. Many startups want to compensate employees with stock options, but options are a corporate concept. You can’t do stock options with an LLC. Finally, the dreaded “double taxation” you get with corporations is not really an issue for startups, because they generally don’t have profits and aren’t making dividends.

Number 2 – Failure to Split Founders’ Equity Properly

Following fast on the heels of picking the wrong entity is failing to properly split up the equity among founders. I’ve written a full post about this subject, so I’ll just write a brief summary here. Founders often just reflexively split the equity into equal shares. The truth is, different founders contribute differently to the startup. Some of those contributions are more valuable than others. It is an uncomfortable and difficult discussion, however, and while opting for equal shares seems like an attractive, less controversial alternative, the discussion is going to happen sooner or later. Better to have it happen sooner, before issuing founders shares.

Number 3 – No Vesting or Buyout Provisions

It is very common for startups to fail to include vesting and buyout provisions that apply to founders’ equity. This is particularly the case when the founders go cheap and use DIY services like LegalZoom to set up their corporation (or worse, their LLC). Everything might seem warm and fuzzy among the founders when starting out, but over time, frictions arise or someone gets burned out, and a founder leaves. What you don’t want is for that founder to leave with all her shares. By vesting those shares over time, and having the option to buy back vested shares at a nominal price, a startup protects itself against having an ex-founder out there with 40 or 50 percent of the ownership. You can read more about this subject here.

Number 4 – Forgetting the 83(b) Election

When you have founders’ stock or stock options that vest over time, you want to make sure that you do a timely 83(b) election. This is one of those wonky tax issues, and you can read more about it here, but I’ll give a brief rundown. When you receive stock that vests over time, you recognize taxable income as the stock vests, because in theory, that stock has increased in value since it was originally granted. The 83(b) election allows you to recognize income on the increase in value at the time you receive the stock, rather than when it vests. There should be minimal increase in value (if any) at that earlier point in time, so there should be almost no tax liability. You have to make the 83(b) election within 30 days of receiving the restricted stock or stock options, however. Not 31 days later. Not 50 days later but I can pay a penalty. Thirty days. Failing to do this can be a huge and costly mistake. Don’t make it.

Number 5 – Failing to Lock Up Intellectual Property

It is crucial for startups to lock up their intellectual property at every opportunity. When setting up the startup, one or more founders may have developed IP that is important to the enterprise. The startup should have the founder execute an IP assignment agreement in exchange for receiving her founders’ shares. By doing so, the startup now owns the IP, and if the founder leaves, she can’t take the IP with her. In addition, other employees may be developing IP for the company, and they should all execute contracts that specify that the IP belongs to the company, not the employee. Finally, if some of the founders are still working “day jobs” at other companies, it is important to review their employment agreements with those other companies. IP that they think they are developing for the startup may actually belong to the day job.

Those are the first five common startup mistakes. The next five will be in Part 2, which is here. Thank you for reading!

Follow me on Twitter @PaulHSpitz

A Common Startup Mistake (and how to fix it)

When someone is running a startup company, there are all kinds of pitfalls and potential mistakes. A typical mistake many startups make is incorporating as an LLC, rather than a C corporation. In this post, I will describe why that is often a mistake, and then I will tell you how to fix it. 

There is a common perception that it is cheaper to set up an LLC than a C corporation. That really is not true, however. In Ohio, for example, the state filing fee is the same for each: $125. Also, if you go to one of those DIY legal websites (who, like Lord Voldemort, shall not be named), the charge for handling the paperwork and filing is the same.

There is also a misperception that LLC’s are inexpensive to set up and operate. LLC’s are hybrid entities – part partnership, part corporation. The operating agreement for a multi-person LLC can run to 100 pages, with complicated provisions involving capital accounts, allocation of profits and losses, and other tax-driven terms. Also, while LLC’s give you a lot of flexibility in setting up how you want to run the company, if you fail to specify these procedures in the operating agreement, you will be stuck with the state defaults, which may not be what you want. Many people who try to set up an LLC on their own don’t even bother with an operating agreement, or never pay attention to it. That can lead to losing the liability shield that is a big attraction of having an LLC in the first place. Most LLC operating agreements also do not include the vesting and buyout provisions that a startup company needs, to address the situation where one of the cofounders leaves the company.

One justification for LLC’s that I hear all the time is the mantra of avoiding the dreaded “double taxation.” For the typical startup, however, the risk of double taxation is like the risk of being hit by the planet Saturn. First of all, you need profits at the corporate level that will be subject to taxation. Most early stage startups don’t have any profits (and too many don’t even have revenues). Second, you need to make dividends to shareholders, so that you can suffer that second round of taxation. But startups can’t pay dividends if they have no profits, and tech companies traditionally reinvest profits, rather than pay dividends. Microsoft was almost 30 years old before it paid its first dividend. So in truth, double taxation is more urban myth than reality for startups. If pass-through of losses is important – for example, if the founder is keeping his day job and needs to offset employment income – an S-corporation election may be a viable alternative.

Finally, setting up an LLC can be big mistake for any startup seeking venture capital, because venture capital investors do not invest in LLC’s. Venture capital investors will only invest in C corporations, and they will usually require that the company be incorporated in Delaware. While you can set up different membership classes in LLC’s, they are not as easy to create and do not have the body of law supporting them that C corporations have. Coming to a potential VC investor with an LLC, rather than a C corporation, also sends a signal that you are relatively unsophisticated. Surprisingly, there are some attorneys out there who work with startups, and still routinely set them up as LLC’s. I shake my head at this, as I can’t come up with any reasonable justification other than that they want to charge more fees down the road to fix their mistake.

Luckily, if you have made the mistake of setting up an LLC rather than a C corporation, you aren’t doomed. There is a relatively straightforward fix, but it will cost you more money and could delay a Series A closing. The fix is called a “statutory conversion,” and is a mechanism under state law that allows an LLC to convert into a corporation. An LLC formed in one state, for example Ohio, can even use statutory conversion to convert into a corporation in another state, such as Delaware. When you do a statutory conversion, the converting LLC is, by law, the same legal entity after conversion as before, so it avoids transfer taxes and other negative legal and tax consequences that might result from multiple-entity conversions.

To do a statutory conversion from an Ohio LLC into an Ohio corporation, you will have to file a certificate of conversion with the state of Ohio and pay the filing fees. If you are converting an Ohio LLC into a Delaware corporation, you will have to file certificates of conversion in both states, and pay filing fees in both states. Also, you will need to file a certificate of incorporation in Delaware, and pay the filing fee for that. There also may be some accounting and tax issues to deal with, depending on the startup’s assets and liabilities. Of course, there are legal fees involved as well.

As you can see, forming as an LLC isn’t necessarily the best option for a startup that will be seeking venture capital investment at some point, but it can be fixed. The remedy, unfortunately, will end up costing the startup time and money. This is why it is always better to take the time to do things right at the outset.

Follow me on Twitter @PaulHSpitz