Startup Equity Compensation for LLCs

Background Reading:

As I’ve written before, with more entrepreneurs realizing that the “standard” (whatever that means) corporate trajectory for startups may not be what’s best for their specific company, we are seeing more tech companies explore the possibility of operating as LLCs (limited liability companies). By all accounts, C-Corps are still the market norm, especially for companies with no near-term plans to achieve profitability (everything is reinvested for growth) and with plans to raise conventional institutional venture capital.

But nevertheless, the “LLC Startup” market is real, and there’s far less info ‘out there’ for entrepreneurs to understand core concepts.  Here we’re going to cover the basics of how LLC startups typically issue equity, and how it differs from what C-Corp startups do.

The primary driver behind why LLC equity comp is very different from C-Corp equity comp is that W-2 employees of an LLC can’t hold equity in that LLC, under IRS rules. For C-Corps, both contractors and employees can hold equity, which simplifies equity compensation. But for LLCs, holding *true* equity requires the LLC to issue you a K-1 on an annual basis (you’re a “partner” for tax purposes), and the Company doesn’t cover employment taxes the way it does for W-2 employees.

Units/Membership Interests and Profits Interests (True Equity)

High-level executives (including founders) in an LLC startup are usually OK with this issue, and will hold direct equity in the LLC. They’ll receive K-1s annually.

That equity usually takes one of two forms: Units (sometimes called membership interests), which are the LLC equivalent of stock. Units can be voted (usually) on Day 1, and they are taxable on receipt if their “fair market value” is not paid for, which is why they’re typically issued only in the very early days of the company, like founder/early employee common stock in C-Corps. They can be expensive to receive if they are very valuable (in the IRS’ judgment) on the issue date.

As the value (for tax purposes) of units increases, companies will switch to Profits Interests, which are kind-of a LLC corollary to options, because (i) they only entitle you to the appreciation in value of your equity after the grant date, and (ii) when issued properly, they are tax-free to receive. When profits interests are granted, the Company has to obtain or decide on a valuation that pegs the “threshold value” of the company on the grant date, and the recipient of the PI is then entitled to the increase in value of the equity above that threshold value.

Returns on both units and profits interests receive capital gains treatment, like stock in a corporation. While units usually have voting rights, profits interests can have voting rights, but companies often times structure them to not vote.

Unit Appreciation Rights (Phantom Equity)

While founders and senior executives of LLCs will often be OK with K-1 status and holding true equity, it can become problematic for a number of reasons (tax oriented, benefits oriented, etc.) to have everyone be a K-1 recipient as the business scales. When LLCs want to issue equity-like compensation to lower-level employees, while continuing to treat them as true W-2s, they will usually switch to Unit Appreciation Rights, which are the LLC equivalent of phantom equity.

UARs don’t vote, and aren’t really equity at all. Instead, they entitle the recipient to a cash payment (like a bonus) upon some future milestone (typically an acquisition/exit) that is pegged to the value of equity. Much like profits interests, on the grant date a valuation is determined, and then as the LLC’s equity appreciates in value after the grant date, the UAR holder’s future bonus increases proportionately. When granted properly, UARs are also (like PIs) tax free on the grant date.

While the upside of UARs is that they significantly simplify tax filings/treatment for recipients (no annual K-1s, can stay W-2), the downside is that returns on the UARs are treated as ordinary income by the IRS; no capital gains treatment.

LLCs require Tax Specialists

The main reason startups choose to be LLCs is taxes: given the nature of their business, they want to avoid the corporate-level tax applied to C-Corps, even if that means deviating from the C-Corp norms of typical venture-backed startups.

But the cost of those tax savings is significant ongoing tax complexity in issuing and managing equity, and making annual tax filings. That requires not just good accountants, but good tax lawyers; who are very different from classic “startup lawyers.” If you’re planning to be an LLC that will use equity as compensation, make sure you’re using lawyers with access to solid tax counsel.

Tax Disclaimer: I’m not your tax lawyer or advisor. I don’t want to be your tax lawyer or advisor. The above is just a summary of what we typically see in the market for LLC startup equity. LLCs are highly flexible, and circumstances vary. Do NOT try to rely on any of the above advice without engaging your own personal tax advisors, including tax lawyers. 

Announcing E/N Alpha

I’m very excited to announce the launch of E/N Alpha, a flat-fee subscription program ($500/mo) that our firm has launched for high-potential very early-stage startups.

The details are available on the linked page, and should be fairly straightforward. In particular, I think it’s important to read the section describing what it’s not, because it reflects our firm’s thought-out response to what we see as a lot of failures / nonsense in the legal market where firms, for marketing purposes, pretend to deliver efficiency, when what they’ve really done is watered down their service so much to the point of no longer being useful.

Not software – Readers of SHL and E/N clients know I love legal tech and that we’re always integrating new tools into our practice, but as I wrote in Lies About Startup Legal Fees, there is simply too much BS floating around startup ecosystems that some magical automation tool or piece of AI will dramatically cut legal spend long-term for startups. Significant automation requires significant standardization and inflexibility, which in the world of high-stakes legal work for scaling tech companies negotiating with sophisticated parties, most smart Founders and executive teams are not willing to accept.

Yes, you can automate formations and a few very early things, but complexity increases exponentially beyond that (like a code base), and the value of software automation tapers off fast.

Not paralegals and junior attorneys – I have lost count of how many startups have switched to us from firms that talked a good efficiency game, when their main tactic was to force CEOs to get on the phone with paralegals and junior attorneys whose expertise ends the moment you go off script or deviate from a checklist. I love paralegals and juniors, and we have and train them. But if you think a founder wants to talk to your paralegal about structuring their seed financing, or making that key first or second hire, you don’t understand founders; at least not the smart ones.  See: The problem with chasing whales for what happens when founders end up having to deal with a firm’s B or C team.

Not “everything legal for one price” – Oh man, I came across a firm promising this the other day. “We’ll do everything legal you need for one flat monthly price.” Right. See: Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law, for an explanation of what really happens when a firm is forced to work under a ridiculous fixed fee. Fixed fees are great for low-stakes, routine work with a well-defined scope, or for high-volume projects that (again) are well-defined in scope, but the idea that you can map all of the legal needs of scaling emerging tech companies onto some bell curve and peg a number, like an insurance company, without dramatically impacting quality or flexibility, is some straight-up ghostbusters nonsense.

The only possible way it works is if you limit your client base to companies that basically all look and act the same, and have virtually all the same expectations and needs within a narrow range. That’s not how we work, nor how any serious law firm I know works. Analogies to healthcare’s move into fixed-fee pricing don’t hold water without accepting the “narrowly tailored client profile” point, because human biology is 1000x more “standardized” (bell curves) than the corporate structures, investor expectations, growth trajectories, legal obligations, and company values of tech companies.

Not the only way to work with us – This is simple. E/N Alpha is an option for startups looking to lock-in price certainty on a specific scope of work they are sure to need within their early years. But it is not the only way to work with us.

Fundamentally, what we want E/N Alpha to reflect is that E/N is a lean, flexible, high-end boutique law firm built from the ground up to address the many dysfunctions we’ve seen in the emerging tech / startup legal market. Entrepreneurs hire us because they know they need serious, specialized, trustworthy lawyers to address complex, high-stakes issues, and they need some way of affording that; particularly in the early days.

Everything else: tools, low-level professionals, and all the other ways a law firm can optimize itself should stay in the background. They aren’t, and shouldn’t be, the end-product.

 

Early Startup Employee Compensation

Background reading:

Given how deeply involved we are with early-stage startups hiring their first key employees, I figured it would be helpful to outline a few key principles to help entrepreneurs navigate the topic.

Make sure they are actually employees, and if they are, at least minimum wage.

States vary in how strict they enforce the line between contractors and employees. California is way harsher than elsewhere in the country.

In general, employees are under your control as to how they work and when they work. Contractors, on the other hand, are required to deliver a service/end-product, but have more control over how it gets done, and they usually are working less than full-time hours and have multiple ‘clients.’ Those are very rough guidelines, and you should work with lawyers to ensure you stay on the right side of your state’s (and federal) specific rules.

The employee v. contractor classification is very important, because contractors can be engaged for free from a cash perspective (equity only). Employees, however, need to be paid at least minimum wage, and may be entitled to benefits. The legal and tax requirements for engaging (and terminating) contractors v. employees are also very different.

Every startup lawyer knows stories of startups that treated someone as a contractor in order to keep costs low, then the relationship went south, and the person ended up filing complaints and getting the startup into hot water. On top of following the rules, your best protection is to be careful with whom you hire, and be respectful/thoughtful if you have to terminate them.

All else being equal, more equity means less cash, and visa versa.

Generally speaking, if someone is getting paid significantly less than what’s “market” for their position, they will expect to receive more equity in order to make up for the difference. Very early employees are generally working at below-market (often substantially below market) cash compensation, and therefore receive much larger portions of equity than someone hired post-Series A or Series B.

And the converse is true as well. If someone, for whatever reason, needs to make $X, even if it’s a serious stretch at the startup’s current budget, then their equity should be proportionately lower. And it should go without saying, all employee equity should have a vesting schedule. 

All of that being said, the early employees will of course expect their compensation to move closer to market as the startup raises funds and hits revenue milestones.

In the very early days, employees are often paid more than founders / senior executives.

The further you move away from the founder team, the greater the dilution of a person’s commitment to the “mission” of the startup; and that means more cash to keep them committed.  For that reason, at pre-seed and seed stage, it is not uncommon for *true* employee hires to actually be earning more, from a cash perspective, than the founder CEO; obviously with substantially lower equity ownership.

After a decent-sized seed round (and certainly Series A), it becomes a lot rarer for the CEO to not be the highest cash earner on the roster.

For more info on what founders are typically able to pay themselves at the various stages, see: Founder Compensation: Cash, Equity, Liquidity.

Don’t over-optimize for market data.

When you reach post-Series A or Series B, it can be helpful when hiring people to obtain hard data on what’s “market” for a certain position, and use that data in negotiations. There are some good services to help with that.

But at very early stages, everything is highly contextual. I’ve seen teams where everyone is making almost nothing. I’ve seen situations where the founder CEO is making nothing, and their lead developer is making six figures. I also see everything in-between. It all depends on the relationships and context. Maybe ask around if you need to, or do some AngelList Jobs perusing, but don’t put too much faith in the value of broad market data for your pre-seed or seed stage startup’s hiring needs.

Employment laws and taxes are not a place to move fast and break things.

Finally, as much as I appreciate keeping things lean, moving fast, and skirting the rules where the costs are low, realize that violating laws around employee compensation and hiring/firing can burn you, badly.

In some contexts, unpaid employee compensation is even recoverable against the Board or executives, outside of the Company. Did you catch that? Let me repeat it for you: failing to pay employees compensation you promise them, or taxes for that compensation, can in some contexts result in personal liability for you, even if the company itself files for bankruptcy.

Take. This. Sh**. Seriously. While I’ve seen more than my fair share of nuclear wars between founders – see: How Founders (Should) Break Up – the deep relationships among founders often allow for more leeway in terms of following/not following the letter of the law. Employees are usually different, and will hesitate significantly less to use every weapon against you if you cross them. Make sure you’re well-advised from the moment you bring on your first *true* hire. 

Checklist for choosing a Startup Lawyer

A friend mentioned to me the other day that, as much great content as there is on Startup Law, there isn’t a simple list of things a founder team should assess in choosing their own company counsel. So here it is, leveraging past SHL posts in a distilled form.

Background Reading: Startup Lawyers – Explained.

Are they actually a “startup lawyer”?

The number of lawyers over the years who have attempted to re-brand themselves as startup lawyers – meaning corporate lawyers with a heavy specialization in early-stage technology and venture capital – has gone up significantly. Law has numerous specialties and subspecialties, much like healthcare, and you want to ensure that, if you’re building an early-stage technology company looking to raise outside capital, your main lawyer(s) has deep experience in exactly that.

See: Startups Need Specialist Lawyers. The last thing you want to end up with is a litigator, patent lawyer, or small business lawyer who thinks that, because he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, he suddenly knows startup law.

Ask for their AngelList profile, or a list of deals they’ve closed in the last 6 months.

Do they have access to other specialist lawyers that you’ll need?

In line with the above, the first lawyer you’ll need is a startup lawyer, but once the business gets going, you’ll quickly need others, including commercial/tech transactions lawyers, tax lawyers, data/privacy lawyers, patent lawyers, trademarks, litigation, etc. They do not need to be under the same firm (and you often benefit if they aren’t), but a serious startup lawyer who represents scaled companies must have direct access to these kinds of specialists to provide responsive counsel to their clients.

A simple “yes, we have access” is not enough. Ask for names, info on how they normally engage, and do your diligence.

Is their infrastructure / cost structure right-sized for what you’re building?

Be realistic about what your company will look like over the next 5 years if things go as planned, and hire a lawyer/firm that can serve that company, without scalability problems. Are you building a narrow app for which a successful exit would be a few million dollars? A solo lawyer would probably be a good fit for you.

Do you legitimately see yourself as on a potential IPO or >$500MM exit track, and targeting a $10-20+MM Series A in a year or two? Law firms that represent “unicorns” may be a good fit for you, even if they’re much more expensive.

Are you realistically on more of a $3-10MM Series A, and $50-300MM exit path; or maybe you’re more interested in scaling on revenue alone? You’re going to get too big for a solo, fast, but “unicorn” firms are probably overkill for you. Try a boutique law firm.

See: When a Startup Lawyer can’t scale and Lies about startup legal fees.

Are they familiar and aligned with the norms / expectations of your likely investors?

In line with the idea of hiring a right-sized law firm, if you’re not on the unicorn track, you will run into problems if you hire lawyers who generally represent (and target) companies who are.

We see this often when, for example, law firms from Silicon Valley represent a tech startup raising local money in, say, Texas or Colorado. Ecosystems of different sizes often have very different norms and expectations, and you can run into cultural or even process conflicts when your lawyers simply don’t speak the same language as your investors, or other stakeholders. The largest deals in the largest tech ecosystems – SV and NYC – have much closer market norms, and smaller/mid-size deals in smaller ecosystems like Austin, Boulder, Seattle, etc. often behave similarly among themselves.

See: The problem with chasing whales.

Are they not conflicted with investors you’re likely to raise money from?

Entrepreneurs, and especially first-time entrepreneurs, lean heavily on their startup lawyer(s) for core strategic guidance in navigating negotiations / issues with their main investors. Ensure that the lawyers you hire do not have deep ties to, or dependencies on, the people who are likely to write you checks, or the lack of true independence of the advice you get can burn you in the end.

See: How to avoid “captive” company counsel. 

Finally, do they “not suck”?

After all of the above, do these folks actually answer their damn e-mails quickly enough? Do they have good technology / processes in place to make your life easier and work efficiently? Do they give real strategic advice, and not make tons of costly mistakes that you end up having to pay for in the long run?

See: Lawyers and NPS.

There are lawyers who will check all of the above boxes, and yet after you talk to their clients, you’ll find that they just suck to work with. Do your homework / research on the more objective checklist items, but in the end never forget to choose lawyers who actually care about doing all the subtle human-oriented things that result in good service.

post-script: A few questions that don’t belong on the checklist:

  • Is the lawyer in my city? – Nothing about local city law applies to startup lawyering. Think regionally, or focus on their client base resembling what you’re building.
  • Can they introduce me to investors? – See: Why I (still) don’t make investor intros.  There are far more effective ways to get connected to investors than through intros from a law firm.

More Tech Startups are LLCs

TL;DR: Years ago, it was an “obvious” decision for almost every tech startup founder that they would form their company as a “classic” C-Corp designed for venture capital investment. As entrepreneurs have become far more aware of the downsides of VC money with very high-growth expectations, and the diversity and number of tech investors comfortable with LLC investment grows, that is less the case today.

Background Reading:

If you have spent almost any time reading about the basics of startup legal issues, you know that Delaware C-corps are the default organizational structure for a “classic” tech startup (software, hardware) planning to raise angel/VC money and scale. I’m not going to repeat what you can read elsewhere, so I’ll summarize the core reasons in 2 sentences:

Delaware because DE is the “english language” of corporate law and all serious US-based corporate lawyers (and many foreign lawyers) know DE corporate law.  C-Corp largely because (i) VCs have historically favored C-Corps for nuanced tax and other reasons, and (ii) virtually all of the standardized legal infrastructure around startup finance and equity compensation assumes a C-Corp.

However, times are changing. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a noticeable increase in the number of emerging tech companies that, despite knowing all of the reasons why startups favor C-Corps, deliberately choose to organize their company, at least initially, as an LLC. To be clear, C-Corps are still the norm, by far. But the C-Corp / LLC mix has, for us at least, moved maybe from 95/5 percentage-wise to about 85/15. That’s an increase worth paying attention to.

The growth in interest around LLCs has very little, or really nothing, to do with legal issues, in the sense that nothing much has changed about LLCs or C-Corps to drive people in one direction or the other.  The main drivers, from our viewpoint, are:

  • Many tech entrepreneurs no longer view venture capital as an inevitability in their growth path, and have grown skeptical of the traditional “growth at all costs” mindset found in many startup circles; and
  • An increasing number of technology investors are growing comfortable with LLCs.

Profitability is now a serious consideration among tech entrepreneurs. 

C-Corps have 2 “layers” of tax: corporate-level tax, and then tax at the shareholder level. LLCs don’t have a corporate-level tax, and therefore have only 1 layer. Speaking in broad terms, this “disadvantage” of the C-Corp structure has not deterred tech startups for one simple reason: the corporate level tax is on profits, and many tech startups don’t intend to be truly profitably any time soon. Achieving very fast growth through reinvestment of any ‘profits’ has been the dominant growth path among tech entrepreneurs, which means no “profits,” which means being a C-Corp doesn’t really result in more tax.

However, the zeitgeist among startup ecosystems is shifting from “focus on growth, and raise VC” to “unless you’re absolutely positive you’ll raise VC, keep your options open.” Keeping your options open favors starting out as an LLC, because converting an LLC to a C-Corp is way easier than converting a C-Corp to an LLC. The reason for that is simple: the IRS welcomes you with open arms if you choose to move from 1 tax layer to 2. But going in the opposite direction costs you significantly.

As more tech entrepreneurs take seriously the possibility of building a profitable, self-sustaining business, their interest in starting their companies as LLCs is growing, because building a truly profitable business as a C-Corp is much more expensive (tax wise) than it is as an LLC. Many angel investors, and also strategic investors, are comfortable investing in LLCs, particularly under a convertible security structure that doesn’t immediately result in equity holdings.

So starting as an LLC allows you to build your company, and even raise some early capital, while letting things develop to see if you’re really building a business that needs conventional venture capital (and then convert to a C-Corp), or if you’re building one that may instead become profitable and distribute profits to investors (stay an LLC).

VCs are also growing more comfortable with LLCs.

The conventional line given for why VCs “must” invest in C-Corps is that the “pass through” treatment of LLCs can result in various negative consequences to their own investors (LPs), many of whom are tax exempt – so the C-Corp structure prevents the tax problems. However, more sophisticated VCs have realized that in most cases this problem is quite fixable. They can set up what’s often called a “blocker corp” that eliminates the possibility of pass-through income negatively impacting their tax-exempt LPs. Problem solved. It’s not that hard to do.

Truth be told, a lot of VCs still don’t want to mess with LLCs. But at this point it has more to do with inertia and a desire to minimize their own legal bills than any real legal issue. Also, most VCs are only looking for companies in a high-growth track where any net revenue will be reinvested for growth (no corporate profits, no corporate tax), so they are selecting for companies for whom an LLC structure isn’t really that appealing.

But not all VCs think that way. In fact, the types of investors putting money into tech startups has been diversifying significantly. Angel syndicates have grown in size, seed funds have multiplied and grown bigger, with larger checks. And strategic investors now invest very early. Many of these groups are far more comfortable with LLCs than “classic” VCs, because they aren’t as constrained in the types of companies they can invest in.

If you are an LLC tech startup, you need tax counsel.

If you are a tech startup that wants to be an LLC, realize that while LLCs may save you taxes, they will not save you legal fees. Equity compensation, particularly to employees, is much more complex under LLCs, and requires the oversight of true tax lawyers. It is not something to be handled solely by a “startup lawyer.” Any law firm working with LLCs should have access to tax specialists, and if they don’t, that is a red flag.

Also, as startups move from a uniform growth path to one that considers a wider variety of sources of capital (angel, non-traditional seed, strategic, private equity, debt, royalty-based, etc.), they need to accept that the standardization found in conventional Silicon Valley-style fundraising is simply not a possibility. The huge push to standardize investment documentation into templates that can be almost automated stems from the “billion or bust” mindset of classic VC-backed startups. In that world, everyone is a Delaware C-Corp. Everyone is trying to be a billion-dollar company that will eventually get acquired or go IPO. All the angels talk about the same things on twitter and are comfortable investing on the same docs. So just automate a template, plug in some numbers, and focus on growth.

But in a world where everyone isn’t a Delaware C-Corp; everyone isn’t on the same “billion or bust” growth path, and there is far more diversity among companies and investors, the conditions for heavy automation and standardization simply aren’t there, and likely never will be. It requires real financial, tax, legal, etc. advisors to handle real complexity, while right-sizing it for the stage and size of each particular business.

The truth is that outside of a few large startup ecosystems, there has always been much less uniformity among financing structures. Software engineers – frustrated with their inability to force everyone into uniform documentation that can be automated – have criticized this reality as backward and just needing to “catch up,” but to people on the ground it’s been pretty obvious they’re just hammers screaming at everyone to become a nail. More entrepreneurs are no longer comfortable being pigeon-holed into a one-size-fits-all growth path or legal structure, and long-term that’s a good thing for everyone.