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. 

More Tech Startups are LLCs

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 VCs 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. VCs are growing increasingly comfortable with LLCs, and when it makes sense, they will invest in them.

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.

When LLCs Make Sense for Startups

TL;DR Nutshell: In the vast majority of instances, tech startups are best served by starting out as Corporations (C or S-corps, but usually C-Corps) on Day 1, and lawyers suggesting otherwise are usually generalists who lack tech/vc-specific domain expertise to understand why. However, there is a narrow set of circumstances in which LLCs make sense for a startup.

Background Reading:

This post is about the “almost” part of that tweet. But to get there, it’s important to address the “simpler” and “tax efficient” aspects, because those are the two core reasons that I often hear pushed onto founders for why they should be LLCs.

LLCs may be simpler generally, but Tech Startup LLCs with investor capital and equity compensation never are.

Here’s a hypothetical: Imagine you’re an athlete who’s signed up for a football camp held in Boston in the middle of February. Your general knowledge of Boston weather tells you that it is going to be a** cold. You ask a few other people with knowledge of Boston, including me (I went to law school there), and receive confirmation that Boston is a** cold in February. So you show up to the camp with only your winter gear… but it turns out the camp is entirely indoors in a heated facility. Whoops. Should’ve asked someone with true domain-specific knowledge of that camp, not just people with general knowledge. 

That, in a nutshell, is what happens when lawyers and other business people tell tech founders to use LLCs. LLCs are extremely common in the general legal world. For simple operations with one or a small number of owners, they are by far the dominant legal structure, because they usually are simpler. However, for tech startups, who very often (i) use equity as a significant part of their compensation for employees/service providers, and (ii) often raise capital with multiple equity classes, complex preferences/rights, etc., things get extremely complex under an LLC structure, much more so than with corporations. The amount of tax and legal analysis that has to be done to issue equity compensation and/or raise capital in an LLC is (without exaggerating) 10x that of a corporation.

So, if your plan is to raise capital and use equity as a form of compensation for employees and contractors (which is usually a hallmark of a tech startup), do not delude yourself for a second that an LLC will be simpler than a corporation. 

The “Double Tax” issue usually only matters if your startup is a “cash cow.”

Yes, in a general sense LLCs have one layer of tax and C-corps have two. That is another reason why (as stated above), LLCs have become a very dominant legal structure, not just for simple companies but also for many large businesses as well. Again, though, context is key. The “additional layer” of tax that corporations face is on net profits; after accounting for expenses, including salaries. No net profits, no corporate tax. So if a startup is going to be generating substantial profits (taxed once) with the end-goal of distributing those profits to shareholders (taxed again at individual level) as a dividend, the two layers are a problem.

But how many high-growth tech startups do you know that, instead of reinvesting profits for growth, pay profits out as dividends? Not many; certainly not in the first 5-10 years of the company’s life. Most high-growth tech startups deliberately operate at a net loss for a very long period of time, and therefore (i) aren’t worrying about taxes on net profits, and also (ii) are taking advantage of those losses at the corporate level in a way that may not be even use-able on the individual level. This, btw, is also why S-corps are usually not very helpful for tech startups either.

And to add an additional wrinkle: in an acquisition, corporations often have the ability to do tax-deferred stock swaps, whereas LLCs don’t. So, in short, the “LLCs save a lot of taxes” perspective, while generally correct, is usually misapplied to tech startups by people who simply don’t do enough startup/vc work to give sound advice. Yes, VCs often push companies to be C-Corps (read the background articles), but VCs are hardly the only reason why the C-Corp structure is used in tech. 

LLCs therefore make sense for tech startups that:
expect substantial net profits very early on;
(ii) aren’t planning on raising institutional venture capital, and/or
(iii) aren’t planning on using equity to compensate a lot of people.

Lots of net profits early on (rare)? The single layer of tax may be worth it, and even institutional VCs sometimes are willing to accept the complexity of an LLC to take advantage of the tax savings.  Not planning on raising VC money any time soon? Other types of non-tech investors are usually more comfortable with LLCs than VCs are. Not planning on paying your employees with equity? Then you’ll avoid the tax nightmare of issuing LLC equity to dozens/hundreds of people.

Few tech startups fit the above scenario, and that’s why few are LLCs. The classic tech startups that operate (rationally) as LLCs are bootstrapped/self-funded software and app companies with no plans to scale very quickly with outside capital, and large “marketplace” startups for which the actual investment in the technology is minimal relative to the large amount of revenue/profit pushed through the marketplace. For almost everyone else, C-corps are king, and for good reason.

p.s. I am not your tax lawyer, and am not pretending to know the right answer for your specific company. The above is just general knowledge; not legal advice. If you rely exclusively on a blog post to determine your legal structure, without talking to a professional to understand your context, you’ve taken on the risk of screwing it up.