Startup Law Pricing: Fixed v. Hourly

TL;DR: There are very natural reasons – inherent in the dynamics of complex, high-end legal services, including for startups – that explain why flexible time-based billing is still the most common pricing structure among law firms specialized in emerging companies (startup) law. And there are very real downsides and limitations to “fixed fee” pricing that founders all need to be aware of.

First-time entrepreneurs, who’ve usually never hired serious lawyers before, understandably get heart burn when thinking about the cost of legal services. The goal of this post is to provide some clarity on how legal billing for startups works in general, and to also bust a few myths circulating around ecosystems on the topic.

First, I strongly suggest reading: Lies About Startup Legal Fees. A few highlights:

  • Long-term, client-facing legal technology does not dramatically cut legal spend for startups.
    • As a legal CTO who regularly tests and adopts new legal tech for our boutique firm, I have a very clear understanding of what technology, including cutting edge machine learning/AI, is capable of accomplishing in high-end, high-complexity legal services. In the very early days, where complexity and cross-client variability is minimal (like formations) tech can and does play a key role in keeping costs down, but in startup law its utility breaks down fast. I am a very early adopter, but one thing I don’t adopt is techno-BS.
    • In the long-term, given the high, often irreversible cost of errors and the significant variability between clients, legal technology plays only a small role in cutting overall spending. This is, at the end of the day, a highly trained human judgment/skill driven business, with targeted technology in the background. Anyone trying to make this area “LegalZoom-y” will eventually crash right into the fundamental realities of the business.
    • While some techies will certainly tell you otherwise, the most “disruptive” developments in law aren’t in adopting software or technology, but in eliminating unproductive overhead, simplifying firm structures, and implementing project and knowledge management more consistently and deeply; enabled by off-the-shelf tech that is hardly earth shattering. These strategies cut the cost of legal by hundreds of dollars an hour, while improving responsiveness and quality; which exactly zero pieces of tech can even get close to doing. See: The Boutique Ecosystem v. BigLaw. Subtractive, not additive, innovation.

Sidenote: there are big market opportunities for AI/ML and other legal tech in serving very large clients with hundreds/thousands of related contracts and transactions, all on top of a single corporate structure. I call this “vertical” legal tech. It’s in “horizontal” legal tech (automation across companies) that much of legal tech’s promise has been overblown. After automating secretary/paralegal work, it hits a hard wall of customization, complexity, and high error cost that renders the most cutting edge technology virtually useless.

  • DIY almost always costs more in the long-run – “Legal Technical Debt” is real. The cost of fixing legal errors compounds over time, and saving $1 today will very often cost you $5-10 in a few months or years, no matter how many blog posts you’ve read or templates you’ve downloaded.
  • Compensation and institutional infrastructure drive legal quality and scalability, which controls costs. – Great lawyers, just like great software developers, expect to be compensated for their talent. Oh, and btw, Law School costs about $200-250k and 3 years of your life. Very large firms and smaller firms can both have high-quality lawyers if they pay them properly, with the real difference being the additional overhead on top of compensation. Larger firms have much higher overhead to pay for infrastructure needed to represent unicorns in very large deals. Boutique firms are lower-overhead, and better designed for “normals.” Solos are best for small businesses.

Second, another Startup Law myth worth busting is the idea that fixing legal fees (as opposed to more flexible hourly billing) “aligns” incentives between entrepreneurs and their lawyers. I touch on this topic a bit in Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law.

It’s become lazily fashionable to criticize the billable hour as the main source of inefficiency in law. But the reluctance in traditional law firms to adopt technology and improve processes is driven, at least among startup-focused firms, far more by the decision-making structure of the firms, and the inertia that creates, than the billable hour. Partners in those firms often have so much control over how their clients are served, that the firm as an institution is incapable of mandating large-scale change. The egos of partners hold back the profession far more than billing structure.

The idea that time-based billing means lawyers are just going to maximize how much they charge clients, and never optimize, is economically ridiculous and ignorant. The lawyer-client relationship is very long-term, and smart entrepreneurs can easily get info in the market if they feel their lawyers are over-charging. Switching to more efficient firms is not that difficult.  Costs in Startup Law have been going down significantly over the past decade, with hourly billing still being the norm.

If you (cynically) think that hourly billing gives your lawyers a strong incentive to over-work, then fixed billing gives your lawyers an even stronger incentive to under-work. By guaranteeing a law firm a price on a transaction, regardless of how long it takes, you’ve tied their ROI to how little time they spend on it; narrowing optionality, delegating to less trained people, and rushing through material issues all become drivers of profitability. In the world of serious legal services, where speed/cheapness are hardly the only concern of clients, and there are very material, difficult-to-detect qualitative variables in service output, the idea that this is “aligning” lawyers with their clients is nonsense. Fixed fees do not align incentives; they reverse them.

Fixing fees, when the circumstances for “fixability” aren’t really in place (more on that below), therefore raises serious quality concerns. In healthcare, a botched job is almost always quickly noticeable to the patient. In law, especially startup law (where the client often isn’t seasoned enough to detect errors/rushed work) big quality issues can, and often do, take years to surface, since they’re tucked away in docs that sit unused until a major event, or the inexperienced founders simply never realize that an option their lawyer could have brought up, wasn’t. This, by the way, is why the most experienced players in any market are always deeply skeptical of new legal service entrants promising low prices, even if they’re early adopters in many other areas. It takes real effort and quality signaling to get them off of reputable legal brands. That reluctance is logical, given the opaque and high stakes nature of the service; very different from most fields.

If your law firm has agreed to a fixed fee, and suddenly you find yourself spending a lot more time interacting with paralegals working off of checklists (instead of lawyers), now you know what “alignment” really means.  Fixed fees are not magical, and they come with very real tradeoffs.

The predominance of the hourly billing model among high-end law firms is, first and foremost, a reflection of the significant variability among client needs and expectations, and the fact that flexible hourly billing is the most effective way to tailor work for each client.

  • Need a reseller agreement? We’ve drafted them for $1.5K, $5K, and over $20K. Unpredictable variables: strategic importance of the deal, dollar value, size of the company, location, who the reseller is, who the reseller’s lawyers are, industry, and a dozen others.
  • I see “seed stage” startups who spend nothing on legal for a full year, some that spend $10K, others $25K, and a few that spend $100K, all due to widely varying needs.
  • I’ve seen “Series A” financings close for $15K, $30K, and over $100K, and everywhere in-between, and all for perfectly logical reasons understood by the client in the context.
  • M&A deals are totally all over the place in terms of time and costs.
  • In short, companies are not like medical patients. Biology and medical science produce very clear “bell curves” that enable things like health insurance pricing and fixed-fee medical procedure costs. There is no underlying DNA/biology constraining variability among companies, and therefore far less rhyme or reason across a legal client base.  The drivers of legal cost variability are far wider, subjective, unpredictable, and randomly distributed, which makes fixed-fee pricing not feasible for many broad-scope firms and clients.
    • Name another field in which, on top of there being significant variability of the working environment (the legal/contract ‘code base’ for each company), there are also subjective drivers of cost on both the client side (your client’s preferences heavily drive time commitment) and also the third-party side (the counterparty/lawyers on the other side can dramatically increase time commitment). The level of structural uncertainty and variability is much higher than healthcare, construction, manufacturing, consulting, and many other industries.
  • Given the above, the only way to make fixed-fee pricing work economically in corporate law is to “tame” this variability, and that “taming” results in downsides that are often unacceptable both to firms and to clients.

So what are the variables that help “tame” client work enough to make fixed fee pricing viable in Startup Law?

A. Very early work – There is a reason that formation documents are the most heavily automated and price-fixed in startup law: the number of unknowns and idiosyncracies are minimized. When a startup has decided on a “standard” VC-track C-Corp structure (which, btw, we see this becoming a less obvious decision for founders – see More Startups are LLCs), there are no outside parties to negotiate with, or other lawyers to deal with. The scope is clear, and the circumstances in which costs could go off the rails are minimized. Most of our clients are incorporated/formed on a fixed fee.

  • Anyone who observes the heavily tech automation / fixed-fee driven nature of startup formations and extrapolates that across the full spectrum of legal work is incredibly naive as to how complexity and client variability increase exponentially immediately after formation; as circumstantial differences start to creep into the legal “code base.” The low hanging fruit for legal automation has been eaten (see Clerky), and people who understand both technology and law are rightfully skeptical re: what even the most advanced, cutting edge AI can really do for high-complexity corporate law for the next decade, outside of very *very* narrow applications.

B. Narrow the scope – Remember the point that fixed fees don’t align incentives, but instead reverse them? Fixed fees make it costless for the client to demand more work. This logically means the law firm has to start drawing hard boundaries over what is acceptable for the client to ask for (inflexibility). We recently started our Alpha Program offering a limited scope of early-stage work on a fixed monthly fee. While there’s definitely been interest, a lot of our best clients opt out simply because they prefer maximal flexibility in terms of what work gets done, and how it gets done. In their mind, the whole point of hiring serious lawyers, just like hiring serious software developers, is to not get boxed into a narrow approach.

C. Narrow the client profile – I know a decent number of firms that have built successful practices on heavy fixed fee utilization. The almost universal way they’ve accomplished this is by dramatically narrowing the type of client they take on. Specific industries, specific geographic locations, specific sizes or growth trajectories, etc. Pick a narrow niche, and own it. If you can make your clients look and act far more alike by limiting the type of client you take on, you can more easily create that healthcare-like “bell curve,” and then start pegging prices. But for many law firms that have a diverse client base with diverse needs – including firms that represent startups with varying industries, growth and funding trajectories, subjective preferences, etc. – this is simply not feasible. I have never seen a firm or lawyer successfully utilize fixed-fees at scale without significantly narrowing their target client profile; the economics otherwise don’t work.

  • Note: I have made the argument many times that part of “BigLaw’s” problem is that it simply does too much, and that the “subtractive innovation” brought about by lean boutiques with more specialized practice areas that can collaborate ad-hoc is a meaningful transformation of the legal market. But virtually every specialized high-end boutique we work with still heavily utilizes time-based billing, for all the reasons described here. For fixed-fees to work, you need far narrower specialization than by practice area; like “small businesses under 40 employees” or on the opposite end “very high-growth SaaS companies raising top-tier traditional venture capital.”
  • The need for very narrow specialization driven by fixed fees will create problems for clients who engage a firm that isn’t a 100% good fit. They will inevitably find themselves pushed to mold their company to the rigid capabilities of the narrow firm, which will feel like putting the cart before the horse. What this means is that the decision to keep many law firms more generalist, with more flexible time-based billing, is for many clients a feature; not a bug. 

Our approach to pricing legal services for our startup clients is the result of sitting down and talking to founders about what their concerns really are. What we’ve found is that, more than fixing prices (with all of the downsides that entails), clients just want to prevent surprises, and to not feel like they overpaid. If something takes longer for very good reasons, it’s OK for it to cost more. If it can be done faster, while fulfilling all the client’s goals, then cost-savings should go to the client. Happy clients generate more work and referrals. When combined with transparency and open dialogue, there’s a symmetry and fairness in this approach that is often much more aligned with the “partnership” nature of the long-term lawyer-client relationship than the inflexible dynamics of buying a hardened product. 

So we’ve implemented a number of processes to accomplish that – including regular (more frequent than monthly) billing reports, transparent budget ranges based on our historical client data, and flexible payment options. We’ve found that these go very far toward helping startups get comfortable with their legal bills, without deluding anyone into thinking that you can somehow universally fix the costs of services that are inherently unpredictable to everyone. Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) as of today is 77.

Tying this all together, entrepreneurs should understand that there are very logical, client-centric reasons for why the billable hour remains the dominant billing model for serious law firms working with diverse clients; notwithstanding what lazy arm-chair commentators say about the billable hour. Law is hardly the only industry that utilizes “cost plus” billing, which is what the billable hour is. Occasionally I run into founders who struggle to grasp this, and then I’ll find that they’ve engaged a software developer as a contractor who, lo and behold, is paid by the hour. Many startup lawyers refer to their job as “coding in Word.”

That developer didn’t go to Stanford to practice cookie-cutter programming, and I didn’t go to Harvard to practice cookie-cutter law.  Fixed fees are not – at all – a magical panacea that suddenly smooths out all the challenges of engaging serious lawyers. To the contrary, they create their own major problems.  Open dialogue between client and law firm will keep costs reasonable, and minimize surprises, without getting stuck with all the downsides of productizing something that fundamentally isn’t a product.

How LLC Startups Raise Money

TL;DR: Very similarly to how “classic” C-Corp startups do, with a few important caveats.

Background Reading:

As I’ve written a few times before, the trend of entrepreneurs (somewhat) mindlessly accepting the advice – that forming their companies and raising investment should always be as standardized as clicking a few buttons – appears to be reversing, at least outside of Silicon Valley. This trend is very much related to all the public stories from experienced founders emphasizing the downsides of following a “standard” path, taking on “standard” VC investment with very high-growth expectations, and how it can cut off a lot of more nuanced/appropriate growth and fundraising strategies. For more on that, see: Not Building a Unicorn. 

As entrepreneurs are spending more time exploring all their options, LLCs are increasingly popping up. I’ve written before about when an LLC may make sense for a startup (C-Corps are still by far the dominant structure). It generally boils down to whether the founder team thinks there’s a possibility that, instead of constantly reinvesting earnings for growth and looking for an exit, they’ll decide to let the business become profitable and distribute dividends to investors. C-Corps are very tax inefficient for those kinds of companies.

So naturally as LLCs become part of the discussion, the next question is how LLC startups can raise investment. Some founders have been incorrectly advised that LLC startups simply don’t raise investment at all. They think that C-Corp = investment, and LLC = run on revenue. That’s far from the case. While true that institutional tech VCs very often won’t invest in LLCs (although that too is changing), the pool of investors interested in early-stage tech companies is much more diverse now than it was even five years ago. Lots of strategic investors, angels, and investors from other industries looking at tech are quite comfortable investing in LLCs, and do so all the time.

LLC startup fundraising looks, at a high level, a lot like C-Corp fundraising.

Capital Interests – Units, Membership Interests, Capital Interests. These are all synonyms for the LLC equivalent of stock. The documentation for these types of investments looks very different from a C-Corp preferred stock financing only because the underlying organizational docs of LLCs are different: you don’t have a “Certificate of Incorporation,” as an example, you have an LLC Operating Agreement.  But the core rights/provisions often end up very similar. A liquidation preference giving the investors a right to get their money back before the common – often see “Common Units” for founders/inside people and “Preferred Units” for investors. Voting provisions re: who gets to elect the Board of Managers (LLC equivalent of a Board of Directors), and other similar rights.

Convertible Notes – These look 95% like C-Corp convertible notes, including with discounts/valuation caps to reward early-stage risk, just drafted a bit more flexibly to account for whether the notes convert into LLC equity or C-Corp equity (if the company decides to become a C-Corp).

SAFEs – Yes, there are LLCs now doing SAFEs, although the SAFE instrument requires tweaking (like convertible notes) to make sense for an LLC. Even for C-Corps, we still see SAFEs being used only in a limited number of cases (again, because we serve companies outside of California, where SAFEs dominate). That’s because they are about as company favorable (and investor unfavorable) as you can get, and many investors balk at what they see as an imbalance. LLC SAFEs are even rarer than C-Corp SAFEs, but they do come up.

LLCs are known for their flexibility, and given that LLC companies tend to be more “cash cow” oriented than C-Corps, even more alternative financing structures are popping up: royalty-based investment is one example, where investors take a % of revenue as a way to earn their return, instead of expecting it in the form of a large exit or dividend. But those are still so uncommon (for now at least) that they’re not worth digging further into.

As I’ve repeated several times before, the big issue with LLCs and fundraising is you absolutely need a tax partner involved. By that, I mean a senior lawyer with deep experience in the tax implications of LLC structures and investment. This is not a “startup lawyer,” but a very different specialty. The flexibility of LLCs brings with it significant tax complexity at the entity and individual holder level, and even the brightest corporate lawyers are not qualified to handle that on their own. 

The majority of emerging tech companies still end up as C-Corps, simply because it still makes sense for the type of business they plan to build. But even with C-Corp land, founders are digging much deeper into how to structure and fundraise for their companies, and pushing back on the suggestion that they should just sign some templates and move on; as if what the templates say (and don’t say) doesn’t really matter.  That may still work for the “billion or bust” high growth mentality of unicorns, but entrepreneurs who feel they’re building something different want flexibility, and to understand the full scope of options.

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

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.

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:
(i)
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.