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B the Change You Wish To See: Is a Benefit Corporation Worth It?

8 Oct

benefit corporations

The deeply flawed protagonist of the iconic show Mad Men once remarked, “There is no big lie. The universe is indifferent.” If Don Draper witnessed what precipitated the financial crisis of 2008, he may have conceded the big lie in bewilderment.  We all know how the story goes since – there is public outcry over the home mortgage crisis and the ensuing government bailout, Congress enacts legislation to institutionally reform the financial sector and capital markets, and, one could posit, the universe isn’t so much indifferent as it is self-correcting. Still, while much of the reform may seem cosmetic, imagine a state legislator or civil servant-lawyer in Maryland thinking about the dire state of things and, to make things better, comes up with one novel solution – a private corporation that benefits people and the environment, thereby making people feel good about business. Maryland quickly passes legislation in 2010, the first state in the union to do so, and voila, the benefit corporation is born.

So, what’s the deal? One would think having the word ‘Benefit’ before ‘Corporation’ may provide a garden variety of practical advantages, but a deeper look begs the question: does a Benefit Corporation really live up to its name? To add further confusion, a Benefit Corporation, a legal entity created by state statute, is distinct from a B Corp, which is a classification designation obtained through a strict, rigorous process that inherits a massive amount of ongoing scrutiny.

Come Again? Please Distinguish

Remarkably, the only minimum requirement to become a Benefit Corporation is the motivation to join. Yes, following the standards aligned with a Benefit Corporation are entirely voluntarily. Whereas the certification process to obtain B Corp classification will make any founder go Mad Hatter on his dinner table subjects. Simply put, a B Corp is similar to a non-profit that must focus on the greater public good, but is still taxed as a business.  Please, have a seat with your tea and crumpets, sir, as you are about to receive some alarming news –  there are no tax benefits for a B Corp or a Benefit Corporation over traditionally incorporated companies.

So, no tax benefits, and yet, unlike C Corps or LLCs, B Corps must adhere to the most elevated ethical standards of conducting business, while being subjected to thorough scrutiny of the powers-that-be. To become a B Corp, a company must complete an Impact Assessment.  The company must score a minimum of 80 out of 200 points to qualify. There are 40 different versions of the Impact Assessment depending on your industry, company size, et. al. The criterion is byzantine but, I argue, productive. Does the company have a history of financial disclosure and transparency with its employees? Do the company use renewable energy sources to power its operations, and if so, how much? What social and environmental criteria does the company impose on its vendors and suppliers? Has the company’s explicitly incorporated its commitment to social impact and the environment into its mission statement?

Why Bother Obtaining B Corp Status?

Because it’s good for humanity. And, it embraces moral, ethical and social values that promote the ideals of how business should be conducted.

Many companies that have obtained B Corp status have done so not for any legal or financial advantage, but to join a movement that is socially conscious.  Inviting the rigorous standards of maintaining B Corp status further motivates these founders to continue their social stewardship and not fall off the bandwagon. The world is indeed not indifferent.

 

Sounds Great, But Can I Just Become a Benefit Corporation Instead?

Sure you can.  The uber-cool prescription glasses company Warby Parker is, and here’s why being a Benefit Corporation is a good thing: Quintessentially, a corporation’s first priority and mission is to maximize its profit to the benefit of its shareholders.  A Benefit Corporation however, and by extension its Board of Directors, must consider the social and ethical components of any such decisions.  A great textbook example cited by major business journals is when Unilever acquired Ben and Jerry through a hostile takeover. Ben Jerry initially rejected Unilever’s offer and instead accepted a lesser offer that embraced its socially conscious corporate mission. Unilever sued and won on the grounds that Ben Jerry had a fiduciary obligation to ensure the maximum return to its shareholders.  Ben and Jerry lost control of their own company.  If it had been a Benefit Corporation, Ben and Jerry may have been able to prevent such a takeover.

The Benefit Corporation is a legal creation barely out of its diapers, so before you dismiss it outright, think about how you want to conduct business and what type of company you wish to run – for yourself, your employees, and your stakeholders. An old Nigerian proverb says, “better a single decision maker than a thousand advisors.” Your key decision now may very well determine the direction of your company for years to come, with benefits that is.

Have more questions?  Email Sheheryar Sardar of Sardar Law Firm LLC.

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5 Crucial Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Startup Lawyer

28 Jul

5 questions to ask before hiring a startup lawyer

I’m going to be honest from the get-go: I hold a legal degree, and I’ve spent a long time advising startups after they’ve already gotten themselves into a small (or big) situation. I’ve worked as both a large-firm lawyer and a boutique lawyer. And I think large law firms are great — I just don’t think they happen to be the right choice for every startup.

That said, as an entrepreneur myself, I’m also a big fan of working with service providers that want to grow with your company.

Getting the right legal counsel for your company is like getting a great base for your startup, but you have to know how to pick the lawyer or firm that will best serve your goals. Here are five questions to ask as you embark on your own search:

1. Do they understand your industry?

My biggest gripe with lawyers is that they often don’t understand their clients’ industries. Many firms are excellent with contracts and document preparation, but if they don’t understand the industry your startup lives in, they aren’t going to be the best counsel for you, because they simply won’t know what to look out for.

So test their industry knowledge a little, and make sure they get your business. We’re in the fashion world at Viciare NY, which means we looked for someone who understood everything from international textile buying to copyrights, manufacturing contracts, and e-commerce. If our legal counsel doesn’t know key industry information, they won’t know what to advise you except what you tell them. And in that case, what’s the point?

2. Have they worked with early-stage startups?

Early-stage startups have very different legal needs from mature startups. For early-stage companies, the focus has to be on building a legal infrastructure for the company; for later-stage companies, the focus is often on securities, funding, etc.

If a firm hasn’t worked with early-stage companies, it may not understand what goes into that architecture. I once worked with a startup that had incorporated a C-Corp in Delaware and then registered in New York as a foreign entity – and, as a result, was paying twice the fees and taxes it would have if it had chosen to register in only one state. It just did what its lawyer said to do, without having the lawyer explain exactly why he/she was advising this course of action. The startup folded after two years and paid taxes even without having made any money.

Remember, a lot of firms work with very established clients. Many don’t have the experience of setting up a business from scratch. Look for a lawyer that understands the inception-to-launch process.

3. Which lawyer will actually be working on your matter?

This is critical, because you may get a great presentation by an experienced partner and find out later that the person handling you as a client is a first-year associate who doesn’t understand exactly what your company does.

Those conversations become very annoying, very quickly.

4. What is their fee structure?

Startups want everything for extremely cheap or for free – especially when it comes to service providers (hey, it’s bootstrapping – we get it!).  But when someone starts offering you free legal services, I want you to consider this: What are they getting out of it?

If you can’t find an answer, then there is something wrong with the scenario. Last year, I ran into a startup that was two months away from closing a funding round and was in a panic because its lawyers were now demanding legal fees in excess of $30,000. Until that point, the lawyers had been working on the startup’s matter for a mere $150/hour (a heavily reduced rate). What the startup had not realized was the firm was not bound by any obligation to continue that rate – and exactly when the startup needed lawyers the most, the firm upped the charges.

This is not all that unusual — it’s just rarely discussed. There’s a reason they call us sharks — because lawyers are good at knowing the right time to get what is needed.

So look for legal counsel that is up-front with its fee structure or has a startup legal package.

5. Do you actually like the person you’re talking to?

This is something we all forget to consider: Do we actually like the lawyer we’re hiring? In any hiring decision, personality matters. If you don’t want to talk to your lawyer more than you absolutely have to, they not be the right person to represent and advise your company. Treat your legal counsel like any other hire.

Sardar Law Firm LLC is a startup focused law firm in New York City that has worked with over 60 startups.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN:  http://venturebeat.com/2013/02/09/5-crucial-questions-to-ask-before-hiring-a-startup-lawyer/#duYA5QMpL8KkWwbb.99

Instagram’s New Policy: Yes, it does mean what you think.

19 Dec

You do have the rights to your Instagram photos, but you share the rights to your photos.  That means when someone pays Instagram to use your photos, you can’t do anything about it (like litigate.)

There’s been a lot of talk on the web about two issues related to Instagram’s newest policy updates:

The fact is, both are pretty correct.

instaface-facebook-instagram

Yes, the terms are not that different. But what does that mean exactly?

It means that from the get go, Instagram reserved the right to use your photos in the public space.  Those Instagram users that are not private are aware that almost anyone can access their photos, either through the app or the web version.  That’s the idea behind the “open-web” theme propagating by companies like Instagram and Facebook.  Their concern is not user privacy, and to their credit they never pretend that it was their number one priority.  They are focused on bringing you an open platform to be social and create new social ties; if you are concerned about your privacy on social media sites, you can do one of two things: (1) get off the interwebs; or (2) memorize those privacy settings so you know what to do and not do to keep your data safe.   (Yes, we said all of the interwebs, because even Google tracks your searches in order to give you a better user experience).

While Instagram has always reserved the right to use your personal photos in their own advertising campaigns, what’s got everyone in a tizzy is that the new language seems to indicate that Instagram can now sell your photos to third parties.  That’s where it gets interesting.

Instagram, technically, does have a right to “sell” your photos.

We read this great article yesterday in The Verge that said, No Instagram does not have the right to sell your photos – except that it does.  The article pointed out that companies can’t take a picture of you and slap their logo on it because that goes beyond “displaying” the photo into the world of modifying the photo.

But what advertisers can do is pay Instagram to take user photos and display them on their own site or advertising real estate.  This means, if you take a photo of your baby wearing Baby Gap, then Baby Gap can pay Instagram to use your photo and display it on their site.  They can say something like, “Look at the cute babies wearing Baby Gap!”  There are deeper rules as to whether they can modify that photo (which they can’t), but that’s not enough to make parents feel safe about using Instagram to take pictures of their families.

Here’s the biggest issue: people don’t want their personal photos displayed on a company’s site/ad real estate because, well, people don’t like to be used without getting paid and without consent. In addition, many users post pictures of their families to Instagram –  they don’t quite fancy having their 12-year-old’s picture on a company’s advertising.  This isn’t the generation that sees their picture somewhere and thinks, “Oh my God that’s awesome!”  This is the generation that says, “That’s not okay.”  We’ve had clients file complaints with multinationals based on these scenarios.  It’s not good for anyone, really.

So why the outrage?

The most interesting argument we’ve heard is, “Well you are consenting because you signed up for Instagram.”  Yes, that’s true.  Absolutely.  But people are angry because they either have to agree, or they can’t use the service.  That’s because it’s not a free market contract; you cannot call up Instagram and negotiate your own contract terms with them.  It’s boilerplate and that’s that.

And when you take away a real choice, people get upset.  It happens more often than not with web startups – because it’s a tension between how to make money and how to keep users.

What now?

Instagram has come out and try to do damage control.  They are saying that they will not be selling user photos; but until they release an actual policy stating this, it’s still up in the air and the terms stand where they are.

For us – ours is an office divided.  I, as a litigation attorney, am pretty positive I’ll be deleting my Instagram account.  As for our corporate partner that knows all things tech-startup, he says he will be keeping his account.

By:  
 
Benish Shah
Sardar Law Firm LLC
New York, New York
Core Practice Areas:  Fashion/Retail, E-commerce, Commercial Litigation, Art Law, Startup Law, Social Media, Mergers & Acquisitions, and Corporate & General Counsel
 
Sheheryar T. Sardar, Esq.
Sardar Law Firm LLC
New York, New York
Core Practice Areas:  Technology, Corporate & General Counsel, Startup Law, Project Finance, VC/PE, Arbitration/Mediation, Entertainment, and Human Capital

Granting Equity to Service Providers: What are the types of equity?

21 Aug

By:  Sheheryar T. Sardar, Esq.
Sardar Law Firm LLC
New York, New York
Core Practice Areas:  Technology, Corporate & General Counsel, Startup Law, Project Finance, VC/PE, Arbitration/Mediation, Entertainment, and Human Capital

 

There are 4 types of equity possibilites for C-Corps and S-Corps for purposes of granting equity to service providers.  It’s important for startups to understand the 4 types of equity possibilities in order to make the best decisions on which type to grant, and how much to grant.

(1) Non-Qualified Options  (NQOs)

NQOs are stock options that are not qualified as ISOs under the Internal Revenue Code.  Startups like NQOs because they provide a flexible way to attract and retain both employees and other service providers. For employees/service providers, NQOs represent an opportunity to grow wealth, with tax consequences deferred until the year the option is exercised.

(2) Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) 

ISOs provides unique tax benefits as a stock option, however with significant tax complexity.  It has become popular in the past few years, almost to the level of non-qualified stock options (NQOs). With ISOs, the drawbacks include: (1) you must report taxable income at the time you exercise the option to buy the stock, and (2) the income is treated as compensation, which is then  taxed at a higher rate than long-term capital gains. However, if you hold the stock long enough to satisfy a special holding period, it may be taxed as long-term capital gains instead of simple compensation.

There are also additional restrictions on the issuance of ISOs:

(1) ISOs can only be granted to employees, pursuant to a shareholder approved plan;

(2) ISOs must have a term not greater than 10 years (or 5 in certain circumstances);

(3) ISOs must have an exercise price not less than fair market value (or greater); and

(4) Not more than $100K in value can vest in any one (1) year time period.

There is also the issue of AMT, alternative minimum tax, which is a more complex calculation that you should review with an accountant.

(3) Restricted Stock/Stock Units (RSUs)

With RSUs, the company holds the shares to see if the employee continues working long enough to receive the shares and transfers the shares at that time.

Because the shares are not transferred at the grant date, the employee is not entitled to any dividends from the time the RSU is granted until the shares are transferred.  Also, since there is no actual transfer at the time the shares are granted, the employee cannot convert the future appreciation from compensation income to long-term capital gain.

As for the tax consequences, they are less complex: (1) when the RSU is granted, there is no tax to report; (2)  when the shares are transferred to the employee, the shares become vested and they need to report compensation income equal to the value of the shares at the time of transfer.

(4) Phantom Equity

This is a little known type of equity, but it’s been rumored to be the “next big thing” in employee compensation. Phantom equity pays a future cash bonus equal to the value of a certain number of shares.  Phantom equity provides a cash or stock bonus based on the value of a stated number of shares, to be paid out at the end of a specified period of time.  This can be based on a variety of complex, or intelligently drafted, contractual agreements between the employer and the employee/provider.

Stay tuned for Part II of this article: What type of equity to grant. 

Upcoming Classes:

Crash Course: Creating Your Pitchdeck (August 30, 2012 at SLF Offices) – Register HERE 

What past students have said:

“Great personalized and relevant advice! Made me and my partner see things in a whole new way. ” – Mike Abadi

Fundamentals of a Startup (September 19 & 26  7:30-9:00 pm) – Register HERE

What past students have said about this class:

Benish and Sheheryar provided many useful insights about the startup world and launching a company. I thought I knew the best way to launch before the class, but they helped fill in the gaps in my knowledge about forming a corporation, raising capital, and other various legal considerations. Highly recommended.” – Chris Macke 

“This is a great class to understand the basics of how to establish and grow a startup from the legal/investment perspectiveBenish and Sheheryar are both passionate about the startup world and are able to provide an angle that most entrepreneurs would not naturally consider.” – Ashek Ahmed

Great breakdown of legal advice for a startup– the information was personalized, relatable and clearly presented. My partner and I expected to walk away confused, but we left knowing the right moves for our business.” – Sisi Recht

**This post is NOT intended as tax advice; please see disclaimer**

3 Critical Points for Your Social Media Training

6 Aug

By:  Benish Shah
Sardar Law Firm LLC
New York, New York
Core Practice Areas:  Fashion/Retail, E-commerce, Commercial Litigation, Art Law, Startup Law, Social Media, Mergers & Acquisitions, and Corporate & General Counsel
 

Social media is about interaction, and for growing companies that interaction is critical.  However, both companies and employees make mistakes, whether it be on social media platforms or in some other aspect of their job.  Instead of reacting to that mistake, sometimes (most of the time) it is better to preempt that mistake with a comprehensive social media policy training.  Yes, that’s right – if social media is about interaction, then the policy must have an interactive component too.  Otherwise, how many people do you think really read that 20-30 page, expertly crafted policy book?

Just as we train incoming professionals on how to use the company’s intranet system, it’s time to start training them on social media policies as well.  Here are 3 key things to include in that training:

(1) Pertinent Laws.

It is not enough to say that “employees must abide by all laws and regulations.”  Most individuals entering a new industry have no idea what industry-specific laws may apply to them.  Spend some time hashing out which laws are imperative and directly relate to your industry, and have your social media lawyer lead an interactive training on it.

(2) Personal Social Media Accounts of Employees.

Too often, employees mistakenly make comments on their personal, non-company accounts that can get them fired.  From their personal blog on Islamofacism to their anti equal marriage rant on Twitter.  Many internal human resources departments have felt that these comments on social media platforms can create a “hostile work environment” for co-workers.  This can lead to getting fired.  Because there is a fine line here between freedom of speech and creating a hostile work environment, the training should lay out very clearly what can and cannot get you fired.

(3) Heavily Regulated Industries.

For industries such as finance, law, and medicine, there are a host of laws and regulations that everyone is supposed to know.  Consequently, there are a host of laws and regulations that can be inadvertently violated.  Have your social media lawyer review social media related violations in your industry to lead a social media training with industry-specific examples.  It will help drive the point home faster than that 30 page handbook will.

Interested in setting up a social media training for your company?  Contact: Benish Shah or Sheheryar Sardar at  Sardar Law Firm – sardar@sardarlawfirm.com.

For more information on social media law:

Follow Sardar Law Firm on Twitter @CorpCounselNYC

Follow Social Media Legal Twitter @socialmedia_law 

Are Twitter Followers a “Client List” – and Who Owns the Account?

16 Jul

By:  Sheheryar T. Sardar, Esq.
Sardar Law Firm LLC
New York, New York
Core Practice Areas:  Technology, Corporate & General Counsel, Startup Law, Project Finance, VC/PE, Arbitration/Mediation, Entertainment, and Human Capital
 

When you start tweeting as part of your corporate position, the lines between what is a personal Twitter account and one made for business purposes is blurred – especially in the world of startups, new ventures, and media companies.  What happens when you leave the company?  Who has ownership rights over the Twitter account – the company, or the employee?

Recently, PhoneDog Media LLC sued former employee Noah Kravitz over exactly this.  Noah Kravitz, while employed by PhoneDog, tweeted under the name “Phonedog_Noah” and upon his departure from the company, Kravitz was allegedly given the rights to keep the Twitter account in exchange for occasional tweets about PhoneDog.  However, Kravitz switched his Twitter handle from “PhoneDog_Noah” to “NoahKravitz” while keep the followers and the good will from the initial Twitter handle.

Under the new Twitter handle, Kravitz increased his Twitter followers from 17,000 to 20,000.  Eight months later, PhoneDog sued Kravitz claiming that those Twitter followers were in fact a proprietary client list, claiming damages of $2.50 per month, per follower – totaling to about $340,000.00 USD.

The question, of course, is whether Twitter followers are in fact proprietary or if they can be considered company property.  This leads to the question: who owns a Twitter account?

Many businesses utilize social media to increase brand awareness, and many employees – especially rainmakers – utilize their personal Twitter accounts to help generate business for their employer.  Since Twitter is not a paid service, the lines are blurred as to who owns the account, especially when the Tweets are related to building business in some manner.

Regardless of the outcome of this case, companies should take steps to develop a written Twitter use policy, establishing the use of Twitter handles for company use.

A few questions employers should pose internally regarding Twitter use:

(1)  If an employee tweets during the work day as part of his/her job description, is that Twitter handle now owned by the company?

(2) Was the Twitter handle created by the employee before joining the company, or after joining the company, and for what purpose?

(3) Were any company resources spent/utilized in the creation and/or use of the Twitter handle?

(4) Can employers restrict/monitor what the employee Tweets about?

(5) Was this a personal Twitter handle that the employee was using for business purposes at the request of the company – and if so, how much of that really “belongs” to the company as opposed to the employee?

(6) Is this something that should discussed and incorporated into an agreement at the outset, or upon the separation of the employee from the company?

For employees, the question comes down to this: how to ensure that their Twitter handle is separate from their employment.  Many journalists face this problem, as they do list in their Twitter accounts where they work, and they also post articles they have written.  While their accounts are personal, there is a clear business crossover.  For some, they put a clear disclaimer in their profile that this is not a company account and is personal; for others, the lines are blurred.  It remains to be seen how and if a disclaimer would be valid in these situations.

The main thing to try and avoid is a “he-said-she-said” battle in the court systems; from both the employer and employee sides.

Personal Liability of Corporate Shareholders

11 Jul

By:  Benish Shah
Sardar Law Firm LLC
New York, New York
Core Practice Areas:  Fashion/Retail, E-commerce, Commercial Litigation, Art Law, Startup Law, Social Media, Mergers & Acquisitions, and Corporate & General Counsel
 
 

It’s a little known fact (especially in the startup world) that New York privately held corporations can hold the top 10 shareholders of such corporations personally liable for any unpaid compensation to the corporation’s employees.

The reason for this is that incorporation does not offer absolute protection to the business owners; otherwise the situation would be one of the wild wild west, and the legal profession does not look too fondly on that.  There are sound exceptions to the protections of incorporations, and one of them is that 10 of the largest shareholders of a privately held corporation may be held personally liable for unpaid compensation.

Main Points

Here are 5 key things to note about this exception (found in Section 630(a) of New York Business Corporation Law):

(1) Corporations only.  The law applies only to privately held corporations; this does not include LLCs or investment companies.

(2) All compensation.  Wages and all other types of monetary compensation are within the purview of this exception, including, but not limited to: severance pay, pension or annuity funds, vacation pay, overtime, and/or contributions to insurance or welfare benefits.

(3) Employees, not contractors.  Only employees are covered, not independent contractors (there is a critical distinction here, see also: Employee Misclassification Can Cost You).

(4) Joint and several liability.  There is joint and several liability amongst the shareholders, allowing the employees to go after only one of the shareholders (likely with the deepest pockets) for the whole amount owed.  The shareholder then can seek pro rata contributions from the other largest shareholders.  

(5) Strict procedure.  Employees need to first attempt to recover unpaid compensation from the corporation; if the judgment remains unsatisfied, then they move towards the shareholders. (There is a procedure that employees must follow, including a written notice under Section 630(a)).

Escape Clause?

This rule applies only to companies that were formed in New York, not to corporations formed in other states that do business in New York.  So for corporations that are concerned about this exception, an escape clause may be to form your corporation in another state (such as Delaware that does not have this exception) and then register in New York State as a foreign corporation.

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