Category Archives: Austin

When do I “really” need to qualify my Delaware-formed startup in Texas?

So you’ve formed your Texas-based startup in Delaware.  You’ve paid your filing fees, filed your 83(b)s, and, if applicable, paid your lawyer. What’s left? Qualifying as a “foreign” entity to do business in Texas. Think of it as Texas’ way to punish you, via a $750 fee, for not incorporating in the mother land. It’s also the mechanism by which Texas can begin to bill you annually for state franchise taxes.

Link to Qualification Form

Do I really need to pay this?

While the gut reaction of most lawyers is to just make you pay the fee at formation, $750 is a pretty sizable amount of money relative to a formation’s total cost. So the inevitable question is, can I hold off on paying it? Maybe. Registration must occur within 90 days of “transacting business” in Texas under the Texas Business Organizations Code. But what exactly is “transacting business?”

Under TBOC 9.251, these are some activities (the list is non-exclusive) that do not constitute “transacting business,” and hence don’t require registration (shortened for relevance):

  • Holding a meeting of officers or shareholders re: internal affairs of the Company;
  • Maintaining a bank account;
  • Effecting sales through an independent contractor;
  • Transacting business in interstate commerce;
  • Conducting an isolated transaction that’s (i) complete within 30 days, and (ii) not part of a longer series of transactions;
  • Owning real or personal property.

A general rule of thumb is that it’s time to qualify when you have employees in Texas, apart from founders.

What happens if I don’t pay?

Failing to register in Texas at the right time leads to the following:

  • Inability to maintain an action/suit in Texas court;
  • Possible injunction from the state of Texas;
  • Civil penalty equal to fees and state taxes that would’ve been imposed if you’d registered at right time;
  • Late filing fees equal to (i) number of whole and partial calendar years unregistered, multiplied by (ii) $750.

Summary

A. Issuing shares, having a bank account, performing internal corporate activities, selling through independent contractors, and doing one-off short transactions do not require you to qualify in Texas. Doesn’t this sound like a lot of pre-seed startups with one or two founders (no full-time paid employees) coding away on their MVP?

B. If you ever need to maintain/defend a suit in Texas courts, or if for some crazy reason the State of Texas decides to file an injunction, you can just register at that time, and

C. If it turns out you register too late, the penalty is $750 for each year you were unregistered, and any taxes you would’ve had to pay anyway.

I’m not going to make any recommendations here, but I think a lot of founders might read between the lines and choose to delay that $750 check to the State of Texas until either (i) funding is on the horizon, (ii) they’re actually doing deals instead of just building a product, or (iii) it’s otherwise more clear that they’re “transacting business” in Texas.

The Deflation of Startup Law Continues: Clerky

Almost exactly a year go, I wrote a post (The Economic Deflation of Startup Law) in which I (i) documented how the rapid adoption of technology and standardized contract language in early-stage startup law was dramatically deflating the cost of quality (crappy law has always been affordable) legal services available for founders, and (ii) made a few predictions about how this might affect the segment of the legal market that serves early-stage tech entrepreneurs.

Background

  • Contractual Changes – Standardization of contract language within law firms  & the emergence of universally standardized documents like the NVCA model docs, Series AA, and Techstars Docs, to name a few.
  • Technological Changes – Proofing software, Document Automation, Electronic Closing, etc. – reducing the amount of lawyer time required to complete a formation, bridge financing, etc.
  • Operational Changes – Technology and standardization simplify the labor input required to complete a transaction, allowing less trained, less expensive professionals to perform more of the back-end work.
  • Deal Platforms – Technology is moving from being merely a tool within the traditional law firm process to a bilateral platform that allows parties on both sides of a transaction to close, from beginning to end, with significantly less lawyer time required.
  • Freemium Startup Law – Very early-stage legal work (formations, bridge/seed financings, routine forms), once the bread-and-butter of solo lawyers and boutiques serving entrepreneurs, will no longer support those practices, no matter how efficient they try to be.  The margins will be too thin.  Those attorneys able to serve higher-quality, later-stage clients (those that make it to Series B, C, exit) where legal work will remain much more high-touch, high-margin will dominate the market and cross-subsidize their work for premium early-stage clients.  In short, Startup Law will move closer to a freemium model, where standard work is free (or almost-free) and being able to attract “premium” clients is essential for profitability.

The point of this post is not to comment on the accuracy of my predictions. One year is too short a time-frame to judge (we’ll see in 3-4 more years), though I will say that in Austin’s legal market I’ve seen a definite trend of solo and almost-solo lawyers attempting to expand their practices into multi-specialty firms, suggesting their desire (or need) to move up-market. Nationwide, I’ve also encountered a few small firms with much higher-caliber partners/associates, broad networks of specialists, and low-overhead platforms to compete head-on with BigLaw: this is where things will get very interesting.

Deflation 2.0 – Clerky

Instead, I’d like to talk about how the above developments have manifested themselves in the form of a Y-Combinator startup called Clerky. Details:

  • Founders are UPenn and Harvard (represent!) JDs of Orrick pedigree, and the head partner of Orrick’s Emerging Companies Group is an advisor; lest you question the quality of the drafting.
  • Appears to have handled formations for several Y-Combinator classes (note: classes – hundreds of companies) over the past several years; lest you think they haven’t been vetted and won’t get traction.
  • For formations, founders fill out online questionnaires very similar to those used by startup-focused law firms, and documents are automatically populated with the appropriate names, numbers, vesting schedules, etc.
  • There is a “reviewer” option where the founders can designate a person (an attorney) to review the final documents pre-execution to give a thumbs-up.
  • Execution is handled electronically on the platform.
  • Delaware filings and registered agent registrations are handled by Clerky.
  • Final executed documents are stored online.
  • Currently Available: Simple Incorporation (no equity, IP docs, etc.) – $99. Full formation (equity docs with vesting, IP assignment, bylaws, etc. – option plans and indemnification agreements coming soon) – $398.
  • Coming Soon (In Private Beta): Employee Offer Letters, Consulting Agreements, Advisor Agreements, NDAs, Convertible Notes., LLC to C-Corp Conversion

So what exactly has Clerky done? Once they get option plans and indemnification agreements up and running, they will have taken what would cost $5K-10K in legal fees at an inefficient law firm (or $2.5K-$5K at a more efficient one) and reduced it to $398 by going one step past building tools for lawyers to developing a platform that effectively replaces them – or at least ~95% of the work they do for early-stage clients. LegalZoom prices, but for premium, startup-focused documents.

What about free options?

Major law firms have attempted to address the large portion of the founder population for which even $2.5K-$5K is too high a formation price tag by offering documents online for free. I even wrote this post offering my own checklist for forming your own startup and issuing equity, lawyer-free, via publicly available documents.  But $398 is close enough to free that founders in this same category will be willing to pay for peace-of-mind, knowing that their docs are filled-out and filed properly, and that a reputable service is helping them maintain them. Plus it’ll save them hours of having to read the forms themselves.

Curmudgeon Criticism 1: Founders will want more customization than Clerky Offers

Yes, there will always be a segment of the founder population that wants high-touch, custom lawyering from the very beginning and will pay for it; just as there are people for whom Nordstrom or Macy’s isn’t good enough for their clothing and require tailors and boutiques.  But the reality is that for the large swath of the pre-funding founder population (95%+) that just wants to “get the job done” and focus on their product, Clerky, with its 80-90% discount on even the most efficient startup lawyers, will be a viable option. Those lawyers who’ve offered quality startup formations for $2.5K have themselves done so by limiting the amount of customizability and focusing on standard terms, so the difference in terms of documents between what you would get from a lawyer v. from Clerky will be very small.

Curmudgeon Criticism 2 Good lawyers will never accept a third-party service’s drafting language for their own clients.

After an inevitable phase of whining, kicking, and screaming, smart lawyers will accept whatever good clients and the market dictate, or they’ll just leave the space.  As stated above, there will always be clients who are willing to pay a premium for ensuring that all of their lawyering is 100% airtight, but those clients will be fewer and farther between.  And you can certainly expect a chorus of lawyers poking through the Clerky docs with a laundry list of ways their own documents are better. But like many disruptive innovations, it’s about the ratio of quality to cost, not absolute quality. At $398 for documents based on those used by one of the country’s leading tech firms and delivered by a YC company run by Ivy-League JDs, the value for founders is unquestionable. Quality, both in terms of legal drafting and user experience, will also improve over time.

Clerky will allow founders to engage quality, scalable lawyers earlier on.

Clerky’s “reviewer” option and its clear intent to incorporate lawyers in their processes shows that the goal here is not to completely replace lawyers, which would clearly be silly and reckless. The nuances of individual circumstances, the need for sound professional judgment that can’t be reduced to an algorithm, and the general realities of running a company will always require good, human legal counsel.

What a service like Clerky does is allow founders with very low legal budgets to stop having to settle for low-quality, mismatched lawyers who end up costing a whole lot more money (in mistakes) than founders expect. As I wrote in a previous post, a lot of founders know they need a lawyer, but can’t afford a good one, so they take the “staging” approach of going cheap up-front with plans to “upgrade” later. The consequences of this approach can be very expensive, and often disastrous.  Founders need lawyers that can serve them at all stages of development, not just when they’re tiny and the stakes seem low.

With Clerky, the “cost” of hiring a good lawyer at the very early stages of a startup can be the time it takes to quickly review some Clerky docs and answer any questions a founder might have about non-standard matters. For quality startup lawyers who stop pretending that all document drafting, no matter how routine, needs to occur in private silos, this is liberating. They can focus their practices on more complex matters that are far more profitable and interesting from a professional standpoint, while still maintaining relationships with early-stage clients who might one day require their skills. It also means the need for deferring fees will be dramatically reduced.

A missing piece: what do the documents say?

One issue that has gone under-addressed in the startup legal landscape is how to make all these automated legal documents understandable to founders.  While no founder should care to understand all the nuances of their option plan, stock purchase agreements, etc., they should at last be able to grasp at a high-level the concepts that they contain.  And sitting down with a lawyer for every explanation is and always will be too expensive for most founders.

Offering lists of books and links to founders is very helpful.  A “customer support” model of cheaper professionals without JDs who can easily answer common founder questions will also likely emerge.

One startup here in Austin is taking an interesting approach: crowdsourced annotations of contracts (Lawful.ly). They call themselves the “Rapgenius for Law.” Imagine having all of the legal forms that your startup uses available online with annotations, so you can click around the document and get plain-english explanations of what a particular provision means. That’s what they are working on, and hopefully it (or something similar) will fill a gaping hole in the early-stage startup law landscape.

For lawyers who’ve built their practices on charging clients thousands of dollars for basically filling in forms and doing some cutting-and-pasting, the future looks increasingly grim. For those of us who love working with entrepreneurs and tech companies, but find cookie-cutter legal work utterly boring and a waste of our intellect, life is getting a whole lot better.

Form Your Austin Startup Yourself Before Hiring a Cheap Lawyer

Note to reader: Please share this with as many low budget startup founders (particularly in Texas) as you know. Friends don’t let friends waste money on crappy lawyers.

Update: If you’re looking for DIY-ish startup formation options, this is another viable alternative: Clerky

So you’re starting a company with virtually no budget for legal fees, and you just found a guy in Austin who’s willing to help you out on the cheap. He even bills $175/hr and seems to come well-recommended by other entrepreneurs. Awesome, right? For me it is.

It’s difficult to overstate just how often clients end up paying our firm more to close a transaction, sometimes substantially more (think 5-6 figures), because we have to clean up a mess created by some cheap local lawyer with “startup friendly” (read: questionably low) rates.  Garbage sold at a low price is just expensive garbage.  There’s one solo practitioner in particular who’s done work for two people I know, separate companies, and screwed up big time on both of them (2/2).   One ended up closing a VC round at 2-3x the usual fees in order to clean up the disaster he created. Cheap is awesome until real investors hire real lawyers to actually read the documents your cheap lawyer drafted… or failed to draft.

I’ve previously articulated my views about going alone on startup legal issues, including a discussion on the growing number of DIY tools available online.  There are so many multi-specialty legal issues that come into play in forming, growing, and financing a company, that I highly advise against trying to do things yourself, at least if you expect to raise professional venture capital and scale your business. The stakes are simply too high.

But, the reality is that no matter what every lawyer with a blog says, founders will keep trying to form their companies on their own.  Given this reality, here’s my suggestion to all of Austin’s startup founders with zero funds budgeted for legal fees (and who can’t find a decent attorney who will be flexible):  meet Docracy, read this post, and follow everything very carefully.

Lawyerless > Crappy Lawyer

The beauty of quality DIY online resources is that, while they will never provide the level of service that an experienced, quality attorney will provide, they sure as hell are better than relying on a crappy one.  With the right contracts available for free online (via Docracy), the right guidance (via blogs, articles, etc.), and the patience to seriously read the instructions, you can stand a much better chance of not screwing your company up by doing things yourself versus hiring an incompetent attorney, trusting him to do things correctly, and then finding out two years later that he didn’t.

So here’s my free guide for using the power of the internet to form your own Delaware C-Corp based in Texas. If you are forming an LLC instead of a C-Corp, then for the love of all things good and holy, please get a competent lawyer.  And again, let me reiterate: I do not think you should try to form your startup on your own. My desire here is to simply provide a helmet and a flashlight for those who are going to do it anyway, so that if they are ever able to afford a real attorney and raise serious funding, their legal history won’t be a complete nightmare.  You will screw some things up, but hopefully the clean-up costs will be much smaller than those caused by Austin’s crappiest lawyers.

DIY Startup Formation – Powered by Docracy, Orrick, and “the Internets”

Background Reading:

Requisite Formation Docs:

Steps (Order is important)

  1. Read all of the Background Reading – very very carefully.
  2. Figure out your Founder Common Stock distribution and Vesting details
  3. Execute and File the Charter in Delaware
  4. Execute the Action by Incorporator
  5. Execute the Board Consent (Make sure you designate at least a CEO and Secretary)
  6. Execute the Common Stock Purchase Agreements for each Founder, including all exhibits. – Set
  7. File your 83(b) Election immediately
  8. Fill out Common Stock Certificates
  9. Execute the Stockholder Consent
  10. Have the Secretary execute the Bylaws
  11. Did you file your 83(b) election yet? (30 days within Stock Issuance, or your toast)
  12. Apply for an EIN at the IRS Website
  13. Have officers and directors execute Indemnification Agreements
  14. Have all founders execute a Confidential Information and Inventions Assignment Agreement
  15. Register as a Foreign Entity in Texas.
  16. Keep digital copies of everything in a safe place.

Useful Forms to Possibly Use Later:

The above does not cover granting options to employees via a formal option plan, because, frankly, by the time you are granting equity to non-founders you’re insane for not having hired a lawyer – and the legal issues around options are complicated – real complicated.

Disclaimer: As I said before, you will screw some things up. And yes, trying this yourself is silly and irrational – much like a lot of things entrepreneurs tend to do.  The above steps and documents might not even be the right ones for your startup’s context.  I did not draft the above-referenced documents, nor do I vouch for their legal enforceability. You absolutely should hire a lawyer before trying to form your startup. But, putting all that side, if you read carefully and follow the above instructions, you will be probably be on better legal footing than 99% of the startups formed by terrible lawyers.

Should I form my Austin startup in Texas or Delaware?

Note: The DE-related info in this post is really applicable to startups based in any state, but I’m speaking mostly to Texas entrepreneurs, particularly in Austin, in writing this.  Because of the depth of startup activity in California, which might translate to more sophisticated case and statutory law, forming a non-DE startup there might make more sense than it would in Texas.

The default incorporation state in forming a company is always the state in which the company operates, but there are several reasons why an Austin/Texas startup might consider DE instead:

  • Well-Established, Sophisticated Statutory and Case Law – Because DE is the legal home of, by far, the largest number of large corporations in the country, you’ll find the least amount of ambiguity in DE as far as corporate governance practices, contractual interpretation, etc. are concerned.  And DE Chancery judges are by far the most knowledgeable in complex business matters of any judges in the country.  Virtually every corporate lawyer in the country who operates a serious practice will be familiar with DE law, so if you call him/her up with a random question about whether a certain transaction is kosher, or how a particular provision would be enforced in court, you’re 10x more likely to get a quick answer if you’re a DE corporation.  For a Texas entity, the answer will often be “I’m not sure,” which leads to “Let me research that for you,” and that research won’t be pro-bono.
  • Sophisticated Investors will expect Delaware – Because of the above, institutional venture capital firms that manage large funds will (very) often refuse to invest in a Texas startup that isn’t a Delaware corporation.  Angel investors are more likely to be OK with Texas, but we’ve encountered a fair amount of professional angels who either insist on DE before making their investments, or at least expect a conversion to a DE entity before the Company’s first venture capital equity round.
  • Protective of Officers and Directors – Delaware courts have a history of deferring to the business judgment of the officers and directors of a Company, meaning that without evidence of gross self-dealing or negligence, they’re unlikely to use hindsight to second-guess business decisions. This makes finding reputable executives and directors easier, for obvious reasons.
  • Response Time – Ever needed to close that bridge financing in the next 2 hours in order to make payroll? I’ve seen it plenty of times, but surely that would never be your company. Ever. Well, just in case, DE has an amazingly well-greased system for filing legal documents.  For extra fees, you can get guaranteed 24-hour, 2-hour, and even 1-hour response times. Suriname should really consult with the Delaware Secretary of State to up its game.
  • Converting Later is More Expensive – When you’re starting out fresh, there are no contracts to review, consents to get signed, etc. You just form the Company where you want to form it. But as time progresses, and you get shareholders, sign contracts, hire employees, etc., the amount of diligence involved in ensuring that you can convert to a DE entity grows exponentially. Pay now, or pay more later.

The Downsides to DE:

  • Fees (Cost): This is really the only reason why a Texas startup that intends to eventually raise professional venture capital will consider not incorporating in DE.  By forming a DE entity that operates in Texas, you’ll have to file a form to qualify to do business in Texas as a “foreign” (non-Texas) entity. This costs about $750. You’ll also need to maintain a “registered agent” in DE, which will run you about $125 a year. Finally, you’ll have to pay franchise taxes in both DE and TX, although the added cost until your startup becomes profitable is likely to only be a few hundred dollars a year.

So the decision to incorporate in TX or DE really boils down to two questions:

Do you ever intend to raise professional venture capital?

If not, then unless you just find Delaware’s sophisticated business-friendly environment really appealing, you’re probably well-served by sticking with a Texas entity.  A lot, if not most, startups will fall into this category. Save your money and use it to build a great product.

If you do intend to raise professional venture capital, are you willing to incur the additional cost of forming a DE entity?

At formation, the up-front cost differential between a DE v. a Texas entity is likely to be about $1,000, with a few hundred extra a year for registered agent services and franchise taxes.  As time progresses, the cost of converting to DE will increase in terms of legal diligence and logistics as you execute contracts, pick up shareholders, etc. While numbers obviously vary, you can probably expect about $5K-10K in fees in converting your TX entity to DE pre-Series A.

Most of our clients bite the bullet and pay the extra ~$1K to form in DE from the beginning. That’s because (1) we don’t really serve startups that don’t intend to raise professional capital, because they don’t need us, and (2) it sends a signal from the beginning that the Company intends to operate in the big leagues. Still, a handful take the approach that 5-10x in fees is fine down the road if, at least at that point, they’ve found investors or a good revenue stream to help pay the costs.  I generally say that, if you’re really that worried about losing $1,000 in a startup that you seriously think will pursue venture capital, perhaps you should reconsider entrepreneurship altogether.  But it’s ultimately a personal judgment call.

The Series A Rush?

The zeitgeist among the technocenti seems to be that, after Facebook’s IPO flop and the resulting lull in tech IPOs, companies seeking funding should stop shopping around for higher valuations and just grab what’s on the table, because “winter” is coming.  I’m not sure how much of that sentiment has filtered into Austin, and booms and busts in funding cycles tend to be more moderate here than in California – but truth be told, I’m flooded with Series A work at the moment.

Good for Austin, good for those companies, and good for our pipeline as a firm. Also happy to see a lot of professional VC and Angel money on those deals, which bodes well for those companies if startup winter does in fact come.