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Ten Biggest Legal Mistakes Tech Start-ups Make

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Ten Biggest Legal Mistakes Tech Start-ups Make

By Karen Holden is Founder of A City Law Firm 

This month my company (A City Law Firm) marked our ten-year anniversary, which has made me think back to our first year, how we started and some of the early mistakes we made. For one thing, within a year of our launch, we had to restructure the entire business and there were so many hurdles we had to overcome – in the early days it really was about survival.

What’s fascinating is many of the mistakes we made back in 2008 are the same mistakes that many tech start-ups make time and time again. I know this because over the past decade we have represented hundreds of tech businesses – from start-ups to big businesses – and I find that time and time again the same issues crop up.

So, what are they? 

  1. Not having a strong shareholders agreement or discussing, formulating and documenting the business plan with co-founders 
Karen Holden

Karen Holden

I intended to found my business with three others, however, I soon realised that our goals and objectives were sadly not aligned; our work ethics were very different and our long-term motivations out of sync. Luckily, I had drafted a very good partnership agreement so managed to break free from what would have been a disastrous relationship. Luckily this enabled me to continue with A City Law Firm with just me at the helm, but not all businesses I have encountered can say the same.

Not only do you have to be careful to choose the right partners, but you need to clearly document your goals in a shareholder’s agreements. This means that as founders you can build upon the platform you have created together, but if it goes wrong you have a means to address the problem not just having to wind up the company. The key is choosing the right partners, talking candidly and asking the tough questions at the beginning. 

  1. Having poor contracts or no contracts hitting your cash flow 

You need to understand your marketplace, your competitors and what you need financially to be able to grow.

Cash is king. Be realistic with budgets and prices and ensure your contracts protect you – not only with clients but with employees, suppliers and contractors. It is fundamental that you closely monitor payment timescales with clients, especially if you are working on large projects. Corporate clients may expect 60 – 90-day payment terms but your sub-contractors will not.

It’s also important you pay yourself a reasonable salary, especially when you are seeking investment, otherwise, if the founder is distracted, the business is not going to progress. Any investor will want to see this factored into any business plans and financial models. 

  1. Not having good staff contracts or options to incentivise them 

A large part of any company’s budget will be put towards recruitment, training and retention of its employees. Despite this, there is a real risk that those key people could walk out of the door leaving you without the requisite skill pool you need, but worse yet, there is a real possibility that they may also take all of their knowledge of your business and pass it to a competitor.

Many businesses focus on many things but staff retention and protection against staff competition is often neglected. This is especially key in the tech world as the opportunities for work are so great. 

From a legal standpoint, it is important to: 

  • Have tight employment, contractor, consultancy and sub-contractor contracts in order to protect your IP and confidentiality. It is also important to have restrictive covenants to avoid staff taking your know-how in terms of clients, IP or staff to a competitor or setting up on their own.
  • Consider EMI options as they can give staff the feeling of being part of the fabric of the business and as you succeed so do they in terms of profit sharing without actual cost in the short term to you. This also can attract more specialist experts to the team where cash is not readily available;

Overall though the key is to find ways to incentivise and look after your team. If you can communicate your vision to the team so that they are working side by side with you, this inspires loyalty and dedication as you are all working from the same plan with the same goal. 

  1. Intellectual Property & the mistake of that handshake deal 

IP ownership can only be granted or transferred (“assigned”) in writing. As such, if your freelance coder or developer has no contract with your business then they could actually own the IP that they have helped design, not you.

If there is a dispute, then they could hold this to ransom causing a costly dispute or loss of your code or design. You need to ensure you have checked these contracts carefully and that you actually have one carefully drafted in your favour. Many tech companies work with friends and often make arrangements based on goodwill, but when a dispute arises without a contract you are at the mercy of the designer.

If you are bringing your designing or coding in-house, then it is especially key to convince an investor you have secured long-term staff and that the IP ownership will effectively transfer to you.

Many businesses fail to check that their proposed company name or branding is free to trademark. This should be carefully checked before a large budget (or large budget relative to the size of your business) is set aside for branding and marketing as otherwise, you may find yourself having to start all over again. 

  1. Rushing to Investment and giving up equity in the company 

I managed to self-finance my business throughout without taking in partners or investors. I did consider these at points along the way and even had offers of mergers and partners coming into the business but having carried out checks into these entities, I often found hidden skeletons and things I was too anxious to continue to explore.

If you are seeking investment, which is often a necessity for tech companies scaling up, it is vital that you carry out your due diligence on what’s available, what the risks are and who the investor actually is.

  •  Do they understand your sector?
  •  Have they got the resources to add more money at a later date if that’s what you need?
  •  Can you approach them if things go wrong?
  •  Do they have competing interests in the marketplace?
  •  What is your exit plan for them?
  •  Have you also explored grants available for tech, innovation offerings, R & D credits and other means of funding?

Many people are often dazzled by the cheque and sign a contract…  but that’s just the start of the journey.

It is important that you consider whether you want to get involved unless you are certain you have aligned goals, exit plan and can handle a crisis together. 

  1. Not being investor ready 

When start-ups do find the right investor, a common pitfall is they are not investor ready because they haven’t got their house in order.

For example, they have not allocated and issued shares correctly. Their articles do not reflect the workings of the company. If an investor picks this up, it can make tech founders look careless and could scare off the investor.

More broadly other things that put investors off include inaccurate statements that have been put in writing… such as:

  •  “This is unique to the market, no one else is doing this”. This is often a bold statement that just isn’t upheld or accurate;
  •  “I don’t need a salary for 1-2 years; I can use 100% investment on the business”; wrong! No one will invest in someone who can’t eat and pay their bills!
  •  “My business is valued at £10 million because it’s going to be worth that in two years when we build our technology”. Can you support that with figures and market research? Be realistic and able to evidence all assertions. 
  1. Not understanding how markets are regulated 

Many businesses, especially those in disruptive markets, need to be regulated or are covered by additional regulations or laws.

Many fintech or ICO companies need to be regulated and choose to risk investment or token raises prior to taking proper advice or considering the proper process exposing you to an FCA investigation.

This is not an issue which only affects those in financial markets but includes among many others those in advertising, legal services/legal tech, recruitment, packaged holidays etc. Knowing your marketplace, sector and taking advice is essential prior to any public offering. 

  1. Not taking experienced advice and creating an ecosystem

Tech developers are necessarily geared to be financial directors or HR managers yet running a business these roles become fundamental.  Not getting good advisors on board early enough is a common mistake. A good lawyer, accountant and tax advisor saves you money and pain at a later stage, especially if they can secure you EIS or another favourable structuring. A good FD helps secure investment and cash flow by managing the budgets and financial forecasts, they also add the commercial know-how into your passionate pitch deck. Downloading templates; googling advice I appreciate happens because of the costs involved, but if you want your business to succeed you need tailored, personal advice and support. I know this is something I have benefited from greatly as I brought in consultants to help me and train me in my areas of weakness. Admitting these gaps in my knowledge and bringing experts in has helped me scale up. 

  1. Not having skin in the game & asking too little 

If you are seeking investment for your tech business, you need to start with securing some capital yourself or through your contacts. This shows investors you have faith in your offering, which then means they are more likely to match. This is something I hear frequently from equity investors, so try friends and family first. Another common mistake is asking for too little which cannot be sustained and then you have to go back to the platform or investor for money which could result in them losing faith in your financial model. You need to forecast and present realistic figures, so you don’t ask for too much or too little. 

  1. Dont let the cat out of the bag 

If you don’t have a signed NDA and if you discuss a potential or pending patent you could lose the rights. Discuss the details of your tech, design or offering in as much detail as you can to secure an investor or client, but where possible secure an NDA to protect your confidential trade secrets or ideas or Patents. They may be hard to enforce, often a concern of many so they don’t bother, but it’s a deterrent; it protects you Patents and it’s a good starting point for an injunction if someone tries to reproduce your tech.

Business

Sunak to raise business tax to pay for COVID-19 support – The Sunday Times

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Sunak to raise business tax to pay for COVID-19 support - The Sunday Times 1

(Reuters) – British finance minister Rishi Sunak is set to increase a tax on business to pay for an extension to COVID-19 support schemes in the budget next month, The Sunday Times reported https://bit.ly/3ujaBcU.

Sunak, in his speech on March 3, will announce he is increasing corporation tax from 19 pence in the pound and will outline a pathway where it rises to 23 pence in the pound by the time of the next general election, the report said. The move will raise an expected 12 billion pounds ($16.8 billion) a year, the report added.

According to the report, at least 1 pence is set to be added to the bill for business from this autumn, at a cost to business of 3 billion pounds, with further rises in subsequent years.

Allies of Sunak clarified he would not increase corporation tax higher than 23%.

These measures will be helpful in paying for an extension to the furlough scheme, VAT cuts and business support loans until at least August.

Unlike the 2010 Conservative-led government, which pursued spending cuts to rebalance the economy after the global financial crisis, Sunak is expected to defer most of the toughest decisions about how to pay for that support in his budget speech.

“The corporation tax hike will be higher than expected and the extension of the support schemes will be longer than most people expect,” the newspaper quoted a source as saying.

Insiders indicated the stamp duty holiday on property purchases would also be extended in line with the other coronavirus support measures, the report said.

Britain’s economy had its biggest slump in 300 years in 2020, when it contracted by 10%, and will shrink by 4% in the first three months of 2021, the Bank of England predicts.

($1 = 0.7136 pounds)

 

(Reporting by Vishal Vivek in Bengaluru; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

 

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Foxconn chairman says expects “limited impact” from chip shortage on clients

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Foxconn chairman says expects "limited impact" from chip shortage on clients 2

TAIPEI (Reuters) – The chairman of Apple Inc supplier Foxconn said on Saturday he expects his company and its clients will face only “limited impact” from a chip shortage that has rattled the global automotive and semiconductor industries.

“Since most of the customers we serve are large customers, they all have proper precautionary planning,” said Liu Young-way, chairman of the manufacturing conglomerate formally known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd

“Therefore, the impact on these large customers is there, but limited,” he told reporters.

Liu said he expected the company to do well in the first half of 2021, “especially as the pandemic is easing and demand is still being sustained.”

The global spread of COVID-19 has increased demand for laptops, gaming consoles, and other electronics. This caused chip manufacturers to reallocate capacity away from the automotive sector, which was expecting a steep downturn.

Now, car manufacturers such as Volkswagen AG, General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co have cut output as chip capacity has shrunk.

Counterpoint Research says the shortage has extended to the smartphone sector, with application processors, display driver chips, and power management chips all facing a crunch.

However, the research firm predicts Apple will face a minimal impact, due to its large size and its suppliers’ tendency to prioritise it. Apple is Foxconn’s largest customer.

Foxconn is looking at other areas for growth, including in electric vehicles (EVs), and Liu said their EV development platform MIH now had 736 partner companies participating.

He expected it would have two or three models to show by the fourth quarter, though did not expect EVs to make an obvious contribution to company earnings until 2023.

Liu also said the company was still looking for semiconductor fab purchase opportunities in Southeast Asia after not winning a bid to take over a stake in Malaysia-based 8-inch foundry house Silterra.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Jeanny Kao; Writing by Josh Horwitz; Editing by William Mallard and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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EU seeks alliance with U.S. on climate change, tech rules

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EU seeks alliance with U.S. on climate change, tech rules 3

By Sabine Siebold and Kate Abnett

BERLIN (Reuters) – Europe and the United States should join forces in the fight against climate change and agree on a new framework for the digital market, limiting the power of big tech companies, European Union chief executive Ursula von der Leyen said.

“I am sure: A shared transatlantic commitment to a net-zero emissions pathway by 2050 would make climate neutrality a new global benchmark,” the president of the European Commission said in a speech at the virtual Munich Security Conference on Friday.

“Together, we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: a set of rules based on our values, human rights and pluralism, inclusion and the protection of privacy.”

The EU has pledged to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, while President Joe Biden has committed the United States to become a “net zero economy” by 2050.

Scientists say the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050 to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial times and avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The hope is that a transatlantic alliance could help persuade large emitters who have yet to commit to this timeline – including China, which is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060, and India.

“The United States is our natural partner for global leadership on climate change,” von der Leyen said.

She called the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol a turning point for the discussion on the impact social media has on democracies.

“Of course, imposing democratic limits on the uncontrolled power of big tech companies alone will not stop political violence,” von der Leyen said. “But it is an important step.”

She was referring to a draft set of rules unveiled in December which aims to rein in tech companies that control troves of data and online platforms relied on by thousands of companies and millions of Europeans for work and social interactions.

They show the European Commission’s frustration with its antitrust cases against the tech giants, notably Alphabet Inc’s Google, which critics say have not addressed the problem.

But they also risk inflaming tensions with Washington, already irked by Brussels’ attempts to tax U.S. tech firms more.

Von der Leyen said Facebook’s decision on a news blackout on Thursday in response to a forthcoming Australian law requiring it and Google to share revenue from news underscored the importance of a global approach to dealing with tech giants.

(Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Robin Emmott and Nick Macfie; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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