Posted 26 Jan 2010
If you won the lottery today, how many long lost relatives (that you don’t recall) would come out of the shadows of your family tree to test the generosity of their favorite relative? I’m willing to bet a few.
Now if your startup received a $5MM Series A investment from a venture capital firm, how many developers (that you can recall) would come out of the shadows of the internet and claim to be your startup’s long lost founder? The answer to this question depends on how well your startup secures its intellectual property.
You may not consider a developer that worked 1 day on your startup 2 months before you incorporated a “founder.” But if your startup becomes a wild success, the developer will. Even worse, this lost founder will have more leverage now with your startup than if you had acquired his intellectual property at the outset.
Even if you aren’t worried about long lost founders laying claim to your startup’s intellectual property, your potential investors are. The status of your startup’s intellectual property, including whether you have signed agreements with all developers, is typically among the first set of questions your startup will receive from a potential investor. Thus, it’s wise to lock down your startup’s IP early to prevent the lost founder problem.
How to Lock Down the IP
One of the most important aspects of a startup incorporation is the ability to transfer intellectual property ownership from the founders to the startup. Each founder is issued shares in the startup in exchange for the founder’s intellectual property (and usually a small amount cash). In other words, the startup issues shares to the founder as consideration for the founder’s intellectual property and small check. This element of consideration is required for the formation of a valid, binding contract. The exchange is typically handled via a “Technology Assignment Agreement.”
But what about developers who work for the startup that aren’t founders?
Consideration for services rendered should be given to all developers and consultants that work on anything IP-related at your startup. This includes whether the developer or consultant worked prior to your startup’s incorporation or afterwards. Like the incorporation, the intellectual property transfer will be executed pursuant to a Technology Assignment Agreement.
The consideration given to developers and consultants does not have to include your startup’s equity. Consideration can also be cash. But since cash tends to be a scarce resource at startups, such consideration typically takes the form of restricted stock or stock options.
Like the lost-relative problem occurs only upon a winning lottery ticket, the lost-founder problem only occurs if your startup is successful. To avoid lost founders from showing up on your startup’s doorstep, take proactive measures to lock down your startup’s intellectual property.