Posted 17 Jul 2008
Choosing a startup’s legal entity can be a frustrating experience for the entrepreneur. Who has time to deal with the LLC, S-Corp, C-Corp, LP, GP, LLP & LLLP when you’re already buried with things like CSS, RoR, AJAX, PYTHON, PHP & ASP? Thankfully, if your startup is absolutely determined to raise venture capital, there’s only one viable legal entity decision your startup can make–the Corporation.
Does this include S Corporations?
No. While the S Corporation structure is a popular choice for entrepreneurs and other small businesses, it comes with regulatory limitations that do not make it a feasible vehicle for raising venture capital. The three main regulatory limitations are:
- S Corporations may only have one class of stock;
- S Corporation stockholders must be natural persons (except for some extremely limited circumstances); and
- S Corporations can not have more than 100 stockholders.
The one class of stock requirement is fatal to a venture capital investment since venture capital firms will demand preferred stock in return for their investment. Also, most venture capital firms are organized as limited partnerships and less frequently as LLCs–but both legal entity types aren’t “natural persons.” And finally, as your startup grows, the 100 stockholder maximum comes into play once your startup begins issuing stock and stock options to employees.
Thus, the C Corporation will be the only type of corporation viable for a venture capital investment.
Why not an LLC?
While the LLC is also a common startup vehicle, the C Corporation wins hands down when it comes to raising venture capital. The following 4 reasons explain why:
1. Pass Through Entity
While the pass through feature (income/losses are passed down to the shareholders rather than dealt with at the entity level) of LLCs are desirable to most entrepreneurs, venture capital funds do not find pass through taxation to be a similarly desirable feature. The venture capital firm does not want the accounting and tax matters of a funded venture to be passed down to the firm, and thereby be attributed to the venture capital firm’s tax exempt and foreign limited partners. Such a scenario could create unrelated business taxable income (UBTI) issues or have their foreign investors be deemed “doing business” in the United States and thus have to file a U.S. tax return.
The membership interests of an LLC are typically not freely transferable by state statute. This makes the LLC a lousy entity for one of venture capital’s exit strategies: the IPO. (Not that IPOs for venture backed companies are hot at the moment.)
Started in the late 1980s and only made more popular in the last decade or so, LLCs are a relatively new type of legal entity. Thus, there just isn’t a well developed set of laws and regulations for LLCs. Corporations, on the other hand, provide a larger degree of predictability with regards to corporate governance and stockholder rights.
4. The Venture Capital Firm’s Organizational Documents
Primarily due to the reasons outlined above, many venture capital funds will have specific provisions in their own organizational documents that prohibit them from making a venture capital investment in an LLC, or any other legal structure than a C Corporation. Thus, if your startup is absolutely against being a C Corporation, you could be declined by the venture capital firm regardless of how spectacular your startup is.
The C Corporation is a venture capital firm’s clear-cut choice for the type of entity in which to place their investment. When the to-be-venture-funded startup is a C Corporation, various administrative and other burdens are minimized for the venture capital firm, which allows them (and their capital) to focus on developing the startup company’s business.