What’s The Best Corporate Structure For An Early Stage Company?

I got the following question from a reader a week ago.

A project I’m involved with is aiming to go from a team of “4 founders with a great idea and a prototype” to a full fledged online service. I believe that even at an early stage, structuring ourselves to allow for growth/investment is critical. Naturally passion for our core mission, competence, and an ability to connect with the existing team are critical. Yet compensation (with an equity component) is a big part of the equation. I want people to have a sense of ownership and our current back of the envelope structure just isn’t suited at the moment for bringing people onto the team. To avoid reinventing the wheel, is there a “best practices” template for early stage companies with respect to structure/incorporation? What’s the smartest structure for an early stage company?

There are two logical choices (S-Corp or C-Corp) and a third one (LLC) that pops up occasionally.  The best choice depends on the financing path you are ultimately planning on going down.  Rather than define each of them in-depth, I’ve linked to the Wikipedia definitions which are very good.

S-Corp: If you are not going to raise any VC or angel money, an S-Corp is the best structure as it has all the tax benefits / flexibility of a partnership – specifically a single tax structure vs. the potential for double tax structure of a C-Corp – while retaining the liability protection of a C-Corp.

C-Corp: If you are going to raise VC or angel money, a C-Corp is the best (and often required) structure.  In a VC / angel backed company, you’ll almost always end up with multiple classes of stock, which are not permitted in an S-Corp.  Since a VC / angel backed company is expected to lose money for a while (that’s why you are taking the investment in the first place!) the double taxation issues will be deferred for a while, plus it’s unlikely you’ll be distributing money out of a VC / angel backed company when you become profitable.

LLC: Often an LLC (Limited Liability Company) will substitute for an S-Corp (it has similar dynamics) although it’s much harder to effectively grant equity (membership units in the case of an LLC vs. options in an S-Corp or C-Corp – most employees understand and have had experience with options but many don’t understand membership units.)  LLC’s work really well for companies with a limited number of owners; not so well when the ownership starts to be spread among multiple people.

Based on your question, it seems like you’ll ultimately want to raise money in which case a C-Corp is probably best for you.  An established lawyer who does corporate work with early stage / VC backed companies can set this up quickly, easily, and inexpensively for you – they are often the best source for the equivalent of a “best practices template” since this is routine work and requires simple, boilerplate documents and filings.