If You’re Going to “Wing It” as an Entrepreneur

“Yay!!” by Subharnab Majumdar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Plenty of entrepreneurs start out as a person or two, a business idea, and a shoestring budget. They know their craft but have limited or not experience starting or running a business. They don’t know what they don’t know – and that’s what gets them into trouble.

Many entrepreneurs employ the “we’ll learn as we go” approach to operating a business. Often times these are smart people, but if they get too focused on doing their business that they don’t take care of business within their operation, it can lead to costly mistakes: thousands of dollars in legal expenses and painful heartache to try to fix a problem that was completely avoidable.

Real-Life Facepalm Moments
I’ve had countless times where a business owner comes to me for help and I cringe and think, “We could have helped you avoid this if you had come to us sooner.” This is just a sample of my facepalm moments as a lawyer:

KAWS “At This Time” Sculpture by Guilhem Vellut from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

  • Owners who don’t create a business entity: put their personal assets at risk if the business gets sued;
  • LLC with multiple owners and no operating agreement: painful business “divorce” when things didn’t work out between owners;
  • Filing a trademark application with the USPTO that wasn’t trademarkable: the application might have had a chance if the description of the products and services was written more effectively;
  • Not filing a trademark and your competition files a trademark application that’s confusingly similar to or the same as yours: costly to make a claim against them and it may not be successful, which could force you to rebrand even though you were using it first;
  • Flawed customer contracts: doesn’t fully protect the company’s interests or address all likely contingencies;
  • Hiring a third-party contractor without a contract: if the person is hired to create an original work for the company, the company won’t own the copyright in what they hired the person to create and may have to pay to acquire it;
  • Working without a contract: so many problems. Whenever I get a call about a business deal gone bad, my first question is usually, “What does your contract say?” (Ideally, you want to be in a situation where, if the other side doesn’t perform as you agreed you can essentially respond with, “F*ck you, pay me.”)

If You’re Going to “Wing It”
If you are starting a business, my unsolicited advice is “Do your homework.” Invest the time to learn what goes into running your business and figure out what you don’t know. Reach out to established entrepreneurs to ask for their advice and avail yourself to resources in your community. In Arizona, we have dozens of these organizations like Arizona Small Business Association, Local First Arizona, and SCORE.

Even if you don’t think you can afford it, look into hiring a business and intellectual property lawyer for an hour. Bring them your ideas of what you want to do, and ask for their recommendations on how to make it happen. A good lawyer will respect your budget and tell you what you can do yourself and what you should hire a lawyer do for you. They can also recommendations resources to help you based on their experiences helping others.

If I’ve learned one thing as a lawyer it is that it’s easier and cheaper to prevent problems than to fix them.

True Story
Years ago, I worked with a new company where the owners hired me to create their operating agreement. I asked a lot of questions about things like intellectual property rights, compensation, and worst-case scenarios (e.g. disability of an owner) to create custom provisions for this document.

A few years later, the owners realized it wasn’t working out between then and decided to part ways. Their operating agreement dictated how they would address this situation, and they hired us again to revise the agreement to account for the exit of one of the owners. The process was professional, respectful, and cost-effective. I’m sure there were hurt feelings on both sides, but having this operating agreement helped the owners mange them and made for a smooth transition.

If you want more information about the legal dos and don’ts of starting and running a business, you can send me an email (Note: I can’t give advice to non-clients), and I maintain a mailing list where I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Can You Afford to be an Entrepreneur?

Money Unfolding by CreditCafe.com from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

When I decided to launch this law firm, a good friend and fellow entrepreneur/lawyer warned me: “You’re going to need 6 months’ worth of money and 12 months’ worth of patience.” He was right. Fortunately, I had nearly 3 months from deciding to opening my practice until our first day in business, which gave me time to research and formulate my offerings and tap into community and professional resources to get my business off the ground.

Other entrepreneurs aren’t that lucky. They may not have the time and/or money to consult counsel prior to launching a new venture. Even on a condensed time frame or on a shoestring budget, your legal needs should be part of the discussion and plan.

Full-Time Venture Needs Financial Backing
If you want your new venture to be your full-time job, you need to be prepared for the potential financial strain that comes with that undertaking if you don’t have a spouse or other income supporting you in the meantime. You may have the gift of time, but you can only operate your business as long as you have income or savings to cover your bills. I don’t recommend jumping into a new venture without some type of financial safety net.

For entrepreneurs starting with a side hustle, you have the opposite issue. Your regular job can pay your bills while you develop your business, but it limits how many hours you can work. And depending on your circumstances, you job may not provide much money to put towards your business after paying your bills.

Make the Business Fund Itself
While every business needs some seed money to get started, make your business fund itself. When you decide to start a business, make a list of all the services, equipment, and supplies you think your company needs. Then step back and categorize each item as “Must Have” or “Nice To Have.” Ask a trusted colleague or friend to review your list and challenge you on what you need.

Many businesses don’t need much to get started. When I started this firm, I only needed an LLC, client contract templates, computer, scanner/printer, website, email address, phone number, and business cards. I gave myself a limited budget for supplies, bar dues, and to pay for my LLC and my accountant, and after that, I didn’t buy anything for the business until the business could afford it. (Even if my personal account could afford it, I made myself wait until the business could afford it.) It forced me to be scrappy, creative, and thoughtful about how I spend my money. It’s something I recommend to other entrepreneurs, including seeking out low-cost and free options when appropriate.

I regularly receive emails from people who need help with the legal side of starting a business, and some of them claim that they can’t afford an hour of legal services. Sometimes I wonder if these entrepreneurs didn’t do any research into the expected costs of a consult, contract, or trademark when creating their business budget. (When people can’t afford my firm, I’m happy to provide referrals to other options and/or tell them what things they can do themselves – like filing an LLC with the Arizona Corporation Commission. The forms and instructions are online.)

A fellow entrepreneur suggested that these potential clients don’t see value in paying for quality legal services. That sounds plausible. Many new entrepreneurs are focused on their expected success that they don’t want to ponder the what-if scenarios. In many ways, quality contracts and other legal services protect you when things go wrong. You often don’t need to rely on them when things go right.

My recommendation for all new entrepreneurs is to meet with a business accountant and a lawyer to make sure you’re starting out on the right foot, and that you understand the legal implications of your venture. If you have questions about business needs, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Avoid Litigation: Contracts and Timing

Water wheel close-up by Edward Webb from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The most efficient way I’ve seen to avoid problems in a business contract situation is to set up the relationship between the parties in such a way that each side is forced to perform to get what they want from the other side. Just like a water wheel feeds the machine that keeps the wheel turning, the parties should be compelled to give the other side what they need.

Contract = Relationship Management Document
A contract is a merely a document that outlines a relationship between parties – what each side must do, and what they get in return. Every contract should have a dispute resolution provision that outlines how the parties will resolve problems if they occur. In a perfect world, the parties will never need to resort to this clause.

While a good contract will have a thoughtful dispute resolution clause, a great contract will structure the parties’ relationship in such a way that neither side can fathom breaching it.

Structure the Relationship to Feed Everyone’s Needs
When I begin work on a new contract, I ask my client to paint me a word picture of the people involved and the relationship between them. I try to understand not only what each side is giving and getting, but also their motivations.

One of the obvious potential problems in a contract relationship is that one side will perform their part to the benefit of the other, and the other side doesn’t reciprocate as required in the agreement. This may be situation where one side takes your money and runs, or conversely, you do work for your client and they don’t pay you after they’ve received your work product.

The best way to avoid this situation is to set up the work flow so that each side doesn’t get what they want until the other side has done what they promised to do. For many entrepreneurs who are professional creatives, I recommend that they write their contracts to state that the client won’t receive the final product until their bill has been paid. Likewise, for photographers, I recommend that the contract state that the client won’t see the proofs until they’ve paid for their shoot in full.

Please Pay Here by Steven Depolo from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Real Life Example
I recently worked with a graphic designer who is a smart entrepreneur with a brilliant contract. I’m creating my first online course and hired her to create the logo. Per our contract, I paid 50% up front and she got to work. She designed me a brilliant logo that fits the course and my personality. She said she’d send the final files when she received the balance.

That email came at the beginning of a week when I wasn’t home where the company checkbook lives. I told her this and she said she didn’t mind waiting until I could send payment. (Did I mention she’s a friend?) I was happy she held her boundaries to make sure she got paid before she sent the final work product. It’s not that I wouldn’t have paid her, but it was the right thing to do as a business owner.

If you choose not to write your contract with these provisions, you may be in a situation where you have go after the other side for payment or performance, possibly hiring a lawyer to write a demand letter, or taking the other side to court. If it’s a relatively low-dollar amount, you may end up in small claims court where you may get a judgment in your favor, but you still need to collect and the amount of time and energy involved to go through the process may make you question whether it was worth it.

This is why a good business lawyer is an investment for your business. They can see the potential pitfalls in your business and help you avoid them and advocate for your rights when necessary. If you need help with writing a contract that fits the needs of your business, you can contact me directly or a social media lawyer in your community. I post about these issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.