How to Start a Distillery in Ontario

Here’s an article that’s been a long time coming. On top of my law practice, I’m also a founder of Last Straw Distillery, an award-winning micro-distillery near Toronto, Ontario. I started out as the company’s lawyer, and as with any small business, that role has slowly expanded to a litany of other tasks…. But the lawyer role remains central. I’ve also helped several other alcohol producers through the business startup and licensing process, so the contents of this article are hard-won knowledge. It’s a long read, but it’s a no bullshit assessment of the challenges you’ll face in getting your distillery off the ground.

The first thing you need to know about distilling is that it’s heavily regulated. The laws on spirits are even more dense and difficult to navigate than the regulations on beer or wine. This is, of course, because in the inestimable wisdom of successive governments since the end of prohibition, spirits are evil. For some strange reason (probably at the behest of the beer lobby), some Scottish Presbyterian politician in Ontario decided that the ethyl alcohol in hard liquor should be treated differently than the ethyl alcohol in wine and beer.

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Much like we’re seeing right now with the legalization of marijuana in Ontario, the laws are written by and for established, well-connected, well-funded big businesses. The time, expense, and expensive advice involved in navigating the system are designed to limit competition. For spirits, the government at the end of prohibition wrote the rules in a way that would make it difficult and expensive to start and run a distillery, and impossible to start on a small scale. As a result, Ontario had only a handful of big distilleries for nearly 80 years. It’s only recently that a few dedicated masochists set out to buck the trend. Through their dedicated efforts, some of the barriers to entry were lowered (slightly), and the Ontario distilling renaissance began.

I’m writing this article as an overview of the major steps involved in starting a distillery in Ontario, Canada. I imagine that most of the steps are mirrored in many other jurisdictions, but the nuances of the regulations will differ. As with any business, you certainly don’t need a lawyer to help you get it started, but a good lawyer will reduce the time from startup to sale, and deal with a lot of the headaches that can come from dealing with five or six different government departments at once.

Let’s get started.

Division of Powers

Booze has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few market sectors that is regulated by Federal, Provincial, and municipal governments. Technically, municipal governments are a subset of the Province, but practically speaking, it’s another layer you’ll have to deal with.

The Federal government’s primary concern with alcohol regulation is tax. As a luxury item, spirits are subject to Federal tax under the Excise Act. This tax accrues from the moment a drop of alcohol is manufactured, but only becomes payable when the alcohol is sold. More on this later. The Federal government also regulates the production, and labeling of spirits through the Food and Drugs Act and its Regulations, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Regulations, and the Spirit Drinks Trade Act. Oh, and if you’re thinking about selling your products internationally, the Federal government also regulates and licenses cross-border trade, where a different set of taxes and fees apply, on top of those imposed by the jurisdiction you’re exporting to.

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If that bundle of joy isn’t enough for you, the control of liquor is the responsibility of the Province. The Ontario government has created the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) to control the production and sale of spirits in Ontario. The AGCO then created the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), which has an absolute monopoly on spirits sales in Ontario. The AGCO implements government policy on spirits through the Alcohol and Gaming Regulation and Public Protection Act, the Liquor Control Act, and the Liquor License Act. As a manufacturing business, you’re also subject to the rules of the Electrical Safety Authority under the Electricity Act, as well as Ontario’s Building Code and Fire Code.

Lastly, as with any business, spirits producers are subject to the planning and zoning regulations of the municipality you’re in. In some municipalities, there’s a double layer of government – at the regional and town level.

Perhaps the worst part of working through the byzantine maze of regulations are the odd ways in which they interact. As I mentioned, the system was not developed with ease of navigation in mind, and there’s no clear, direct path through them. It’s common for applications to be caught in a Catch-22 of two levels of government refusing to process your application any further without the approval of the other coming first. In my experience, different offices of the same government branch interpret the exact same rules differently (and sometimes incorrectly), and impose different requirements. It takes time and patience to work through these things. Budget at least six months, or more realistically one year to work your way through this stuff. When I say budget, I mean both time and money – as you’ll be spending money on rent for a space you’re not allowed to use while your applications are in progress.

Now that you’re scared, let’s walk you through what it takes to get from idea to open for business.

Form of business

Distilleries can be any form of business, but if you don’t incorporate it, you’re a dumbass. When setting up your corporate structure, two factors will be relevant to the government:

  • Who controls the corporation; and
  • Who are directors, officers, or holders of at least 10% of any class of shares

Control comes into play in two ways. First, the government wants to know if the applicant is controlled by a company that is already licensed to produce spirits. Each distillery with a Provincial license is allowed one bottle shop at its distillery. An existing manufacturer can invest in starting another distillery, but special permission is required to open a bottle shop at the second distillery. Once you have that special permission, you can sell some products from the first distillery at the second one, but not the other way around. Weird, right?

Secondly, and most importantly, the government wants to know who are directors and officers of the business, and who owns 10% or more of any class of shares of the corporation. Because spirits are evil, the government wants to make sure that the people who own and operate distilleries are at least 19 years old, financially responsible, and of good character. If you own your shares through a holding company, you have to disclose the ownership and management of that holding company, and so on.

In my experience, simplicity in the way you structure the business helps a great deal. The folks reviewing your applications at the CRA and AGCO are not lawyers, and don’t understand the finer points of business ownership. If they see something they don’t understand, they’ll flag it, and get legal advice before proceeding. This, of course, takes time. The more complicated your ownership structure, the longer your application will take.

Zoning & Planning

This is probably the biggest, and most unexpected pain in the ass of the whole process, and where your lawyer will earn their keep. It is absolutely essential that you choose a location that will allow your business model to operate. Because distilleries are still relatively rare when compared to breweries and wineries, most municipalities don’t know how to deal with you. When in doubt, town planners and town councils will err on the side of what will get the municipality the most revenue in development fees. If you ask the municipality whether or not a distillery is allowed, you’ll probably end up paying to play. The only thing you actually need the municipality to do is to sign off on your bottle shop. Some municipalities may require a business license before you can set up shop, but most don’t.

Once you know where you want to start your distillery, and before you start searching for properties, get your lawyer to review that municipality’s planning and zoning bylaws, and provide an opinion. The lawyer’s opinion should tell you what zoning in that municipality allows a distillery to operate. The lawyer will also tell you if a variance or zoning change is required in order to operate. Also, believe it or not, some municipalities still have “dry” (no alcohol allowed) or “damp” (retail sales allowed, but not by the glass) neighbourhoods. The status of the neighbourhood may not prevent you from manufacturing, but it can prevent you from selling through a bottle shop, or an on-site bar. Both the CRA and AGCO will consider whether you’re contravening municipal bylaws, and whether your premises comply with the CRA and AGCO’s regulations. The lawyer’s opinion is super valuable in demonstrating that you’ve ticked all of the boxes.

Lastly, before you sign your lease or buy the property, take a good long look at what’s in the area. If any schools, churches, parks or playgrounds, community centres, or libraries are within a one kilometre radius, you may not be allowed to open a bottle shop or on-site bar.

Building/Fire Code

Once you have a location, you have to build it out. Obviously, all of your construction work must be done in accordance with the Ontario Building Code. Make sure that whoever is doing the work knows and complies with that code. Generally, Building and Fire Codes are dictated by the Province, but enforced by the municipality. Fire inspectors can enter anywhere, at any time, and can shut you down on the spot if you’re not in compliance, so don’t cut corners here.

Distilleries in Ontario are considered “High Hazard Industrial Occupancy” under the Fire Code. That means the building can’t also be used for public assemblies, residences, care facilities like hospitals or clinics, or for detention. If the occupancy load of the building is to be more than 25 people, the building requires emergency planning under the Fire Code. The Fire Code rating (F1) triggers specific requirements in the Building Code for fire-resistant barriers and insulation, emergency exits, and the like. It also triggers requirements in the Electrical Act, requiring the sign-off of an Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) inspector.

ESA sign-off is another odd bird. For all the distilleries I’ve helped through the process, I’ve never seen the same standard applied twice. Each inspector seems to interpret the requirements differently. The inspector’s requirements will play into your build-out – ventilation, type of wiring and electrical fixtures, signs, fire suppression systems, and even separating equipment in different fire-resistant rooms, for example. Find an inspector, and get their direction before you start building. Pass that direction on to the person doing the build out work, and make sure they build to that standard.

Lastly, if you’re looking to open an on-site bar, you’ll need the sign off of the Fire Department. Exits, fire suppression, and signage are all things they’ll look at.

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Federal Licensing

Once you’ve got an appropriate space locked down, you can then apply for your Federal licenses. The licenses are tied to the location. You have to occupy/possess the premises before your application will be processed. This means you’re paying rent on a space you can’t use while your applications are being processed – as long as 18 months in some cases.

The Canada Revenue Agency administers the licensing of distilleries under the Excise Tax Act. The licenses are issued for a two year period, and must be renewed. At the time of writing, there are no fees for the federal licenses. There are three key licenses – all of which can be applied for on the same form – which will cover off most things distilleries want to do.

Spirits License

The spirits license is the main one. It’s what permits you to produce or package spirits (beverage alcohol that isn’t wine, and is over 11.9% alcohol – otherwise it’s beer) in Canada, and to possess a still. If you’ve applied for a spirits license, you can possess a still, but can’t operate it. Home distilling is illegal. Without this one, you’re a bootlegger, not a distiller – and you won’t be able to secure any Provincial licenses either.

Excise Warehouse License

If you’re going to be storing spirits – whether in bulk, aging in barrels, or sitting in bottles waiting to be sold – you’ll also need an Excise Warehouse License. This delays the payment of Excise Tax on the spirits until they’re removed from the warehouse.

You will need to post security for the Excise Tax. The amount of security depends primarily on how many litres of absolute alcohol you plan to store in your warehouse. The CRA wants to make sure that even if you go bankrupt, you can still pay your Excise Tax. The minimum is said to be $5,000.00, however the lowest requirement I’ve seen is $10,000.00, and that’s for small distilleries dealing in white spirits – meaning they’re not aging large quantities. If you’re making whisky, rum, brandy, and other aged spirits, plan on posting way more. Security is typically posted by bond (insurance), though you can post negotiable instruments (cash, Canada Savings Bonds, etc) as security as well.

User’s License

The user’s license allows you to transfer bulk alcohol between booze producers of a different type. If you’re planning on buying in bulk alcohol to distill, age, modify, or repackage, you’ll probably need this. I say probably, because different CRA personnel apply the policy differently. You definitely need a user’s license to transfer bulk beer or wine from licensees. You might need a user’s license to buy bulk spirits – such as a neutral grain, or aged whisky for blending. Regardless of what your CRA agent says, some producers won’t transfer bulk spirits to you without seeing your user’s license, so it’s usually a good idea to get this license just in case.

Application

The application process takes anywhere from 3-18 months, depending on your agent, how prepared you are, if there are any issues with the application or the people involved in your business, and how busy the agents are. There are a few parts to the application:

  • L63E license application form
    • This includes details on directors and officers of the business, and will result in a background check on both criminal and financial sides
  • Business plan including:
    • Business industry overview;
    • Operating plan;
    • Human resources plan;
    • Financial plan or sources of funds;
    • Sale and marketing plan;

Your business plan must include 3 year projections of the litres of absolute alcohol you expect to produce, and the amount of what you produce that will be stored in bulk for aging, compared to what you expect to sell. This is what the CRA will use to calculate your security requirements.

You’ll also need to figure out how you’ll post security for the excise. Most distilleries will buy a bond, rather than posting the cash themselves. It’s a monthly expense, but your capital will be more useful elsewhere. The CRA will require the sealed original bond.

Once you’ve submitted the application, the CRA will get in touch with you pretty quickly to start the process. They’ll schedule a site visit, so they can inspect your facility to ensure it’s suitable (they’re primarily concerned with physical security – if someone steals your spirits, they’re stealing tax dollars too!). You don’t have to be fully built out by this point, but you must at least have the premises and a floor plan.

They’ll also confirm that you’ve ordered your still and instruments for measuring alcohol content. Your instruments must be inspected/calibrated by the CRA to ensure they’re accurate, which involves a fee. They may conduct a second site inspection before granting the license.

Once the license is approved, you’re finally able to produce spirits! Crank that still up, and get to work!

Provincial Licensing

Bet you thought the hard part was over. Well, it’s not. While the CRA licenses will allow you to produce and store alcohol, if you want to sell it in Ontario, you’ll need another set of licenses and authorizations from the Provincial government, which are administered by the AGCO.

The Provincial Manufacturer’s License is what allows you to sell spirits in Ontario. It takes about 1-3 months to process, if all goes smoothly, and costs $2,540.00 for 2 years, or $5,040 for 4 years at the time of writing. The application requires:

  • Completed application form
  • Business plan – generally the same one that you used for your CRA license will do, plus:
    • Floor plans for your facility
    • Details on planned sales channels
    • If you’ll be buying in mash, low wines, or bulk spirits from other producers
  • Municipal authorization form
  • Copy of CRA Spirits License
  • Lab test results on at least one product
  • Copy of business name registration
  • Application fee (non-refundable)

The AGCO will schedule a site inspection of your facility. As with the CRA, different agents will focus on different things, and sometimes the agent will waive the site inspection altogether.

Bottle Shop

If you want to operate a retail store on site, then you’ll need a retail store authorization from the AGCO. The AGCO delegates the administration of this to the LCBO. There’s no fee for the application, but you must include:

  • Municipal Information for a Retail Store Authorization form
  • Site plan detailing the production site and the proposed retail store location
  • Floor plan of the proposed retail store including square footage
  • If ownership and control of the production site is shared with any other licensed manufacturer – supplementary documentation demonstrating substantial ownership and control of the production site
  • A copy of each notification letter (if applicable) sent to any place of religious assembly, schools, public parks and playgrounds, community centers or libraries within 1 km of your proposed store location and copies of any responses/objections

If your bottle shop is approved, then you’ll need to sign a non-negotiable contract with the LCBO about how the bottle shop will be operated, and how you’ll pay the Spirits Tax. One of the most time-consuming parts of this contract is waiting for the LCBO to sign it – as only the President of the LCBO signs them, and does so about once a month. Schedule your grand opening accordingly!

Direct Delivery

If you want to deliver directly to bars & restaurants or to duty free shops, you’ll need separate direct delivery authorizations for each. The process is much the same as for a bottle shop, and results in another contract.

There are also separate licenses to sell spirits by the glass, and to operate an on-site bar or restaurant of your own, but we’ll save those for a future article.

Summary

As you can tell, it’s an awfully long and tedious process to get a distillery from the idea stage into operations. The typical timeline is 6-18 months, based largely on factors outside of your control. In my experience, each agent of a regulator that gets its hands on your application views the requirements differently, so there’s often a fair bit of back and forth involved.

TL;DR? Here’s Mikes’ 9 “Simple” Steps to Starting a Distillery in Ontario

  1. Incorporate
  2. Lawyer’s opinion on zoning/planning
  3. Sign lease
  4. Submit CRA license application
  5. Hire ESA inspector, get requirements for buildout
  6. Build
  7. Get CRA licenses, get municipal authorization
  8. Apply for AGCO licenses & authorizations
  9. Profit

Of course, having someone to turn to who’s been through the process before can help to grease the wheels. I’ve helped several distilleries through the startup process, and I’d be happy to help yours too. Drop me an email, and let’s talk!

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca

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Beware the Entrepreneurship Industry

This may be a controversial post. You’ve been warned. This post is from my point of view as an advisor to small business. I realize that I occupy a place in the “industry” landscape, and that like the bigger wheels in the machine, I too turn a profit from providing services to small business. As a lawyer, however, I have a duty of loyalty to my clients – called a fiduciary duty. It isn’t optional, it’s the law. This means a bunch of things – to be competent and diligent in my work, to act in my clients’ best interest, honesty, and to keep your information confidential. Most of the other people you’ll come in contact with in the business world don’t have such a duty – and therein lies the risk that we call “doing business.”

I’ll get to the point.

I’ve noticed a trend towards the industrialization of entrepreneurship these days, and the more I think about it, the less comfortable I am with it. When I say “industry”, I’m talking about making labour systematic. The same business model that created the assembly line to make business more “economically efficient” is now being applied to entrepreneurship. There’s big money to be made. Investors and big business have realized that in many cases it’s more economically efficient to buy innovation than to innovate.

But how do you groom small, innovative businesses into ones that will slip neatly into the world of big business, and global financial markets as they grow? The answer is to industrialize entrepreneurship. As this system gains momentum, there’s an explosion of organizations which provide ready-made solutions to most of your small business needs.

Most of these organizations exist to make money….

… off of you…

… and none of them owe you a duty of loyalty.

I’m not saying that these organizations are out to get you. There are plenty of amazing collaborators out there. All I’m saying is that a healthy dose of caution, and an unhealthy dose research before getting into bed with them is in order. Any time you give up equity (shares) in your company it’s like taking on a business partner. They invest time, money, and resources in making your company grow. With the money comes the expectation of profit. You, as the one with the business or idea, will want to be assured that your partners will pull their weight, and that you’ll have a way out if they don’t. In return, there are some pretty thick strings attached to the investment. They’re gamblers in a way. Gamblers with a much bigger stack than you, more experience in these kinds of deals, and an uncanny ability to lawyer plucky little startups into the ground if they feel wronged. Choosing the wrong horse to hitch your wagon to could cost you your business.

In this article, I’ll talk about two of the big growth sectors in the entrepreneurship industry – high risk investors, and growth programs. I’ll deal with high risk investors first – angel investors and venture capital. Then I’ll move on to the growth programs – incubators and accelerators.

High Risk Investors

The starting point to understanding high risk investors is to understand the basic business proposition from the investor’s point of view. Angel investors, and to a greater extent, venture capital, are betting on the success of your business. In return, they demand returns commensurate with that level of risk. Particularly for VC, they may invest in ten companies, and only get a return on one – meaning the one that hits, they’ve got to make all the money back that they invested in all ten, plus a healthy profit margin – otherwise they’ll be out of business. That means they’re going to do almost everything in their power to make sure that they get their money back. This includes attaching strict, investor-friendly terms to the financing. This also includes using their networks and contacts to spur growth. They’re putting a lot of eggs in your basket, and approach the deal accordingly.

Angels

An angel investor is a wealthy person or group of investors who are willing to pony up startup capital for businesses that they think will succeed. Some angels specialize in raw startups, while others are only interested in companies that have already reached a certain critical mass. While the term “angel” might make them seem benevolent, they’re planning on making money off of your work. Their investment buys a part of your company – between 10-50% typically – and often gives the investor a say in how the business is run. They think they can make money on your idea – and if you don’t do it for them, they may take the reins and do it themselves. Angels see the end-game too, where they can realize the return on their investment. Cashing in. This often means selling the business – either to a third party or by taking the company public. If your end game is different, you may have found the wrong angel. If selling isn’t their goal, they might intend to grow your company in a way that benefits their other business interests.

Angel investment is attractive because as soon as they’re on board, it’s in the angel’s interest to use their connections and experience to help the business. A good angel can open up supply or sales channels that were previously out of reach, guide you through tough negotiations, and provide mentorship to help you develop your business skills. On the other hand, an angel whose intentions aren’t so angelic could take control of the business, fire you, and force you to sell them your shares at a discount. If they have a bad reputation in the business community, you could be tainted with that as well. I’ve seen all of these things and more. Do your homework, and get advice before, during, and after negotiations with angel investors.

Venture Capital

Venture capital is a different beast altogether. VC is usually a fund where many professional investors, serial entrepreneurs, large companies with innovation budgets pool their money together. The fund is managed by specialists who look for high-growth, high-potential businesses to invest in. Usually they’re looking for an “adolescent” business, rather than a raw startup, will invest for several years, and expect a return of around 10 times what they invested over that time. VC will usually get paid out first – often within 1-2 years – and take a percentage of ownership of the company. Venture capital is usually a one-way ticket to an initial public offering, and your investors will do what they must to ensure they get a return. They’ll appoint board members to shepherd their investment, and often have a good deal of say in hiring for key positions. They may replace you as the CEO if they have someone who’ll do better. The investment will usually be a high-interest loan, and secured with shares in the company which will pay the VC back first if the company goes belly-up. The exit plan almost always involves taking the company public. VC is more complex than that – but the important take-away here is that it’s very, very pricey money.

VC is attractive because, if it works, you get rich when the company is sold or taken public. VCs will lend based on their valuation of the idea, rather than their ability to secure their investment on the assets of the company, like a bank would. The downside is, once the VC comes on board, the business ceases to be your baby. Your interests aren’t aligned – the VC is looking out for their investment, not for the best interests of you, the company, or the employees. Most venture capital funds focus on building up the pool of money they manage, rather than mentoring and guiding the business – they’ll often appoint outside board members to represent their interests. The strings attached are large, and tied tightly.

Dealing with High Risk Investors

High risk investors can take your business to the next level in a hurry, and are sometimes the only viable option to fund your research and development. This is especially true for businesses built on ideas, rather than physical assets. Be very, very careful about who you’re dealing with, and understand the deal that you’re making before you sign on the dotted line. Do your research. Get legal and accounting advice. Shop around, and keep these in mind when you’re exploring your options:

  • First, foremost, and always remember – if they’re willing to fund you, then you have something they want. You have leverage in negotiations, and should only take a deal that works for your company.
  • What’s the business/industry background of the people you’re dealing with? What other companies have they worked with, and what results did they get? Talk to those companies, and get a no-bullshit assessment.
  • Who will be appointed to your board? How many other boards do they serve on?
  • Who are their advisors – accounting, legal, etc – and do they come as a package deal? Are they encouraging you to get independent advice before signing?
  • What’s their exit plan? Does it mesh with your vision for the business?

If the investor can’t give you a good answer to those questions, or stands in the way of you finding the answers on your own, run away as fast as you can.

Predatory investors can be hard to spot… until it’s too late. I’ve got a bunch of horror stories from people in my network who jumped at what looked like a good deal… and when they landed, the investor owned the company, and the founder ended up with only a fraction of the value they’d built. They’re smart people who make their living by getting other people to do the grunt work for them… and unscrupulous investors know how to cover their bases. Be cautious, and put in the time and effort to understand them, their goals, and what they expect of you before committing.

Growth Programs

Incubators & Accelerators

These two get lumped together because they fulfill roughly the same role at different stages of a company’s growth. They are, at their core, great business models, and can do a whole lot to nurture the development of your company, and your business skills as a founder. The basic premise is that they’re in the business of investing in startups. An established business person, or group of ‘em, will bring in a company, or group of ‘em, and invest in the company in hopes that it will grow. Most will invest a combination of money, marketing, office space, production and design support, mentorship, and access to their personal networks. They’ll set a pretty rigorous training schedule in business skills, which members are required to go through. In return, they take a piece of your company.

Incubators are typically a long-term involvement, around 2-3 years’ worth, with no set schedule for growth. Most will bring in companies of a similar type into a common working space in hopes that ideas will flourish. Often, incubators will put their own management teams in place – directors and officers – once the grunt work to bring the idea to fruition is complete. Incubators typically take up to 20% of your company for the role they play in incubating your idea.

Accelerators are usually a set business development program to spur rapid growth – hence the name. The program takes place over 3-6 months, and is aimed at companies that have reached a certain stage of development. That program typically involves a couple of “funding rounds” from VC, and may also involve tacking directors and officers of their choosing on to your management team, or full-on replacing the founders in those roles. Accelerators usually take less than 10% of your company for their services.

Who Sails the Ship?

The most value in a growth program is the network that comes along with it. When done right, incubators and accelerators can provide value that’s almost unparalleled. You can get specialized advice and training that will help you to understand and speak the language of business, interpret financial statements, and refine your pitch. Most valuable is the access you get to their well-established business network of advisors, mentors, financiers, and other graduates of their program. That cuts both ways, however. When you climb aboard that train, you’re committing to doing business the way they teach you to do business. While some incubators and accelerators have altruistic intentions, many more are an elaborately constructed way to make money off of your efforts, or to cherry-pick talented business people for their own organizations. It’s a business farm, and you’re the cash crop.

For example, law and accounting firms view successful incubators and accelerators as a way to get new clients. I’m one of them, as an advisor at Ryerson’s DMZ, and a mentor at HumberLaunch. I’ve met several clients that way. Strangely, in the cash strapped world of startups, my competition is largely huge national law firms. These firms will offer cut-rate startup packages, as a loss-leader.  They take a hit on their fees in the short term, in hopes that you’ll grow enough by the time the discount period runs out that you’ll have enough in the bank to pay their rates. That business development strategy means that they’re looking to minimize their short term losses incurred by giving away their services. This can mean standard-form business agreements that aren’t customized to your situation and business. The work is pushed to junior lawyers, law students, and clerks to “cut their teeth” on. A free client’s phone calls are returned after the paying clients’ work is done. That said, big firms have specialized skills, particularly to grow startups into publicly-traded companies, that sole practitioners like me just don’t have. Do your homework.

Dealing with Growth Programs

Moral of the story is, as it was for investors, to know who you’re getting into bed with before signing on the dotted line. Any time you give up equity in your company, you’re taking on a business partner. Like any other partner, you want to make sure that they’ll pull their weight, and know what’s involved in getting yourself out of the deal if need be. The excitement of winning a business plan or pitch competition, or beating out hundreds of other applicants for one of a few positions shouldn’t stop you from doing your due diligence. Here’s some questions to know the answers to before you commit:

  • Who owns the incubator or accelerator?
  • How much of your company do they take, and what conditions are attached?
  • Who are their lawyers, accountants, marketers, and preferred investors? Are you free to choose your own, or do you run with theirs? What’s their interest and relationship?
  • What expectations are there of you?
  • What’s the exit plan? Are they building your company to sell, or take public?
  • Do they have your interests at heart, or do their loyalties lie with the person they have a pre-existing relationship with? What’s the advisor’s interest?
  • Who else have they launched? Did they deliver what was promised? Did their goals shift under the influence of the advisor network? Talk to their “graduates” and grill them on their experience.

Conclusion

Angel investors, venture capital, incubators and accelerators are all tools that are available to help you build your business. As with building anything, it’s important to use the right tool for the job. The right deal is a solid foundation from which to launch your company – you’ll get the mentorship, support, and training to bring your idea to market, build lasting business relationships, and make a bunch of money in the progress. The wrong deal can cram your square peg of a business into the round hole of their interests, and drag you down the long, unpleasant road to failure.

Be strategic. Think about what the end-state will be, when all is said and done. If you’re 100% owner now, and an incubator takes 20%, accelerator takes 10%, and venture capital takes 30%, what does that leave you with? Remember, you’ll be the last to get paid. What if the on-paper value can’t be pulled out for a certain number of years? Is 40% of a $10 million company more valuable to you than 80% of a smaller one? Is your product a flash-in-the-pan, or is it something that will still be relevant when you can cash out? Are you comfortable working with, and being beholden to the people you’re doing business with for that amount of time?

There’s no such thing as certainty in business. That’s what makes it simultaneously frustrating and fun. Do your research, and I strongly strongly strongly recommend getting experience, professional help to review, understand, and negotiate the deal before you sign over part of your company. At the very least, legal, accounting, and ideally an impartial business advisor/investment banker with experience in the types of deals you’re looking at.

After all, “All things will be clear and distinct to the man who does not hurry; haste is blind and improvident.”
– Livy, Ad Urbe Condita Libri, 9 BC

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw