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Getting Married Before You Date

Yesterday at 5:00, I found myself sitting in our conference room across from a very interesting gentleman. He was in his upper fifties, maybe 60, and carried himself as a professional. He explained that he had been in business for upwards of 40 years – that he had made some big mistakes, learned from them, moved on, and built a fairly successful business.

He told me that the business that he had started had run its course and he wanted to start a new one, having learned from the mistakes of the old. In order to start the company, he decided to bring in 3 additional people. These people were friends of his, experienced in his industry, and possessed of the skill sets necessary to make the new venture run. My visitor had decided to divide 40% of the stock among them, retaining 60% for himself – enough, he felt, to keep control of the company.

He was convinced that giving out shares of the company was the only way to keep the group motivated, absent money to pay each person’s going rate. My visitor was wrong.

Recently, I wrote a piece in our e-mail series discussing the mistake of offering partnership at the outset of a business relationship. And whether the discussion concerns true partnership or co-ownership of a corporation or LLC, the fact of the matter is that co-ownership is a business marriage. And make no mistake, just like the real thing, a business divorce can be expensive and emotionally draining.

For his part, my prospective client was asking his friends to invest their time and skill in a new business for little or no compensation. What he wanted was a way to show his friends that they would reap the benefits of their investment.   We explored a number of possible solutions, but what we decided upon was offering stock options.

People, you see, are unpredictable. Some may be highly skilled and great friends, but start working together and it’s a trainwreck. Different business philosophies, work ethic, or personalities can destroy a team that could not possibly look better on paper.   Stock options and a vesting schedule are two ways to put together an arrangement now which takes effect later.

In this case, we could commit to an option to purchase stock in the company beginning in 3 years, discounted for each year the person had been with the company. Moreover, as incentives, other discounts to the purchase price could also apply, provided we took care not to trigger any unwanted tax consequences.

In other words, my prospective client could date before he got married. And in my experience, that’s a pretty good plan.

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