Sweat Equity v. Money Investors: Who Makes the Rules? [The Golden Rule of Business]

Many years ago, while working as the General Counsel to a large public company going through a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, I learned that the Golden Rule as we all learned it in kindergarten [do unto others as you would have other do unto you] is not the only Golden Rule when it comes to business. I certainly support and believe in the Golden Rule we learned in kindergarten and try my best to adhere to it, but when it comes to money and business, I have learned that the Golden Rule really is: the person with the gold makes the rules.

In business large and small, there is often reward and equity for those who have a great idea or are the work horses driving success (the “Sweat Equity Owner”). Typically, however, the greatest percentage of equity and, hence, the greatest return in pure dollars, goes to the person who put up the money in the first place (the “Cash Equity Owner”). Once the business gets going, this often leads to resentment of the Sweat Equity Owner and frustration of the Cash Equity Owner.

Not surprisingly, the Sweat Equity Owner often feels like he has worked harder and should be compensated for the hard work and ideas. In addition, the family of the Sweat Equity Owner has started to feel the pain of long hours and missed meals and events, resenting the Cash Equity Owner whose life and lifestyle has not changed at all.

The Cash Equity Owner is frustrated because the project is taking longer than expected to show a return and the Sweat Equity Owner continues to ask for cash, primarily to meet living expenses in the form of  salaries for business personnel. The Cash Equity Owner usually has other investments or businesses and more business experience and wants the Sweat Equity Owner to work differently and take his advice on how to get the work done more quickly so that product can get to market faster. His family (or fund investors) wants to know when they will see a return on investment.

Not to sound like a broken record on the reasons for Business Divorce, but there are some things that can be done at the onset of a relationship to avoid these dilemmas. Too often, when the relationship is formed, there is no substantive discussion of duties, timing for deliverables and exit strategy for the Cash Equity Owner. The conversations are very high level and never transcribed into a detailed agreement. One party calls cash loans while the other considers it equity.

In the last 12 months, I have encountered among other missteps: companies in which the equity was never issued despite cash being infused; standard Bylaws from companies like Legal Zoom were used, but no one ever read or understood what they meant; Articles were filed on www.Sunbiz.org indicating the names of managers, managing members, officers, owners … who were not in fact in the positions indicated and who had no authority to act on behalf of the business; domain names and other intellectual property placed in the name of one owner instead of the business …. This list is hardly exhaustive, but all have led to expensive legal battles between business partners on break-up.

When I get the call, whether as an attorney or mediator, that business partners are seeking to terminate their business relationship, the first step in my analysis is to look at the agreements between the partners.  These documents become the guide on how to proceed. If they have been carefully crafted and reflect the partners intent, often the cost to the business as well as the individuals for navigating the business divorce is emotionally and financially insignificant —- Owners typically know what to expect and time is spent implementing already agreed plans. Without these written agreements or mutual acknowledgment of intent of unwritten agreements by the Owners, the cost in the first days of efforts to separate can be thousands, and at times, tens of thousands, of dollars.

At this point you are probably thinking that I am exaggerating, but in fact, if a lawsuit needs to be filed  in order to keep the business running and make it clear who has authority to act, the effort is significant and lawyer time and cost is high. We start by preparing a complaint seeking injunctive relief and serve it with requests for admissions, production of documents and interrogatories. At times, we demand a receiver be appointed if we are representing the Cash Equity Owner and our client is not ready or able to step in and run the business. We seek emergency hearings to ensure if our client in good faith believes irreparable harm to, or waste of, business assets will occur if action is not immediate.  We often need to include third parties such as the domain hosts or banks to require them to turn over account codes and keys or to freeze assets.

Courts do not like to get involved in daily business activities and if the situation  lacks clarity, the court may appoint a receiver on its own. Domains and intellectual property will need to be be place in escrow; bank accounts will need to be frozen or unfrozen; payroll companies, customers, vendors, employees will all need to be notified as to who has authority to direct activities just to keep the business operating  and attorneys will be stepping into conversations with domain hosts, bankers, customers, vendors and employees…. all while on the clock. By the way, the Receiver will hire an attorney as well and both the receiver and attorney will also be on the clock.

Back to the Golden Rule — needless to say, the Cash Equity Owner often has the gold necessary to stay afloat while the Sweat Equity Owner does not.

Although good friends and family members make great investors because they are trustworthy, life changes and needs change over time. By having a frank conversation up-front and documenting the deal, before money is invested, much of the financial and emotional cost can be minimized on business divorce and friendships and family relations can remain favorably intact. Like a good pre-nuptial, shareholder agreements, operating agreements, and buy-sell agreements, can minimize cost in the future and avoid undue emotional harm. To me, it is well worth spending a couple hours in frank discussion and a couple thousand dollars up-front when investing in a business to avoid a later fight at ten times that expense.

At the Walk Law Firm, we regularly advise clients on these matters and encourage open discussion between owners. We can work as company counsel or as counsel to a business owner in helping businesses sort through these issues.