The Truth about Slicing Pie
Originally Published on Forbes.com here.
Overcoming The Misconceptions Of Dynamic Equity
These days, most startup attorneys I meet have at least heard of the slicing pie model for equity distribution, but many have yet to use it. There are a few common misconceptions that cause them to steer clients away from slicing pie toward more conventional equity split models. In this article, I will address a few of the common concerns and hopefully dispel them as myths.
Dynamic equity is not Impossible
When I first learned about slicing pie I was, like many of my peers, skeptical of its promise to not only deliver a fair equity split but to also provide a framework for avoiding common equity disputes. I was fortunate to meet the model’s inventor, Mike Moyer, who referred a few clients and encouraged me to develop a legal solution. Since then I’ve done over 1,000 consultations on the model and it has become my default recommendation for equity distribution in bootstrapped startups.
Before trying the model, I found that no matter how carefully founders planned, at least 50% of them had a dispute over their equity split that required legal intervention within the first year or so of formation. Many of my colleagues who serve early-stage companies are all too familiar with this exceedingly common problem. In my experience, the slicing pie model has virtually eliminated equity disputes among founders and problems that do arise can usually be addressed within the framework.
There are three basic areas of concern that prevent attorneys and founders from applying the model: concerns about future issues, concerns about implementation and concerns about non-compliance with the model.
1. Concerns About Future Issues
Teams often express concerns about future issues that may arise, especially when it comes to how the model is perceived by third parties such as investors and taxing authorities. The fear is that future investors will view the model as too ambiguous or complex and that it might trigger undesirable tax events.
Having seen companies using the model grow and move through multiple funding rounds, I have yet to encounter an investor who takes issue with the model or cites it as a reason to pass on an opportunity. On the contrary, the idea that each founder is entitled to equity in proportion to their contribution is usually viewed in a positive light by investors, especially when they explore the underlying logic and cut through the perceived complexity.
A key point to consider is that not all resource consumption garners a higher valuation. For example, a company that hires a janitor to take out the trash for $20 an hour and 10 hours per week did not just become $4,400 more valuable. Similarly, since the model terminates before any major financial transactions that require a valuation, tax consequences are about the same as any other model.
2. Concerns About Implementation
The slicing pie model requires a tabulation of the fair market value of the contributions from each participant. The prospect of tracking these inputs is often distasteful for founders who relish freedom from the structure of corporate life. In practice, the model simply accounts for transactions that most companies track as a matter of course. For instance, most successful companies track payroll, expenses, sales, investments and other financial activities. A key difference, however, is that most monitoring systems are based on financial transactions and most founders do not feel the need to track non-financial events such as not getting paid or not getting reimbursed for expenses. Unfortunately, the absence of this discipline can skew the teams understanding of their own business model. Once teams understand how important this activity is, this concern is no longer a hurdle to implementation, especially given the availability of tools to manage slicing pie record keeping.
Other implementation concerns focus on the conversion of the slicing pie hypothetical split into actual ownership of shares or membership interests in the company. This process, from a legal standpoint, is quite simple and often occurs in the context of a structural change in the organization as it matures or takes on professional VC funding. Once the shares or membership interests are formally issued, they are subject to more conventional terms set by management or the angel or Series-A investor.
3. Concerns About Non-Compliance
The last major area of concern deals with a series of what-if scenarios. For example, what if a participant reports more time than they actually spend. Or what if someone demands a set percentage of shares. Most of these fall into the category of management issues, rather than an issue with slicing pie. For instance, a person who is unproductive or dishonest will eventually be terminated for good reason and the model will impose logical consequences. The slicing pie model allows managers to make rational business decisions and provides protection for all participants.
The other form of non-compliance, which is more difficult to manage, occurs when a participant attempts to renegotiate the terms of the deal in their favor, usually by holding the company hostage. A recent example from my own practice was a CTO who shut down the company’s software product and email system unless he was granted a fixed equity stake in the business. Sadly, this scenario is not completely uncommon under any framework and usually represents a situation in which one person overvalues their own contribution while undervaluing the contributions of others. Slicing pie’s alignment with fair market values most certainly mitigates this risk, yet some egos don’t respond well to logic. In my experience, a frank, lawyer-to-lawyer discussion can disarm what could otherwise be an explosive situation.
In spite of what you may or may not have heard about the slicing pie model, the most common misconceptions can be easily addressed with a concerned client. The benefits of implementing the model far outweigh any perceived problems and going with conventional methods carries far too much risk. I highly encourage anyone who counsels early-stage companies to familiarize themselves with the benefits and help clients to implement so that they can avoid the common pitfalls of unfair equity splits and the infamous founder’s dilemma.
If you are interested in using a dynamic equity framework to fairly distribute equity to your startup team, please contact us today via email to [email protected] or by phone at (312) 650-9087.