Prospective Franchisees Need to Research Further Than FDD for Details

I read an interesting article from Entrepreneur on the Key to Understanding a Company's FDD (franchise disclosure document). It's an article I'd recommend prospective franchisees read but they better be prepared to go deeper if they really want to understand a Company's FDD. The author recommends checking three key sections of the FDD:

  1. Item 3 - Litigation;
  2. Item 19 - Earnings Claims;
  3. Item 20 - Turnover. 

While I agree in principle that these are three key areas of the FDD to understand, the reality is that these areas (particularly the items regarding litigation and earnings claims) often shed little light on the franchise offering. The problem is most FDDs provide very little detail regarding litigation and many franchisors still refuse to make earnings claims although according to the article it appears franchisors are increasingly providing earnings claims at least among the Entrepreneur Franchise 500.

Consequently, if you hope to learn more about the franchise offering you'll need to research further than just the FDD. You'll need to have in depth discussions with management and other franchisees. Come loaded with detailed questions. The FDD should not be your ending point in your research. It is really just the beginning. 

Careful Planning Necessary When Using Retirement Monies to Fund Startup Business

Accountant Joe Kristan of Roth & Co. has an informative post on the IowaBiz Blog discussing the dangers of using IRA retirement monies to fund a startup business.  In the situation described, a would-be entrepreneur took about $320,000 from his 401K and rolled it into a self-directed IRA. From there, the entrepreneur invested almost all the funds into a new corporation. The IRS said this was a prohibited transaction that made the entire $320,000 immediately taxable. The tax court agreed and the entrepreneur owed $163,123 in taxes and penalties.

Many prospective franchisees choose to fund their new franchise purchase by using retirement funds. Franchise consultant Joel Libava asked in a blog post whether it is getting riskier to use your 401K to fund your start up business. Libava's post is a good one and he says he is comfortable with the plans if the paperwork is "perfect" and the business owner is in a good position to leverage his or her plan. But it's pretty clear that if you are considering the use of retirement monies to fund your business startup, you must be sure to plan carefully and seek advice from knowledgeable tax and legal advisors.

Some advisors like accountant Joe Kristan still are not hip on the idea saying,

They are at best a startup funding source of last-resort -- and if your business plan requires them, you might want to reconsider your business plan.

So be careful if you choose to fund your start up business with retirement monies. And if you have questions on tax and business issues I'd highly recommend Joe Kristan's Tax Updates Blog for other timely and informative articles.

Vote 'Yes' to Renovate and Update Polk County Courthouse

I generally try to stay away from politics on this blog but there is an important vote on November 5th regarding Measure A:  The Polk County Public Safety Judicial System Bond. I encourage you to vote 'Yes" for this measure.

Our Polk County Courthouse has been in use for over 100 years. While it is an architectural gem it is also badly in need of updating.  Most importantly, it is not adequately designed for security and safety needs. Violent criminals often roam the same halls with the public including jurors and children.  Also, there are numerous courtrooms crowded into the facility that were not designed for that purpose. Polk County is the busiest courthouse in the state. It was originally designed for just four courtrooms but now houses over 20 courtrooms in an effort to meet the needs of the public.

The old adage is that you can pay now or pay later. If we don't pass this measure the costs will be substantially higher down the road. At some point in the near future you can be assured that the courthouse will be overhauled or perhaps a new one built. We cannot avoid that fact much longer. It is an absolute necessity.  A smarter approach would be to approve the measure now. The cost is approximately $1.50 per month for the average homeowner. It is a small price to pay to ensure fairness and to keep our families safe.

Again, please vote 'Yes' on this important measure. 

 

Due Diligence Training Through Plains Angels: Classes of Stock and Corporate Structure

Those interested in raising investment capital for their business, or those interested in making investments in businesses, may want to take advantage of the monthly due diligence/investor training provided by Plains Angels

Plains Angels is a group of Midwest angel investors that have now funded various projects here in the Midwest. The group is actively taking applications for companies seeking investment money and it appears the quality of the companies being considered is improving each month.

This month's due diligence session covers Classes of Stock and Corporate Structure. The presenters will discuss various rights offered to preferred shareholders and the impact of those rights over the long term, including liquidation preferences, preferred distributions, management rights, and the tax consequences of those rights for different entity types. The presentation will also discuss the impact of future capital raises on the angel investors depending on their rights.

This training session will be held Thursday, April 25, 2013 from 8:30 a.m. - 11:00 a.m. at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, 700 Locust Street in Downtown Des Moines. You can check out the schedule of events at https://tikly.co/plainsangels. Tickets cost $15.00 for each session.

 

 

U.S. Patent Law Changes: The First-Inventor-to-File One Year Grace Period

* This is a guest post from Jessica Susie of the Brick Gentry Law Firm. Jessica is a registered patent attorney.

The America Invents Act, which President Obama signed into law on September 16, 2011, has been gradually overhauling the United States patent system. March 16, 2013 marked the biggest change – the United States switched from a first-to-invent to a first-inventor-to-file system. Subject to some limited exceptions, the first-inventor-to-file his patent application will be entitled to patent protection, even against an earlier inventor who later files. With the switch, the requirements for patentability have also been revised. Inventions still must be novel, nonobvious, and useful to secure patent protection. However, the definitions of what constitutes a “novel” and “nonobvious” invention are now different. In particular, the one year statutory bar, also called the grace period and on-sale bar, has changed.

Previously, an inventor had a one year grace period after disclosure of an invention in which to file his application. Disclosures included printed publications in the United States and foreign countries, public use in the United States, and sales or offers for sale in the United States. Importantly, it did not matter who made these disclosures. In practice, most businesses associated the statutory bar with their own actions – one year from putting a product on the market or publishing a journal article, the application was due. However, what many businesses and inventors may not have realized, is that the one year grace period also affected the prior art used by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). “Prior art” is a term used in patent law to describe information that has been made available to the public and that is relevant to a particular application. It may include previous patent applications and patents, journal articles, books, and event websites. In most situations, the USPTO examined applications using prior art references dated earlier than one year prior to an application’s filing date.

However, the new one year grace period only applies to certain disclosures, namely those that originate with an inventor. The one year grace period applies if (1) the disclosure was made by an inventor or a third party who obtained the subject matter from an inventor or (2) the disclosure, although not traceable to an inventor, was made after a disclosure by an inventor or a third party who obtained the subject matter from the inventor. The policy behind these rules is the hope that they will promote early disclosure of inventions to the public, which will increase innovation in the United States.

So, what does this mean for businesses going forward?

  1. The USPTO will consider more recent prior art when examining applications.
  2. Public disclosures by businesses must be documented. All businesses should have procedures in place to document inventions as they are made. However, it will be more important to document when and to whom disclosures are made as part of these procedures. Having this information may determine the outcome of prosecution of a patent application or many years down the line in a patent infringement proceeding.
  3. Confidentiality remains critical. Businesses should have a confidentiality agreement on file to use during private disclosures.
  4. Consider provisional patent applications more often. The USPTO does not examine provisional patent applications, and oftentimes they are much less detailed than nonprovisional patent applications. A provisional patent application secures a filing date and is useful when an invention is in its early stages. A related nonprovisional patent application must be filed within one year of the provisional patent application to benefit from the provisional filing date.  
  5. Do not rush to disclose inventions if you intend to file a patent application and have not yet done so. While disclosure may have benefits in some situations, the law is just too new in this area right now to know all of the negatives associated with disclosure.

How to Deal with Partner Disputes

 I saw an interesting article on the LexBlog Network regarding how to deal with partner disputes. The post written by Texas restaurant lawyer, Matthew Sanderson, dealt specifically with restaurants, but the information contained in the post is applicable to any business. Sanderson recommends the following when a dispute occurs:

  1. Avoid the conflict by identifying motivators and doing your homework;
  2. Open the lines of communication;
  3. Stand up for yourself and your rights (but don't lose your cool).

I often compare partnerships to a marriage. In any marriage good communication is essential to maintaining a happy household. Where I've seen partnership disputes fester and cause problems is when the partners fail to communicate with one another. So I think Sanderson's bullet points are right on target.

Further, a helpful piece of advice for avoiding partnership disputes is to set clear expectations of what each partner is bringing to the table. Even though it isn't a part of your typical operating or shareholder agreement, you may what a letter of understanding defining the roles of each partner. Partnerships work best when the partners have complementary strengths. For example, a strong sales person combined with strong operations or details person may have a strong partnership together where two partners with the same skill set lack the balance needed to run the overall business.

Partnerships are not easy. Be sure to have a partnership agreement in place that details what happens if a dispute occurs or the partnership ends due to death, disability or other reasons. Sanderson's last point on not losing your cool is especially important. Make sure you think things through before you react and hopefully you'll be able to avoid costly mistakes if a partnership dispute occurs.

Plains Angels Investing in Iowa Companies

The Des Moines Register reported that investor group Plains Angels has invested $750,000 over the last eight months. This is great news for Iowa startup companies. Venture capital in Iowa has lagged and groups like Plains Angels are definitely trying to change that.

There is a $300 application fee to present before the Plains Angels' group. In some blog posts and other social media outlets, I've seen the fee criticized by some who expressed concern that it was just a fee collection group. I considered that assertion somewhat naive on the part of some seeking funding, but the recent news should alleviate some initial fears that the group is actually making investments in companies rather than just collecting fees. The significant investment made over the last eight months in three Iowa companies is very promising for the Iowa startup scene.

If you're interested in learning more about the process for Plains Angels or becoming an investor, be sure to visit the Plains Angels Website.

Iowa Business Court Judges Selected

In January  I wrote about the new Iowa Business Specialty Court Pilot Project.  This week the Iowa Supreme Court announced that three judges have been selected to hear cases for the business court. The judges include:

  • Judge Michael Huppert of the 5th Judicial District, which includes Dallas, Polk and Warren counties;
  • Judge Annette Scieszinski of the 8th Judicial District;
  • Judge John Telleen of the 7th Judicial District.

I have had the opportunity to appear before or work with all three of these judges. It's an excellent list of judges to get this pilot project off the ground.  Again, I'd like to see the threshold amount come down from $200,000 so that more business cases can be involved but it will be interesting to see how the new business court is received by lawyers and the public. Eligible cases can begin to be transferred May 1, 2013.

5 People You Need To Meet When Starting Your Business

 There are 5 people every entrepreneur should meet when starting a business:

  • Lawyer;
  • Accountant;
  • Banker;
  • Insurance Agent; and
  • Marketing professional.

How do hire a lawyer that's right for you? See my article on my new site, Iowa Business Law Services.

As we are now in the heart of tax season, many business owners are looking for an accountant to complete their taxes. That's the wrong time to do it. Business owners need to establish a relationship with an accountant from the very beginning. It's important to receive tax advice on which business entity is right for your tax situation. Hiring a good accountant for your business is absolutely essential. A terrific accounting blog is the Tax Update Blog.

Lots of business owners also wait to establish a relationship with a banker until they need a loan. Again, that's the wrong time to start. Instead of opening an account at any old bank, get some recommendations and talk with business bankers before opening an account. Tell the business banker about your business and your plans. Try to stay in contact with the banker periodically if just to remind them you are still there. You never know when you might need a line of credit or loan. Establishing a relationship with a banker in the beginning can pay big dividends.

Find an insurance agent that specializes in insuring businesses. There may be hidden land mines out there that you can insure. I recently communicated with a business insurance agent regarding a contract matter for a client. The business insurance agent had important input that will protect my client moving forward. I seriously doubt an insurance agent dealing primarily with car and home loans would have known about the specific issues we were dealing with.

And if no one knows about you it will be tough to succeed! Consult with a marketing professional that is knowledgeable in your industry.  A tremendous blog on marketing is Drew's Marketing Minute.

Iowa Business Law Services: Rush on Business Companion Web Site

 I am very happy to announce my new companion Web site to go along with this blog at www.iowabusinesslawservices.com. The site will feature information on my legal practice areas, a simple way to submit information for formation of a new corporation or LLC and also a video resources section with tips on business and franchise law. We'll also feature many other business and franchise law resources as we develop out the site.

A new offering with the new site rollout is that I am immediately implementing a Subscription Services Plan to make legal services more affordable for the new or early stage company. Check it out for details.

I also set up a new Facebook page for the blog be sure to 'Like' the page for easy access to updates on business and franchise law.

Thanks so much for following Rush on Business. And look for some other exciting offerings from me very soon relating to franchise law.

Lesson # 4 From Hard Luck Franchisees: Buying a Franchise in a Saturated Market or Industry

 

I've seen it many times. A certain market or industry becomes "hot" and all the sudden franchises start popping up all over the place. For example, a few years ago the 24/7 fitness market took off. In the Des Moines, Iowa area there were all kinds of fitness franchises that entered the 24/7 fitness market. Unfortunately many of them went out of business and only a few major players remain.

This happens in other industries. Right now the self-serve premium yogurt market seems to be really taking off. You add the toppings yourself and then weigh the cup just prior to paying. Looks to be a "hot" concept. But in the end how many of these franchises will be around in 10 years? Don't know but it's safe to say there will probably be some winners and losers in that market. 

It's not a surprise that a significant percentage of franchises will fail. After all, the majority of businesses fail within the first 5 years. With the typical franchise agreement lasting 10 years, it's important to choose a concept that will have staying power rather than just the latest "hot" concept.

Buying a franchise is a major investment. Success is not guaranteed. Choose wisely.

For interesting reading take a look at this article on the Top Franchise Trends for 2013.

Lesson # 3 From Hard Luck Franchisees: Franchisor Reservation of Rights to Sell or Transfer Business

This is Lesson #3 in a five-part series on the top reasons I've seen franchisees fail. 

Tucked away in nearly every franchise agreement is a provision that very few franchisees consider when they are purchasing a franchise business. The provision I am referencing gives a franchisor the right to sell or transfer its business to another person or entity. Now I am not saying that a franchisor shouldn't have that right. Of course a franchisor would like to reserve the right to sell its business as a succession plan or outright sale for profit. But unfortunately I've seen many franchise relationships change dramatically after the sale.

On many occasions I've found that the new franchise owners lack the spirit and care for the franchisee that the original owners may have possessed. The new franchise owners may not have the same goals or aspirations as the original owners. They may even change business models, pricing or marketing which could have a significant impact on your business. As a result, many franchise operations fail after the franchise has been sold.

If you are going into franchising, have careful and detailed talks with the franchisor about their goals. Find out if the franchisor is in talks with anyone to sell the franchise business or whether that is an ultimate goal of the franchisor. The franchisor may not always be candid with you but perhaps they will be and you will have gained valuable information in the process. If sale talks are imminent, you may be better off waiting to see what the new owner has in store for the franchise business. But no matter what be aware that the franchise business could be sold and consider carefully whether you are buying a "system" or whether you are getting caught up in the persona of the franchise owner. Because if you are buying the owner rather than the system, you may be in for a rude awakening if the franchise business is sold.

In the end, you are not likely to eliminate the risk that the franchisor could sell. An astute franchisor would not negotiate that provision away in a franchisor agreement. But consider that possibility from the start and whether the franchising "system" is right for you.  

Business Partnerships Need Communication

 Mike Colwell of THE BIZ posted a presentation I have on Partnering for his Raising Capital series. One of the biggest things a partnership needs is communication. Like any good marriage, communication is the key. Business partners that communicate effectively are much more likely to be successful. Also, proper documentation is a key. Without documentation, many partnerships are doomed to fall into litigation if problems arise.

View my presentation on Partnering here.

VIew all of presentations on Raising Capital here.

 

Iowa Business Specialty Court Pilot Project

The Iowa Supreme Court has announced that it is beginning a three-year project for an Iowa Business Specialty Court for complex cases with $200,000 or more in dispute. To begin the project, three Iowa judges will be hired for the court based upon their educational background, judicial and trial experience with complex commercial cases and personal interest.

Participation in the pilot project will be voluntarily and all parties to the dispute must agree to opt into the business court pilot program. It is anticipated the court will begin accepting cases no later than May 1, 2013. The Court covers the following:

 

Only cases in which compensatory damages totaling $200,000 or more are alleged, or claims seeking primarily injunctive or declaratory relief, will be eligible for assignment to the business court docket. In addition, to be eligible a case must satisfy one or more of the following criteria:

      I.        Arise from technology licensing agreements, including software and biotechnology licensing agreements, or any agreement involving the licensing of any intellectual property right, including patent rights.

   II.        Relate to the internal affairs of businesses (i.e., corporations, limited liability companies, general partnerships, limited liability partnerships, sole proprietorships, professional associations, real estate investment trusts, and joint ventures), including the rights or obligations between or among business participants, or the liability or indemnity of business participants, officers, directors, managers, trustees, or partners, among themselves or to the business.

   III.        Involve claims of breach of contract, fraud, misrepresentation, or statutory violations between businesses arising out of business transactions or relationships.

 IV.        Be a shareholder derivative or commercial class action.

  V.        Arise from commercial bank transactions.

 VI.        Relate to trade secrets, non-compete, non-solicitation, or confidentiality agreements.

 VII.        Involve commercial real property disputes other than residential landlord-tenant disputes and foreclosures.

VIII.        Be a trade secrets, antitrust, or securities-related action.

  IX.        Involve business tort claims between or among two or more business entities or individuals as to their business or investment activities relating to contracts, transactions, or relationships between or among them.

 

This is a step in the right direction in my opinion. I first starting writing about business courts here in Iowa in 2008. At that time, I asked whether Iowa needed a business court to compete. While I think it's a great step in the right direction, I'd like to see the threshold amount come down. Many small business owners express frustration because the costs of litigation are so high. Perhaps we can have a modified "business small claims" that would include cases in a minimum amount of $25,000 or so. That's real money for a lot of small businesses. But I am excited to see how the pilot program works and commend the Iowa Supreme Court for taking this initiative.

Evaluating a Franchise Opportunity

In meeting after meeting with prospective franchisees I am asked what I would look for in a franchise opportunity. It's not an easy question. But trust me when I say that all franchise opportunities are NOT created the same.

What separates the good franchising opportunities from the bad franchising opportunities in my experience? Here are my top four reasons:

  1. The Brand Must be Recognizable. Talk to 10 of your friends. If they've never heard of the franchise you may want to reconsider the opportunity. The upfront costs of franchising are often greater than starting your own business because of the associated franchise and other upfront fees. If the brand isn't recognizable, can you really justify paying the franchise fees or are you better off starting your own independent business?
  2. The Franchise Has a Fantastic System. Are the operational processes the franchisor has in place so special that you couldn't duplicate it yourself or perhaps it would take you years to develop?  I say a franchise better have those fantastic operational processes in place or it probably isn't worth buying.
  3. Unique Concept or Product. Does the franchisor have an unique concept or product that you are unable to duplicate yourself or perhaps it would be to expensive to develop on your own? 
  4. Protected Intellectual Property. Does the franchisor possess protected intellectual property that would make it difficult or impossible to start the business on your own? If so, then franchising may be your only alternative to break into a particular market.

Time and time again I see people invest their life savings into franchising.  Some of these people achieve great results while others do not. There is no validity to the claim that franchise operations fail less than independent business opportunities. Be sure to examine franchise opportunities carefully and conduct your due diligence. The due diligence should include extensive interviews with the franchisor's management team and as many franchisees as possible. Get advice from a franchise lawyer, accountant and a banker regarding the opportunity. Educate yourself and be willing to walk away from the negotiations to get the best deal possible from the franchisor.

In conclusion, there are many other issues to consider when evaluating franchise opportunities but if the franchise opportunity doesn't have one of the four things above, it's been my experience you can probably just move on to the next opportunity.

 

Employers Should Consider Policies on Ownership of Social Media Accounts

Daniel Burnick of the Alabama Employment Law Report has an interesting post on a case involving a disputed Twitter account where the employee left his employment, changed his Twitter account name and then kept all the followers he had with his former employer.

In Kravitz v. PhoneDog, Kravitz used @phonedog for his Twitter account while he was employed. He left his employment and changed his account to @noahkravitz. He also took 17,000 followers with him which left his former employer with the task of building an entirely new follower base. PhoneDog had no policies in place regarding who owned the social media account.  An extended legal battle occurred but was recently settled.

As Burnick points out, the key is to have policies in place about who owns social media accounts when they are used on behalf of the company. To date, I have yet to see a single employer who has taken the initiative to address the ownership of social media accounts in their employment handbook. It's an issue that many business owners may overlook. But the time required to rebuild a Twitter or other social media follower base is invaluable. If you've worked hard to capture a strong social media following you won't want to make the same mistake as PhoneDog.

It's a great idea as you enter the new year to review your handbook policies and procedures to make sure your current with existing laws and trends.  

P.S. Also consider the issue if you are buying a business. Do not assume that you will automatically become the owner of a Twitter or other social media account when you buy an existing business. You will want to specifically address the issue in your purchase agreement.

IASourceLink is an Online Resource Tool For Iowa Small Businesses

IASourceLink.com is a new online resource available to help small business owners and entrepreneurs across Iowa. I haven't had a ton of time to explore the site but I impressed with the information available on my initial review.

One neat feature is the Iowa Business Concierge service available in collaboration with MyEntre.Net. The business concierge service allows business owners to ask questions to get pointed in the right direction. 

For those in Central Iowa, you'll want to check out CISourceLink.com for business resources in the Central Iowa region. 

Choosing the Business Entity that's Right for You

Do you know the difference between sole proprietorships, partnerships, corporations and limited liability companies? Do you know whether to set up an S corporation or is a C corporation better for you? Are limited liability companies really all that and a bag of chips?

If you are considering a business you should join me for an information-packed webinar through MyEntre.Net on Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 12:00 p.m. CT as we discuss the common business structures and how these various legal structures vary in complexities. Plus, we'll talk about some common misconceptions that abound in choosing a legal structure for your business.

Please join us! 

Be Aware of Independent Contractor Misclassification

 In my last post I shared my ABI Quick Bits Interview on Wage & Hour Lawsuits. In that interview I discussed how I often hear employers reference "1099 employees". I cautioned that you should make sure not to confuse independent contractors and employees. They are separate worker classifications and it's important the your workers are classified correctly.

A recent post from Epstein Becker & Green builds on that thought by stating that Independent Contractor Misclassification Should Remain a Key Area of Concern for Employers. The post discusses on the Department of Labor will continue to work with state and federal agencies, including the IRS, to share information and jointly investigate worker misclassification. 

With the re-election of President Obama, employers can expect more awareness around worker misclassification issues by federal agencies in particular because of the Affordable Care Act ("ACA") 50-employee threshold. Federal and state agencies will likely have a watchful eye on employers teetering on that mark.

The penalties and expenses for misclassification of your workers are significant. It is recommended that you conduct a wage and hour audit periodically to make sure your business is in compliance.

ABI Quick Bits: Wage and Hour Lawsuits

 

I recently sat down for an interview with Leisa Fox of the Iowa Association of Business & Industry to discuss wage and hour lawsuits. For a blog post I wrote on the topic see here.

Be sure to check out the other Quick Bits videos on a variety of business topics from ABI.