There are certain moments at the start of an entrepreneur's journey that signify a new business idea is indeed about to take shape. One of these happy occasions is the receipt of a handsome, leather-bound binder that contains dozens of newly printed corporate share certificates.
Corporations are a form of business organization that can be set up by one person or a group of people. There are different types of corporations including professional corporations, standard or "C corporations" and "S corporations" -- each with varying administrative requirements and benefits for their founders and shareholders.
Perhaps the primary reason why startup entrepreneurs choose to incorporate a business is the opportunity to shield founders and corporate officers' personal assets (homes, cars, savings accounts, etc.) from potential unpaid business debts, product or service liability litigation and other costly business calamities.
This nifty protection, often called the "corporate veil," is especially important to older, second career entrepreneurs who tend to have more personal assets than younger entrepreneurs who are just starting to build their personal fortunes.
Now here is the qualifier. The corporate veil remains in tact only if the corporation remains in "good standing" by meeting all of its corporate duties. If cranky banks, landlords, plaintiff attorneys, equipment leasing companies, and suppliers are determined to find a way to collect unpaid bills, they will seek to pierce the corporate veil by convincing a judge that the corporation's good standing was somehow compromised.
One of the easiest ways unpaid debtors can pierce the corporate veil is by proving that the corporation was not run as a separate entity from the founding entrepreneur or corporate officers.
Here are 6 action steps that every entrepreneur can do to safeguard their personal assets:
- Document loans and advances. It's never wise to pay any corporate bill directly from a personal checking account. If you have to use personal funds to pay growing business obligations, write the personal check to the corporation first and then immediately document the sum as a loan advance or new investment in the corporation. Equally, don't abuse corporate expense accounts or borrow funds from a corporation without signing a loan document or filing expense reports.
- Keep it separate. Get a separate business credit card to manage business travel and other expenses. The credit card doesn't have to be a so-called "professional" credit card with your company name on its face, just a separate credit card account. Use business funds to pay off the credit card that is designated for business purposes.
- Avoid naked signatures. Vendors and collection agents like to claim that they were misled by small business owners. They say they thought they were providing a product or service to a person rather than a corporation. To avoid confusion, write your corporate title and corporate name next to all documents that require your signature such as contracts, leases and business letters. This signifies that you are signing in your official capacity as an officer or employee of the corporation.
- Correct billing errors. All debts, invoices, tax obligations and other business liabilities should be addressed to the corporation or amended before payment.
- Do what you said you would do. At the time of incorporation, entrepreneurs outline certain administration obligations in the corporation's charter and bylaws. If, for example, your incorporation documents state that the corporation will always have three to five board members, then maintain a board with three to five board members.
- File all tax returns and corporate annual reports on time. Some states are more punitive than others with regard to incomplete documentation and tardy filings. Another requirement to help keep a corporation in good standing is to consistently advise the governing state of incorporation of any changes to the corporation's business address, names of officers or directors, capitalization, articles of incorporation or bylaws.
I believe that starting and building a business is an empowering, highly educational endeavor. Like everything else in business, the more you know, the easier it will be for you to achieve your goals. You can do it!
Susan Schreter is a 20-year veteran of the venture finance community, MBA-level educator and policy advocate for small business owners. Her work is dedicated to improving startup operating performance with reduced personal risk to entrepreneurs. She is the founder of www.takecommand.org, which offers the largest centralized database of regional and national small business funding sources in the U.S., including angel clubs, micro-finance lenders, venture capital funds and more. Follow Susan on Twitter @TakeCommand