4 tips from a lawyer for your 9 to 5 to startup move

By Vivian Michael | Startup Contracts

If you are thinking about leaving your 9 to 5 for a startup, here are some handy tips from a lawyer to consider before you make the move. 

While it is important to be prepared, thinking about every step and planning for a year or more at once before you leave your 9 to 5 can be daunting.

This article helps you consider the bigger picture, what you need to know about restraints when leaving your job or taking on a side hustle, business structure and stakeholders. 

So let’s take things one step at a time and discuss some important considerations.

1. Post employment restraints in your employment contract

Your employment contract may have a post employment restraint that says you cannot work for a competitor or set up a competing business. 

Alternatively, it may have a non-compete which stops you from working for or being involved with a competitor. 

Here's an example of a non-compete: 

The Employee agrees that, during the period they are an Employee and for a period of: 

(a) 12 months; or if that period is held to be invalid

(b) 6 months; or if that period is held to be invalid 

(c) 3 months, 

(the “Restricted Period”), the Employee will not either directly or indirectly render services or give advice to, or affiliate with, directly or indirectly through one or more of any of their respective affiliates, own, manage, operate, control or participate in the ownership, management, operation or control of, any competitor or any division or business segment of any competitor in:

(a) Australia; or if that area is held to be invalid

(b) New South Wales; or if that area is held to be invalid

(c) Strawberry Hills.

What’s a reasonable post employment work restraint?

The court’s don’t like restraint periods that are too long because they should only exist to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests.

That is, a restraint cannot go beyond protecting business interests and stopping a worker from earning a living.

Similarly, a restraint that bars you from working in the country may also be considered too wide and onerous.

What about confidential information?

Employer’s like to keep their trade secrets, client lists and business strategy confidential and safe from competitors.

And this means that during and after you finish working for an employer, you have an obligation to keep this information confidential.

What happens if you breach a post employment restraint?

If you breach a post employment restraint, usually the employer will send you a ‘cease and desist’ letter. 

The letter will remind you of your contractual obligations, asks you to hand up or destroy any confidential information that you hold and stop working for a competitor.

A well drafted response letter could stop any further action against you by the employer.

Legal proceedings

If the employer is not satisfied with your response, they may take further legal action such as seeking an injunction

An injunction is simply a court order to stop you from working for a competitor or setting up your own business.

Also, if the employer claims you are profiting from using their confidential information, they may also seek an account of profits (that is, the profits you earned from breaching the post employment restraints). 

There may be an option to negotiate a reduced post employment restraint, you may want to consider getting some legal advice about this option.

Now, once you have completed a check of your employment contract and considered your options, you can then look at your business structure options.

2. Your business structure options

In Australia, a business entity can be set up as a sole trader, company, partnership or trust.

While you can always change your business structure later,  you may want to avoid the hassle by setting up with the most suitable structure from the outset.

Sole trader

A sole trader structure is simple and cost effective.

Legally, it means that as an individual, you are personally accountable for the business including any losses.

Company

Setting up as a company provides you with the benefit of limited liability.

Generally, this means that as a director, you are not liable for company debts.

The company is a seperate legal entity that can incur debts, sue and be sued.  The exception to this is when you enter a company contract as a a personal guarantor.

As a guarantor, you will be personally liable for company debts if there is a default.

 If you receive a document such as a lease or franchise agreement asking you to sign off as a personal guarantor, it's a good idea to get advice about this before you sign.

Trust

A trust is another option and is an attractive option for tax planning purposes.

The trustee of the trust holds assets, in this case, business assets on behalf of others (the beneficiary).

A lawyer can prepare a trust deed that sets out the powers of the trustee. It's also a good idea to get advice about tax implications of a trust from an accountant. 

Partnership

A partnership is a group of people carrying on a business with a common view to profit.

Different partnership laws apply depending on which Australian state you are setting up the partnership.

Also, there are different partnership types: (1) a partnership "normal" (2) limited partnership, and (3) incorporated limited partnership. Both limited and incorporated limited partnerships need to be registered with Fair Trading in New South Wales. 

So how can a lawyer help you with a partnership ? A lawyer can draft up a partnership agreement to set clear expectations for your business and help you minimise disputes. 

3. Understanding and working with your stakeholders

Even if you have set up as a sole trader, sole director and secretary of a company, chances are, you won't always work as a lone ranger, you will need to interact with a range of stakeholders, here are some important ones: 

ATO

Regardless of your structure type, you have taxation obligations including monthly, quarterly or yearly reporting on items such as GST, PAYG.

Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC)

If you have set up a company, you are accountable to the regulator ASIC.

You must notify ASIC of certain company changes such as appointing a new director, changing your business address, issuing shares and the resignation of a director or secretary.

Fair Work Commission (FWC)

The FWC is Australia's national workplace relations tribunal.

FWC sets the minimum national employment standards (NES) and minimum wages in awards. If you have a dispute with an employee that involves a dismissal, that worker may be entitled to seek a remedy from FWC amongst other places.

Health and safety regulators

SafeWork is New South Wales' health and safety regulator.

SafeWork provides advice on improving work health and safety, licences and registrations for dangerous work and they also investigate workplace incidents and enforce work health and safety laws.

Insurers

You may need to contact insurers to comply with your lease or any other legal contract. Insurance may include public liability, professional indemnity, glass, contents and plant and equipment.

Also, you may need to list your financier or your landlord as an interested party on your insurance premium.

Suppliers

Suppliers include anyone that supplies any product or service to your startup - IT, advisors, manufacturers, contractors and sub contractors. 

Should I accept another party's contract or draft my own?

Larger organisations that you deal with may supply you with a contract or terms and conditions. You can review these and have them revised or request additional terms. A lawyer can help you do this.

4. Contracts

Business contracts are useful to set clear expectations and minimise the risk of legal proceedings against your business.

Here's a list of some useful contracts to have drafted early on:

  • Shareholder agreement: If you have set up a company and have allocated shares, a shareholder agreement is useful to outline shareholder rights and responsibilities, transfer and sale triggers, voting procedures and more. 
  • Founder's agreement: this agreement is used by 2 or more founders to outline roles and responsibilities, dispute resolution procedures, IP ownership, confidentiality and more.
  • Contractor agreement: this agreement sets out the work relationship, expectations, roles, responsibilities, dispute resolution, IP and more.  
  • Employment agreement: similar to the contractor agreement, sets out work expectations and can help you minimise disputes with workers. 
  • Advisor agreement: suitable if you have someone providing advice to your startup and you want to clarify duties, IP ownership and ensure confidentiality.  
  • Confidentiality agreements: protect your business secrets and are useful when you are speaking to advisors, prospective business partners or collaboration partners.
Bringing it all together
  • Checking your existing employment contract for post employment restraints and discussing any uncertainties about these with a lawyer can help you get off to a stress-free launch of your startup.
  • After this, you can start looking at the best possible business structure from a legal and tax perspective.
  • Also, knowing your stakeholders is important so you can run a business that is compliant with local laws; and
  • Finally, once you have decided on a structure and have set it up, you can start to enter contracts. Contracts may include supply agreements, employment, contractor agreements, lease, equipment rental and business purchase contracts. At this stage you may want to either have these contracts drafted or reviewed if they have been provided to you e.g. a lease.

Do you know someone that's leaving their 9 to 5 to launch a startup ? Feel free to share this article. 

Do you need help from an Australian business lawyer for startups? Contact us today for help on info@michaellawgroup.com.au or 1300 478 278 Australia wide or on +61 2 9151 7233 from overseas. We are always glad to help.

About the Author

Vivian Michael is a lawyer and founder of Michael Law Group. Vivian's mission is to make quality business legal services accessible to startups that would otherwise DIY, rely on legacy contracts or go without.

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