India: Advisors In Start-ups And Early Stage Companies

Last Updated: 16 July 2019
Article by Paul Albert

India is witnessing a high growth in the number of start-ups in the country and is also amongst the top start-up ecosystems in the world. The government has provided a few benefits to startups as well, through the Startup India Action Plan.

However, only a few of these start-ups actually succeed. It is a treacherous path with a lot of unknowns. An advisor or an advisory board in a start-up might help the early stage companies to atleast know some of those unknowns. Financial investors certainly add value, sometimes domain expertise even. The comfort of speaking with an advisor where they bring in the expert views, advice and sheer experience onto the table is very valuable. As the saying goes, 'Experience is the best teacher'.

Who are these Advisors and what role do they play?

An advisor is a person who brings in his unique skill sets and expert opinion on the business of the company, operational or otherwise. They are the people 'who have been there and done that'. They can play a major role, especially if the founders and the team are new to the industry and do not have much experience. There are celebrity advisors even, who by being called as an advisor adds value to the startup.

Advisors can play different roles, for example, advisors who bring in their expertise in a particular domain or area; help with their networks and can introduce potential clients, employees or investors; or scaling up teams; expansion to new geo. It is not just having the advisors but also heeding to their advice. Therefore, advisors need to be chosen very wisely, so that their advice can be relied and executed upon.

How to choose the right Advisor?
Hiring an advisor who does not add much value or provides incorrect advice to the company may turn out to be counter-productive or disastrous. The advisors bringing in complimentary skills or "deeper" skills which the founding team has a gap would be great. Identify the areas where the founders lack expertise or sufficient industry knowledge, where they face difficulties or have faced difficulties in the past or any area where they would require expert advice. Once there is clarity on where and why advisors are required, do some research and talk to people who can introduce you to some advisors. Discussing the same with the existing investors (if any) might also be a good idea as they might be able to connect the founders with the relevant people. And since the investors have invested in the company, they would ensure that the advisor will be someone who can add value to the company.

Ensure that they are people with the relevant expertise and knowledge, proven track record, good communication skills, networking skills, etc. Advisors should be individuals who would invest their time for the growth of the company and who can provide support to the founders where there is lack of expertise or knowledge.

Engaging with the advisor: An advisor may be compensated in cash, equity etc. Many a time, the advisor is interested in just giving back to the eco-system. One should evaluate if the advisor has time to provide support to the startup, whether the advisor is associated with other companies which the startup may have conflict / competition. Maintaining a good rapport, having regular discussions and candid conversations, updating the advisor on a regular basis about the business and other relevant aspects of the business can go a long way. The most important factor is to ensure that there is trust between the parties.

Some startups look for a small investment by the advisors into the company, as a test to ensure that the advisor believes in the idea, startup, founders etc.

Compensation for Advisors
Let us now evaluate some of the ways to compensate advisors for the value-add they bring to the company.

Start-ups, more often than not, compensate advisors by giving a percentage of equity in the company since they may not have the finances to give cash compensation (unless well-funded). New shares can be issued to the advisors or shares can be transferred from the founders. Such issuance or transfer should ideally happen at the face value of the shares since it is a compensation for the services rendered by the advisors and the advisors would not want to pay the full price of the shares. As the same is being issued/transferred at face value instead of the fair market value, tax implications need to be evaluated since any issuance/transfer of shares below the fair market value will fall under the ambit of the Income Tax Act, 1961. Also, the percentage holding of the founders needs to be taken into account so that their shareholding percentage does not get diluted to a large extent considering that there will be future investments, where the shareholding will get diluted further. Another aspect to be considered is that, an issuance of shares will dilute the shareholding of all shareholders (including investors if any) whereas the transfer of shares from founders will dilute only the founders' shareholding.

Another way of compensating the advisors is by issuing shares to them by way of consideration other than cash under section 62 (1) (c) of the Companies Act, 2013 ("Act") read with rule 13 of Companies (Shares Capital and Debenture) Rules, 2014. The private placement process under section 42 of the Act will have to be followed for this purpose. The advisors have to raise invoice for the services rendered which will be commensurate with the fair market value of the advisory shares. Company will be responsible for TDS which will be a cash out on the Company. Further, the entire amount shall be taxed in the hands of the Investor as income from other sources, at the applicable tax slab.

Yet another option could be granting phantom stock options ("PSOs") to the advisors. These are options which are settled by way of cash settlement. It a performance-based incentive plan through which the advisors will be entitled to receive cash payments after a specific period of time or upon reaching a specific target. A separate agreement can be entered into for capturing the details. This is directly linked to the value of the company's share price. For example, the advisors could have promise of 'x' number of shares at 'y' price at grant. At exercise, the appreciation in the value of the share price, is handed out as cash incentive. Tax will be applicable at the time of payout. However, unlike employee stock options, which is recognized under the Act, PSOs by private limited companies does not fall under the ambit of the Act and therefore, will be in the nature of contractual right. Please see our previous post on Phantom Stock Options to know more about this.

It has to be noted that advisors are not eligible for employee stock options (ESOPs) as ESOPs can be given only to employees and directors subject to the restrictions under the Act and relevant Rules.

Advisory shares to Non-Residents: It becomes a little more complex when the advisor is a non-resident since the shares issued/transferred to a non-resident needs to be in compliance with the pricing guidelines as provided in Foreign Exchange Management (Transfer or Issue of Security by a Person Resident Outside India) Regulations, 2017 ("FDI Regulations"). As per the pricing guidelines, capital instruments which are issued or transferred to a non-resident has to be priced as per any internationally accepted pricing methodology for valuation on an arm's length basis duly certified by a chartered accountant or a SEBI registered merchant banker, in case of an unlisted company. Considering these rules, granting of advisory shares to a non-resident can be a very tricky situation. PSOs may be a better option in this case.

Formal Agreement with Advisors
The engagement with the advisors should be fruitful for the company and help in its growth. It is advisable to enter into a formal agreement with the advisors which captures all important terms regarding the engagement which will be beneficial for both the company and the advisors. This will help in keeping track of the contribution of the advisors and also if in future, any differences arise between the company/founders and the advisors, it will always help to have a formal agreement. The exact role of the advisor and deliverables, vesting schedule, time commitments, compensation, non-compete, confidentiality, exit related provisions, etc. should be captured in such agreements. Specific milestones may also be included in these agreements. Once the milestones are satisfactorily completed, compensation as agreed can be given.

Once the advisors become shareholders in the company, depending on the shareholders' agreement (if any), the advisor might need to enter into a deed of adherence, so that the rights of the shares are captured.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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