What is the deal with preference shares? Part 1: liquidation and dividend preference

What is the deal with preference shares? Part 1: liquidation and dividend preference

(This post is the first in a series, giving practical information to start-up founders to gain a better understanding of the mechanics of preference shares. This post will focus on liquidation and dividend preferences.)

Venture capital investors are almost always aiming to invest in start-ups through “preferred” equity, typically referred to as preference shares. Preference shares trump ordinary shares, as the holders of preference shares normally receive preferential treatment in the event of a liquidation of the business. (For these purposes, a liquidation event can be the insolvency, a dissolution or a sale of the company.)

When start-ups enter funding stages, the good and/or lucky ones may end up with a few term sheets from an array of interested investors. These term sheets often come with an abundance of terms regarding the structure of the preference shares. As an inexperienced founder, this can be an overwhelming experience and it can be a daunting task to understand which terms are “standard” and which are particularly important. Venture capital investors have the upper hand due to their experience in this area – this is where professional advisors, such as start-up lawyers, come in handy in assisting the start-up and its founders.

The purpose of this series of articles is not to cover all aspects of term sheets, but to give you, a start-up founder, a better understanding of what preference shares really are, what to look out for and how they are typically structured during a series seed or series A investment.

What are preference shares?

When early-stage start-ups issue shares, there are generally two classes of people receiving shares: founders and investors. Founders typically receive ordinary shares and investors generally receive preference shares in return for their investment and risk taken.

The main characteristic of preference shares is that they provide for the preferential treatment of their holders and rank above ordinary shares in the event of a liquidation event. This means that if a company is unable to pay its debts or its business is sold, the investor will have a first claim on the company’s assets or sale proceeds over ordinary shareholders i.e. the founders. This is a protection mechanism given to the investor in return for the risk incurred when investing in the company.

Preference shares may further entitle the holder to preferential dividends, based on the profits of the company. Preference dividends are normally fixed at a certain annual percentage. As a preference shareholder, the investor will receive dividends ahead of ordinary shareholders when dividends are declared by the board of the company.

Liquidation preference

The liquidation preference determines how the pie is shared on a liquidation event. Preference shares almost always come with a liquidation preference, but the amount of the liquidation preference can differ. For example, the investor’s preference shares may come with a multiple of 1x purchase price. This means that upon a liquidation event, the investor will be paid 1x the issue price of his shares before the ordinary shareholders get anything. (For example, if the investor invested R1 million into the company, the investor wants R1 million paid back to him before the founders receive anything.) Similarly, if the investor’s liquidation preference is 2x purchase price, the investor will receive a multiple of 2x the issue price of his shares before the ordinary shareholders get anything.

As a start-up founder, you need to know what you are promising the investor. You might realise a few months down the line, when it’s too late, that you have given the investor a preference of 10x return on liquidation, leaving you and your co-founders with nothing. How a liquidation preference is structured can make a significant difference when the proceeds from a sale are split between the shareholders. Start-up founders should pay particular attention to this term.

Participating and non-participating

Generally, as seen above, the preference shareholders receive preferential returns. This means that they are paid back their initial investment plus some preferential payment (the liquidation preference multiple) before any other proceeds are disbursed. The extent to which additional funds, beyond this preference, are disbursed to investors depends on whether the equity is participating or non-participating preference shares. Participating preference shares take a share of the additional proceeds, along with ordinary shareholders, after receiving their preferential returns. For example, the preference shareholder participates in the equity apportionment in addition to receiving his liquidation preference. Holders of non-participating preference shares, however, only receive the preference plus any accrued dividends.

For example, an investor invests R2 million into a company at a 2x liquidation preference and at a post money valuation of R10 million (giving the investor a 20% stake in the company). The company is sold for a net sale price of R20 million. Therefore, the investor receives his 2x R2 million liquidation preference (receiving R4 million) and a R16 million surplus remains. If the preference shares are participating preference shares, the investor will receive an additional 20% of the surplus amount (a further R3.2 million). Alternatively, if the shares are non-participating preference shares, the other shareholders, i.e. the founders, will distribute the surplus among themselves according to their shareholding percentages.

An important point to note is that “participation” in venture capital deals generally refers to capital, however, it may also refer to a participation in pro rata dividends beyond the fixed preference dividend. As a founder, you must have clarity on this from the start.

Dividend preference: cumulative and non-cumulative

Preference shares often provide for a preferential dividend as well – investors with preference shares are entitled to receive dividends before ordinary shareholders.

Dividends increase the total return for the investors and decrease the total return for ordinary shareholders. Dividends are often stated as a percentage of the share issue price for the preference shares (for example, 8% of the total share issue price). There are at least three general ways dividends are structured in venture capital deals: (i) cumulative dividends; (ii) non-cumulative dividends; and (iii) dividends on preference shares only when paid on the ordinary shares.

Dividend structures (i) and (ii): If a company does not declare a dividend in respect of a particular year, then preference shareholders with a right to non-cumulative dividends would lose the right to receive a dividend for that year. However, preference shareholders with a right to cumulative dividends would be able to carry over their right to receive a dividend for that year, entitling them to receive that dividend in the future, together with the dividend declared in that next year (before any dividends are payable to ordinary shareholders). Clearly, cumulative dividends are the most beneficial to the investor and the most burdensome on the founders (being ordinary shareholders).

Dividend structure (iii): Where dividends are paid on the preference shares only if paid on the ordinary shares, the preference shares are treated as if they had been converted into ordinary shares at the time the dividend is declared. This is the least beneficial to the investor and the most beneficial to the founders.

If not clearly understood, agreeing to a cumulative dividend can lead to significant and unexpected monetary burdens on the available and distributable profits for you and your co-founders. As a start-up founder, you must understand the different ways in which dividends can be structured. You need to consider the company’s projected cashflow from now until the expected exit and the impact the dividend preference has on shareholders.

Concluding remarks

We trust that the issues highlighted above will give you some insight and guidance as to why it is so important to have a good understanding of the preference share terms you are likely to find in a term sheet. If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please feel free to contact our Start-up Law team and we’ll gladly assist.

COMPETITION COMISSION INVITES COMMENTS ON DRAFT GUIDELINES FOR INFORMATION EXCHANGE BETWEEN COMPETITORS

COMPETITION COMISSION INVITES COMMENTS ON DRAFT GUIDELINES FOR INFORMATION EXCHANGE BETWEEN COMPETITORS

The exchange of information between competitors treads a thin line between enhancing efficiencies and potentially causing harm to competition. While the potential benefits of an information exchange system include the improvement of investment decisions, improved product positioning, lower research costs, benchmarking best practices and a more precise knowledge of market demand, such systems could also facilitate collusive / co-ordinated behaviour among competitors, to the detriment of consumers.

Recognising the difficulty in determining which side of the line an exchange of information falls, the Competition Commission (the “Commission“) intends to set out, based on its experience and international best practice, the general approach that it will follow in determining whether an exchange of information contravenes the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (the “Competition Act“).

The Commission has published and called for written comment on its Draft Guidelines on the Exchange of Information between Competitors (the “Draft Guidelines“) from any interested person. We set out the basic principles as set out in the Draft Guidelines below.

Legal basis for assessing information exchanges

Section 4 of the Competition Act regulates practices amongst competitors, with competitors including all firms that are in the same line of business (whether these firms actually or may only potentially compete with one another).

The section prohibits any agreements (including contracts, arrangements or understandings, whether legally enforceable or not) between competitors:

  • that have the effect of substantially preventing, or lessening, competition in any market (without sufficient technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive justifications); or

 

  • that involve cartel practices, including price-fixing, market allocation or bid rigging (which automatically fall foul of the Competition Act and for which no justifications may be advanced).

Where an exchange of information has the effect of substantially preventing or lessening competition in any market (without sufficient pro-competitive justifications for such exchange), or where it facilitates price-fixing, market allocation or bid rigging, such an information exchange system will therefore contravene the Competition Act.

General principles of assessment

Importantly, the guidelines only concern the exchange of information between competitors. Also, information in this context refers to “commercially sensitive information”, being trade, business or industrial information which has a particular economic value to a firm and its business strategy and is generally not available or known by others.

Information exchange systems between competitors are evaluated on the following general bases (among others).

  • The nature of the information sought to be exchanged: considerations will include whether the information is based on past, current or future conduct or outcomes, the level of aggregation of information, the frequency of sharing and the age of information;
  • The purpose for which the information is being exchanged; and
  • The market characteristics and dynamics: considerations include whether products are homogenous, the level of concentration in the market, the transparency of information in the market, the symmetry and stability of the market shares of competing firms and barriers to entry.

It is important to note that the Guidelines are just that – they are not binding on the competition authorities and will not be applied mechanically – there is no set formula / combination of the above factors that will ensure that an information exchange system is compliant with competition law and assessment will be multi-factorial and on a case-by-case basis.

Forums for information exchange

The Commission also set out an (open) list of platforms over which information exchange may occur and practical considerations and platform-specific guidelines to ensure competition law compliant exchanges over such platforms.

These platforms include, among others, trade / industry associations and regulators / policy makers, public announcements (which may constitute market signalling), joint ventures, cross-directorships / shareholdings, market studies and benchmarking and cartels.

Information exchange and your business

Whatever the final guidelines, given the inherent difficulties in determining whether an information exchange system between competitors will fall foul of the Competition Act, and the significant penalties and reputational harm that such conduct (even if unintentional) may incur, obtaining legal advice before embarking on any such practice may prove invaluable to your business.

The full draft guidelines can be found here.

Please note that the closing date for the submission of comments is 14 September 2017.

BITCOIN, BLOCKCHAIN, CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND ICO’S: LEGAL ENIGMAS FOR START-UP’S OPERATING ON THE FUTURE FRONTIER

BITCOIN, BLOCKCHAIN, CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND ICO’S: LEGAL ENIGMAS FOR START-UP’S OPERATING ON THE FUTURE FRONTIER

The latest buzz words shaking up the technology, business, financial and legal establishments are not to be treated lightly. These terms are uniting (hard as it might be) all the major role players in their quest to evaluate the potential far-reaching effects it might hold for the future of commerce globally. It is difficult to ignore the fast-paced development of the latest technological advances, as we find ourselves amid the fascinating transition phases nestled between the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. More importantly, as the universal compatibilities envisioned for this technology have now progressed from hypothetical online discussions between “tech-developers” and futurists to functioning real-life applications, passionate debates have erupted across a variety of diverse forums. Ranging from the corridors of legislators and financial regulators to the living rooms of the Stokvel run by Joe Soap, as people are curious (and watchful) about the industries based on the Future Frontier – and rightly so.

As the terminology is complex, we will not aim to explain what the Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies (which include BitCoin) or Initial Coin Offerings (“ICO”) are. We will also not attempt to define or address the application possibilities of these initiatives in this post, as the possibilities are vast and beyond the scope of this post. (For more information on the technical aspects relating to these terms, please see the links below explaining this in more detail.[1]) We will only briefly aim to highlight some aspects start-ups and potential investors should bear in mind when investigating the opportunities created by the technology found on this Future Frontier.

For Start-Up’s

Start-ups looking to venture into the industries of the Future Frontier are advised to note that there is still a lot of uncertainty as to the regulations governing and enforcing the practical application thereof. As such, carefully considering the current legislative frameworks in existence (and more importantly, the purpose behind it) might provide a helpful understanding of the things entrepreneurs should consider when developing their business models for the market. In a South African context, start-ups should consider the following legislative and regulatory concerns which might be applicable to them:

  • FICA, Money-Laundering and Know-Your-Client (KYC) legislation: due to cryptocurrencies trading far more anonymously over various encrypted platforms entrepreneurs are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the relevant FICA, Money laundering and KYC processes. Especially in industries where payments are being made by potential payment or payment systems operators;
  • Business of a Bank and Collective Investment Schemes: Business models based around the collecting and pooling of fees and/or accepting deposits for investments into cryptocurrencies and ICO’s might be considered to be Collective Schemes or structures conducting the business of a bank, both of which are strictly regulated by the SARB and FSB, respectively;
  • Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act (Twin Peaks Financial Sector Regulation Bill): any current or potential services aimed at the financial advisory or intermediary industries are strictly regulated by the Financial Services Board (and will soon fall under the Twin Peak Provisions);
  • Exchange Control Regulations: Strict requirements regarding the outflow of capital and funds exist in South Africa. As a result, certain apps or services designed to facilitate transfers of this kind without prior SARB approval, tax clearance from SARS or adherence to existing policies may pose some concern to regulators;
  • Companies Act: A very popular means to raise funds for start-ups focusing on Future Frontier industries is by way of an ICO. During an ICO the start-ups issue their own crypto- tokens to participants at a discount and often raise vast amounts of capital. However, an ICO might, depending on the rights attached to these crypto-tokens, in some cases be regarded as a thinly veiled offer of securities to the public. If that is the case, the Companies Act and accordingly, the strict laws relating to the issue of securities by way of an offerings to the public will be applicable. Since the Securities Exchange Commission of the USA recently declared this position (not without criticism), other jurisdictions may follow suit; and
  • Consumer Protection Laws: The loss of virtual cryptocurrencies value, tokens issued to paying participants without any underlying value and other types of blockchain transaction issues such as erroneous payments and systems breaches, hacks or Ponzi schemes are things to consider. If not adequately managed, this may create serious liabilities, not to mention reputational damage, to any start-up involved in these types of commercial venture.

These are merely some of the myriad questions start-ups are urged to consider as a starting point into the regulatory and compliance frameworks regulating the industries on the Future Frontier.

Investors

Warren Buffet once said the following: “What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don’t know”.

In keeping with this thought, we would therefore urge any investors considering investing into start-ups which focus on the Future Frontier industries to not stray too far from established investment principals. Especially in determining what the Investor does not know, conducting an adequate due diligence investigation (or “DD“) into the envisioned Start-up’s proof of concept, management of regulatory and compliance issues and the viability of their intended financial and business models should be considered a minimum requirement. Further to this, investors would do well to consider special escrow arrangements for any transfer of investment funds irrespective of whether these funds are done by way of crypto-funds/tokens and/or fiat currency. Also using respected and knowledgeable service providers may mitigate against any risks involved in these investments.  

Conclusion

There are various levels of uncertainty regarding the practical and legal implications of these Future Frontier industries. This accordingly provides ample grey area for entrepreneurs and investors alike to either flower or flounder through. As such, we would recommend that any Start-Ups or investors contemplating to venture into these Future Frontier Industries to make sure that they have a clear view of the legal nature of the transaction at hand. If the legal nature of the transaction is clear, it enables the parties to take a measured approach to control the relative risk associated and build in the protective mechanisms that the law requires.

We hope to see legislators work with other industry experts to create a legislative framework that promotes certainty, without smothering the revolutionary initiatives and staggering opportunities presented by Future Frontier technology.

[1] For further detailed information regarding how Cryptocurrencies and the Blockchain function and operate please make use of the following recommend sources:

 

Service agreements: why they are necessary and what they should cover

Service agreements: why they are necessary and what they should cover

If you are a service provider of any kind, regulating your engagement with your customers is crucial to show potential investors how you have secured your revenue stream and managed your risk. Investors are going to be interested in how you protect your revenue stream. They will typically assess how “water-tight” your agreements are with your clients in order to determine business level risk.

A service agreement is an example of a revenue contract. This is the agreement that describes how your company generates revenue in return for delivering services and describes the fees which you charge.

Some key considerations for a service agreement are as follows:

  1. Description of your services:

It is important to accurately describe your services so there is clarity and certainty regarding what it is your customers are paying for. It can sometimes work well to describe the services by referring to your website which then provides for a full description of the services in greater detail. This has the advantage of allowing you to evolve your services over time, and change the specific terms and pricing on your website (on notice to the client).

  1. Duration of the agreement:

How long do you expect the service agreement to be in place? Depending on the nature of the services rendered, it may be for a specific period or ongoing. Whether the contract can be renewed and on what terms should also be carefully considered together with termination rights. You will want to ideally strike a balance between easily terminating the relationship when it no longer suits you while still attracting and maintaining a constant revenue stream without too much unexpected disruption.

  1. Risk provisions:

You should consider what warranties you are willing to make with respect to the quality or outcome of your services. This will be specific to your service offering but you should also consider the industry in which you operate and what your average client would expect. Your appetite for risk and the level of risk associated with your services should also determine what warranties will be offered. Another related consideration is what your liability to your clients should be, whether you will have any liability at all and how you manage this.

The other considerations which we discuss with our clients for the purposes of drafting their service agreements include service levels, payment terms, exclusivity, IP and license arrangements, data and privacy matters and whether there are any specific regulatory aspects applicable.

We provide a Service Agreement Package to start-ups and through this process we are able to prepare bespoke service agreements applicable and appropriate for each client. We can also assist with reviewing and updating existing service agreements, if you are not sure whether your existing contract is up to scratch.

Conversations and agreements – when are they binding?

Conversations and agreements – when are they binding?

Introduction

A major cause of disputes occurs over the content of agreements. Sometimes these disputes are a result of poorly drafted contracts; content and deliverables not being adequately described; or as a result of variations to the original contract. Another source of dispute is verbal contracts and conversations where the parties dispute the content of what was agreed upon.

Both verbal and written contracts are, in general, legally binding. However, sometimes writing is unavoidable and is a formality for the contract to be valid, for example: the sale of immovable property, antenuptial contracts, wills and executory donations. Along with the preceding list, all documents that have to be submitted to and registered with the Deeds Office must also be set out in writing.

Written contracts have various advantages, among others, they:

  • ensure that both parties are fully aware of the contents of their agreement;
  • create transparency between the parties;
  • create and maintain trust between parties;
  • can stipulate formalities that must be met for validity; and
  • serve to avoid unnecessary disputes.

Electronic communication

The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 (“ECTA“) recognises electronic messages (or “data messages“) as the functional equivalent of writing, meaning that data messages have the same legal validity as content written on paper. This results in any formality requiring writing to be met when the information is in the form of a data message. ECTA, however, imposes a requirement of accessibility to accompany data messages by requiring data messages to be easily accessible to the parties thereto.

The validity of electronic messages was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal (“SCA“) in November 2014 in the case of Spring Forest Trading v Wilberry (Pty) Ltd. The court held that variations to an agreement between the parties made via email were binding – the arguments put forth were that the variation to the agreement was required to be made in writing and signed by both parties in order for it to be valid and that this requirement had not been met because the variations were only discussed and agreed to via email. The court stated that the email signatures at the bottom of the emails amount to signatures and that the email messages constituted writing in terms of ECTA.

Conclusion

Written contracts are always recommended. The rationale being that oral agreements offer no objective or clear record of the details of the agreement and the specific terms are often difficult to establish when a dispute arises. Well drafted agreements should include useful information and guidance to the parties to ensure a fair and smooth resolution of disputes or disagreements. The guidance information should address when parties may cancel the agreement, what constitutes breach and how the breach should be remedied.

Written agreements should also set out that any changes to the agreement are not valid if they are not in writing (and signed by both parties) – which prevents disputes over any amended terms of the agreement. This also prevents quarrels of a “he said, she said” nature as everything has been recorded. As set out above, this can be done via email or other electronic messages, including Whatsapp, for example, however, the name of the sender must be signed at the end of the message for it to be valid.

It is important to understand that following the abovementioned judgment, parties to a contract should specifically refer to an “advanced electronic signature” – which is a special signature provided for in ECTA – being required to amend the agreement if the intention is for the usual email type correspondence not to effect an amendment to the agreement.

Remember, you could be bound to a contract where you have willingly signed it even if you have not yet read it.

Important take-aways

  • electronic communication is legally binding and is the equivalent of writing;
  • some agreements can only be altered if the variation is in writing and signed by both parties;
  • some agreements must be in writing and signed (and sometimes commissioned or notarised) in order to be valid and binding; and
  • oral agreements are binding (but not advised!).
The dos and don’ts of recording conversations

The dos and don’ts of recording conversations

There are several reasons why a business may want to record its interactions / conversations with customers: improving customer service; ensuring that employees always treat customers in the best possible way; ensuring easy customer follow-up and resolution of disputes; demonstrating accountability to customers; and aiding reliable note-taking.

Several businesses may not, however, realise these benefits as they are unsure of the legality and legal parameters of recording conversations. To clear up grey areas and enable you to grow and improve your business using all tools available, we have set out the basics of recording conversations in South Africa.

Am I (or is my business) allowed to record conversations with customers?

While, in terms of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act 70 of 2002 (“RICA“), the general rule is that no person may record a conversation without consent, the Act does set out certain exceptions to this rule. The exceptions include (and you can therefore record a conversation) where:

  • you are a party to the conversation (“single-party consent”);
  • you have the prior written consent of at least one of the parties to the conversation; or
  • the conversation relates to, or occurs in the course of, the carrying on of your business (“the business exception”).

It is important to note that the business exception is subject to further requirements in terms of RICA.

As a side note, certain businesses (specifically those in the financial services and intermediary industry) are legally required to record certain conversations with customers and to maintain such recordings for a statutory minimum period. This is however beyond the scope of this article.

Consent to record

As stated above, consent of at least one party to the communication is required when recording a conversation. This rule does not apply where the recorder is also a party to the conversation.

However, where a third party is recording the conversation, the third party must obtain informed consent from one of the parties to the conversation in order to legally record the conversation.

Guidelines for recording conversations

  • When recording conversations under the business exception, it is required that you make all reasonable efforts, in advance, to inform all parties that you will be recording conversations. It is good business practice to ensure and be certain that all customers are aware when conversations are recorded.
  • Use reliable technology to record and store recordings of conversations – you want to make sure that your customers’ (and your business’s) information is protected! In this regard, ensure that any recordings and storage thereof comply with all relevant laws (including, for example, the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013)
  • Maintain an effective storage system so that you can make the most use of your recorded conversations in developing your business

The article is serves only as a basic introduction to the topic of recording conversations and legal advice should be sought in relation to specific circumstances.

Are directors also employees?

Are directors also employees?

INTRODUCTION:

If you have a business of your own, then you will know that the role of a business owner is multi-faceted and often requires the wearing of many different hats. These relate to the roles of a shareholder, a director and an employee. Many business owners wear all three of these hats at once which can be quite challenging if they are not kept distinct and separate. As a shareholder, your attention should be focused on the return you are receiving from your business. As a director, your responsibility is to govern the business in a way that substantially delivers the return that shareholders expect. As an employee, your main obligation will be the tendering of personal services and to further the business interests of the employer. However, outside of the owner-managed scenario, the question arises as to whether a director can generally also be an employee? Let us examine this question in more detail below.

EMPLOYEE VS DIRECTOR AND REMUNERATION:

Generally speaking, there are usually two sources of a director’s remuneration: the one source flows from the fees that he receives for his services as director (example, fees for attending board meetings) and the other source flows from such director’s employment contract (if any) which would provide for the payment of a salary.

A director in his capacity as director is not necessarily an employee of the company and will not always be entitled to the standard rights flowing from an employment contract. It therefore follows that a director is not entitled to be remunerated for his services as a director simply because he has been appointed as a director. Granted, if such director enters into a contract of employment with the company, then he or she will be entitled to those rights that flow from an employment relationship and he would then stand in a position of both an employee and a director.

As a director only, he is not automatically entitled to be remunerated for his services as director. Under the Companies Act, 71 of 2008 (“the Companies Act“), a company may pay remuneration to a director for his services as director, unless it is prohibited by the company’s memorandum of incorporation (“MOI“). Should the MOI prohibit the payment of remuneration to a director, he will not be entitled to remuneration for his services, which is thought to stem from the rule that people in a fiduciary position are not entitled to use their office to profit themselves, unless they have the consent of the majority of the shareholders.

In terms of section 66(9) of the Companies Act, remuneration paid to directors for their service as director may only be paid in accordance with a special resolution approved by the shareholders within the previous two years. However, the words “service as directors” are ambiguous because it is not clear if approval is required only for directors’ services as directors or whether the words are broad enough to include remuneration paid to executive directors in terms of their employment contract.

CORPORATE GOVERNANCE:

The King IV offers some guidance. It embraces the underlying philosophy of ethical leadership, sustainability and corporate citizenship. On the issue of leadership, the board should ensure that all decisions and actions are based on the four values underpinning good corporate governance: responsibility, accountability, fairness and transparency.

As such, King IV differentiates between executive and non-executive directors. An executive director is involved in the day-to-day management of the company. He or she is normally in the full time salaried employ of the company and is generally under a contract of service with the company. A non-executive director, on the other hand, is a part time director who is not considered an employee of the company. Such non-executive director does not manage the company, but rather plays an important role in providing objective, independent judgement on various issues relating to the company. An executive director can therefore be an employee and a director at the same time.

TERMINATION OF SERVICES:

Flowing from the above, there are obvious complications that present itself when a company wants to terminate an executive director’s services. Where the company wishes to remove a director from his office as director and as an employee of the company, the procedure is twofold and reference must be given to both the Companies Act as well as the Labour Relations Act, 66 of 1995 (“the LRA“)

In some instances, the employment contract with the director as employee contains an automatic termination clause which provides that if the director is removed from his office as director, his employment with the company will be automatically terminated or vice versa. In other instances, the MOI of the company will have an automatic termination clause.

However, in the case of Chilliebush v Commissioner Johnson & Others the court held that the insertion of an automatic termination clause into a company’s MOI is in direct contravention with the LRA. The reasoning provided for the court’s decision is that an employer is not at liberty to contractually negotiate the terms of an employee’s dismissal, despite that employee also being a director. Should a company rely on an automatic termination clause as its reasoning for the automatic termination of the director/employee’s contract of employment, such termination does not constitute a fair dismissal for purposes of the LRA. The director/employee will then be well within his rights to proceed to the CCMA on the grounds of unfair dismissal.

The decision is significant because in situations where a director holds two positions (one as a director and one as an employee) his rights as an employee will not be affected by the fact that he is also a director.

The difficulties involved in setting up and managing Section 12J Venture Capital Companies

The difficulties involved in setting up and managing Section 12J Venture Capital Companies

“Section 12J Venture Capital Companies” (Section 12J VCC) seem to be a bit of a buzz phrase doing the rounds in the South African entrepreneurial world at the moment. We have had several requests from new and existing clients to set one up, mainly because of the attractiveness of these structures to investors.

A Section 12J VCC is a company formed in terms of section 12J of the Income Tax Act, 1962 (ITA) – it is essentially a pooling mechanism created by the South African Revenue Service (SARS) to encourage largely high net worth individuals to invest in start ups. The incentive to invest in a Section 12J VCC comes from the fact that investors get a full tax rebate on the funds invested into the Section 12J VCC. So, if a person in the highest tax bracket (presently 45%) invests R 1 million, they will get a tax rebate of R 450,000, meaning that the net investment is R 550,000.

The Section 12J VCC itself is relatively simple to set up, but the real complexity and difficulty comes with the management of it. The legislators have included several anti-avoidance provisions in section 12J of the ITA, which have made it particularly difficult, and in our experience prohibitive, for anyone to manage and run a Section 12J VCC. In fact, at the moment, there are only fifty six Section 12J VCCs approved by SARS and according to the information that we have gathered, and less than half of those are actually trading. It is interesting to note that the legislation allowing these funds was put in place in 2009 – that equates to, on average, seven of these companies formed (not necessarily even operating) every year since inception.

So why is it so difficult to get a Section 12J VCC off the ground? Below we have highlighted some of the major difficulties that some of our clients have had:

  1. No investor into the Section 12J VCC may be a “connected person” in respect of the Section 12J VCC, which essentially means that a natural person cannot own 20% or more of the shares in the Section 12J VCC (directly or indirectly) and a company can own up to 50%, in limited circumstances, of the Section 12J VCC (directly or indirectly), but no more.
  2. No more than 20% of the capital raised through the issue of shares may be invested into any one investee company.
  3. An investee company cannot be a “controlled group company”, meaning that a Section 12J VCC cannot own 70% or more of the equity shares in an investee company.
  4. To be recognised by SARS, the Section 12J VCC must be registered in accordance with section 7 of the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act, 2002 (FAIS), meaning that the company must have a “key individual” in its employment and the Financial Services Board must issue it with a certificate.

There are many more nuances to a Section 12J VCC that we have not highlighted here as they are too lengthy to get into, but they also make for significant barriers to entry.

Regarding point one above – the issue of being a “connected person” – this provision was clearly put in place to avoid situations where a single investor uses this platform to invest in a company where he ordinarily would have done so in any event, but he simply sets up a Section 12J VCC to reap the tax benefit on an investment that he was always going to make.

What we have seen is that there are legitimate arm’s length transactions where investee companies are told that the investor will only invest in them if they are able to use the section 12J of the ITA structure and because of the anti-avoidance restrictions, investee companies are losing out on a potential investment as it is often not possible for this to be done.

Regarding points two and three above, Section 12J VCCs are often restricted in the manner that they can invest when they see a good potential investee company, as they cannot invest more than 20% of their raised capital into the investee company. This means that investee companies can, and do, miss out on obtaining more funding or any funding altogether.

It can also prevent arm’s length investors from investing into one investee company, as they cannot use the Section 12J VCC vehicle to invest into a qualifying investee company because they cannot own more than 70% of the investee company and they cannot use more than 20% of the funds raised in the Section 12J VCC to invest in the investee company. The investor also cannot hold 20% or more of the equity shares in the Section 12J VCC.

The final point is possibly the most difficult, FAIS approval is difficult to obtain as you must have a person who fits the criteria to be a “key individual” in terms of FAIS, which requires experience in the industry and further study. With the fast pace of the business environment, it is often too much of a hurdle to cross to find a party with the correct industry experience to write the exam and become qualified as a key individual.

If you have a legal team that thinks laterally about it, there are ways to manoeuvre within the compliance framework, but even then, there are limitations to the extent that it can be done.

Section 12J VCCs look very attractive from the outside, but when you scratch below the surface, there is a structure that is complex and difficult to manage and balance, which is probably the reason that they have not taken off in South Africa yet. That is not to say that forming a Section 12J VCC cannot be done, as we have assisted in setting up several of them, but it is worth considering it a little bit deeper to see whether this is going to be the best structure for you.

The Edcon Ruling: What to take away from it

The Edcon Ruling: What to take away from it

1. BACKGROUND

Credit providers assist customers who cannot afford to make all payments in cash. In turn for the risk they take, they are allowed to charge certain costs and fees.  When credit agreements are within the ambit of the National Credit Act 34 of 2005 (“NCA” or “the Act“), the Act imposes maximum limits on these fees. Irrespective of the type of credit agreement, section 101 of the NCA provides for a closed list of the fees that a credit provider may charge the consumer in relation to a credit agreement. These fees include, amongst others, initiation fees, service fees, interest, credit insurance and/or default administration charges

2. INTRODUCTION

It has become common practice for retailers to make membership clubs available to consumers in exchange for a monthly “membership/club fee”. Typically, when a consumer becomes a club member he or she would earn points or similar consideration for different reasons – such as a percentage of the purchase price being earned in points. Depending on the type of club joined and/or amount of points earned by that club member, he or she would be entitled to convert his or her points into some form of benefit or product (for example, entertainment, travel, spa, gym etc.). For credit providers who want to offer similar “clubs” there is a challenge in that the NCA does not provide for this kind of “club fee”.

3. THE EDCON RULING

More recently, the National Credit Regulator (“NCR“) started to investigate this business practice and focused on a well-known credit provider retailer: Edcon Holdings Limited (“Edcon“). Following the investigation, they initiated action against Edcon by referring the matter to the National Consumer Tribunal (“NCT“) seeking an order declaring that Edcon has, among other things, repeatedly contravened the provisions of the NCA relating to prohibited charges – by charging a fee not allowed for in the NCA.

The NCT considered the matter from a broader legal perspective, namely whether the NCA allows a credit agreement to contain any fee or charge other than those permitted by the NCA. Edcon argued that the club membership was a stand-alone product, not intended to be part of the credit agreement.

As a starting point, the NCT concluded that the NCA unambiguously prohibits credit providers from charging any fee or charge other than those listed in and provided for in the Act.  The NCT found that Edcon was not allowed to charge its credit customers any fee or charge other than that permitted by the NCA and could therefore not charge the club membership fees. In conclusion, it was held that, by doing so, Edcon had engaged in repeated prohibited conduct in terms of the NCA.

The NCT emphasised that the business practice of charging “membership/club fees” is explicitly prohibited by the NCA and any credit provider who does business in this way may face dire consequences. From perusal of the ruling, the likely consequences that Edcon faces may include being directed to refund consumers charged club and membership fees from 2007 to date and/or an administrative fine on Edcon. According to media reports, Edcon has indicated that they will appeal the ruling.

4. CONCLUSION

The above ruling raises a red flag to many credit providers or credit retailers who may be involved in similar business practices. Retailers should take the following away from this ruling:

  • irrespective of whether customers voluntarily choose to purchase this type of (club) product, a membership/club fee may be seen as a cost of credit if it is inseparably linked to a credit agreement; and
  • review your credit agreements to ensure you do not include any provisions or charges not allowed in terms of the NCA.

Please note that not all club memberships will fall within the ambit of this ruling and club structures will need to be considered on a case to case basis. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any queries.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) – understanding some of the aspects of this technology model

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) – understanding some of the aspects of this technology model

As commercial law attorneys, much of our work is helping tech start-ups negotiate and draft software agreements. There is no doubt that the emergence of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) – often referred to as “cloud computing” – has been one of the most profound technological developments in the commercial software industry.  It is shaking up traditional software vendors and it is expected to continue disrupting traditional businesses. Think “Slack”, “Trello”, “Salesforce”, “Stripe” and “Dropbox” – these are all SaaS enterprise applications delivered over the internet.

This article will provide a basic overview of SaaS and some of the legal aspects tech start-up founders need to understand when negotiating and preparing their SaaS agreements.

What is “SaaS” and SaaS Agreements?

Software-as-Service is a software distribution model with which a business hosts software applications and makes them available to customers over the internet.  The agreement or contract that governs the access and use of the software service and describes the rights and obligations of the parties is referred to as a SaaS agreement. The SaaS agreement differs from your typical software license agreement because SaaS is not a license to use the software, but rather is a subscription to software services and allows remote software access.

Benefits of SaaS

Low set-up cost: SaaS removes the need for organizations to install and run expensive software applications on their computers and data servers. It eliminates the expenses associated with hardware acquisition and maintenance, as well as software licensing, installation and support costs.

Payment flexibility: rather than purchasing software to install, or additional hardware to support it, customers subscribe to a SaaS offering. Typically, customers pay for this service on a monthly subscription or utility basis i.e. the number of users who has access or the number of online transactions.

Highly scalable: cloud services like SaaS offer high scalability. Upgrades, additional storage or services can be accessed on demand without needing to install new software and hardware.

Automatic updates:  customers can rely on a SaaS provider to automatically perform updates and software improvements and modifications, which are generally free of charge.

Accessibility:  customers aren’t restricted to one location and can access the service from any internet-enabled device and location.

Software Licencing Model vs SaaS Model

Software license agreements are used when a proprietary software is being licensed by the licensor to a licensee.  The licensee purchases the software and receives a right to install, download and use the software. The licensor owns all the intellectual property rights in the software and related documentation.  A license is a limited grant of use those rights.

With SaaS agreements, the customer does not download or install copies of the software, but remotely accesses and uses the software by logging into the software provider’s system.  The software provider hosts the software either on its server or in the cloud and provides a service to the customer which consists of hosting its software, performing services to support the hosted software and granting access to the hosted software.

Important legal aspects to consider in your SaaS Agreement

SaaS agreements can touch upon nearly every area of the law, but broadly, a SaaS agreement should include clauses regarding: the services provided; the parties who will have access to the service; user obligations and prohibited use; payment terms; data collection and personal information; termination; service levels; maintenance and support services; disclaimers and liability; and intellectual property rights.

We discuss a few of these below:

Limitation of liability

The most important provision of any SaaS agreement is the liability clause as liability presents itself in many forms. What if the SaaS service is hacked or the subject of a cyber-attack and the customer’s sensitive confidential data (including banking details) is stolen? Are you going to indemnify and hold the customer harmless for all the damages suffered as a result of the data breach? Limitation of liability explains the extent of damages your customer can seek against you and how much they can sue you for. A well-drafted limitation of liability cannot be overstated!

Service levels

An important consideration is whether the SaaS service is going to be up and running and functioning for a guaranteed minimum amount of time. Service level agreement or commitments are very common in any SaaS agreement. Generally, the SaaS provider guarantees that the service will be up and running for 365 days a year 99% of the time, for example. Your company will need to consider what type of service guarantees and commitments it will be making in terms of its service “uptime” and “downtime”.

Maintenance and support

What types of maintenance and support services will your company be providing? Will you be guaranteeing bug fixes in a timely manner, providing customer support via email and telephone or periodic software upgrades and maintenance? These are issues that need to be considered and which will affect your agreements with your customers. To this end, the contact details, extent of support and troubleshooting methods offered by the provider should be recorded in your agreement.

Upselling and upgrading

You should consider including language in your agreement that allows for future orders or “up-sales” from the customer. By specifying that “up-sales” or upgraded orders from the customer will be governed by the agreement, you avoid having the customer sign or click through another agreement if they purchase additional services, upgrades or expand their usage.

Conclusion

A SaaS agreement is designed to be a comprehensive document and as such, companies should pay careful attention to the multiple aspects of the agreement that set out their liability, responsibilities and obligations. Failing to include or properly define a crucial clause can have serious legal implications on a business’ risk, reputation and commercial relationships.

If you require any assistance in preparing any SaaS, software development or any other software related agreements don’t hesitate to contact us.