How to Protect Your Rights and Ownership Stake in Cannabis Business Partnerships
First page of an LLC operating agreement
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How to Protect Your Rights and Ownership Stake in Cannabis Business Partnerships

As with much in life, the key is to start early.

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April 29, 2021

Destigmatizing and legalizing cannabis are certainly positives for the industry, but it’s not just an increase in retail sales fueling the sector’s boom. Venture capital investors and businesses formerly agnostic (or even opposed to cannabis) now are pouring money into the industry, fueling much of the growth. With that, many long-term cannabis (and hemp) entrepreneurs are looking to parlay their experience and expertise in the field into profitable businesses.

The entrance of big money into the industry certainly provides a solid jumping-off point for businesses that partner with investors to increase profitability and valuation. However, it could also come back to haunt the seasoned cannabis entrepreneur who enters into a partnership without fully understanding the terms of the agreement.

This is why it is imperative for industry veterans to know how they can protect their stake in a business at the beginning of a new venture and avoid potentially expensive and time-consuming legal battles down the road, should things turn sour.

The strategies presented here can be effective in protecting your stake in a developing business, but remember that big money investors often have a “take-it-or-leave-it” mentality. However, that doesn’t mean a venture capital investor holds all of the power and leverage in the negotiation just because he or she is putting up money. Without your unique skill, product, process or experience—whatever forms the base of the business and sets it apart from competitors—the investment opportunity wouldn’t exist in the first place. If you are critical to the success of the business, you have leverage to steer the deal or walk away if the terms aren’t beneficial to you.

Document Early

When you’re in the early stages of building a business, it’s easy to get caught up in the euphoria of the new possibilities and future success of your new venture. While developing a vision in collaboration with new teammates and investors, there is not as much desire to pause the momentum and ask difficult but important questions like:

  • How will we make management decisions?
  • How much of this venture do I own, and how much do my partners own?
  • How would we deal with potential disputes between partners?
  • How would my interests be protected if:
  • The venture just muddles along or is a bust?
  • Everything goes as planned and the business is a moderate success?
  • You hit a home run and your founder’s shares are worth millions?

 That’s why it’s essential to put the terms of the business relationship on paper early, so expectations are clear and there are no misunderstandings or surprises in the future. You should start documenting once you’ve found your core business partners, even if you don’t have all of your investors on board yet.

Have a lawyer on your side—especially when dealing with investors

Finding a business-savvy lawyer to represent your interests can be critical early in the process, especially when dealing with outside investors or venture capitalists. A competent attorney can ensure the correct information is documented from the outset, draft operating agreements (more on that below) and can make sure your voice is heard in negotiations and business proceedings.

An operating agreement defines member’s rights

An operating agreement, sometimes called a shareholder or partnership agreement, is an essential document that defines members’ rights and lays out a framework of operations for events that could render parties in the business unable to continue working together. Think of it as a prenup for a business, intended to protect all parties if things go wrong or a member wants to leave the business. It can prepare the business for events such as:

Someone wants to amicably leave the business—what happens to their shares?

  • The business is booming and new investors want to buy in;
  • Majority partners want to sell the business;
  • Partners disagree on key management decisions or how to run the business.

 If you’re a cannabis industry veteran, you more than likely have expertise on the product itself—whether growing it, selling it, studying it, or manufacturing secondary products like concentrates and edibles. But if you’re seated at the table with investors looking to pump their money into the venture, you want to make sure you are maximizing your return on your years of work—not to mention legal risk—associated with working in the cannabis industry during the bumpy road toward more widespread legalization.

How to protect your stake as a minority shareholder

If you’re dealing with angel investors, chances are that you will be a minority shareholder, meaning you will own less than 50% of the shares or interest in the company. While you may not own the bulk of the company as a minority shareholder, don’t be quick to sign an agreement that diminishes your rights. Remember to take advantage of the leverage you hold as a cornerstone of the business by including provisions in the operating agreement that protect your rights and stake in the company.

For that reason, you should identify in the operating agreement the types of business decisions that will require consent by a supermajority of shareholders. Supermajority votes are recommended for decisions that affect the trajectory of the business, such as selling the company, liquidating assets, appointing management, spending a certain amount of money or taking on a certain amount of debt. If, for example, you are one of several minority shareholders who share ownership with an angel investor who owns 65% of the company, delineating decisions that require a supermajority vote ensures the angel investor can't commandeer the business or make decisions that inequitably benefit him or her over the minority shareholders. 

Tag-along rights, also known as co-sale rights, are another provision to consider including in the agreement. If a majority shareholder decides to sell his or her shares, tag-along rights give minority shareholders the right to join the transaction and sell their shares along with the majority shareholder at the same price. Tag-along rights ensure the shares of minority partners are as liquid as those of their majority partners. Angel investors and venture capitalists, who tend to be well-connected businesspeople, may have an easier time selling hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars’ worth of shares than a boots-on-the-ground minority shareholder.

Conversely, drag-along rights give power to majority shareholders to force minority shareholders to sell their stock if the majority shareholders enter into a sale. Drag-along rights prevent minority shareholders from blocking the sale of a company, but also entitle them to the same terms of sale and conditions as the majority shareholder. Drag-along rights tend to favor majority shareholders and can eliminate 100% of minority shareholders in the event of a sale.

Buyout provisions can also protect minority investors by setting a valuation equation or identifying a neutral valuation expert to establish a fair way for buyout terms to be decided. For example, if a majority shareholder wants to buy out your 15% ownership in a company, but you believe those shares will be worth more in the future, a pre-negotiated valuation equation can determine how much your shares might be worth down the line. If you’re being forced to sell while the company is growing, a valuation equation could allow you to capitalize on the growth of the company and improve the price per share you’ll receive.

Vesting

In some cases, the operating agreement will dictate that minority shareholders receive their shares in the company on a vesting schedule, meaning the shareholder does not fully realize the full rights and benefits of the shares until certain conditions are met, such as remaining with the business for a certain period of time. We often see vesting provisions where certain business partners are providing “sweat equity” (i.e., their time, services or expertise) as opposed to monetary investments. Vesting schedules can be set up to allot a set percentage of shares over months, quarters or years, depending on the agreement. Minority shareholders will benefit from vesting schedules that vest more shares up front or on a more frequent basis.

“Cliff vesting,” where a larger percentage of shares vest all at once after a longer period of time (typically a year), requires the shareholder to stay at the company for a set time period before he or she will fully realize his or her shareholder rights. A typical “cliff vesting” clause provides that 25% of the allotted shares vest after the first year, with the remaining shares vesting over the next three years in equal monthly tranches. This arrangement tends to benefit majority shareholders because it gives them the potential opportunity to push out minority members before a significant portion of their shares have vested.

To protect against this scenario, minority shareholders should consider including a provision setting forth that if the minority member is pushed out of the operation of the business, his or her shares will continue to vest on schedule so long as he or she was terminated without cause or separated for good reason. Conversely, if the member is terminated for cause or leaves without good reason, he or she loses his or her unvested shares.

“Cause” is typically a defined term in the agreement and will often include “bad” behavior such as: the conviction of a felony, a breach of fiduciary duty, misconduct causing harm to the company or willful failure to perform substantial duties. The company should tailor this list to conduct that best suits its needs. 

Similarly, a "good reason" clause provides pre-negotiated situations that are considered acceptable withdrawals from the company that would also trigger vesting or accelerate the vesting schedule. “Good reasons” should be negotiated in the operating agreement and could include:

  • Being asked to relocate more than 50 miles from your home;
  • Substantial reduction in compensation;
  • Substantial reduction in responsibilities or authority.

Remember that the efficacy of the protective measures laid out here depend on the negotiated terms in the operating agreement. You may not be able to convince all parties to agree to all of these provisions, but retaining a lawyer will ensure that you understand your rights before a dispute arises and will increase the likelihood that provisions that are protective of minority members make it into the final agreement.