Sarbanes-Oxley compliance has come an incredibly long way since the corporate governance law was passed nearly two decades ago. That doesn’t mean startups are in a hurry to become SOX compliant. Still, for a high-growth startup that may one day go public, its SOX-like compliance efforts can give assurance to management and investors that the company’s financial reporting can be relied upon.
What makes SOX compliance more clearly beneficial, compared to the early days of the anti-fraud law, is the significant financial operational efficiencies that open up when companies assess and tighten up their internal controls over financial reporting. With the help of financial integrity experts, they can realize such efficiencies as they start understanding and documenting their internal controls.
As your early stage startup contemplates the future, including potential exit strategies, what would you need to do to become SOX compliant?
SOX Compliance for Startups
Tip 1. Firm up your financial foundation. Your emerging growth company’s venture into the public markets might seem far away. Strategic opportunities can unexpectedly arise, however, in the form of a SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger, accelerating your company’s need to be IPO ready or SOX ready. Despite whatever strategic plan is in the works, the financial foundation of your startup should be sound so that you have the level of financial information and analysis needed to confidently move the company in the right direction.
Have investments in technology kept up with the size and complexity of the company and where it’s headed? Are your accounting processes practical and leading to timely, credible financial reports that are auditable? Do you have access to the kind of strategic financial expertise required to help you move the startup forward?
Tip 2. Keep current on your key risks. As your startup quickly moves ahead, your risk management efforts need to be adjusted. Risks change as the markets change, as new employees are brought in, as the economy shifts, and as customer demographics evolve. A large part of SOX compliance involves understanding the current major risks facing the company, so risk management for IPO-headed startups is also important.
Tip 3. Seek expertise early and often. Whether your company needs a version of “SOX lite” right now, an idea of whether it’s headed in a smart direction in its growth journey, or simply some expert advice, you need the right expertise to help you. Amid fast growth and your assessment of your high growth startup compliance, you’ll likely find that you need more insights than you can find in-house.
You’ll need to connect with experts who will adjust their guidance to where your startup is right now and then will be there with relevant solutions as those needs change. Seek out a finance and accounting consulting firm that understands emerging growth companies like yours as well as the version of the company you hope it will become.
Do the consulting firm’s experts have experience in your industry, with companies like yours? And if they don’t, how can they meet your needs? Look for a consulting firm that tailors its solutions to their clients rather than trying to bend a company toward its solutions.
Tip 4. Be prepared to act like a public company. Does your team have the skills and resources to meet the ongoing financial reporting demands and SOX requirements of a newly public company? The deadlines are not flexible once your company goes public, and the scrutiny is higher. Pre-IPO companies can ease into meeting the higher expectations by truly understanding what it takes to act like a public company, including SOX 404 compliance and all that entails.
Some of the main internal controls that a public company is expected to adopt are simply best practices that every company should be doing, such as segregation of duties. Undertaking good habits as early as possible can minimize the risk of a material misstatement of the financial statements.
Tip 5. Communicate with your external auditors. Here’s a tip that not everyone intuitively realizes is a possibility: You can proactively check in with your external auditors to understand their expectations.
SOX experts can help you keep these communication lines open, while retaining independence between your startup and the auditors. This way you can understand what auditors want to know and minimize any back and forth that would require your attention. After all, you have so many other responsibilities besides SOX compliance for startups.
How Does Sarbanes-Oxley Affect My Startup?
You may be wondering, “How do I implement SOX in my high-growth startup?” The short answer is startups do not have to be SOX compliant until they are public. Depending on your current growth plans, however, you could find that your startup should work toward becoming SOX ready. To set the wheels in motion, reach out to SOX and financial integrity experts who can help guide your company through what you can and should do now, based on your current growth plans.