Friday 9 December 2016

The reality is that there is no incentive tax-wise for Irish entrepreneurs

Brian Caulfield

Published 23/07/2015 | 02:30

Enterprise minister Richard Bruton has been quick to praise our risk-takers
Enterprise minister Richard Bruton has been quick to praise our risk-takers
Brian Caulfield

In recent months Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, has frequently praised Ireland's "great entrepreneurs" while lamenting "we just need more of them". So you might think that there would be incentives to encourage people to take the risk and start a business. But there are no such incentives. When it comes to taxing entrepreneurs, it's a case of "no good deed goes unpunished".

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The main issues are well known. Irish entrepreneurs pay capital gains tax at a rate over three times that paid by their UK counterparts, while property speculators get a seven-year CGT holiday. Share options in Ireland are taxed at over five times the rate that would pertain in the UK. If an entrepreneur manages to make over €100,000 in a year, they'll pay 3pc more in tax than anyone else in the country. But our tax system also finds subtler ways to punish entrepreneurs, startup workers and investors. The stories that follow are all true and from personal experience, although the identity of the people and companies has been disguised:

John was an early investor in TelTech. He joined the board when the company was formed and invested €150k.

Unfortunately, TelTech needed more time and a lot more money to become successful than originally expected. John was not able to continue to invest and, as a result, his investment was "crushed down". However, the board of TelTech valued his expertise. They could not pay him a fee but granted him share options in return for staying on the board.

Ultimately, TelTech did achieve success. It grew to €30m of revenue and several hundred staff. It was sold to a major American multinational for €100m. John's options were worth €200k. Unfortunately, his investment of €150k returned just €5k. He paid tax of €104k (52pc including levies, etc.) on his option gain and was €50k down after 10 years' service on the board.

John didn't mind losing money - angel investing is risky - but the idea that he was at a personal loss of €50k while having to pay over €100k in tax seemed almost grotesque. He certainly didn't feel inclined to repeat the experience.

Siobhan joined DuoTech as a senior engineer in 2011. She took a big salary drop and lost the many fringe benefits offered by her large US employer. But DuoTech was going places and she was excited.

Duotech progressed strongly, doubling revenues year on year and, three years later, was acquired by a large software company. Siobhan was delighted. Her share options would be worth €100k. Not life changing but a nice deposit on the house she planned to buy. 80pc of the purchase price for the shares was to be paid immediately with 20pc deferred for two years and subject to certain conditions. Nonetheless, Siobhan was required to pay tax in full on the €100k gain up-front - €52k. So, initially Siobhan only received €28k

Unfortunately, the deferred 20pc of the purchase price was never paid. Siobhan assumed that she would get a refund of the tax that she had over-paid only to be told that Revenue would treat the €20k she had lost as a capital loss on the shares. There would be no refund.

She had paid tax in total at 65pc on her option "windfall". She resolved that she wouldn't make the mistake of joining a small company again. Much better to stick with the better pay and conditions of a large company given that any option gain she might make would be taxed in this fashion.

Mobilitech was a successful services business serving mobile network operators. However, in order to grow, the board decided that Mobilitech needed to become a product company.

They sought to hire a very strong product manager to run the new product team. Luckily, they found an American candidate, Scott, with the perfect CV. Scott was happy to move to Europe. A deal in principle was agreed including granting him options over 1pc of the company.

However, when Scott discovered how his options would be taxed in Ireland, he refused to move to Dublin. Ultimately, Mobilitech agreed that Scott would move to London and that the company would build a product team around him there. They immediately moved several of their most talented Irish engineers to London to join the product team and quickly grew the team to 10 people.

Paula thought about starting a business for many years. Finally, she was ready to take the plunge. She decided that she would take an initial salary of just €20k to enable her to hire a young graduate on a similar salary - at least until the business was on its feet.

Imagine Paula's shock when she realised that she would be paying almost twice as much tax on her meagre salary as the junior person that she had just hired. Over time, Paula realised that there were also a variety of social welfare benefits for which she was no longer eligible. She was also spending long hours in the evening doing the administration associated with a small company. There always seemed to be another form to be filled, accounts to be done. She realised that being an entrepreneur really didn't pay and she should close the business before her savings were exhausted

The reality is that there is no incentive for entrepreneurship in the Irish personal tax system.

Worse still, the system actively penalises Irish entrepreneurs, angel investors and workers in startups. It's anti-entrepreneur and also plainly unfair. That needs to change.

Brian Caulfield is chairman of the Irish Venture Capital Association and a partner in Draper Esprit.

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