There are many priorities for a software startup’s finance team. Among those is one that has gained importance lately: Sales tax.
Managing this is a relatively new challenge for many software startups due to a change in rules prompted by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case. This ruling and the cascading changes in state laws that have resulted mean that many companies are suddenly out of compliance when it comes to sales tax.
Should you tackle sales tax compliance right away? It can be hard to figure out when to prioritize it over all the other tasks that a busy finance team handles. When to do so depends on your company’s exposure and risk tolerance. But unless the former is low and the latter high, it makes good sense to achieve compliance with sales tax laws as soon as possible.
That’s the advice of Brad Silicani, Anrok’s finance and operations director, which we’ll delve into later in this post. First, a brief look at why sales tax law is suddenly a moving target.
Why is sales tax a new problem for software startups?
Prior to 2018, U.S. federal law only allowed states to hold a company responsible for collecting and remitting sales tax if the company had a “physical presence” in a given state. That presence — known as nexus — could be triggered by various things in the state, including maintaining an office or warehouse, having staff, or doing certain types of business in-person.
However, in 2018, the South Dakota v. Wayfair U.S. Supreme Court case said states could pursue laws that would define nexus economically. As a result, states across the nation enacted economic nexus laws, stating that companies that had a certain number of transactions or volume of sales (or a combination of both) could be considered to have nexus there.
Software startups are particularly affected by this change in law. Since they typically sell their products remotely — often hosted in the cloud or as a digital download — and tend not to maintain offices or warehouses in many states, many software startups haven’t had to worry about nexus in states other than where they had a physical office. But now they need to look at whether they have reached each state’s threshold for economic nexus. Rules vary by state. Companies that reach a given state’s threshold must collect and remit tax on sales to customers there to remain in compliance with the state’s tax laws.
Getting into compliance with the laws of every state is a complex and time-intensive process, which serves up a dilemma to software startups suddenly beholden to new laws all over the country: How urgently to pursue compliance?