Why Startups Need Signals

Here are a few uncontroversial facts about the general early-stage startup ecosystem:

  • The cost of starting a tech company has dramatically gone down over the past 10 years.
  • In the early days, the caliber of the founder team is at least as important for success as the caliber of the idea/technology.
  • New networks – like AngelList and LinkedIn – have dramatically increased the transparency of relationships in the market, and the ease with which currently unconnected people can become connected.

Putting the above points together, you could easily conclude that it’s never been easier for talented founder teams to obtain needed resources in the market, particularly early-stage capital. But, in some ways, you would be wrong.  Many would argue that while the difficulty of starting may have gone down, the difficulty of actually succeeding has gone up, due to increased competition (and noise) in the market. 

The reduction in cost/friction in the startup world has been met with an increase in volume, and that volume has made the market far more noisy and competitive. Far more entrepreneurs producing far more ideas, and flooding top tier resources with far more pitches. If you want a clear illustration of this, look up newly created companies on AngelList.

Where there’s an increase in noise (weak teams, weak products, me-too companies, etc.), the value of signals – credible ways to cut through the noise and indicate to the right people that you are, in fact, worth talking to – goes up. This post is about why all early stage entrepreneurs need to be very mindful of the importance of signals in the marketplace, and what those signals often look like.

First, a quick clarification: signals are ways of effectively indicating information, but they are not the information itself. In other words, they are ways of credibly sending a message to someone like “hey, we’ve got something truly interesting over here” when simply saying those words won’t work – perhaps because everyone says that, or because you simply can’t get the face-to-face time, and when hard metrics like revenue growth/customer traction may not be available (because it’s too early).  Imagine the startup world as a very dense fog – and the fog is getting denser, btw – good signals are your very visible beacons to flash into the fog so that investors and other resources can find you.

A Series B company needs to worry far less about signaling its value proposition to investors, because its history, financials and reputation in the market can already speak volumes. Successful serial entrepreneurs don’t have much trouble either. A seed stage, or pre-seed company run by new entrepreneurs, however, is in a completely different situation, and needs a different toolkit.

Common early-stage startup signals:

  • A really good logo
  • A really good website
  • A really well-done AngelList profile
  • A strong social media presence
  • Well done blog content
  • Very well-crafted messaging
  • A great pitch at a pitch competition
  • Connections to respected people on LinkedIn
  • Acceptance into a well-respected accelerator
  • Strong academic or professional history

Notice how none of these really have anything to do with the fundamentals of your business/technology? You’re a very early-stage startup. No one really knows whether your business will be successful, and at this stage you can’t even get the face time with the right people to sell them on it. That’s what signals are for.

Remember the point about how startup investors care at least as much about the strength of the team, especially the CEO, as they do about the business? Why is that? Because talent (properly defined) is highly correlated with success, and talent is easier to analyze in the early days than the future prospects of a business. Great entrepreneurs tend to be highly talented generalists (multiple skills); it’s what allows them to hit milestones without a staff of more specialized people.

Doing any or all of the things on the above list credibly signals some kind of skill/talent. Just take a good logo (which may seem silly to an engineering type, but that’s a big mistake): it takes good judgment/taste (marketing skills), and the ability to find a talented logo designer (recruiting skills). Strong LinkedIn connections signal strong networking skills. A great pitch signals strong sales skills. A degree from a respected school, or employment with a well-respected company, certainly isn’t essential, but it clearly signals strong technical skills/training.

Getting into a top accelerator is one of the strongest signals available (because of how thoroughly they vet companies), and that’s why demo days are so well attended by early-stage capital. But getting into a top accelerator often requires its own earlier set of signals.

Yes, in many ways the world has become flatter, more transparent, more meritocratic, etc., and it’s a very good thing.  Yes, the “good ol’ boys” network is weakening in the sense that there are far fewer true gatekeepers. But don’t delude yourself for a second into thinking that this means success in the market has gotten easier. And absolutely don’t think that networking and referrals from well-respected people don’t matter.

A warm referral from someone known and respected in the market is still – simple, cold fact – an incredibly powerful signal. Think about what it takes to get a strong referral. You first had to get connected to that (usually very busy) person (networking skills). Then you had to interest them enough to think your business is worth supporting (credible business idea, sales skills). People care so much about good referrals because in a market full of noise, they are a very efficient filter. And no one has time to work without filters.  

This point is worth repeating: the “democratization” of the startup landscape has certainly reduced the power of gatekeepers – specific people (usually men) whose approval you needed to raise capital and connect with important resources – but it has not (and will not) eliminate the importance of building relationships with credible, trustworthy people who can then refer you to other people who trust their judgment. The democratization arrived in the form of diversifying the number of possible referral sources; not from eliminating the need for referrals altogether.

Utopian visions of a world in which great entrepreneurs will frictionlessly connect with capital purely based on the merit of their technology/business, eliminating all the superficialities of networking and personal marketing, are a dead end.  Someone on your team needs to be good at building relationships, because relationships are incredibly powerful signals. 

Just don’t expect your lawyers to connect you with investors. See: Why I (Still) Don’t Make Investor Intros. Signals can be negative. And the fact that, of all the people in the market whom you could’ve convinced to refer you, you chose someone you’re paying (instead of someone who refers based on merit), is very often, in today’s environment, a negative signal.

A good logo, or a well done AngelList profile, can seem superficial, but signals are often about how seemingly superficial things can help people with low information sort through noise. If it takes talent to produce it, and it’s the kind of talent needed for market success, it’s a signal worth caring about.

Negotiation and Inexperience

TL;DR: Having access to trusted advisors, and the time to consult with them, is essential for anyone negotiating terms with which they have very little experience. Don’t accept someone’s argument that you must negotiate important issues live. It’s simply untrue, and a tactic for gaining unfair leverage.

Background Reading:

A recurring theme of SHL posts is that entrepreneurs, particularly first-time entrepreneurs, need to be extremely mindful of the imbalance of experience between themselves and the many sophisticated, repeat players they’re going to be negotiating with as they build their companies. It’s obviously common for entrepreneurial personalities to be more comfortable (than most) with risk, and to go head-first into negotiations and activities without proper backup. But for really big, irreversible decisions, it will backfire, and others will happily use it against you.

One of the most overused phrases for getting naive negotiators to give in on issues they should push back on is “this is standard.” When you have no historical or market perspective – what’s normal, what’s fair, what are the risks, how will this play out in 5 years? – you can be easily manipulated into all kinds of bad outcomes. I’ve been at more than my fair share of board meetings or negotiations where someone at the table makes a completely biased, nonsensical claim that something is “standard,” at which point I’ve had to step in to set things straight, and gladly offer up data or a quick market survey.

There are two main things that I tell all companies to focus on in this regard:

  1. Have a group of experienced, trusted advisors that you can quickly communicate with on serious issues.
  2. Do not let yourself be bullied into a setting where your inexperience puts you at a substantial disadvantage.

Trusted Advisors

When I speak of trusted advisors, I’m not referring necessarily just to your Company’s “advisory board,” which serves a broader purpose of helping you on long-term strategic, business, and technological issues. I’m referring to people you can call or e-mail for specific, tactical guidance on more pressing matters; your “inner circle.” Seasoned entrepreneurs, mentors from accelerators, lawyers (who are independent from your lead VCs), and trustworthy angel investors often make up this group for most CEOs I work with. The most important thing is that they (i) have visibility into the broader market, to help you actually understand what is acceptable, and (ii) will be direct and honest with you when you most need them to.

Imbalanced Negotiation Settings

While it is far less common in the tech world than in other areas, you occasionally still encounter people (particularly VCs) who insist that the only appropriate way to “really” negotiate is live, and in person. And let me tell you: this is bullshit.

Of course, live discussion is important for communication and relationship-building; it has its place. But more often than not, attempts to force entrepreneurs and company executives to negotiate key issues live, or under a very tight deadline, is a tactic to gain unfair leverage from their inexperience. Of course the guy who’s done this type of deal 30 times wants you to agree to terms live, face to face, away from your set of advisors. It has zero to do with business norms. Plenty of high-stakes deals are negotiated asynchronously. 

How you push back and (respectfully) assert yourself in negotiations with other business parties will set the tone for your long-term relationship. If you allow them to force you into circumstances that favor them, they will do it indefinitely. There is nothing wrong with responding, diplomatically, that while you of course would love to grab beers and meet up in person for more casual matters, for real business, you expect time to consult with advisors.

If you’re working with people whom you should want to build long-term relationships with, they will respect your request.  In fact, I’ve known some great VCs and other business people who are very upfront about the experience imbalance with new entrepreneurs, and insist that companies work closely with key advisors.  Those are people playing a long game, and who know that their reputation in the market matters more than short-term opportunism.

If the person you’re negotiating with rejects your request, and dictates to you the medium of negotiation, then at a minimum you’ve gained some key information on what the relationship is going to really look like if you choose to move forward.

Commercial / Tech Transactions Lawyers

TL;DR: Apart from early-stage specialized corporate lawyers (startup lawyers), there’s a second kind of lawyer that almost every early startup needs: a commercial/tech transactions lawyer.

Background Reading:

Imagine you run into a doctor who says he can (i) perform heart surgeries, (ii) treat cancer, (iii) treat your asthma, and (iv) provide pregnancy care, on his own, and all at a lower than market cost. Is your first reaction “wow, this guy is an incredibly affordable genius!” ? A cardiologist, oncologist, pulmonologist, and OB/GYN all in one!

Probably not.

One of the first points I make to young tech entrepreneurs about how to source legal counsel is that the statement “I need a lawyer” is almost completely useless without specifying what kind (specialty) of lawyer. The complexity of the legal issues that even young emerging companies deal with is simply too high to entrust all of them to a single “generalist” claiming to be a jack of all trades. This is not a coffee shop, or a bakery. The stakes, and potential liabilities, are much higher.

OK, you might say. I’m a startup, so I need a startup lawyer. Well, that’s an improvement, but what exactly is a “startup lawyer”?

In my experience, the correct definition of a “startup lawyer” is a corporate lawyer with a strong specialization in early-stage emerging companies and venture capital/angel financings. Very different from an M&A Lawyer, or a corporate lawyer who handles middle market or public company work. Startup lawyers typically serve as GC (General Counsel) for early-stage startups, which requires them to have a workable understanding of tax law, securities law, commercial issues, IP, and labor/employment legal issues.  They’re not experts in those areas (corporate law is their specialty), but they’ve seen those issues enough to cover the basics, while also knowing when to rope in deeper expertise. Your corporate/startup lawyer should serve as the quarterback of your general legal team.

For most startups we see, probably 50-75% of Pre-Series A legal needs are covered by these startup-specialized corporate lawyers: formation, financing, hiring and firing, equity compensation, etc. Small amounts of patent or trademark work may be needed by appropriate specialists, but that’s a minority of cases pre-Series A.  But there’s a second kind of lawyer – who isn’t a “startup lawyer” – that virtually all of our early clients end up needing, and that all founders need to be aware of in sourcing their own counsel: commercial, or sometimes called “tech transactions” lawyers.

Startup/corporate lawyers typically handle the more ‘internal’ issues of a company and its stakeholders: relating to the company’s founders, its employees/service providers, and stockholders.  Commercial or Tech Transactions (let’s use C/T) lawyers, in contrast, typically manage legal issues and contracts relating to a company’s customers/users and potential commercial partners. A good 25-50% of pre-Series A legal needs will often get handled by a C/T lawyer. Examples of C/T Lawyer work:

  • License Agreements (Inbound and Outbound)
  • OEM, Reseller / Distribution Agreements
  • Terms of Service and Privacy Policies (which may also require Data/Privacy Lawyers, but usually not)
  • EULAs, API / SDK terms
  • Technology Transfer Agreements
  • Manufacturing / Supply Agreements

The nature of these kinds of agreements is very different from the kind of work a classic “startup lawyer” does, and while most solid corporate lawyers probably could wing a simple version of a tech transactions document, I am deeply skeptical of a lawyer who claims to be able to handle both all of a company’s corporate needs and their commercial/tech transactions needs for a serious amount of time. In the very early days it *may* work, but even with a small level of scale it’ll start to look a lot like the “genius” doctor mentioned above. The most dangerous (and, in the long run, expensive) type of lawyer is the one who doesn’t admit what he/she doesn’t know, but incentives to maximize personal revenue often lead lawyers to exaggerate their abilities.

So, in short: if you’re building a tech startup, you don’t just need “a lawyer.” You need specialists. And a true startup lawyer, even a very good one, is very rarely enough. Ensure you have access to a solid commercial/tech transactions lawyer (reputable startup lawyers work with them). If you don’t, you’ll eventually regret it.

Founder Burnout and Long-Distance Thinking

TL;DR: “Life ain’t a track meet; it’s a marathon.” – Ice Cube

I’m prone to deep thinking about life. It’s why I quit the honors program in a great business school within weeks of entering college, and switched to Philosophy (adding Economics later). Best career decision of my life. No offense to the business school grads out there.

I’ve always had this feeling that people devote far too much brainpower toward things that ultimately amount to nonsense, and yet things that are infinitely consequential – like what you want to do in life, where and how you want to live, who and when to marry, whether and when to have kids – people seem to either follow a script, or just let their surrounding culture/peers push them in the direction of the current zeitgeist. And the truth is, the zeitgeist doesn’t give a shit about you. Slow down, and think it through. You get one shot.

And instead of asking your friends, ask people who’ve gone the distance. It’s well documented culturally / sociologically that spending all of your time with people your own age leads to all kind of mental dysfunctions and myopic thinking. The only way to get real perspective is to listen to other perspectives, and that means age / generational diversity.

A lot of the advice out there on founder burnout amounts to a kind of checklist on health and wellness. Let’s go ahead and get that checklist out of the way:

  • Sleep – Don’t delude yourself into thinking that pulling all-nighters and not hitting your 7/8 hour a day quota will make you more productive. It won’t. The data is clear.
  • Exercise – Same. Go for a run. Lift some weights. It’s not time wasted. Again, it makes you more productive.
  • Eat well – Eat shit, and you’ll feel like shit. Read up on carbohydrates, insulin, inflammation, and energy. You’ll learn some things.
  • Delegate – Build systems, and then hand those systems over to other people. If you can’t figure out a way to scale your skills, you will fail at life and at work.

But in my opinion, and from what I’ve observed among certain entrepreneurs, there’s a deeper, longer-term issue at play regarding founder burnout (and life burnout in general) than just getting overworked and not taking care of your body. The best way I can explain it is using some old school philosophy concepts: higher and lower pleasures.

Speaking very generally, lower pleasures require constant replenishment, because the feeling they generate just doesn’t last. They’re the “simple carbs” of life. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are the typical go-to’s when someone wants to explain lower pleasures, but lots of cleaner forms of activities in life fit this category. Once they’re over, all you’re left with is a memory, and a desire for another one.

In contrast, higher pleasures have a kind of lasting effect. They have staying power and can bring satisfaction to life even when you’re not at the moment “doing” anything about them. Long-term friendships, love, family, and a sense of meaningful (not just financial) achievement are all classic examples of higher pleasures. They can be entertaining (or the opposite) and take up your time, but that time is a kind of investment toward building something that carries you forward in life, and is still there when you’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s, and later. David Brooks wrote a good op-ed called The Moral Bucket List that is worth reading.

The deeper kind of life burnout that goes beyond health/wellness results from years, or even decades, of failing to build durable “higher” pleasures into your life. You can ensure that you’ve slept enough, exercised, eat well, and have built a great management team, and yet at 40, 45, 50, find yourself sipping martinis on Christmas Eve, alone, or with someone who means absolutely nothing to you. That end-result really burns, because there’s no checklist for resolving it. Fail to build/invest into things in life that last and will help you really go the distance, and it can eat you alive in the long run.

When asked by young law students about how to vet law firms for employment, I’ve always said to look at the older partners, and watch/listen very closely. Look for divorces, kids in therapy, anger management issues, drug addiction, alcoholism. In the legal profession, and in all areas full of high performance personalities – including entrepreneurs – they’re everywhere. People who treated life like it’s a track meet – narrow your vision and run as fast as you can – when it’s really a much longer, much more intricate marathon.  Rock stars in their earlier years, but they failed to go the distance.

So my personal advice to ambitious entrepreneurs about preventing burnout long-term is, yes, sleep, exercise, eat well, and delegate, but also build a real life, not just a company. Emphasis on the word build; as in, activities that contribute to relationships and things that will be there tomorrow, and next year, and a decade later, when you’re a different person, with different priorities. Look ahead, and plan for the distance.  Most of the people around you telling you to just “keep hustling” care more about your stock than they do about you personally, or are themselves ignoring how long the marathon is.

Look for mentors who’ve built their own companies, but while maintaining a sense of balance (even if loosely defined).  Even if zen-like balance isn’t really achievable, the simple act of trying hard to achieve it will ensure you land somewhere sustainable. Like a speed limit, you know you’ll break it, but it’ll still help pace you.  

Think things through, and spend some of your time really building a life, apart from your company. The building may take longer than just narrowing your goals and running as fast as you can, but the end-result will be something much more durable. 

Lawyers and NPS

TL;DR: Net Promoter Scores provide a clear, simple opportunity for law firms and clients to cut through the obfuscation and marketing nonsense of the legal industry, and understand who really delivers.

From my earliest days of law school, I knew I was going to have a little trouble relating to my chosen profession. Virtually all of my peers were devoting large amounts of their non-class time to something called “blue-booking,” which means learning a bunch of arbitrary rules for proper formatting of citations in legal journals, and “spotting” the errors in a long list of citations; a kind of hazing ritual to get onto a journal. I simply could not get over how the entire thing looked like a spectacularly boring, unproductive waste of my time. I was the only law student in my class at Harvard that I was aware of (I’m sure there were a few others) who never even applied to a journal or law review, and never touched a blue book.  I’ve done alright.

This “WTF are you all doing?” feeling carried on post law school. Moving into a large law firm setting, it was absolutely breathtaking how backward the workflows of lawyers were, and how powerless law firms, as institutions, were to change it. Why are they powerless? Here is my core diagnosis for the “problem” of most large law firms: they are not really firms. Or perhaps better said, no one is really in control. The vast majority of large law firms are decentralized, weakly unified collections of fiefdoms, each controlled by a partner who isn’t truly accountable to other partners, or a central hierarchy. Within a “firm,” a small group of people may have a great idea, or tool, for implementation, but absolutely zero ability to get it adopted firmwide.

Combine that with a power structure concentrated in the hands of (usually) traditional 50 and 60 year olds, and the fact that you usually have dozens of totally unrelated practice groups with independent needs, incentives, etc., and you see that the inertia and inefficiency of law firms is structural and cultural. People who blame the billable hour are focusing way too myopically on one thing, and ignoring the broader, deeper problem. Most law firms are simply too large, too broad, too decentralized, and too lacking in institutional brand power relative to the personal brands of their old school partners to implement needed changes. The only solution, in many cases, is a reset button.

So joining and building out a small boutique firm was my opportunity for a reset button, and I got it, along with an AMEX card to buy what I needed, without having to ask anyone for permission. Starting with a clean slate, and supported by a handful of senior partners with the right mindset, I was able to build a law practice that cut out all the bullshit and delivers what good clients want. What do clients really want, btw? Here are a few examples of what they don’t want:

What isn’t bullshit?

(i) awesome lawyers with specialized expertise,

(ii) who are responsive and DON’T LOSE E-MAILS,

(iii) provide real strategic insight and not just paper pushing,

(iv) are transparent about costs (w/o BS-ing that legal can be cheap), and

(v) can demonstrate their consistent efficiency and quality.

In building out our firm, I searched for a single, objective metric, minimally exposed to BS, for building accountability and clarity around our mission of delivering the above, and I found it: the Net Promoter Score. Our most recently calculated NPS is 77. Apple’s, Amazon’s, and Costco’s NPS range from the 70s and 80s, depending on where you check. Is it as high as we want to be? No. Every year we learn more, and iterate as we scale sustainably. The beauty of NPS, in addition to its simplicity, is how every client’s voice counts. Many law firms have built their brands around the 1% of their clients, with the complaints about slowness, low quality, conflicts of interest, costs, and other issues of the 99% drowned out.

NPS imposes a level of transparency that punishes anyone who isn’t disciplined with what clients they take on, to ensure consistent quality. It actually forces you to focus, because the needs of an unfocused client base are so broad, that you can’t deliver consistency. NPS punishes bloated, unfocused, overly extended scale. 

While we don’t have the structural problems of large firms, we definitely deal every day with the training, recruiting, technological, cultural, and business development challenges of any high-end service provider that handles complex, high-stakes human (as opposed to automated or manufactured) services.  But what matters most is that we have a score for today, for last year, and for next year, to gauge whether we are doing our job, instead of the 100 other things that other people love to talk about, but are not actually our job.

And what I’ve found most interesting, and compelling, is how when you focus your strategy around NPS, the competitive advantages you build are durable. So many of the ways that law firms try to compete in the market can be easily bought: a piece of software, a key lawyer with a big book of business,  a sponsored event where influencers get together, a side deal to a market player in exchange for referrals. But by being purchasable, they’re also easily replicable by anyone else with money.

Delivering scalable, consistent, long-term quality – what results in a high NPS score – is infinitely more complex and time consuming to build, especially when you’re dealing with lawyers. There’s no main “secret” behind what we’re doing. It’s 1,000 little insights and implementations, compounding daily.

My advice to lawyers contemplating starting their own firms is to always, first and foremost, get absolute clarity around (i) what clients they want and don’t want, and (ii) then ask those clients what they want; then start building, and collect your NPS regularly. Focus, and the ability to learn and iterate quickly, is the core strategic advantage of the boutique law firm ecosystem.

And my advice to potential clients when diligencing lawyers is to start out with one question: “What’s your NPS?”  The answer, even if it’s not a number, always speaks volumes.