Taking Non-Accredited Money – Survival.

Imagine you’re walking through a desert. You haven’t had water for days, it’s 100 degrees, and you know if you don’t get a drink soon your time here is done.  Then you come across a mucky pool of stagnant water that is almost certainly infested with some kind of bacteria. What do you do? Pass on it, for fear of getting sick? Sh** no. You get yourself a drink.  Rule #1: survive.  

This is the decision many startups face when questioning whether they should accept money from “non-accredited investors.”  It also highlights how ridiculous it is for startup lawyers to tell founders that non-accredited money is never worth taking.  They clearly haven’t stepped down from their mahogany pedestal and planted their feet on the same ground as their clients.  Being the product of low-income immigrants myself, and seeing how many successful startups rely on pre-angel funding (a lot), the “if you don’t have rich friends and family, don’t bother” mindset really rubs me the wrong way.

I’m not going to get into the background of what accredited v. non-accredited investors are, or why you shouldn’t take their money.  Most likely you’ve already heard it repeated in 5 different ways.  Professional investors don’t like them, there are onerous disclosure obligations, they can prevent you from raising larger amounts of money, etc. etc. Let’s just take it as a given. Taking non-accredited money is a bad idea. We all know it is. But you know what’s a worse idea? Shutting down when there’s life-giving capital on the table.

Texas is not California.

Unlike startups raised in the land of milk and honey (Silicon Valley), where many angels really will fund an idea, a true MVP, or something with no revenue, in Texas (including Austin) it generally takes a lot of work and some traction (with zeros) to get to a point where angels will even consider writing you a check.  And while it’s true that bootstrapping should definitely be considered, it simply isn’t feasible for a lot of business models; unless you’ve got some deep pockets.  For that reason, the “friends and family” round – $25K, $50K, $100K, whatever, just enough to build something angels actually find attractive – is often the difference between startups that scale, and those that never get off the ground. And statistically speaking, most people’s friends and family are non-accredited.

How do I safely take non-accredited money?

As a startup that knows professional venture capital will be essential to scaling, taking non-accredited money is not “safe” in an absolute sense.  No matter how you structure it, having non-accreds on your cap table/balance sheet will raise questions and diligence from future investors.  The real question should then be, given that whatever consequence is better than shutting down, how do I raise non-accredited money as safely as possible.  Here are some principles for taking non-accredited money, while minimizing the chances that it’ll prevent professional funding:

  • Get help.  Work with an experienced startup lawyer to ensure that you comply with relevant regulations as closely as possibleand within budget, for the financing.  A misstep from a legal standpoint could create an unfixable problem down the road.
  • Limit the group.  Take money only from people you consider true friends and family who can afford to lose all of the money they give you, and who understand that losing the money is a real possibility. This means people who care about you, want you to succeed, and absolutely do not view this money as a lottery ticket to becoming rich. This is not crowdfunding.
  • Lenders; Not Investors.  View the non-accredited friends and family as lenders, not investors.  Make it crystal clear to everyone that their money is a loan, not an investment.  It will not convert into stock, and hence if you hit it big, they will not get a piece of all the upside.  Post-IPO, you can offer free rides in your Bentley and shower them with benjamins. Just don’t offer them stock today. If the company succeeds, the money will be paid back. Offer them a very high interest rate, and work with your lawyer to structure a non-convertible promissory note.  Anyone who will write you a check for $5,000, knowing that it is extremely high risk, and that there’s no chance of a 100x upside, must truly be in it just to help you succeed.

Important sidenote: If you have people who are willing to back you in the above way, you are rich – in a way that many people aren’t. Other people leverage their affluence. Leverage yours.

  • Long Maturity; Subordinated.  Set the repayment terms of the non-convertible note so that the debt does not become “due” until the Company has raised a significant amount of money, maybe $2 million+, and that the debt will be subordinated to all future debt issued to professional angel (accredited) investors.
    • The goal here is to allay any fear from angel investors that their money will be used to repay your non-accreds, instead of funding growth.  The money is not payable until a true VC round, and their debt is always senior to the non-accred debt.

Does following the above principles mean that having non-accredited money in your company won’t blow up a possible financing? No, it doesn’t.  But, in my opinion, it will significantly de-risk things for you.  When VCs or angels ask about your non-accreds, you can make it clear to them that (i) everyone knows that they are being paid back, will never be equity holders, and are subordinated to all other investors, and (ii) they are a highly vetted group of true friends/family who will be cooperative with whatever helps the founders succeed. Once they are paid back, they are a non-issue.

To be clear, I am not promoting the funding of startups with non-accredited money in a broad sense.  I tell founders the exact same things other experienced startup lawyers do: it’s a bad idea, it creates more disclosure obligations, and some investors might not touch you.  If you can avoid it, do so. But being alive yet uncomfortable is always preferable to being dead.  And my observation is that, at least in Texas, a F&F round is often a prerequisite for progressing far enough to where angels find you investable. Drink the mucky water, and live to fight another day.

 

Your Startup’s Legal Bill: The Printer & The Cartridge

A client of mine recently used an analogy to explain why he dropped another small, local law firm for MEMN: their printer is cheap, but their cartridges are really expensive.  That statement explains perfectly why many founders, because of their lack of understanding of basic law firm economics, can get really screwed by firms touting their low hourly rates as evidence of their “efficiency.” The core problem is this:

  • In the short term, your legal bill is a two-part equation: hourly rate * time spent. Naturally, that means that a lawyer billing $225/hr can generate a substantially larger bill than a lawyer billing $375/hr if the “cheaper” lawyer takes 3x the time to do the same task as the more “expensive” one.
  • In the long-term, “time spent” is itself a two-part equation: time spent to initially complete the task + time spent fixing mistakes (if the mistake is even fixable).  This should come to no surprise to a CEO who’s spent time interviewing and hiring developers. One developer wants a $60K salary, and the other wants $100k. Is the $60k one a bargain, or overpriced sh**?

The above two points should help make the analogy between printers and lawyers clearer:  a printer can seem like a great deal because the manufacturer locked you in with a low cost of adoption, but you should really pay attention to how much the cartridges cost, and how many you’ll have to use – and whether it flat out sucks. Because that’s where the real expenses are. It’s the exact same thing with lawyers: an exceptionally low hourly rate can seem like a great deal, but how many hours will this ‘bargain’ rate be multiplied by? And what exactly are you getting for that rate?

The “Hourly Rate” Issue

As mentioned above, it is absolutely the case that a lawyer billing $400/hr can produce a dramatically lower legal bill than a lawyer billing $225/hr; meaning that, under the right circumstances, you should be willing to pay more if the value is truly there.  But are there circumstances in which a lower rate does not mean lower quality? Yes, as I discussed in “When the A-Lawyers Break Free: BigLaw 2.0” a lot of clients are shocked to find out that when an attorney at a large firm bills them $575/hr, only maybe 20% (if she’s lucky) of that rate actually makes it to the lawyer (the talent). The rest goes to pay for all the background infrastructure necessary to support a firm full of dozens of different practice groups, offices, summer intern programs, etc.

Thanks to new technology and business models now viable because of that technology, a new breed of law firm is emerging that (unlike their predecessors who attracted attorneys by offering jeans, MacBooks, and a more relaxed atmosphere at the cost of lower compensation) can compensate their attorneys on par with and in many cases better than larger firms.  And those small, focused firms have dramatically lower overhead costs than larger firms. The end result is that, even with significantly lower hourly rates, the attorneys are still highly compensated.  Again, in law as in the world of developers, you get the talent you pay for.

Nutshell: make sure your hourly rate pays for legal talent, not an outdated delivery model.

The “Time Spent” Issue: The Problem with Generalists and Solo Lawyers

Moving to the second part of the equation: what allows a lawyer or law firm to do something more quickly, and with fewer mistakes, than another firm?  The first and most obvious answer is of course: better lawyers (and paralegals). No shocker there. Better, more experienced doctors work more efficiently and with fewer mistakes than crappier ones.  But there’s actually more nuance here than meets the eye.

Focus

You’ve developed a strange rash on your arm, and you need someone to help you treat it. Who do you suppose will be able to get it done more efficiently and effectively – a cardiologist or a dermatologist? It seems like a stupid question, but many people don’t understand the concept of legal specialization.  Focused repetition leads to specialized domain knowledge, which leads to higher quality and efficiency.

There are an endless number of business lawyers, corporate lawyers, even IP lawyers, running around touting themselves as startup lawyers. The reality is that they’ve spent 95% of their careers doing absolutely nothing related to the venture-backed startup space, but because they either stayed at a holiday inn express or because they know someone connected to startups, they’ve started to dabble in the area. How complicated could it really be? I’ll keep my answer short: get ready to be schooled.

Process and Technology

Being a generalist forces you to reinvent the wheel when specialists have already-developed forms, processes, and technology in place to minimize time burn.  A new client of MEMN recently said a prior firm charged $1700 to draft a form contract for hiring developers (which, btw, was garbage).  The startup lawyers who just read that are laughing because they know that a client who asks them for that kind of document gets billed literally 5% of that, if anything at all.

Process and technology are at the core of why the hourly rate of a law firm or lawyer says very little about what you’ll end up paying.  I’ve seen solo lawyers and boutique firms talk about “overhead” as if it’s something to be absolutely kept to a minimum at all costs.  The problem, of course, is that if you don’t invest in technology, knowledge management resources, etc., it is 100% certain that you are going to be incredibly slow and inefficient compared to those firms who do, even if those firms have higher hourly rates.  This is the core problem with solo lawyers.  Yes, their hourly rate is low, but they practice like it’s 1995. And that’s expensive.

While we’ve done everything we can at MEMN to cut out fat and bloat, I have zero qualms about investing in technology that will enhance quality and efficiency. That’s not “overhead.” It’s called running a 21st-century business.  We also have an amazing espresso machine. Treat your talent well.

Conclusion: When you hire talent for your own startup, you don’t immediately go with the person asking for the lowest hourly rate. If you do, you’re a moron. Remember that lawyers and law firms are like printers (and developers).  What looks cheap could end up being the most expensive mistake of your life.

When the A-Lawyers Break Free: BigLaw 2.0

Nutshell: The world of transactional tech law used to be divided into A-Player lawyers earning the gold at large firms and everyone else making a decent living at second-tier small firms. SaaS killed that world, and small can now mean better, faster, and more lucrative; which means A-Lawyers are breaking free.

No one who operates in the startup space needs to be told that bigger does not always mean better.  In fact, the opposite is often the case. Being large often makes you slower, more bureaucratic, and inefficient. Just try getting a piece of new technology adopted at a major law firm, or getting a secretary to learn that technology.  I’ve been there.

Big Was Better

If bigger leads to better performance, there must be something about the nature of the product or service in question that requires a large organization.  In law, that “something” was historically (i) expensive, proprietary resources to properly service clients (barriers to entry), (ii) the need for collaboration among multiple specialties, and (iii) high amounts of friction in effecting that collaboration.

Before the days of SaaS and Secure Cloud Storage/Collaboration, top-tier transactional law required at a minimum (i) a law library, (ii) internal word processing, (iii) teams of administrative support and attorneys, and (iv) dozens of legal specialties under the same roof.  Without that, you would be slow and inefficient.  In that world, choosing a small firm usually meant, as a fact, that you were dropping down a tier in quality.

And then things changed. Your “library” is now a subscription SaaS service. Word processing you can outsource by the hour. Same thing for admin support.  People working remotely often collaborate more easily than people working within the same law office, if they use the right tools. When BigLawyers step back from their billing timer and realize this, two very important thoughts come to mind:

  • Why are you all here? – Why do we (all kinds of different lawyers working in different areas that require different processes) need to still work under the same structure? I’m tired of having to justify to a bunch of litigators or IP lawyers that some software that I NEED for MY practice needs to be put into the budget. Why can’t I come to work in jeans if my clients don’t care? Why do I even have to come in to work today? All I do is stay in my office anyway.
  • Where the f*** do all my billings go? I bill $600 an hour. I take home like 20% of that. Wait, you mean all of this obsolete, bloated, bureaucratic infrastructure is the reason 80% of what my clients pay disappears? They hired me, not your brand. Why am I here?

Focus Always Wins

Every variable that once made the large, full service law firm necessary and optimal has been turned on its head by the web, SaaS, and the cloud. Now, a corporate lawyer at a small firm can staff a deal just as quickly, if not more quickly, utilizing a network of smaller, more focused, more efficient and (yes) better lawyers and law firms. It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to understand why a top trademark lawyer operating out of a trademark boutique that does nothing but trademarks is going to be vastly superior at (guess what?) trademarks than a lawyer who works alongside dozens of other types of lawyers. Focus trumps being a generalist; and that applies equally to lawyers and law firms. 

But the reality of how SaaS has changed the landscape isn’t exactly news, at least not to people who follow these topics. Why then has it still seemed as if large firms have a lock on the best lawyers?

Money

In every profession, the best expect to be paid according to their talent. This is not rocket science, nor is it surprising. A-Lawyers have stayed in BigLaw for one very simple reason: it paid the most. Notice the past tense.  When big really did mean better, the better clients went big, and that means big paid more.

But it was only a matter of time that enough top lawyers started asking themselves “where the f*** do my billings go?” and realized that BigLaw’s overhead and bloat leaves an enormous amount of room to cut out fat, charge less, and still take home WAY more.  Yes, my friends slaving away in BigLaw trying to hit your 2000-2150 billables quota so you can earn that nice little bonus amounting to 3% of your billings, the cat’s out of the bag. Many of us at small firms earn more than you do. A lot more. And we do it with better technology, a more flexible schedule, and often working from wherever we want. All while our clients pay a lot less. Who, long-term, do you think is going to win at attracting talent?

You know what’s better than profits-per-partner? Profits in your wallet.

Networked Law: BigLaw 2.0

Examples of specialists we (corporate lawyers at a small firm) use to staff deals (i) a former silicon valley BigLaw tech transactions partner (head of his group) now operating a solo practice, (ii) a T100 in Texas trademark lawyer operating out of a trademark boutique, (iii) one of the country’s leading open source specialists operating a solo practice, and (iv) a veteran venture capital paralegal working virtually from Palo Alto. Everyone bills 40-60% less on an hourly basis than they would at a major law firm, which doesn’t even account for their ability to optimize pricing, process, technology, and staffing for their practice area. And, yes, everyone takes home more than they would in BigLaw.

You know what that’s called? D-i-s-r-u-p-t-i-o-n.  I don’t use that word lightly. This is not a piece of software that large firms can ultimately pay a consultant to help them adopt, but a fundamental restructuring of how top-tier transactional law operates.

The Future

Small firms are not just for the mickey mouse club anymore. The A-Lawyers are asking “Why are you all here?” and “Where the f*** do all my billings go?” and are doing something about it. Focused, faster, efficient, networked, and now with much bigger paychecks. Small law has been around for a while. But BigLaw 2.0 is just beginning to ramp up. As more A-Lawyers set themselves free, most of BigLaw will have to face the reality that all the branding in the world can’t save a bloated, overpriced, and now completely unnecessary delivery model.

p.s. We’re hiring.

Contracts are for the Divorce; Not the Honeymoon.

Principles:

  1. Small holes have a way of widening when you push a few zeros through them; and
  2. When a contract is being negotiated, founders are focused on the marriage. Their lawyer is (or should be) focused on the divorce.

Founders, for personality reasons, often pride themselves on being “closers” and able to accept levels of risk that others aren’t willing to tolerate.  They’re “upside” people. That’s generally a great thing, but seasoned negotiators know how to play off that tendency to their advantage.  This happens all the time:

Background: A draft’s been delivered and negotiated back and forth a bit. Then, right before signing, the other side’s counsel drops in a provision that they say should be uncontroversial – and casually includes a signed signature page, ready to close.

Company Counsel: (speaking to Founder) This provision is problematic.  It could lead to X, Y, or Z. I’ve seen it happen before.

Founder: (speaking to lawyer) Ugh, seriously? I just want to close this deal.

:: after discussion, Founder calls Investor to discuss ::

Investor: Your lawyer is being paranoid. There’s no way we’d do that. We’re all aligned here.

Founder: Yeah, you’re right. Damn lawyers.

:: Docs get signed ::

When the Company becomes more valuable, X, Y, or Z ends up happening.

Founder: F***ing S****!@#

Paranoid? No, Experienced. 

Why do good startup lawyers see red flags where founders just see corner cases holding up deals? The answer is simple, and it’s not risk-tolerance. It’s volume.  This is often the founders’  first VC deal, or at least they’ve never dealt with a fall-out with investors or business partners.  This likely isn’t even the lawyer’s 50th rodeo. The lawyer knows that contracts are drafted during the honeymoon, but enforced during the divorce. And holes in contracts have a way of getting bigger when there’s 7+ figures ($) waiting to be pushed through them.

Granted, there are a lot of lawyers who, because of the billable hour (or their own personality issues), do in fact make mountains out of molehills.  See ‘When it’s time for your startup lawyer to shut up.‘   But that doesn’t mean that a good lawyer will simply gloss over all issues to keep the business parties happy. Founders need to be prepared when experienced negotiators push the “let’s just get this closed, we’re all aligned here” button to discredit a lawyer’s advice. It’s an old-school tactic.

Good Cop, Bad Cop.

So my advice to founders stuck in this scenario is to go with another oldie-but-goodie: good cop, bad cop. In other words, ask, but blame your lawyer.  It goes something like this:

Investor: Your lawyer is being paranoid. There’s no way we’d do that. We’re all aligned here. (replay)

Founder: Yeah, you’re right. He is paranoid.  I know you’d never do X, Y, or Z. Lawyers are such a pain in the ass. But can we just make the change so that we don’t have to discuss things with him again?  We’re ready to close if you are.

Sidenote: I’ve found joint lawyer bashing to be an essential part of the founder-investor bonding experienceDon’t miss out.

Deal lawyers don’t mind being the bad cop at all. They’re used to it. It works.  Well, only if they’re actually your lawyer. See ‘Don’t Use Your Lead Investor’s Lawyers.’ You preserve your image as a closer, but still avoid the landmine pointed out by your “damn lawyer.”

If you don’t trust your lawyer, you should get a new one. And if you say you trust him, you should pay attention when he says that there is a serious problem in a contract.  We’re not all risk-averse pedants. We’ve just seen enough divorces to know what “we’re all aligned here” really means.

 

Startup Accelerators: The Legal Terms

Nutshell:  Getting into an accelerator can be a fantastic milestone, but there are serious obligations in their contracts that, if not properly understood by founders (and, if necessary, pushed back on), can cause very real problems down the road.  Founders should familiarize themselves with those obligations.

Startup Accelerators have by all measures become “a thing,” and for good reason.  They’re a fantastic way for founders to surround themselves with top-tier advisors, investors, and other founders, which is exactly what founders should be trying to do from the moment they start a company.  Getting into YC or Techstars is to a founder what getting into Harvard or Stanford is to a college student.  Though, as in any industry, there’s also a lot of garbage, including accelerators that have never resulted in serious follow-on funding, and some that even charge you for participation – lesson: do your diligence.

Naturally, a lot of really good material has been written on the web about (i) how to get into an accelerator (or an incubator, the lines between those two continue to blur), and (ii) what to expect once you’re in. Remote Garage just recently wrote an excellent post on their experience in applying to Capital Factory – a local accelerator/incubator (A/I) we frequently run into with our Austin clients.

But not much has been written on the legal side of these programs – meaning the provisions in the contracts they make you sign before you’re allowed to peak behind the curtain. Depending on the accelerator, those provisions can sometimes be excessively aggressive and give the accelerator (or its creators) undue influence over your company’s trajectory. Pay attention.

The Core Economics

  • Equity – In exchange for participation, the accelerator (or incubator) wants an ownership interest in the company.  Standard % for accelerators is 6-7% in the form of Common Stock.  Incubators tend to be in the 2-3% range.  The equity is issued via a Stock Purchase Agreement with a similar structure to a founder’s stock purchase agreement.
  • Additional $ Investment – A typical accelerator acceptance will come with an additional investment separate from the equity; usually in the form of convertible note or SAFE (in the case of YC).  Higher-tier accelerators will put in about $100-$120k, though some give as little as $20-25k.  This money is often intended, in part, to help founders relocate to the location of the accelerator, pay for housing, etc.

The Important Details

The above is fairly straight-forward and well-known, but there are a whole lot more details (and potential landmines) in the actual agreements that Startup Accelerators expect you to sign.

RepresentationsTypical accelerators and incubators will require founders to make certain representations in their agreements; meaning that the founders are committing themselves, by contract, to the truthfulness of those representations.  And the Accelerators can bring suit if it turns out those representations are wrong.

  • Organization – The Company is an actually incorporated entity (typically in Delaware), and has qualified as a foreign entity (if applicable) in whatever states it needs to in order to legally operate its business.
  • Capitalization - Accelerators will often require you to state in the contract what your capitalization is, including how much total equity is outstanding, how much the founders own, the size of your option plan, etc.  Given that accelerators expect to own X% of your Company upon entering the program, there’s no way they can be sure of that without knowing what your cap table looks like.
  • Authorization – The Company’s Board of Directors has actually approved (meaning at a meeting or by written, signed consent) the documents being executed in connection with the accelerator acceptance.
  • IP Ownership – All the founders, and any other service providers, have signed documents making it very clear that all intellectual property relating to the business of the Company actually belongs to the Company.

While I haven’t seen it explicitly called out in a contract (yet), a lot of accelerators will also informally require/expect to see a vesting schedule among a group of founders.

If it’s not clear to you already, the above reps mean that, if you’re signing a contract with an accelerator and haven’t had a lawyer make sure you can actually make these reps, you’re insane – not in a cool, “founders love risk” sort of way – just insane.

Covenants - While the above representations are statements of fact about the company, in signing A/I docs, founders are also signing up to various covenants – on-going obligations that they owe to the accelerators after signing the contracts.

  • Information Rights – Accelerators are investors, and they expect to stay informed of material events in the Company’s trajectory.  This often includes (i) financings, (ii) acquisition offers, and (iii) periodic financial reports of the Company’s performance.
  • Anti-Dilution Rights – When the accelerators say they want to own 6% of your Company, they don’t want you to issue them that many shares and then immediately proceed to dilute them down to 1%. For that reason, they’ll require you to “top up” their ownership to maintain their ownership %.  This anti-dilution right will usually terminate upon a “qualified financing” – meaning a priced financing in which the company issues preferred stock.
  • Approval Rights – Some accelerators will require you to obtain their written consent in order to enter into certain key transactions, including (i) selling the Company, or (ii) issuing securities to employees or founders through an option plan not already approved at the time that the accelerator docs are signed.  Normally you wouldn’t need their permission because of the small (6-7%) stake of the Company they own, but this provision requires you to ask them anyway.
  • Preemptive Rights – In addition to anti-dilution rights, which protect the accelerator from dilutive issuances (like you issuing more stock to founders or employees), accelerators will also often request preemptive rights (also sometimes called pro-rata rights) to purchase their pro-rata share in any future financings.  Meaning that if they own 6% now, they can take 6% of your future financings, as long as they’re willing to pay whatever price is set in that round.
  • Investment Rights – While less common in national accelerators, accelerators run by more aggressive investors will typically include some form of additional investment right on top of their anti-dilution protection and preemptive rights: meaning that, after ensuring they maintain their ownership %, they can purchase an additional fixed $ amount of securities at a later date.

Founders should understand all of these obligations as they move through and graduate from their accelerator programs, as a misstep could either burn valuable relationships, or require expensive cleanup down the road.

Where to Pay Close Attention

There’s a whole spectrum of philosophies among the people who run accelerator/incubators across the country, ranging from a “we’re really just here to help change the world, have fun, and maybe make a little $ at the same time” attitude to “this is a business, and we’re really here to make money.”  Somewhat unsurprisingly, the best national accelerators tend to lean toward the former, with founder-friendly docs not needing any push-back. Local and lower-ranked A/Is more often (but not always) fall in the latter category.  While the previously mentioned terms are fairly standard across all accelerators, here are areas where founders should pay very close attention, and if they have the leverage, push back on the terms.

Overly-Lengthy Anti-Dilution Rights - Anti-dilution rights should stop at a priced VC financing of between $500K – $1 million. Anything beyond that is (i) way more aggressive than “market” terms, and (ii) almost certainly going to create problems in raising funding.  While watered down “weighted average” anti-dilution is very common in startup financing, the kind of full anti-dilution given to accelerators/incubators is only tolerated pre-Series A.  Some accelerators have narrower anti-dilution rights that apply strictly to future issuances to founders (not all issuances), and those are more acceptable to carry on after a VC financing.

Overly-Lengthy Preemptive/Investment/Approval Rights Preemptive, Approval, and Investment Rights should also terminate upon a VC financing; where similar rights tend to be granted to all investors as a class.  Post-Series A, your accelerator/incubator should play ball along other, larger investors.

If you’ve raised $20M in venture capital and are on your Series C, it makes zero sense (beyond a power grab) for you to still have to go to your A/I for preemptive rights waivers, approvals, etc., separate from everyone else. National accelerators get this, and their docs reflect it.  But I’ve seen smaller A/Is let these rights drag on, giving them too much influence and power to disrupt major post-Series A deals.

Right of First Refusal on Accelerator Shares - The accelerator should not be allowed to sell its equity in your company to third-party investors without first giving the Company an opportunity to buy them back. Virtually every other investor in your company will be subject to a similar ROFR (as are the founders themselves); it should be no different for the accelerator.

Real Money should pay for Notes/SAFEs, not equity – This is less of a control/power issue than a legal nuance that a good lawyer will catch and prevent at the time of an accelerator’s investment.  As a founder, you have an interest in keeping the Fair Market Value (FMV) of your common stock as low as possible in order to ensure employees who receive equity can receive that equity at a low price, and hence enjoy more of the upside.  If your accelerator is paying $20K+ for a single-digit % of your Company via common stock, that’s often putting a FMV on your common stock that’s higher than you’d want at an early-stage.  This will make future equity more expensive for your employees.

For this reason, pay attention to the price the accelerator is paying for your equity.  If it’s higher than you want, you can ask them to move some of the money to a convertible note or SAFE, explaining the FMV issue.  Every major accelerator that I’ve brought the issue up with has been cooperative, so it should be uncontroversial.

Conclusion

Startup accelerators and incubators are (at least the good ones) fantastic opportunities for founders.  Unless it’s a really questionable one, I rarely find myself counseling clients that they shouldn’t attend one.  That being said, just like other big players in startup ecosystems, A/Is are not charities.  They have financial interests they need to protect, and that means requiring founders to sign contracts containing very real and serious obligations.  Go in with eyes wide open.