Startup Accelerators: The Legal Terms

Startup Accelerators have by all measures become “a thing,” and for good reason.  They’re a fantastic way for founders to surround themselves with A-level 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 top-tier 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 peek behind the curtain.  Founders who sign these agreements without actually understanding what they say can run into very serious, and expensive, problems down the road. 

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 with a heavy investor-component 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 accelerators tend to lean toward the former, with founder-friendly docs not needing any push-back. 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. Top 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.

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.  It also leaves open flexibility for re-shuffling founder equity if circumstances require it.

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 means recipients of your common stock after your accelerator pays for its shares may need to pay a much higher price, or incur taxes for receiving the stock.

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.


Also published on Medium.

  • What about when world class accelerators (i.e. the equivalent of Harvard or Stanford) screw up, in their dealings between 2 co-founders (confirmed by conv. I had with their own Law firm) then try to intimidate you, by threatening to revoke your Prospective Entrepreneur visa? (with no IP assignments, indemnification, or confidentiality agreements signed) Does one go nuclear, or gently ramp up the pressure on them to do the right thing?

    • José Ancer

      Yikes, sounds pretty bad. Tough to tell w/o much more context, but I’d say always good to go with pressure/reputation v. nuclear. I’ve found the top accelerators are often full of very good people. You just got to find someone within them who will listen. Best of luck.

      • Alerted Brad Feld and David Cohen last night.. on Vivek Wadwa’s recommendation, (following discussion here, see comments: http://wadhwa.com/2013/06/29/wall-street-journal-corruption-in-business-and-the-importance-of-ethics/) David immediately invited me to conference call this evening. However, one gets the impression that they would still like to bury this, and dodge all responsibility. If so, problems and bad PR will compound. I sincerely hope someone senior there shows some spine, because this sort of carelessness will compromise any serious worthy venture going forward.