How Founders Lose Control Of Their Startups, Apart from Ownership

Summary: There are many ways, apart from ownership %, that founders slowly lose control of their companies. Some of the more obvious ones get spelled out in term sheets, but professional players in startup ecosystems know how to use more subtle mechanisms to erode founder control.

Seasoned founders and startup lawyers know that there are really two things that matter most in negotiating a term sheet: ownership and control.  In other words, from the perspective of a founder, (1) what % of the Company will I own after the deal closes (and, more specifically, what % of exit proceeds do I get), and (2) whose permission is needed to make key decisions? Of the “control” terms, there are explicit ones, like protective provisions,  that competent founders know to focus on.  But there are more subtle aspects, like the composition of the Company’s advisors, and even who the Company’s lawyers are, that when ignored can significantly erode the ability of founders to control their companies; particularly in high-stakes situations when there’s significant internal disagreement.

The More Obvious Forms of Control

  • Voting Thresholds and Protective Covenants – These are typically spelled out in stockholder agreements and organizational documents. There are 1,000 ways to draft them, but they basically boil down to: you can’t do X without getting approval from stockholders holding Y% of the Company’s overall capitalization, or a specific % of various classes of stock.
  • The Board of Directors – Who is on the Board, and who has the ability to elect/remove people on the Board? The Board is the core governing body of the Company, which means nothing serious happens without their approval. In a 5-person board, whether founders (common stockholders) elect 3 directors or 2 dramatically alters the power dynamics of a startup.

The Often Overlooked, But Important Control Mechanisms

While voting power and board composition are definitely the most important issues, I always advise founders that maintaining control/influence over the companies they started is much more nuanced than what gets spelled out in a term sheet.

How “Independent” is Your Independent Director?

It’s very common for VC-backed boards to have an “independent” director – usually an industry expert that gets elected by both the common stock (founders) and preferred stock (investors).  However, it’s also fairly common for VCs to suggest that the “independent” director come from their own network of executives.  In judging whether their VCs recommended “independent” is the right person, founders should absolutely include the loyalty of that director to the VCs in the calculus.  He’s in their network, and knows that keeping them happy will mean more influential board appointments in the future. If a founder CEO is well-informed and connected in her startup’s own market, she likely has her own ideas for more independent directors. Put them on the table for discussion.

Board Observers – Who is at the Board Meeting?

Investors often will ask, in addition to a Board seat, for one or two board “observer” positions; meaning, at a high-level, non-voting people who can nevertheless attend board meetings and (usually) engage in discussion with the board. The presence of board observers matters and absolutely will influence discussion on board-level issues, even if they ultimately can’t vote. Don’t hand them out without understanding how they alter a founder’s influence at meetings.

Whom do your lawyers work for?

I’ve touched on this issue before here: Don’t Use Your Lead Investor’s Lawyers. There are hundreds of scenarios in which, in the middle of high-stakes decisions and disagreement among decision-makers on the right (or legal) course of action, founders will turn (protected by attorney-client privilege) to company counsel for advice – what’s legal?, what are the consequences?, what are my options?, what’s “market?” etc. etc..  Many times the “right” decision for the Company is one that won’t sit well, and even piss off, certain groups on the cap table.  You don’t want lawyers who work for those people.

Don’t just go with the lawyer that the VCs insist upon. These lawyers will work with the VC on a hundred financings and with you on only one. Where do you think their loyalties lie? Get your own lawyer, and don’t budge. – Naval Ravikant, Lawyers or Insurance Salesman?

Despite arguments from certain investors and lawyers who claim that the above is a non-issue (you can imagine why), most founders immediately recognize the problem when this reality is described to them.

Where do your advisors and executives come from?

The theme of “pay attention to loyalties” carries on into a Company’s advisors and outside executive hires.  Where did they come from? Who got them this job, or they’re last job? Are they all part of the same investor group or business network? The conversations they have with you (the founders) will not be the only ones they’ll be having. Pay attention. Careers are long, much longer than the life of a single startup.  Advisors and executives, even those with strong ethics, pay attention to who can get them their next position when their current one exits.

Nutshell: Voting control matters, but it isn’t everything. Loyalties, particularly long-term loyalties, drive human behavior. Don’t be lazy and let every influencer (director, executive, lawyer, advisor) in your company come from the network of a single investor group. Smart ecosystem players know that’s one of the best ways to gain influence over a company without putting anything on paper. Leverage peoples’ contacts, and of course contacts will overlap, but make sure you ultimately have real diversity of perspectives to turn to.  Otherwise, when it really matters, a dozen back-end conversations will end up with really only one voice whispering in your ear.  

It’s precisely when the stakes are highest that a founder needs brutal honesty from advisors and counselors. And nothing ensures honesty like transparency and true independence of viewpoints. Make sure you don’t lose it.