Contracts v. Might Makes Right

TL;DR: When a first-time entrepreneur is navigating an environment full of entrenched players who all know and depend on each other, the difference between a balanced decision process and a shake down can come down to a contract. Take contracts, and the independence of the lawyers who help negotiate them, seriously.

Background reading:

A background theme of many SHL posts is the following: entrepreneurs enter their startup ecosystems, from the beginning, at a massive structural disadvantage relative to the various market players they are going to be negotiating with. Everyone else knows each other, has worked with each other over the years, and has already made their money. And then you show up.

Now assume that environment as the background, and then imagine you start striking deals with these people: for a financing, a partnership, participation in a program, etc., but assume there are no contracts or lawyers involved. What do you think will eventually happen? Here’s how it will play out: as long as you continue to deliver exactly what everyone wants from you, very little will happen. When everyone’s expectations and preferences are 100% aligned in the short term, the absence of contracts means very little. They’ll “let” you stay in the spot you’re in. 

Until things (inevitably) go sideways. A market shift suddenly means a change in strategy might be necessary, but there’s disagreement on how and when. A quarter comes in under projections, and there’s disagreement as to what that means. A potential outside investor expresses interest in making an investment, and there’s internal disagreement as to whether it should be pursued.

I focus here on the word disagreement, because in many situations on high-level strategic issues, the right answer isn’t always clear cut. The goal (grow the company, improve economics) may be clear, but the right execution strategy is far harder to see.  People will disagree, and where they stand on an issue often rests on where they sit. For example, “portfolio” players (institutional investors) will often be far more comfortable, and even insistent, on taking higher risk (but much higher reward) growth strategies than entrepreneurs and employees, who have only “one shot.”  See Common Stock v. Preferred Stock for a more in-depth discussion on the substantial misalignment between “one shot” players (entrepreneurs, employees), who usually hold common stock, v. portfolio/repeat players (investors), who usually hold preferred stock.

The core point of this post is this: in an environment of substantial disagreement, and where everyone other than the entrepreneur is a repeat player that knows and has economic ties to each other, the first-time entrepreneur (who speaks for the early common stockholders generally) will lose every timeunless contracts in place say otherwise. 

In the absence of laws and contracts, the law of the market is “might makes right,” and established, repeat players have all the might.  

Here is a scenario that I’ve encountered far too often (although increasingly less so as awareness has increased) that is almost comical when viewed objectively:

  • A financing has closed, putting in place a “balanced” Board of 2 VC directors, 2 common directors (one of which is a new CEO, the other a founder), and an “independent” director.
  • In attendance at the meeting are 6 people: the Board and company counsel.
  • The 2 VCs regularly syndicate deals with each other and have known each other for a decade.
  • The new CEO is a well-known professional CEO who has worked in several portfolio co’s of one of the VCs, and was “recommended” by that VC for the position.
  • The “independent” director is an executive well-known in the local market who also has worked with the VCs at the table for over a decade, both of whom recommended her for the position.
  • “Company counsel” represents 6 portfolio companies of the VCs at the table, and has represented them as investor counsel on as many deals, and is actually currently doing so for other deals. In fact, company counsel became company counsel because he came “highly recommended” by the VCs when they were first negotiating the deal with the entrepreneur.

So let’s summarize: there are 6 people at the meeting, and 5 of them have all worked with each other for over a decade, regularly send deals to each other, and in some cases (at least with respect to the lawyer and a VC) are currently working with each other on other deals not related to this company. And then there’s the entrepreneur.

Wow, now there’s one “balanced” Board, don’t you think? I’ve encountered entrepreneurs (whose companies are not clients) in this situation before. I let them know that, whatever they think their position at the company is or will be, they are simply leasing that position until their investors, who hold virtually all the cards and relationships, decide otherwise; and regardless of what the common stockholders think. It’s possible things turn out fine, as long as all goes as planned. It’s also very possible they won’t.  But what’s absolutely clear is who decides, in the end.

The difference between a well-advised entrepreneur and the one in the above scenario is this: the former will have real protections in place to ensure the common stock are treated fairly, and have their voice on key company matters. The latter may feel protected, but ultimately their position is at the discretion of their investors; and protection that is contingent on the whims of people on the other side isn’t protection at all.

Well-drafted contracts are, when negotiated in a transparent manner, a key mechanism for controlling the power of sophisticated repeat players who, absent those contracts, can simply force through whatever they want because of their political / economic leverage. What else might this reality tell us about negotiation dynamics in startup ecosystems?

Rushing through negotiations / contract drafting favors established players.

If the default market position gives power to established players, and contracts are a mechanism for controlling that power, the inevitable result is that those established players (at least the most aggressive ones) will try to get entrepreneurs to rush through contract negotiations.

“Let’s just go with what’s standard.”

“It’s all boilerplate.”

“Let’s save legal fees and put them toward building the business.”

“Time kills deals. Let’s get this closed.”

If someone is telling you that what the documents say doesn’t really matter, or that you should just stick to a template, it’s because, outside of the contract, they’re in control.  That doesn’t mean you should burn endless amounts of time negotiating every point, but take the material provisions seriously.

A market ethos of “relax, we’re all friends here” is designed to favor power players.

Old-school business folks know very well how large amounts of alcohol have often been used to seal business deals. In the startup world, alcohol may still be used, but just as effective is fabricating an environment suggesting to first-time entrepreneurs that everyone is just holding hands and singing kumbaya, and being independently well-advised isn’t necessary.

I’m all for having very friendly relations with your business partners. Life is too short to work with people you don’t get along with well.  But any time someone extends that thinking to the point of telling entrepreneurs that “everyone is aligned” and they should let go of the skepticism to focus on “more important things,” I call bullshit. Alcohol and kool-aid; stay sober in business.

“Billion or bust” growth trajectories mean contracts matter less. Outside of those scenarios, they matter more. 

Among emerging company (startup) lawyers, it’s always been well-known that the Silicon Valley ecosystem as a whole takes standardization, automated templates, and rapid angel/VC closings to an extreme relative to the rest of the country/world. I’ve pondered why that’s the case, and in discussing with various market players, concluded that it has a lot to do with the kinds of companies that Silicon Valley tends to target: billion or bust is a good way to summarize it. I wrote about this in Not Building a Unicorn. 

If the mindset of an ecosystem is significantly “power law” oriented in the sense that “winners” are billion-dollar companies, and everyone else will just crash and burn trying to be one of those billion-dollar companies, I can see why the finer details of deal negotiation may be seen as an afterthought. That environment, which is very unusual when compared to most of the business world, leaves a lot less room for the “middle” scenarios – things aren’t going terribly, and we’re clearly building a solid business. but neither is this a rocket ship, and there are hard questions to be decided – where the deep details of who has what contractual rights really matter.

In a heavily binary “unicorn” world, you’re either knocking it out of the park, in which case no one even reads the contracts and just lets you do your thing, or you’re crashing and burning, in which case the docs are just useless paper. As a law firm headquartered in Austin and structured for non-unicorns, we don’t work in that world, and actually avoid it.

For true “balance,” pay close attention to relationships.

In my opinion and experience, the best outcomes result when the power structure of a company (both contractual and political) doesn’t give any single group on the cap table the ability to force through their preferences, but instead requires some hard conversations and real “across the aisle” coalition building to make a major change.

Balanced boards are, on top of other contractual mechanics, a fantastic way of achieving this, when they are in fact balanced. The above-described scenario where everyone except for the entrepreneur knows and has strong economies ties to each other, including a company counsel “captive” to the VCs, is a joke; and sadly, a joke played on too many startups.

As I wrote in Optionality: Always have a Plan B, build diversity of relationships into your Board and cap table. Feel free to let “the money” recommend people, because their rolodexes are valuable, and are often part of the reason why you’ve engaged with them. But you should be deeply skeptical of any suggestion that the preferred stockholders should, alone, decide who the CEO is, who company counsel is, who the independent director is, etc. etc. Letting them do that certainly may get your deals and decisions closed faster, but unless you are successful in delivering a true rocket ship, you will ultimately regret it.

The common stock, including the founding team and early employees, need a strong voice at the table, especially given the power imbalance with repeat players. Well-negotiated contracts and independent, trustworthy company counsel are the way to ensure they have that voice.


Also published on Medium.