Why Notes and SAFEs are Extra Dilutive

Background Reading:

Outside of Silicon Valley, Convertible Notes are the dominant form of seed round security. In SV, SAFEs are much more popular. The difference between the two effectively amounts to interest and a maturity date. For larger seed rounds, however, seed equity is another possibility.

The point of this post is not to debate the pluses and minuses of any of the above structures. The optimal one is, as mentioned in the above-linked posts, highly contextual. However, founders should understand that while SAFEs and Notes are faster and simpler to close on (usually), they come with a cost in the form of extra dilution relative to doing a seed equity round at an equivalent valuation. The math is as follows:

Dilution when raising seed as equity

Pre-Seed Capitalization:

You want to raise a seed round with the following terms:

  • Round size: $1.5 million
  • Valuation (cap or pre-money if equity): $6 million

You end up doing a seed equity round, with a 10% post-money pool, but with the pool top-up added to the pre-money (as it usually is). Post-close capitalization looks like:

Key to understanding what’s going on here is how the Seed Equity price gets calculated. $6 million (valuation) / (5MM Common + 714,219 pool) = $1.05.  So the seed investors paid $1.05 per share for their shares.

A year or two pass, and it’s time to do a Series A. The Series A economic terms are:

  • Round Size: $2.5 million
  • Pre-money: $10 million
  • Post-Close Available Pool: 15%

After you do the deal math (explaining that is not the point of this post), the post-close cap table looks like this:

So the above is what dilution looks like after both (i) a seed equity deal of $1.5MM at a $6MM pre with a 10% post-close available pool and then (ii) a $2.5MM Series A at a $10MM pre with a 15% post-close available pool.

Dilution when raising seed as convertible notes or SAFEs

Now let’s replay the above steps, except instead of doing an equity round for the seed, let’s do a convertible note or SAFE round. We can ignore interest, which economically makes the SAFE and Note scenario exactly the same.

Pre-Seed Capitalization:

OK, now we do a $1.5 million convertible note or SAFE with a valuation cap of $6 million. Same numbers as the above seed round, except it’s structured as a convertible security instead of an equity round.

Because these are notes or SAFEs, there’s no dilution registered yet on the cap table. The dilution math is deferred until the Series A.

So after closing the $1.5MM, we’re now at the Series A round. Because we have notes/SAFEs, we’re required to do two calculations in this round: first we calculate the conversion price of the SAFE/Note seed round, and then we calculate the price of the Series A.

Repeating the terms of the Series A:

  • Round Size: $2.5 million
  • Pre-money: $10 million (VCs insist Note shares go in pre-money to keep their post-close % at 20%)
  • Post-Close Available Pool: 15%

After we run through the deal math, this is what the cap table looks like:

The conversion price for the Note/SAFE is calculated by $6MM (valuation cap) / (5MM Common Stock + 1,530,476 Pool) = $0.92.

Now let’s compare the Post-close Series A cap table between the Seed Equity v. the Seed Note/SAFE scenarios.

Seed Equity –> Series A:

Seed Note/SAFE –> Series A:

What’s different? The Series A got the exact same ownership, because that’s how VC’s approach deal math. They will adjust the numbers to ensure they get their %. However, the Common Stock has 1.56% less ownership, all of which went to the Seed round. And the reason for that is straightforward, the Seed got a lower price, because the larger pool (post-A instead of just post-Seed) was built into their conversion math. 

In this scenario, 1.56% is about $195K in Series A post-money terms. So the decision to do seed SAFEs/Notes instead of seed equity cost the common stock nearly $200K in Series A dollars. And that’s ignoring interest, which would put that past $200K if we’re talking convertible notes with interest. I also simplified the example by ignoring actual usage of the pool in-between rounds. A real-world example would’ve had a larger pool top-up at Series A, and therefore a larger dilution gap between seed equity and notes/SAFEs.

Conceptually the way to view this is that convertible notes/SAFEs, as currently structured, have a kind of strong anti-dilution protection built into them. And that’s apart from the more obvious anti-dilution aspect relating to valuation: that a valuation cap is just a cap, and the notes will convert at a lower price if your Series A is below the cap.

If I do a seed equity round, everything that happens to the capitalization afterward dilutes everyone, including the seed equity. There is a conventional form of (soft) anti-dilution protection (typically broad-based weighted average) in seed equity, but it is rarely triggered; only in down-round scenarios. When the Series A bargain for a larger pool and put that pool in the pre-money, the seed equity doesn’t benefit from it because their math already happened.

But in the note/SAFE scenario, the seed math is deferred to the Series A round. Anything that happens to the capitalization before that date gets built into the seed note/SAFE conversion math, so they’re protected from it. This is why the seed notes/SAFEs end up paying a lower price (92 cents) instead of the higher seed equity price ($1.05). The denominator in calculating their math is larger because of the larger pool. Lots of founders think that SAFEs/Notes only have harsh anti-dilution economics if there’s a “down round.” But that’s not entirely true. The scenario I described above was not a down-round scenario. SAFEs/Notes protect investors from dilution, much more so than seed equity, in every scenario.

If companies and investors, and in the case of SAFEs, Y Combinator, wanted to really make SAFEs and Notes more equivalent in economics to seed equity, they would allow for the capitalization, for purposes of calculating the conversion price, to be set in the security. In other words, at the time of issuing the SAFEs/Notes, we would say the capitalization is X, and that is the capitalization we will use for purposes of determining the conversion price, regardless of what the Series A negotiate for their option pool adjustment. That would not be hard to do at all.  The valuation would still float and be determined at Series A, as is part of the core “deal” of a convertible security, but that full anti-dilution aspect of SAFEs/Notes would be removed.

I have never seen this solution actually implemented in the market. Why not? I’m not sure. A lot of people aren’t even aware of this economic disconnect between SAFEs/Notes and Seed Equity, so it could just be lack of awareness. Hopefully this post helps with that.  But it’s also possible that it’s just part of the “deal” that investors expect for taking convertible securities. If you ask them to move fast and take minimal protections/rights in exchange for their money, part of the price is extra dilution.

Whether or not founders think that price is fair will obviously depend on the circumstances of their company.  The goal of this post was not to give an opinion on SAFEs v. Notes v. Seed Equity, because my opinion is that they are all good for different circumstances. They all have their positives and negatives. All I wanted founders to understand is that there is an economic price to using SAFEs/Notes. Make sure it’s really worth paying.

Luddites v. Tech Utopians: 409A and Legal

Background Reading:

TL;DR: Luddites pretend that technology can’t out-do them at anything. Tech utopians pretend tech can do everything. The truth lies in the middle.

In my sphere of the world, I interact with two profiles of people, both of whom I find somewhat obnoxious.

The first are luddites; often lawyers. These people cannot fathom the idea of clients wanting anything less than hand-crafted, white-glove attention to every legal matter. The compromises on quality and customization brought about by software and automation tools are an offense to their professionalism. They’ll walk you through 10 ways in which they can beat a piece of software, completely oblivious to the fact that 99.9% of the market doesn’t give a damn, if the software’s output is good enough.

The second are the opposite of luddites; what I’d call tech utopiansoften young founders or engineers. To these folks, effectively everything legal professionals do is hand-waiving non-sense, charging hundreds of dollars an hour to fill in forms.  Build a simple automation tool, or DIY checklist for them, and their eyes light up; enraptured with how ‘smart’ they are for not ‘wasting’ money on legal services. And I happily admit to a bit of schadenfreude when they end up paying 10x later for cleanup, as part of their education in the value of legal counsel.

Luddites are in self-denial regarding how much of their work can actually be done quite well, and sometimes better, by technology. Tech Utopians are in denial about how much work still requires, and will require for a very very long time, highly-trained, highly-intelligent people who can analyze and deliver things that even the most advanced technology cannot. And yes, those people are way more expensive than software.

The bottom 25% of most professions is probably dead in the water relative to software; think TurboTax and LegalZoom. As AI becomes more sophisticated, that will probably move up to something closer to 50%. This is quite visible in law as lower ranked schools (many of which are a racket) are getting sued by debt-saddled graduates who can’t find jobs, and the credentials of lawyers at well-paying firms edge up each year.  To some extent, it’s never been better to be an elite lawyer. It’s never been worse to be any other kind.

Tech-Enabled Lawyers

The truth about almost every profession, at least when you move beyond the lower rungs, is that technology is a supplement, not a replacement, for people. It’s a tool. And a very powerful one for those who can figure out how to leverage it.

MEMN’s recruiting process is designed to systematically filter out luddites. That’s because, not only do I simply not have the time or desire to waste hours of my life trying to train them, but technology (automation, machine learning, communication tech, project management, etc. etc.) is so deeply integrated into our workflows that to add anyone who doesn’t ‘get it’ into the mix would cause a total breakdown. Before I look at emotional or analytical intelligence, or communication skills (all of which are important), I want to know what kinds of technology this person already uses in her/his life.

When lawyers from other firms ask how they might operate and scale leanly like MEMN, my answer is as swift as it is depressing: “first, you have to fire half of your payroll.” They usually start laughing, until they see the dead serious look on my face. The legal profession is full of luddites, everywhere; even among the younger generation and in firms that service tech clients. And there’s no room for them in tech-enabled law firms. “Get it” or get out.

And yet with all of the technology that we leverage, I tell every single MEMN client that we are not cheap, and never will be. Cheaper than our true competitors, certainly. And dramatically more responsive. But talent costs money.

409A: Trim that fat

When I wrote 409A as a Service: Cash Cows Get Slaughtered a few years ago, highlighting how eShares was using their own technology to trim the fat in an industry that (in my opinion) really was in many cases extorting startups, the response from the luddites was predictable. “Here are 10 reasons why you can’t automate a 409A valuation.”

Over the years, eShares as a platform has grown (as I knew they would), and many of our clients have been thrilled to take advantage of their service. Tech-enabled 409A; not fully automated. They recently published a blog post called The art and science behind an eShares 409A breaking down how automation is used in their reports, and how it’s not.

The future of professional services belongs to people who embrace technology and let it do what it does best, without diminishing the areas where human intelligence and creativity are superior, and will continue to be so for a very long time. Not tech-less. Not tech-only. Tech-enabled. 

Local v. Out-of-State VCs

Some things in life are certainties. The sun will rise tomorrow, you will be taxed for something… and startup ecosystem players across the world, outside of Silicon Valley and NYC, will complain about the lack of local VC capital, and the need for more foreign capital. Are they correct in complaining? I’m not going to answer that question. Too debatable, and the debate gets you nowhere.

What I am going to say, and I’m saying this as someone who manages a legal practice with visibility into a decent number of 2nd/3rd ‘tier’ ecosystems in the U.S., is that there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the overall trends in this area.

The Historical ‘Scarcity Culture’ of Local Venture Capital

Not just in Austin, but in many tech ecosystems that have a similar profile, there’s historically been a culture among the institutional investor community that directly reflected the scarcity of local capital, and of information about that capital. I will call this ‘scarcity culture.’ Trying not to come off as too judgmental, because all institutional capital plays a vital role in the business community, regardless of its approach, I would say that scarcity culture is largely summarized with the following statement:

“You don’t like our terms or our behavior? What can you do about it? What alternatives do you actually have?”

Does this mean that all local VCs outside of the densest markets think that way? Of course not. But it is definitely there, in a variety of ways.

Anyone with a broad enough visibility into American venture capital knows it is an absolute fact that California VCs are generally ‘friendlier’ than the VCs of any other ecosystem. By ‘friendlier,’ I mean that they are OK with higher valuations, they are more transparent in their intentions, and they tend to show significantly more deference to a founder team in terms of providing coaching/opportunities for growth as opposed to an early pink slip.  Why is that?

Is it something in the water? The weather? Have they achieved a new level of enlightenment? Hell no. California VCs have the same job as VCs anywhere else: to make money.  The answer lies in one very simple word: competition. And increasingly over the past few years it is magnified by one more factor: increased transparency through technology and decreased friction in networks. 

Competition and Reputation. 

Let’s use an analogy here.  Do you think that restaurant service is better or worse in dense urban environments relative to small rural areas? Obviously it’s better. There’s more competition.

Do you think the existence of Yelp, and the ability of restaurant goers to (i) easily find information on the past experiences of patrons of a specific restaurant and (ii) easily express their own experience about those restaurants, has improved or reduced the quality of restaurant service? It obviously has improved it. There’s a million times more transparency, which dramatically raises the reputational stakes.

In an environment where a quality founder team can, if they don’t like one particular set of VCs, walk almost literally across the street and talk to 10 more, investors have learned (rightly) that to be an asshole is to step right into a massive adverse selection problem. Combine a truly competitive market with inter-connected networks where reputational information flows freely, and you have a system that naturally corrects for bad behavior.  The really good companies, the one’s that everyone would want to invest in, don’t have to put up with anyone’s nonsense; and they do their homework. 

Contrast that with ecosystems where only a handful of investors, many of whom collude with one another, are available for companies that need serious funds, and you have a very clear explanation for why California capital is ‘sunnier.’  California VCs are more “founder friendly,’ because their circumstances make founder friendliness an almost essential requirement for deal flow. Most assholes can’t even survive in that environment, so it selects for ‘nicer’ people.

I am not saying that west coast money is all cotton candy and rainbows; nor am I saying that non-SV local VCs are all difficult to work with. But broadly and relatively speaking California VCs tend to be much easier for a founder/management team to get along with. It is also no surprise that the rise of industry/vertical-focused VC and VC ‘value-add services’ has come out of California. They’ve got to find a way of differentiating themselves in the noise.

Transparency and Friction.

A decade ago, if you needed to connect with X person for whatever reason – to diligence an investor, to connect to an investor, to find out some piece of information – you faced enormous opacity in finding a path to doing so. This opacity added friction not only to connecting with people far outside of your personal network, but also to obtaining information, including reputational information, about market players. Information is essential for separating marketing/branding from reality.

Blogging is marketing. Twitter is marketing. Talking on panels is marketing. Free office hours is marketing. That free beer at the ‘get to meet investors’ meet-up is marketing. This should be obvious to smart CEOs. Yes, this blog is marketing. Calling something marketing doesn’t mean it’s false; it just means you’re acknowledging the incentives behind it. And that you need a mechanism for verifying what you’re being told.

My method in biz dev is simple: “here’s a list of my clients. reach out to any of them, and don’t tell me which one. Ask them about our rates, and our responsiveness, and the independence of our counsel. I welcome diligence.”

Today, if I run into a set of founders who are talking to VCs, whether they are clients or not, I say “Here is a list of their past investments. Get connected to the founders of those companies, and start asking questions. And don’t tell anyone which ones you are talking to. Don’t treat any single ‘review’ as gospel, because it is a one-sided story. But look for patterns.” For a team that is even mildly good at networking, that is a fairly straightforward task. LinkedIn does 80% of the work for them by letting them know exactly who in their existing network, whether they’re local or not, can connect them to their target.

Tools like LinkedIn, AngelList, Facebook, and Twitter, and the way in which they eliminate huge amounts of friction and opacity in networking, have done two game-changing things for founders: (1) they’ve made expanding their networks beyond their local ecosystem 10x easier (I didn’t say easy, I said easier), and (2) in doing so, they have made finding accurate reputational information about market players 100x easier. That ease of accessing accurate information influences the behavior of investors in exactly the same way that Yelp influences the behavior of restaurants.

In an opaque market in which influencers can control access to people and information, you can reap the benefits of being an asshole without facing many of the costs. Today, the transparency brought about by modern tools and networks has made the costs of bad behavior 10x higher. Technology makes technology investors ‘nicer’ by opening up access to accurate information on market players. Knowledge is power. 

Improving Local VC. Accessing out-of-state VC. 

Thinking of this issue broadly with the above concepts: improving transparent access to accurate information, removing friction in expanding networks, increasing competition, I think we can arrive at some useful ideas for both improving the local investor environment in non-SV markets, and in increasing the flow of capital between markets; beyond the “great companies attract great capital” truism that rightfully causes eye-rolls among founders.

1. Founders/management need to talk to each other more, in places that aren’t controlled by the investor community. 

Information flows most freely when the consequences of sharing it are minimized. You better believe that in some markets where key players serve as gatekeepers (see: Gatekeepers and Ecosystems) the threat of being black-listed somehow for speaking honestly is real. You will never get accurate market information on blogs, on twitter, on panels, or in highly public events where anyone and everyone is watching.

To use Brad Feld’s categories: there are entrepreneurs, and then there are “feeders,” which sort of means everyone else. Events and communities where the whole ecosystem is invited are great. But that entrepreneur v. feeder divide is crucial, and there need to be ways for entrepreneurs to share information with each other, confidentially and alone.

That is the best way to create the following causal chain: (1) bad market behavior -> (2) information shared to broader entrepreneurial community -> (3) adverse selection for bad market player -> (4) correction to behavior.  You get along much better with the VC community when, instead of moralizing about their tactics and behavior, you try to understand their goals and their incentives; and find ways to align them with yours.

2. Outreach to foreign capital needs to come from people who don’t benefit from a scarcity/opacity environment.

Do not expect for a second that market players who benefit from scarcity of local capital and opacity of information will improve the environment for you. In a variety of ecosystems, I have seen circumstances in which local capital deliberately tries to keep out-of-state capital off of a cap table if it is not willing to enter on their terms. If a founder team builds local support and then themselves builds independent relationships with out-of-state capital (directly or via local relationships), that will create very different dynamics relative to a situation in which their local capital syndicates with its own existing out-of-state syndicate partners.

Is building those out-of-state relationship easy? Of course not. But it needs to start early. The companies that successfully receive out-of-state participation in their Series A round often were building those relationships at seed.  And the best intro to a particular investor is through a founder that they already invested in, so local founders who’ve accepted out-of-state capital are vital to encouraging that capital to engage more local companies. Once a foreign VC has made an investment in a city, it is a lot easier for them to look at others.

The angel v. institutional capital divide, highlighted somewhat in “Protect Your Angel Investors” is important here too. True angel investors – not the ones that behave essentially like micro-VCs, but the ones who are playing with their own money and who are really in it for more than just a return – typically behave very differently from institutional capital. They are usually more patient, more attached to the founder team, and usually aren’t laser-set on a “10x or bust” mindset that institutional investment often brings. Angel investors with broad networks can play a huge role in encouraging out-of-state capital to enter new ecosystems.

Just please for all things holy ignore any set of lawyers pretending to provide ‘special access’ to out-of-state investors. There is a hierarchy of paths to investors. If lawyers are even on it, they are near the bottom.

3. De-risk long-distance investment by improving communication.

If I’m an investor deciding whether to invest locally or make a bet on a team 1,000 miles away, I see substantial additional risk in the latter simply because of the added friction in communication. This is particularly important at seed/Series A, where feedback loops between investors and founders are more important. Think of ways to signal to long-distance investors that you will actively remove that friction.

Videoconferencing, well-done regular investor updates like through AngelSpan, committing to flying to meet-up in person regularly, are a few ways to do this. If entire companies can run with remote teams, leverage similar mechanics/tools to make long-distance startup investment seem natural and logical.

4. Reduce search costs. Successful curation is king. 

Finally, while communication issues often make long-distance investment at least seem difficult, you should never ignore the fact that to any investor, simply vetting out-of-state companies is much harder than vetting local ones. Most institutional investors build in various filters and qualification mechanisms into their pipeline/deal flow, and they often break down when looking at companies that are mostly outside of their usual network.

So creating credible, successful curation mechanisms to reduce the ‘search costs’ of institutional investors exploring non-local markets is essential. The obvious answer here is, and has been, accelerators; at least to the extent that accelerators aren’t beholden to particular local funds (in some markets, they are). The most prominent accelerators are playing extremely important roles in connecting companies in one market to investors in other markets, because those investors trust that the accelerator has done a significant amount of pre-qualifying for them. In fact, this curation dynamic is part of the core value proposition of accelerators in the first place.

Another obvious answer is angel investors with prominent personal brands. As angel investors develop broader reputations for selecting winners, out-of-state institutional capital can leverage them to reduce the search costs of exploring other markets.

So, is raising a Series A outside of Silicon Valley and NYC really hard? Absolutely. Then why the reason for optimism? Because every single variable/dynamic mentioned above is improving, and at an accelerated pace. Founders are finding each other and communicating directly, sharing accurate information about the investor community and other market players; aided by modern networking and communication tools. Local angels and entrepreneurs are actively using those same tools to expand their networks far beyond their local ecosystem. Tools for long-distance communication and investor relations are maturing. And accelerators and prominent angels are increasingly becoming curation mechanisms leveraged by institutional investors to reduce search costs and explore new markets.

We are certainly seeing all of this happening at an increasing rate in our work in the market. As additional funds that are more comfortable operating in the new environment pop up, and as geographic barriers are reduced for capital flows, the more established players are increasingly more concerned with their brands and reputation. Instead of a “scarcity culture,” an open, transparent market culture favors investors that deliver real value and build durable, authentic brands.

Raising local and out-of-state institutional capital, and ensuring you’re working with good people, is still extremely hard if you’re not in a top-tier ecosystem. And speaking as ‘just’ a lawyer, I don’t want to minimize that fact in any way.  But the truth is that it’s also never been easier, and the core trends suggest it will keep getting better. 

How to Avoid “Captive” Company Counsel

Background Reading: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

This post is going to make some people uncomfortable. People who work with me know that I’m not the type who likes to irritate others just for the fun of it. But I’m always willing to say something that needs to be said, and I’ve always structured my business relationships and life in a way that I’m not prevented from saying it.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

Inexperience v. Seasoned Veterans

Founders, particularly inexperienced first-time founders, face enormous uncertainty and opacity as they build their companies. In that environment, they’re tasked with making complex long-term decisions, on behalf of themselves and other stakeholders, with very high-stakes implications; including distributional implications as to who gets what share of the limited pie, and who gets to decide when the pie gets eaten.

More so, as founders raise capital, they engage with highly experienced, sophisticated, repeat player parties who have gone through the same process dozens of times. Those parties (investors) are typically aligned with founders/management in the sense that they want the company to be a success, but there is significant misalignment in the fact that each side wants their share of the pie to be larger than the other, and each side often disagrees on when it’s time to start eating. In the case of institutional investors, they have a legal obligation (to their own investors) to get as high of a return for their investment as possible; in other words, to get as much of the pie for themselves (and as large of a pie) as they can.

Counsel should level the playing field. 

In this environment: inexperienced founders/management working with highly seasoned third-parties with significant misaligned financial motivations, founders/management have to rely on trusted advisors to level the playing field; to ensure that their inexperience is not leveraged unfairly to their detriment. 

Without question, one of, if not “the” core advisor that startups turn to for leveling the playing field in interacting with highly seasoned investors, particularly at early stage, is Company Counsel; the lawyers hired to represent the company. Startup lawyers have a front-row seat to deals/activities in the market that cover a much broader, and larger, area than any particular investor sees, and they leverage that expertise to help startup teams navigate what, to them, is brand new territory.

Company counsel’s job is not to represent the founders personally – see A Startup Lawyer is Not a Founder’s Lawyer – nor the investors, but the entire company, including all of its stockholders as a whole. The best analogue I can think of is a family therapist, who doesn’t represent the parents or the children, but is looking for the well-being of the family unit.  If someone is threatening the well-being of the family (the company), or trying to unfairly dominate it in a counter-productive way, the therapist (company counsel) helps address it. Sidenote: my job really does resemble that of a therapist sometimes.

The best company lawyers combine a “win-win” attitude (grow the pie) with a long-sighted, subtle skepticism over each individual actor’s motivations; monitoring how actions could result in unfairly taking one person’s part of the pie and handing it to someone else.

Many startup lawyers are “captive” to institutional investors. 

So the founders-investor relationship is inherently imbalanced in favor of the seasoned, experienced investors at the table, and company counsel is supposed to play a strong role in correcting the imbalance. Clearly then, any factors that raise doubts as to the independence of company counsel; factors that might make him/her ‘captive’ to the interests of the money at the table, are cause for serious concern.

In “Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers” I described how the business development practices of certain startup/vc lawyers give companies every reason to be worried that their company counsel is inherently incapable of providing that ‘balance’ that they are supposed to rely on.  Many lawyers know that if they can win a relationship with a VC fund, that relationship can be worth dozens of deals/clients to them in a manner of just a few years; far far more efficient biz dev than going after companies one by one. So building economic ties with those VCs becomes a major source of business for lawyers, including lawyers who act as company counsel. 

I don’t waste any breathe or time trying to actually convince anyone that this scenario is a serious conflict of interest problem; certainly not lawyers. See the Upton Sinclair quote above.  I simply explain to founders/management in very clear terms how things in fact work, and let smart people arrive at their own conclusions. Sunshine is a great disinfectant.

Chess: Losing the negotiation before it starts. 

In my school days before becoming a lawyer, I found negotiation strategy and psychology to be a fascinating area to study. Winning a negotiation and getting what you want in a deal is, to those who are observant, an intricate game of human behavioral chess. To get what I want, I could simply negotiate very aggressively at the negotiation table. That can work. But there’s a cost to it. It spends social capital that I’d prefer to keep. I come off as overly self-interested, when as a long-term player I’d prefer to be seen as a friendly, trustworthy guy; in line my PR/marketing efforts.

A much more effective strategy is to win by preventing the negotiation altogether.  A simple checkers player wins by brute force negotiation. But a ‘chess player’ in business wins by controlling the environment of the negotiation, and the people involved, and in many cases preventing negotiation entirely. Ensure companies are using my preferred lawyers, swell guys that they are, and who I know won’t step out of line with the financial ties I have on them. Then deliver a “fair” term sheet. The founders then take that term sheet to those lawyers, maybe there’s a little back-and-forth for good measure, and we move forward, with ‘our guys’ on the inside long-term.

By convincing founders/management to use captive company counsel, investors can get what they want – both in a financing and long-term – without even having to negotiate much for it. When requesting certain terms, making certain decisions, or engaging in certain behaviors, independent company counsel will properly advise the team on how to respond or defend themselves; but captive counsel will just say it’s all normal and standard, lest he anger the people really funding his salary. 

I know some people will try to stop me right there. I’m being overly cynical here, they’d say. This is just how the business works. Surely no serious investor would actually use their influence over company counsel to push things unfairly in their favor.

Oh really? Many VC lawyers, including myself personally, have observed situations in which a negotiation is not going in the direction an investor would like, and off-the-record phone calls to company counsel get made. “We’re hoping to preserve our long-term relationship here, beyond just one deal.” “Our fund is actively seeking firms to partner with long-term.” “If this deal goes *as hoped*, we’d love to explore other opportunities to work together.”  To a lawyer who plays both sides of the table, you are one deal, while a VC fund’s “favor” can mean many, many deals.  Don’t delude yourself into thinking that favor is free.

I am happy to have a discussion about the issues I bring up here, and to be clear, there are many well-respected investors who respect the appropriate boundaries.  But please don’t try to feed me or companies candy-coated bullshit about the angelic “professionalism” of business parties when 7, 8, 9 figures are on the line, and a few easy phone calls and veiled threats (or bribes) can ensure they stay in the ‘right place.’ If your investors would never make those phone calls, then there shouldn’t be a problem with selecting company counsel with which they can’t make those phone calls. 

Cost control as sleight-of-hand. 

Notice the subtleness in how certain investors (including some blogs) talk about lawyers and legal fees. Why can’t we just close a deal for a few thousand dollars? This stuff has become so standard, let’s just keep the negotiations “between the business parties” and close this thing quickly.

Yes, let’s move fast (read: not discuss the terms much) and keep it “between the business parties”; where one side is inexperienced and doing it for the first time, and the other side has done it 50 times. That’ll keep it “fair.”

We’re negotiating and discussing transactions where even small changes could mean millions of dollars in one pocket or another, but let’s “control the legal fees” to save $10-20K right now. Yeah, gotta watch the legal budget. Really appreciate your “concern” there.

If you are building a company on a trajectory to be worth at least a comfortably 8 or 9-figure exit (which if you are talking to serious tech investors, you are), the idea that you should minimize time spent working with counsel, because it’s all just boilerplate and you’re better off keeping the legal fees for something more valuable, is a mirage set up to keep teams ignorant of what they’re getting into, and how they can properly navigate it. Telling a company “don’t ask your lawyers about this” sounds suspicious. “Let’s save some legal fees” sounds much better. But there’s no difference. You are being played. 

Balanced, but also competent. 

Stepping back a bit, it’s important to also clarify what I am not saying in this post. I am not saying that investors and other stakeholders in a company should not have an interest in ensuring that company counsel is competent and trustworthy. Founders do occasionally engage lawyers, typically for affordability reasons, that simply do not understand the market norms of venture capital financing. Using those types of lawyers ends up being a disaster, because they will slow down deals and offer all kinds of comments that aren’t about ensuring fairness and balance, but are simply the result of their not knowing how these types of deals get done. That will drive the legal bill through the roof, with little benefit.

Company counsel should have strong experience in venture capital deals.  Sometimes when investors request a change in company counsel, they have valid concerns about that counsel’s competence. Assess the merits of those concerns. However, it is one thing for your investors to say “this lawyer won’t work,” and then leave it to the company to find new, independent counsel. It is a completely different, and far more questionable, thing for them to insist that you use their preferred lawyer. 

Avoiding captive counsel. 

Here are a few simple questions to ask a set of lawyers to ensure they can be relied upon as company counsel to fairly represent a VC-backed company, particularly one with inexperienced founders:

  • What venture funds / investor funds do you personally (the lawyer you’re directly working with) represent as investor counsel, and how many deals have you done in the past 3 years for them?
  • What about your law firm generally? (for very large firms, this is less important)
  • How many of your firm’s clients are portfolio companies of X fund, and how did you become connected to those companies? May I reach out to the companies to confirm?
  • Can I get your commitment to not pursue investor-side work for X fund while you are our company counsel?

Larger ecosystems and larger law firms are generally less prone to this problem, because it is harder for individual players to really throw their weight around as a percentage of a larger firm’s revenue. That is to say, if the lawyer you’re working with doesn’t personally represent/rely upon X fund, but some other lawyer in the large law firm does, it’s less likely those “phone calls” could be effectively made. Although even in Silicon Valley and NYC BigLaw I’ve seen situations in which a fund will ‘nudge’ a set of founders to their preferred partner at a large firm. 100% captive.

In smaller firms, which are significantly more exposed to this problem due to their size, you’ll sometimes find that a single fund accounts for a massive percentage of that firm’s pipeline revenue. Those lawyers will slap their mothers if the fund asks them to, and companies are wise to avoid using them as company counsel.

The costs to companies of having captive counsel can be severe. Rushed, unfair sales because a particular fund’s LPs suddenly decided they need liquidity. Refusals to pursue other potential investors because the ‘right’ term sheet from ‘friendly’ investors has been delivered. Executive changes installing ‘friendly’ new management without an objective recruiting or vetting process. Early firing of founders without reasonable opportunities for coaching. The list goes on.

This is not theoretical. When company counsel is captive, their passivity will allow the preferences of a portion of the cap table to dictate the trajectory of the entire company, without the checks and balances that a properly governed company should have. And yet the sad fact is that inexperienced founders often don’t even have the frame of reference to know it is happening, or that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Many just assume, wrongly, that “this is how these things work,” when really that’s only how it works when you hire advisors who can’t, no matter how much they protest basic facts of human behavior, be objective. 

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 RavikantLawyers or Insurance Salesman?

This issue is not about labeling one group of market players as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad.’ Hardly. There are many, many investors in the market who are phenomenal people with deep ethics. They should have nothing to worry about in ensuring their portfolio companies hire competent, independent counsel. And the best companies always maintain transparent, friendly relationships with their investors.

This is about acknowledging that no one in any tech ecosystem ever has more skin in the game, financially and emotionally, than first-time entrepreneurs; not even close.  And yet at the same time, their inexperience means that their closest advisors play an outsized role in helping them navigate the various relationships and risks that they are exposed to. Pushing startups to use their investors’ lawyers as company counsel is, plainly, an unjustifiable mechanism of control; one that anyone who supports entrepreneurship and tech “ecosystems” should not tolerate. 

People with far more experience and power than tech entrepreneurs will demand that their company counsel be independent and objective, because the fairest outcomes result when everyone at the table is well-advised. Ignore all attempts to argue the contrary. Founders should demand the exact same for their companies.

Protect Your Angel Investors

Background Reading:

A lot of writing, including my own, breaks the world of startup  funding “players” into 2 broad categories: founders and investors. While that is helpful, it’s also important for founders to understand that within the investor category, there’s an important distinction between angel investors and institutional investors; in terms of incentives, behavior, and their overall relationship with the company.

Institutional investors are sophisticated (… usually), repeat players who are working with large amounts of other people’s money; and those other people expect (demand) great returns. They have their own lawyers (and therefore usually negotiate harder), have much deeper pockets, and usually invest much later in the game than true angels; when the company is a much more attractive investment from a risk-adjusted perspective.

Angel Investment: faster, easier, but more exposed. 

Angel investors are investing their own money.  Seed funds / angel groups do work with a broader pool of money, but they are more accurately described as an organized group of angels than a true institutional fund.  Angels often do not utilize their own lawyers in executing deals (because the check sizes don’t justify it), which means they rely more on trust in the team, and on standard, more lenient terms. Their money goes in much earlier in the stage of the company, so at a point where the company is much riskier. Angels are accurately described as betting as much on a founder team as they are on the business.  Prominent angels also regularly serve as “social proof” for gaining the interest of VC funds.

Because angels invest much earlier in a company (than VCs), usually without lawyers, and usually on standard documents with minimal investor protections, their relationship with founders/management is often much more informal and trusting, and less about “the numbers,” than the founder-VC fund relationship. Accelerators usually also fall in the same category. This is all very much a good thing. It’s what allows seed investments to move quickly, at a time where the company doesn’t need or want to spend a lot of hours going back and forth on deal nuances when they could be building the foundation of the business.  But it also means that angel investors are exposed to gaming by later investors (or, sometimes, bad actor founders) who take advantage of key inflection points to push the angels’ investment away from the “deal” they thought they were going to get. 

The broad context in which this happens is fairly simple: an angel round has been closed for a while – usually convertible notes or SAFEs, but sometimes seed equity – and the company is raising a Series A. After negotiation and modeling, the parties have not aligned on numbers. The VC doesn’t like the terms that the angels are ‘getting’ in the round (from their notes/SAFEs), because after accounting for his own share, too much of the cap table is taken.  So he makes his check contingent on the founders going back to their angels and convincing them to accept modified terms.

The angels, not happy about it, are exposed because their money is already sunk, and much worse things could happen if the deal dies. So they cave; accepting worse terms so that, effectively, the new money can get better ones.  Requiring earlier seed money to raise their valuation caps is a common way to make lower Series A valuations more swallowable.

But to be totally honest here, sometimes the gaming is not led by the VCs, but by the founders. They see what the angels are getting in the deal, and might collude with the new money to force a change. I’ve never had one of my personal clients play that sort of game, but I have seen it happen.

There are situations, of course, in which terms simply need to be re-negotiated; usually because the company’s path took a number of unexpected negative turns, and things just won’t work if a reset doesn’t happen. Those situations should be distinguished from the ones in which a deal really can close, but someone is just using the exposure of angels to get more of the pie.

Reputation is capital. Don’t waste it.

The job of company counsel is not to do whatever founders / management want; it’s to advise on what is best for the company and all of its stockholders long-term. On a whole host of issues, people who’ve seen the life cycles of companies play out over time (like VC lawyers) can bring a long-term perspective that a fresh team may not understand intuitively.

My advice to founders, which I put down in Burned Relationships Burn Down Companies, is that relationships matter. A lot. Especially with your early money, which often acts both as your cheerleaders in the market, and as a safety net if things get rough. Putting aside the purely ethical aspects of gaming angel investors (which are important, mind you), burning your early investors is bad for the company.  It’s also just bad for founders personally, whose relationships can mean a soft landing if their company fails, or support for their next venture. 

As a startup and new team, you don’t have buckets of money, or a rock-solid reputation, to insulate you from everything that can go wrong with a company. Your reputation and social capital are some of your most valuable assets; don’t waste them. If anyone is asking you to hurt your social capital, stand your ground. They’re asking you to incur a cost, but for their benefit.

In fact, real chess players sometimes want to burn your other relationships, because it reduces your optionality, which increases their leverage. Always think multiple steps ahead.

Pro-rata rights are core economics.

And on a final note, it’s important for founders to understand that when angel/seed funds request “pro rata rights” for future rounds, those rights are not a nice-to-have that is independent from the economics of their existing investment. Successful angel investment depends on the ability to double down on winners (put in additional investment), because the vast majority of an angel’s investments are losers. That’s the core economics of angel investment. If you deny angels their pro-rata in a Series A, you are taking away a part of their deal that allowed them to invest in you in the first place. The long-term consequences for a company and a founder team are usually not worth the near-term benefit.