Comparing Startup Accelerators

Background Reading:

Over the past several years, accelerators have emerged as a powerful filtering and signaling mechanism in early-stage startup ecosystems, allowing high-potential young startups to connect with investors, advisors, and other strategic partners far faster and more efficiently than before. While it definitely feels like the accelerator “bubble” has somewhat burst, and their numbers are normalizing, I’m still often asked by CEOs for advice on how to assess various programs. The below outlines how I would approach the decision:

Cash and Equity.

Very simply, what are you giving and what are you getting in return in terms of cash and equity for joining the program?

Re: cash, the more “unbundled” types of accelerators (less formalized) tend to not provide any cash upfront, but also typically “cost” less in equity, often just 1-2% of your fully diluted capitalization. More traditional and comprehensive programs often require 5-8% of common stock, but often provide between $20K and $100K up-front as well.

Anti-Dilution.

See: Startup Accelerator Anti-Dilution Provisions; The Fine Print.   Most accelerators, with a few exceptions, have much more aggressive anti-dilution provisions than a typical seed or VC investor would get, and the “fine print” can dramatically influence the total equity requirement depending on your circumstances and fundraising plans. This is something you should walk through with an experienced advisor, lawyer or otherwise, to prevent surprises.

Pro-Rata / Future Investment Rights.

See: The Many Flavors of Pro-Rata Rights. Some accelerators will require you to “make room” for them in future financings up to a certain amount. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s very reasonable given that the ability to make follow-on investments in “winners” is virtually essential for very early-stage startup investors (angels, accelerators) to make good returns. However, for the most in-demand startups, over-committing on future participation rights can become a problem because it can require you to raise more money than you really need to.

Fundraising / general success of past companies.

See: Ask the users.  If fast-track access to investors is not at the top of your priority list, then this may not be as big of a deal for you. But 95% of founders I’ve worked with have viewed “cutting in line” to speak with investors as the main reason for entering an accelerator. And don’t rely solely on numbers reported by the accelerators themselves. There are lots of ways of fudging the figures, including by “annexing” already successful companies into the accelerator (in exchange for free help) and using their brand/fundraising numbers to puff up the accelerator; neglecting to mention that the accelerator had nothing to do with those numbers.

Entrepreneurs often celebrate faking it until you make it. Know that some accelerators do the same. When an accelerator says “our companies have raised an aggregate of $200 million,” they may be neglecting to mention that a huge chunk of that was raised before some of the companies (the top ones) ever “entered” the accelerator. 

Ask specific founders, off the record. Without a doubt, the overall “prestige” of the accelerator’s past cohorts will have a dramatic impact on the accelerator’s ability to deliver on its “benefits” to you. There’s a heavy snowball / power law type effect with accelerators where the best ones attract the best companies, which then attract lots of capital/great mentors, which then attracts more great companies, further improving the accelerator’s brand, and so on and so on. And the same is true in reverse: accelerators with poor reputations and bad averse selection (they are just getting the companies everyone else rejected) can actually make it harder to raise money, and are best avoided.

Time commitments and Geography.

Many accelerators involve a substantial time commitment (including travel time) in terms of going through the “program” of events, meetings, training, etc. Feedback (given privately) varies on the ROI of those obligations, depending on the accelerator, type of company, etc. Some entrepreneurs find it invaluable. Others find it a necessary cost to getting access to the accelerator’s network, which is what they’re really there for. In any case, travel and time commitments are a real cost, so take that into account.

Market Focus.

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from entrepreneurs, after having gone through an accelerator, is that it wasn’t helpful for their “type” of business. Some accelerators are very up-front and overt about their market focus: biotech, energy tech, transportation, etc.  Others are more generalist, but if you dig deep you’ll realize that all or most of their cohort is slanted in one direction, which will mean the accelerator’s network of investors and mentors will be as well.

An example: a heavily hardware-focused startup may not find as much success in an accelerator where the vast majority of companies are SaaS based. The same goes for a health tech startup entering an accelerator full of consumer or B2B startups.

Culture.

In much the same way that entrepreneurs’ own personalities set the culture for their companies, the creators and managers of accelerators heavily influence both their “online” and “offline” culture. Personalities, ages, lifestyles, and values will vary. Some accelerators are well-known for being extremely friendly, generous, and community-oriented. Others are known for being more competitive and “eat what you kill” in their approach. I’ve seen more aggressive entrepreneurs feel that their particular accelerator was a bit too “kumbaya,” while those with opposite personalities felt right at home. 

Do your diligence before entering any accelerator, and make sure you assess its offerings in light of your company’s own priorities and needs. I’ve seen companies emerge with polar opposite opinions of the same accelerator, even within the same cohort.  In many cases, it’s less about the program being good or bad in an objective sense, and more about whether it was a good or bad “fit” for that particular startup. 

Flexibility in Choice of Counsel

TL;DR: A flaw in the “one firm for everything” law firm model is that companies are often pushed to specialist lawyers that they aren’t a good fit for, or simply don’t like. The boutique law firm ecosystem delivers far more flexibility for startups to work with specialist lawyers better suited for their specific cultures and needs.

Background Reading:

The core value proposition behind what we’ve been building at E/N over the past several years is this: new legal technology has removed the hegemony once held by large, all-purpose law firms over the high-end of the legal market; enabling an ecosystem of specialized boutiques to replicate the kind of full service that 500-1,000 lawyer firms provide, yet far more flexibly and efficiently.

Parsing that out requires a bit of backstory:

Scaling technology companies have always needed many different kinds of lawyers: corporate, commercial, tax, employment, litigation, patent, data privacy, etc. Historically, getting all of those lawyers to effectively share information and collaborate was virtually impossible without having all of them under the same firm. The cost of building and running a law firm was simply too high in terms of infrastructure, and cross-firm collaboration carried a lot of friction.

Unneeded Infrastructure

So in that old world, if you were building any kind of serious tech company, you effectively had to go to BigLaw. Running a BigLaw firm is extremely expensive: high-end real estate with top shelf furnishings, file rooms, libraries, in-house IT, lavish summer intern programs, layers of administrative staff, etc. When you have a BigLaw attorney $750+/hr, maybe 20-25% of that is paying for the attorney. The rest is funding all the infrastructure of the firm.

E/N’s position is that a very large portion of the tech ecosystem does not, and very likely never will, need that “infrastructure,” and therefore should not be paying for it. So we take the partners and other attorneys from those firms, cut their rates by hundreds of dollars an hour, and put them on a significantly leaner platform. The end-result is that, on average, early-stage/middle-market companies get better lawyers, at lower rates, and with much better responsiveness.

Flexibility in Specialist Selection

But while efficiency and responsiveness are a big part of E/N’s value prop, flexibility is another that is worth emphasizing, because it touches on a problem that companies often run into when choosing to work with a very large firm.

If you hire a “startup lawyer” (corporate) at a large firm, that firm’s business model is premised on cross-selling all of its specialties. So if while working with your corporate lawyer, a labor law issue, or a patent law issue, comes up, he/she is almost certainly going to refer it internally within the same firm. We’ve seen time and time again that this dynamic causes major headaches for many entrepreneurs.

Why? Because lawyers are people (not software), and law firms are service businesses (not product companies). Once you move past the template-ized aspects of very early-stage legal, the individual personalities, culture, and processes of the lawyers you work with have a very large impact on the end-product you get. You can have half a dozen patent lawyers, all with impeccable credentials and similar academic backgrounds, and yet the way that they each work and interact with clients is fundamentally different. And because lawyers are so different, there is every reason to expect that your particular company may simply “fit” better with one, and not “fit” at all with another.

So a fundamental flaw with the “one firm for everything” law firm model is that it very often pushes startups to work with lawyers that they simply don’t like, or aren’t a good fit for. Not only do entrepreneurs often hate this approach, but many startup lawyers hate it too, because they themselves would prefer their clients find appropriate specialists. When I was in BigLaw, I saw first-hand how startups often got pushed to patent lawyers (just as an example) who made absolutely no sense – from a pricing and technical background standpoint – for a particular company, but the startups nevertheless felt stuck with the lawyers they were sent to.

At E/N, we get exactly zero kick-backs / referrals fees when we connect one of our clients to an outside lawyer via our heavily curated specialist network. Sticking to the patent lawyer example, when a client needs patent assistance, we (i) first emphasize that we don’t do patents and don’t want to (we’re focused), and (ii) provide a list of options that, based on the company’s stage, culture, and type of technology, would be a good fit for them, and then we either make a referral or let the company conduct their own diligence, if they want to. 

Flexibility + Focus maximizes quality and “fit”

Many specialist lawyers (including in BigLaw) can be quite entrepreneurial, but by being part of firms that service 25+ different practice areas, they are institutionally constrained to a minimal level of focused optimization; in the exact same way that large conglomerate companies end up being mediocre at a lot, and excellent at very little.

How do startups take on companies 100x their size? By picking a specific segment / product offering and owning it.  That’s precisely what the boutique law firms in E/N’s specialist ecosystem are doing. By narrowing their focus, building targeted infrastructure and cutting out the irrelevant, they’re able to optimize for companies that need exactly what they deliver, and ignore everyone else. And by connecting with lawyers like those at E/N, they get merit-based referrals to ensure the companies they work with are a good “fit” for them.

I’m not bearish on BigLaw at all; at least not the truly high end portion of it. Billion-dollar companies doing complex cross-border deals needing 10 different kinds of lawyers to collaborate on a single project very quickly are almost certainly in BigLaw’s sweet spot, and that’s not going to change any time soon. At the same time, we’re seeing a growing exodus of non-unicorns toward the more flexible, efficient, and focused boutique ecosystem that is better designed for their needs. We’re enjoying being near the center of it. 

Burnout, Depression, and Suicide

Background Reading: Founder Burnout and Long-Distance Thinking 

This is going to be another personal post; less about how to close a financing or avoid legal issues, and more about the bigger fundamental issue of life outside of work. Because if you think what happens outside of work doesn’t heavily influence what you achieve at work, you’re clueless. Please move onto another SHL post if you want Startup/VC law advice.  This post is prompted by the very unfortunate passing of Anthony Bourdain, whom I admired as a voice of authenticity in a world that sterilizes and bullshits far too much.

Depression and suicide are two things with which my bloodline is far too familiar. Since I was a young kid – watching family members lock themselves in rooms for days and weeks in the dark, and openly discuss swerving their car into oncoming traffic, sometimes while I was in it – it’s been at the top of my mind.

Despite my many faults – my wife of 10 years is always happy to provide a list – one thing I know I’m good at is being observant. I watch people very closely, and pick up on patterns and subtleties that others miss.  As the old saying goes: the wise learn from the mistakes of others, the smart learn from their own mistakes, and fools never learn.

Another thing I’m particularly fond of is what I call asking the “meta question,” meaning trying to separate symptoms from the disease, and talk about the root cause of something. Because far too often people get caught up with trying to band-aid the symptoms of something, without digging deeper and probing into fundamentals. I didn’t switch majors in college from business honors to philosophy for nothing.

What’s absolutely crystal clear is that suicide and depression are way up in America. It is clearly a paradox, given that on many objective metrics, life has never been better: life expectancy, technological advancement, overall wealth, homicide/major crime rates, gender equality, etc.

The standard reaction to this rise in depression/suicide is to focus on mental health. If we just had more infrastructure for affordable therapists and anti-depressants, all would be better. But that obviously misses the bigger historical point. Life was, on many levelsway harder even just 50 years ago, and we didn’t have an army of public therapists then; yet depression and suicide were less prevalent. Clearly there is a meta issue here worth discussing.

To share my thoughts and observations on the topic, I’m going to first list out a few concepts that I’ve picked up over the years from reading, education, having good conversations over coffee, etc.:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – This is the idea that as peoples’ more physiological needs are met (shelter, food, etc.) and become less of a top-of-mind concern, their psychology shifts to prioritize “higher” needs, like love, belonging, art/beauty, etc.  People who grow up in more stable, loving environments (or societies) tend to be more open, creative, and communal, but that can also result in being more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable.

Specialization v. Generalism – Economic development inevitably leads to human specialization. People in rural communities are often decent at a lot of things, and more self-reliant, because they have to be. They’re also poorer. People in advanced markets tend to have much narrower, specialized skillsets, which they then sell in the market to earn surplus income to buy everything else.

Grit – The idea that exposure to hardship/struggle can build mental resilience, in the same way that exposing muscle to pressure makes it stronger, as long as it doesn’t go so far that things start to break. Moderate stress is good. Too little or too much is bad.

Dopamine v. Serotonin  – D and S are neurotransmitters. Without getting too bogged down in details that I certainly will botch, D is largely the “desire/drive” brain chemical. Heavily involved in addiction. Serotonin is heavily involved in calmness, satisfaction, a feeling of fulfillment. D and S have a tension with each other. If D overruns things, S decreases, which leads to depression.

Higher Pleasures v. Lower Pleasures – In the way that complex carbs are longer-lasting while simple carbs are often tastier but shorter-lasting, lower pleasures tend to be activities in life that are thrilling, fun, and even memorable, but don’t have much of an on-going positive effect. Lower pleasures drive dopamine. Higher pleasures, on the other hand, tend to be less thrilling, and in specific moments may actually be difficult/painful, but they have significantly longer-lasting positive impacts. Lower pleasures tend to cost you mostly money. Higher pleasures tend to cost you mostly time, but increase serotonin.

Traditional Culture v. Market Culture – Culture is largely the set of narratives and values that swirl in our brain to tell us how we should live, our role in the world, and the underlying purpose/meaning behind it. Many moderns dramatically under-appreciate the complexity and nuance in how culture plays into life satisfaction and progress.

Without culture, humans are just advanced monkeys. Traditional culture is the accumulation of centuries of slow-changing values and life-structures interacting with history, human psychology, social dynamics, etc. Market culture is the result of marketing/advertising messaging, often informed by PhDs in psychology and neuroscience, nudging people to engage in activities that ultimately maximize economic growth for someone.

Bottom-up Organic v. Top-Down Theoretical – There are two ways that cultural values, systems, and ideas in general emerge. A bottom-up “organic” approach starts from the ground, interacting with all the nuances and variables of reality, and iterates “upward” over time to arrive at an equilibrium.  A top-down structure starts with logic or theoretical principles, focusing on a kind of abstract consistency, and then imposes itself “downward” on reality. Organic emergence is messy, iterative, and often slow. Top-down is “cleaner” and more consistent, and usually faster. But also more prone to extreme errors. Traditionalists (at least those who aren’t dogmatic) tend to favor organic emergence of ideas. Intellectuals tend to favor the top-down.

Individualism v. Communalism – The free market pushes individualism as a primary value, because it maximizes economic growth. The more differences we can parse out among people, slowly nudging them to like different things, pursue different paths, the more things we can sell to them. It may feel like “discovering yourself,” but there’s a lot of outside nudging involved. Communalism, on the other hand, emphasizes similarities and long-standing histories between people. It’s driven by more traditional value structures, which focus less on peoples’ economic outputs, and more on their deep relationships to one another. It also is more constraining on individual freedom/choice.

Age-Mixing – Somewhere along the way, society got the idea that it’s better for everyone if people of the same age spend all of their time with each other. I suspect industrial-age schooling, and the efficiencies of standardizing education, are partially at play. Yet the evidence is clear that age-mixing produces significantly better outcomes on a psychological level. When you age-mix, older people (including older children) learn responsibility and empathy, and how to teach the younger. They also feel more “needed,” which gives life a sense of meaningful purpose apart from their market value.

And the younger benefit from the longer-term perspective of people who’ve “been there” and know how life progresses, instead of just being focused on immediate wants/needs. When people fail to age mix in their lives, they tend to be more hierarchical, competitive, myopic, and neurotic.

Ok, that’s a lot, and it took a while. But hopefully at least some of the concepts were enlightening. Now, using those concepts, here are my own personal observations/thoughts from my own life, my family’s history, and observation of others regarding the “meta” question of why society is so much more depressed and suicidal:

Affluence has taken away a lot of the hardship and struggle that once was a defining feature and motivator of people’s lives. Obviously, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I know so many people today whose life largely boils down to specialized work and leisure. They do one narrow thing that someone pays them for, and they buy everything else, so that they have “free time” to do things they enjoy; which usually involve seeking entertainment in the market. Specialization obviously makes people wealthier. But is there a point beyond which it makes people less happy?

Now you can order any meal you want on Uber Eats, and it’ll be delivered right to your door. That’s fantastic. It’s efficient. But what if the act of cooking, and even the act of picking out ingredients has some deeper psychological benefit that we missed? Now we can Lyft or drive to wherever we want, but what if the act of walking does something for us that we missed (and I don’t just mean burn calories)?

Market economics (and culture) says to specialize. Only do what has the highest market value, and you can just buy everything else. But traditional culture says hyper-specialization makes you fragile. You may become wealthier, but you also become less self-reliant and therefore more dependent on the market. And the idea that everyone should just do one narrowly defined thing, and then seek “entertainment” the rest of the time, is a speck in humanity’s evolutionary history.

Is the person who works their own garden and cooks on the weekends  just wasting their time on inefficient activities? Should the person who works on their car in their garage just stop wasting time and send it to a mechanic? Maybe. Or maybe there’s something more there than top-down market theory can grasp.

Social revolutions told people to throw away traditional, organic culture and “be themselves.” Modern “top-down” market culture then filled the void. The idea that you are born with some inner core “you” that you must discover over time, free from the influences of everything external, has a very romantic sound to it. It’s also totally false, or at best extremely incomplete. “You” are heavily a by-product of your environment. You don’t “free” yourself from culture; you simply adopt one over another.

So as age-mixing gave way to age-sorting, and people stopped taking advice from grandparents, family, traditions, etc., the market was there to fill the void. But the values of the market are top-down and profit-driven.  When a grandparent tries to teach their grandchild about life, one can assume that in most circumstances the child’s long-term well-being is an end-goal. When a market actor teaches a child something, there can be any number of other incentives; often tied in the end to economics.

Remember that organic, bottom-up progression involves slow evolution; strongly path-dependent on the past, which is assumed to carry a kind of underlying wisdom/understanding that is perhaps difficult to articulate, but is nevertheless there. On the other hand, top-down progression is about intellectual consistency with some defining value structure, like freedom, or fairness.

Older generations had their views on family, life roles, responsibility, money, work, and they were the product of slow evolution over time, integrating feedback from history’s experiments and mistakes. They had their problems, for sure, but evidently large-scale depression and suicide was not one of them. Then social revolutions came in and demanded corrections, many of which made sense at a theoretical level, and were amplified by market incentives. But top-down theory breaks down when it hits messy, multi-variate reality.

Without getting too bogged down in specifics, there is a meta issue here: a theoretical framework that hyper-emphasizes individuality and freedom may be more productive economically, and intellectually “purer” but it breaks-down, or at least reveals fundamental flaws, when it hits the reality of human psychology; which evolved on older values.

Modern market culture pushes us to pursue things that lead to greater economic activity (dopamine), while neglecting those that may actually make us happier (serotonin), but can’t be monetized.

There’s a better job for you in another state. Go, pursue “your” dreams. You can visit your parents, childhood friends, and cousins on holidays.

If you have kids now, you’ll get “tied down.” You can always have them later (maybe…). Build your career. Travel the world.

Why are you wasting time cooking for yourself? Bill a few extra hours, and have the food delivered.

Your parents’ and grandparents’ views on life are out-dated. “Be yourself” and “follow your own path” with your peers, who largely feel the same.

Apologies to my millennial friends with romantic notions about how the “experience” of travel “expands your mind” and is “life changing.” I love traveling too. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize really good marketing when I see it.

There’s a big difference between what makes you wealthier, free-er, or more “empowered” (abstract concepts) and what actually makes you – advanced monkey with a brain evolved over millennia – happier and more resilient.

The market’s individualism (liberating, but cold and detached) and traditional communalism (constraining, but warm and connected) are competing goods that need to be balanced. We are sucking at that balancing. 

It is much harder to balance competing goods than to simply let one take over our lives, even if the former is far better for us in the long run. When virtually all of the messaging/reinforcement in our environments supports only one side (because that’s the side that literally pays for messaging/reinforcement), that’s where so many of us end up.

Individuality, freedom, and financial wealth (all quintessential American, market values) – “following your own path” “pursuing your dreams” “not getting bogged down” “crushing it” – are real, valuable things. They’ve all played a key role in my life, for sure.

But the happiest, most resilient people I’ve known (men and women) have never “bought” fully into the market ideology (and it is ideology) that they are the be-all end-all of life. They understand that what’s old may be flawed and constraining, but if it’s old, that means it’s lasted. And things last for a reason; even if that reason isn’t easy to explain or fit within a theoretical framework. Freedom, empowerment, etc. are surely valuable. But so are durability and longevity; in other words, life paths and values that have been proven to “work” in the long-run.

As another old saying goes, winning is not the same as winning an argument; not even close.  The human brain is not designed in logic.  There’s no reason to expect an optimal human life to be either.

So if someone asks me for my thoughts on depression and suicide: sure, more therapists, discussion, and anti-depressants; certainly for the specific people who need emergency help now. But the meta-answer is to ask deeper questions about humanity, and to start questioning the life values that have been sold (and I do mean sold) to us; no matter how much we think they are supreme. Because we’ve clearly broken something, and it’s worthwhile to look back and examine a time when it wasn’t broken. 

How Angels & Seed Funds compete with VCs

TL;DR: The emerging “seed ecosystem” of angel groups, seed funds, and accelerators now provides local startups a viable path to seed funding, and eventually “going national,” w/o having to prematurely commit to a Series A lead.  That has dramatically reduced the leverage that local institutional funds once had over their local ecosystems.

Background Reading:

Once upon a time, startup ecosystems (if they could even really be called that) outside of Silicon Valley had only a handful of local VC funds writing checks. Without AngelList, LinkedIn, Twitter, Accelerators, good videoconferencing, and the many other recent developments that have reduced geographic friction in startup capital flows, those funds effectively “owned” their cities, including most of the startup lawyers in those cities; which often resulted in harsh terms and aggressive behavior. For more on this, see: Local v. Out-of-State VCs.

Raising “angel” money in that era often meant needing close connections (family, friends, professional) to very high net worth individuals willing to make big bets on you until you were ready for one of the few local funds to take you under their wing. If you were one of those lucky few chosen, those local VC funds would then, once they were out of their own capital, show you off to one of their trusted out-of-state growth capital funds.

The pipeline was narrowly defined, and choice was minimal: local angels (or friends and family), then local VC, then out-of-state growth capital.

Times have changed.

Today, angel groups are much bigger, organized, and collaborative across city and state lines. Seed funds – which weren’t really even much of a concept a few years ago – will write checks of a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars for rounds that may have been called Series A 3-5 years ago, but are now “seed” rounds. Prominent accelerators have themselves joined the mix, writing their own 6-figure checks and serving as valuable filters / signaling mechanisms to reduce the search costs of investors.

This “seed ecosystem” of organized angels, flexible seed funds, and accelerators has not only increased the amount of “pre-VC” capital available to startups, but very importantly, it has significantly reduced the leverage that local VC funds have over their local startup ecosystems. 

As I wrote in Optionality: Always have a Plan B, sunk money has very different incentives from future money. A seed fund/angel that has mostly maxed out the amount of capital it can fund you with has every incentive to help you find a great Series A lead at a great valuation; they are quite aligned with the common stock. However, a VC fund that wrote you a small seed check but wants to lead your Series A has very different incentives. The “seed ecosystem” wants to maximize your Series A options, while a VC fund wants to minimize them, until it gets the deal it wants.

Foreign capital will usually require some heightened level of de-risking or credible signaling before it will cross state lines. It’s much less risky to rely on my local referral sources, and “monitor” my portfolio where I can drop in by the office whenever I need to. If I’m going to write a check a thousand miles away, I need a little more reason to do so. In that regard, it’s well-known that there is a “flipping” point beyond which the pool of capital available to a startup moves from being mostly local to much more national: that point is somewhere between $1M-$2MM ARR (it used to be higher). 

Historically, reaching that flipping point was almost impossible without local VC, and this effectively kept startup ecosystems captive to their local funds. The new seed ecosystem, with its ability to often fund 7-figure rounds all on its own, has changed that. Now, if a desirable startup wants to, it can often raise $1-2MM in seed capital without taking a single traditional VC check, then use that to hit the “flipping” point, after which the number of VCs it can talk to goes up considerably. 

Of course, this dynamic is not always so clean cut.  More progressive VCs have wisely developed symbiotic relationships with this seed ecosystem for the obvious reason that it can serve as a pipeline when startups are ready for bigger checks. That is a smart move. What we’ve also seen is that large VCs are playing much “nicer” in seed rounds than they used to, as an acknowledgement of their reduced control over the market. Years ago you much more often saw VCs condition a $250K or $500K check on a side letter giving them the right to lead your Series A. That is increasingly becoming an anachronism, and for good reason.

At the same time that AngelList, accelerators, LinkedIn networks, and other signaling / communication mechanisms for startups are giving foreign capital more “visibility” into other ecosystems, allowing it to invest earlier and more geographically dispersed, the emergent seed ecosystem is also increasingly allowing local startups to “go national” without having to commit themselves to a particular VC fund. The obvious winners in this new world are entrepreneurs and investors willing to be open and flexible with how they fund companies. The losers are the traditional investors who haven’t understood that the old game is gone, and it’s not coming back.

Startup Equity Compensation for LLCs

Background Reading:

As I’ve written before, with more entrepreneurs realizing that the “standard” (whatever that means) corporate trajectory for startups may not be what’s best for their specific company, we are seeing more tech companies explore the possibility of operating as LLCs (limited liability companies). By all accounts, C-Corps are still the market norm, especially for companies with no near-term plans to achieve profitability (everything is reinvested for growth) and with plans to raise conventional institutional venture capital.

But nevertheless, the “LLC Startup” market is real, and there’s far less info ‘out there’ for entrepreneurs to understand core concepts.  Here we’re going to cover the basics of how LLC startups typically issue equity, and how it differs from what C-Corp startups do.

The primary driver behind why LLC equity comp is very different from C-Corp equity comp is that W-2 employees of an LLC can’t hold equity in that LLC, under IRS rules. For C-Corps, both contractors and employees can hold equity, which simplifies equity compensation. But for LLCs, holding *true* equity requires the LLC to issue you a K-1 on an annual basis (you’re a “partner” for tax purposes), and the Company doesn’t cover employment taxes the way it does for W-2 employees.

Units/Membership Interests and Profits Interests (True Equity)

High-level executives (including founders) in an LLC startup are usually OK with this issue, and will hold direct equity in the LLC. They’ll receive K-1s annually.

That equity usually takes one of two forms: Units (sometimes called membership interests), which are the LLC equivalent of stock. Units can be voted (usually) on Day 1, and they are taxable on receipt if their “fair market value” is not paid for, which is why they’re typically issued only in the very early days of the company, like founder/early employee common stock in C-Corps. They can be expensive to receive if they are very valuable (in the IRS’ judgment) on the issue date.

As the value (for tax purposes) of units increases, companies will switch to Profits Interests, which are kind-of a LLC corollary to options, because (i) they only entitle you to the appreciation in value of your equity after the grant date, and (ii) when issued properly, they are tax-free to receive. When profits interests are granted, the Company has to obtain or decide on a valuation that pegs the “threshold value” of the company on the grant date, and the recipient of the PI is then entitled to the increase in value of the equity above that threshold value.

Returns on both units and profits interests receive capital gains treatment, like stock in a corporation. While units usually have voting rights, profits interests can have voting rights, but companies often times structure them to not vote.

Unit Appreciation Rights (Phantom Equity)

While founders and senior executives of LLCs will often be OK with K-1 status and holding true equity, it can become problematic for a number of reasons (tax oriented, benefits oriented, etc.) to have everyone be a K-1 recipient as the business scales. When LLCs want to issue equity-like compensation to lower-level employees, while continuing to treat them as true W-2s, they will usually switch to Unit Appreciation Rights, which are the LLC equivalent of phantom equity.

UARs don’t vote, and aren’t really equity at all. Instead, they entitle the recipient to a cash payment (like a bonus) upon some future milestone (typically an acquisition/exit) that is pegged to the value of equity. Much like profits interests, on the grant date a valuation is determined, and then as the LLC’s equity appreciates in value after the grant date, the UAR holder’s future bonus increases proportionately. When granted properly, UARs are also (like PIs) tax free on the grant date.

While the upside of UARs is that they significantly simplify tax filings/treatment for recipients (no annual K-1s, can stay W-2), the downside is that returns on the UARs are treated as ordinary income by the IRS; no capital gains treatment.

LLCs require Tax Specialists

The main reason startups choose to be LLCs is taxes: given the nature of their business, they want to avoid the corporate-level tax applied to C-Corps, even if that means deviating from the C-Corp norms of typical venture-backed startups.

But the cost of those tax savings is significant ongoing tax complexity in issuing and managing equity, and making annual tax filings. That requires not just good accountants, but good tax lawyers; who are very different from classic “startup lawyers.” If you’re planning to be an LLC that will use equity as compensation, make sure you’re using lawyers with access to solid tax counsel.

Tax Disclaimer: I’m not your tax lawyer or advisor. I don’t want to be your tax lawyer or advisor. The above is just a summary of what we typically see in the market for LLC startup equity. LLCs are highly flexible, and circumstances vary. Do NOT try to rely on any of the above advice without engaging your own personal tax advisors, including tax lawyers.