Common Stock v. Preferred Stock

TL;DR: Beyond the technical differences between Preferred Stock and Common Stock, there are deeper differences in their composition, incentives, and risk exposure that play out in the course of a company’s history. Understanding the tension between those differences is important.

Very quick vocabulary lesson:

Common Stock is the default equity security of a corporation. It’s what founders, employees, advisors, and other service providers get.

Preferred Stock (Series A, Series B, etc.) is “preferred” because it has extra privileges / rights layered on top of it relative to the Common Stock, including a liquidation preference, rights to block certain things, etc. Preferred Stockholders are almost always investors.

Why don’t investors (usually) buy Common Stock? Short answer: why be common when you can be “preferred”?

Longer answer: they want the downside protection that a liquidation preference provides (they get their money back before anyone else), and they want various contractual privileges that separate them from the “common” holders; like the right to elect certain directors. Also, another argument often made is that by having investors buy Preferred Stock, the “strike price” of options (which buy common stock) used as service compensation can be lower (when a valuation occurs). The logic is that common stock at the time is less valuable due to its lower rights and status on the liquidation waterfall.

So if your investors pay $1 for Preferred Stock with a liquidation preference and other rights, you can still issue your employees options at 20 cents per share (or whatever your valuation reflects) without busting tax/equity compensation rules. The options are for Common Stock, which lacks the bells and whistles of Preferred Stock, and therefore the “fair market value” exercise price is lower. If the investors had paid $1 for Common Stock, your employee options would’ve been much more expensive.

Interesting corporate law factoid: between the Common Stock (founders, employees, etc.) and the Preferred Stock (investors), which group does the Board of Directors owe greater fiduciary duties to in the event of a conflict?

Answer: the Common Stock. And yes, that means even the directors elected by preferred stockholders, even if the director is a VC. Ask your corporate lawyer if you don’t believe me. The Delaware case law is pretty clear.  All the more reason to avoid “captive” company counsel, to help the Board actually do its job.

Kind of ironic. The investors get “Preferred” stock, but the Board is actually legally required to “prefer” (in a way) the Common Stock.

Apart from the technical differences between Common Stock and Preferred Stock, it’s important to keep in mind the different characteristics of the people who make up the two groups.

A. Common Stockholders are much less “diversified” than Preferred Stockholders. This is their “one shot.” 

As I wrote in Not Building a Unicorn, venture capitalists and founders/management often have very different incentives when it comes to setting out a growth and exit strategy for a company; especially when the VCs are the type that look for “unicorns” (larger funds).

Most startup investors (preferred stockholders) have a portfolio of investments. If a few go bust, their hope is to more than make up for it with a grand slam from another. For a less diversified common stockholder, like a first time founder: going bust is really going bust.

Imagine, for simplicity, you have 2 potential growth/exit strategies: Option A and Option B. Option A has a 50% chance of success, and would result in the Company exiting at a $80MM valuation. Option B has a 10% chance of success, but would result in a $1B exit.

Now imagine a portfolio of 10 companies, each with an Option A and an Option B. The Preferred Stock are invested in all 10 of those companies, but the Common Stock are exclusive to each company.

Do you think the Common Stock and Preferred Stock are always going to see eye to eye on which option to take? Hell no. With downside protection (liquidation preference) and diversification, preferred stockholders are far more incentivized to take much bigger risks than common stockholders are.

The Common Stock v. Preferred Stock divide is very real, and that matters from a corporate governance perspective.

B. Common Stockholders are typically less “sophisticated,” and don’t have their own lawyers. 

Part of the idea of fiduciary duties is that someone more sophisticated, informed, or influential is given responsibility to look out for the best interests of someone who is less sophisticated, informed, and influential. That’s why the Board of Directors, which has the most power in the corporation, has fiduciary duties to all the smaller stockholders who can’t see everything that’s going on.

Naturally, because many institutional investors are diversified, they are by definition “repeat players,” which makes them more sophisticated at the complexities of financing, corporate governance, etc. In negotiating transactions with the Company (like financings), they also often have their own lawyers to negotiate directly on their behalf.

Common Stockholders rarely involve their own lawyers when they are getting their equity from the Company. They rely much more on the norms of how the Company treats all of its equity recipients. And, frankly, they just have to trust that they will be treated fairly.

It’s worth noting that, at least in this regard, individual angels are a lot more like common stockholders than institutional venture capitalists. They too often sign standardized docs, with little negotiation or personal lawyer involvement, and they also often don’t have visibility into Board decisions. They are usually more trust driven in their dealings with their investments. This is why founders will often feel more “aligned” with angels than with VCs. That’s because they are usually more aligned.

Even founders, with much bigger stakes than a typical employee, often do not involve personal lawyers in dealings with the Company; not until the later stages when the cap table and board composition are very different. They rely much more on company counsel to advise on what’s best for the Company as a whole, which indirectly means what’s best for the common stock.

In short: Common Stockholders, broadly, (i) are less diversified, and therefore more exposed to risk in this specific company, (ii) have less downside protection, (iii) are less wealthy and sophisticated, and (iv) usually don’t have their own lawyers to review and negotiate things on their behalf. This is, to a large degree, why the case law puts such an emphasis on fiduciary duties to common stockholders.  Because the bigger Preferred Stock players can negotiate contractually for their rights and protections, Corporate Law says officers and directors should focus on what’s best for the Company as a whole, with special care toward the interests of the common stock.

ps: should Company Counsel own equity in the Company? Usually they don’t, but sometimes they do. After reading the above, it should be crystal clear what type of security they should own, and why letting your lawyers buy preferred stock can, in many circumstances, be a very bad idea.

Transparency, Risk, and Failure

TL;DR: In the very uncertain, high risk environment of an early-stage startup, the most successful founders are extremely good at practical risk mitigation. One of the most important forms of risk mitigation is to build a culture of transparency and honesty at all levels of the company; meaning people say what they’re thinking/feeling, and do what they say they’re going to do. No politics. No surprises.

Background Reading:

One of the biggest myths, in my experience, about successful entrepreneurs is that they are generally risk-seeking, risk-loving, uber-optimists who fearlessly run right into unknown unknowns, expecting things to turn out for the best. It’s just false. My word for the person I just described is “idiot.”

Yes, they are optimists, but what they’re often optimistic about is their risk mitigation skills. To an outsider, they may look fearless and indifferent toward risk. But in their mind they’re constantly analyzing risks, including seeing risks that others don’t see (the paranoid survive), and actively taking steps to address them.

In the early days of a company, without a doubt one of the largest sources of risk is, to put it simply, people. Co-founders, employees, consultants, commercial partners, investors, advisors, etc. Before your company has become a fully greased and well-running machine with an established brand, market presence, and gravitational pull, it is, in large part, a highly fragile vision of the future; dependent, to the extreme, on a handful of people and their ability to execute toward a common goal. It takes just one “bad” person, or decision, or accident, in that group to bring it all crashing down. 

Each person carries around risks; either risks that originate from them, or risks they know more about than others. Examples:

Co-founders: Are they truly satisfied with their equity stake/position at the company, and committed to the cause? Do they feel like the CEO is the right person for that position, and making the right decisions, with the right input?

Employees: Are they happy with their compensation/position, given the resources and stage of the company, or are they already planning an exit? Do they feel like the company is moving in the right direction? Are there behaviors/activities going on at the company that the C-suite should know about, but maybe aren’t aware of?

Commercial partners: Are their intentions the ones they’ve actually stated at the negotiation table? If circumstances or incentives change, will they try to preserve the relationship or at least reasonably negotiate a fair break, or will they try to maximize one-sided gains?

Investors: Do they truly believe the current executive team can execute effectively at the current stage of the company, and if not, have they communicated their thoughts to the team? If they are planning for changes, are they letting the team know, so the process can be open and balanced?

By working with people with a heavy bias toward transparency and honesty, you maximize your visibility into risks, which maximizes your ability to proactively address them. Risks that take you by surprise are 100x more deadly than those you can see coming. But what does transparency mean, and how do you find it?

Transparency means:

  • Saying what you’re truly thinking, feeling, and planning to do, instead of what may be optimal for you to convey in a short-term self-interested sense;
  • Even if you’re not the best at verbalizing your thoughts/feelings, conveying them in other non-verbal ways – transparent people tend to show more emotion. The perpetually sterile, calculated, always careful not to speak off-script demeanor that all of us encounter in business is the opposite of what you should look for.

It does not mean blurting out your thoughts at random without proper self-awareness or sense of propriety, or conveying more information than specific people really need to know. The “radical transparency” I’ve read about in some circles – for example, the idea that everyone needs to know everyone’s compensation – in my mind is asking for trouble. There is always information that the CEO has that should be heavily filtered before it gets to employee #200, and visa versa. But a thoughtful, respectful, durable culture of transparency ensures that the right information flows to the right people who truly need it and can benefit from it. 

It also does not mean always being the nicest, most agreeable person in the room.  Sycophants and glad handers may keep the peace, but at a cost of smothering you with so much bullshit that you can’t hear the things you really should be hearing. There is an art to conveying uncomfortable information, and people can be trained/coached for it, but it will always still be somewhat uncomfortable.

I’ve been very happily married for almost 10 years (this December!), but I’ll be damned if I ever tell you that hasn’t come with conflict. If anyone ever tells me that they’re in a serious, complex relationship that is completely conflict free, I hear one word in my mind, and one word only: divorce. Small conflicts prevent massive ones. If there is honesty and transparency, there will be some conflict, and it will make you stronger. 

And of course, if you’ve struggled to find, attract, and retain people who are honest and trustworthy, a very good place to analyze the problem is a mirror. Company culture is very much a reflection of the people who started it. Be the person you expect others to be.  And if you want transparency, don’t penalize people when they act accordingly.

At the end of the day, transparency is the foundation of trust in relationships, and the data is universally clear that virtually nothing helps teams, businesses, and broader networks thrive (and minimize serious conflict) better than trust. In the world of startups, there are hundreds of sources of potential failure that you are constantly battling against, and that you can’t do a lot about. Very very few risk mitigation tools are in as much of the founders’ control as the culture they implement in their team from Day 1.

Do the intentional, hard work up-front to recruit/engage people who say what they’re thinking, and do what they say they’re going to do, and you’ll maximize your chances of survival. You’ll also keep your legal fees way lower in the process.

The problem with chasing whales.

TL;DR: Always trying to work with “the best” people in any category – investors, advisors, accelerators, service providers – can result in your company getting far less attention and value than if you’d worked with people and firms who were more “right sized.”

Background reading:

Founders instinctively think that pursuing the “best” people in any category is always what’s best for their Company. Need VC? Try to get Sequoia or A16Z. Need an advisor? Who advised the founders of Uber and Facebook? Need an accounting or law firm? Who do the top tech companies use?

The problem with this approach is that it confuses “product” value delivery – where what you get is mass produced and therefore uniform – with “service” value delivery – which is heavily influenced by the individual attention you are given by specific people of varying quality within an organization.

If you buy the “best” car, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a billionaire or just comfortable, you paid for it, and you get effectively the same thing. Buying the “best” product gets you the best value.

Don’t chase whales if you’re not a whale.

However, if you hire the “best” accounting firm, that firm will have an “A” team, a “B” team, and possibly even a “C” team within it. That is a fact. Every large service-oriented organization has an understanding of who their best clients are, and allocates their best people and time to those clients, with the “lesser” clients often getting terrible service. To get the “best” service from one of the best service organizations, you need them to view you as one of their best clients; otherwise you’re going to get scraps.

To get real value from a “whale,” you need to be a whale yourself. Chase whales (the absolute best people in their category) without having the necessary weight to get their full attention, and they’ll just drown you. In many areas of business, getting the full attention and motivation of someone who is great, but not olympic medal level, can be far better for your company than trying to chase those who may take your money or your time, but will always treat you as second-class, or a number. I call this hiring “right sized” people. 

Firms matter, but specific people matter more.

I use this reasoning a lot in helping founders work through what VC funds they are talking to. The brand of the firm matters, but you want to know exactly what partners you are going to work with, and you want to talk to companies they specifically have worked on, to understand how much bandwidth you’re going to get. There is a wide range of quality levels between partners of VC firms, and going with someone local who will view you as their A-company and give you the time you need can be much more important than being second or third fiddle at a national marquee firm.

We also use this reasoning in explaining to clients how we see ourselves in the legal services market. We do not work for Uber or Facebook, and we are not even trying to work with the future Ubers or Facebooks, or other IPO-seeking companies of the world. The very high-growth, raise very large rounds in pursuit of an eventual billion-dollar exit via acquisition or IPO approach is suited for certain kinds of law firms and practices designed for those kinds of companies. Most of those firms are in Silicon Valley, because most of those companies are in Silicon Valley.

There was a time when every tech ecosystem looked to Silicon Valley for guidance, and did everything it could to get its attention. Now a lot of people outside of the largest tech ecosystems have come to realize that, in fact, Silicon Valley isn’t really that interested in them; and thats ok. Those SV funds, firms, and people are whales looking for other whales. That is totally fine – the world needs whales, but the rest of the world needs help too.

If you are a unicorn, or legitimately are viewed as on the track to be a unicorn, then working with VCs, advisors, law firms, and other service providers that cater to unicorns will get you great service by ensuring you are working with the top quality individual people within them.

Hire within your class.

However, a recurring trend we’ve seen in many areas, including legal, is companies initially hiring one of the national marquee firms because they wanted the “best,” only to realize that not only were they working with that firm’s B-player or C-player, but even getting responses to e-mails from a specific person was a matter of days and even weeks. By “right sizing” their service providers, they fixed the problem.

In short: be honest with yourself about what you’re building, and then be honest about whom you should build it with. If a $75MM or $100MM exit would be a true win for you, that is nothing to apologize for. The world needs those kinds of companies; lots of them. But to avoid a nightmare, align yourself with people truly “right sized” for a company on that kind of track.

When hiring any firm in any service industry, ask who exactly your main contact will be, and talk to the clients/portfolio companies of that specific person. Does their client base look a lot like the company you’re building? How responsive are they to you in your initial communications? That can tell you a lot about what level of bandwidth/priority you’re going to get from them.

For the kinds of strategic relationships that really matter, where the quality of advice depends on specific people and the attention they’ll give you, focus on “right sized” people; not just engaging the “best” firms. Don’t get pulled under water by chasing a whale that isn’t really that interested in you.

Tiered Valuation Caps

TL;DR: Using a “tiered” valuation cap structure in a convertible note or SAFE can provide flexibility that bridges the gap between (i) what founders expect their company to be worth in the near future, and (ii) what investors are comfortable accepting now.

Background Reading:

This post assumes that, for a company’s early seed round, they’ve decided to use convertible notes or SAFEs; because the majority of startups do. SAFEs and Notes are optimized for speed and simplicity, with a cost of future uncertainty and dilution. They have their downsides, which are discussed in some of the above links.

Convertible notes/SAFEs are usually executed around times of maximal uncertainty for a company; the very early stages. For that reason, pegging an appropriate valuation can be very difficult for investors. The valuation cap has evolved into a proxy for valuation, even though by definition it is in fact a cap on valuation, and if things go south, the actual valuation at which the security converts goes downward with it.

Traditional valuation caps: downside protection for investors. No upside for founders.

When you think about it, though, the valuation cap structure is a bit one-sided. If things go badly, investors get a lower price. But what if things go very well very quickly? Under the standard approach, even if the outlook for the company dramatically changes (positively) within 1 month post-closing (which at seed stage can happen), the valuation cap is what it is.  Normally this is accepted as given, much like how when you close an equity round, the price you got is the price you got.

However, there are circumstances in which founders know there are potential serious milestones on the short-term horizon that would dramatically influence valuation, but they need to close their seed money now. Obviously, smart investors reward results, not promises; so they’re not going to budge on valuation just because the founders are confident they’ll hit a milestone in a month. Tiered valuation caps are a useful mechanism for bridging this uncertainty gap in seed rounds.

Tiered valuations can bridge the uncertainty gap, and give companies some valuation upside. 

A tiered valuation cap would look something like this (language simplified because this isn’t an actual contract):

  • If the Company achieves [X milestone], the valuation cap will be [A];
  • If the Company does not achieve [X milestone], the valuation cap will instead be [B].

Convertible notes and SAFEs are optimally designed for providing this kind of valuation flexibility. It is much more complicated to implement something like this in an equity round, which is why you almost never see it. Also, there are a number of other nuances around valuation caps that are too “in the weeds” to get into in this post, but that, depending on the circumstances, may make sense for a company. One example would be, if a certain important milestone is hit, turning the valuation cap into a hard valuation.

Standardization v. Flexibility

Something related to the above that is worth briefly discussing is why, despite there being many logical circumstances in which deviation from “standardized” startup investment structures makes total sense and would be acceptable to both sides of the table, founders are often encouraged to “move fast” and stick to the usual docs.

There is a mindset in parts of the startup world – and very much coming out of Silicon Valley – that promotes the idea that startup legal documentation should all be standardized and closed as fast as possible, with minimal fuss. The PR story behind that trend – the way it gets sold – is that it’s about saving companies money. Don’t bother actually talking to counsel on these “standard” things; you’ve got to stay lean and focus on “more important” stuff.  Sounds legit.

Of course, every heavily promoted story has incentives behind it. Who benefits from saying “nevermind with the lawyers; just close quickly?” Software companies selling you the automated tool that relies on inflexible standardization, for one part. Savvy investors (repeat players) who have a 10x better understanding (than you do) of what the documents actually say, for another. As I wrote in “How to avoid ‘Captive’ Company Counsel“, it is very amusing when, during high-stakes negotiations where small variances in terms can have multi-million dollar long-term implications, certain investors take such a keen interest in “watching the legal bill.”

Everyone’s favorite sucker is the guy who shoots himself in the foot, and then sings a song about it.

Always always remember: if you’re doing this for the first time, and someone else has done it dozens, the “let’s get this done quickly” mindset is definitely saving someone money; but it’s usually not you. If a few discussions with counsel could result in a 25% higher seed valuation, you tell me if that is “wasted” legal fees. 

There are times when the standard terms make sense, but there are a lot of times when they don’t. Companies not fully on the “move fast and break things” train should slow down and take advantage of some customization when it could have a serious impact on dilution. Good investors who don’t view you as just another number in their “spray and pray” portfolio won’t criticize you for doing so.

ps. for the best companies, the “standard” valuation in an accelerator’s convertible note/SAFE is almost always negotiable.

Vesting Schedules – Beyond the Standard

TL;DR: The standard 4-year with a 1-year cliff vesting schedule is not the only option. Companies can use a number of alternatives to better align incentives, and even select for employees/founders with more loyalty and interest in long-term commitment.

This is not a post explaining what vesting schedules are – I make it a point to (try to) not duplicate content that others have already written about 10x on the web. See this post for a quick run-down.

Most people know that the “market standard” vesting schedule is 4-years with a 1-year cliff. That’s standard for employees, but also quite common for founders. I occasionally hear founders say that a founder team shouldn’t subject each other to a cliff, but generally I think that’s a bad idea. Some kind of cliff is a great way of ensuring that anyone there on Day 1 intends to be there for some meaningful amount of time. If they balk at a cliff, it says something; not entirely clear what it says, but it certainly says something of significance.

Advisors tend to have shorter schedules, like 1-2 years, because their grants are smaller and tenure tends to also be shorter. At least a 3-month cliff is always a good idea for advisors, in my opinion. If they balk, it, again, says something.  Making small, reasonable requests in any kind of relationship, and observing the response carefully, can be a great way to gauge a person’s personality, motivations, and perspective; even if you consider the request itself immaterial and easy to drop. 

However, for companies that feel like the standard approach doesn’t fit their context, or align incentives properly, there are a lot of smart alternatives that we’ve seen our client base adopt. Here are a few:

Milestone Vesting

Instead of vesting based on time, you set it to occur upon certain milestones. These can be any number of things: achieving a certain financing, a certain revenue level, hitting a sales quota, etc. Whenever we see milestone vesting, the milestones tend to be contextualized for the individual. And certainly it only makes sense to have milestones that the individual recipient of the stock actually plays a lead role in achieving.

The benefit of milestone vesting is it can, when it works, better align “earning” equity with actually delivering results, as opposed to simple tenure based on time. However, the challenges that arise are (i) in the drafting – getting people to agree on reasonable milestones, (ii) in deciding when they’ve been achieved – who ultimately decides? the Board? the CEO?, and (iii) when circumstances change and ambiguity arises as to whether the milestone has been met. And of course, it is just more of a hassle to have to track milestones for vesting purposes as opposed to just letting the clock tick.

My strong suggestion to clients whenever they go with milestone vesting is to stick to milestones with objective, unambiguous metrics. Stay away from anything that depends on someone’s opinion – like “doing X to the satisfaction of Y person.” You’re just asking for trouble if you go there. Something like “achieving $X in cumulative customer revenue” will result in far far fewer disputes. And remember to use milestones that the stock recipient plays a significant role in helping the Company achieve. That too will prevent arguments over unfairness or bad faith as to person Y being responsible for why person X didn’t get their vested equity.

Longer Schedules (5-6 years)

There is a lot of value in attracting employees who intend to be with your company for the long-haul, as opposed to those who hop between employers. The sense of long-term thinking and loyalty that a long-term employee can bring to key projects can be hugely important strategically. I’ve always found the “perk wars” of certain tech ecosystems to be somewhat counter-productive, as they tend (in my mind) to select for employees with more mercenary personalities, as opposed to people who want to be there for much more important reasons.

I’ve certainly applied that thinking to how I recruit for MEMN.  Honestly, if whether or not we offer free lunch or doggy sitting will influence your decision to work for us, I’d prefer you not.

Companies that deeply value long-term commitment will often consider having longer-than-standard vesting schedules; maybe 5 or 6 years. Of course, for this to work you generally need to provide an appropriately larger equity stake.  Someone might ask why not, instead of one grant with a longer schedule, simply committing to do another grant after the standard 4-years?

It’s true that you can do that, and the standard approach is to provide ‘fresh’ grants to employees, for retention purposes, once their original vesting schedules run their course. However, (i) a grant made years later will have a higher exercise/purchase price (for tax purposes), so it’s actually tax favorable to do an earlier grant with a larger schedule, and (ii) there’s something about a longer schedule that just signals a person’s long-term commitment better, particularly if coupled with back-weighted vesting (see below).

Back-Weighted Schedules

If you’re looking to use vesting schedules as a way to gauge long-term commitment, back-weighted vesting is definitely an option worth considering. The concept is quite simple. Instead of vesting in equal installments over a schedule, the back-end of the schedule provides more vesting than the front-end. So instead of 25% vesting per year, Year 1 may be only 10%, but Year 4 may be 40%. There is definitely some logic to this idea, because the value someone delivers to their employer tends to go up over time, as they’ve become integrated into the culture, moved up in rank, taken on more responsibility, etc.

A longer-than-standard schedule with back-weighted vesting is one of the strongest messages you can send as to how much significance the Company places on loyalty and long-term employment. And as I mentioned before, if someone really balks at the idea, pay attention to what that tells you, because it definitely tells you something.

For key hires, the standard doesn’t always fit. 

I hear it all the time: “just go with what’s standard.” I understand that approach, and it’s sometimes driven by an attitude that all of this legal mumbo jumbo doesn’t matter. Except for when it does.

For strategic hires, particularly in the very early days of a Company when your core team will totally make or break you, non-standard vesting schedules can be a valuable tool to align incentives, and “filter” for people who may not be as committed to the cause as you think they are. Remember: when someone says “no” to something you think is reasonable, it may not be fully clear why, but it tells you something. And that something can be very important.