Angel Investors v. “Angel” Investors

TL;DR: The term “angel” investor has connotations that in reality don’t apply to a significant portion of early-stage seed investors outside of Silicon Valley. Historically, angel investors were very wealthy individuals who’d take big, almost irrational (from a risk-adjusted perspective) bets on entrepreneurs for reasons that go well-beyond a profit motive. Many “angels” that you’ll encounter as an entrepreneur, however, think and act in a much more self-interested, conservative manner; much like venture capitalists, but with smaller checkbooks. Both types are crucial to startup ecosystems, but knowing the difference is still important.

Related Reading:

One of the core reasons behind this blog’s existence is that the majority of legal/fundraising advice available to startup entrepreneurs comes from places (like Silicon Valley or NYC) that are dramatically different (in terms of access to capital and key resources) from the environments in which most tech entrepreneurs find themselves. That doesn’t mean at all that SV or NYC advice is bad or wrong. On the contrary, much of it is very very good and founders who look only to local advice will screw themselves – see: The Problem with Localism. But founders also need to understand the mismatches between the advice/culture they’re exposed to on the most popular podcasts, blogs, etc., and how things tend to work for normals.

One important area where I see the disconnect arise is in founders’ expectations in interacting with “angel” investors. The typical “angel” investor that you encounter in Austin, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, or Miami does not look, think, or act like what Silicon Valley people have historically referred to as “Angels.” 

Classic Angels

While the full origin of the term “angel” investor goes beyond this post, in general very early stage investors were very wealthy individuals who, in addition to other activities, wanted to “give back” to the business community by making bets on promising entrepreneurs that no one else (rational) would be willing to make. Hence, their investments were “angelic.” While this doesn’t mean at all that Angels didn’t scrutinize their investments, or that that they acted completely out of charity (hardly), the term absolutely has (correct) connotations of motives that are much broader than just making a great return.

These classic “Angels” were wealthy enough that writing a $100K or $200K+ check barely moves their needle, and so they could take the risk of investing in a company with little more than a very promising team and an idea, and perhaps the very early beginnings of a product. If it fails, NBD. They’re doing it for the relationships, the excitement, and the chance at supporting something new.  I often see founders take very early money from investors that fit the classic “Angel” profile, but those relationships take a long time to build. They don’t spark over a pitch contest or business plan competition.

Anyone who says there isn’t enough money in Texas/the South is painting with way too broad of a brush. There’s tons of money floating around here and elsewhere. The core difference is that in Silicon Valley, the true capital-A “Angel’ money was created in tech, and therefore much more easily flows back into early-stage tech (because the Angels trust their judgment on tech teams/companies). Outside of that environment, much of the ‘Angel’ money comes from other industries (like Energy, Healthcare, etc.), and so much more relationship-building, selling, and (cultural) translation is needed to convince it to go into a tech startup.  Great t-shirts and a pitch deck won’t get you there.

Most “Angels”

In most other tech ecosystems (outside of SV), when people speak of “angel” investors they are often talking about successful individuals who, while willing to take on the risk of early-stage seed investment (which is great), are not so wealthy and altruistic that they’ll barely feel losing $100K-$200K.  That means that most “angels” seen in non-SV ecosystems are much more conservative in how they pick their investments (and will therefore have higher expectations), because to many of them angel investing really is about making a great financial return.

Classic Angel investors were/are generally very wealthy senior executives and business people with net worths well into 8 figures and above, who will bet on team, vision, and minimal traction (if any); so very early stage. The majority of “angels” that entrepreneurs encounter in their own ecosystems, however, come from broader backgrounds (lawyers, doctors, real estate, business owners, etc.) and are affluent/comfortable, but not quite the 0.1% (their angel investments are material to them), and they”ll often want to see clear customer traction, revenue, and a more mature product; and a lower valuation. 

Of course, there are far more “angels” than Angels, so I’m not suggesting at all that the more conservative, self-interested nature of typical “angel’ investors is bad or a problem. They are crucial to startup ecosystems. I’m not running around writing $100K checks on team+vision either. But the distinction between the two categories often gets lost on first-time entrepreneurs, with negative consequences.

You likely need a Pre-Angel Plan

So the net result of the above is that tech entrepreneurs outside of the most dense ecosystems like SV and NYC encounter much higher expectations from “angels,” and therefore (and I’ve written this in prior posts) pre-angel money, what is typically called “friends and family” money, is often essential to building something attractive to “angels.” If I encounter a founder team planning to start a company without a viable path to $50K-$200K in initial funds, either from their own savings, friends and family, or a classic Angel, that is very often a red flag. Not game over, but it is a concern. 

It’s certainly been done before, especially when the founder team is very self-contained and willing to work for nothing until there is real traction, but most companies will never make it to the “angel” investment stage (product, traction, revenue) without either bootstrap/F&F funds, or a classic Angel investor willing to make a big bet. Accelerators have helped with this issue by (often) being the first non-F&F money in and serving as a valuable signal to “angels”, and they deserve credit for that, but even getting to a point where you’re attractive to a top accelerator often takes some real cash.

In short: most angel investors are much more conservative, and have higher expectations, than the term “angel” suggests, because they’re in a different category from the classic wealthy “Angel” investors that give the term its meaning. Be mindful of that fact, and prepare for it in your early-stage fundraising strategy.

Your Best Advisors: Experienced Founders

TL;DR Nutshell: While great advice for a founder team can come from all kinds of sources, nothing comes close to matching the value of advice from other founders (preferably local ones) who have been through the exact same fire themselves, and made it to the other side.

Related Reading:

Suddenly, everyone who just shows up to school gets a participation trophy, every lawyer with small clients is a ‘startup lawyer,’ and everyone who can pull a few strings is a startup ‘advisor’ or ‘mentor.’ While there are truly great advisors/mentors out there, I see founders constantly wasting time, equity, and in some cases money on people who have very little substantive value to deliver to an early-stage technology company.

While the above-linked post gets more in-depth into the source of the problem, this one is about one specific type of ‘advisor’ that every single founder team should have: other experienced founders; specifically founders who have gone through a successful fundraising process, dealt with the nuances of founder-investor relations (preferably with the same/similar types of investors), and either achieved an exit, failed (you can get great advice from people who failed), or are still going strong.

Cut Through the PR

Given how easy it is to orchestrate personal branding and online PR that obscures the truth, every founder team needs people to talk to, privately and confidentially, to get direct, relevant, unvarnished advice; the kind that doesn’t make it onto twitter or blog posts. And there’s no better place to find that advice than experienced founders. 

Want to know what it’s actually like to work with a lawyer? You don’t ask other lawyers, or google, or other people in the market who know her; you ask her clients. Want to know what it’s actually like to work with a specific VC? You don’t ask twitter, or angel investors, or people who run accelerators. You ask their portfolio companies. And more specifically, within those companies you don’t ask the CEO put in place at the first large round and who managed to negotiate the ‘founder’ title for himself; you ask the original founder team that took the first check.

I can’t tell you how often founders will ask the wrong people about a lawyer, a VC, an accelerator, or some other service provider, and then get a complete 180 degree, unvarnished perspective when they ask, off the record, the direct ‘users’ of those people. That’s how you find out that the X lawyer who is ‘extremely well respected and well-known’ happens to take a week to respond to founder e-mails; or that Y ‘well-connected’ VC uses shady tactics to coerce founders into accepting unfair terms. You won’t get it from twitter. And you won’t get it from people who didn’t sit directly in the founder chair. 

There is a world of difference between talking to people who know about the challenges of being a founder v. those who lived them.

Finding Experienced Founders

Don’t expect seasoned founders to be running around town doing free office hours for random founder teams with an idea and hope. They’re not mother teresa. They’re sought-after, extremely busy people, and expect to have their time respected just like anyone else. So hustle to connect with them just like how you hustle to connect with other important people. Meetups, LinkedIn, Twitter, Accelerator Alumni Networks, etc. While I have serious reservations about lawyers connecting clients directly to investors, I think great VC lawyers are excellent connectors to experienced founder teams, as long as the ‘intro request’ makes sense.

But you can know that most excellent founder CEOs I know, even the ‘tougher’ ones, have a special, soft place in their heart for other founder CEOs fighting the same fight. Despite the fact that their advice is probably some of the most valuable you’ll ever find, they’re often the last people to ask for ‘advisor equity’ in exchange for their advice. Although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t voluntarily offer it to them.

In short, very very few founder teams can make it very far purely on their own judgment. They need independent advisors to consult with on relevant issues. But most advisors don’t have first-hand knowledge of the core challenges of being a founder, and therefore aren’t qualified to advise on those issues. That knowledge lies with experienced founders. Find them.

Navigating Referrals in a Connected Startup Ecosystem

Nutshell: Referrals and recommendations from influential people in your startup ecosystem, or from people you trust, are an extremely important way to build your startup’s set of advisors, mentors, service providers, investors, etc.  But there’s a wide gap between an authentic referral made on merit v. one made because of quid-pro-quo business relationship hiding in the background.

Background Reading:

Cheap “Networking” v. Respect

I have never set foot on a golf course, and really don’t care to any time soon. I honestly don’t know anything about wine other than that I’d generally prefer a good beer over it. I have no idea what anyone on ESPN is talking about every time I’m sitting in my barber’s chair. And I still need someone to explain to me why everyone on there is so dressed up, to talk about sports? Why, might you ask, would any ambitious lawyer who cares about biz dev make zero effort at improving his game on what many consider to be the core pillars of business networking?

In short: when I recommend anyone to a client: an advisor, a service provider, an investor, even a specialist lawyer, I believe it should be solely because that person actually deserves the referral – meaning that I think they are the best for the task – and not because I expect to gain something personally from making that recommendation, or because I “like” them. I don’t care about anyone’s golf game, sports knowledge, or whether they will refer anyone back to me – and I expect the same in return.

I have pissed off and/or disappointed a lot of people because of this mindset, but in the arc of your own career, particularly in a career based on serving as a trusted advisor, respect will sustain you far more than dozens of superficial connections purchased with steak dinners and side deals.

Build Your Inner Circle

As a founder, the moment you show even the slightest sign of building a strong company, you’ll find yourself inundated with people who want to connect with you. One of your first jobs is to learn, quickly, whom to (politely) say “no” to. You can only have so many coffee meetings before they get in the way of actually building a real company. And if you spend enough time at a few startup events you’ll quickly realize how many “startup people” aren’t actually building real companies. Avoid noise. Find signal.

Building your network (quality over quantity) is extremely important, especially if you’re CEO. But it’s (at least) equally important to build and maintain your inner circle.  More than people with great resources, money, or advice, these are smart, helpful people whose character you’ve judged to be a cut above everyone else’s; meaning that they can be trusted in a way that your broader group of connections cannot.  There is no magical formula for finding these people, or sorting them out from others. Your ability to “read” people will improve over time.

In general, your inner circle should be made up of experienced, smart people who (i) consistently speak their mind more freely than others, (ii) often make recommendations that run against their financial interests or personal connections, and (iii) will give you opinions/feedback that others in the ecosystem don’t have the personal brand independence to give.  Referrals from those people are gold.

Your inner circle can be made up of advisors, investors, experienced founders at other companies, etc. What matters most is that you have one to turn to when faced with those inevitable, high-stakes moments where people with all kinds of incentives are pushing you in different directions, and you need cold objectivity. And as I’ve mentioned before and will repeat here: build diversity of perspectives into your inner and outer circle. The smaller the ecosystem, the harder this is to do – and often times connecting with true outsiders (geographically) can be very valuable.

Lawyer Referrals: Merit v. Kickbacks

With respect to the legal services required for a scaling tech company, a group of corporate lawyers (what we are) generally serve as the quarterbacks of a broader team of specialist lawyers; much like how an internist or general practitioner physician quarterbacks specialist doctors in treating a complex condition. For that reason, the main types of referrals that we (at MEMN) find ourselves making are to specialist lawyers – patents, trademarks, immigration, IP licensing, privacy, import/export, etc.

As I’ve written before, every law firm has built in financial incentives to “cross sell” their own lawyers. If I’m at a law firm that follows the traditional “one stop shop” full service approach, I make money if I can convince you to use our specialist lawyers. It’s called “origination credit.” If you use another firm’s lawyers, perhaps because they have more domain expertise for my type of technology (often the case for patent lawyers in particular), I get nothing. Given this fact, it should not shock you at all when your BigLaw corporate lawyer always refers work to his in-house specialists, without suggesting more appropriate alternatives.

A network of specialized, focused boutiques and solo lawyers should, at a structural level, have a far more merit-based referral system. And it does.  But even among smaller firms there are lawyers who’ve set up kickback relationships that usually aren’t disclosed to clients – and yes these are often on shaky legal ethics grounds. They’re often structured in the form of a referral fee, or % of fees resulting from the referral. While I’m not going to say definitively that these arrangements should automatically invalidate the trustworthiness of a referral, they should at a minimum give founders reason to do their own diligence on the referral before moving forward with it.

It never hurts to ask a referring lawyer: is there a referral fee arrangement in place here?” If it’s some kind of startup program (accelerator, incubator, etc.) making the referral, I would ask is the lawyer/firm you’re referring me to sponsoring your program?” ‘Sponsorships’ often mean the firm is, effectively, paying for referrals. This is actually becoming a mechanism by which large firms entrench themselves, through accelerators.

Again, I’m not going to criticize lawyers who monetize their legal connections. I understand the reason behind it.  But with that being said, MEMN’s specialist network does not have any built in kickback arrangements. When I tell a client “you should use X lawyer because she’s the right person, and at the right billing rate, for the task” I value being able to say it with total objectivity. Back to the point made earlier in the post, make your money by becoming awesome at what you do, not by trying to cut shady side deals that taint your trustworthiness.

Financially motivated referrals work great in a lot of product and service vendor-oriented marketplaces, but in the world of top-tier advisors – where trust is your most valuable asset – they should, in my opinion, be avoided. One of the largest benefits of properly functioning ecosystems is how transparent they are compared to large, top-down organizations.  That transparency means meritocracy, if enough people with backbones are able to resist the urge to “cut a deal.”

Startup Accelerator Anti-Dilution Provisions; The Fine Print

TL;DR Nutshell: All major startup accelerators have uniquely strong anti-dilution protection in their stock purchase agreements.  These provisions are serious, can have a material impact on cap tables, and founders should be aware of what they mean. Many of them are also structured in ways that really don’t make sense economically, and are unfair to founders. Some better approaches are out there and worth considering.

It used to be common knowledge in startup circles: no one, not the CEO, not your first big investor, not even your grandma got full anti-dilution protection.  Maybe they got that watered-down weighted average stuff that is common in VC rounds, but the idea of guaranteeing someone X% of the cap table was a non-starter… until accelerators showed up. On top of receiving their % of the cap table (anywhere from 2-8%, depending on the accelerator), the vast majority have provisions requiring you to “top up” their shares if they experience any kind of dilution pushing their ownership below the % they originally purchased.

Granted, the protection typically expires at a seed equity or Series A round (called a ‘qualified financing’ in the docs).  Full anti-dilution forever would be non-sense.  But these provisions are still a big deal and can materially impact the capitalization distribution of the Company, and even impact how a company might go about structuring seed rounds.  While we definitely haven’t seen every accelerator’s anti-dilution provisions, we’ve seen enough, certainly most of the top accelerators’, to say that most fall into the following categories:

A. Protection from only additional Founder issuances – The most company/founder favorable anti-dilution protection, but unfortunately not the most common; though at least one very elite accelerator uses it.  In short, the accelerator is protected only if the founders issue themselves new equity, or otherwise somehow increase their ownership %s, after issuing the accelerator shares.  If stock, warrants, notes, etc. are issued to outsiders, like for services or for investment, no “top up” is required.

B. Full protection until a qualified equity round – This is the least company/founder favorable, and is unfortunately the most common; including among some top brand accelerators.  Basically, no matter the reason for issuing additional securities – services, investment, etc. – you must top-up the accelerator completely until the company raises $X in an equity round.  That last point is extremely important, and I will discuss it further below, given the fact that convertible notes/SAFEs (and not stock) have become by far the predominant form of raising seed rounds.

C. Full protection until a qualified equity or debt/SAFE round – This is a middle-ground provision that is less common than “B” above, yet at least is more agnostic as to its impact on seed round structures. If, after issuing the accelerator shares, you raise a round of $X of equity or convertible notes/SAFEs, the anti-dilution protection stops.

The “C” anti-dilution category is a little tricky, because even if the “tolling” of the anti-dilution stops at raising, for example, $250K in convertible notes (assuming that’s the qualified financing threshold), you still have to provide a top-up when those $250K in notes eventually convert.  While that’s still free shares to the accelerator, it ends up being far fewer top-up shares than there would be under the “B” (more common) type of anti-dilution protection.

Example: 

  • StartCo issues Accelerator 6% of stock as part of the program.
  • After the program, the Company (in sequence) (i) issues stock to several employees, (ii) raises $2MM in convertible notes @ various caps, (iii) issues some more options, and then (iv) eventually closes a $4MM Series A round.
  • The “qualified financing” threshold in the accelerator’s stock agreement (for purposes of ending anti-dilution protection) is $250K.

If StartCo had attended an accelerator with “A” type anti-dilution, they wouldn’t have had to top-up the accelerator at all – no free shares. As long as no equity was issued to the original founders, the accelerator continued to be diluted by future issuances just like the founders themselves were.

If StartCo had attended an accelerator with “C” type anti-dilution, they would’ve had to “top up” (or “true up,” however you want to call it) the accelerator for (i) the stock issued before the note round(s), and (ii) only for the first $250K in notes of the seed round. Once the $250K in notes was issued, anti-dilution stopped, though some top-up shares would need to be issued in the Series A round once it’s known exactly how many shares those $250K in notes convert into. While this scenario is worse for the company/founders than scenario “A,” it’s not nearly as bad as “B.”

If StartCo had attended a “B” category accelerator, which remember is the most common, including among some top accelerators, every single issuance before the Series A, including often (i) option pool shares reserved in connection with the Series A and placed in the “pre-money” and (ii) (in the worst variants of this category) all $2MM in notes, would require anti-dilution top-ups. That’s A LOT of free shares to the accelerator.

Accelerator A asked for 6% only on Day 1. Accelerator C asked for 6% on Day 1 and for maybe 3-6 months. Accelerator B asked for 6% for possibly 1-2 years. 6% is not just 6%. The details matter. A lot.

And perhaps more interestingly, “B” type anti-dilution is relevant to how founders structure their seed (pre-A) rounds.  If StartCo had raised $250K in seed equity, it could’ve cut off the accelerator’s anti-dilution immediately. But by raising seed money as notes and putting off equity for a Series A round (which is extremely common), it let the accelerator’s anti-dilution drag-on. Does it really make sense for accelerator anti-dilution to favor one type of seed round structure over another?

Which accelerator’s anti-dilution makes more sense?

As someone on the company side and at a firm that (deliberately) doesn’t represent accelerators, I’m obviously partial to the “A” approach of accelerator anti-dilution.  But stepping back and trying to assess things objectively, it also just makes more sense.  What exactly should an accelerator’s anti-dilution protection be “protecting” for? If the concern is that a set of founders with low ethics will immediately dilute the accelerator post-program by issuing themselves more equity, then “A” anti-dilution protects for that.

Perhaps, for economic reasons and much like the qualified financing threshold in a convertible note/SAFE, the accelerator doesn’t want its ownership % to be cemented until a serious financing round has occurred that prices the company’s equity. If (and I do mean if) that is the intent, it’s not clear why it should matter whether the seed round is debt/SAFEs or equity, as long as it’s large enough to be considered a real seed round. Plenty of VCs/seed funds who are more than capable of pricing companies (via caps) are signing notes/SAFEs.  The logic for “B” and “C” type anti-dilution must be, fundamentally, about grabbing a larger share of the cap table; not “protection.” 

If accelerators insist on “protection” for more than just self-interested equity issuances, then they should at least modify their anti-dilution provisions to stop favoring equity seed rounds over debt/SAFE rounds, given how much more prevalent the latter have become. And founders should be aware that if a particular accelerator is asking for 6% w/ “B” anti-dilution, that could be equivalent to 10%+ on Day 1 (much more than simply 6%), after accounting for all the free shares that must be given to fulfill long-term anti-dilution obligations. 

Kudos to the few accelerators who’ve moved toward the most company/founder favorable (and justifiable) type of anti-dilution; the “A” category above.  As for those preferring the “B” and “C” categories, which includes some very well-known brands, it would be great to hear some thoughts on why you think they are a more reasonable structure.  If I were a founder in one of those accelerators, I’d be interested in hearing those thoughts as well.

Startup Accelerators: The Legal Terms

Startup Accelerators have by all measures become “a thing,” and for good reason.  They’re a fantastic way for founders to surround themselves with A-level advisors, investors, and other founders, which is exactly what founders should be trying to do from the moment they start a company.  Getting into YC or Techstars is to a founder what getting into Harvard or Stanford is to a college student.  Though, as in any industry, there’s also a lot of garbage, including accelerators that have never resulted in serious follow-on funding, and some that even charge you for participation – lesson: do your diligence.

Naturally, a lot of really good material has been written on the web about (i) how to get into an accelerator (or an incubator, the lines between those two continue to blur), and (ii) what to expect once you’re in. Remote Garage just recently wrote an excellent post on their experience in applying to Capital Factory – a local top-tier accelerator/incubator (A/I) we frequently run into with our Austin clients.

But not much has been written on the legal side of these programs – meaning the provisions in the contracts they make you sign before you’re allowed to peek behind the curtain.  Founders who sign these agreements without actually understanding what they say can run into very serious, and expensive, problems down the road. 

The Core Economics

  • Equity – In exchange for participation, the accelerator (or incubator) wants an ownership interest in the company.  Standard % for accelerators is 6-7% in the form of Common Stock.  Incubators tend to be in the 2-3% range.  The equity is issued via a Stock Purchase Agreement with a similar structure to a founder’s stock purchase agreement.
  • Additional $ Investment – A typical accelerator acceptance will come with an additional investment separate from the equity; usually in the form of convertible note or SAFE (in the case of YC).  Higher-tier accelerators will put in about $100-$120k, though some give as little as $20-25k.  This money is often intended, in part, to help founders relocate to the location of the accelerator, pay for housing, etc.

The Important Details

The above is fairly straight-forward and well-known, but there are a whole lot more details (and potential landmines) in the actual agreements that Startup Accelerators expect you to sign.

RepresentationsTypical accelerators and incubators will require founders to make certain representations in their agreements; meaning that the founders are committing themselves, by contract, to the truthfulness of those representations.  And the Accelerators can bring suit if it turns out those representations are wrong.

  • Organization – The Company is an actually incorporated entity (typically in Delaware), and has qualified as a foreign entity (if applicable) in whatever states it needs to in order to legally operate its business.
  • Capitalization – Accelerators will often require you to state in the contract what your capitalization is, including how much total equity is outstanding, how much the founders own, the size of your option plan, etc.  Given that accelerators expect to own X% of your Company upon entering the program, there’s no way they can be sure of that without knowing what your cap table looks like.
  • Authorization – The Company’s Board of Directors has actually approved (meaning at a meeting or by written, signed consent) the documents being executed in connection with the accelerator acceptance.
  • IP Ownership – All the founders, and any other service providers, have signed documents making it very clear that all intellectual property relating to the business of the Company actually belongs to the Company.

While I haven’t seen it explicitly called out in a contract (yet), a lot of accelerators will also informally require/expect to see a vesting schedule among a group of founders.

If it’s not clear to you already, the above reps mean that, if you’re signing a contract with an accelerator and haven’t had a lawyer make sure you can actually make these reps, you’re insane – not in a cool, “founders love risk” sort of way – just insane.

Covenants – While the above representations are statements of fact about the company, in signing A/I docs, founders are also signing up to various covenants – on-going obligations that they owe to the accelerators after signing the contracts.

  • Information Rights – Accelerators are investors, and they expect to stay informed of material events in the Company’s trajectory.  This often includes (i) financings, (ii) acquisition offers, and (iii) periodic financial reports of the Company’s performance.
  • Anti-Dilution Rights – When the accelerators say they want to own 6% of your Company, they don’t want you to issue them that many shares and then immediately proceed to dilute them down to 1%. For that reason, they’ll require you to “top up” their ownership to maintain their ownership %.  This anti-dilution right will usually terminate upon a “qualified financing” – meaning a priced financing in which the company issues preferred stock.
  • Approval Rights – Some accelerators will require you to obtain their written consent in order to enter into certain key transactions, including (i) selling the Company, or (ii) issuing securities to employees or founders through an option plan not already approved at the time that the accelerator docs are signed.  Normally you wouldn’t need their permission because of the small (6-7%) stake of the Company they own, but this provision requires you to ask them anyway.
  • Preemptive Rights – In addition to anti-dilution rights, which protect the accelerator from dilutive issuances (like you issuing more stock to founders or employees), accelerators will also often request preemptive rights (also sometimes called pro-rata rights) to purchase their pro-rata share in any future financings.  Meaning that if they own 6% now, they can take 6% of your future financings, as long as they’re willing to pay whatever price is set in that round.
  • Investment Rights – While less common in national accelerators, accelerators with a heavy investor-component will typically include some form of additional investment right on top of their anti-dilution protection and preemptive rights: meaning that, after ensuring they maintain their ownership %, they can purchase an additional fixed $ amount of securities at a later date.

Founders should understand all of these obligations as they move through and graduate from their accelerator programs, as a misstep could either burn valuable relationships, or require expensive cleanup down the road.

Where to Pay Close Attention

There’s a whole spectrum of philosophies among the people who run accelerator/incubators across the country, ranging from a “we’re really just here to help change the world, have fun, and maybe make a little $ at the same time” attitude to “this is a business, and we’re really here to make money.”  Somewhat unsurprisingly, the best accelerators tend to lean toward the former, with founder-friendly docs not needing any push-back. Lower-ranked A/Is more often (but not always) fall in the latter category.  While the previously mentioned terms are fairly standard across all accelerators, here are areas where founders should pay very close attention, and if they have the leverage, push back on the terms.

Overly-Lengthy Anti-Dilution Rights  Anti-dilution rights should stop at a priced VC financing of between $500K – $1 million. Anything beyond that is (i) way more aggressive than “market” terms, and (ii) almost certainly going to create problems in raising funding.  While watered down “weighted average” anti-dilution is very common in startup financing, the kind of full anti-dilution given to accelerators/incubators is only tolerated pre-Series A.  Some accelerators have narrower anti-dilution rights that apply strictly to future issuances to founders (not all issuances), and those are more acceptable to carry on after a VC financing.

Overly-Lengthy Preemptive/Investment/Approval Rights – Preemptive, Approval, and Investment Rights should also terminate upon a VC financing; where similar rights tend to be granted to all investors as a class.  Post-Series A, your accelerator/incubator should play ball along other, larger investors.

If you’ve raised $20M in venture capital and are on your Series C, it makes zero sense (beyond a power grab) for you to still have to go to your A/I for preemptive rights waivers, approvals, etc., separate from everyone else. Top accelerators get this, and their docs reflect it.  But I’ve seen smaller A/Is let these rights drag on, giving them too much influence and power to disrupt major post-Series A deals.

Real Money should pay for Notes/SAFEs, not equity – This is less of a control/power issue than a legal nuance that a good lawyer will catch and prevent at the time of an accelerator’s investment.  As a founder, you have an interest in keeping the Fair Market Value (FMV) of your common stock as low as possible in order to ensure employees who receive equity can receive that equity at a low price, and hence enjoy more of the upside.  It also leaves open flexibility for re-shuffling founder equity if circumstances require it.

If your accelerator is paying $20K+ for a single-digit % of your Company via common stock, that’s often putting a FMV on your common stock that’s higher than you’d want at an early-stage.  This means recipients of your common stock after your accelerator pays for its shares may need to pay a much higher price, or incur taxes for receiving the stock.

For this reason, pay attention to the price the accelerator is paying for your equity.  If it’s higher than you want, you can ask them to move some of the money to a convertible note or SAFE, explaining the FMV issue.  Every major accelerator that I’ve brought the issue up with has been cooperative, so it should be uncontroversial.

Conclusion

Startup accelerators and incubators are (at least the good ones) fantastic opportunities for founders.  Unless it’s a really questionable one, I rarely find myself counseling clients that they shouldn’t attend one.  That being said, just like other big players in startup ecosystems, A/Is are not charities.  They have financial interests they need to protect, and that means requiring founders to sign contracts containing very real and serious obligations.  Go in with eyes wide open.