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.

Ask the Users

TL;DR: Blogs, social media, and public endorsements are all noisy, and often false, signals about a person’s real reputation in the market. The only way to get the truth is to “ask the users,” and in a way that allows them to speak the truth without negative repercussions.

I’m going to keep this post as simple as possible, because the message, though extremely important and often lost on people, is quite simple.

Should you join a particular accelerator?

Ask the users – the companies that have already gone through it.

Should you accept money from a particular fund or investor?

Ask the users – the portfolio companies that have already taken money from them and gone through ups and downs.

Should you work with a particular mentor / advisor?

Ask the users – the companies they’ve already advised.

Should you use a particular law firm, accountant, or other service provider?

Ask the users – their existing clients, particularly the ones who’ve gone through a major transaction.

One of the most dramatic, impactful things that the internet (and services like LinkedIn, AngelList, FB, Twitter) has done is made it 10x easier to connect with other people to get direct, unfiltered, off the record feedback on their experiences in working with others. It has made BS a whole lot harder, and ultimately improved behavior across the board. But that brings up some important points worth keeping in mind as you “ask the users”:

A. As much as the web has made finding direct feedback easier, it’s also magnified the opportunities for untruthful marketing.

Blogging and social media are great ways to get a feel for a person’s persona – or at a minimum the persona they want to display publicly, which itself is a valuable, albeit noisy, signal. However, never underestimate the capacity for sophisticated players to whitewash their online reputations. What you see on a blog, on Medium, or on Twitter is marketing, and it’s only with due diligence that you verify it’s accuracy.

And yes, that speaks for this blog and my own social media presence as well.

B. Do not assume that a public-facing endorsement is reflective of that person’s true opinion.

Reality check: people use public endorsements as currency. A VC will make their investment, or assistance on some project, contingent on the expectation that founders say a few glowing things about them on Twitter. A lawyer will agree to discount a fee if they can get a great LinkedIn recommendation. An accelerator will make an intro if the founders will write a great Medium post.

Public endorsements, though valuable as a signal, are fraught with ulterior motives. In short, they can be, and often are, bought.  I know plenty of people who, for some quid-pro-quo arrangement, have given public endorsements for market players whom they would NEVER recommend privately. Do not take a favorable public comment as reason to avoid doing private, off the record diligence.

C. Ignore the opinions of sycophants.

Every ecosystem is full of people who will sing the praises of anyone influential simply because that influential person could get them business. It may be too far to call some of them spineless, but ultimately they lack the personal brand independence to speak accurately about other peoples’ behavior. No one is perfect, and if someone’s review of a particular player feels totally over-polished, it’s probably because they’re not telling you the truth.

You want feedback from serious, honest people who are willing to speak their mind (but see below).  Not a bunch of random cheerleaders.

D. Talk privately, and don’t reveal whom you’ve spoken to. 

No one who has an active, ongoing relationship with someone wants to damage that relationship, even if they’re not entirely happy with it. Doing so is irrational. If I’m in an accelerator, I still depend on that accelerator’s support, so don’t expect me to go on the record for badmouthing them. The same goes if I’m in a particular VC’s portfolio, or working with a particular law or accounting firm.

This is why it’s extremely important to do “blind” diligence; meaning if you are diligencing X by asking Y, you absolutely do not want X knowing that you asked Y. If a VC tells you to ask a specific company about their experience in working with them, then they know exactly whom to punish if you end up walking. If you go through their portfolio and personally decide whom to ask, you remove that ability, and therefore dramatically increase the likelihood that you’ll get honest answers.

And it should go without saying: phone calls or in-person meetings. Don’t expect honesty in a forward-able e-mail.

E. Focus on patterns, not a single review.

Even the best restaurants have the occasional negative review because they either were having a bad day, they simply weren’t a good fit for the particular patron, or – and let’s be honest here – sometimes the user is a pain in the ass. The customer is always right? Nope, sometimes the customer is a moron.

Don’t assume that you’ve got the full picture from simply asking one person. Ask a few, and the line drawn from the dots will matter much more than the individual data points.

F. If you can’t diligence, you need a right of exit. 

The stakes are highest for relationships that you really can’t extricate yourself from. A serious investor is the clearest example. Never take money from a VC without performing diligence.

However, for other service providers – take an advisor/mentor for example – there are other mechanisms to de-risk things. If they’re getting equity (which they often are), a “cliff” on their vesting schedule is the best one; typically 3 or 6 months. That should be enough time to understand the reality of working with them, and make corrections if it’s a terrible experience. Solid contracts help here, with clear, painless rights of termination.

However, a word of caution – all the contracts and lawyers in the world will not protect you from the enormous cost and time suck of working with sociopaths. Even if you don’t have the time or ability to diligence their “users,” you should at a bare minimum vet them personally with interviews, questions, and other ways to get a general feel for their personality and values. If you have good instincts for judging people – and if you’re a CEO I hope you do – you will be able to filter out most assholes.

Startup Accelerators: Bundled and Unbundled

TL;DR: Elite accelerators have cemented themselves as the universities of the entrepreneurial world; offering a bundle of resources in exchange for a price (tuition in form of equity). The most elite absolutely deliver on their promise. But as with education, that bundle of resources can be unbundled, and that’s what’s happening among entrepreneurs who don’t need or want the “full package.”

Background / Related Reading:

What is the purpose of universities? It depends on whom you ask. Employers who are honest will tell you it’s mostly one thing: curation; various filters (admissions, testing, etc.) to help sort out who the good candidates are from the bad. If you ask students, you’ll likely get more varied responses. For some, it’s about preparing for a successful career, including building a network that you can leverage for your career. Those are the pragmatists.

Others will get a little more poetic and talk about how universities are a place to ‘find yourself,’ and be exposed to experiences and knowledge that stretch you beyond the narrowness of your upbringing.

The value and purpose of accelerators tracks almost exactly the above points about universities; just replace “students” with “entrepreneurs” and perhaps “employers” with “investors.” Pragmatically, accelerators offer entrepreneurs a curated bundle of resources (a network of entrepreneurs and advisors, faster access to investors, education, some initial money, etc.) in exchange for a price: usually 6-9% of equity, with (sometimes) heavy anti-dilution rights, and pro-rata rights.

Better curation leads to a better network and bundle, which leads to even higher quality, which further enhances the network, etc. It feeds on itself, at least when it works. And for a handful of top accelerators it works very well.

And of course there are certain accelerators who push beyond pragmatism and aim for loftier, more romantic goals than ‘just’ offering a set of resources: helping entrepreneurs build friendships, find greater meaning in their businesses, being part of ‘something greater,’ etc. It sounds very similar to how more liberal artsy universities pitch themselves to students. And you can verify from certain founders (not pragmatists) that the right accelerators do deliver on that kind of experience; that the accelerator was “life changing.”

Here are some thoughts, based on conversations I’ve had with founders and my own observations in the market, about the evolution of accelerators and how entrepreneurs are likely to engage them going forward.

1. Top accelerators have corrected an imbalance between the strength of founders’ networks and those of VCs.

In doing so, elite accelerators have ‘unbundled’ some of the ‘value add’ aspects of how venture capitalists, and other service providers (like law firms), traditionally used to sell themselves. First-time entrepreneurs often start out with virtually no network. VCs and law firms would pitch themselves to these entrepreneurs by emphasizing not just the core service they provide (capital, legal services), but that using them over someone else included access to their network. I’ve written before about law firms that pitch magical access to investors. 

A founder who gets into a top accelerator, however, gains access to a vast, well-curated network of other founders, mentors, potential hires, etc. When they shop for a law firm, they’re now much more interested in the actual service quality of the firm, rather than some lawyer’s half-baked ability to make investor intros. And having access to many resources that they once would’ve relied on VCs for, founders can focus on other variables in investor diligence; like how helpful they are on the Board.

In some ways, the resources that top accelerators give founders have upped the ante on what “value add” from institutional investors really means, and has put some traditional VCs in the same category as prominent angels or well-coordinated angel groups: checks, perhaps with a few intros, but not much more. Some VCs really do add value. Others mostly just provide large checks; which is perfectly fine – you want big checks – but some big checks are smarter.

2. However, there are still a lot of founders who don’t pursue traditional accelerators, and never will.

Traditional, fully bundled accelerators – the kind that involve months of full-time commitment, a demo day, and giving up a large amount of equity in exchange for the large “package” of resources described above – heavily slant toward young, first-time founders. As they should: those are the people who have the most to gain, and the least to lose, from the full accelerator experience.

As influential as accelerators have become, an enormous amount of our client base doesn’t go through them, and hasn’t tried to. The reasons vary:

(i) I’ve got a family and don’t want to move across the country for several months;

(ii) I’ve got my own professional network and don’t see the cost of the accelerator as worth what it can deliver to me; or maybe [and this last one is worth a discussion]

(iii) I can hustle my way to access the people I need – who are now easier to find thanks to the accelerator – without actually joining it.

3. Without tight integration, unbundling of non-elite accelerators is inevitable.

No matter how many MOOCs, Khan Academies, apprentice programs, degree-less job openings, Thiel Fellowships, etc. arise to eat away at the dominance of the 4-year university model, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT aren’t going anywhere. The exact same can be said for the most prestigious accelerator programs.

But outside of the true elite, the traditional format and cost of accelerator programs is likely not sustainable. Very little of what most accelerators offer founders (curated groups of people) is proprietary in any way; nor can it be viably cut off from the market to restrict access to only those who ‘pay’.  The content that is proprietary is *usually* not what draws founders into the program. I’ve seen some accelerators try to get control over ecosystem resources by playing gatekeeper. I’m sure you can predict how that ended for them. Don’t try to ‘gatekeep’ entrepreneurs.

If entrepreneurs are good at anything it’s being resourceful and gaining access to resources (including people) that are visible in the market. And accelerators, through a few years of curation and operation, have made those resources a lot more visible.

Yes, I know several entrepreneurs who are happily tapping into the networks of accelerators without actually going through them. And it’s not surprising, at all. They’re doing what entrepreneurs do. I’m sure the accelerators themselves aren’t even surprised. The networks of accelerators are effectively the compilation of smaller networks of individual people, very few of whom are beholden to any accelerator. And as is now common knowledge, modern tools have made networking 10x easier and more transparent than it was even 5 years ago.

So what does this mean? It means that outside of the very elite accelerators with the tightest integration and network effects, you’re probably going to see experimentation with smaller, more targeted, lower ‘cost’ alternatives. Some will still be called accelerators; others won’t. If the ‘price’ drops to 2% instead of 8%, a little boost in finding investors may be worth it. Maybe programs targeted toward educating founders in a Khan Academy way will pop up, perhaps just for cash.  Although YC appears to be building that, for free.

Prominent angels and advisors may band together to invest very early, and get a little extra equity for value-add advisory; their brand serving as a signal (via great curation) to larger, later-stage checks. Even certain targeted co-working spaces are playing a role, adding on some value add programming/events to sell their real estate.

I can’t predict where it will all go, but I can already see bits and pieces of the unbundling occurring.  My advice to new founders is always to approach accelerators just like they would approach any other resource or service provider in the market: (i) what is the cost, (ii) what do I get for that cost, and (iii) is it worth it, given alternatives available in the market. And always *always* ask the users.

Some founders will continue to pursue the very elite accelerators, and for good reason.  Others will over time find ways to access just the parts of the accelerator “bundle” that they need, and for the right price, all made easier by the foundation laid by the original accelerator boom. 

Even if most accelerators as we know them don’t survive, the people who built and ran them made enormous contributions to the market, and will surely find other ways to keep participating in their ecosystems. What’s definitely clear is that it’s never been a better time to be a tech entrepreneur.