Why Startups Need Signals

Here are a few uncontroversial facts about the general early-stage startup ecosystem:

  • The cost of starting a tech company has dramatically gone down over the past 10 years.
  • In the early days, the caliber of the founder team is at least as important for success as the caliber of the idea/technology.
  • New networks – like AngelList and LinkedIn – have dramatically increased the transparency of relationships in the market, and the ease with which currently unconnected people can become connected.

Putting the above points together, you could easily conclude that it’s never been easier for talented founder teams to obtain needed resources in the market, particularly early-stage capital. But, in some ways, you would be wrong.  Many would argue that while the difficulty of starting may have gone down, the difficulty of actually succeeding has gone up, due to increased competition (and noise) in the market. 

The reduction in cost/friction in the startup world has been met with an increase in volume, and that volume has made the market far more noisy and competitive. Far more entrepreneurs producing far more ideas, and flooding top tier resources with far more pitches. If you want a clear illustration of this, look up newly created companies on AngelList.

Where there’s an increase in noise (weak teams, weak products, me-too companies, etc.), the value of signals – credible ways to cut through the noise and indicate to the right people that you are, in fact, worth talking to – goes up. This post is about why all early stage entrepreneurs need to be very mindful of the importance of signals in the marketplace, and what those signals often look like.

First, a quick clarification: signals are ways of effectively indicating information, but they are not the information itself. In other words, they are ways of credibly sending a message to someone like “hey, we’ve got something truly interesting over here” when simply saying those words won’t work – perhaps because everyone says that, or because you simply can’t get the face-to-face time, and when hard metrics like revenue growth/customer traction may not be available (because it’s too early).  Imagine the startup world as a very dense fog – and the fog is getting denser, btw – good signals are your very visible beacons to flash into the fog so that investors and other resources can find you.

A Series B company needs to worry far less about signaling its value proposition to investors, because its history, financials and reputation in the market can already speak volumes. Successful serial entrepreneurs don’t have much trouble either. A seed stage, or pre-seed company run by new entrepreneurs, however, is in a completely different situation, and needs a different toolkit.

Common early-stage startup signals:

  • A really good logo
  • A really good website
  • A really well-done AngelList profile
  • A strong social media presence
  • Well done blog content
  • Very well-crafted messaging
  • A great pitch at a pitch competition
  • Connections to respected people on LinkedIn
  • Acceptance into a well-respected accelerator
  • Strong academic or professional history

Notice how none of these really have anything to do with the fundamentals of your business/technology? You’re a very early-stage startup. No one really knows whether your business will be successful, and at this stage you can’t even get the face time with the right people to sell them on it. That’s what signals are for.

Remember the point about how startup investors care at least as much about the strength of the team, especially the CEO, as they do about the business? Why is that? Because talent (properly defined) is highly correlated with success, and talent is easier to analyze in the early days than the future prospects of a business. Great entrepreneurs tend to be highly talented generalists (multiple skills); it’s what allows them to hit milestones without a staff of more specialized people.

Doing any or all of the things on the above list credibly signals some kind of skill/talent. Just take a good logo (which may seem silly to an engineering type, but that’s a big mistake): it takes good judgment/taste (marketing skills), and the ability to find a talented logo designer (recruiting skills). Strong LinkedIn connections signal strong networking skills. A great pitch signals strong sales skills. A degree from a respected school, or employment with a well-respected company, certainly isn’t essential, but it clearly signals strong technical skills/training.

Getting into a top accelerator is one of the strongest signals available (because of how thoroughly they vet companies), and that’s why demo days are so well attended by early-stage capital. But getting into a top accelerator often requires its own earlier set of signals.

Yes, in many ways the world has become flatter, more transparent, more meritocratic, etc., and it’s a very good thing.  Yes, the “good ol’ boys” network is weakening in the sense that there are far fewer true gatekeepers. But don’t delude yourself for a second into thinking that this means success in the market has gotten easier. And absolutely don’t think that networking and referrals from well-respected people don’t matter.

A warm referral from someone known and respected in the market is still – simple, cold fact – an incredibly powerful signal. Think about what it takes to get a strong referral. You first had to get connected to that (usually very busy) person (networking skills). Then you had to interest them enough to think your business is worth supporting (credible business idea, sales skills). People care so much about good referrals because in a market full of noise, they are a very efficient filter. And no one has time to work without filters.  

This point is worth repeating: the “democratization” of the startup landscape has certainly reduced the power of gatekeepers – specific people (usually men) whose approval you needed to raise capital and connect with important resources – but it has not (and will not) eliminate the importance of building relationships with credible, trustworthy people who can then refer you to other people who trust their judgment. The democratization arrived in the form of diversifying the number of possible referral sources; not from eliminating the need for referrals altogether.

Utopian visions of a world in which great entrepreneurs will frictionlessly connect with capital purely based on the merit of their technology/business, eliminating all the superficialities of networking and personal marketing, are a dead end.  Someone on your team needs to be good at building relationships, because relationships are incredibly powerful signals. 

Just don’t expect your lawyers to connect you with investors. See: Why I (Still) Don’t Make Investor Intros. Signals can be negative. And the fact that, of all the people in the market whom you could’ve convinced to refer you, you chose someone you’re paying (instead of someone who refers based on merit), is very often, in today’s environment, a negative signal.

A good logo, or a well done AngelList profile, can seem superficial, but signals are often about how seemingly superficial things can help people with low information sort through noise. If it takes talent to produce it, and it’s the kind of talent needed for market success, it’s a signal worth caring about.

Negotiation and Inexperience

TL;DR: Having access to trusted advisors, and the time to consult with them, is essential for anyone negotiating terms with which they have very little experience. Don’t accept someone’s argument that you must negotiate important issues live. It’s simply untrue, and a tactic for gaining unfair leverage.

Background Reading:

A recurring theme of SHL posts is that entrepreneurs, particularly first-time entrepreneurs, need to be extremely mindful of the imbalance of experience between themselves and the many sophisticated, repeat players they’re going to be negotiating with as they build their companies. It’s obviously common for entrepreneurial personalities to be more comfortable (than most) with risk, and to go head-first into negotiations and activities without proper backup. But for really big, irreversible decisions, it will backfire, and others will happily use it against you.

One of the most overused phrases for getting naive negotiators to give in on issues they should push back on is “this is standard.” When you have no historical or market perspective – what’s normal, what’s fair, what are the risks, how will this play out in 5 years? – you can be easily manipulated into all kinds of bad outcomes. I’ve been at more than my fair share of board meetings or negotiations where someone at the table makes a completely biased, nonsensical claim that something is “standard,” at which point I’ve had to step in to set things straight, and gladly offer up data or a quick market survey.

There are two main things that I tell all companies to focus on in this regard:

  1. Have a group of experienced, trusted advisors that you can quickly communicate with on serious issues.
  2. Do not let yourself be bullied into a setting where your inexperience puts you at a substantial disadvantage.

Trusted Advisors

When I speak of trusted advisors, I’m not referring necessarily just to your Company’s “advisory board,” which serves a broader purpose of helping you on long-term strategic, business, and technological issues. I’m referring to people you can call or e-mail for specific, tactical guidance on more pressing matters; your “inner circle.” Seasoned entrepreneurs, mentors from accelerators, lawyers (who are independent from your lead VCs), and trustworthy angel investors often make up this group for most CEOs I work with. The most important thing is that they (i) have visibility into the broader market, to help you actually understand what is acceptable, and (ii) will be direct and honest with you when you most need them to.

Imbalanced Negotiation Settings

While it is far less common in the tech world than in other areas, you occasionally still encounter people (particularly VCs) who insist that the only appropriate way to “really” negotiate is live, and in person. And let me tell you: this is bullshit.

Of course, live discussion is important for communication and relationship-building; it has its place. But more often than not, attempts to force entrepreneurs and company executives to negotiate key issues live, or under a very tight deadline, is a tactic to gain unfair leverage from their inexperience. Of course the guy who’s done this type of deal 30 times wants you to agree to terms live, face to face, away from your set of advisors. It has zero to do with business norms. Plenty of high-stakes deals are negotiated asynchronously. 

How you push back and (respectfully) assert yourself in negotiations with other business parties will set the tone for your long-term relationship. If you allow them to force you into circumstances that favor them, they will do it indefinitely. There is nothing wrong with responding, diplomatically, that while you of course would love to grab beers and meet up in person for more casual matters, for real business, you expect time to consult with advisors.

If you’re working with people whom you should want to build long-term relationships with, they will respect your request.  In fact, I’ve known some great VCs and other business people who are very upfront about the experience imbalance with new entrepreneurs, and insist that companies work closely with key advisors.  Those are people playing a long game, and who know that their reputation in the market matters more than short-term opportunism.

If the person you’re negotiating with rejects your request, and dictates to you the medium of negotiation, then at a minimum you’ve gained some key information on what the relationship is going to really look like if you choose to move forward.

SAFEs v. Convertible Notes, updated.

TL;DR: Still not seeing a ton of SAFE adoption, albeit a slight uptick. Convertible Notes still dominate outside of SV and pockets of LA/NYC.

Background Reading:

A recurring theme of this blog is that the advice and strategy you take for fundraising needs to be right-sized and contextualized for where you are located. Because by an order of magnitude Silicon Valley has the most startups, VCs, large exits, etc., the majority of the content available online for founders to educate themselves comes from Silicon Valley. A lot of it is very good, but a lot is also totally inappropriate for a founder in, say, Austin, Boulder, or Atlanta (or markets like them); where the dynamics between entrepreneurs and investors are fundamentally different.

Context matters. 

Y Combinator created the SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) a few years ago as an “upgrade” on convertible notes. It is a well-drafted document, but when you get down to brass tacks, a SAFE is basically a convertible note without interest or a maturity date. Purely from the perspective of founders, it is a fantastic deal. Most convertible notes are already slimmed down in terms of investor rights, and SAFEs effectively strip those rights down even further by removing the “reckoning day” of maturity.

The problem with SAFE usage for “normals” outside of Silicon Valley (and perhaps Los Angeles and NYC, which mirror SV much more so than other markets) is that it reflects the unique market leverage of the people who produced it: Y Combinator. Apart from YC itself, Silicon Valley already is an aberration among startup ecosystems. The concentration of seed funds and venture capitalists in such a small geographic area creates a level of hyper competition that is not even close to what is seen anywhere else in the world. And Y Combinator is, to some extent, the Silicon Valley of Silicon Valley. It takes competition among investors to an even higher level, where many founders can effectively dictate terms.

It’s therefore unsurprising that YC produced a security that effectively tells investors “Here are the terms. Thank you for your money. Talk soon, when we get around to it.” That’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s not entirely off base from how many investors I run into view SAFEs. And it should therefore also be unsurprising when investors outside of that environment respond with “Excuse me?”

So when founders I work with ask me if they should consider using SAFEs, my viewpoint can be summarized as follows:

  1. Only if you believe that all of your seed investors will accept them. Because if only your earliest investors (most trusting/risk-tolerant) will take them, they are not going to be happy about later investors getting real debt, and you will have to re-do everything.
  2. In 99% of cases, you’re better off just asking for a convertible note with (i) a low interest rate, and (ii) a long maturity date (24-36 months). For all intents and purposes, it is effectively the same thing, but will keep “normal” angels investing in “normal” companies more comfortable.

A conventional convertible note with a low interest rate and reasonable maturity period represents a balanced tradeoff: give us some trust and freedom to iterate quickly and get to a serious milestone (minimal restrictions), and in exchange we’ll give you a mechanism for holding us accountable if we don’t perform (maturity). A SAFE, however, reflects the expectation that investors should hand over their money and hope for the best. I rarely see angels or seed funds that use a maturity date to actually harm the company, but that doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable for them to expect somprotection if they aren’t getting the kinds of rights (board representation, voting rights, etc.) that equity investors would get.

Know thyself, and thy leverage. 

There is a subculture among certain entrepreneurs that acts a tad self-entitled to investor money; and I’m sure you can guess where that culture originated. I can say that as a lawyer who (deliberately) represents exactly zero startup investors. I always tell my clients, if I detect it, to snap out of it. You won’t win with it. If you aren’t the CalTech/MIT superstar in the room, then don’t take her advice, or follow her lead, on how to get a job. Persistence and hustle work best when combined with self-awareness and humility.

I have seen a slight uptick in SAFE usage, but it’s almost just a blip. Convertible notes still dominate, and for understandable reasons.  They’re investors, not philanthropists to your entrepreneurial dreams. See “Angel Investors v. ‘Angel’ Investors” for understanding how many Angels you encounter actually think about startup investing.

The truth is that SAFE culture, which reflects YC culture, is a broad reflection of the binary dynamics of how Silicon Valley approaches fundraising; touched upon in Not Building a Unicorn. Billion or bust. If you haven’t made things happen and my seed investment hasn’t 5x-ed into your Series A, I’m already moving on and focusing on the unicorn in my 30-company portfolio.

But if you’re not building a unicorn, that’s not how your investors think, and you need to act accordingly.

Maturity about Maturity. 

So if the idea of your convertible notes maturing scares you, well, entrepreneurship is scary. First, ensure it’s long enough to give you a legitimate, but reasonable amount of runway to make things happen. If your angels have given you 3 years to convert their notes, that’s a very fair amount of runway. I personally think less than 24 months is usually unreasonable, given the timeline most companies need to get real traction and attract more capital.

Second, there are mechanisms you can build into a convertible note to further help with hitting maturity. The most common and important is ensuring a majority of the principal can extend maturity for everyone; so if enough of your early investors still support you, you get more time. Extensions are very common.

Automatic extension, or conversion into common stock, upon achieving certain milestones – for example, upon raising an additional convertible note round, or hitting certain metrics – are another good option. Lawyers specialized in early-stage financing can help here.

The people who are the best at sales are also the best at getting into the heads of their buyers, and understanding their concerns. The same is true for founders “selling” to investors. It is not unreasonable for investors in high risk startups to expect some downside protection in the highest risk segment of a startup’s history, and that’s why so many angels and seed funds reject SAFEs. Give them what they want, while getting what you need. And don’t spend too much time listening to people who are experts in a world that you don’t live in.

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.