Pre-Series A Startup Boards

It’s pretty well known that startups usually undergo a meaningful change in Board composition at their Series A round. At a minimum, the lead investor(s) of the round get Board seats; although they shouldn’t get Board control.

Less has been written about what startup boards tend to look like before a Series A round. Given that the time from formation to Series A has stretched out significantly for many companies in the market – due to pre-seed, seed, seed plus, seed premium, series seed, seed platinum diamond, whatever-you-want-to-call-not-Series A rounds. So here’s some info on what a board of directors tends to/should look like Pre-Series A.

A. Know the difference between a ‘Board’ of Advisors and a Board of Directors.

A lot of companies refer to their set of advisors as a ‘Board’ of advisors. That’s fine, even though they very rarely actually act like a board. There (usually) aren’t ‘Board of Advisors’ meetings where everyone gets on a conference call and talks shop. Instead, the company just has a loose set of individual advisors they work with on strategic matters, often in exchange for equity with a vesting schedule. Advisors often times are angel investors as well.

The important point here is that Advisors have no power/control over the company. They just advise. The Board of Directors, however, is the most powerful group of people in the Company, with the ability to hire and fire senior executives and approve (or block) key transactions. Big difference. Giving someone a seat on your Board of Directors is 100x more consequential to the company than naming them an advisor.

B. Know the difference between a Board Observer, Information Rights, and being a member of the Board of Directors. 

Most angel investors writing small checks are buying the right to a small portion of the Company, and that’s it. They don’t expect to be very involved in day-to-day, and are happy to just receive whatever e-mail updates the Company intends to send out.

Angels / Seed Funds who write larger checks may want a deeper view into what’s going on in the company. They’ll often ask for different variants of ‘information rights’ – which can include delivery of regular financials, and notification of major transactions (like financings).

A step up from ‘information rights’ is a Board observer right. This means the investor has the right to observe everything that happens at the Board level, which includes hiring people, equity grants, approving major deals, etc. Do not dish out Board observer rights lightly. Having too many observers can make it difficult to keep confidential matters from being leaked to the market. It also can just be logistically cumbersome for a seed stage company to keep track of who gets to attend meetings, who has to be notified of what, etc.

Also, if you do give someone a Board observer right, ensure that it’s clear that they are a silent observer. This means that they can listen in on Board discussions, but they are not entitled to provide their thoughts/input, which can have legal ramifications and influence the true decision makers.

C. Giving seed stage investors Board seats is not the norm. Take it seriously. 

The majority of companies we see have Founders only on the Board before closing their Series A. Sometimes it’s just the CEO; other times it’s 2 or 3 founders. That’s very much driven by the personal dynamics among the core team.

Occasionally a seed or VC fund writing a large seed check ($250K+) will request a Board seat for their seed investment. While not the norm, it’s also not terribly off market if a large check is being written. Founders should just understand that giving anyone a Board seat, even if they don’t control the Board vote, is inviting them to give their input on every single major strategic decision the Company will make. It is a very deep commitment, and should only be given to people you believe can deliver real value to the business, and whose values are aligned with the founder team. Otherwise you’re asking for unnecessary and distracting drama.

If the fund that wrote the large seed investment has deep enough pockets to lead a Series A, and is interested in leading your A, this adds even more layers of complexity to the decision. A *true* seed investor who only invests in seed rounds can be an asset in sourcing Series A leads, because those leads are a complement to their position. A VC who dabbles in seed investment for pipeline purposes, however, has opposite incentives; assuming you’re doing well, they may prefer to lock out other potential competitors and take the Series A round for themselves. Having a VC already on your seed-stage Board can make it harder to get term sheets from outsiders for your Series A.

This dynamic of committing early to a VC before you’re ready for a Series A is discussed somewhat in The Many Flavors of Seed Investor “Pro-Rata” Rights.  My experience has been that getting trustworthy VCs on your cap table pre-Series A is generally a very good thing, so long as their participation is not contingent on terms that effectively lock you into having them lead your Series A. That is the startup equivalent of getting married as a teenager, before you’ve had a chance to mature and really explore the market.

VCs who ask for board seats at seed stage, or who require that you guarantee them the right to a large percentage of your Series A (50%+) are trying to get you to lock yourself in early. You should want them to invest, but still ensure that they have to earn the right to lead your Series A.

D. Board composition should ‘reset’ at Series A. 

If you’ve ended up giving a Board seat to a large seed investor in order to secure their investment, it is extremely important that it be clear between everyone that the seat is not guaranteed indefinitely. Boards can only be so large. If your seed investor who put in $250K is guaranteed a Board seat forever, it makes it a lot harder to make room on your Board for the people putting in millions, or even tens of millions of dollars.

The logic here should be that if the seed investor insisted on a Board seat at seed stage in order to ‘monitor’ things early on, they should be comfortable letting go of the wheel once they know larger, more experienced institutional investors are taking over. Their interests as an investor are more aligned with the new VCs investing in the Series A than they are with the Common Stock. It simply is not appropriate for a company who’s raised $5 million, $10 million, $30 million+ dollars of capital to still have someone who wrote a $250k-500k check taking up a board seat. Board observer rights should also terminate at Series A, or perhaps Series B, for similar reasons.

So, in a nutshell, founders should start with the assumption that no one will join their Board of Directors until a Series A happens, and someone writes a 7-figure check; as that is the norm. However, for large checks from investors with strong value-add and alignment with the founders, there can be a justification for giving them a seat at the table, as long as it’s structured in a way that will not cause any issues, or prevent competition, in Series A negotiations. For investors who want (and deserve) something ‘extra’ on top of their investment security, advisor equity, information rights, and silent observer rights should all be explored as alternatives.

Electing a Truly Independent Director

TL;DR Nutshell: There are few governance-related decisions with a more outsized impact on a company’s power structure than the selection of an independent director. Do not take that selection lightly.

Background Reading:

In assessing financing terms and interacting with their lead investors, most founders instinctively focus on two core things: economics and control. And, broadly speaking, that is correct.  But the devil is in the details, and too many teams overlook extremely important details. They’ll focus on high-level issues like valuation, liquidation preference, and board composition (# of seats), and then prematurely check out once a term sheet is signed. And that’s when sophisticated players start executing their playbook for maneuvering into a controlling position regardless of what the black-and-white text says.

I’ve already written extensively on how one part of that playbook is for investors to push companies to use their ‘preferred’ company counsel. Another classic maneuver is to push the company to elect an ‘independent’ director with whom investors have significant ties and influence. 

Independent Director as Tie-Breaker

Independent directors are, arguably, the most important people on Boards of Directors.  They are supposed to serve as an objective voice on what’s best for the Company overall; balancing the incentives of common stockholders (management/founders) and preferred stockholders (investors) that can often pull in different directions. They should have no reason to be driven by control or personal payout.

It is not unheard of for there to be significant disagreement between the common and preferred stockholders on how to approach an important issue, and the independent director serves as the key vote in deciding which path will be taken. Having a trustworthy independent director is a great deterrent to stockholder lawsuits, as his/her approval makes it that much harder for a disgruntled stockholder to claim foul play.

For real independence, dig deeper

But what does “independent” really mean?

The wrong way to define “independent” is simply as “not an investor or employee.” That absolutely is part of the definition. But smart teams know that a person’s judgment and independence are heavily influenced by far more than just their front-facing professional status.

  • Does the candidate regularly invest in other startups alongside your investors, perhaps as part of a seed fund, accelerator network, or other group?
  • Is the candidate looking for other appointments, either as a director or a more-involved executive; potentially at companies where your lead investors could deliver access?
  • Does the candidate spend time in social / business circles where, if they were forced to make a hard decision that angered one side of the board, either members of management or the investor base could exert pressure out of retribution?

Sophisticated business players are masters at finding leverage in their social / business relationships to push a deal in the direction they want it to move. And some founders are quite good at it too. truly independent director should be minimally exposed to the carrots or sticks that either side of the Board might use to sway a key decision in their direction.

Ideally, an independent director will be someone who has a relatively equal pre-existing relationship both with the founders and with the investors. But because founders often have significantly narrower networks than their lead investors (who are repeat players), that is easier said than done.

More often than not, VCs will propose someone from their preferred ‘roster’ of independent directors; people whom the founders (particularly first-time founders) don’t know at all, or only barely know. Given the loyalty and history that ‘roster’ will have to the VCs for dishing out serial appointments, those people should almost always be avoided. They’re not independent at all, no matter how much they might argue the contrary.

Specialized industry expertise is valuable.

If no viable candidates are available whom both sides can trust, then agreeing on a list of well-known industry players and pursuing their service together is often a very good idea.  Any arguments that an independent director must be local should be pushed back against if the right person is located elsewhere. Videoconferencing and teleconferencing are highly effective, as are airplanes.  If your independent director doesn’t ‘feed’ from your local ecosystem, that can be a good thing in the right context.  Skillset trumps geography.

Someone who not only has the necessary character to be independent, but has specialized knowledge that management and (often) generalist VCs do not, can be invaluable by opening up industry contacts, and helping overcome challenges that are unique to the market a company is engaging.

If you’re building a health tech, or energy tech, startup taking on a massively complex and entrenched market and no one on your board has engaged deeply with that market, that is usually a red flag that politics has trumped performance in determining the board makeup.

Avoid an empty seat.

When no one is available locally whom both sides can trust in the independent director seat, companies will often be pushed to leave their independent director seat empty until after closing. I typically suggest that companies avoid a vacancy if they can, unless they’ve built such a strong level of trust/rapport with their VCs that they’re 100% confident a true independent will get selected, relatively quickly, post-closing.

If you are closing with a balanced board structure of 2 common, 2 VCs, and 1 independent, but your independent seat is empty, you are set up for a stalemate; and stalemates work (like a game of ‘chicken’) against the people with the most to lose; which means founders. By simply refusing (often with any number of excuses) to approve a key transaction, a key hire, or a new fundraise, investors can push founders into a corner to get their preferred independent director elected. Yes, this happens.

Agreeing on a ‘temporary’ independent director to take the seat at closing, to be replaced when a permanent one can be found, is sometimes a good idea. Not ideal, and you should still be very careful who gets chosen, but it is often better than an empty seat.  If you are stuck with an empty seat at closing, push hard to keep the selection of an independent director on the near term agenda, and call out delay tactics when you see them. Your leverage decreases proportionately with your bank balance.

It’s not cynicism. It’s experience.

If in reading the above, you feel the advice carries a perspective that is a tad too cynical and untrusting, I suggest that you go talk to multiple founder CEOs who have gone through rounds of funding with institutional investors.  They will educate you, off the record. Some stories will have happy endings. But others will teach you the value of a little preparedness and skepticism.

Trust is extremely valuable in business, and I always tell companies that if they’ve found people that they can really trust, and who have proven themselves to be trustworthy over time, hold onto those people with their lives. Make them directors, advisors, officers, your kids’ godparents. Surround yourself with people you can really trust. See: Burned Relationships Burn Down Companies.

But institutional investors have a job to do, and it’s not to be your BFF. It’s to make a lot of money by (1) getting into attractive deals (buttering up), and then (2) once inside, pushing companies to achieve lucrative exits as fast as possible (turning up the heat). Pay close attention to how the behavioral incentives at stage (1) and (2) are very different, and prepare for it, so you don’t end up as the cooked turkey.

The best analogy I’ve found for how companies should interact with their lead investors is that of foreign diplomats engaging in high-stakes trade negotiations. They have something you want, and you have something they want. And while you’re visiting, smile, crack jokes, share photos of your kids and focus on growing the pie together. Try as hard as you can to make the ‘partnership’ resemble something close to a friendship. But when you get back home, make sure the arsenal is well-oiled; just in case.

When all your eggs are in one basket, and you’re sharing that basket with money-driven people who are 10x more experienced than you are, a healthy dose of skepticism keeps you alive. Others will say to relax, let your guard down, and not be so cautious; but their net worth isn’t riding on one horse. Do your diligence, and then build a relationship that you can leverage for the success of your company. But never lose sight of where everyone’s incentives lead. The moment you do, the reality check will be costly and painful. 

Having a balanced power structure, instead of a founder-controlled or investor controlled one, is a great way to build trust and alignment. If your VC terms call for a balanced board, make sure what gets implemented is actually, not just superficially, balanced. Treat the selection process of your independent director as seriously as that of your company counsel, and don’t let anyone take it off the agenda.

How to Avoid “Captive” Company Counsel

Background Reading: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

This post is going to make some people uncomfortable. People who work with me know that I’m not the type who likes to irritate others just for the fun of it. But I’m always willing to say something that needs to be said, and I’ve always structured my business relationships and life in a way that I’m not prevented from saying it.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

Inexperience v. Seasoned Veterans

Founders, particularly inexperienced first-time founders, face enormous uncertainty and opacity as they build their companies. In that environment, they’re tasked with making complex long-term decisions, on behalf of themselves and other stakeholders, with very high-stakes implications; including distributional implications as to who gets what share of the limited pie, and who gets to decide when the pie gets eaten.

More so, as founders raise capital, they engage with highly experienced, sophisticated, repeat player parties who have gone through the same process dozens of times. Those parties (investors) are typically aligned with founders/management in the sense that they want the company to be a success, but there is significant misalignment in the fact that each side wants their share of the pie to be larger than the other, and each side often disagrees on when it’s time to start eating. In the case of institutional investors, they have a legal obligation (to their own investors) to get as high of a return for their investment as possible; in other words, to get as much of the pie for themselves (and as large of a pie) as they can.

Counsel should level the playing field. 

In this environment: inexperienced founders/management working with highly seasoned third-parties with significant misaligned financial motivations, founders/management have to rely on trusted advisors to level the playing field; to ensure that their inexperience is not leveraged unfairly to their detriment. 

Without question, one of, if not “the” core advisor that startups turn to for leveling the playing field in interacting with highly seasoned investors, particularly at early stage, is Company Counsel; the lawyers hired to represent the company. Startup lawyers have a front-row seat to deals/activities in the market that cover a much broader, and larger, area than any particular investor sees, and they leverage that expertise to help startup teams navigate what, to them, is brand new territory.

Company counsel’s job is not to represent the founders personally – see A Startup Lawyer is Not a Founder’s Lawyer – nor the investors, but the entire company, including all of its stockholders as a whole. The best analogue I can think of is a family therapist, who doesn’t represent the parents or the children, but is looking for the well-being of the family unit.  If someone is threatening the well-being of the family (the company), or trying to unfairly dominate it in a counter-productive way, the therapist (company counsel) helps address it. Sidenote: my job really does resemble that of a therapist sometimes.

The best company lawyers combine a “win-win” attitude (grow the pie) with a long-sighted, subtle skepticism over each individual actor’s motivations; monitoring how actions could result in unfairly taking one person’s part of the pie and handing it to someone else.

Many startup lawyers are “captive” to institutional investors. 

So the founders-investor relationship is inherently imbalanced in favor of the seasoned, experienced investors at the table, and company counsel is supposed to play a strong role in correcting the imbalance. Clearly then, any factors that raise doubts as to the independence of company counsel; factors that might make him/her ‘captive’ to the interests of the money at the table, are cause for serious concern.

In “Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers” I described how the business development practices of certain startup/vc lawyers give companies every reason to be worried that their company counsel is inherently incapable of providing that ‘balance’ that they are supposed to rely on.  Many lawyers know that if they can win a relationship with a VC fund, that relationship can be worth dozens of deals/clients to them in a manner of just a few years; far far more efficient biz dev than going after companies one by one. So building economic ties with those VCs becomes a major source of business for lawyers, including lawyers who act as company counsel. 

I don’t waste any breathe or time trying to actually convince anyone that this scenario is a serious conflict of interest problem; certainly not lawyers. See the Upton Sinclair quote above.  I simply explain to founders/management in very clear terms how things in fact work, and let smart people arrive at their own conclusions. Sunshine is a great disinfectant.

Chess: Losing the negotiation before it starts. 

In my school days before becoming a lawyer, I found negotiation strategy and psychology to be a fascinating area to study. Winning a negotiation and getting what you want in a deal is, to those who are observant, an intricate game of human behavioral chess. To get what I want, I could simply negotiate very aggressively at the negotiation table. That can work. But there’s a cost to it. It spends social capital that I’d prefer to keep. I come off as overly self-interested, when as a long-term player I’d prefer to be seen as a friendly, trustworthy guy; in line my PR/marketing efforts.

A much more effective strategy is to win by preventing the negotiation altogether.  A simple checkers player wins by brute force negotiation. But a ‘chess player’ in business wins by controlling the environment of the negotiation, and the people involved, and in many cases preventing negotiation entirely. Ensure companies are using my preferred lawyers, swell guys that they are, and who I know won’t step out of line with the financial ties I have on them. Then deliver a “fair” term sheet. The founders then take that term sheet to those lawyers, maybe there’s a little back-and-forth for good measure, and we move forward, with ‘our guys’ on the inside long-term.

By convincing founders/management to use captive company counsel, investors can get what they want – both in a financing and long-term – without even having to negotiate much for it. When requesting certain terms, making certain decisions, or engaging in certain behaviors, independent company counsel will properly advise the team on how to respond or defend themselves; but captive counsel will just say it’s all normal and standard, lest he anger the people really funding his salary. 

I know some people will try to stop me right there. I’m being overly cynical here, they’d say. This is just how the business works. Surely no serious investor would actually use their influence over company counsel to push things unfairly in their favor.

Oh really? Many VC lawyers, including myself personally, have observed situations in which a negotiation is not going in the direction an investor would like, and off-the-record phone calls to company counsel get made. “We’re hoping to preserve our long-term relationship here, beyond just one deal.” “Our fund is actively seeking firms to partner with long-term.” “If this deal goes *as hoped*, we’d love to explore other opportunities to work together.”  To a lawyer who plays both sides of the table, you are one deal, while a VC fund’s “favor” can mean many, many deals.  Don’t delude yourself into thinking that favor is free.

I am happy to have a discussion about the issues I bring up here, and to be clear, there are many well-respected investors who respect the appropriate boundaries.  But please don’t try to feed me or companies candy-coated bullshit about the angelic “professionalism” of business parties when 7, 8, 9 figures are on the line, and a few easy phone calls and veiled threats (or bribes) can ensure they stay in the ‘right place.’ If your investors would never make those phone calls, then there shouldn’t be a problem with selecting company counsel with which they can’t make those phone calls. 

Cost control as sleight-of-hand. 

Notice the subtleness in how certain investors (including some blogs) talk about lawyers and legal fees. Why can’t we just close a deal for a few thousand dollars? This stuff has become so standard, let’s just keep the negotiations “between the business parties” and close this thing quickly.

Yes, let’s move fast (read: not discuss the terms much) and keep it “between the business parties”; where one side is inexperienced and doing it for the first time, and the other side has done it 50 times. That’ll keep it “fair.”

We’re negotiating and discussing transactions where even small changes could mean millions of dollars in one pocket or another, but let’s “control the legal fees” to save $10-20K right now. Yeah, gotta watch the legal budget. Really appreciate your “concern” there.

If you are building a company on a trajectory to be worth at least a comfortably 8 or 9-figure exit (which if you are talking to serious tech investors, you are), the idea that you should minimize time spent working with counsel, because it’s all just boilerplate and you’re better off keeping the legal fees for something more valuable, is a mirage set up to keep teams ignorant of what they’re getting into, and how they can properly navigate it. Telling a company “don’t ask your lawyers about this” sounds suspicious. “Let’s save some legal fees” sounds much better. But there’s no difference. You are being played. 

Balanced, but also competent. 

Stepping back a bit, it’s important to also clarify what I am not saying in this post. I am not saying that investors and other stakeholders in a company should not have an interest in ensuring that company counsel is competent and trustworthy. Founders do occasionally engage lawyers, typically for affordability reasons, that simply do not understand the market norms of venture capital financing. Using those types of lawyers ends up being a disaster, because they will slow down deals and offer all kinds of comments that aren’t about ensuring fairness and balance, but are simply the result of their not knowing how these types of deals get done. That will drive the legal bill through the roof, with little benefit.

Company counsel should have strong experience in venture capital deals.  Sometimes when investors request a change in company counsel, they have valid concerns about that counsel’s competence. Assess the merits of those concerns. However, it is one thing for your investors to say “this lawyer won’t work,” and then leave it to the company to find new, independent counsel. It is a completely different, and far more questionable, thing for them to insist that you use their preferred lawyer. 

Avoiding captive counsel. 

Here are a few simple questions to ask a set of lawyers to ensure they can be relied upon as company counsel to fairly represent a VC-backed company, particularly one with inexperienced founders:

  • What venture funds / investor funds do you personally (the lawyer you’re directly working with) represent as investor counsel, and how many deals have you done in the past 3 years for them?
  • What about your law firm generally? (for very large firms, this is less important)
  • How many of your firm’s clients are portfolio companies of X fund, and how did you become connected to those companies? May I reach out to the companies to confirm?
  • Can I get your commitment to not pursue investor-side work for X fund while you are our company counsel?

Larger ecosystems and larger law firms are generally less prone to this problem, because it is harder for individual players to really throw their weight around as a percentage of a larger firm’s revenue. That is to say, if the lawyer you’re working with doesn’t personally represent/rely upon X fund, but some other lawyer in the large law firm does, it’s less likely those “phone calls” could be effectively made. Although even in Silicon Valley and NYC BigLaw I’ve seen situations in which a fund will ‘nudge’ a set of founders to their preferred partner at a large firm. 100% captive.

In smaller firms, which are significantly more exposed to this problem due to their size, you’ll sometimes find that a single fund accounts for a massive percentage of that firm’s pipeline revenue. Those lawyers will slap their mothers if the fund asks them to, and companies are wise to avoid using them as company counsel.

The costs to companies of having captive counsel can be severe. Rushed, unfair sales because a particular fund’s LPs suddenly decided they need liquidity. Refusals to pursue other potential investors because the ‘right’ term sheet from ‘friendly’ investors has been delivered. Executive changes installing ‘friendly’ new management without an objective recruiting or vetting process. Early firing of founders without reasonable opportunities for coaching. The list goes on.

This is not theoretical. When company counsel is captive, their passivity will allow the preferences of a portion of the cap table to dictate the trajectory of the entire company, without the checks and balances that a properly governed company should have. And yet the sad fact is that inexperienced founders often don’t even have the frame of reference to know it is happening, or that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Many just assume, wrongly, that “this is how these things work,” when really that’s only how it works when you hire advisors who can’t, no matter how much they protest basic facts of human behavior, be objective. 

Don’t just go with the lawyer that the VCs insist upon. These lawyers will work with the VC on a hundred financings and with you on only one. Where do you think their loyalties lie? Get your own lawyer, and don’t budge.” – Naval RavikantLawyers or Insurance Salesman?

This issue is not about labeling one group of market players as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad.’ Hardly. There are many, many investors in the market who are phenomenal people with deep ethics. They should have nothing to worry about in ensuring their portfolio companies hire competent, independent counsel. And the best companies always maintain transparent, friendly relationships with their investors.

This is about acknowledging that no one in any tech ecosystem ever has more skin in the game, financially and emotionally, than first-time entrepreneurs; not even close.  And yet at the same time, their inexperience means that their closest advisors play an outsized role in helping them navigate the various relationships and risks that they are exposed to. Pushing startups to use their investors’ lawyers as company counsel is, plainly, an unjustifiable mechanism of control; one that anyone who supports entrepreneurship and tech “ecosystems” should not tolerate. 

People with far more experience and power than tech entrepreneurs will demand that their company counsel be independent and objective, because the fairest outcomes result when everyone at the table is well-advised. Ignore all attempts to argue the contrary. Founders should demand the exact same for their companies.

Startup Advisors: Best Practices

Background Reading:

Advisors. The best startups have great ones. They save you lots of headaches, time, and money. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve come across any successful client that didn’t have a strong set of advisors. Here’s some advice on how to not screw it up:

Advisory ‘Boards’ Rarely Exist.

A set of advisors is sometimes referred to as an advisory ‘board,’ but 99% of the time that’s just a term to make it sound cool. The advisory ‘board’ never meets as a group, and often doesn’t even know each other. They’re just a loose set of advisors that a company works with 1:1, or occasionally in smaller groups. Nothing like a Board of Directors, which actually does have to coordinate schedules.

Don’t Stay Local.

As the first linked post above explains in depth, 20 minutes on the phone with someone who has the right expertise is 1000x more valuable than days spent with someone who is more accessible, but can’t provide real insight that isn’t available already via blog posts or books. This means that if you’re relying solely on the very limited pool of people available via your local business ecosystem, you’re doing it wrong.

LinkedIn, Twitter, Angellist, E-mail, Phone. Work ’em. Connect with the key people in your local ecosystem who can make things happen, but don’t fish only in your little pond.

Don’t Confuse Mentors with Advisors.

Mentors can be really valuable to new founders. They can provide emotional support, friendship, coaching, and all kinds of other things. But are those the kinds of things that deserve an equity grant?

It’s ultimately the team’s call. But just realize that those are not the kinds of things that real advisors are meant for. Advisors provide real strategic insight, connections, recruiting, investor introductions, things that go beyond moral support for the founders and actually move the ball forward for the company in an obvious way. That’s the kind of value-add that typically merits equity.

Get Independent Viewpoints

For high-stakes, complex questions for which the answer isn’t clear, advice needs to be triangulated. You don’t treat any particular person’s perspective as gospel; instead you speak with multiple people and combine all of their viewpoints to make your judgment call.

That sort of triangulation is not possible when all of your advisors have the same background, are part of the same circles, etc. Especially when the questions involve big decisions for which various stakeholders have incentives to favor one option over another, you want advisors who are detached from those incentives, so their advice is objective. This, btw, is also the case with lawyers.

Favor Intellectual Honesty over Politeness

The whole point of getting outside advice is to help you see things you can’t see on your own. If your strategy for choosing advisors is to work only with the people who are agreeable to your own opinions, you’re wasting your time. People who are blunt with their advice, but deliver real insight when they give it, can be game changers for a company. 

Use an Advisor Agreement.

It’s not magical; templates abound. The Founder Institute’s FAST Agreement is perfectly acceptable, and even simplifies equity calculations. The most important thing is that an Advisor Agreement removes any ambiguity as to (i) compensation owed for advisory services, (ii) who owns the contributions, IP, etc. that result from the advisory (the company), and (iii) confidentiality of any info shared. Yes, any vc lawyer has seen founders get in trouble with these issues for not taking the time to document it properly.

Equity; %, Vesting Schedule, Cliff, Acceleration.

If an advisor expects cash from an early-stage startup, that’s usually a red flag, short of a really unusual circumstance.

The FAST Agreement has pretty solid guidelines for what’s appropriate in terms of equity %, depending on the Company stage. Pre-equity round, 0.25%-0.5% is a typical advisor. 1% is someone extremely strategic whose name you absolutely want behind your company. After an equity round, the %s naturally shift down a bit because the company is more valuable.

1 or 2-year vesting schedule and a 3-month cliff, and full single-trigger acceleration on a change of control.  Advisors get full acceleration because acquirers never expect them to stick around after a sale, unlike founders or executives.

Use that cliff.

We regularly see founders engage an advisor expecting tons of value to be provided, and then crickets once the equity is granted. But the founders don’t do anything about it. 3-months should be more than enough time to know whether a new advisor will really deliver the goods, and if not cut the cord and get that equity back for re-use.

 The hard part, of course, is finding the right advisors and selling them on your vision, so they’ll give you the time. If no one on your team knows how to hustle and sell, either start learning yesterday, find someone who can, or (honestly) just give up now. Selling, in a dozen different ways (including to advisors), is 75% of what a competent founder CEO does.

When You’re Not CEO Material

TL;DR: Before you even talk to VCs, know your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and work on them. Know your VCs by asking honest questions early on, and verifying answers in the market. And be proactive and honest about what you really want to be doing at your company, and what matters most to you. When CEO succession drama starts to damage a company, it’s almost always because the founder and the VCs failed to (i) align themselves on their approach to Company management and recruiting early on, and (ii) create an environment of trust and transparency where founders can give up some control without fearing that the fruits of their hard work are being given up as well.

Background Reading:

No matter how much certain investors market themselves as “founder friendly,” no competent VC can guarantee a Founder CEO that they will stay CEO. VCs have a job to do: to turn other people’s money into more money. To the extent they are convinced that keeping a founder as CEO will maximize their chances of doing that (long-term), they will do so. Otherwise, they will tell a founder CEO, sooner or later, that a new CEO is needed.

“Founder Friendly” VCs are the ones who’ve concluded that being friendly to founders helps them make more money.  They are not your BFFs, and you shouldn’t need them to be.

The below are some thoughts, from someone who’s seen it play out many times, on how founders should approach the “Are you CEO material?” issue; both before the hard conversation has arrived, and after.

First: Answer Your Founder’s Dilemma: Rich or King?

If staying in control of your company is much more important to you than achieving an excellent financial return, you should significantly reconsider whether venture capital is right for you at all.  Remember: VCs have a job to do, which is to make lots of money. You bring them on to align yourself with them so that when they make lots of money, you make lots of money.

It’s fine and common if you have a certain ‘mission’ that runs alongside the goal of building successful, profitable business; most great founders do.  But if you’re working with VCs, (i) that mission better be the kind of mission that unlocks lots of benjamins, and (ii) you better be OK at some point handing over the crown and becoming a part of, but not the leader of, management. Because, statistically, most founder CEOs eventually get replaced; voluntarily or involuntarily.

Second: Find Out if a VC is a Coach or Underminer

While all VCs are in it to make money, their philosophies regarding how much “coaching” to give founder CEOs vary wildly. Some VCs know that a founder CEO most likely will need to be replaced once the company has become a true enterprise, but they see value in keeping a founder in the CEO seat for some time and coaching them on their gaps, and also helping them fill some those gaps with other senior hires.  Other VCs virtually never let a first-time founder CEO remain in their position post-Series A. They are fine having them as CTO or COO, but they will almost always make their large check contingent on bringing in one of their preferred professionals.

There is no way to know whether you are working with a Coach or an Underminer other than to (i) directly ask (early) the VC what their perspective is on senior management post-closing, and (ii) examine the existing portfolio of the VC to see what has in fact happened every time they’ve closed a round. Trustworthy advisors who are active in the market are helpful here, as is LinkedIn.

If you’re working with an Underminer, and there are no other options, it is what it is. Work within that reality (see Step 4).

Third: Realize that you are being “sized up” from the moment you first speak to investors.

No one should pretend that “good CEOs” fit neatly into some contrived stereotype. Their personalities, appearance, backgrounds, etc. can vary significantly. However, the core jobs of a CEO, particularly at early stage, are quite uniform: (i) recruit employees, (ii) recruit investors and strategic partners, & (iii) manage and lead everyone to execute effectively on the strategy. From the moment you first interact with investors, they are asking themselves whether a founder CEO can do those things.

Fact: everything about your interactions with lead investors, from the tone and confidence of your communications, to body language and eye contact, and how you respond to push-back and calculated aggression, will influence their perception of whether you are “CEO material.” Complain all you want about prejudices, bias, judging books from covers, etc., but that is just reality. Leadership is not handed charitably. It’s asserted by behavior and results. The concept of “executive presence” is something worth familiarizing yourself with.

No, this does not mean you need to pretend to be some gun-slinging, type A alpha executive. Many great CEOs are calm and collected. But the fact of the matter is that being a CEO of any company requires the ability to have hard conversations and take some heat. If you can’t hold your own in a direct conversation with a VC, they will infer that you can’t do so in the many other key conversations that a CEO needs to have to lead a company.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard something like “That founder? He’s got a bit of an ego,” to which I usually respond, “What do you think it takes?” Ego? Thick skin? Stubborn? Chip on their shoulder? A little prickly? You better f***ing believe it.  Industries usually don’t get blasted open by people overflowing with tenderness and sensitivity.

Fourth: Focus long-term on transparency and influence; not control.

I’ve found over time that many founder CEOs do not actually enjoy being CEO, especially as the company starts growing significantly (~post Series B). They insist on staying in the CEO seat, not because they truly think it best suits their skillset, but because of a fear that stepping down from the top automatically means totally losing influence and visibility into where the company is headed. A culture of transparency and clear communication at the board level can resolve this disconnect and avoid dysfunction.

The key issue here is not whether the Company needs a new CEO, but how to handle succession. The perfect way to create mistrust between founders and their board/management is for VCs to parachute in C-level hires with minimal founder involvement in the recruitment and selection process. It looks something like “We are getting a new CEO, and it’s X (often who was a CEO at a prior portfolio company).” In this scenario, the recruitment of new executives feels far less like the leveraging of much-needed, independent new talent for the benefit of everyone, and more like the investors taking control over management by hiring their loyalists under the pretense of ‘upgrading’ the team. 

When a founder CEO is able to propose her own candidates for the CEO position (and other C-level positions), and play a lead role in interviewing, vetting, and training the prospects, succession goes substantially smoother for everyone. In that scenario, much like a truly independent director, the founders will view the new CEO and other C-level hires as balanced people whose long-term vision and values are closely aligned with the original team. Trust is preserved, and that trust, along with a continued seat at the Board table and contractual protections around their equity and compensation, frees founders to move to positions in the company that are better suited for their skills (CTO, Chief of Product, Chief of Strategy, COO, etc. etc.), and which they usually enjoy more.

Again, different VCs have different philosophies on how to approach CEO/Executive succession, including timing. The only way to find out is to get a dialogue going early on, before term sheets are delivered, and verify the answers by talking, privately, to portfolio companies. As always, having your inner circle of advisors to, confidentially and off-the-record, help you gather that information is key.