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.

Protect Your Angel Investors

Background Reading:

A lot of writing, including my own, breaks the world of startup  funding “players” into 2 broad categories: founders and investors. While that is helpful, it’s also important for founders to understand that within the investor category, there’s an important distinction between angel investors and institutional investors; in terms of incentives, behavior, and their overall relationship with the company.

Institutional investors are sophisticated (… usually), repeat players who are working with large amounts of other people’s money; and those other people expect (demand) great returns. They have their own lawyers (and therefore usually negotiate harder), have much deeper pockets, and usually invest much later in the game than true angels; when the company is a much more attractive investment from a risk-adjusted perspective.

Angel Investment: faster, easier, but more exposed. 

Angel investors are investing their own money.  Seed funds / angel groups do work with a broader pool of money, but they are more accurately described as an organized group of angels than a true institutional fund.  Angels often do not utilize their own lawyers in executing deals (because the check sizes don’t justify it), which means they rely more on trust in the team, and on standard, more lenient terms. Their money goes in much earlier in the stage of the company, so at a point where the company is much riskier. Angels are accurately described as betting as much on a founder team as they are on the business.  Prominent angels also regularly serve as “social proof” for gaining the interest of VC funds.

Because angels invest much earlier in a company (than VCs), usually without lawyers, and usually on standard documents with minimal investor protections, their relationship with founders/management is often much more informal and trusting, and less about “the numbers,” than the founder-VC fund relationship. Accelerators usually also fall in the same category. This is all very much a good thing. It’s what allows seed investments to move quickly, at a time where the company doesn’t need or want to spend a lot of hours going back and forth on deal nuances when they could be building the foundation of the business.  But it also means that angel investors are exposed to gaming by later investors (or, sometimes, bad actor founders) who take advantage of key inflection points to push the angels’ investment away from the “deal” they thought they were going to get. 

The broad context in which this happens is fairly simple: an angel round has been closed for a while – usually convertible notes or SAFEs, but sometimes seed equity – and the company is raising a Series A. After negotiation and modeling, the parties have not aligned on numbers. The VC doesn’t like the terms that the angels are ‘getting’ in the round (from their notes/SAFEs), because after accounting for his own share, too much of the cap table is taken.  So he makes his check contingent on the founders going back to their angels and convincing them to accept modified terms.

The angels, not happy about it, are exposed because their money is already sunk, and much worse things could happen if the deal dies. So they cave; accepting worse terms so that, effectively, the new money can get better ones.  Requiring earlier seed money to raise their valuation caps is a common way to make lower Series A valuations more swallowable.

But to be totally honest here, sometimes the gaming is not led by the VCs, but by the founders. They see what the angels are getting in the deal, and might collude with the new money to force a change. I’ve never had one of my personal clients play that sort of game, but I have seen it happen.

There are situations, of course, in which terms simply need to be re-negotiated; usually because the company’s path took a number of unexpected negative turns, and things just won’t work if a reset doesn’t happen. Those situations should be distinguished from the ones in which a deal really can close, but someone is just using the exposure of angels to get more of the pie.

Reputation is capital. Don’t waste it.

The job of company counsel is not to do whatever founders / management want; it’s to advise on what is best for the company and all of its stockholders long-term. On a whole host of issues, people who’ve seen the life cycles of companies play out over time (like VC lawyers) can bring a long-term perspective that a fresh team may not understand intuitively.

My advice to founders, which I put down in Burned Relationships Burn Down Companies, is that relationships matter. A lot. Especially with your early money, which often acts both as your cheerleaders in the market, and as a safety net if things get rough. Putting aside the purely ethical aspects of gaming angel investors (which are important, mind you), burning your early investors is bad for the company.  It’s also just bad for founders personally, whose relationships can mean a soft landing if their company fails, or support for their next venture. 

As a startup and new team, you don’t have buckets of money, or a rock-solid reputation, to insulate you from everything that can go wrong with a company. Your reputation and social capital are some of your most valuable assets; don’t waste them. If anyone is asking you to hurt your social capital, stand your ground. They’re asking you to incur a cost, but for their benefit.

In fact, real chess players sometimes want to burn your other relationships, because it reduces your optionality, which increases their leverage. Always think multiple steps ahead.

Pro-rata rights are core economics.

And on a final note, it’s important for founders to understand that when angel/seed funds request “pro rata rights” for future rounds, those rights are not a nice-to-have that is independent from the economics of their existing investment. Successful angel investment depends on the ability to double down on winners (put in additional investment), because the vast majority of an angel’s investments are losers. That’s the core economics of angel investment. If you deny angels their pro-rata in a Series A, you are taking away a part of their deal that allowed them to invest in you in the first place. The long-term consequences for a company and a founder team are usually not worth the near-term benefit.

Promising Equity v. Issuing Equity

Background Reading:

An underlying theme of a number of SHL posts has been the common misunderstanding among young, first-time founders around what startup/vc lawyers in fact do. As I wrote in Legal Technical Debt, a mindset has emerged from certain startup circles suggesting that virtually anything legal that startups do at early-stage, from forming their company to raising seed financing, can be automated with software.

That confused mindset leads founders to (i) assume that all lawyers are just luddites over-charging startups for effectively filling in forms, and (ii) results in founders accruing an enormous amount of compounding ‘legal technical debt’ from badly drafted documents, mis-matched contracts, missed legal steps, etc. For companies that fail fast, the debt never comes due. And yes, there is a clear correlation, from my experience, between founders who arrogantly think lawyers are worthless and those that never build anything of significance.  Dumb people believe and do dumb things.

For those founders that do end up building a real business, however, the 10x cleanup cost of legal technical debt (relative to what it would’ve cost to do it correctly from the start) is often brutally painful. There are a lot of very interesting new tools out there being built to streamline and optimize how tech/vc lawyers work, and you should certainly look for lawyers who are using them. But if you think for a second that you’re going to build a real tech company without needing serious lawyers who can safely manage significant legal complexity, you are, without question, deluding yourself.  

A significant source of “automation confusion” arises from founders not understanding the difference between promising equity and actually issuing equity. I’ve noticed this from how many of our own (very early stage) clients will randomly e-mail us a set of contracts executed over a period of several months with a short message like: “we went ahead and *issued* some equity on our own.  just FYI.”  This blog post will save me from having to write the same e-mail 30 times in the future.

Promising Equity 

I can promise someone equity in 5 seconds, and 1 sentence.

“I promise to issue you 10,000 shares.”

See, it’s not hard. Promising equity is exactly as easy, and as automatable, as it sounds.  Anyone who automates a contract for promising equity, which usually means filling in numbers into a static template, doesn’t deserve the slightest bit of praise for innovation. It’s been do-able for decades.

Sure, people still make mistakes in promising equity all the time. They calculate the number of shares incorrectly, or they get the vesting schedule wrong (or don’t offer one at all), or they simply grabbed the wrong form to begin with.  But the point is that, perhaps with a little guidance from educational materials and a boilerplate form, promising someone equity is do-able as a DIY project.

Reality Check

The problem, of course, is that promising equity is 2% of the much more complicated process needed to actually issue equity. To correctly accomplish the issuance of equity from your company and into the hands of the intended recipient, a web of highly contextual legal analysis needs to occur. Just a short (non-exhaustive) example:

  • What kind of entity are you? That influences the type of equity you can issue.
  • Stock? Option?
    • If Stock, at what price?
    • If Option, at what price? To an employee, or a contractor?
  • Vesting schedule? 83(b)? Acceleration?
  • Was the price set correctly to avoid tax consequences?
  • Enough authorized shares?
  • Correct class of equity?
  • Is it being issued under an equity plan?
  • Was the plan adopted correctly?
  • Are there enough shares in the plan?
  • Is the recipient eligible to receive the equity under securities laws and tax rules?
  • Any state-specific rules/filings to comply with?
  • Any contractual approvals needed?
  • Any cap table adjustments needed, like anti-dilution?
  • Approved by Board?
  • Anyone else that needs to be notified about the Board action?
  • Any spouses we need to worry about for community property purposes?

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Want to try automating that? Good luck to you. Medical care will be fully automated before complex legal work is. Why? Because there’s far less variability in biology than there is between the legal structures of companies. You simply cannot automate (not in a commercially viable way, at least) in an environment where every use case has a totally different starting point, context, and history, in an infinite number of combinations. Even less so where high-stakes errors are cemented in ways (via contract execution and enforceability) that do not allow for quick and easy bug fixes. That is precisely the world in which serious VC lawyers operate.

Believe me, I empathize deeply with the disdain for lawyers held by many entrepreneurs, and share some of it myself. As someone who manages recruiting for our firm, I constantly find myself fighting a sense that the legal field is a magnet for people who think that perfecting their punctuation matters more than learning to actually advise clients on the what, why, and how of startup law.

But there are lawyers in the market who know how to get things done efficiently and correctly. I hire those lawyers. You can either (i) pay them now, (ii) pay them 10x later, or (iii) assume your company will fail before the debt comes due.

Angel Investors v. “Angel” Investors

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

Related Reading:

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

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

Classic Angels

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

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

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

Most “Angels”

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

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

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

You likely need a Pre-Angel Plan

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

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

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

Don’t Rush a Term Sheet

TL;DR: No matter how many blog posts and books are out there (many of which I recommend) attempting to explain the mechanics of VC term sheets in simple terms, the reality is that VC term sheets are complicated, both in terms of how their math works and in how the various control-related provisions will impact a founder team over time. Take time to understand them, and don’t rush to sign, even if investors make you feel like you have to.

Background Reading:

Similar to the ‘automation delusion’ that I’ve written about in Legal Technical Debt, which has led some very confused founders to think that most of what startup lawyers do is getting eaten (as opposed to supplemented) by software, there’s a sentiment among parts of the founder community that VC deals have become so standardized that the only kind of analysis needed before signing a term sheet should look something like:

“$X on a $Y Pre?”

“5-person Board, with 2 common, 2 Preferred, and 1 Independent?”

“Great, here’s my signature.”

Take this approach, and you are going to get a lot of ice cold water splashed on your face very quickly, and not at all in a good way. I’ve seen it many times where founders run through a VC deal, so excited about how awesome their terms were, only to realize (sometimes at closing, sometimes years later when things have finally played out) that there were all kinds of “Gotcha’s” in the terms that they failed to fully appreciate. Having solid, independent, trustworthy advisors to walk you through terms before signing is extremely important, and it needs to be people whose advice you take seriously. See: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers and Your Best Advisors: Experienced Founders. 

Some simple principles to follow before signing a term sheet are:

A. Fabricated Deadlines Should be Pushed Back On – It is very common for a term sheet to end with something like “this term sheet will expire on [date that is 48 hours away].” That deadline is very rarely real. It’s just there to let you know that the VC expects you to move quickly.

It is unreasonable to sit on a VC’s term sheet for weeks without good reason. By the time they’ve offered you a term sheet, they’ve likely put in some real time diligencing your company, and the last thing they want is for you to take their term sheet and then “shop” it around to their competitor firms to create a bidding war.  Doing so is not how the relationship works, and will almost certainly burn your deal. So expecting you to move somewhat quickly in negotiating and then signing is fair, but if a VC is pressuring you with anything remotely like “this needs to be signed in 24/48 hours, or the deal’s gone,” what you have there is a clear picture of the kind of power politics this VC is going to play in your long-term relationship.

Move quickly and be respectful, but make sure you’re given enough time to consult with your advisors to fully grasp what you are getting into. It should be in everyone’s interest to avoid surprises long-term.

B. Model The Entire Round – VC Lawyers are usually the best people to handle this because they see dozens of deals a year and will be the most familiar with the ins-and-outs of your existing capitalization, but having multiple people running independent models is always a good idea, to catch glitches. You want to know exactly what % of the Company your lead VC expects for their money, before agreeing to a deal.

I have seen many situations where founders get distracted by a ‘high’ valuation, but when everyone is forced to agree on hard numbers they realize that the VC’s definitions were very different from what the founder team was thinking.  This is absolutely the most crucial when you have convertible notes or SAFEs on your cap table, because how they are treated in the round will significantly influence dilution. The math is not simple. At all.

C. Understand The Exclusivity Provision – Most term sheets will have a no-shop/exclusivity provision “locking you up” for 45-60 days, the amount of time it typically takes to close a deal after signing a term sheet. This is reasonable, assuming it’s not longer than that, to protect the VC from having their terms shopped around. But it also means that if you are talking to other potential VCs, the moment one term sheet arrives, everyone else should be told (without disclosing the identity or terms of the TS you have in hand) that it’s time to put forth their terms, or end discussions. Because once signed, your job is to close the signed term sheet.

D. Focus on Long-Term Control/Influence Over Decision-Making – Thinking through the various voting thresholds, board composition, and consent requirements is extremely important. Will the board be balanced, with an ‘independent’ being the tie breaker? Then being extremely clear on who the independent is, and how they’ll be chosen, is crucial. Will one of the common directors have to be the CEO at all times? Then understanding exactly how a successor CEO will be chosen is crucial, because usually at some point it’s not a founder.

If X% of the Preferred Stock is required to approve something, then you need to know (i) what %s of the Preferred will each of your investors hold, and (ii) who will the other investors be? Usually the Company gets discretion as to what money gets added to the round apart from the lead’s money, ensuring there are multiple independent voices even within the investor base, but some VCs will throw in a provision requiring that only their own connections fund the round. That heavily influences power dynamics.

There will be many situations in the Company’s life cycle where everyone on the cap table doesn’t agree on what’s the best path for the company. Ensuring balance on all material decisions, and preventing the concentration of unilateral power, is important, and yet not simple to understand without processing terms carefully. 

E. Shorter Term Sheets are Not Better – There is debate within the VC/VC Lawyer community as to whether shorter, simpler term sheets are better than longer, more detailed ones. I fall squarely in the camp that says you should have clarity on all material terms before signing and locking yourself into exclusivity; not just the economic ones.  That means any sentences like “the Preferred Stock will have ‘customary’ protective provisions” (meaning they will have the right to block certain company actions) should be converted into an exact list of what those provisions will be. I can guarantee you your counsel’s perspective on what’s ‘customary’ is going to differ from their counsel’s.

The view among those who prefer shorter term sheets is that you should sign as soon as possible, to avoid ‘losing the deal’ (as if VC investment is that ephemeral). I don’t buy it. The moment you sign a term sheet, you are going to start racking up legal fees, and you are now bound by a no-shop/exclusivity. That means your leverage has gone down, and you are much more exposed to being pressured into unfavorable terms to simply ‘get the deal closed.’ Politely and respectfully negotiate a term sheet to make it clear what all of the core economic and control terms are. The alignment and lack of surprises on the back end is well-worth the extra time on the front end. 

In short, the core message here is know what you are signing. Make sure your VCs know that you are committed, and aren’t going to play games by shopping their terms. But also make sure you are talking to the right people to ensure that the deal you think you’re getting is in fact the one in your hands.