Do my startup’s lawyers need to be local?

TL;DR: No. Most top startup lawyers have clients in many different cities, and lawyers specializing in emerging tech/startup work usually exist only in denser tech ecosystems.

Background Reading:

If you live in a small town/city and need specialized (not general practice) medical care, you most likely need to look to a larger city to find that specialist. Any kind of service provider needs some minimal user base to build a viable practice. Larger cities have a higher concentration of patients, and therefore a higher number of patients needing a particular specialty, which is what enables the development of specialist doctors.

This is why cardiologists generally don’t live in farm towns, at least not during their working-week. They live in larger cities. And neonatal cardiologists (even more narrowly specialized) generally only live in the very largest cities.

For localized work, specialization requires density.

It’s also why true startup lawyers – corporate lawyers with a focused practice in emerging tech and venture-backed companies – generally exist only in cities with dense startup ecosystems. Even with modern technology that enables casting a wider net for your market reach, most professionals rely significantly on a local client base. If that local base doesn’t exist, they move to where one does, or they change their practice to mirror the local market. Houston has among the world’s top energy lawyers, but slim pickings for technology/vc lawyers. Boston has among the world’s top healthcare lawyers, but slim pickings for entertainment lawyers (many of which are in Los Angeles). No surprises there.

So to the extent work has a heavily local component (like healthcare, and to a lesser extent law), if you need a particular kind of specialized service, you are smart to look for it in places that have a real density of users for that service. Otherwise you will end up with sub-par local providers, which can be fine if the stakes are low, but disastrous when they aren’t.

Startup Law really isn’t that localized.

It may come as a surprise to people that, for a significant portion of my client base, I have never met the principals in person; and likely never will. Videoconferencing and teleconferencing serve just fine (in addition to other tech tools). That is actually the case for a lot of lawyers with specialized practices. Most serious startup/VC lawyers that I know have clients in multiple cities. In my case, about half of my clients are in Austin (reflecting the need for a dense local base to usually build a specialized practice), and the other half are not (confirming that being local isn’t required at all).

Unlike a cardiologist, I don’t need to physically examine anyone to do my job, which makes geography largely irrelevant. Because most startups generally incorporate in Delaware for reasons discussed throughout the startup blogosphere, local state law only plays a small role in most of the legal issues that startups deal with (usually local employment law); and for those issues, most startup lawyers collaborate with local employment lawyers. The corporate issues generally require very little understanding of local state law. I have quite a few clients with lawyers in half a dozen different cities, none of which are the city where the company is headquartered. And it works just fine.

Local v. foreign specialized lawyers is about tradeoffs.

Silicon valley startups generally use silicon valley startup lawyers. Austin startups generally use Austin startup lawyers. And in both cases, that works very well, because there isn’t a cost to ‘going local.’ Being able to meet up once in a while in person with your service providers is obviously nice from a relationship standpoint. There is some benefit also to your investors being familiar with company counsel, although that issue is usually exaggerated for reasons that I’ll discuss more below.

So if you can get the nice benefits of having someone local, without many costs, going local is usually a good idea as long as you can find someone local who isn’t captive to local investor interests. And sometimes you can’t. See: “How to avoid ‘captive’ company counsel.” There is no set of advisors for whom a founder/management team should care more about their independence than company counsel.

For startups with less dense ecosystems than Silicon Valley or Austin, however, the cost to going local can be much higher. The reason VC or Angel-backed startups in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and similar cities often hire startup lawyers who aren’t local is that they (correctly) recognize that their local ecosystems (generally) lack the density to support truly specialized, scalable startup/vc law practices. Each of those cities has fantastic, very smart corporate lawyers who likely have some tech clients, but startup/vc law as a specialization is more difficult to find; although there are exceptions.

My non-Austin clients have concluded that it’s much better, and more efficient, to collaborate with lawyers in another city who’ve seen the exact issues they’re dealing with dozens of times, and have the resources to address them quickly, relative to someone who may be easier to grab beers with, but hasn’t. CEOs need to exercise their own judgment for their own circumstances.

Be careful with localism, and localist incentives.

“Localism” is a term I’ve started using to refer to the underlying, subtle incentives among ecosystem players that push them to promote local people onto a set of founders, sometimes at a very high cost to the company; discussed in the links at the beginning of this post. Ask any experienced founder, and they’ll tell you about so-called “advisors” or “mentors” in their local ecosystem who, while fun to hang around as cheerleaders, unfortunately don’t actually deliver much real advice or mentorship. There are some great advisors/mentors out there, but also a lot of duds.

There are, broadly speaking, 2 ways (not mutually exclusive) in which service providers (venture capitalists, lawyers, accelerators, accountants, advisors, etc.) build their portfolios: (A) being actually good (objectively) at their service, and (B) building relationships and generating referrals from those relationships. Most A-level people rely on both (because the first leads to the second).  But there are a whole lot of people in every business community who are quite mediocre at the actual service they provide, but are exceptional at marketing themselves and building referrals.

If my social capital is the primary way that I get business, then I’m heavily incentivized to refer to people within my personal, local social circle, even if I know that objectively, someone better may be in another city. That “someone better in the other city” has his own social circles she/he belongs to that aren’t as inter-connected (or dependent) on my own. Sending business to them makes it less likely that it’ll come back to me, unless there’s some objective reason for the referral.

I don’t mean to sound cynical about all of this. It is how a lot of good people build their practices and reputations in the business world, and it’s just fine. But it’s important for every team to to be aware of these dynamics in their raw form, and correct for them as needed. And believe me I get the “farmers market” “go local” “support the LOCAL ecosystem” aspects of promoting local people as well, even if I believe the more self-interested dynamics underly a lot of that; at least as it relates to service providers. 

There’s something noble in that, but not when it comes at the expense of founders – who are putting their entire livelihoods on the line – getting shit service. As I’ve written before, nothing builds an ecosystem more than great companies, and great companies aren’t built with mediocre people. 

Watch out for ‘captive’ local counsel.

Circling back quickly to the issue of captive company counsel is a good place to close this out. For many people in startup ecosystems, localism is driven either by self-interested referral circles, or ecosystem cheerleading.  But for the most influential players in a particular ecosystem, it can also be driven by control. Thankfully the transparency of the web is weakening this dynamic, but institutional investors with heavy local influence often like to see local VC lawyers in the company counsel seat because they’ve strategically built leverage over those lawyers by (i) being their clients, and/or (ii) pushing portfolio companies to use them as company counsel. In other words, they’re company counsel, but… not really. 

Obviously you’ll never hear anything like this stated flat out in a board meeting. What you’ll more often hear is discussion about credentials, or familiarity, or experience, etc. etc. “I’m not sure those lawyers have the right experience” or “We’re more comfortable with these guys.” As I’ve written before, sometimes those concerns have merit. Take them seriously, and if you need to upgrade, go through the process yourself to find independent counsel. But also understand how these comments are usually veiled attempts at pushing companies to engage lawyers who are captive to the investors’ interests, and unable to fully represent the company.  If your lead investors seem peculiarly interested in your using a particular set of lawyers, that’s often a good indication of whom you should avoid.

Yes, there’s some reduction of “friction” when company counsel is familiar with the norms/expectations of investors across the table. But its value shouldn’t be overstated. Sometimes what investors call “friction” is just your lawyers doing their damn job. In this regard, we have seen companies from smaller ecosystems choose to engage foreign company counsel not because local VC specialists weren’t available, but because the founder team viewed them all as captive. Sometimes (but not always) they are right. 

There’s no right answer for all companies on this issue. Specialization is important. Local can be helpful at times, but also costly in specific circumstances. But you’ll arrive at a much better decision by weighing all the variables, instead of just assuming that “going local” is a requirement. It most certainly is not.

Do I need a PPM for my startup’s financing?

TL;DR: Legally speaking, probably not. Most tech startups never prepare one.

PPM stands for “Private Placement Memorandum.” You can think of it as the private company equivalent of an S-1, the long disclosure document that companies produce when going IPO. PPMs are lengthy documents that include risk factors, financial projections, business plan information, etc.  For a broad description of what a PPM is, see this article.

In dense startup ecosystems, PPMs are rare.

Startups in dense, more mature tech ecosystems like SV or Austin usually don’t even think of producing PPMs; nor should they. Assuming that they are taking the classic approach of raising money only from accredited investors, a well-made deck and a solid operating plan are often their core needs for closing on early money. Delivering an Austin tech investor a PPM would send an immediate signal that the founders aren’t being well-advised, which itself signals poor judgment in choosing advisors. 

Asking for a PPM signals inexperience.

In less dense ecosystems, however, I do occasionally encounter tech companies who are told by advisors, lawyers, or other players that they need a PPM to close on financing. FACT: The vast majority of tech startups raising money solely from accredited investors are not creating PPMs, and legally speaking, they don’t have to.  Most repeat ecosystem players consider PPMs a waste of time and money. 

One of the main reasons that startups avoid non-accredited investors and stick to accredited-only rounds is that the legal disclosure burdens are dramatically reduced, which means no need for PPMs. In healthcare, energy, and a whole host of other industries, using PPMs in private fundraising is very common. For this reason, if your lawyer is telling you (a tech startup) that you need a PPM, that’s often a good ‘tell’ that they lack experience in the norms of emerging tech financing. 

Exercise diplomacy with more traditional investors.

All of the above being side, I have also on occasion encountered more traditional investors who, because they do not regularly invest in emerging tech companies, ask startups for PPMs (because PPMs are more common in other industries).  All money is green and, particularly for early angel money, you need to be respectful of the expectations that angels bring to the table; even if they’re ‘off market.’

In these situations, it’s best to diplomatically let them know that PPMs are not the norm in the tech startup space, and that the company would prefer (as should they) to focus its legal budget solely on those things that are truly needed.   Asking a more traditional investor what specific information she/he was hoping to see in the PPM, and trying to address those concerns more informally, usually goes a long way to bridge the gap. Sometimes hearing directly from a Tech/VC lawyer about the norms of startup finance also helps. 

Founders outside of Silicon Valley can sometimes forget that most of the resources – blogs, articles, podcasts, tweets, etc. – on startup finance and norms are, in the grand scheme of things, a tiny bubble in the overall business market.  When anyone says there simply “isn’t enough money” available for startups in Texas, or markets similar to Texas, what they really mean is that there isn’t enough money flowing into tech companies. There’s tons of money floating around elsewhere. People who can culturally build bridges between tech ecosystems and more traditional business networks have a competitive advantage in the market, and are often the ones forging ahead building new companies, and even investment funds, while others run around in circles soliciting only the ‘techies’ of the market.

Why Notes and SAFEs are Extra Dilutive

Background Reading:

Outside of Silicon Valley, Convertible Notes are the dominant form of seed round security. In SV, SAFEs are much more popular. The difference between the two effectively amounts to interest and a maturity date. For larger seed rounds, however, seed equity is another possibility.

The point of this post is not to debate the pluses and minuses of any of the above structures. The optimal one is, as mentioned in the above-linked posts, highly contextual. However, founders should understand that while SAFEs and Notes are faster and simpler to close on (usually), they come with a cost in the form of extra dilution relative to doing a seed equity round at an equivalent valuation. The math is as follows:

Dilution when raising seed as equity

Pre-Seed Capitalization:

You want to raise a seed round with the following terms:

  • Round size: $1.5 million
  • Valuation (cap or pre-money if equity): $6 million

You end up doing a seed equity round, with a 10% post-money pool, but with the pool top-up added to the pre-money (as it usually is). Post-close capitalization looks like:

Key to understanding what’s going on here is how the Seed Equity price gets calculated. $6 million (valuation) / (5MM Common + 714,219 pool) = $1.05.  So the seed investors paid $1.05 per share for their shares.

A year or two pass, and it’s time to do a Series A. The Series A economic terms are:

  • Round Size: $2.5 million
  • Pre-money: $10 million
  • Post-Close Available Pool: 15%

After you do the deal math (explaining that is not the point of this post), the post-close cap table looks like this:

So the above is what dilution looks like after both (i) a seed equity deal of $1.5MM at a $6MM pre with a 10% post-close available pool and then (ii) a $2.5MM Series A at a $10MM pre with a 15% post-close available pool.

Dilution when raising seed as convertible notes or SAFEs

Now let’s replay the above steps, except instead of doing an equity round for the seed, let’s do a convertible note or SAFE round. We can ignore interest, which economically makes the SAFE and Note scenario exactly the same.

Pre-Seed Capitalization:

OK, now we do a $1.5 million convertible note or SAFE with a valuation cap of $6 million. Same numbers as the above seed round, except it’s structured as a convertible security instead of an equity round.

Because these are notes or SAFEs, there’s no dilution registered yet on the cap table. The dilution math is deferred until the Series A.

So after closing the $1.5MM, we’re now at the Series A round. Because we have notes/SAFEs, we’re required to do two calculations in this round: first we calculate the conversion price of the SAFE/Note seed round, and then we calculate the price of the Series A.

Repeating the terms of the Series A:

  • Round Size: $2.5 million
  • Pre-money: $10 million (VCs insist Note shares go in pre-money to keep their post-close % at 20%)
  • Post-Close Available Pool: 15%

After we run through the deal math, this is what the cap table looks like:

The conversion price for the Note/SAFE is calculated by $6MM (valuation cap) / (5MM Common Stock + 1,530,476 Pool) = $0.92.

Now let’s compare the Post-close Series A cap table between the Seed Equity v. the Seed Note/SAFE scenarios.

Seed Equity –> Series A:

Seed Note/SAFE –> Series A:

What’s different? The Series A got the exact same ownership, because that’s how VC’s approach deal math. They will adjust the numbers to ensure they get their %. However, the Common Stock has 1.56% less ownership, all of which went to the Seed round. And the reason for that is straightforward, the Seed got a lower price, because the larger pool (post-A instead of just post-Seed) was built into their conversion math. 

In this scenario, 1.56% is about $195K in Series A post-money terms. So the decision to do seed SAFEs/Notes instead of seed equity cost the common stock nearly $200K in Series A dollars. And that’s ignoring interest, which would put that past $200K if we’re talking convertible notes with interest. I also simplified the example by ignoring actual usage of the pool in-between rounds. A real-world example would’ve had a larger pool top-up at Series A, and therefore a larger dilution gap between seed equity and notes/SAFEs.

Conceptually the way to view this is that convertible notes/SAFEs, as currently structured, have a kind of strong anti-dilution protection built into them. And that’s apart from the more obvious anti-dilution aspect relating to valuation: that a valuation cap is just a cap, and the notes will convert at a lower price if your Series A is below the cap.

If I do a seed equity round, everything that happens to the capitalization afterward dilutes everyone, including the seed equity. There is a conventional form of (soft) anti-dilution protection (typically broad-based weighted average) in seed equity, but it is rarely triggered; only in down-round scenarios. When the Series A bargain for a larger pool and put that pool in the pre-money, the seed equity doesn’t benefit from it because their math already happened.

But in the note/SAFE scenario, the seed math is deferred to the Series A round. Anything that happens to the capitalization before that date gets built into the seed note/SAFE conversion math, so they’re protected from it. This is why the seed notes/SAFEs end up paying a lower price (92 cents) instead of the higher seed equity price ($1.05). The denominator in calculating their math is larger because of the larger pool. Lots of founders think that SAFEs/Notes only have harsh anti-dilution economics if there’s a “down round.” But that’s not entirely true. The scenario I described above was not a down-round scenario. SAFEs/Notes protect investors from dilution, much more so than seed equity, in every scenario.

If companies and investors, and in the case of SAFEs, Y Combinator, wanted to really make SAFEs and Notes more equivalent in economics to seed equity, they would allow for the capitalization, for purposes of calculating the conversion price, to be set in the security. In other words, at the time of issuing the SAFEs/Notes, we would say the capitalization is X, and that is the capitalization we will use for purposes of determining the conversion price, regardless of what the Series A negotiate for their option pool adjustment. That would not be hard to do at all.  The valuation would still float and be determined at Series A, as is part of the core “deal” of a convertible security, but that full anti-dilution aspect of SAFEs/Notes would be removed.

I have never seen this solution actually implemented in the market. Why not? I’m not sure. A lot of people aren’t even aware of this economic disconnect between SAFEs/Notes and Seed Equity, so it could just be lack of awareness. Hopefully this post helps with that.  But it’s also possible that it’s just part of the “deal” that investors expect for taking convertible securities. If you ask them to move fast and take minimal protections/rights in exchange for their money, part of the price is extra dilution.

Whether or not founders think that price is fair will obviously depend on the circumstances of their company.  The goal of this post was not to give an opinion on SAFEs v. Notes v. Seed Equity, because my opinion is that they are all good for different circumstances. They all have their positives and negatives. All I wanted founders to understand is that there is an economic price to using SAFEs/Notes. Make sure it’s really worth paying.

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.