Startup Employee Offer Letters

TL;DR: A few simple principles can help founders avoid big legal landmines in making offers to their employees.

Background Reading:

Hiring an employee is one of the first areas in which I see poorly advised founders really start messing things up from a legal perspective; exposing themselves to liability and errors that can have very long-lasting effects.

Here are a few simple principles to keep in mind as you hire people and paper their employment.

An Employee Offer Letter is NOT the same thing as an “Employment Agreement.”

In the United States, the default for employer-employee relationships is “at will” employment, which means broadly speaking an employer can fire the employee for any reason, even without warning, apart from a narrow set of discriminatory reasons that violate labor laws. This is very different from other countries, which typically have more robust statutory defaults for employees.

When most people speak of an “employment agreement” they are referring to a negotiated document, usually reserved for high-level executives, that provides more robust protections to the employee/executive; including protections around how that executive can be fired, and the consequences of firing her/him. True employment agreements are quite rare in the very early days of startups.

When a startup hires a typical employee, they provide an Offer Letter that states high-level details like their position, compensation, etc., but also makes it clear that the relationship is at will; in other words, they don’t have the protections a high-level executive’s “employment agreement” would often provide. Offer Letters are not Employment Agreements. Know the difference, and that you should start with the assumption that an offer letter is what you need.

Everyone who works for you is not an Employee. Know the difference between a contractor and employee.

I often see founders casually, without really thinking about it, call everyone who does work for them an “employee.” It seems harmless, but in labor law the word “employee” can have very material implications for what you owe them, how you treat their compensation, how easily you can modify their terms or terminate them, etc. Don’t use that word indiscriminately.

Don’t forget IP / Confidentiality, which is not covered in the offer letter (usually).

The conventional structure of startup employee documentation is (i) a simple offer letter, and (ii) a more robust agreement covering confidentiality, intellectual property ownership, and (unless you’re in California or a few other states) a non-compete. This second document is usually called something like a Proprietary Information and Inventions Agreement (PIIA), Confidentiality and Inventions Agreement, or some variant of that. Missing this document can be a huge problem, and in some states fixing it is not as simple as having an employee sign it later. Don’t forget it.

Unlike most legal issues, local state law tends to govern in employment relationships. Docs vary by state.

Most tech startups are incorporated/organized in Delaware, and if they have a national footprint, a lot of their agreements will be governed by Delaware law. With respect to employees, however, that is rarely the case, unless the employee is actually located in Delaware. In employment documents, the location of your employee will often determine the documentation they have to sign, and that means the documentation can vary significantly by state. Work with your lawyers to ensure you don’t use the wrong forms.

Your offer letter might promise equity. But you still need to issue it, which is more complicated.

If you’re promising options or some other form of equity, the offer letter will usually cover that. But you need to understand that the letter is only promising the equity. To actually grant/issue the equity, more steps need to be taken, including a Board Consent and other processes.

Early-stage founders often get in hot water by signing lots of offer letters thinking that’s all they need to do for employee equity purposes, and then waiting a long time (as the value of their stock continues to go up) to be told by lawyers that the equity was never issued. Then they end up (for tax reasons) having to issue the equity at a much higher price than they would’ve if they had done it sooner, and the employees are understandably angry. Promise, then quickly grant. The offer letter is just the first step.

How LLC Startups Raise Money

TL;DR: Very similarly to how “classic” C-Corp startups do, with a few important caveats.

Background Reading:

As I’ve written a few times before, the trend of entrepreneurs (somewhat) mindlessly accepting the advice – that forming their companies and raising investment should always be as standardized as clicking a few buttons – appears to be reversing, at least outside of Silicon Valley. This trend is very much related to all the public stories from experienced founders emphasizing the downsides of following a “standard” path, taking on “standard” VC investment with very high-growth expectations, and how it can cut off a lot of more nuanced/appropriate growth and fundraising strategies. For more on that, see: Not Building a Unicorn. 

As entrepreneurs are spending more time exploring all their options, LLCs are increasingly popping up. I’ve written before about when an LLC may make sense for a startup (C-Corps are still by far the dominant structure). It generally boils down to whether the founder team thinks there’s a possibility that, instead of constantly reinvesting earnings for growth and looking for an exit, they’ll decide to let the business become profitable and distribute dividends to investors. C-Corps are very tax inefficient for those kinds of companies.

So naturally as LLCs become part of the discussion, the next question is how LLC startups can raise investment. Some founders have been incorrectly advised that LLC startups simply don’t raise investment at all. They think that C-Corp = investment, and LLC = run on revenue. That’s far from the case. While true that institutional tech VCs very often won’t invest in LLCs (although that too is changing), the pool of investors interested in early-stage tech companies is much more diverse now than it was even five years ago. Lots of strategic investors, angels, and investors from other industries looking at tech are quite comfortable investing in LLCs, and do so all the time.

LLC startup fundraising looks, at a high level, a lot like C-Corp fundraising.

Capital Interests – Units, Membership Interests, Capital Interests. These are all synonyms for the LLC equivalent of stock. The documentation for these types of investments looks very different from a C-Corp preferred stock financing only because the underlying organizational docs of LLCs are different: you don’t have a “Certificate of Incorporation,” as an example, you have an LLC Operating Agreement.  But the core rights/provisions often end up very similar. A liquidation preference giving the investors a right to get their money back before the common – often see “Common Units” for founders/inside people and “Preferred Units” for investors. Voting provisions re: who gets to elect the Board of Managers (LLC equivalent of a Board of Directors), and other similar rights.

Convertible Notes – These look 95% like C-Corp convertible notes, including with discounts/valuation caps to reward early-stage risk, just drafted a bit more flexibly to account for whether the notes convert into LLC equity or C-Corp equity (if the company decides to become a C-Corp).

SAFEs – Yes, there are LLCs now doing SAFEs, although the SAFE instrument requires tweaking (like convertible notes) to make sense for an LLC. Even for C-Corps, we still see SAFEs being used only in a limited number of cases (again, because we serve companies outside of California, where SAFEs dominate). That’s because they are about as company favorable (and investor unfavorable) as you can get, and many investors balk at what they see as an imbalance. LLC SAFEs are even rarer than C-Corp SAFEs, but they do come up.

LLCs are known for their flexibility, and given that LLC companies tend to be more “cash cow” oriented than C-Corps, even more alternative financing structures are popping up: royalty-based investment is one example, where investors take a % of revenue as a way to earn their return, instead of expecting it in the form of a large exit or dividend. But those are still so uncommon (for now at least) that they’re not worth digging further into.

As I’ve repeated several times before, the big issue with LLCs and fundraising is you absolutely need a tax partner involved. By that, I mean a senior lawyer with deep experience in the tax implications of LLC structures and investment. This is not a “startup lawyer,” but a very different specialty. The flexibility of LLCs brings with it significant tax complexity at the entity and individual holder level, and even the brightest corporate lawyers are not qualified to handle that on their own. 

The majority of emerging tech companies still end up as C-Corps, simply because it still makes sense for the type of business they plan to build. But even with C-Corp land, founders are digging much deeper into how to structure and fundraise for their companies, and pushing back on the suggestion that they should just sign some templates and move on; as if what the templates say (and don’t say) doesn’t really matter.  That may still work for the “billion or bust” high growth mentality of unicorns, but entrepreneurs who feel they’re building something different want flexibility, and to understand the full scope of options.

Comparing Startup Accelerators

Background Reading:

Over the past several years, accelerators have emerged as a powerful filtering and signaling mechanism in early-stage startup ecosystems, allowing high-potential young startups to connect with investors, advisors, and other strategic partners far faster and more efficiently than before. While it definitely feels like the accelerator “bubble” has somewhat burst, and their numbers are normalizing, I’m still often asked by CEOs for advice on how to assess various programs. The below outlines how I would approach the decision:

Cash and Equity.

Very simply, what are you giving and what are you getting in return in terms of cash and equity for joining the program?

Re: cash, the more “unbundled” types of accelerators (less formalized) tend to not provide any cash upfront, but also typically “cost” less in equity, often just 1-2% of your fully diluted capitalization. More traditional and comprehensive programs often require 5-8% of common stock, but often provide between $20K and $100K up-front as well.

Anti-Dilution.

See: Startup Accelerator Anti-Dilution Provisions; The Fine Print.   Most accelerators, with a few exceptions, have much more aggressive anti-dilution provisions than a typical seed or VC investor would get, and the “fine print” can dramatically influence the total equity requirement depending on your circumstances and fundraising plans. This is something you should walk through with an experienced advisor, lawyer or otherwise, to prevent surprises.

Pro-Rata / Future Investment Rights.

See: The Many Flavors of Pro-Rata Rights. Some accelerators will require you to “make room” for them in future financings up to a certain amount. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s very reasonable given that the ability to make follow-on investments in “winners” is virtually essential for very early-stage startup investors (angels, accelerators) to make good returns. However, for the most in-demand startups, over-committing on future participation rights can become a problem because it can require you to raise more money than you really need to.

Fundraising / general success of past companies.

See: Ask the users.  If fast-track access to investors is not at the top of your priority list, then this may not be as big of a deal for you. But 95% of founders I’ve worked with have viewed “cutting in line” to speak with investors as the main reason for entering an accelerator. And don’t rely solely on numbers reported by the accelerators themselves. There are lots of ways of fudging the figures, including by “annexing” already successful companies into the accelerator (in exchange for free help) and using their brand/fundraising numbers to puff up the accelerator; neglecting to mention that the accelerator had nothing to do with those numbers.

Entrepreneurs often celebrate faking it until you make it. Know that some accelerators do the same. When an accelerator says “our companies have raised an aggregate of $200 million,” they may be neglecting to mention that a huge chunk of that was raised before some of the companies (the top ones) ever “entered” the accelerator. 

Ask specific founders, off the record. Without a doubt, the overall “prestige” of the accelerator’s past cohorts will have a dramatic impact on the accelerator’s ability to deliver on its “benefits” to you. There’s a heavy snowball / power law type effect with accelerators where the best ones attract the best companies, which then attract lots of capital/great mentors, which then attracts more great companies, further improving the accelerator’s brand, and so on and so on. And the same is true in reverse: accelerators with poor reputations and bad averse selection (they are just getting the companies everyone else rejected) can actually make it harder to raise money, and are best avoided.

Time commitments and Geography.

Many accelerators involve a substantial time commitment (including travel time) in terms of going through the “program” of events, meetings, training, etc. Feedback (given privately) varies on the ROI of those obligations, depending on the accelerator, type of company, etc. Some entrepreneurs find it invaluable. Others find it a necessary cost to getting access to the accelerator’s network, which is what they’re really there for. In any case, travel and time commitments are a real cost, so take that into account.

Market Focus.

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from entrepreneurs, after having gone through an accelerator, is that it wasn’t helpful for their “type” of business. Some accelerators are very up-front and overt about their market focus: biotech, energy tech, transportation, etc.  Others are more generalist, but if you dig deep you’ll realize that all or most of their cohort is slanted in one direction, which will mean the accelerator’s network of investors and mentors will be as well.

An example: a heavily hardware-focused startup may not find as much success in an accelerator where the vast majority of companies are SaaS based. The same goes for a health tech startup entering an accelerator full of consumer or B2B startups.

Culture.

In much the same way that entrepreneurs’ own personalities set the culture for their companies, the creators and managers of accelerators heavily influence both their “online” and “offline” culture. Personalities, ages, lifestyles, and values will vary. Some accelerators are well-known for being extremely friendly, generous, and community-oriented. Others are known for being more competitive and “eat what you kill” in their approach. I’ve seen more aggressive entrepreneurs feel that their particular accelerator was a bit too “kumbaya,” while those with opposite personalities felt right at home. 

Do your diligence before entering any accelerator, and make sure you assess its offerings in light of your company’s own priorities and needs. I’ve seen companies emerge with polar opposite opinions of the same accelerator, even within the same cohort.  In many cases, it’s less about the program being good or bad in an objective sense, and more about whether it was a good or bad “fit” for that particular startup. 

Startup Equity Compensation for LLCs

Background Reading:

As I’ve written before, with more entrepreneurs realizing that the “standard” (whatever that means) corporate trajectory for startups may not be what’s best for their specific company, we are seeing more tech companies explore the possibility of operating as LLCs (limited liability companies). By all accounts, C-Corps are still the market norm, especially for companies with no near-term plans to achieve profitability (everything is reinvested for growth) and with plans to raise conventional institutional venture capital.

But nevertheless, the “LLC Startup” market is real, and there’s far less info ‘out there’ for entrepreneurs to understand core concepts.  Here we’re going to cover the basics of how LLC startups typically issue equity, and how it differs from what C-Corp startups do.

The primary driver behind why LLC equity comp is very different from C-Corp equity comp is that W-2 employees of an LLC can’t hold equity in that LLC, under IRS rules. For C-Corps, both contractors and employees can hold equity, which simplifies equity compensation. But for LLCs, holding *true* equity requires the LLC to issue you a K-1 on an annual basis (you’re a “partner” for tax purposes), and the Company doesn’t cover employment taxes the way it does for W-2 employees.

Units/Membership Interests and Profits Interests (True Equity)

High-level executives (including founders) in an LLC startup are usually OK with this issue, and will hold direct equity in the LLC. They’ll receive K-1s annually.

That equity usually takes one of two forms: Units (sometimes called membership interests), which are the LLC equivalent of stock. Units can be voted (usually) on Day 1, and they are taxable on receipt if their “fair market value” is not paid for, which is why they’re typically issued only in the very early days of the company, like founder/early employee common stock in C-Corps. They can be expensive to receive if they are very valuable (in the IRS’ judgment) on the issue date.

As the value (for tax purposes) of units increases, companies will switch to Profits Interests, which are kind-of a LLC corollary to options, because (i) they only entitle you to the appreciation in value of your equity after the grant date, and (ii) when issued properly, they are tax-free to receive. When profits interests are granted, the Company has to obtain or decide on a valuation that pegs the “threshold value” of the company on the grant date, and the recipient of the PI is then entitled to the increase in value of the equity above that threshold value.

Returns on both units and profits interests receive capital gains treatment, like stock in a corporation. While units usually have voting rights, profits interests can have voting rights, but companies often times structure them to not vote.

Unit Appreciation Rights (Phantom Equity)

While founders and senior executives of LLCs will often be OK with K-1 status and holding true equity, it can become problematic for a number of reasons (tax oriented, benefits oriented, etc.) to have everyone be a K-1 recipient as the business scales. When LLCs want to issue equity-like compensation to lower-level employees, while continuing to treat them as true W-2s, they will usually switch to Unit Appreciation Rights, which are the LLC equivalent of phantom equity.

UARs don’t vote, and aren’t really equity at all. Instead, they entitle the recipient to a cash payment (like a bonus) upon some future milestone (typically an acquisition/exit) that is pegged to the value of equity. Much like profits interests, on the grant date a valuation is determined, and then as the LLC’s equity appreciates in value after the grant date, the UAR holder’s future bonus increases proportionately. When granted properly, UARs are also (like PIs) tax free on the grant date.

While the upside of UARs is that they significantly simplify tax filings/treatment for recipients (no annual K-1s, can stay W-2), the downside is that returns on the UARs are treated as ordinary income by the IRS; no capital gains treatment.

LLCs require Tax Specialists

The main reason startups choose to be LLCs is taxes: given the nature of their business, they want to avoid the corporate-level tax applied to C-Corps, even if that means deviating from the C-Corp norms of typical venture-backed startups.

But the cost of those tax savings is significant ongoing tax complexity in issuing and managing equity, and making annual tax filings. That requires not just good accountants, but good tax lawyers; who are very different from classic “startup lawyers.” If you’re planning to be an LLC that will use equity as compensation, make sure you’re using lawyers with access to solid tax counsel.

Tax Disclaimer: I’m not your tax lawyer or advisor. I don’t want to be your tax lawyer or advisor. The above is just a summary of what we typically see in the market for LLC startup equity. LLCs are highly flexible, and circumstances vary. Do NOT try to rely on any of the above advice without engaging your own personal tax advisors, including tax lawyers. 

Optionality: Always have a Plan B

TL;DR: Always build some optionality into your startup’s financing strategy. Failing to do so will overly expose you to being squeezed by sophisticated players who can see how dependent you are on them.

Background reading:

The below is a fact pattern that we have seen happen with several of our clients. It will provide some context for why the point of this post is so important.

Company X has raised a decent-sized seed round, which includes several angels as well as a “lead” VC; though that VC is not on the Board. The Company knows that it will run out of funds in 3 months if it does not raise more money, and it has been in regular communication with the VC about that. The VC reassures the founders that they will “support” them with a new bridge round. A month passes, and the founders ask about the bridge. “Don’t worry, we’ll cover you” is the response. Then another month passes, with more reassurances, but no money. Then 2 weeks before their fume date (the date they’ll miss payroll), the VC drops a term sheet with very onerous terms, including a low valuation, and mandated changes to the executive team. The VC makes it clear that they won’t fund unless those terms are accepted. The founders panic. 

Before we dive in, there are a few important points worth making about this situation. First, it was clear every time that it has come up that the bait-and-switch dynamic was planned by the lead investor. They paid very close attention to the exact date that the Company would run out of funds, and timed the “switch” to deliver maximal pressure. Second, the regular “reassurances” provided to the founder team were calculated to discourage them from using their time to find other funding sources. Third, the best way to avoid investors who engage in this kind of “below the belt” behavior is to do your diligence before accepting their check; see: Ask the Users. 

Always have a Plan B.

A startup’s ability to avoid being burned by the above behavior depends on its level of strategic optionality.  Optionality means strategically avoiding a situation in which you have no choice but to depend on one investor/investor group for funding. This is very different from not committing to certain lead investors as your main funding sources. “Party rounds” are what you call financings where literally every investor is a small check. The end-result of a party round is that no one has enough skin in the game to really support the company when it hits a snag. You really are just an option to them. 

I strongly support having true lead investors writing larger checks in your rounds, because they will usually provide far more support than just money. And if you’ve done your homework and have a little luck, they’ll never even think about engaging in the kind of behavior described above. But in all cases the best way to maximize the likelihood of good behavior is to ensure a right of exit if someone decides to cross a line. I always try to work with “good people.” But no good strategist builds their life or company around the full expectation that everyone will be good. 

Lead fundraising yourself.

CEOs sometimes believe that they are doing themselves a favor by letting a lead investor do their fundraising for them – coordinating intros, negotiating terms with outsiders, etc. – so they can “focus on the business.” It often backfires. Angels and seed funds whose money has been sunk into the company, and who aren’t planning on writing larger checks in the future, are usually quite aligned with the founders/common stock in helping raise a Series A or future round. They’re being diluted just like you are.

But a VC fund with plenty of dry powder and a desire for better future terms is significantly mis-aligned with everyone else. Watch incentives closely.  Founders/the lead common holders should maintain visibility and control in fundraising discussions, with trusted independent advisors close by. 

Start early, and don’t tolerate unnecessary obfuscation and delays. 

Do not wait until a few weeks from your fume date to start communicating with investors for new funds. If someone says they will support you, great: when, and what are the terms? You want to know them now, not later. “We will support you” means very little without knowing what the price will be.

Expecting things to happen in a few days is unrealistic, but a month or more of delays is usually a sign that someone is playing games, and it’s time to pull the plug. No serious fund worth working with is that busy.

Build “diversity” into your investor base.

The power dynamics in a company are very different when all the major investors have strong relationships/dependencies with each other, and communicate regularly, relative to when various players come from different “circles.” Geographic diversity – meaning taking money from various cities/states – is a good strategy to avoid unhealthy concentration of power among your investor base. Also, diversity of investor types – angels, seed funds, institutionals, strategics – will ensure that your investor base includes people with differing incentives/viewpoints, which reduces the likelihood of collusion. 

In the scenario where a bad actor has tried a “bait and switch” on a founder team, a group of angels willing to write quick checks for an emergency bridge, or a lender offering a credit line, can be enormously valuable to relieve pressure and build time to correct course.

Contracts matter. A lot. 

Every commitment you make to investors requiring their approval, or guaranteeing their participation, in future rounds can have material strategic implications for how much optionality you have. Protective provisions matter. Super pro rata rights and side letters matter.  When you see dozens of financings a year, you regularly see how commitments made at seed/pre-seed stage play out over years and seriously affect the course of fundraising.

Good lawyers well-versed in the ins and outs of startup financing will go much further than just plugging some numbers into a template, which software can do.  They’ll dig deep on how the specific terms you’re looking at will impact the company, in its specific context, and how much room there is to stay within “market” norms while still keeping flexible paths open for the future. That’s, of course, assuming they aren’t actually working for your investors.

Make money, and own your payroll.

The ultimate optionality is being able to run on revenue if you need to; being “default alive” in Paul Graham’s words. Yes, you may grow slower than you’d like, but growing more slowly is always lightyears better than being forced into a bad deal.

Every salaried employee on your payroll raises the revenue threshold needed for your company to be default alive. Ensure that every member of your roster is essential, and that there aren’t redundancies that could be addressed by asking someone to be more of a generalist. And don’t let an institutional investor pressure you into hiring a high-salaried professional executive unless you have a clear strategy for how you are going to afford them, because, yes, that is another way that they can add fundraising pressure.

Stay in control of your fundraising. Start discussions early, and don’t tolerate delays. Build diversity of geography and incentives into your investor base. Let your lawyers do their actual job. And finally, watch your payroll closely. Following those guidelines will minimize anyone’s ability to squeeze you, and your investors will then act accordingly.