Founder Compensation: Cash, Equity, Liquidity

TL;DR: Before investor money shows up, founders should pay themselves very little, if anything. As the company reaches milestones, including fundraising milestones, founder compensation increases as a % of market comp, although it rarely reaches full ‘market’ until a Series B/C or later. As a general matter, investors want founders (i) focused on the long-term success of the company’s stock and not on a lofty cash compensation arrangement, but (ii) also comfortable enough financially to pay their bills and not be distracted by financial worries.

Background Reading:

As with many things, how different parties assess and calculate appropriate founder compensation is far more of an art than a science.  One thing to keep in mind is that all comp numbers at each stage are heavily influenced by (i) location and cost of living, (ii) industry, and (iii) life circumstances of the founders.  Older founders with families tend to have slightly higher salaries than younger single founders. The same goes for founders in more expensive cities, and for founders in industries (like biotech, energy) where the founder team is made up of seasoned executives that have taken very large pay cuts to join the venture.

There are also tax nuances involved that are not the scope of this article. That being said, the below is an outline of the overarching common principles that I’ve observed among companies along the various stages of their life cycle.

Pre-Seed: Cash In, Not Out

Money in should be documented as a Founder Note or SAFE. Paying yourself a salary  at this stage makes little sense, unless there’s substantial revenue. If you need to get some money back, a small bonus upon raising a larger ($2MM+) round is sometimes kosher. 

If a startup is currently bootstrapped and not running on a sizable amount of customer revenue, paying founder salaries amounts to taking cash from one pocket and placing it in the other, while allowing the IRS to take a percentage of it. It is very rarely rational. Keep what you need to survive in your own bank account, and only fund the company with the rest.

Contributions of capital from founders beyond minimal amounts should usually be documented as a founder convertible note or SAFE (see articles above), with the expectation that it will convert later into preferred stock, providing that founder a “little extra” on the cap table and eventually in a liquidity event. It should not, however, be expected to be paid back.

However, occasionally founders will put in such a large amount of money that they really need to get some of it back much earlier than in an exit. In those instances, discussing a small ‘performance bonus’ with your seed or Series A investors can often work, as long as the amount isn’t too large of a percentage of the overall round. I’ve seen founders get a $50K ‘performance bonus’ upon raising a $2MM+ Series A, with the logic being that they were taking barely subsistence salaries for the past year and need something to help cover deferred expenses. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Usually founders with personal obligations, like student loans or families to support, are able to make a more credible case for an early cash bonus. 

I would also put “Friends and Family” round territory in this category, although it depends. If you’ve raised $250K or less, which is usually what I see for F&F, paying yourself any kind of salary often doesn’t make sense. For larger F&F rounds that are meant to last for over a year, very small founder salaries can work. As a general matter, however, anyone looking to build a company without at a minimum 6-12 months of cash reserves to live off of should re-consider whether they are in the right position to start a company.

Seed/Series A: Enough to pay the bills

Founders get paid ‘subsistence’ salaries; enough to cover expenses, but low enough to where they’re still hungry for growth. 

Once investors are on the cap table and/or the company is generating real revenue, discussions about founder salaries start to make more sense. The core principle to understand in this stage is that investors will want to avoid paying founders such high salaries that they’re no longer hungry and are just enjoying the ride. The vast majority of a founder’s long-term payout should come from their equity stake in the company, and investors want founders laser focused on turning that stake (and the investors’ stakes) into cash with a successful liquidity event.   That being said, most investors also do not want founders to be so desperate for cash that they are worried about paying their mortgage, or their kids’ schooling, which will be distracting from company matters. 

While this is an extremely rough benchmark and there are all kinds of variations, if you assume 100% as being the aggregate cash compensation of a C-level executive in a respectable, matured middle-market company in a startup’s industry and geography, seed-stage founders will often get paid 20-25% of market, and Series A founders bump up to something like 35-50%. So, as an example, if $250K is ‘market’, a seed-stage founder CEO might earn $50-60K a year, and $85K-$125K at Series A; with the universal understanding that industry, cost of living, and the personal circumstances of founders will push it in either direction.

At this stage, any discussions of founder liquidity (taking some money off the table via a secondary sale) will be non-starters, and even send a negative signal to investors that the founder isn’t as bullish as he/she should be on the company’s long-term prospects. If a founder needs more money (often family circumstances), cash comp, like a special bonus, should be the focus.

Series B/C and BeyondEdging Toward Market, Liquidity

Now we’re running a real enterprise, with the market compensation to prove it. 

It’s at true “growth” rounds when cash compensation starts to edge closer to ‘market,’ and when discussions about some small founder liquidity start to make more sense.  A ‘growth round’ would generally mean that the company has found strong product-market fit, growth is going strong, and they just need gasoline (cash) to propel the rocket ship. At this stage, founder cash comp would usually be closer to 75-100% of market for the founders’ position in the company, which may still be C-level, but might not be. See: Rich v. King: The (Core) Founder’s Dilemma.

A dynamic that starts to arise at the growth stage of a company is the feeling among a founder team (and, frankly, their spouses and families), that even though the company hasn’t exited yet, they’ve ‘made it.’ They’ve made it through the sleepless nights, the chaotic weekends, and the strained personal lives, and have built something with sustainable, sizable market value… but the ‘big pay day’ may still be years away.

It’s at this stage that a spouse might ask a question like, “So… you’ve been at this 5 years and your company just raised $20MM. Why can we still not afford to buy that house I told you about?” Those types of thoughts, which are often not unreasonable, prompt discussions about founder liquidity; meaning the sale of a portion of a founders’ common stock for cash beyond an amount that would be reasonable as a cash compensation package directly from the company.

Some VCs, when prompted by a founder looking to take a little money off the table, will respond bluntly, “absolutely not.” The logic being the conventional “I want you to be hungry” mindset. Over the past few years a counterpoint to that perspective has emerged that is reflected in It All Changes When the Founder Drives a Porsche and Some Thoughts on Founder Liquidity. The logic goes something like this:

  • Once a founder has built demonstrable enterprise value and their equity stake represents a life-changing amount of money, personal psychology and (often) family dynamics can lead them to become impatient toward converting that stake into cash;
  • This impatience can lead founders to become overly conservative in company decisions, edging toward smaller, but earlier exits (early acquisition), when a little more patience and longer horizon could achieve a significantly larger outcome (larger acquisition, IPO);
  • Therefore, allowing founders a small amount of liquidity in growth stage – enough to bring something significant home to their spouses/families/friends to reflect their achievement and calm the financial impatience, but not enough to take their eyes off the much larger pot at the end of the rainbow – can maximize the value of the company, and the eventual payout to investors, in the long run. 

You’ll still often run into both the “keep them hungry” and “let them take a little off the table” mindsets within a single cap table, but I would say the latter view, that some founder liquidity (think 5-10% of their stake) in true growth rounds can push founders to achieve bigger exits, is winning out. It depends a lot on the context, and on the particular investors.

So to summarize, while there are wide variations in the market, some reasonable, rough guidelines for founder comp are:

Pre-Seed / F&F: All equity, minimal or no cash comp, liquidity impossible.

Seed: 20-25% of market cash comp, liquidity impossible.

Series A: 35-50% of market cash comp, don’t ask about liquidity.

Series B-C+: 75-100% of market cash comp, small liquidity possible in right circumstances.

Did you get a “good” valuation?

TL;DR: What a “good” valuation is depends highly on context: geography, industry, timing, size, team experience, value-add of money, control terms, and a dozen other variables. Be careful using very fuzzy guidelines/statistics, or anecdotes, for assessing whether you got a good deal. The best valuation for your company is ultimately the one that closes.

VC lawyers get asked all the time by their clients to judge whether their financing terms are good, fair, etc; especially valuation. And that’s for good reason. There are very few players in ecosystems who see enough volume and breadth of deals to provide a truly informed assessment of a financing’s terms. Executives have usually only seen their own companies. Accelerators see only their cohort’s. Most advisors/mentors have even more limited visibility.

But VC lawyers/firms with well-established practices see deals that cross geographic, industry, stage, etc. boundaries.  In addition to a firm’s internal deal flow, there are third-party resources that can be subscribed to with data on VC valuations across the country and the world. Those resources tend to be expensive (5-figure annual subscriptions), and only firms with deep VC practices will pay for them. Given how much you’ll be relying on your lawyers for advice on your financing terms (for the above-mentioned reasons), ensuring that they are objective (and not biased in favor of your investors) is crucial. 

The above all being said, founders should understand that determining valuation at the early stages of a company (seed, Series A, B) is far far more an art than a science. It is for the investor making the investment, and it is for the people judging whether the terms are “good.” That’s why relying on broad metrics like “median Series A valuation is X” is problematic; there are simply too many variables for each company that could justify deviating from the median, in either direction (lower or higher).

What some people call a seed round, others might call a Series A. Some companies raise a Series A very early on in their company’s history because the nature of their product requires serious capital expense to even get to early milestones. Other companies bootstrap for a decade and only use a Series A as true growth capital (the way others would use a Series C or D). I saw a $150MM ‘Series A’ once. I’ve also seen $500K ‘Series A’s. And everything in between as well. So whenever someone asks me “what’s a good Seed or Series A valuation?” the answer has to start out with: “it depends.” 

Below is a break-down of the mental analysis that I might use in assessing a company’s valuation. Remember, it is an art, not a science. There are widely varying opinions here, and this is just one of them. Consider it a set of suggested guidelines, not rules.

1. What was the last valuation a professional investor was willing to pay, and what progress has been made since then?

The easiest answer to “what is X worth?” is “whatever price someone was willing to pay.” While not entirely helpful in the VC context, it certainly is relevant. If you’re doing a Series A and you have institutionals who invested in a convertible note at a $5MM cap a year ago, the obvious question then is “how much progress has been made since then?” This, btw, is why it’s dangerous for companies to set their own valuations without a true market check from professional investors. Your earlier valuations will influence your later ones.

2. What city are you in?

Location. Location. Location. One of the strongest determinants of valuations is the density of startup capital in the city your company operates in; because density means competition. Silicon Valley valuations are not 2-3x those of the rest of the country because the VCs there are just nice guys who are willing to pay more. It’s a function of market competition. SV has the highest valuations. NYC follows. And then there’s the rest of the country, with variations by city. Austin valuations are generally higher than Atlanta’s, which are generally higher than Houston’s or Miami’s. General deal terms are also more company-friendly where there is more investment density.

While the entire concept of “founder friendly” investors does have an important moral/human dynamic to it, people who play in the space enough know that at some foundational level it is a form of self-interested brand differentiation. The ‘friendliest’ investors are the ones in the most competitive, transparent (reputationally) markets. Why take our money over theirs? Because we’re ‘founder friendly’… which can mean a whole lot of things; some of which are relevant, and others which are nonsense.

Yes, online networks are breaking down geographic barriers and you are seeing more capital flow between cities/states, but the data is still crystal clear that if a Silicon Valley VC is investing in an Atlanta or Austin company, they are going to want to pay something closer to Atlanta or Austin (not SV) prices. Much like all the Ex-Californians buying up Austin homes, they likely will pay slightly above the local market (and in both cases, it pisses off local buyers), but not much. 

3. How much is being raised?

Valuations can (and often do) vary widely between markets, while the actual dilution that founders absorb doesn’t vary as much. How is that? Because founders in markets with higher valuations raise larger amounts of money, and founders in markets with lower valuations raise smaller amounts of money; in each case getting the VCs/investors to their desired %. A $1MM raise at a $4MM valuation produces the same dilution as a $5MM raise at a $20MM valuation.

You should never close any round without modeling (lawyers often help here) the actual dilution you are going to absorb from the round, including any changes required to your option pool. Many investors focus first on their desired % and then back into the right valuation and round size. Smart founders should focus on %s as well. It’s not intuitive; especially if you have multiple rounds involved.

4. Who are the investors?

Value-add, known-brand institutional VCs and professional angels that will be deeply engaged in building your company after the check hits are (obviously) worth a lot more than investors who just bring money. And they will often price themselves accordingly (lower valuations). Some money is greener.

Diligencing the valuations your specific investors were willing to pay for their past investments is a smart move. Again, it still requires discussions about the differences between companies, but it can help address any statements like “we never pay more than $X MM for Series A.”

5. What are the other terms?

A $4MM valuation with a 1x non-participating liquidation preference looks very very different in an exit from a $6MM valuation with a 2x participating liquidation preference. So does a $3.5MM valuation with investors getting 1 out of 3 Board seats v. a $5MM valuation with them getting 2/3. The non-valuation terms matter. A lot. Juicing up valuations by accepting terrible ‘other’ terms gets a lot of companies in trouble. 

6. Other Business-Focused Variables

  • What are valuations within this specific industry looking like over the past 12 months?
  • What are the obvious acquirers paying for companies they buy?
  • Where is the company in terms of revenue? Revenue-multiples generally don’t have a place in early-stage, but a $25K MRR v. $300K MRR absolutely influences valuation.
  • Any serial entrepreneurs on the team? Good schools? Other de-risking signals?
  • What’s growth look like?
  • Size of market?
  • etc. etc. etc.

Obviously, multiple term sheets are a great way to have a very clear idea of where your valuation should be, but in most non-SV markets that is a privilege bestowed on a small fraction of companies.

Take-homes:

A. If your friend’s startup got X valuation for their Series A round, that can be totally irrelevant to what valuation you should get,

B. Other terms of the financing matter a lot too, as well as who is delivering them, and

C. If you have in your hand a deal that isn’t exactly at the valuation you wanted, remember that there are thousands of founders out there who got a valuation of $0.

Over-optimizing for valuation can mean under-optimizing on a host of things that matter far more for building your business. Get the best deal that you can actually get, given your business, location, and investors, and then move forward. And ignore the broad market data, particularly the Silicon Valley data, that isn’t relevant to your own company.

Rich v. King: The (Core) Founder’s Dilemma

TL;DR Nutshell: Much of the tension between founders and outside investors lies with one question, highlighted (years ago) by Noam Wasserman (HBS) as the core “founder dilemma”: do you want to be rich, or do you want to be king? When both founders and investors are honest with each other (and themselves) about their feelings about, and approach to, this dilemma, their relationship ends up running far more smoothly.

Background Reading:

Rich or King

In the majority of circumstances (statistically) the wealth accrued by entrepreneurs is inversely correlated with their percentage ownership stake in companies. In other words, founders who give away more equity and control in their companies (to other employees, investors, etc.) end up, on average, building larger, more valuable companies, and therefore become much richer than founders unwilling to give up control. That inverse relationship is the foundation of what Noam Wasserman, a professor at Harvard Business School, calls the “Founder’s Dilemma.”

Obviously, when any particular company (in isolation) is extremely successful, founders are able to maintain more control and ownership relative to companies that are less successful. We all know stories about the (rare) Facebooks of the world in which founders have maintained significant control through many rounds of funding and even IPO.  But overall the types (categories) of businesses in which entrepreneurs give up control in order to attract capital, talent, and other resources will grow much much larger (and enrich the founders) relative to the types of companies in which entrepreneurs maintain a tighter grip.

This is why Mr. Wasserman says that if founders want to avoid significant headache and heartache in the course of building their business, one of the first questions they need to ask themselves, and be honest about, is: do you want to be rich, or do you want to be king? Because very very very rarely can you be both.

Some founders legitimately care less about money than about ensuring that their business stays in alignment with their long-term vision/mission. They certainly want to be successful, but a removal from the leadership position in their company would, in their mind, mean personal failure, no matter how much gold they can expect to line their pockets with.

Other founders want to retain control/influence in their company as long as they feel that doing so will increase their chances of becoming financially successful, but the true, primary end-goal is financial success, and they will willingly step down if they feel someone else can scale the company better and faster.

Kings and VCs Don’t Mix

If you are very heavily a “King” founder, you need to think very very carefully about whether you should take institutional venture capital at all. VCs fall along a spectrum in terms of how much deference/respect they give to founder CEOs. Some (the good ones) will assume a coaching perspective, respecting a founder CEO as the head of the company and pushing her/him to learn and become a great leader. Others (the bad ones) will move as fast as they can to undermine founders and fill management with their handpicked roster of outsiders. The best way to find out who the Coaches and Underminers are is to ask people (privately and off-the-record) who’ve worked with them, particularly other founder CEOs.

However, while the best VCs give founders real opportunities to learn and excel, every-single-one will replace a founder if/when it becomes clear that doing so is required to continue scaling the business. Why? Because VCs are profit-obsessed vultures? No, because they have bosses who hired them to make them money, by achieving big exits. It’s their job.  So even if you have the best, most respectful set of VCs on the planet, the clock is ticking once that money hits the bank. If you can’t handle the thought of not being CEO of your company, no matter how large it gets, don’t take VC money. Ever.

The Jungle, The Dirt Road, and The Highway

What many first-time founders don’t realize, though, is that as many startups scale and become large enterprises, there often comes a time when a founder CEO wants to be replaced. Jeff Bussgang’s three stages of companies: the jungle (earliest stages), the dirt road (early scaling), and the highway (mature company/late-stage growth) help explain why.

To be a successful founder, you usually need a personality that thrives in, or at least is highly capable of handling, chaos (the jungle). Meetings, committees, structure, process, reporting obligations, policies, policies on meetings, meetings on policies, etc. are often the exact kinds of things that founders are avoiding by starting up their own companies instead of taking jobs at BigCo. They thrive in following their intuition/judgments, tackling tough problems, and being on the ground strategizing about product and selling the Company’s vision.

But as companies become full-scale enterprises with hundreds of employees, all of that “structure” becomes necessary. You simply cannot run a 500 employee multi-national company like a Series A startup. Great founders often succeed in the jungle, and thrive on the dirt road (when the company is a startup), but start feeling suffocated, uninspired, and disengaged on the highway. And of course, professional CEOs are the reverse: they are trained to keep the rocketship steady and fueled once its cleared the roughest atmosphere, but their skillset breaks down if required to operate in the iterative, intuitive, grassroots environment of early-stage companies.

“Rich” founders who understand their strengths, and when those strengths are no longer optimal for the stage of their company, are able to actively participate in the executive succession planning of their companies, rather than putting up a fight with their Board.  Some decide to completely step away from the company they’ve built in order to go build something new. Others will take a role in their company that leverages their strengths – removed from the day-to-day processes and bureaucracy of the enterprise, and focused exclusively (as an example) on higher-level product and strategy.  Some founders will (happily) make the transition between jungle, dirt road, and highway without giving up the CEO title, but those are few and far between.

The important thing in all circumstances is that founders not fight the reality of what it means to take on institutional capital and build a large, scaled company. Work within that reality to achieve financial and personal success. Know yourself. 

Start Off With Transparency of Values and Vision

Control-freak founders are not alone to blame for the ‘founder’s dilemma’ dysfunctions of the VC-founder relationship. Certain VCs fail to be upfront with founders about their expectations and style of corporate governance. In order to “get the deal,” they’ll talk up how supportive and founder friendly they are, and once the cash is deposited immediately start running through the playbook described in How Founders Lose Control of Their Companies A founder who wants to be King and a VC who pretends (temporarily) to be OK with that is a perfect recipe for dysfunction at the Board level, which usually ends up destroying value.

As trite as it sounds, honesty and transparency go a very long way here. Founders should be open about their vision for the Company, their expectations for how they’ll interact with their Board, and their attitude towards when and how to recruit outside management.  VCs shouldn’t beat around the bush about what the job of a venture capitalist is, and their approach to Board governance and executive recruitment.

The narrative of the founder CEO pushed out by VCs he now hates isn’t the only narrative out there. There are plenty of success stories of founders who built strong, trusting relationships with investors who still did their jobs as VCs and ensured professional management (that the founders can trust) was brought in at the right time. It just depends on the people.  Building and maintaining trust is hard. But so is building and scaling a company. Cut the BS, communicate like adults, and then focus on building something awesome and getting rich, together. 

When LLCs Make Sense for Startups

TL;DR Nutshell: In the vast majority of instances, tech startups are best served by starting out as Corporations (C or S-corps, but usually C-Corps) on Day 1, and lawyers suggesting otherwise are usually generalists who lack tech/vc-specific domain expertise to understand why. However, there is a narrow set of circumstances in which LLCs make sense for a startup.

Background Reading:

This post is about the “almost” part of that tweet. But to get there, it’s important to address the “simpler” and “tax efficient” aspects, because those are the two core reasons that I often hear pushed onto founders for why they should be LLCs.

LLCs may be simpler generally, but Tech Startup LLCs with investor capital and equity compensation never are.

Here’s a hypothetical: Imagine you’re an athlete who’s signed up for a football camp held in Boston in the middle of February. Your general knowledge of Boston weather tells you that it is going to be a** cold. You ask a few other people with knowledge of Boston, including me (I went to law school there), and receive confirmation that Boston is a** cold in February. So you show up to the camp with only your winter gear… but it turns out the camp is entirely indoors in a heated facility. Whoops. Should’ve asked someone with true domain-specific knowledge of that camp, not just people with general knowledge. 

That, in a nutshell, is what happens when lawyers and other business people tell tech founders to use LLCs. LLCs are extremely common in the general legal world. For simple operations with one or a small number of owners, they are by far the dominant legal structure, because they usually are simpler. However, for tech startups, who very often (i) use equity as a significant part of their compensation for employees/service providers, and (ii) often raise capital with multiple equity classes, complex preferences/rights, etc., things get extremely complex under an LLC structure, much more so than with corporations. The amount of tax and legal analysis that has to be done to issue equity compensation and/or raise capital in an LLC is (without exaggerating) 10x that of a corporation.

So, if your plan is to raise capital and use equity as a form of compensation for employees and contractors (which is usually a hallmark of a tech startup), do not delude yourself for a second that an LLC will be simpler than a corporation. 

The “Double Tax” issue usually only matters if your startup is a “cash cow.”

Yes, in a general sense LLCs have one layer of tax and C-corps have two. That is another reason why (as stated above), LLCs have become a very dominant legal structure, not just for simple companies but also for many large businesses as well. Again, though, context is key. The “additional layer” of tax that corporations face is on net profits; after accounting for expenses, including salaries. No net profits, no corporate tax. So if a startup is going to be generating substantial profits (taxed once) with the end-goal of distributing those profits to shareholders (taxed again at individual level) as a dividend, the two layers are a problem.

But how many high-growth tech startups do you know that, instead of reinvesting profits for growth, pay profits out as dividends? Not many; certainly not in the first 5-10 years of the company’s life. Most high-growth tech startups deliberately operate at a net loss for a very long period of time, and therefore (i) aren’t worrying about taxes on net profits, and also (ii) are taking advantage of those losses at the corporate level in a way that may not be even use-able on the individual level. This, btw, is also why S-corps are usually not very helpful for tech startups either.

And to add an additional wrinkle: in an acquisition, corporations often have the ability to do tax-deferred stock swaps, whereas LLCs don’t. So, in short, the “LLCs save a lot of taxes” perspective, while generally correct, is usually misapplied to tech startups by people who simply don’t do enough startup/vc work to give sound advice. Yes, VCs often push companies to be C-Corps (read the background articles), but VCs are hardly the only reason why the C-Corp structure is used in tech. 

LLCs therefore make sense for tech startups that:
(i)
expect substantial net profits very early on;
(ii) aren’t planning on raising institutional venture capital, and/or
(iii) aren’t planning on using equity to compensate a lot of people.

Lots of net profits early on (rare)? The single layer of tax may be worth it, and even institutional VCs sometimes are willing to accept the complexity of an LLC to take advantage of the tax savings.  Not planning on raising VC money any time soon? Other types of non-tech investors are usually more comfortable with LLCs than VCs are. Not planning on paying your employees with equity? Then you’ll avoid the tax nightmare of issuing LLC equity to dozens/hundreds of people.

Few tech startups fit the above scenario, and that’s why few are LLCs. The classic tech startups that operate (rationally) as LLCs are bootstrapped/self-funded software and app companies with no plans to scale very quickly with outside capital, and large “marketplace” startups for which the actual investment in the technology is minimal relative to the large amount of revenue/profit pushed through the marketplace. For almost everyone else, C-corps are king, and for good reason.

p.s. I am not your tax lawyer, and am not pretending to know the right answer for your specific company. The above is just general knowledge; not legal advice. If you rely exclusively on a blog post to determine your legal structure, without talking to a professional to understand your context, you’ve taken on the risk of screwing it up.

The Fiduciary Duties of Founders

TL;DR NutshellThe moment someone is added to a startup’s cap table, founders (as majority stockholders, directors, and officers) becomes fiduciaries of that stockholder. This means that, regardless of how much control founders may have over a company, corporate governance law draws a hard line on how that control can be used. Crossing that line can result in a lawsuit.

This is one of those “core concepts” posts that, to lawyers and professional investors, will seem laughably basic; and yet the topic is something that I regularly see first-time founders get very wrong. And like most SHL posts, I’m going to explain things without referencing statutes or complicated terms. Founders need to understand the concept of Fiduciary Duties. The details they can learn from their lawyers or on-the-job.

State Corporate Law

Most Angel/VC-backed startups are Delaware corps. If they are not Delaware corps, they are usually incorporated in their home state and will be required by institutional investors to become Delaware corps if/when they ever are offered a check.  Whether you are a Delaware corp or not, your state certainly has corporate governance rules giving founders (as directors and majority stockholders) varying degrees of fiduciary responsibility to minority holders in their company. The concept is the same.

At the most fundamental level, to say that founders have fiduciary duties to their stockholders means that they cannot, without seriously risking a lawsuit, unfairly enrich themselves at the expense of other people on their cap table. They can certainly get rich by making everyone on the cap table rich; by growing the pie. But they can’t, without some kind of very credible case that it is necessary for the well-being of the entire business, improve their part of the pie at the expense of the rest of it. 

Hypothetical: Founders X and Y hired Employee A and gave her 5% of the Company that, because of some big contributions she made, was 40% fully vested on the date of issuance (meaning 2% of the Company’s equity, of her holdings, is fully vested). After a few months after the issuance, they have a big dispute and the founders fire Employee A, which they are certainly entitled to do. Under the Stock Issuance Agreement terms, 3% worth of the Company gets returned (because it wasn’t vested yet), and Employee A walks away with the 2% she had vested.

But Founders X and Y are pissed off that Employee A has that 2%. “She doesn’t deserve it. She totally ruined the product” they say. Then the light bulb switches on. “We control the Board and the stockholder vote! We’ll just dilute the hell out of her by issuing ourselves more shares!” they say.

Sorry, dudes. If it was that easy to screw minority stockholders, no one would ever invest in a company.

Delaware and other states have rules around Interested Party Transactions.”  Without getting in the weeds, Interested Party rules boil down to:

  • A Board of Directors has a duty (a fiduciary duty) to do what’s best for the company and all of its stockholders taken as a whole, without unfairly enriching its own members.
  • Any transaction in which the Board members themselves are specific beneficiaries – meaning they are getting something that others are not – is inherently suspect. It is an “Interested Party Transaction” and is open to claims by minority stockholders (the people who didn’t benefit from the transaction) that it was a fiduciary duty violation.
  • In order to “cleanse” (so-to-speak) the transaction and, in some cases, give it a safe harbor protection from lawsuits, extra steps must be followed to ensure the transaction really was fair. Those steps usually are (i) obtaining approval by the disinterested members of the Board (if any) and/or (ii) obtaining approval by the disinterested stockholders of the company. The disinterested people are the ones who aren’t getting the special benefits.

Put the above 3 bullets together, and it’s clear that Founders X and Y (i) are planning an Interested Party Transaction and (ii) without getting a “cleansing” vote of that transaction, are assuming a very serious risk of a lawsuit. If there were 5 people on the Board, and the planned dilutive issuance to X/Y was approved by the rest of the Board, then the risk profile of the transaction would be very different. Similarly, if there are other people on the cap table besides Founders X/Y and Employee A, then if their votes make up a majority of the stock not held by X/Y (the disinterested stockholders) and they approve the dilutive new stock, we’re again in much safer territory.

The key is that, in an interested party transaction, you need to get a majority of the people who aren’t getting the ‘special benefits’ to approve the deal. If you can’t, then you’re asking for pain. 

If the entire cap table is X, Y, and A, then X & Y are just asking for trouble and (frankly) deluding themselves by thinking that they can dilute A (without her consent) in a legally air-tight manner. I’ve seen founders throw out a phrase like “let’s just do a recap” (short for recapitalization) as if recaps are a magical get-out-of-fiduciary-duties card. I think that idea was spread by ‘The Social Network,’ but I’m not entirely sure. Recaps are complicated, and you still have to worry about fiduciary duties to get them done properly.

Corporate Governance is Real

The overarching umbrella of the rules, processes, etc. that govern how corporate directors and officers interact with stockholders is called ‘corporate governance.’ Founders sometimes think it’s all silliness reserved for when they go IPO, but it’s not. From Day 1, corporate governance matters. Yes, it becomes more formalized as you grow as a company and the stakes get higher, but it’s the same rules at Seed v. at Series D, just being applied differently. You better believe it matters the moment a VC is on your cap table.

Fiduciary duties do not mean that you always have to do what your minority stockholders want. That would be impossible. It just means that, as a director/officer, you have to do what’s best for the Company (the whole pie), and not just for yourself. If there’s a financing coming up that some of your stockholders don’t like, you should be safe if disinterested parties approve it as something that is the best move for the entire company. I say should, because the rules, the process, and even the language in your board resolutions matter. They can be (and often are) the difference between moving forward knowing that your decisions can’t be challenged v. handing disgruntled stockholders a loaded gun to use against you when you least want them to.