Not Building a Unicorn

TL;DR: In a market that has historically idolized huge, splashy financings and exits, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are realizing that everyone else’s definition of success – particularly among certain large VCs – isn’t necessarily aligned with their own.

While I work with a few companies in Silicon Valley, the vast majority of my clients are either in Austin or ecosystems that look much more like Austin than SV; “second tier” tech communities. Over time it has become crystal clear to me, and has been confirmed by CEOs I work with who spend time in both places, that the SV community has a far more binary outlook on business success than “normals” do. There is very little time for, or interest in, companies that would legitimately call a $50MM or $100MM exit a true success.

This is most clearly highlighted in the “unicorn” boom we all saw over the past few years, where founders raised very large rounds, with terms very onerous to the underlying common stock, hoping they could eventually justify billion dollar valuations to skeptical acquirers or public market investors. The result of the binary philosophy is, in fact, truly binary outcomes for founders. The handful who truly succeed at justifying their valuation in an exit achieve “buy a yacht” level wealth. And those who in a different world may have built a business that made them “merely rich,” walk away with virtually nothing; their stock under water. 

A good portion of the newer generation of entrepreneurs has, in my opinion, wised up to this reality; certainly outside of SV, where I work. They’re thinking much harder about what kind of business they want to build, and what kinds of people and resources they want to use in building those businesses. And many are accepting, and even flaunting, the fact that, while they absolutely want to achieve success and wealth, they have zero interest in following the conventional “unicorn track.” The below is a list of issues that founders should keep in mind when deliberating on their own desired path to scaling their companies.

1. The binary “get yacht-level rich or die trying” mindset is driven, first and foremost, by large institutional investors. 

Success for institutional VCs is driven not by absolute dollars returned, but by % returns on capital. If I put in $2MM and get out $10MM in a $50MM exit, that’s a solid 5x return. But if I put in $10MM and get out $15MM in a 50% larger exit, that was still a waste of my time; only 1.5x. Large funds write larger checks because they lack the mental/resource bandwidth to actively manage a portfolio of smaller investments. Most individual VCs can only support about 7-10 companies at a time. And large checks require very large exits to achieve good returns.

Entrepreneurs sometimes assume that accepting money from a large fund is better than a smaller fund, because they have more “dry powder” to deploy for follow-in financings, but this is a dangerously simplistic way of assessing investors. A large fund is much more likely to get impatient with an executive team if the business is growing, but not growing fast enough for their needs. Align yourself with a fund whose exit expectations are not totally misaligned from your own.

2. Higher valuations almost always require larger rounds, which drive binary outcomes.

Some founders assume that a higher valuation is always better than a lower one, but they are wrong.

First, investors will sometimes be willing to take a higher valuation if it means getting a heavier liquidation preference. Should you accept a 3x liquidation preference with a $15MM valuation instead of a 1x preference at a $8MM valuation? If you’re confident you’ll get a huge exit, maybe. But for normals the answer is almost certainly no. That 3x preference has dramatically increased the hurdle you need to clear in an exit before the common stock (you and your team) get anything, and it will likely get duplicated in future rounds. Onerous liquidation preferences push the common stock further under water, and increase the likelihood that the common will get little or nothing in a “merely rich” exit.

Secondly, most institutional investors have a minimum post-closing % they need to own in order to justify an investment. By driving the valuation up, you’re usually not reducing your dilution in the round; you’re just increasing the size of the check they need to write in order to get to their desired %. That can be good if you truly believe every dollar will lead to more than an extra dollar in an exit, but keep in mind that liquidation preferences are tied to dollars in by investors. If the investors have a 1x preference, a $5MM round means the investors have to get $5MM back before founders get anything; and the same is true for a $15MM round. More money raised means more liquidation preference, which again means a larger hurdle to clear in an exit before the common gets anything. Large rounds, again, drive binary outcomes.

When an investor tells you that you should keep your Series A smaller, they truly are sometimes doing you a favor. And, sorry, but if you know you’re not building a unicorn, don’t talk to your investors about why you should get that lofty valuation just because X or Y company in SV got it too. Likely exit size ties directly to what seed or Series A valuation is appropriate.

3. Angels/Seed Funds v. Institutional VCs think very differently.

Put the above two points together, and it shouldn’t require very much explanation for why Angels and Seed Funds tend to be more amenable to “merely rich” exits than large VCs. They write smaller checks at earlier, lower valuations, and therefore an exit that wouldn’t move the needle for a large VC still looks great to them. Obviously they too prefer larger exits over smaller ones, but their definition of success is still much more aligned with “normal” entrepreneurs.

Angels and seed investors may want enormous exits, but large institutional VCs need them, and they behave accordingly.

We’re increasingly seeing entrepreneurs who take on angel and seed fund investment, but are much more cautious when it comes to larger institutional checks. And as online tools and new ecosystem resources (i) allow angels and seed funds to syndicate larger early-stage rounds, and (ii) un-bundle the value-add resources once limited to larger funds, non-institutional Series As (or larger-than-usual seed rounds) are going to continue to be a thing.

It can often take a few years of being in the market to get a clearer picture of what kind of company, in terms of size, you’re likely building. It can be a good strategy to avoid making a hard commitment to an investor with hyper growth needs/expectations until you have that clarity. 

4. Understand the tension between “Portfolio” v. “One Shot” incentives.

Listen to enough VCs at large firms w/ broad portfolios talk about startup finance, and you will inevitably hear the term “power law” come up. In short, they’re referring to the fact that most of their investments either fail or merely return capital, and it’s the grand slams that make up for the other losses.

This is the distributed portfolio mindset; i’ve got stakes in a lot of companies, so it’s OK if most fail, as long as I get at least one unicorn. In fact, if I push them all to try to be a grand slam, I’m more likely to get at least one. On the others, at least I’ll get my money back before anyone else does.

The fact that (i) investors have a liquidation preference that prioritizes the return of their capital in an exit, and (ii) their money is distributed across a diverse portfolio, means that they are structurally far more inclined to favor fast growth paths that produce a handful of very large exits even if they also produce a larger number of companies for which the common stock get nothing. At its core, this is precisely why the idea that founders/employees (common) and institutional investors (preferred) are “fully aligned” economically is completely laughable. 

A strategy that maximizes returns over a diversified portfolio with significant downside protection can completely screw individual stockholders whose own stakes are limited to one company, and at the bottom of the preference stack.

Startup ecosystem “cheerleaders” who lament the lack of billion-dollar, headline-making companies in their city reflect part of this portfolio mindset as well. If I’m not toiling away for 10 years on one company, but stand to benefit from the broader ‘ecosystem,’ I may also favor a business philosophy that pushes entrepreneurs to build big, splashy unicorns (large rounds, very fast growth), or otherwise crash & burn.

Reality check: entrepreneurs don’t have portfolios, and don’t have liquidation preferences. They have one shot, and they’re slogging away 5-10 years for that one shot; not for your “ecosystem.” If I have 100x skin in a single game over everyone else, I’m going to have a fundamentally different outlook on how that game should be played.

When I hear someone complain that Texas hasn’t seen a lot of strong tech IPOs recently, my response is “so there’s no other way to be successful?” Why should we favor 1 billion dollar company over 10 $100MM companies, or 20 $50MM companies? I can think of a few arguments for why the latter is actually more robust long-term from an economic standpoint, even if it produces fewer NYT articles. It certainly provides more variety.

Obviously it’s great when any city sees a true breakout, international brand-building tech company emerge. And Silicon Valley produces, and likely will continue to produce, the lion share of those.  But those of us sitting on the sidelines, and not toiling away on one egg in one basket, need to be humbly mindful of how our discussions on success play out in the lives of entrepreneurs actually doing the work.

Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. “Change the world.” “Put a dent in the universe.” “Move fast and break things.” “Shoot for the moon; you’ll land…” yeah, ok, I think we all get it. Can we please let some entrepreneurs “just” build successful companies that make their stockholders “merely rich” – and skip the super hero cape, global domination, rocket ship, and mythological creatures? There is a big, lucrative world in the space between “small business” and “billions” that many smart, ambitious people are happy to fill. 

I think the greater awareness of this issue, and the overall shift in thinking among entrepreneurs, is an extremely healthy development for everyone. It will lead to more sustainable companies, and a healthier entrepreneurial culture. If you’re building the next Facebook, by all means go ahead, and align yourselves with people looking for a ride on that train. But the other 99.999% of the world doesn’t need to apologize, at all, for building companies that are “merely successful.”

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.

Electing a Truly Independent Director

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

Background Reading:

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

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

Independent Director as Tie-Breaker

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

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

For real independence, dig deeper

But what does “independent” really mean?

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

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

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

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

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

Specialized industry expertise is valuable.

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

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

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

Avoid an empty seat.

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

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

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

It’s not cynicism. It’s experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Avoid “Captive” Company Counsel

Background Reading: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

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

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

Inexperience v. Seasoned Veterans

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

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

Counsel should level the playing field. 

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

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

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

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

Many startup lawyers are “captive” to institutional investors. 

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

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

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

Chess: Losing the negotiation before it starts. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cost control as sleight-of-hand. 

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

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

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

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

Balanced, but also competent. 

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

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

Avoiding captive counsel. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.