Non-Competes

TL;DR: Post-employment non-competes are generally not enforceable in California. Given how much content around tech entrepreneurship originates from California, you might get the impression that not having non-competes in startup employment agreements is the norm across the country. You’d be wrong.

The whole non-compete debate in tech circles is fun to watch. Certain people try to paint it in simplistic “good v. bad” terms. The champions of innovation who believe “talent should move freely,” v. the traditionalist ogres representing entrenched BigCo’s. But as you’ll hear me repeatedly say on this blog: watch incentives. Where you stand depends on where you sit. 

Imagine for a second that we’re sitting in a God-like seat, where we can push the population of a country in one of two directions.

Option A: People will have more babies, but die sooner.

Option B: People will have fewer babies, but live longer.

Now imagine there’s a debate among two sets of constituents as to which option should be pushed forward. The first group are the people currently living in that country. The second group are foreign shareholders in a conglomerate that sells (i) baby clothes, and (ii) coffins. Think there’s disagreement?

Get my point? Maybe a “Hunger Games” metaphor would’ve worked better. I’ll elaborate.

Ecosystem v. Individual Incentives

The debate over non-competes has a few core elements to it. First, it pits ecosystem v. individual incentives, which I’ve discussed in a few places on this blog. I’m fairly confident that if you remove the ability for employers and employees to agree (voluntarily) to have non-competes in their employment docs, the end-result is more companies and more bargaining power for employees (obviously); which is to say, it probably does net-out to faster ecosystem growth.

But if I’m an entrepreneur who has already started a company, I give far far more shits about the specific company I’ve sunk my sweat and tears into than about your “ecosystem.” Your ecosystem is not going to produce an ROI on my “one shot” investment.

However, if I’m a venture capitalist, angel investor, or run an accelerator, my ROI is tied to the ecosystem; I have portfolio, not “one shot” incentives. I benefit from incentivizing hyper-competition and the creation of new companies, even if it threatens the existence of those who are currently working on their “one shot.”

ps, it also increases the need for capital to fund talent wars. Watch incentives.

From an evolutionary perspective, you better believe it would help the human species if people died sooner and reproduced more. You also better believe the people currently alive might have a slightly different perspective on the matter.

So putting aside moralizing judgments, everyone discussing the non-compete issue needs to first acknowledge the reality of their misaligned incentives.

Grandstanding

Secondly, because so many people on the entrepreneurial/employer side, particularly in Silicon Valley (where there is an extremely^2 competitive labor market), are so concerned about being seen as “that awesome person/company that just LOVES employees and you really really really should want to work for,” there is very much a reluctance to speak honestly on this issue. You’ve got companies offering doggy daycare and daily massages to try to hold onto their roster. They sure as hell aren’t going to go on the record saying “yeah, it would be nice if we could have non-competes.”

So it doesn’t surprise me that most of the public content on the issue involves people grandstanding about the values of innovation, disruption, free talent flow, etc., and how they support outright bans on non-competes. The law (in California) is already there – they can’t have non-competes, and that’s not changing – so why on earth would I counter its logic publicly, when deviating from the script will hurt my recruiting efforts?

There’s a very similar dynamic going on here with the 90-day exercise period on employee options. Putting aside the legal and tax nuances around it, so much of the public content coming out of SV on it paints it as total BS and just a way for employers to “screw” employees.

Summary:

  1. Asking employees to commit to a 1-year non-compete is just employers “screwing” employees. Nothing more.
  2. Asking employees to exercise their options within 90 days of leaving the company, or forgo the equity, is also employers “screwing” employees. Nothing more.

Is not offering doggy day care “screwing” employees as well? Asking for a friend, in California.

“Non-competes and employee option expiration are outrageous! We’d NEVER do that to employees!”

Translation: “We’re hiring! Chef-prepared veganic meals daily. All you can drink Soylent.”

Employers (including current entrepreneurs) have wants and needs. Employees have wants and needs. Startup investors have wants and needs. And many of them conflict. Acknowledging it, instead of finger-pointing and grandstanding, makes debate possible.

Humanize the Issue

I’m very much a fan of humanizing complex business issues; which to me means distilling them down to basic norms and ethics of human interaction. It’s easy to get caught up in cold business calculus when you talk about “employers” and “employees,” instead of reducing the issue down to people simply bargaining with each other.

Say I’ve spent years building up a family restaurant, with all of my special recipes, business contacts, processes, etc., and I invite you to come work with me. I’m going to teach you everything about the business; all of my secrets. But to ensure I can trust that you aren’t just going to take everything I teach you and use it somewhere else, I ask you to agree not to compete with us for a year if you leave.

Am I an asshole? Or am I simply protecting myself somewhat from betrayal. I can think of lots of human scenarios in which this kind of bargain is perfectly acceptable and reasonable. And with my libertarian tendencies, I don’t feel comfortable with the government dictating that me and my prospective employee can’t simply agree among ourselves what the right bargain is.

And now we’ll have the necessary rebuttals.

But this isn’t about family restaurants, Jose. This is about Google and Apple trying to keep powerless employees from choosing where they want to work.

Is it really? You think the Pre-Series A entrepreneur with 10 employees isn’t exposed to a key employee walking with everything she’s learned and taking it somewhere else?  There are valid arguments for why non-competes need to be right-sized for the circumstances, and why perhaps very large corporations shouldn’t get the same benefits from them as smaller businesses. And also that lower-level staff should get more freedom than employees closer to core IP/trade secrets. Courts already think about them this way.

And let’s also stop playing the violins for a second. Are today’s tech employees, especially in startup ecosystems, really powerless?

But confidentiality provisions and other IP protections still protect companies, even without non-competes.

Trust me, it is 100x as expensive to prove in court that someone stole your trade secrets than it is to point to a paragraph in an employment agreement and be done with it. Google and Apple have the resources to fully enforce their IP confidentiality. Most small companies / startups do not. Today, total banning of non-competes may help Goliaths more than Davids.

But removing non-competes requires employers to hold onto their employees in other ways.

I get it. Government reduces the power of an employer, so the employee now has more leverage. Employee therefore gets better treatment. Wonderful. But the point of this post is that employees aren’t the only people in the business ecosystem that matter, and there are valid arguments on the other side that are worth hearing.

Non-Competes are the Norm. 

Outside of California, non-competes are the norm, and they can be valuable, among the many other bargaining mechanisms, between employers and employees. They can help provide a foundation of trust, which allows employers to invest in their employees for the long-term.

Maybe you’re so gung-ho on the total free flow of talent and “ecosystems” that you absolutely want to forgo non-competes. That’s perfectly fine. Every company is different, and has its own culture. But at least understand why your counterparts at other companies may think differently about the situation, and offer alternatives. That’s how healthy labor markets are built.

The right answer on non-competes probably lies somewhere in the middle of the two polarized sides. On the one hand, it is definitely unfair for a powerful 20,000 employee behemoth to be able to restrict even a secretary from working at a competitor. I think we can all agree on that, and the courts already do. But that doesn’t mean the same rules should be applied to the key employee at a 10-employee startup.

On the other hand, there is a valid argument that the level of hyper competition in Silicon Valley is not something other ecosystems should try to totally replicate. It may lead to talent wars, which waste resources on frivolous perks, and require larger rounds of capital. It may also hurt the ability of companies to invest in their talent for the long-term, because they’re constantly worried about that talent being bought out by a better capitalized competitor.

We should all agree that there are valid points to be made on both sides, and valid disagreement as to what a “healthy” startup ecosystem really looks like. The grandstanding and obfuscation of misaligned incentives is the problem.

Common Stock v. Preferred Stock

TL;DR: Beyond the technical differences between Preferred Stock and Common Stock, there are deeper differences in their composition, incentives, and risk exposure that play out in the course of a company’s history. Understanding the tension between those differences is important.

Very quick vocabulary lesson:

Common Stock is the default equity security of a corporation. It’s what founders, employees, advisors, and other service providers get.

Preferred Stock (Series A, Series B, etc.) is “preferred” because it has extra privileges / rights layered on top of it relative to the Common Stock, including a liquidation preference, rights to block certain things, etc. Preferred Stockholders are almost always investors.

Why don’t investors (usually) buy Common Stock? Short answer: why be common when you can be “preferred”?

Longer answer: they want the downside protection that a liquidation preference provides (they get their money back before anyone else), and they want various contractual privileges that separate them from the “common” holders; like the right to elect certain directors. Also, another argument often made is that by having investors buy Preferred Stock, the “strike price” of options (which buy common stock) used as service compensation can be lower (when a valuation occurs). The logic is that common stock at the time is less valuable due to its lower rights and status on the liquidation waterfall.

So if your investors pay $1 for Preferred Stock with a liquidation preference and other rights, you can still issue your employees options at 20 cents per share (or whatever your valuation reflects) without busting tax/equity compensation rules. The options are for Common Stock, which lacks the bells and whistles of Preferred Stock, and therefore the “fair market value” exercise price is lower. If the investors had paid $1 for Common Stock, your employee options would’ve been much more expensive.

Interesting corporate law factoid: between the Common Stock (founders, employees, etc.) and the Preferred Stock (investors), which group does the Board of Directors owe greater fiduciary duties to in the event of a conflict?

Answer: the Common Stock. And yes, that means even the directors elected by preferred stockholders, even if the director is a VC. Ask your corporate lawyer if you don’t believe me. The Delaware case law is pretty clear.  All the more reason to avoid “captive” company counsel, to help the Board actually do its job.

Kind of ironic. The investors get “Preferred” stock, but the Board is actually legally required to “prefer” (in a way) the Common Stock.

Apart from the technical differences between Common Stock and Preferred Stock, it’s important to keep in mind the different characteristics of the people who make up the two groups.

A. Common Stockholders are much less “diversified” than Preferred Stockholders. This is their “one shot.” 

As I wrote in Not Building a Unicorn, venture capitalists and founders/management often have very different incentives when it comes to setting out a growth and exit strategy for a company; especially when the VCs are the type that look for “unicorns” (larger funds).

Most startup investors (preferred stockholders) have a portfolio of investments. If a few go bust, their hope is to more than make up for it with a grand slam from another. For a less diversified common stockholder, like a first time founder: going bust is really going bust.

Imagine, for simplicity, you have 2 potential growth/exit strategies: Option A and Option B. Option A has a 50% chance of success, and would result in the Company exiting at a $80MM valuation. Option B has a 10% chance of success, but would result in a $1B exit.

Now imagine a portfolio of 10 companies, each with an Option A and an Option B. The Preferred Stock are invested in all 10 of those companies, but the Common Stock are exclusive to each company.

Do you think the Common Stock and Preferred Stock are always going to see eye to eye on which option to take? Hell no. With downside protection (liquidation preference) and diversification, preferred stockholders are far more incentivized to take much bigger risks than common stockholders are.

The Common Stock v. Preferred Stock divide is very real, and that matters from a corporate governance perspective.

B. Common Stockholders are typically less “sophisticated,” and don’t have their own lawyers. 

Part of the idea of fiduciary duties is that someone more sophisticated, informed, or influential is given responsibility to look out for the best interests of someone who is less sophisticated, informed, and influential. That’s why the Board of Directors, which has the most power in the corporation, has fiduciary duties to all the smaller stockholders who can’t see everything that’s going on.

Naturally, because many institutional investors are diversified, they are by definition “repeat players,” which makes them more sophisticated at the complexities of financing, corporate governance, etc. In negotiating transactions with the Company (like financings), they also often have their own lawyers to negotiate directly on their behalf.

Common Stockholders rarely involve their own lawyers when they are getting their equity from the Company. They rely much more on the norms of how the Company treats all of its equity recipients. And, frankly, they just have to trust that they will be treated fairly.

It’s worth noting that, at least in this regard, individual angels are a lot more like common stockholders than institutional venture capitalists. They too often sign standardized docs, with little negotiation or personal lawyer involvement, and they also often don’t have visibility into Board decisions. They are usually more trust driven in their dealings with their investments. This is why founders will often feel more “aligned” with angels than with VCs. That’s because they are usually more aligned.

Even founders, with much bigger stakes than a typical employee, often do not involve personal lawyers in dealings with the Company; not until the later stages when the cap table and board composition are very different. They rely much more on company counsel to advise on what’s best for the Company as a whole, which indirectly means what’s best for the common stock.

In short: Common Stockholders, broadly, (i) are less diversified, and therefore more exposed to risk in this specific company, (ii) have less downside protection, (iii) are less wealthy and sophisticated, and (iv) usually don’t have their own lawyers to review and negotiate things on their behalf. This is, to a large degree, why the case law puts such an emphasis on fiduciary duties to common stockholders.  Because the bigger Preferred Stock players can negotiate contractually for their rights and protections, Corporate Law says officers and directors should focus on what’s best for the Company as a whole, with special care toward the interests of the common stock.

ps: should Company Counsel own equity in the Company? Usually they don’t, but sometimes they do. After reading the above, it should be crystal clear what type of security they should own, and why letting your lawyers buy preferred stock can, in many circumstances, be a very bad idea.

Transparency, Risk, and Failure

TL;DR: In the very uncertain, high risk environment of an early-stage startup, the most successful founders are extremely good at practical risk mitigation. One of the most important forms of risk mitigation is to build a culture of transparency and honesty at all levels of the company; meaning people say what they’re thinking/feeling, and do what they say they’re going to do. No politics. No surprises.

Background Reading:

One of the biggest myths, in my experience, about successful entrepreneurs is that they are generally risk-seeking, risk-loving, uber-optimists who fearlessly run right into unknown unknowns, expecting things to turn out for the best. It’s just false. My word for the person I just described is “idiot.”

Yes, they are optimists, but what they’re often optimistic about is their risk mitigation skills. To an outsider, they may look fearless and indifferent toward risk. But in their mind they’re constantly analyzing risks, including seeing risks that others don’t see (the paranoid survive), and actively taking steps to address them.

In the early days of a company, without a doubt one of the largest sources of risk is, to put it simply, people. Co-founders, employees, consultants, commercial partners, investors, advisors, etc. Before your company has become a fully greased and well-running machine with an established brand, market presence, and gravitational pull, it is, in large part, a highly fragile vision of the future; dependent, to the extreme, on a handful of people and their ability to execute toward a common goal. It takes just one “bad” person, or decision, or accident, in that group to bring it all crashing down. 

Each person carries around risks; either risks that originate from them, or risks they know more about than others. Examples:

Co-founders: Are they truly satisfied with their equity stake/position at the company, and committed to the cause? Do they feel like the CEO is the right person for that position, and making the right decisions, with the right input?

Employees: Are they happy with their compensation/position, given the resources and stage of the company, or are they already planning an exit? Do they feel like the company is moving in the right direction? Are there behaviors/activities going on at the company that the C-suite should know about, but maybe aren’t aware of?

Commercial partners: Are their intentions the ones they’ve actually stated at the negotiation table? If circumstances or incentives change, will they try to preserve the relationship or at least reasonably negotiate a fair break, or will they try to maximize one-sided gains?

Investors: Do they truly believe the current executive team can execute effectively at the current stage of the company, and if not, have they communicated their thoughts to the team? If they are planning for changes, are they letting the team know, so the process can be open and balanced?

By working with people with a heavy bias toward transparency and honesty, you maximize your visibility into risks, which maximizes your ability to proactively address them. Risks that take you by surprise are 100x more deadly than those you can see coming. But what does transparency mean, and how do you find it?

Transparency means:

  • Saying what you’re truly thinking, feeling, and planning to do, instead of what may be optimal for you to convey in a short-term self-interested sense;
  • Even if you’re not the best at verbalizing your thoughts/feelings, conveying them in other non-verbal ways – transparent people tend to show more emotion. The perpetually sterile, calculated, always careful not to speak off-script demeanor that all of us encounter in business is the opposite of what you should look for.

It does not mean blurting out your thoughts at random without proper self-awareness or sense of propriety, or conveying more information than specific people really need to know. The “radical transparency” I’ve read about in some circles – for example, the idea that everyone needs to know everyone’s compensation – in my mind is asking for trouble. There is always information that the CEO has that should be heavily filtered before it gets to employee #200, and visa versa. But a thoughtful, respectful, durable culture of transparency ensures that the right information flows to the right people who truly need it and can benefit from it. 

It also does not mean always being the nicest, most agreeable person in the room.  Sycophants and glad handers may keep the peace, but at a cost of smothering you with so much bullshit that you can’t hear the things you really should be hearing. There is an art to conveying uncomfortable information, and people can be trained/coached for it, but it will always still be somewhat uncomfortable.

I’ve been very happily married for almost 10 years (this December!), but I’ll be damned if I ever tell you that hasn’t come with conflict. If anyone ever tells me that they’re in a serious, complex relationship that is completely conflict free, I hear one word in my mind, and one word only: divorce. Small conflicts prevent massive ones. If there is honesty and transparency, there will be some conflict, and it will make you stronger. 

And of course, if you’ve struggled to find, attract, and retain people who are honest and trustworthy, a very good place to analyze the problem is a mirror. Company culture is very much a reflection of the people who started it. Be the person you expect others to be.  And if you want transparency, don’t penalize people when they act accordingly.

At the end of the day, transparency is the foundation of trust in relationships, and the data is universally clear that virtually nothing helps teams, businesses, and broader networks thrive (and minimize serious conflict) better than trust. In the world of startups, there are hundreds of sources of potential failure that you are constantly battling against, and that you can’t do a lot about. Very very few risk mitigation tools are in as much of the founders’ control as the culture they implement in their team from Day 1.

Do the intentional, hard work up-front to recruit/engage people who say what they’re thinking, and do what they say they’re going to do, and you’ll maximize your chances of survival. You’ll also keep your legal fees way lower in the process.

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’ve worked 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. Familiarity with your ecosystem, and the expectations of its participants, matters more than being physically local.

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.

More important than truly local lawyers is lawyers who are familiar with working in ecosystems that look like your own. The norms of Silicon Valley financing and governance are very different from those of Denver and Atlanta, as an example; both what some would call “2nd tier” ecosystems.  But a Denver lawyer would be quite comfortable with Austin norms, and visa versa.

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.