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.

When You’re Not CEO Material

TL;DR: Before you even talk to VCs, know your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and work on them. Know your VCs by asking honest questions early on, and verifying answers in the market. And be proactive and honest about what you really want to be doing at your company, and what matters most to you. When CEO succession drama starts to damage a company, it’s almost always because the founder and the VCs failed to (i) align themselves on their approach to Company management and recruiting early on, and (ii) create an environment of trust and transparency where founders can give up some control without fearing that the fruits of their hard work are being given up as well.

Background Reading:

No matter how much certain investors market themselves as “founder friendly,” no competent VC can guarantee a Founder CEO that they will stay CEO. VCs have a job to do: to turn other people’s money into more money. To the extent they are convinced that keeping a founder as CEO will maximize their chances of doing that (long-term), they will do so. Otherwise, they will tell a founder CEO, sooner or later, that a new CEO is needed.

“Founder Friendly” VCs are the ones who’ve concluded that being friendly to founders helps them make more money.  They are not your BFFs, and you shouldn’t need them to be.

The below are some thoughts, from someone who’s seen it play out many times, on how founders should approach the “Are you CEO material?” issue; both before the hard conversation has arrived, and after.

First: Answer Your Founder’s Dilemma: Rich or King?

If staying in control of your company is much more important to you than achieving an excellent financial return, you should significantly reconsider whether venture capital is right for you at all.  Remember: VCs have a job to do, which is to make lots of money. You bring them on to align yourself with them so that when they make lots of money, you make lots of money.

It’s fine and common if you have a certain ‘mission’ that runs alongside the goal of building successful, profitable business; most great founders do.  But if you’re working with VCs, (i) that mission better be the kind of mission that unlocks lots of benjamins, and (ii) you better be OK at some point handing over the crown and becoming a part of, but not the leader of, management. Because, statistically, most founder CEOs eventually get replaced; voluntarily or involuntarily.

Second: Find Out if a VC is a Coach or Underminer

While all VCs are in it to make money, their philosophies regarding how much “coaching” to give founder CEOs vary wildly. Some VCs know that a founder CEO most likely will need to be replaced once the company has become a true enterprise, but they see value in keeping a founder in the CEO seat for some time and coaching them on their gaps, and also helping them fill some those gaps with other senior hires.  Other VCs virtually never let a first-time founder CEO remain in their position post-Series A. They are fine having them as CTO or COO, but they will almost always make their large check contingent on bringing in one of their preferred professionals.

There is no way to know whether you are working with a Coach or an Underminer other than to (i) directly ask (early) the VC what their perspective is on senior management post-closing, and (ii) examine the existing portfolio of the VC to see what has in fact happened every time they’ve closed a round. Trustworthy advisors who are active in the market are helpful here, as is LinkedIn.

If you’re working with an Underminer, and there are no other options, it is what it is. Work within that reality (see Step 4).

Third: Realize that you are being “sized up” from the moment you first speak to investors.

No one should pretend that “good CEOs” fit neatly into some contrived stereotype. Their personalities, appearance, backgrounds, etc. can vary significantly. However, the core jobs of a CEO, particularly at early stage, are quite uniform: (i) recruit employees, (ii) recruit investors and strategic partners, & (iii) manage and lead everyone to execute effectively on the strategy. From the moment you first interact with investors, they are asking themselves whether a founder CEO can do those things.

Fact: everything about your interactions with lead investors, from the tone and confidence of your communications, to body language and eye contact, and how you respond to push-back and calculated aggression, will influence their perception of whether you are “CEO material.” Complain all you want about prejudices, bias, judging books from covers, etc., but that is just reality. Leadership is not handed charitably. It’s asserted by behavior and results. The concept of “executive presence” is something worth familiarizing yourself with.

No, this does not mean you need to pretend to be some gun-slinging, type A alpha executive. Many great CEOs are calm and collected. But the fact of the matter is that being a CEO of any company requires the ability to have hard conversations and take some heat. If you can’t hold your own in a direct conversation with a VC, they will infer that you can’t do so in the many other key conversations that a CEO needs to have to lead a company.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard something like “That founder? He’s got a bit of an ego,” to which I usually respond, “What do you think it takes?” Ego? Thick skin? Stubborn? Chip on their shoulder? A little prickly? You better f***ing believe it.  Industries usually don’t get blasted open by people overflowing with tenderness and sensitivity.

Fourth: Focus long-term on transparency and influence; not control.

I’ve found over time that many founder CEOs do not actually enjoy being CEO, especially as the company starts growing significantly (~post Series B). They insist on staying in the CEO seat, not because they truly think it best suits their skillset, but because of a fear that stepping down from the top automatically means totally losing influence and visibility into where the company is headed. A culture of transparency and clear communication at the board level can resolve this disconnect and avoid dysfunction.

The key issue here is not whether the Company needs a new CEO, but how to handle succession. The perfect way to create mistrust between founders and their board/management is for VCs to parachute in C-level hires with minimal founder involvement in the recruitment and selection process. It looks something like “We are getting a new CEO, and it’s X (often who was a CEO at a prior portfolio company).” In this scenario, the recruitment of new executives feels far less like the leveraging of much-needed, independent new talent for the benefit of everyone, and more like the investors taking control over management by hiring their loyalists under the pretense of ‘upgrading’ the team. 

When a founder CEO is able to propose her own candidates for the CEO position (and other C-level positions), and play a lead role in interviewing, vetting, and training the prospects, succession goes substantially smoother for everyone. In that scenario, much like a truly independent director, the founders will view the new CEO and other C-level hires as balanced people whose long-term vision and values are closely aligned with the original team. Trust is preserved, and that trust, along with a continued seat at the Board table and contractual protections around their equity and compensation, frees founders to move to positions in the company that are better suited for their skills (CTO, Chief of Product, Chief of Strategy, COO, etc. etc.), and which they usually enjoy more.

Again, different VCs have different philosophies on how to approach CEO/Executive succession, including timing. The only way to find out is to get a dialogue going early on, before term sheets are delivered, and verify the answers by talking, privately, to portfolio companies. As always, having your inner circle of advisors to, confidentially and off-the-record, help you gather that information is key.

Gatekeepers and Ecosystems

TL;DR: Relationships are important, but a business mindset that prioritizes ‘relationships’ over real value delivery enables gatekeeping and cronyism, both of which are contradictory to entrepreneurship, and can suffocate a business ecosystem.

Background Reading:

As I’m known to do on occasion, I’m going to get a bit personal with this post; because the backstory (my backstory) helps explain the message.

To say that, growing up, I did not come from money would be an understatement. When I was born, my parents (mexican immigrants) were selling tomatoes and avocados out of a pickup truck.

In a sort of american dream story, that pickup truck eventually became a moderately successful produce business, where I spent a good portion of my elementary school off-time sorting produce and invoices. Unfortunately, through a series of bad, misguided decisions, that business eventually ended in bankruptcy, and my parents in divorce. My sisters and I were raised by my single mother, who supported us by selling perfume at an indoor flea market; her small business, where I worked for most of my teenage years.

Yes, to get from there to where I am now took an enormous amount of work and hustle; hours a day commuting to public schools in better neighborhoods, days without sleep to get the grades that would get the scholarships that would pay for the colleges that I otherwise couldn’t afford, even while working, etc. But the real reason I tell that story, and this is where it connects to the crux of this post, is this: I would not be even close to where I am today if it weren’t for people willing to work with and support others purely because of their talent and merit, regardless of whom those ‘others’ knew or where they came from. 

Those people are the reason I’m here. And the underlined portion of that sentence is what makes all the difference.  Because I came from nowhere, and knew no one.

There are very few statements about business that I find more obnoxious than, “it’s all about relationships.” Not because I don’t value them. To the contrary, I think building trusting, deep relationships is one of the most important things CEOs can do. See: Burned Relationships Burn Down Companies. What truly unsettles me about that perspective is two-fold:

  A.  It reflects a pervasive mindset on how to achieve success that, when played out over time, concentrates opportunity in pockets of people who all know each other. People who go to the right schools, live in the right neighborhoods, etc. are able, despite being all kinds of mediocre, to leverage their ‘relationships’ to keep out those who are far hungrier, and far more talented, but simply don’t have the right ‘relationships.’ 

  B.  It creates gatekeepers, who can use their access to the right ‘relationships’ to control a market. And gatekeepers are the exact opposite of true business ecosystems. Gatekeepers, and the idea that you have to know specific people in order to succeed, are contradictory to entrepreneurship.

I’ve observed how, in a variety of markets and startup ecosystems, pockets of people have attempted to become gatekeepers. It never ends well.  Influencers/connectors, meaning people who serve as ‘nodes’ of an ecosystem by knowing lots of people and helping them connect with each other, are a great thing. Every town needs them. A gatekeeper, however, is an influencer/connector who has devolved into using their relationships to cut off the market from others who won’t go through them. Rather than facilitating an ecosystem, they use the “it’s all about relationships” fallacy to artificially centralize it. 

Relationships do matter. Relationship-building skills are important. But the people who most emphasize the supremacy of relationships, instead of prioritizing authentic differentiation and value proposition, are often the most mediocre. Fact. By stating that relationships are what matter most, you’re indirectly acknowledging that your success has come from whom you know instead of from what you can actually deliver

I remember as a kid driving through the “rich people” neighborhoods (upper middle class), imagining how amazingly talented everyone living in those homes must be. There’s no way they could be that successful if they weren’t the best of the best, right? Now, I’m nauseated by how many people I’ve encountered over the years who’ve coasted into success simply by (i) being competent, yet uninspiring, and (ii) leveraging relationships they built during their childhood and college years. Because it’s “all about relationships.”  When lawyers are coached on how to build up a client base, the first thing they almost always hear is “start building relationships.” And perhaps work on your sports trivia while you’re at it.

People who truly believe it’s “all about relationships” do not become successful entrepreneurs. Great entrepreneurs focus first and foremost on developing a legitimate, differentiated, and defensible value proposition, and then building the right relationships from there. Be so good that the right people – the ones who don’t think it’s all about relationships and quid pro quo – can’t ignore you. The relationships will follow. 

When clients approach our firm, I am happier when I hear that they have scoped the market. It serves as a great starting point for explaining how and why, instead of following the old playbook, we’ve built our reputation by completely re-tooling how law firms run: better technology, a unique culture built through unique recruiting, billing rates hundreds of dollars per hour below market, extremely high client satisfaction, strong policies against conflicts of interest, and competitive market compensation for top lawyers who work 25% fewer hours than the firms they leave.

Many don’t realize it, but that last part has been part of my core mission the whole time. Our firm is built, from the ground up, to allow lawyers to have healthy personal lives, instead of pushing them (for the enrichment of partners) into workaholism. So that they don’t end up overworked and divorced. Like my parents. I told you the backstory mattered here.

Yeah, we’ve got relationships. But they were and are earned; not given, and not bought. To this day, I shut down any suggestion that we establish economics-driven (as opposed to merit driven) referral arrangements with anyone. Not everyone is happy about it. You can’t make everyone happy. It is not all about relationships.

A true business ecosystem cannot be controlled. And true entrepreneurs cannot be held back by gatekeepers; they find a way around them, eventually. It’s what they do. Give people a chance if they are hungry, and can demonstrate real skill. Even if they come from nowhere, and know no one.