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.

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.