Startup Employee Offer Letters

TL;DR: A few simple principles can help founders avoid big legal landmines in making offers to their employees.

Background Reading:

Hiring an employee is one of the first areas in which I see poorly advised founders really start messing things up from a legal perspective; exposing themselves to liability and errors that can have very long-lasting effects.

Here are a few simple principles to keep in mind as you hire people and paper their employment.

An Employee Offer Letter is not the same thing as an “Employment Agreement.”

In the United States, the default for employer-employee relationships is “at will” employment, which means broadly speaking an employer can fire the employee for any reason, even without warning, apart from a narrow set of discriminatory reasons that violate labor laws. This is very different from other countries, which typically have more robust statutory defaults for employees.

When most people speak of an “employment agreement” they are referring to a negotiated document, usually reserved for high-level executives, that provides more robust protections to the employee/executive; including protections around how that executive can be fired, and the consequences of firing her/him. True employment agreements are quite rare in the very early days of startups.

When a startup hires a typical employee, they provide an Offer Letter that states high-level details like their position, compensation, etc., but also makes it clear that the relationship is at will; in other words, they don’t have the protections a high-level executive’s “employment agreement” would often provide. Offer Letters are not Employment Agreements. Know the difference, and that you should start with the assumption that an offer letter is what you need.

Everyone who works for you is not an Employee. Know the difference between a contractor and employee.

I often see founders casually, without really thinking about it, call everyone who does work for them an “employee.” It seems harmless, but in labor law the word “employee” can have very material implications for what you owe them, how you treat their compensation, how easily you can modify their terms or terminate them, etc. Don’t use that word indiscriminately.

Don’t forget IP / Confidentiality, which is not covered in the offer letter (usually).

The conventional structure of startup employee documentation is (i) a simple offer letter, and (ii) a more robust agreement covering confidentiality, intellectual property ownership, and (unless you’re in California or a few other states) a non-compete. This second document is usually called something like a Proprietary Information and Inventions Agreement (PIIA), Confidentiality and Inventions Agreement, or some variant of that. Missing this document can be a huge problem, and in some states fixing it is not as simple as having an employee sign it later. Don’t forget it.

Unlike most legal issues, local state law tends to govern in employment relationships. Docs vary by state.

Most tech startups are incorporated/organized in Delaware, and if they have a national footprint, a lot of their agreements will be governed by Delaware law. With respect to employees, however, that is rarely the case, unless the employee is actually located in Delaware. In employment documents, the location of your employee will often determine the documentation they have to sign, and that means the documentation can vary significantly by state. Work with your lawyers to ensure you don’t use the wrong forms.

Your offer letter might promise equity. But you still need to issue it, which is more complicated.

If you’re promising options or some other form of equity, the offer letter will usually cover that. But you need to understand that the letter is only promising the equity. To actually grant/issue the equity, more steps need to be taken, including a Board Consent and other processes.

Early-stage founders often get in hot water by signing lots of offer letters thinking that’s all they need to do for employee equity purposes, and then waiting a long time (as the value of their stock continues to go up) to be told by lawyers that the equity was never issued. Then they end up (for tax reasons) having to issue the equity at a much higher price than they would’ve if they had done it sooner, and the employees are understandably angry. Promise, then quickly grant. The offer letter is just the first step.

Small Business v. Startup

TL;DR: Small business law is nowhere near the same thing as Startup Law. Many of the expensive legal errors that we see founders make often result from not understanding their distinction.

Background reading:

As I’ve written many times before, what separates startup lawyers from the vast majority of other kinds of services that an early-stage founder will need to engage is the extremely high cost, and in some cases permanence, of errors. Making a mistake in coding, accounting, or other areas is often a matter of issuing a version update, changing a report, or perhaps paying a small fee. Making a mistake in a contract (which can’t be unilaterally fixed), or taking a misstep that exposes you to legal liability, can create irreversible exposure that in some cases blows up companies, or in others proves 10x-20x+ more expensive than simply having done it properly the first time.

This is why smart entrepreneurs building serious companies take far more seriously what lawyers they engage – their background, credentials, experience, network and reputation – than they do for other professionals.

One way to avoid huge costs in engaging lawyers is to understand what distinguishes startup lawyers from other lawyers, and to really understand the difference between a small business and a startup; because it’s “small business lawyers” whom I usually encounter making the most egregious mistakes that harm startup founders.

A “startup lawyer” is a corporate/securities lawyer with a heavy specialization in early-stage companies. I have seen litigators, real estate lawyers, patent lawyers, etc. who for some reason represent themselves also as “startup lawyers,” and any founder who understands how legal services work should be completely terrified of using them. See: How fake startup lawyers hurt founders.

A “startup” is a business that, while starting out small, expects to (i) grow much more quickly relative to a typical new business, (ii) expects to have more cross-jurisdictional legal issues (less local) either via hiring across state/country lines or customer relationships across state/country lines, (iii) usually intends to use equity in some manner for recruiting purposes, instead of keeping it closely held by 1-2 founders/partners, and (iv) often, but not always, expects some form of capital injection from angel or seed investors in the near future.

Contrast a “startup,” with a small business, like a coffee shop, or a boutique clothing store. In the small business case, early customers and employees/contractors are expected to be geographically contained, it would be highly unusual to use equity ownership for recruiting purposes, and beyond money from a partner or two, it would be very unusual to raise outside capital for years until the business has proven successful and an expansion plan has been put in place.

Startups, as defined above, hit far more complex corporate, securities, tax, financial, intellectual property, labor/employment, etc. legal issues far more quickly than small businesses, and that is why startup lawyers and small business lawyers are very different people, with very different credentials. If you contrast a highly regarded startup lawyer with a small business lawyer, you’ll find the former will almost invariably have graduated from much higher ranked schools, trained at much larger firms early on in their career, and generally be connected and have access to specialists in a much wider variety of legal fields; because startup law is way more complicated, and prone to expensive errors, than small business law.

And this is why so many of the expensive errors we encounter when startups arrive at our doorstep come from founders engaging small business lawyers lacking the background and resources to properly do the work; on top of services like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, which are not structured for startups.

A small business and a startup are not the same thing; not even close. From a legal perspective, they are totally different worlds. In fact, I rarely/ever encounter specialized startup lawyers who even represent themselves as small business lawyers; but I too often see the reverse, where small business lawyers will throw in “startup law” on their website to see if they can train on a founder’s dime.

Do your diligence, or you’ll regret it.

Contracts v. Might Makes Right

TL;DR: When a first-time entrepreneur is navigating an environment full of entrenched players who all know and depend on each other, the difference between a balanced decision process and a shake down can come down to a contract. Take contracts, and the independence of the lawyers who help negotiate them, seriously.

Background reading:

A background theme of many SHL posts is the following: entrepreneurs enter their startup ecosystems, from the beginning, at a massive structural disadvantage relative to the various market players they are going to be negotiating with. Everyone else knows each other, has worked with each other over the years, and has already made their money. And then you show up.

Now assume that environment as the background, and then imagine you start striking deals with these people: for a financing, a partnership, participation in a program, etc., but assume there are no contracts or lawyers involved. What do you think will eventually happen? Here’s how it will play out: as long as you continue to deliver exactly what everyone wants from you, very little will happen. When everyone’s expectations and preferences are 100% aligned in the short term, the absence of contracts means very little. They’ll “let” you stay in the spot you’re in. 

Until things (inevitably) go sideways. A market shift suddenly means a change in strategy might be necessary, but there’s disagreement on how and when. A quarter comes in under projections, and there’s disagreement as to what that means. A potential outside investor expresses interest in making an investment, and there’s internal disagreement as to whether it should be pursued.

I focus here on the word disagreement, because in many situations on high-level strategic issues, the right answer isn’t always clear cut. The goal (grow the company, improve economics) may be clear, but the right execution strategy is far harder to see.  People will disagree, and where they stand on an issue often rests on where they sit. For example, “portfolio” players (institutional investors) will often be far more comfortable, and even insistent, on taking higher risk (but much higher reward) growth strategies than entrepreneurs and employees, who have only “one shot.”  See Common Stock v. Preferred Stock for a more in-depth discussion on the substantial misalignment between “one shot” players (entrepreneurs, employees), who usually hold common stock, v. portfolio/repeat players (investors), who usually hold preferred stock.

The core point of this post is this: in an environment of substantial disagreement, and where everyone other than the entrepreneur is a repeat player that knows and has economic ties to each other, the first-time entrepreneur (who speaks for the early common stockholders generally) will lose every timeunless contracts in place say otherwise. 

In the absence of laws and contracts, the law of the market is “might makes right,” and established, repeat players have all the might.  

Here is a scenario that I’ve encountered far too often (although increasingly less so as awareness has increased) that is almost comical when viewed objectively:

  • A financing has closed, putting in place a “balanced” Board of 2 VC directors, 2 common directors (one of which is a new CEO, the other a founder), and an “independent” director.
  • In attendance at the meeting are 6 people: the Board and company counsel.
  • The 2 VCs regularly syndicate deals with each other and have known each other for a decade.
  • The new CEO is a well-known professional CEO who has worked in several portfolio co’s of one of the VCs, and was “recommended” by that VC for the position.
  • The “independent” director is an executive well-known in the local market who also has worked with the VCs at the table for over a decade, both of whom recommended her for the position.
  • “Company counsel” represents 6 portfolio companies of the VCs at the table, and has represented them as investor counsel on as many deals, and is actually currently doing so for other deals. In fact, company counsel became company counsel because he came “highly recommended” by the VCs when they were first negotiating the deal with the entrepreneur.

So let’s summarize: there are 6 people at the meeting, and 5 of them have all worked with each other for over a decade, regularly send deals to each other, and in some cases (at least with respect to the lawyer and a VC) are currently working with each other on other deals not related to this company. And then there’s the entrepreneur.

Wow, now there’s one “balanced” Board, don’t you think? I’ve encountered entrepreneurs (whose companies are not clients) in this situation before. I let them know that, whatever they think their position at the company is or will be, they are simply leasing that position until their investors, who hold virtually all the cards and relationships, decide otherwise; and regardless of what the common stockholders think. It’s possible things turn out fine, as long as all goes as planned. It’s also very possible they won’t.  But what’s absolutely clear is who decides, in the end.

The difference between a well-advised entrepreneur and the one in the above scenario is this: the former will have real protections in place to ensure the common stock are treated fairly, and have their voice on key company matters. The latter may feel protected, but ultimately their position is at the discretion of their investors; and protection that is contingent on the whims of people on the other side isn’t protection at all.

Well-drafted contracts are, when negotiated in a transparent manner, a key mechanism for controlling the power of sophisticated repeat players who, absent those contracts, can simply force through whatever they want because of their political / economic leverage. What else might this reality tell us about negotiation dynamics in startup ecosystems?

Rushing through negotiations / contract drafting favors established players.

If the default market position gives power to established players, and contracts are a mechanism for controlling that power, the inevitable result is that those established players (at least the most aggressive ones) will try to get entrepreneurs to rush through contract negotiations.

“Let’s just go with what’s standard.”

“It’s all boilerplate.”

“Let’s save legal fees and put them toward building the business.”

“Time kills deals. Let’s get this closed.”

If someone is telling you that what the documents say doesn’t really matter, or that you should just stick to a template, it’s because, outside of the contract, they’re in control.  That doesn’t mean you should burn endless amounts of time negotiating every point, but take the material provisions seriously.

A market ethos of “relax, we’re all friends here” is designed to favor power players.

Old-school business folks know very well how large amounts of alcohol have often been used to seal business deals. In the startup world, alcohol may still be used, but just as effective is fabricating an environment suggesting to first-time entrepreneurs that everyone is just holding hands and singing kumbaya, and being independently well-advised isn’t necessary.

I’m all for having very friendly relations with your business partners. Life is too short to work with people you don’t get along with well.  But any time someone extends that thinking to the point of telling entrepreneurs that “everyone is aligned” and they should let go of the skepticism to focus on “more important things,” I call bullshit. Alcohol and kool-aid; stay sober in business.

“Billion or bust” growth trajectories mean contracts matter less. Outside of those scenarios, they matter more. 

Among emerging company (startup) lawyers, it’s always been well-known that the Silicon Valley ecosystem as a whole takes standardization, automated templates, and rapid angel/VC closings to an extreme relative to the rest of the country/world. I’ve pondered why that’s the case, and in discussing with various market players, concluded that it has a lot to do with the kinds of companies that Silicon Valley tends to target: billion or bust is a good way to summarize it. I wrote about this in Not Building a Unicorn. 

If the mindset of an ecosystem is significantly “power law” oriented in the sense that “winners” are billion-dollar companies, and everyone else will just crash and burn trying to be one of those billion-dollar companies, I can see why the finer details of deal negotiation may be seen as an afterthought. That environment, which is very unusual when compared to most of the business world, leaves a lot less room for the “middle” scenarios – things aren’t going terribly, and we’re clearly building a solid business. but neither is this a rocket ship, and there are hard questions to be decided – where the deep details of who has what contractual rights really matter.

In a heavily binary “unicorn” world, you’re either knocking it out of the park, in which case no one even reads the contracts and just lets you do your thing, or you’re crashing and burning, in which case the docs are just useless paper. As a law firm headquartered in Austin and structured for non-unicorns, we don’t work in that world, and actually avoid it.

For true “balance,” pay close attention to relationships.

In my opinion and experience, the best outcomes result when the power structure of a company (both contractual and political) doesn’t give any single group on the cap table the ability to force through their preferences, but instead requires some hard conversations and real “across the aisle” coalition building to make a major change.

Balanced boards are, on top of other contractual mechanics, a fantastic way of achieving this, when they are in fact balanced. The above-described scenario where everyone except for the entrepreneur knows and has strong economies ties to each other, including a company counsel “captive” to the VCs, is a joke; and sadly, a joke played on too many startups.

As I wrote in Optionality: Always have a Plan B, build diversity of relationships into your Board and cap table. Feel free to let “the money” recommend people, because their rolodexes are valuable, and are often part of the reason why you’ve engaged with them. But you should be deeply skeptical of any suggestion that the preferred stockholders should, alone, decide who the CEO is, who company counsel is, who the independent director is, etc. etc. Letting them do that certainly may get your deals and decisions closed faster, but unless you are successful in delivering a true rocket ship, you will ultimately regret it.

The common stock, including the founding team and early employees, need a strong voice at the table, especially given the power imbalance with repeat players. Well-negotiated contracts and independent, trustworthy company counsel are the way to ensure they have that voice.

How fake “Startup Lawyers” hurt entrepreneurs

TL;DR: Entrepreneurs need to be aware of the growing trend of lawyers from random backgrounds re-branding themselves as “startup lawyers,” despite having only the thinnest understanding of the subject.

Background reading:

There are two trends worth discussing in this post, both of which I’ve seen seriously hurt entrepreneurs and startups.

Thrown to the juniors.

First, one reason many entrepreneurs are dropping very large law firms for more “right sized” boutiques is that those law firms have become so unaffordable for almost any early-stage company that entrepreneurs end up working almost exclusively with very young, junior lawyers. I touched on this issue briefly in The Problem with Chasing Whales.  One partner in our firm worked on a seed financing in which his BigLaw counterparty literally said on their phone call “I only have 15 minutes to spend on this deal; otherwise I start having to write off time.”

The firm you engage may have a marquee brand, but if to that firm you are small potatoes, you will end up working with that firm’s B or C-team, which will put you much worse off than having hired a set of lawyers that take your company more seriously.

Junior professionals absolutely have a place in law, but that place is not working directly with CEOs on their most strategic decisions, no matter the size of the company. It’s working mostly in the background, with real senior level involvement and oversight. When an entrepreneur is thrown to junior lawyers, it reflects how the firm has prioritized (or not) that work, even if to the entrepreneur the project is extremely important.

Fake “startup lawyers.”

But the title of this post is really about a second, even more troubling, trend. I’ve been seeing an increasing number of litigators, real estate lawyers, patent lawyers, and lawyers with all kinds of backgrounds who have suddenly decided to brand themselves as “startup lawyers.” A little tweak to the website, read a few blog posts, perhaps host a free session at a co-working space or two, and voila, now they’re ready to help entrepreneurs.

Holy crap is this dangerous. Imagine if you were talking to a doctor about a potentially serious heart condition, inquired about their experience, and then got back the following response: “well, I’ve been a dermatologist for the past 5 years, but after reading a few blog posts I decided I’d try my hand at cardiology.” Walk out the door, fast.

In the “thrown to the juniors” case, at least those juniors have some accurate, up-to-date institutional infrastructure (templates, checklists, internal firm training, partner review, etc.) to rely on as they try to help startups. But these random re-branded lawyers are essentially training on early-stage companies, while relying on extremely generalized resources (like this blog) as guidance. We see mistakes everywhere, often because we get hired to clean up the mess.

In every serious law firm with a real reputation for representing emerging companies, lawyers who call themselves “startup lawyers” are corporate/securities specialists with a strong understanding of early-stage financing, tax, commercial, IP, M&A, and labor law as they typically relate to early-stage companies. They have the depth and breadth of expertise to properly serve as an early-stage company’s “outside general counsel,” of sorts, while relying on deeper subject matter specialists when needed. 

But a litigator or patent lawyer who read a few blog posts and stayed at a holiday inn express? Disaster. As I’ve written many times before, “startup law” is largely built on contracts, and the entire point of contracts is that they are permanent unless everyone involved agrees to “fix them.” There’s no “v1.1” update to fix bugs. That means the iterative, “move fast and break things” “we can fix it later” culture of software development is the last approach anyone in their right mind will apply to legal issues.

Stop treating entrepreneurs like suckers.

Ultimately, what these developments reflect is an underlying mindset among lawyers (and other market players) that “startup” is synonymous with “little shit companies.” First-time entrepreneurs may be very smart, but they don’t know what they don’t know, and they rely on their ecosystems and advisors for guidance in almost every area. It’s the same problem that leads them to get pushed to hire captive lawyers who really work for their investors, instead of hiring independent counsel that will actually do its job. 

Just throw a junior, or a random lawyer who managed to maneuver into a few referrals, to them; they’ll figure it out. They’re just a tiny company anyway. Whatever.

So my request to the broader ecosystem is: please, stop referring entrepreneurs to your random, local lawyer friend who decided to take a stab at this “startup law” thing. That’s not how this works, and you are hurting real people, building real companies with long futures built on the foundations put in place by these fake advisors.

And to entrepreneurs: be careful out there, and do your diligence. Many of us know that you wouldn’t quit your job for, or pour your life savings into, a “little shit company,” so align yourself with an inner circle of people who think accordingly.

Comparing Startup Accelerators

Background Reading:

Over the past several years, accelerators have emerged as a powerful filtering and signaling mechanism in early-stage startup ecosystems, allowing high-potential young startups to connect with investors, advisors, and other strategic partners far faster and more efficiently than before. While it definitely feels like the accelerator “bubble” has somewhat burst, and their numbers are normalizing, I’m still often asked by CEOs for advice on how to assess various programs. The below outlines how I would approach the decision:

Cash and Equity.

Very simply, what are you giving and what are you getting in return in terms of cash and equity for joining the program?

Re: cash, the more “unbundled” types of accelerators (less formalized) tend to not provide any cash upfront, but also typically “cost” less in equity, often just 1-2% of your fully diluted capitalization. More traditional and comprehensive programs often require 5-8% of common stock, but often provide between $20K and $100K up-front as well.

Anti-Dilution.

See: Startup Accelerator Anti-Dilution Provisions; The Fine Print.   Most accelerators, with a few exceptions, have much more aggressive anti-dilution provisions than a typical seed or VC investor would get, and the “fine print” can dramatically influence the total equity requirement depending on your circumstances and fundraising plans. This is something you should walk through with an experienced advisor, lawyer or otherwise, to prevent surprises.

Pro-Rata / Future Investment Rights.

See: The Many Flavors of Pro-Rata Rights. Some accelerators will require you to “make room” for them in future financings up to a certain amount. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s very reasonable given that the ability to make follow-on investments in “winners” is virtually essential for very early-stage startup investors (angels, accelerators) to make good returns. However, for the most in-demand startups, over-committing on future participation rights can become a problem because it can require you to raise more money than you really need to.

Fundraising / general success of past companies.

See: Ask the users.  If fast-track access to investors is not at the top of your priority list, then this may not be as big of a deal for you. But 95% of founders I’ve worked with have viewed “cutting in line” to speak with investors as the main reason for entering an accelerator. And don’t rely solely on numbers reported by the accelerators themselves. There are lots of ways of fudging the figures, including by “annexing” already successful companies into the accelerator (in exchange for free help) and using their brand/fundraising numbers to puff up the accelerator; neglecting to mention that the accelerator had nothing to do with those numbers.

Entrepreneurs often celebrate faking it until you make it. Know that some accelerators do the same. When an accelerator says “our companies have raised an aggregate of $200 million,” they may be neglecting to mention that a huge chunk of that was raised before some of the companies (the top ones) ever “entered” the accelerator. 

Ask specific founders, off the record. Without a doubt, the overall “prestige” of the accelerator’s past cohorts will have a dramatic impact on the accelerator’s ability to deliver on its “benefits” to you. There’s a heavy snowball / power law type effect with accelerators where the best ones attract the best companies, which then attract lots of capital/great mentors, which then attracts more great companies, further improving the accelerator’s brand, and so on and so on. And the same is true in reverse: accelerators with poor reputations and bad averse selection (they are just getting the companies everyone else rejected) can actually make it harder to raise money, and are best avoided.

Time commitments and Geography.

Many accelerators involve a substantial time commitment (including travel time) in terms of going through the “program” of events, meetings, training, etc. Feedback (given privately) varies on the ROI of those obligations, depending on the accelerator, type of company, etc. Some entrepreneurs find it invaluable. Others find it a necessary cost to getting access to the accelerator’s network, which is what they’re really there for. In any case, travel and time commitments are a real cost, so take that into account.

Market Focus.

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from entrepreneurs, after having gone through an accelerator, is that it wasn’t helpful for their “type” of business. Some accelerators are very up-front and overt about their market focus: biotech, energy tech, transportation, etc.  Others are more generalist, but if you dig deep you’ll realize that all or most of their cohort is slanted in one direction, which will mean the accelerator’s network of investors and mentors will be as well.

An example: a heavily hardware-focused startup may not find as much success in an accelerator where the vast majority of companies are SaaS based. The same goes for a health tech startup entering an accelerator full of consumer or B2B startups.

Culture.

In much the same way that entrepreneurs’ own personalities set the culture for their companies, the creators and managers of accelerators heavily influence both their “online” and “offline” culture. Personalities, ages, lifestyles, and values will vary. Some accelerators are well-known for being extremely friendly, generous, and community-oriented. Others are known for being more competitive and “eat what you kill” in their approach. I’ve seen more aggressive entrepreneurs feel that their particular accelerator was a bit too “kumbaya,” while those with opposite personalities felt right at home. 

Do your diligence before entering any accelerator, and make sure you assess its offerings in light of your company’s own priorities and needs. I’ve seen companies emerge with polar opposite opinions of the same accelerator, even within the same cohort.  In many cases, it’s less about the program being good or bad in an objective sense, and more about whether it was a good or bad “fit” for that particular startup.