Lies About Startup Legal Fees

It usually takes experience in the market for business people to truly understand the realities of hiring and working with lawyers. I can’t tell you how many times I run into first-time founders who’ve been fed absolute nonsense from ‘advisors’ ‘mentors’ or similarly named people about their ‘secrets’ for managing legal spend. The truth is that unless you’ve taken a company from seed to Series A, Series B, Series C, to an exit in which a serious party on the other side actually diligenced the legal history your ‘secrets’ put together, your theories about lawyers are hot air.

Failed companies never pay the price for poorly managed legal; unless the failure was the result of the legal problems, which does happen. Successful companies, however, pay deeply for legal mistakes. It’s  just a question of timing. There are definitely steps you can take to prevent legal spend from getting out of control, but it requires separating reality from delusion. The below is my attempt at doing that.

1. Software automation (or free templates) will not replace your lawyers, or dramatically cut legal spend.

See: Luddites v. Tech Utopians. New market entrants in technology have a tendency to come out with guns blazing, promising their ability to cut out enormous amounts of waste as reason to adopt them. Sometimes they’re telling the truth. Other times it’s well-calculated hyperbole.

Virtually every serious automation tool that has emerged with “cut huge amounts of legal spend” as its primary selling point has evolved into a tool for lawyers. Why? Because, contrary to some popular opinion (and marketing talk), good lawyers really aren’t charging hundreds of dollars an hour to just fill in numbers or check off boxes. Good tools are very helpful for making lawyers/firms more efficient, and you want lawyers who use those tools, but a piece of software isn’t going to replace your lawyers any more than a piece of software will replace your software developers.

Yes, there is form-filling and box-checking ripe for automation, but it’s not nearly as large of a percentage of legal spend as some let on.

2. Handling it yourself won’t save you legal fees.

I could write an entire book listing all the “hold my beer” moments I’ve encountered with someone on a management team thinking that they were wisely saving legal fees by taking an issue into their own hands, and it then predictably blowing up in their faces.  Part of it boils down to simple sloppiness. Other times it’s a clear case of someone not knowing what they don’t know.

There’s a related dynamic here to the first point about technology companies overstating their ability to cut legal spend. Anyone selling anything (a product, a service, themselves) has to justify it somehow, and “those damn lawyers” are a great bullseye. A COO / CFO wants to justify his salary, and an easy way to do that is by claiming to ‘save’ you legal fees via DIY legal work. You’re not saving anything. You’re magnifying your fees, but deferring them temporarily.

3. Quickly hiring an “in house” lawyer won’t save you a dime.

CEO: “We’re thinking about hiring an in-house lawyer to save some legal fees.”
Me: “Great. What’s his/her starting salary?”
CEO: “$95K”
Me: “Going to be complete shit, and will cost you 10x more long-term.”
CEO: “What? That’s more than some of our execs make.”
Me: “Senior lawyers worth having won’t even talk to us if we’re recruiting with less than $200K. And our lawyers have fantastic work-life balance. You’re recruiting in the same legal talent market I’m in. You really think you found some magic button that cuts the market rate in half?”

Look, I get it. Good lawyers are expensive. Really good lawyers are even more expensive. Fact: Talent is expensive. Everywhere. Make it incur three years of opportunity costs (law school) and a small mortgage (about $200-225k for law school, all in) before it can hit the market, and it gets a whole lot more expensive. 

Last time I checked a solid software developer will cost you six figures in salary; ignoring equity. And ‘coding’ mistakes are 10x more fixable, and potentially less costly, than legal mistakes. It is absolutely the case that a small portion of the tech community arrogantly believes that engineering talent is the only talent really worth paying for. Good luck with that.

I’m not trying to defend what lawyers make here (I don’t need to), but what I am saying is hiring lawyers has the exact same talent market dynamics of hiring any other kind of professional.  So you say you’ve found a lawyer willing to work for a lot less. Congratulations, you caught lightning in a bottle; found a rupture in the space-time continuum.

Or you just found a lawyer completely lacking in the experience/skillset needed to actually replace the work outside counsel (including a set of specialists) is doing for you. There is definitely a time to hire a general counsel, but for it to actually make sense mathematically and not result in extremely expensive mistakes, it’s usually much later in the company’s history than you think. Past “startup” territory.

4. A few real truths on startup legal spend.

A. Compensation and specialization drive talent quality. Quality prevents errors, and therefore controls fees long-term.

Fundamentally, two things drive lawyer recruitment (I know, because I recruit for MEMN): compensation and quality of life. Very large firms generally have terrible quality of life for their lawyers, for a number of reasons too complex to discuss here. But that’s why large firms have to pay their lawyers the most.

In-house positions and boutique firms are recruiting pipelines for what I call “BigLaw refugees”; talented lawyers looking to still get paid well, but take a moderate pay cut (sometimes) in exchange for the ability to keep their marriages in tact, and their kids out of therapy. But as discussed above, to get the full-time attention of those lawyers, even with great work-life balance, you still have to pony up in amounts virtually no true startup can afford. That’s why outside counsel (‘fractional’ lawyering) is valuable.

And working with lawyers who specialize in emerging tech/VC work will ensure you’re paying for talent experienced in the kind of legal work you actually need. See: Startups Need Specialist Lawyers.

B. Law firm “overhead” increases legal spend above base lawyer compensation, but enables scalability and quality. 

On top of the money paying a particular lawyer’s salary, you have the ‘institutional overhead’ of the firm that employs the lawyer. For a deeper discussion of law firm overhead, see: Startups Scale. Solo Lawyers Don’t. 

Companies who think only large firms with the highest rates have the best lawyers (compensation) are ignoring the interplay of overhead and compensation. If you cut overhead intelligently, you can still pay lawyers very well, but at lower rates to clients. The issue is how much overhead to cut out.

Institutional overhead, properly structured and right-sized, is not wasted money any more than the ‘overhead’ (on top of salaries) of any company is wasteful. In law, it enables recruitment, technology, training, staff, and other infrastructure that turns a set of lawyers into an integrated legal services provider, with bandwidth that can be optimized to keep work moving.

Think about what type of company you want to build long-term, or at least expect to be for the next 5 years, and ensure you engage a firm with the right institutional infrastructure (overhead) to serve that company. Very very large firms are designed for unicorns, and require the most ‘infrastructure,’ and therefore overhead.  In fact, the majority of what you pay large firms is paying for infrastructure. Are you planning to be a unicorn?

We are quite honest in saying that, as a high-end boutique firm, our target client is looking to (realistically) exit at under $250MM. We don’t work for unicorns; nor do we try to.  But we also don’t work for small businesses hoping to sell for a few million.

We pay our lawyers compensation that is highly competitive with large firms, which (again, a talent market) ensures quality. Our lawyers also bill about 25% fewer hours per year than BigLaw lawyers, which improves their quality of life (helps recruiting/retention).  But because we have dramatically lower institutional overhead, our rates are lower; although nowhere near the lowest.

In my experience, the size of your Series A round is usually a pretty good indication of the type of company (exit size) you’re trying to build; companies truly going for unicorn status raise much larger rounds. Pre-Series A, the majority of serious tech companies require some accommodation to manage their legal budget; no matter how efficient their lawyers are.

If Post-Series A, your company’s legal bills still seem completely unmanageable, that’s often a good indication that the law firm you hired is too big for what you’re building (non-unicorn-track using a high-infrastructure unicorn law firm); assuming your expectations on what the bill should be simply aren’t unhinged. Remember, small firms can have very high quality lawyers, because they aren’t paying them less. They just have a leaner infrastructure designed for non-billion-dollar clients.

C. Flexible pricing / payment from a quality firm is 1,000 times better than “going cheap.” But be realistic about the budget. 

If you get anything from this post, it is this: good, scalable legal counsel costs real money, like any talent. There is no magical software, recruiting strategy, or template on google that will get around that. Anyone who thinks they are cheating this rule, and have somehow found bargain-basement counsel that works, is just not yet hearing the ticking of the time bomb they’ve turned on in their company.

The absolute best strategy for engaging serious legal counsel, but not going bankrupt on legal fees is to ensure that:

  • you’re working with lawyers who have the right specialization for what you need;
  • at the right quality level, and with right-sized overhead for the scalability you need; and
  • who will flexibly work with you on budget/payment at the very early stages.

Law firms who specialize in emerging tech work are not new to the challenges of very early-stage startups trying to manage a legal budget; at all. It is deeply engrained to each lawyer’s expectations. And there are a lot of levers that those firms can and will pull for clients they want to work with: fixed fees, deferred fees, equity arrangements, etc.

The key part is “clients they want to work with.” They are selective, because they have to be.  Serious law firms are not in the game to work on mickey mouse fixed-fee or discounted projects to eternity; nor can they afford to be. They do that to scale down for valuable prospects with the right potential lifetime value (LTV) as clients, but who need help when the budget is slim. That’s why any early-stage, limited budget company that approaches a serious law firm should be ready to “pitch” their company to the firm.

For high potential companies, great tech/VC lawyers will be flexible on budget and payment as long as the founders are reasonable in their expectations. And the best way to be reasonable is to follow the points in this post. Accept that you need good legal talent, badly. Accept that it costs real money, and that you likely can’t afford the full cost up-front, and that’s normal.  If you’re as good as you hope you are, you will find a way to navigate that reality.

Startup Accelerators: Bundled and Unbundled

TL;DR: Elite accelerators have cemented themselves as the universities of the entrepreneurial world; offering a bundle of resources in exchange for a price (tuition in form of equity). The most elite absolutely deliver on their promise. But as with education, that bundle of resources can be unbundled, and that’s what’s happening among entrepreneurs who don’t need or want the “full package.”

Background / Related Reading:

What is the purpose of universities? It depends on whom you ask. Employers who are honest will tell you it’s mostly one thing: curation; various filters (admissions, testing, etc.) to help sort out who the good candidates are from the bad. If you ask students, you’ll likely get more varied responses. For some, it’s about preparing for a successful career, including building a network that you can leverage for your career. Those are the pragmatists.

Others will get a little more poetic and talk about how universities are a place to ‘find yourself,’ and be exposed to experiences and knowledge that stretch you beyond the narrowness of your upbringing.

The value and purpose of accelerators tracks almost exactly the above points about universities; just replace “students” with “entrepreneurs” and perhaps “employers” with “investors.” Pragmatically, accelerators offer entrepreneurs a curated bundle of resources (a network of entrepreneurs and advisors, faster access to investors, education, some initial money, etc.) in exchange for a price: usually 6-9% of equity, with (sometimes) heavy anti-dilution rights, and pro-rata rights.

Better curation leads to a better network and bundle, which leads to even higher quality, which further enhances the network, etc. It feeds on itself, at least when it works. And for a handful of top accelerators it works very well.

And of course there are certain accelerators who push beyond pragmatism and aim for loftier, more romantic goals than ‘just’ offering a set of resources: helping entrepreneurs build friendships, find greater meaning in their businesses, being part of ‘something greater,’ etc. It sounds very similar to how more liberal artsy universities pitch themselves to students. And you can verify from certain founders (not pragmatists) that the right accelerators do deliver on that kind of experience; that the accelerator was “life changing.”

Here are some thoughts, based on conversations I’ve had with founders and my own observations in the market, about the evolution of accelerators and how entrepreneurs are likely to engage them going forward.

1. Top accelerators have corrected an imbalance between the strength of founders’ networks and those of VCs.

In doing so, elite accelerators have ‘unbundled’ some of the ‘value add’ aspects of how venture capitalists, and other service providers (like law firms), traditionally used to sell themselves. First-time entrepreneurs often start out with virtually no network. VCs and law firms would pitch themselves to these entrepreneurs by emphasizing not just the core service they provide (capital, legal services), but that using them over someone else included access to their network. I’ve written before about law firms that pitch magical access to investors. 

A founder who gets into a top accelerator, however, gains access to a vast, well-curated network of other founders, mentors, potential hires, etc. When they shop for a law firm, they’re now much more interested in the actual service quality of the firm, rather than some lawyer’s half-baked ability to make investor intros. And having access to many resources that they once would’ve relied on VCs for, founders can focus on other variables in investor diligence; like how helpful they are on the Board.

In some ways, the resources that top accelerators give founders have upped the ante on what “value add” from institutional investors really means, and has put some traditional VCs in the same category as prominent angels or well-coordinated angel groups: checks, perhaps with a few intros, but not much more. Some VCs really do add value. Others mostly just provide large checks; which is perfectly fine – you want big checks – but some big checks are smarter.

2. However, there are still a lot of founders who don’t pursue traditional accelerators, and never will.

Traditional, fully bundled accelerators – the kind that involve months of full-time commitment, a demo day, and giving up a large amount of equity in exchange for the large “package” of resources described above – heavily slant toward young, first-time founders. As they should: those are the people who have the most to gain, and the least to lose, from the full accelerator experience.

As influential as accelerators have become, an enormous amount of our client base doesn’t go through them, and hasn’t tried to. The reasons vary:

(i) I’ve got a family and don’t want to move across the country for several months;

(ii) I’ve got my own professional network and don’t see the cost of the accelerator as worth what it can deliver to me; or maybe [and this last one is worth a discussion]

(iii) I can hustle my way to access the people I need – who are now easier to find thanks to the accelerator – without actually joining it.

3. Without tight integration, unbundling of non-elite accelerators is inevitable.

No matter how many MOOCs, Khan Academies, apprentice programs, degree-less job openings, Thiel Fellowships, etc. arise to eat away at the dominance of the 4-year university model, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT aren’t going anywhere. The exact same can be said for the most prestigious accelerator programs.

But outside of the true elite, the traditional format and cost of accelerator programs is likely not sustainable. Very little of what most accelerators offer founders (curated groups of people) is proprietary in any way; nor can it be viably cut off from the market to restrict access to only those who ‘pay’.  The content that is proprietary is *usually* not what draws founders into the program. I’ve seen some accelerators try to get control over ecosystem resources by playing gatekeeper. I’m sure you can predict how that ended for them. Don’t try to ‘gatekeep’ entrepreneurs.

If entrepreneurs are good at anything it’s being resourceful and gaining access to resources (including people) that are visible in the market. And accelerators, through a few years of curation and operation, have made those resources a lot more visible.

Yes, I know several entrepreneurs who are happily tapping into the networks of accelerators without actually going through them. And it’s not surprising, at all. They’re doing what entrepreneurs do. I’m sure the accelerators themselves aren’t even surprised. The networks of accelerators are effectively the compilation of smaller networks of individual people, very few of whom are beholden to any accelerator. And as is now common knowledge, modern tools have made networking 10x easier and more transparent than it was even 5 years ago.

So what does this mean? It means that outside of the very elite accelerators with the tightest integration and network effects, you’re probably going to see experimentation with smaller, more targeted, lower ‘cost’ alternatives. Some will still be called accelerators; others won’t. If the ‘price’ drops to 2% instead of 8%, a little boost in finding investors may be worth it. Maybe programs targeted toward educating founders in a Khan Academy way will pop up, perhaps just for cash.  Although YC appears to be building that, for free.

Prominent angels and advisors may band together to invest very early, and get a little extra equity for value-add advisory; their brand serving as a signal (via great curation) to larger, later-stage checks. Even certain targeted co-working spaces are playing a role, adding on some value add programming/events to sell their real estate.

I can’t predict where it will all go, but I can already see bits and pieces of the unbundling occurring.  My advice to new founders is always to approach accelerators just like they would approach any other resource or service provider in the market: (i) what is the cost, (ii) what do I get for that cost, and (iii) is it worth it, given alternatives available in the market. And always *always* ask the users.

Some founders will continue to pursue the very elite accelerators, and for good reason.  Others will over time find ways to access just the parts of the accelerator “bundle” that they need, and for the right price, all made easier by the foundation laid by the original accelerator boom. 

Even if most accelerators as we know them don’t survive, the people who built and ran them made enormous contributions to the market, and will surely find other ways to keep participating in their ecosystems. What’s definitely clear is that it’s never been a better time to be a tech entrepreneur.

Startups Scale. Solo Lawyers Don’t.

TL;DR: Freelancer marketplaces push solo lawyers as a way to keep legal costs down for startups.  But what they’re marketing is very different from what they actually deliver. Solo lawyers can’t scale, and lack specialization. For high-growth startups, that is a big problem.

Background Reading:

In the landscape of options for getting legal covered for a tech company, there are generally speaking three types of providers, in order of largest to smallest: (i) BigLaw, (ii) Boutique firms, and (iii) Solo lawyers.  I’ve written quite a bit about the comparison between (i) and (ii), but this post is mostly about (iii).

Overhead

“Overhead” is a term often used to refer to everything that a lawyer’s rate has built into it that doesn’t directly go into compensation. Very large firms (BigLaw) have significant amounts of “overhead”; only about 20-25% of the $575/hr you pay for a top-tier BigLaw senior non-partner actually goes into her pocket.

But it’s far too simplistic to assume that all those resources are simply being burned for no reason. Large, fast-moving, complex transactions require collaboration among lots of different kinds of legal professionals, including different kinds of specialties of lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants, legal technology providers, etc. For the very top end of the market, good arguments can be made that the “overhead” of large, international firms is actually quite necessary. The idea that a bunch of freelancer lawyers/legal professionals could just team up to get a billion-dollar merger done efficiently and on-time is little short of delusional.

Boutique firms are the market’s response, enabled in part by new low-cost technology and infrastructure, to BigLaw’s overhead. Those deal lawyers who don’t cater to, and aren’t pursuing, the Ubers and Facebooks of the world, are acknowledging that while they do need institutional resources (overhead) to create strong teams that can close meaningful deals, those institutional resources don’t need to eat up more than half of revenue; certainly not with today’s technology. A $100MM acquisition, or even in many cases a $10MM financing, is sufficiently complex and fast-moving that, again, you are delusional if you think a bunch of freelancers working independently are going to get it done effectively; but a small integrated team of affiliated lawyers, or even a handful of boutique firms, can easily get it done outside of a 1,000 lawyer firm with offices on multiple continents.

Solo lawyers are on the opposite end of the overhead spectrum. They are the freelancers of the legal world. Their ‘overhead’ amounts to maybe a few SaaS subscriptions and a computer. MEMN’s specialist network, in fact, has a fair amount of solo lawyers in various legal specialties. Their rates are naturally lower than lawyers in large or even small firms, due in part to overhead. You might conclude – and there are definitely solo lawyer marketplaces out there trying to drive this conclusion – that every early-stage startup should obviously be using solo lawyers, because they’re “cheaper.” But this overlooks certain key facts about the nature of startups, and about legal services, that call for a reality check.

Legal bills don’t correlate completely with hourly rates.

It’s not that complicated to understand that a well-structured team of lawyers billing $425/hr can easily produce a lower legal bill than independent solo lawyers billing at $275 if they have the right institutional resources – technology, team, knowledge, process (“overhead”) – in place. They’re also often supported by junior professionals/non-lawyers with dramatically lower rates to cover routine items. At very early stage, a lot of the tasks that startups need actually require very little lawyer involvement at all if the right infrastructure (‘overhead’) is in place. If you assume solo means cheaper, you’re often wrong.

Specialization drives efficiency.

What is a “startup lawyer”? That will take too long to fully explain in this post, but I can tell you what it’s not: a litigator, a small business lawyer, a generalist who dabbles in a little estate planning, real estate, and a few seed financings on the side, or a generalist corporate lawyer. I’ve been shocked by how many of these solo lawyer websites market lawyers as “startup lawyers” when they clearly, from their own bio descriptions, are nothing of the sort. Similar to the first point above, a lawyer at $425/hr who has done a project 50 times will be dramatically more efficient at it than someone at $275 who has done it once.

This is not rocket science. Smart founders know that developers with higher salaries often get far more done than 10 developers at lower salaries. The talent market dynamics of lawyers are not that different from those of developers.

In a talent market, the cheap guy is usually cheap for a reason.

In an industry where results are driven by human, not just institutional, capital, you simply cannot hire whoever walks in the door and train them to produce A-level service; no matter how fantastic your resources are. As elitist as it may sound, most lawyers on the market simply lack the capacity and knowledge to correctly manage and close complex legal work. They may be very well suited for certain areas, but the moment you leave the minors and start playing in the majors, everything goes off the rails.

Serious talent requires serious compensation, which sets a floor on hourly rates; regardless of overhead. If that is too difficult to understand, good luck in business. It can be (and is) simultaneously true that the legal market is flooded with under-employed lawyers willing to discount and jump through hoops for work, and yet great lawyers who can manage and navigate specialized complexity/scale are in very high demand and short supply. 

Fast growth requires scalability. Switching lawyers is costly.

A startup can go from 2 founders needing to just incorporate to needing fast VC, employment law, tax, licensing, etc. support in just 1-2 years; sometimes sooner. You’ve got a VC term sheet on the table, 10 equity grants that need to get done in 2 days, a resolution to the issues with the VP you just fired, and assistance finalizing that LOI with the big customer that will help close your round; and you need all of this done this week. Virtually every single startup that has switched to MEMN from solo lawyers has had the same universal complaint: they are SLOW.

Of course they’re slow. All that (air quotes) “unnecessary overhead” they cut out to get you that awesome hourly rate is precisely what could’ve funded the institutional resources that ensure legal work keeps moving: a well-trained team to collaborate with, technology (and training for technology) that streamlines unnecessary tasks, non-lawyer professionals to knock out checklist items while the lawyers focus on the big stuff. Scaling companies need legal teams, and max out a solo lawyer very quickly.  If a single solo lawyer happens to peculiarly have all the time in the world, please re-read my comments on talent markets.

And if you think it’s smart to go with the solo who is ‘cheaper’ and then switch quickly to a firm: again, a reality check. Switching lawyers/firms is costly. The new lawyers have to familiarize themselves with what the prior guy did, on forms that they (usually) aren’t familiar with. That takes time, and increases the likelihood of errors. Finding a firm that can scale-down for very early-stage, but then scale up when needed, all using its own forms and resources, is far smarter than taking an iterative approach with your legal team.

In short, the changing legal landscape available to tech companies is being driven very much by technology, and it’s been great not just for entrepreneurs, but also for lawyers looking for alternative platforms to work from.  I’m a big fan of how solo lawyer marketplaces are helping connect demand with supply in areas where the ‘overhead’ of firms really is unnecessary.

But be very careful about buying into any marketing suggesting that there’s this untapped market of great solo “startup lawyers” just waiting to fill your startup’s legal needs at unbelievably low rates.  Solo law works great for small businesses, who don’t scale fast;  and also for certain legal specialties where projects are very compartmentalized. But true startup/vc law requires institutional resources and well-trained, well-coordinated teams of lawyers/non-lawyersThe goal of tech startups is to scale quickly.  But solo lawyers can’t scale at all. That means that solo “startup lawyers” are, at best, a bad fit; and at worst, an oxymoron. 

Pre-Series A Startup Boards

It’s pretty well known that startups usually undergo a meaningful change in Board composition at their Series A round. At a minimum, the lead investor(s) of the round get Board seats; although they shouldn’t get Board control.

Less has been written about what startup boards tend to look like before a Series A round. Given that the time from formation to Series A has stretched out significantly for many companies in the market – due to pre-seed, seed, seed plus, seed premium, series seed, seed platinum diamond, whatever-you-want-to-call-not-Series A rounds. So here’s some info on what a board of directors tends to/should look like Pre-Series A.

A. Know the difference between a ‘Board’ of Advisors and a Board of Directors.

A lot of companies refer to their set of advisors as a ‘Board’ of advisors. That’s fine, even though they very rarely actually act like a board. There (usually) aren’t ‘Board of Advisors’ meetings where everyone gets on a conference call and talks shop. Instead, the company just has a loose set of individual advisors they work with on strategic matters, often in exchange for equity with a vesting schedule. Advisors often times are angel investors as well.

The important point here is that Advisors have no power/control over the company. They just advise. The Board of Directors, however, is the most powerful group of people in the Company, with the ability to hire and fire senior executives and approve (or block) key transactions. Big difference. Giving someone a seat on your Board of Directors is 100x more consequential to the company than naming them an advisor.

B. Know the difference between a Board Observer, Information Rights, and being a member of the Board of Directors. 

Most angel investors writing small checks are buying the right to a small portion of the Company, and that’s it. They don’t expect to be very involved in day-to-day, and are happy to just receive whatever e-mail updates the Company intends to send out.

Angels / Seed Funds who write larger checks may want a deeper view into what’s going on in the company. They’ll often ask for different variants of ‘information rights’ – which can include delivery of regular financials, and notification of major transactions (like financings).

A step up from ‘information rights’ is a Board observer right. This means the investor has the right to observe everything that happens at the Board level, which includes hiring people, equity grants, approving major deals, etc. Do not dish out Board observer rights lightly. Having too many observers can make it difficult to keep confidential matters from being leaked to the market. It also can just be logistically cumbersome for a seed stage company to keep track of who gets to attend meetings, who has to be notified of what, etc.

Also, if you do give someone a Board observer right, ensure that it’s clear that they are a silent observer. This means that they can listen in on Board discussions, but they are not entitled to provide their thoughts/input, which can have legal ramifications and influence the true decision makers.

C. Giving seed stage investors Board seats is not the norm. Take it seriously. 

The majority of companies we see have Founders only on the Board before closing their Series A. Sometimes it’s just the CEO; other times it’s 2 or 3 founders. That’s very much driven by the personal dynamics among the core team.

Occasionally a seed or VC fund writing a large seed check ($250K+) will request a Board seat for their seed investment. While not the norm, it’s also not terribly off market if a large check is being written. Founders should just understand that giving anyone a Board seat, even if they don’t control the Board vote, is inviting them to give their input on every single major strategic decision the Company will make. It is a very deep commitment, and should only be given to people you believe can deliver real value to the business, and whose values are aligned with the founder team. Otherwise you’re asking for unnecessary and distracting drama.

If the fund that wrote the large seed investment has deep enough pockets to lead a Series A, and is interested in leading your A, this adds even more layers of complexity to the decision. A *true* seed investor who only invests in seed rounds can be an asset in sourcing Series A leads, because those leads are a complement to their position. A VC who dabbles in seed investment for pipeline purposes, however, has opposite incentives; assuming you’re doing well, they may prefer to lock out other potential competitors and take the Series A round for themselves. Having a VC already on your seed-stage Board can make it harder to get term sheets from outsiders for your Series A.

This dynamic of committing early to a VC before you’re ready for a Series A is discussed somewhat in The Many Flavors of Seed Investor “Pro-Rata” Rights.  My experience has been that getting trustworthy VCs on your cap table pre-Series A is generally a very good thing, so long as their participation is not contingent on terms that effectively lock you into having them lead your Series A. That is the startup equivalent of getting married as a teenager, before you’ve had a chance to mature and really explore the market.

VCs who ask for board seats at seed stage, or who require that you guarantee them the right to a large percentage of your Series A (50%+) are trying to get you to lock yourself in early. You should want them to invest, but still ensure that they have to earn the right to lead your Series A.

D. Board composition should ‘reset’ at Series A. 

If you’ve ended up giving a Board seat to a large seed investor in order to secure their investment, it is extremely important that it be clear between everyone that the seat is not guaranteed indefinitely. Boards can only be so large. If your seed investor who put in $250K is guaranteed a Board seat forever, it makes it a lot harder to make room on your Board for the people putting in millions, or even tens of millions of dollars.

The logic here should be that if the seed investor insisted on a Board seat at seed stage in order to ‘monitor’ things early on, they should be comfortable letting go of the wheel once they know larger, more experienced institutional investors are taking over. Their interests as an investor are more aligned with the new VCs investing in the Series A than they are with the Common Stock. It simply is not appropriate for a company who’s raised $5 million, $10 million, $30 million+ dollars of capital to still have someone who wrote a $250k-500k check taking up a board seat. Board observer rights should also terminate at Series A, or perhaps Series B, for similar reasons.

So, in a nutshell, founders should start with the assumption that no one will join their Board of Directors until a Series A happens, and someone writes a 7-figure check; as that is the norm. However, for large checks from investors with strong value-add and alignment with the founders, there can be a justification for giving them a seat at the table, as long as it’s structured in a way that will not cause any issues, or prevent competition, in Series A negotiations. For investors who want (and deserve) something ‘extra’ on top of their investment security, advisor equity, information rights, and silent observer rights should all be explored as alternatives.

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.