Why Startups Need Signals

Here are a few uncontroversial facts about the general early-stage startup ecosystem:

  • The cost of starting a tech company has dramatically gone down over the past 10 years.
  • In the early days, the caliber of the founder team is at least as important for success as the caliber of the idea/technology.
  • New networks – like AngelList and LinkedIn – have dramatically increased the transparency of relationships in the market, and the ease with which currently unconnected people can become connected.

Putting the above points together, you could easily conclude that it’s never been easier for talented founder teams to obtain needed resources in the market, particularly early-stage capital. But, in some ways, you would be wrong.  Many would argue that while the difficulty of starting may have gone down, the difficulty of actually succeeding has gone up, due to increased competition (and noise) in the market. 

The reduction in cost/friction in the startup world has been met with an increase in volume, and that volume has made the market far more noisy and competitive. Far more entrepreneurs producing far more ideas, and flooding top tier resources with far more pitches. If you want a clear illustration of this, look up newly created companies on AngelList.

Where there’s an increase in noise (weak teams, weak products, me-too companies, etc.), the value of signals – credible ways to cut through the noise and indicate to the right people that you are, in fact, worth talking to – goes up. This post is about why all early stage entrepreneurs need to be very mindful of the importance of signals in the marketplace, and what those signals often look like.

First, a quick clarification: signals are ways of effectively indicating information, but they are not the information itself. In other words, they are ways of credibly sending a message to someone like “hey, we’ve got something truly interesting over here” when simply saying those words won’t work – perhaps because everyone says that, or because you simply can’t get the face-to-face time, and when hard metrics like revenue growth/customer traction may not be available (because it’s too early).  Imagine the startup world as a very dense fog – and the fog is getting denser, btw – good signals are your very visible beacons to flash into the fog so that investors and other resources can find you.

A Series B company needs to worry far less about signaling its value proposition to investors, because its history, financials and reputation in the market can already speak volumes. Successful serial entrepreneurs don’t have much trouble either. A seed stage, or pre-seed company run by new entrepreneurs, however, is in a completely different situation, and needs a different toolkit.

Common early-stage startup signals:

  • A really good logo
  • A really good website
  • A really well-done AngelList profile
  • A strong social media presence
  • Well done blog content
  • Very well-crafted messaging
  • A great pitch at a pitch competition
  • Connections to respected people on LinkedIn
  • Acceptance into a well-respected accelerator
  • Strong academic or professional history

Notice how none of these really have anything to do with the fundamentals of your business/technology? You’re a very early-stage startup. No one really knows whether your business will be successful, and at this stage you can’t even get the face time with the right people to sell them on it. That’s what signals are for.

Remember the point about how startup investors care at least as much about the strength of the team, especially the CEO, as they do about the business? Why is that? Because talent (properly defined) is highly correlated with success, and talent is easier to analyze in the early days than the future prospects of a business. Great entrepreneurs tend to be highly talented generalists (multiple skills); it’s what allows them to hit milestones without a staff of more specialized people.

Doing any or all of the things on the above list credibly signals some kind of skill/talent. Just take a good logo (which may seem silly to an engineering type, but that’s a big mistake): it takes good judgment/taste (marketing skills), and the ability to find a talented logo designer (recruiting skills). Strong LinkedIn connections signal strong networking skills. A great pitch signals strong sales skills. A degree from a respected school, or employment with a well-respected company, certainly isn’t essential, but it clearly signals strong technical skills/training.

Getting into a top accelerator is one of the strongest signals available (because of how thoroughly they vet companies), and that’s why demo days are so well attended by early-stage capital. But getting into a top accelerator often requires its own earlier set of signals.

Yes, in many ways the world has become flatter, more transparent, more meritocratic, etc., and it’s a very good thing.  Yes, the “good ol’ boys” network is weakening in the sense that there are far fewer true gatekeepers. But don’t delude yourself for a second into thinking that this means success in the market has gotten easier. And absolutely don’t think that networking and referrals from well-respected people don’t matter.

A warm referral from someone known and respected in the market is still – simple, cold fact – an incredibly powerful signal. Think about what it takes to get a strong referral. You first had to get connected to that (usually very busy) person (networking skills). Then you had to interest them enough to think your business is worth supporting (credible business idea, sales skills). People care so much about good referrals because in a market full of noise, they are a very efficient filter. And no one has time to work without filters.  

This point is worth repeating: the “democratization” of the startup landscape has certainly reduced the power of gatekeepers – specific people (usually men) whose approval you needed to raise capital and connect with important resources – but it has not (and will not) eliminate the importance of building relationships with credible, trustworthy people who can then refer you to other people who trust their judgment. The democratization arrived in the form of diversifying the number of possible referral sources; not from eliminating the need for referrals altogether.

Utopian visions of a world in which great entrepreneurs will frictionlessly connect with capital purely based on the merit of their technology/business, eliminating all the superficialities of networking and personal marketing, are a dead end.  Someone on your team needs to be good at building relationships, because relationships are incredibly powerful signals. 

Just don’t expect your lawyers to connect you with investors. See: Why I (Still) Don’t Make Investor Intros. Signals can be negative. And the fact that, of all the people in the market whom you could’ve convinced to refer you, you chose someone you’re paying (instead of someone who refers based on merit), is very often, in today’s environment, a negative signal.

A good logo, or a well done AngelList profile, can seem superficial, but signals are often about how seemingly superficial things can help people with low information sort through noise. If it takes talent to produce it, and it’s the kind of talent needed for market success, it’s a signal worth caring about.

Negotiation and Inexperience

TL;DR: Having access to trusted advisors, and the time to consult with them, is essential for anyone negotiating terms with which they have very little experience. Don’t accept someone’s argument that you must negotiate important issues live. It’s simply untrue, and a tactic for gaining unfair leverage.

Background Reading:

A recurring theme of SHL posts is that entrepreneurs, particularly first-time entrepreneurs, need to be extremely mindful of the imbalance of experience between themselves and the many sophisticated, repeat players they’re going to be negotiating with as they build their companies. It’s obviously common for entrepreneurial personalities to be more comfortable (than most) with risk, and to go head-first into negotiations and activities without proper backup. But for really big, irreversible decisions, it will backfire, and others will happily use it against you.

One of the most overused phrases for getting naive negotiators to give in on issues they should push back on is “this is standard.” When you have no historical or market perspective – what’s normal, what’s fair, what are the risks, how will this play out in 5 years? – you can be easily manipulated into all kinds of bad outcomes. I’ve been at more than my fair share of board meetings or negotiations where someone at the table makes a completely biased, nonsensical claim that something is “standard,” at which point I’ve had to step in to set things straight, and gladly offer up data or a quick market survey.

There are two main things that I tell all companies to focus on in this regard:

  1. Have a group of experienced, trusted advisors that you can quickly communicate with on serious issues.
  2. Do not let yourself be bullied into a setting where your inexperience puts you at a substantial disadvantage.

Trusted Advisors

When I speak of trusted advisors, I’m not referring necessarily just to your Company’s “advisory board,” which serves a broader purpose of helping you on long-term strategic, business, and technological issues. I’m referring to people you can call or e-mail for specific, tactical guidance on more pressing matters; your “inner circle.” Seasoned entrepreneurs, mentors from accelerators, lawyers (who are independent from your lead VCs), and trustworthy angel investors often make up this group for most CEOs I work with. The most important thing is that they (i) have visibility into the broader market, to help you actually understand what is acceptable, and (ii) will be direct and honest with you when you most need them to.

Imbalanced Negotiation Settings

While it is far less common in the tech world than in other areas, you occasionally still encounter people (particularly VCs) who insist that the only appropriate way to “really” negotiate is live, and in person. And let me tell you: this is bullshit.

Of course, live discussion is important for communication and relationship-building; it has its place. But more often than not, attempts to force entrepreneurs and company executives to negotiate key issues live, or under a very tight deadline, is a tactic to gain unfair leverage from their inexperience. Of course the guy who’s done this type of deal 30 times wants you to agree to terms live, face to face, away from your set of advisors. It has zero to do with business norms. Plenty of high-stakes deals are negotiated asynchronously. 

How you push back and (respectfully) assert yourself in negotiations with other business parties will set the tone for your long-term relationship. If you allow them to force you into circumstances that favor them, they will do it indefinitely. There is nothing wrong with responding, diplomatically, that while you of course would love to grab beers and meet up in person for more casual matters, for real business, you expect time to consult with advisors.

If you’re working with people whom you should want to build long-term relationships with, they will respect your request.  In fact, I’ve known some great VCs and other business people who are very upfront about the experience imbalance with new entrepreneurs, and insist that companies work closely with key advisors.  Those are people playing a long game, and who know that their reputation in the market matters more than short-term opportunism.

If the person you’re negotiating with rejects your request, and dictates to you the medium of negotiation, then at a minimum you’ve gained some key information on what the relationship is going to really look like if you choose to move forward.

Founder Burnout and Long-Distance Thinking

TL;DR: “Life ain’t a track meet; it’s a marathon.” – Ice Cube

I’m prone to deep thinking about life. It’s why I quit the honors program in a great business school within weeks of entering college, and switched to Philosophy (adding Economics later). Best career decision of my life. No offense to the business school grads out there.

I’ve always had this feeling that people devote far too much brainpower toward things that ultimately amount to nonsense, and yet things that are infinitely consequential – like what you want to do in life, where and how you want to live, who and when to marry, whether and when to have kids – people seem to either follow a script, or just let their surrounding culture/peers push them in the direction of the current zeitgeist. And the truth is, the zeitgeist doesn’t give a shit about you. Slow down, and think it through. You get one shot.

And instead of asking your friends, ask people who’ve gone the distance. It’s well documented culturally / sociologically that spending all of your time with people your own age leads to all kind of mental dysfunctions and myopic thinking. The only way to get real perspective is to listen to other perspectives, and that means age / generational diversity.

A lot of the advice out there on founder burnout amounts to a kind of checklist on health and wellness. Let’s go ahead and get that checklist out of the way:

  • Sleep – Don’t delude yourself into thinking that pulling all-nighters and not hitting your 7/8 hour a day quota will make you more productive. It won’t. The data is clear.
  • Exercise – Same. Go for a run. Lift some weights. It’s not time wasted. Again, it makes you more productive.
  • Eat well – Eat shit, and you’ll feel like shit. Read up on carbohydrates, insulin, inflammation, and energy. You’ll learn some things.
  • Delegate – Build systems, and then hand those systems over to other people. If you can’t figure out a way to scale your skills, you will fail at life and at work.

But in my opinion, and from what I’ve observed among certain entrepreneurs, there’s a deeper, longer-term issue at play regarding founder burnout (and life burnout in general) than just getting overworked and not taking care of your body. The best way I can explain it is using some old school philosophy concepts: higher and lower pleasures.

Speaking very generally, lower pleasures require constant replenishment, because the feeling they generate just doesn’t last. They’re the “simple carbs” of life. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are the typical go-to’s when someone wants to explain lower pleasures, but lots of cleaner forms of activities in life fit this category. Once they’re over, all you’re left with is a memory, and a desire for another one.

In contrast, higher pleasures have a kind of lasting effect. They have staying power and can bring satisfaction to life even when you’re not at the moment “doing” anything about them. Long-term friendships, love, family, and a sense of meaningful (not just financial) achievement are all classic examples of higher pleasures. They can be entertaining (or the opposite) and take up your time, but that time is a kind of investment toward building something that carries you forward in life, and is still there when you’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s, and later. David Brooks wrote a good op-ed called The Moral Bucket List that is worth reading.

The deeper kind of life burnout that goes beyond health/wellness results from years, or even decades, of failing to build durable “higher” pleasures into your life. You can ensure that you’ve slept enough, exercised, eat well, and have built a great management team, and yet at 40, 45, 50, find yourself sipping martinis on Christmas Eve, alone, or with someone who means absolutely nothing to you. That end-result really burns, because there’s no checklist for resolving it. Fail to build/invest into things in life that last and will help you really go the distance, and it can eat you alive in the long run.

When asked by young law students about how to vet law firms for employment, I’ve always said to look at the older partners, and watch/listen very closely. Look for divorces, kids in therapy, anger management issues, drug addiction, alcoholism. In the legal profession, and in all areas full of high performance personalities – including entrepreneurs – they’re everywhere. People who treated life like it’s a track meet – narrow your vision and run as fast as you can – when it’s really a much longer, much more intricate marathon.  Rock stars in their earlier years, but they failed to go the distance.

So my personal advice to ambitious entrepreneurs about preventing burnout long-term is, yes, sleep, exercise, eat well, and delegate, but also build a real life, not just a company. Emphasis on the word build; as in, activities that contribute to relationships and things that will be there tomorrow, and next year, and a decade later, when you’re a different person, with different priorities. Look ahead, and plan for the distance.  Most of the people around you telling you to just “keep hustling” care more about your stock than they do about you personally, or are themselves ignoring how long the marathon is.

Look for mentors who’ve built their own companies, but while maintaining a sense of balance (even if loosely defined).  Even if zen-like balance isn’t really achievable, the simple act of trying hard to achieve it will ensure you land somewhere sustainable. Like a speed limit, you know you’ll break it, but it’ll still help pace you.  

Think things through, and spend some of your time really building a life, apart from your company. The building may take longer than just narrowing your goals and running as fast as you can, but the end-result will be something much more durable. 

More Tech Startups are LLCs

Background Reading:

If you have spent almost any time reading about the basics of startup legal issues, you know that Delaware C-corps are the default organizational structure for a “classic” tech startup (software, hardware) planning to raise angel/VC money and scale. I’m not going to repeat what you can read elsewhere, so I’ll summarize the core reasons in 2 sentences:

Delaware because DE is the “english language” of corporate law and all serious US-based corporate lawyers (and many foreign lawyers) know DE corporate law.  C-Corp largely because (i) VCs have historically favored C-Corps for nuanced tax and other reasons, and (ii) virtually all of the standardized legal infrastructure around startup finance and equity compensation assumes a C-Corp.

However, times are changing. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a noticeable increase in the number of emerging tech companies that, despite knowing all of the reasons why startups favor C-Corps, deliberately choose to organize their company, at least initially, as an LLC. To be clear, C-Corps are still the norm, by far. But the C-Corp / LLC mix has, for us at least, moved maybe from 95/5 percentage-wise to about 85/15. That’s an increase worth paying attention to.

The growth in interest around LLCs has very little, or really nothing, to do with legal issues, in the sense that nothing much has changed about LLCs or C-Corps to drive people in one direction or the other.  The main drivers, from our viewpoint, are:

  • Many tech entrepreneurs no longer view venture capital as an inevitability in their growth path, and have grown skeptical of the traditional “growth at all costs” mindset found in many startup circles; and
  • An increasing number of VCs are growing comfortable with LLCs.

Profitability is now a serious consideration among tech entrepreneurs. 

C-Corps have 2 “layers” of tax: corporate-level tax, and then tax at the shareholder level. LLCs don’t have a corporate-level tax, and therefore have only 1 layer. Speaking in broad terms, this “disadvantage” of the C-Corp structure has not deterred tech startups for one simple reason: the corporate level tax is on profits, and many tech startups don’t intend to be truly profitably any time soon. Achieving very fast growth through reinvestment of any ‘profits’ has been the dominant growth path among tech entrepreneurs, which means no “profits,” which means being a C-Corp doesn’t really result in more tax.

However, the zeitgeist among startup ecosystems is shifting from “focus on growth, and raise VC” to “unless you’re absolutely positive you’ll raise VC, keep your options open.” Keeping your options open favors starting out as an LLC, because converting an LLC to a C-Corp is way easier than converting a C-Corp to an LLC. The reason for that is simple: the IRS welcomes you with open arms if you choose to move from 1 tax layer to 2. But going in the opposite direction costs you significantly.

As more tech entrepreneurs take seriously the possibility of building a profitable, self-sustaining business, their interest in starting their companies as LLCs is growing, because building a truly profitable business as a C-Corp is much more expensive (tax wise) than it is as an LLC. Many angel investors, and also strategic investors, are comfortable investing in LLCs, particularly under a convertible security structure that doesn’t immediately result in equity holdings.

So starting as an LLC allows you to build your company, and even raise some early capital, while letting things develop to see if you’re really building a business that needs conventional venture capital (and then convert to a C-Corp), or if you’re building one that may instead become profitable and distribute profits to investors (stay an LLC).

VCs are also growing more comfortable with LLCs.

The conventional line given for why VCs “must” invest in C-Corps is that the “pass through” treatment of LLCs can result in various negative consequences to their own investors (LPs), many of whom are tax exempt – so the C-Corp structure prevents the tax problems. However, more sophisticated VCs have realized that in most cases this problem is quite fixable. They can set up what’s often called a “blocker corp” that eliminates the possibility of pass-through income negatively impacting their tax-exempt LPs. Problem solved. It’s not that hard to do.

Truth be told, a lot of VCs still don’t want to mess with LLCs. But at this point it has more to do with inertia and a desire to minimize their own legal bills than any real legal issue. Also, most VCs are only looking for companies in a high-growth track where any net revenue will be reinvested for growth (no corporate profits, no corporate tax), so they are selecting for companies for whom an LLC structure isn’t really that appealing.

But not all VCs think that way. VCs are growing increasingly comfortable with LLCs, and when it makes sense, they will invest in them.

If you are an LLC tech startup, you need tax counsel.

If you are a tech startup that wants to be an LLC, realize that while LLCs may save you taxes, they will not save you legal fees. Equity compensation, particularly to employees, is much more complex under LLCs, and requires the oversight of true tax lawyers. It is not something to be handled solely by a “startup lawyer.” Any law firm working with LLCs should have access to tax specialists, and if they don’t, that is a red flag.

Also, as startups move from a uniform growth path to one that considers a wider variety of sources of capital (angel, non-traditional seed, strategic, private equity, debt, royalty-based, etc.), they need to accept that the standardization found in conventional Silicon Valley-style fundraising is simply not a possibility. The huge push to standardize investment documentation into templates that can be almost automated stems from the “billion or bust” mindset of classic VC-backed startups. In that world, everyone is a Delaware C-Corp. Everyone is trying to be a billion-dollar company that will eventually get acquired or go IPO. All the angels talk about the same things on twitter and are comfortable investing on the same docs. So just automate a template, plug in some numbers, and focus on growth.

But in a world where everyone isn’t a Delaware C-Corp; everyone isn’t on the same “billion or bust” growth path, and there is far more diversity among companies and investors, the conditions for heavy automation and standardization simply aren’t there, and likely never will be. It requires real financial, tax, legal, etc. advisors to handle real complexity, while right-sizing it for the stage and size of each particular business.

The truth is that outside of a few large startup ecosystems, there has always been much less uniformity among financing structures. Software engineers – frustrated with their inability to force everyone into uniform documentation that can be automated – have criticized this reality as backward and just needing to “catch up,” but to people on the ground it’s been pretty obvious they’re just hammers screaming at everyone to become a nail. More entrepreneurs are no longer comfortable being pigeon-holed into a one-size-fits-all growth path or legal structure, and long-term that’s a good thing for everyone.

“Founder Friendly”

TL;DR: “Founder friendliness” should mean not being hostile, but also not being submissive, to founders. Good entrepreneurs and advisors know that.

Background reading:

Because we’re known as Startup/VC lawyers who don’t represent VCs (just companies), I often get asked about my thoughts on “founder friendliness.” Occasionally it’s someone inexperienced expecting me to say something totally one-sided, as if “founder friendly” means always giving founders what they want. The truth is, I’ve put my fair share of founders in their place, when appropriate. As I’ve written before, company counsel does not mean founder’s counsel.

Serious lawyers provide counsel, and represent something apart from the preferences of any particular person. They don’t just push paper in whatever direction someone tells them to. Real lawyers know when and how to say “no.”

To me, “friendly” means the opposite of “hostile.” It means respecting a person as an equal, being transparent with them, and strongly taking into consideration their own values, goals, ideas, etc.  But that is very different from spinelessly doing whatever they want you to do. The best founders seek out advisors, including investors, who will provide real, critical input; knowing that a bunch of sycophants will get them nowhere.

Founder Hostile

On the one hand, there is very much a culture among certain venture capitalists that treats entrepreneurs as necessary, but ultimately dispensable, steps toward returns. I have seen it firsthand, and while it exists everywhere, it is directly (negatively) correlated with (i) the number of investors willing to write checks into a particular ecosystem, and (ii) the degree to which entrepreneurs confidentially share information among each other on VC behavior, producing adverse selection issues for the real assholes. You very rarely hear about this on blog posts or twitter, but when the pep rallies and PR-oriented speaking panels come to an end, it is there.

VCs in this category vary in the level of sophistication with which they implement their “founder hostile” strategy.  Most know that playing hardball out of the gate won’t get them the deal, and they prefer more of a “bait and switch” approach where they sing the praises of the entrepreneurs upfront, and then slowly move the chess pieces over time. The moves are identifiable by people who know the game:

  • put “captive” lawyers and advisors in place;
  • avoid providing coaching / training resources to founders;
  • tightly control the recruitment of new executives to phase in loyalists;
  • keep a tight grip on unreasonable budgets so that achieving results is very hard, and failure justifies “necessary changes”;
  • maneuver to prevent competitive funds from putting offers on the table;

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the cap table says; it’s “their” company now.

Founder Submissive

On the other hand, in the most competitive deals and ecosystems, there is a counter-dynamic where VCs compete with each other, essentially, on how much unilateral control they’ll give entrepreneurs. This dynamic is strongest in California. It’s, in part, due to the failure of many VCs to effectively apply basic strategic concepts – like differentiation – into their market positioning. If you’re just another VC/fund with a few connections and ideas among dozens of others, what else can you do but try to be the “easiest money”? The end-result of having these “founder submissive” investors is often immature management teams that aren’t able to effectively scale. VCs with real brands are able to avoid this. 

As I’ve written before, a Board of Directors has fiduciary duties to all stockholders. As you’ll read in many different places, the moment an entrepreneur decides to take on investors, they have to step off the “king” train and focus on growing the pie, and eventually achieving an exit, for everyone.

That being said, under DE law Boards have primary fiduciary duties to common stockholders, insiders and outsiders.  As the largest common stockholders (usually), and those who’ve held the equity the longest, entrepreneurs are extremely important representatives on the Board for fulfilling those duties; whether or not they are in the CEO seat.  We know that preferred stockholders and common stockholders regularly have misaligned incentives.  A truly “balanced” Board will prevent one part of the cap table’s incentives and preferences from overriding those of the others.

“Founder hostile” VCs are problematic because they push for the perspective of institutional investors to override those of all the other constituents on the cap table. “Founder submissive” VCs are equally problematic because they expose the company excessively to founders whose priorities may conflict with the economic interests of the broader stockholder base.

The proper balance is, of course, in the middle; where the VCs with the best reputations operate.  Be transparent about your goals, incentives, and plans. Don’t beat around the bush about your investment horizon, exit expectations, and how you’ll approach executive succession when that time comes. Let the common stockholders, including founders, do the same. No BS or opaque maneuvering. And then work together, knowing that no one has the singular right to override the perspective of the others at the table.