How Angels & Seed Funds compete with VCs

TL;DR: The emerging “seed ecosystem” of angel groups, seed funds, and accelerators now provides local startups a viable path to seed funding, and eventually “going national,” w/o having to prematurely commit to a Series A lead.  That has dramatically reduced the leverage that local institutional funds once had over their local ecosystems.

Background Reading:

Once upon a time, startup ecosystems (if they could even really be called that) outside of Silicon Valley had only a handful of local VC funds writing checks. Without AngelList, LinkedIn, Twitter, Accelerators, good videoconferencing, and the many other recent developments that have reduced geographic friction in startup capital flows, those funds effectively “owned” their cities, including most of the startup lawyers in those cities; which often resulted in harsh terms and aggressive behavior. For more on this, see: Local v. Out-of-State VCs.

Raising “angel” money in that era often meant needing close connections (family, friends, professional) to very high net worth individuals willing to make big bets on you until you were ready for one of the few local funds to take you under their wing. If you were one of those lucky few chosen, those local VC funds would then, once they were out of their own capital, show you off to one of their trusted out-of-state growth capital funds.

The pipeline was narrowly defined, and choice was minimal: local angels (or friends and family), then local VC, then out-of-state growth capital.

Times have changed.

Today, angel groups are much bigger, organized, and collaborative across city and state lines. Seed funds – which weren’t really even much of a concept a few years ago – will write checks of a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars for rounds that may have been called Series A 3-5 years ago, but are now “seed” rounds. Prominent accelerators have themselves joined the mix, writing their own 6-figure checks and serving as valuable filters / signaling mechanisms to reduce the search costs of investors.

This “seed ecosystem” of organized angels, flexible seed funds, and accelerators has not only increased the amount of “pre-VC” capital available to startups, but very importantly, it has significantly reduced the leverage that local VC funds have over their local startup ecosystems. 

As I wrote in Optionality: Always have a Plan B, sunk money has very different incentives from future money. A seed fund/angel that has mostly maxed out the amount of capital it can fund you with has every incentive to help you find a great Series A lead at a great valuation; they are quite aligned with the common stock. However, a VC fund that wrote you a small seed check but wants to lead your Series A has very different incentives. The “seed ecosystem” wants to maximize your Series A options, while a VC fund wants to minimize them, until it gets the deal it wants.

Foreign capital will usually require some heightened level of de-risking or credible signaling before it will cross state lines. It’s much less risky to rely on my local referral sources, and “monitor” my portfolio where I can drop in by the office whenever I need to. If I’m going to write a check a thousand miles away, I need a little more reason to do so. In that regard, it’s well-known that there is a “flipping” point beyond which the pool of capital available to a startup moves from being mostly local to much more national: that point is somewhere between $1M-$2MM ARR (it used to be higher). 

Historically, reaching that flipping point was almost impossible without local VC, and this effectively kept startup ecosystems captive to their local funds. The new seed ecosystem, with its ability to often fund 7-figure rounds all on its own, has changed that. Now, if a desirable startup wants to, it can often raise $1-2MM in seed capital without taking a single traditional VC check, then use that to hit the “flipping” point, after which the number of VCs it can talk to goes up considerably. 

Of course, this dynamic is not always so clean cut.  More progressive VCs have wisely developed symbiotic relationships with this seed ecosystem for the obvious reason that it can serve as a pipeline when startups are ready for bigger checks. That is a smart move. What we’ve also seen is that large VCs are playing much “nicer” in seed rounds than they used to, as an acknowledgement of their reduced control over the market. Years ago you much more often saw VCs condition a $250K or $500K check on a side letter giving them the right to lead your Series A. That is increasingly becoming an anachronism, and for good reason.

At the same time that AngelList, accelerators, LinkedIn networks, and other signaling / communication mechanisms for startups are giving foreign capital more “visibility” into other ecosystems, allowing it to invest earlier and more geographically dispersed, the emergent seed ecosystem is also increasingly allowing local startups to “go national” without having to commit themselves to a particular VC fund. The obvious winners in this new world are entrepreneurs and investors willing to be open and flexible with how they fund companies. The losers are the traditional investors who haven’t understood that the old game is gone, and it’s not coming back.

Startup Equity Compensation for LLCs

Background Reading:

As I’ve written before, with more entrepreneurs realizing that the “standard” (whatever that means) corporate trajectory for startups may not be what’s best for their specific company, we are seeing more tech companies explore the possibility of operating as LLCs (limited liability companies). By all accounts, C-Corps are still the market norm, especially for companies with no near-term plans to achieve profitability (everything is reinvested for growth) and with plans to raise conventional institutional venture capital.

But nevertheless, the “LLC Startup” market is real, and there’s far less info ‘out there’ for entrepreneurs to understand core concepts.  Here we’re going to cover the basics of how LLC startups typically issue equity, and how it differs from what C-Corp startups do.

The primary driver behind why LLC equity comp is very different from C-Corp equity comp is that W-2 employees of an LLC can’t hold equity in that LLC, under IRS rules. For C-Corps, both contractors and employees can hold equity, which simplifies equity compensation. But for LLCs, holding *true* equity requires the LLC to issue you a K-1 on an annual basis (you’re a “partner” for tax purposes), and the Company doesn’t cover employment taxes the way it does for W-2 employees.

Units/Membership Interests and Profits Interests (True Equity)

High-level executives (including founders) in an LLC startup are usually OK with this issue, and will hold direct equity in the LLC. They’ll receive K-1s annually.

That equity usually takes one of two forms: Units (sometimes called membership interests), which are the LLC equivalent of stock. Units can be voted (usually) on Day 1, and they are taxable on receipt if their “fair market value” is not paid for, which is why they’re typically issued only in the very early days of the company, like founder/early employee common stock in C-Corps. They can be expensive to receive if they are very valuable (in the IRS’ judgment) on the issue date.

As the value (for tax purposes) of units increases, companies will switch to Profits Interests, which are kind-of a LLC corollary to options, because (i) they only entitle you to the appreciation in value of your equity after the grant date, and (ii) when issued properly, they are tax-free to receive. When profits interests are granted, the Company has to obtain or decide on a valuation that pegs the “threshold value” of the company on the grant date, and the recipient of the PI is then entitled to the increase in value of the equity above that threshold value.

Returns on both units and profits interests receive capital gains treatment, like stock in a corporation. While units usually have voting rights, profits interests can have voting rights, but companies often times structure them to not vote.

Unit Appreciation Rights (Phantom Equity)

While founders and senior executives of LLCs will often be OK with K-1 status and holding true equity, it can become problematic for a number of reasons (tax oriented, benefits oriented, etc.) to have everyone be a K-1 recipient as the business scales. When LLCs want to issue equity-like compensation to lower-level employees, while continuing to treat them as true W-2s, they will usually switch to Unit Appreciation Rights, which are the LLC equivalent of phantom equity.

UARs don’t vote, and aren’t really equity at all. Instead, they entitle the recipient to a cash payment (like a bonus) upon some future milestone (typically an acquisition/exit) that is pegged to the value of equity. Much like profits interests, on the grant date a valuation is determined, and then as the LLC’s equity appreciates in value after the grant date, the UAR holder’s future bonus increases proportionately. When granted properly, UARs are also (like PIs) tax free on the grant date.

While the upside of UARs is that they significantly simplify tax filings/treatment for recipients (no annual K-1s, can stay W-2), the downside is that returns on the UARs are treated as ordinary income by the IRS; no capital gains treatment.

LLCs require Tax Specialists

The main reason startups choose to be LLCs is taxes: given the nature of their business, they want to avoid the corporate-level tax applied to C-Corps, even if that means deviating from the C-Corp norms of typical venture-backed startups.

But the cost of those tax savings is significant ongoing tax complexity in issuing and managing equity, and making annual tax filings. That requires not just good accountants, but good tax lawyers; who are very different from classic “startup lawyers.” If you’re planning to be an LLC that will use equity as compensation, make sure you’re using lawyers with access to solid tax counsel.

Tax Disclaimer: I’m not your tax lawyer or advisor. I don’t want to be your tax lawyer or advisor. The above is just a summary of what we typically see in the market for LLC startup equity. LLCs are highly flexible, and circumstances vary. Do NOT try to rely on any of the above advice without engaging your own personal tax advisors, including tax lawyers. 

Announcing E/N Alpha

I’m very excited to announce the launch of E/N Alpha, a flat-fee subscription program ($500/mo) that our firm has launched for high-potential very early-stage startups.

The details are available on the linked page, and should be fairly straightforward. In particular, I think it’s important to read the section describing what it’s not, because it reflects our firm’s thought-out response to what we see as a lot of failures / nonsense in the legal market where firms, for marketing purposes, pretend to deliver efficiency, when what they’ve really done is watered down their service so much to the point of no longer being useful.

Not software – Readers of SHL and E/N clients know I love legal tech and that we’re always integrating new tools into our practice, but as I wrote in Lies About Startup Legal Fees, there is simply too much BS floating around startup ecosystems that some magical automation tool or piece of AI will dramatically cut legal spend long-term for startups. Significant automation requires significant standardization and inflexibility, which in the world of high-stakes legal work for scaling tech companies negotiating with sophisticated parties, most smart Founders and executive teams are not willing to accept.

Yes, you can automate formations and a few very early things, but complexity increases exponentially beyond that (like a code base), and the value of software automation tapers off fast.

Not paralegals and junior attorneys – I have lost count of how many startups have switched to us from firms that talked a good efficiency game, when their main tactic was to force CEOs to get on the phone with paralegals and junior attorneys whose expertise ends the moment you go off script or deviate from a checklist. I love paralegals and juniors, and we have and train them. But if you think a founder wants to talk to your paralegal about structuring their seed financing, or making that key first or second hire, you don’t understand founders; at least not the smart ones.  See: The problem with chasing whales for what happens when founders end up having to deal with a firm’s B or C team.

Not “everything legal for one price” – Oh man, I came across a firm promising this the other day. “We’ll do everything legal you need for one flat monthly price.” Right. See: Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law, for an explanation of what really happens when a firm is forced to work under a ridiculous fixed fee. Fixed fees are great for low-stakes, routine work with a well-defined scope, or for high-volume projects that (again) are well-defined in scope, but the idea that you can map all of the legal needs of scaling emerging tech companies onto some bell curve and peg a number, like an insurance company, without dramatically impacting quality or flexibility, is some straight-up ghostbusters nonsense.

The only possible way it works is if you limit your client base to companies that basically all look and act the same, and have virtually all the same expectations and needs within a narrow range. That’s not how we work, nor how any serious law firm I know works. Analogies to healthcare’s move into fixed-fee pricing don’t hold water without accepting the “narrowly tailored client profile” point, because human biology is 1000x more “standardized” (bell curves) than the corporate structures, investor expectations, growth trajectories, legal obligations, and company values of tech companies.

Not the only way to work with us – This is simple. E/N Alpha is an option for startups looking to lock-in price certainty on a specific scope of work they are sure to need within their early years. But it is not the only way to work with us.

Fundamentally, what we want E/N Alpha to reflect is that E/N is a lean, flexible, high-end boutique law firm built from the ground up to address the many dysfunctions we’ve seen in the emerging tech / startup legal market. Entrepreneurs hire us because they know they need serious, specialized, trustworthy lawyers to address complex, high-stakes issues, and they need some way of affording that; particularly in the early days.

Everything else: tools, low-level professionals, and all the other ways a law firm can optimize itself should stay in the background. They aren’t, and shouldn’t be, the end-product.

 

Optionality: Always have a Plan B

TL;DR: Always build some optionality into your startup’s financing strategy. Failing to do so will overly expose you to being squeezed by sophisticated players who can see how dependent you are on them.

Background reading:

The below is a fact pattern that we have seen happen with several of our clients. It will provide some context for why the point of this post is so important.

Company X has raised a decent-sized seed round, which includes several angels as well as a “lead” VC; though that VC is not on the Board. The Company knows that it will run out of funds in 3 months if it does not raise more money, and it has been in regular communication with the VC about that. The VC reassures the founders that they will “support” them with a new bridge round. A month passes, and the founders ask about the bridge. “Don’t worry, we’ll cover you” is the response. Then another month passes, with more reassurances, but no money. Then 2 weeks before their fume date (the date they’ll miss payroll), the VC drops a term sheet with very onerous terms, including a low valuation, and mandated changes to the executive team. The VC makes it clear that they won’t fund unless those terms are accepted. The founders panic. 

Before we dive in, there are a few important points worth making about this situation. First, it was clear every time that it has come up that the bait-and-switch dynamic was planned by the lead investor. They paid very close attention to the exact date that the Company would run out of funds, and timed the “switch” to deliver maximal pressure. Second, the regular “reassurances” provided to the founder team were calculated to discourage them from using their time to find other funding sources. Third, the best way to avoid investors who engage in this kind of “below the belt” behavior is to do your diligence before accepting their check; see: Ask the Users. 

Always have a Plan B.

A startup’s ability to avoid being burned by the above behavior depends on its level of strategic optionality.  Optionality means strategically avoiding a situation in which you have no choice but to depend on one investor/investor group for funding. This is very different from not committing to certain lead investors as your main funding sources. “Party rounds” are what you call financings where literally every investor is a small check. The end-result of a party round is that no one has enough skin in the game to really support the company when it hits a snag. You really are just an option to them. 

I strongly support having true lead investors writing larger checks in your rounds, because they will usually provide far more support than just money. And if you’ve done your homework and have a little luck, they’ll never even think about engaging in the kind of behavior described above. But in all cases the best way to maximize the likelihood of good behavior is to ensure a right of exit if someone decides to cross a line. I always try to work with “good people.” But no good strategist builds their life or company around the full expectation that everyone will be good. 

Lead fundraising yourself.

CEOs sometimes believe that they are doing themselves a favor by letting a lead investor do their fundraising for them – coordinating intros, negotiating terms with outsiders, etc. – so they can “focus on the business.” It often backfires. Angels and seed funds whose money has been sunk into the company, and who aren’t planning on writing larger checks in the future, are usually quite aligned with the founders/common stock in helping raise a Series A or future round. They’re being diluted just like you are.

But a VC fund with plenty of dry powder and a desire for better future terms is significantly mis-aligned with everyone else. Watch incentives closely.  Founders/the lead common holders should maintain visibility and control in fundraising discussions, with trusted independent advisors close by. 

Start early, and don’t tolerate unnecessary obfuscation and delays. 

Do not wait until a few weeks from your fume date to start communicating with investors for new funds. If someone says they will support you, great: when, and what are the terms? You want to know them now, not later. “We will support you” means very little without knowing what the price will be.

Expecting things to happen in a few days is unrealistic, but a month or more of delays is usually a sign that someone is playing games, and it’s time to pull the plug. No serious fund worth working with is that busy.

Build “diversity” into your investor base.

The power dynamics in a company are very different when all the major investors have strong relationships/dependencies with each other, and communicate regularly, relative to when various players come from different “circles.” Geographic diversity – meaning taking money from various cities/states – is a good strategy to avoid unhealthy concentration of power among your investor base. Also, diversity of investor types – angels, seed funds, institutionals, strategics – will ensure that your investor base includes people with differing incentives/viewpoints, which reduces the likelihood of collusion. 

In the scenario where a bad actor has tried a “bait and switch” on a founder team, a group of angels willing to write quick checks for an emergency bridge, or a lender offering a credit line, can be enormously valuable to relieve pressure and build time to correct course.

Contracts matter. A lot. 

Every commitment you make to investors requiring their approval, or guaranteeing their participation, in future rounds can have material strategic implications for how much optionality you have. Protective provisions matter. Super pro rata rights and side letters matter.  When you see dozens of financings a year, you regularly see how commitments made at seed/pre-seed stage play out over years and seriously affect the course of fundraising.

Good lawyers well-versed in the ins and outs of startup financing will go much further than just plugging some numbers into a template, which software can do.  They’ll dig deep on how the specific terms you’re looking at will impact the company, in its specific context, and how much room there is to stay within “market” norms while still keeping flexible paths open for the future. That’s, of course, assuming they aren’t actually working for your investors.

Make money, and own your payroll.

The ultimate optionality is being able to run on revenue if you need to; being “default alive” in Paul Graham’s words. Yes, you may grow slower than you’d like, but growing more slowly is always lightyears better than being forced into a bad deal.

Every salaried employee on your payroll raises the revenue threshold needed for your company to be default alive. Ensure that every member of your roster is essential, and that there aren’t redundancies that could be addressed by asking someone to be more of a generalist. And don’t let an institutional investor pressure you into hiring a high-salaried professional executive unless you have a clear strategy for how you are going to afford them, because, yes, that is another way that they can add fundraising pressure.

Stay in control of your fundraising. Start discussions early, and don’t tolerate delays. Build diversity of geography and incentives into your investor base. Let your lawyers do their actual job. And finally, watch your payroll closely. Following those guidelines will minimize anyone’s ability to squeeze you, and your investors will then act accordingly.

Early Startup Employee Compensation

Background reading:

Given how deeply involved we are with early-stage startups hiring their first key employees, I figured it would be helpful to outline a few key principles to help entrepreneurs navigate the topic.

Make sure they are actually employees, and if they are, at least minimum wage.

States vary in how strict they enforce the line between contractors and employees. California is way harsher than elsewhere in the country.

In general, employees are under your control as to how they work and when they work. Contractors, on the other hand, are required to deliver a service/end-product, but have more control over how it gets done, and they usually are working less than full-time hours and have multiple ‘clients.’ Those are very rough guidelines, and you should work with lawyers to ensure you stay on the right side of your state’s (and federal) specific rules.

The employee v. contractor classification is very important, because contractors can be engaged for free from a cash perspective (equity only). Employees, however, need to be paid at least minimum wage, and may be entitled to benefits. The legal and tax requirements for engaging (and terminating) contractors v. employees are also very different.

Every startup lawyer knows stories of startups that treated someone as a contractor in order to keep costs low, then the relationship went south, and the person ended up filing complaints and getting the startup into hot water. On top of following the rules, your best protection is to be careful with whom you hire, and be respectful/thoughtful if you have to terminate them.

All else being equal, more equity means less cash, and visa versa.

Generally speaking, if someone is getting paid significantly less than what’s “market” for their position, they will expect to receive more equity in order to make up for the difference. Very early employees are generally working at below-market (often substantially below market) cash compensation, and therefore receive much larger portions of equity than someone hired post-Series A or Series B.

And the converse is true as well. If someone, for whatever reason, needs to make $X, even if it’s a serious stretch at the startup’s current budget, then their equity should be proportionately lower. And it should go without saying, all employee equity should have a vesting schedule. 

All of that being said, the early employees will of course expect their compensation to move closer to market as the startup raises funds and hits revenue milestones.

In the very early days, employees are often paid more than founders / senior executives.

The further you move away from the founder team, the greater the dilution of a person’s commitment to the “mission” of the startup; and that means more cash to keep them committed.  For that reason, at pre-seed and seed stage, it is not uncommon for *true* employee hires to actually be earning more, from a cash perspective, than the founder CEO; obviously with substantially lower equity ownership.

After a decent-sized seed round (and certainly Series A), it becomes a lot rarer for the CEO to not be the highest cash earner on the roster.

For more info on what founders are typically able to pay themselves at the various stages, see: Founder Compensation: Cash, Equity, Liquidity.

Don’t over-optimize for market data.

When you reach post-Series A or Series B, it can be helpful when hiring people to obtain hard data on what’s “market” for a certain position, and use that data in negotiations. There are some good services to help with that.

But at very early stages, everything is highly contextual. I’ve seen teams where everyone is making almost nothing. I’ve seen situations where the founder CEO is making nothing, and their lead developer is making six figures. I also see everything in-between. It all depends on the relationships and context. Maybe ask around if you need to, or do some AngelList Jobs perusing, but don’t put too much faith in the value of broad market data for your pre-seed or seed stage startup’s hiring needs.

Employment laws and taxes are not a place to move fast and break things.

Finally, as much as I appreciate keeping things lean, moving fast, and skirting the rules where the costs are low, realize that violating laws around employee compensation and hiring/firing can burn you, badly.

In some contexts, unpaid employee compensation is even recoverable against the Board or executives, outside of the Company. Did you catch that? Let me repeat it for you: failing to pay employees compensation you promise them, or taxes for that compensation, can in some contexts result in personal liability for you, even if the company itself files for bankruptcy.

Take. This. Sh**. Seriously. While I’ve seen more than my fair share of nuclear wars between founders – see: How Founders (Should) Break Up – the deep relationships among founders often allow for more leeway in terms of following/not following the letter of the law. Employees are usually different, and will hesitate significantly less to use every weapon against you if you cross them. Make sure you’re well-advised from the moment you bring on your first *true* hire.