Do I need a PPM for my startup’s financing?

TL;DR: Legally speaking, probably not. Most tech startups never prepare one.

PPM stands for “Private Placement Memorandum.” You can think of it as the private company equivalent of an S-1, the long disclosure document that companies produce when going IPO. PPMs are lengthy documents that include risk factors, financial projections, business plan information, etc.  For a broad description of what a PPM is, see this article.

In dense startup ecosystems, PPMs are rare.

Startups in dense, more mature tech ecosystems like SV or Austin usually don’t even think of producing PPMs; nor should they. Assuming that they are taking the classic approach of raising money only from accredited investors, a well-made deck and a solid operating plan are often their core needs for closing on early money. Delivering an Austin tech investor a PPM would send an immediate signal that the founders aren’t being well-advised, which itself signals poor judgment in choosing advisors. 

Asking for a PPM signals inexperience.

In less dense ecosystems, however, I do occasionally encounter tech companies who are told by advisors, lawyers, or other players that they need a PPM to close on financing. FACT: The vast majority of tech startups raising money solely from accredited investors are not creating PPMs, and legally speaking, they don’t have to.  Most repeat ecosystem players consider PPMs a waste of time and money. 

One of the main reasons that startups avoid non-accredited investors and stick to accredited-only rounds is that the legal disclosure burdens are dramatically reduced, which means no need for PPMs. In healthcare, energy, and a whole host of other industries, using PPMs in private fundraising is very common. For this reason, if your lawyer is telling you (a tech startup) that you need a PPM, that’s often a good ‘tell’ that they lack experience in the norms of emerging tech financing. 

Exercise diplomacy with more traditional investors.

All of the above being side, I have also on occasion encountered more traditional investors who, because they do not regularly invest in emerging tech companies, ask startups for PPMs (because PPMs are more common in other industries).  All money is green and, particularly for early angel money, you need to be respectful of the expectations that angels bring to the table; even if they’re ‘off market.’

In these situations, it’s best to diplomatically let them know that PPMs are not the norm in the tech startup space, and that the company would prefer (as should they) to focus its legal budget solely on those things that are truly needed.   Asking a more traditional investor what specific information she/he was hoping to see in the PPM, and trying to address those concerns more informally, usually goes a long way to bridge the gap. Sometimes hearing directly from a Tech/VC lawyer about the norms of startup finance also helps. 

Founders outside of Silicon Valley can sometimes forget that most of the resources – blogs, articles, podcasts, tweets, etc. – on startup finance and norms are, in the grand scheme of things, a tiny bubble in the overall business market.  When anyone says there simply “isn’t enough money” available for startups in Texas, or markets similar to Texas, what they really mean is that there isn’t enough money flowing into tech companies. There’s tons of money floating around elsewhere. People who can culturally build bridges between tech ecosystems and more traditional business networks have a competitive advantage in the market, and are often the ones forging ahead building new companies, and even investment funds, while others run around in circles soliciting only the ‘techies’ of the market.

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.

Local v. Out-of-State VCs

Some things in life are certainties. The sun will rise tomorrow, you will be taxed for something… and startup ecosystem players across the world, outside of Silicon Valley and NYC, will complain about the lack of local VC capital, and the need for more foreign capital. Are they correct in complaining? I’m not going to answer that question. Too debatable, and the debate gets you nowhere.

What I am going to say, and I’m saying this as someone who manages a legal practice with visibility into a decent number of 2nd/3rd ‘tier’ ecosystems in the U.S., is that there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the overall trends in this area.

The Historical ‘Scarcity Culture’ of Local Venture Capital

Not just in Austin, but in many tech ecosystems that have a similar profile, there’s historically been a culture among the institutional investor community that directly reflected the scarcity of local capital, and of information about that capital. I will call this ‘scarcity culture.’ Trying not to come off as too judgmental, because all institutional capital plays a vital role in the business community, regardless of its approach, I would say that scarcity culture is largely summarized with the following statement:

“You don’t like our terms or our behavior? What can you do about it? What alternatives do you actually have?”

Does this mean that all local VCs outside of the densest markets think that way? Of course not. But it is definitely there, in a variety of ways.

Anyone with a broad enough visibility into American venture capital knows it is an absolute fact that California VCs are generally ‘friendlier’ than the VCs of any other ecosystem. By ‘friendlier,’ I mean that they are OK with higher valuations, they are more transparent in their intentions, and they tend to show significantly more deference to a founder team in terms of providing coaching/opportunities for growth as opposed to an early pink slip.  Why is that?

Is it something in the water? The weather? Have they achieved a new level of enlightenment? Hell no. California VCs have the same job as VCs anywhere else: to make money.  The answer lies in one very simple word: competition. And increasingly over the past few years it is magnified by one more factor: increased transparency through technology and decreased friction in networks. 

Competition and Reputation. 

Let’s use an analogy here.  Do you think that restaurant service is better or worse in dense urban environments relative to small rural areas? Obviously it’s better. There’s more competition.

Do you think the existence of Yelp, and the ability of restaurant goers to (i) easily find information on the past experiences of patrons of a specific restaurant and (ii) easily express their own experience about those restaurants, has improved or reduced the quality of restaurant service? It obviously has improved it. There’s a million times more transparency, which dramatically raises the reputational stakes.

In an environment where a quality founder team can, if they don’t like one particular set of VCs, walk almost literally across the street and talk to 10 more, investors have learned (rightly) that to be an asshole is to step right into a massive adverse selection problem. Combine a truly competitive market with inter-connected networks where reputational information flows freely, and you have a system that naturally corrects for bad behavior.  The really good companies, the one’s that everyone would want to invest in, don’t have to put up with anyone’s nonsense; and they do their homework. 

Contrast that with ecosystems where only a handful of investors, many of whom collude with one another, are available for companies that need serious funds, and you have a very clear explanation for why California capital is ‘sunnier.’  California VCs are more “founder friendly,’ because their circumstances make founder friendliness an almost essential requirement for deal flow. Most assholes can’t even survive in that environment, so it selects for ‘nicer’ people.

I am not saying that west coast money is all cotton candy and rainbows; nor am I saying that non-SV local VCs are all difficult to work with. But broadly and relatively speaking California VCs tend to be much easier for a founder/management team to get along with. It is also no surprise that the rise of industry/vertical-focused VC and VC ‘value-add services’ has come out of California. They’ve got to find a way of differentiating themselves in the noise.

Transparency and Friction.

A decade ago, if you needed to connect with X person for whatever reason – to diligence an investor, to connect to an investor, to find out some piece of information – you faced enormous opacity in finding a path to doing so. This opacity added friction not only to connecting with people far outside of your personal network, but also to obtaining information, including reputational information, about market players. Information is essential for separating marketing/branding from reality.

Blogging is marketing. Twitter is marketing. Talking on panels is marketing. Free office hours is marketing. That free beer at the ‘get to meet investors’ meet-up is marketing. This should be obvious to smart CEOs. Yes, this blog is marketing. Calling something marketing doesn’t mean it’s false; it just means you’re acknowledging the incentives behind it. And that you need a mechanism for verifying what you’re being told.

My method in biz dev is simple: “here’s a list of my clients. reach out to any of them, and don’t tell me which one. Ask them about our rates, and our responsiveness, and the independence of our counsel. I welcome diligence.”

Today, if I run into a set of founders who are talking to VCs, whether they are clients or not, I say “Here is a list of their past investments. Get connected to the founders of those companies, and start asking questions. And don’t tell anyone which ones you are talking to. Don’t treat any single ‘review’ as gospel, because it is a one-sided story. But look for patterns.” For a team that is even mildly good at networking, that is a fairly straightforward task. LinkedIn does 80% of the work for them by letting them know exactly who in their existing network, whether they’re local or not, can connect them to their target.

Tools like LinkedIn, AngelList, Facebook, and Twitter, and the way in which they eliminate huge amounts of friction and opacity in networking, have done two game-changing things for founders: (1) they’ve made expanding their networks beyond their local ecosystem 10x easier (I didn’t say easy, I said easier), and (2) in doing so, they have made finding accurate reputational information about market players 100x easier. That ease of accessing accurate information influences the behavior of investors in exactly the same way that Yelp influences the behavior of restaurants.

In an opaque market in which influencers can control access to people and information, you can reap the benefits of being an asshole without facing many of the costs. Today, the transparency brought about by modern tools and networks has made the costs of bad behavior 10x higher. Technology makes technology investors ‘nicer’ by opening up access to accurate information on market players. Knowledge is power. 

Improving Local VC. Accessing out-of-state VC. 

Thinking of this issue broadly with the above concepts: improving transparent access to accurate information, removing friction in expanding networks, increasing competition, I think we can arrive at some useful ideas for both improving the local investor environment in non-SV markets, and in increasing the flow of capital between markets; beyond the “great companies attract great capital” truism that rightfully causes eye-rolls among founders.

1. Founders/management need to talk to each other more, in places that aren’t controlled by the investor community. 

Information flows most freely when the consequences of sharing it are minimized. You better believe that in some markets where key players serve as gatekeepers (see: Gatekeepers and Ecosystems) the threat of being black-listed somehow for speaking honestly is real. You will never get accurate market information on blogs, on twitter, on panels, or in highly public events where anyone and everyone is watching.

To use Brad Feld’s categories: there are entrepreneurs, and then there are “feeders,” which sort of means everyone else. Events and communities where the whole ecosystem is invited are great. But that entrepreneur v. feeder divide is crucial, and there need to be ways for entrepreneurs to share information with each other, confidentially and alone.

That is the best way to create the following causal chain: (1) bad market behavior -> (2) information shared to broader entrepreneurial community -> (3) adverse selection for bad market player -> (4) correction to behavior.  You get along much better with the VC community when, instead of moralizing about their tactics and behavior, you try to understand their goals and their incentives; and find ways to align them with yours.

2. Outreach to foreign capital needs to come from people who don’t benefit from a scarcity/opacity environment.

Do not expect for a second that market players who benefit from scarcity of local capital and opacity of information will improve the environment for you. In a variety of ecosystems, I have seen circumstances in which local capital deliberately tries to keep out-of-state capital off of a cap table if it is not willing to enter on their terms. If a founder team builds local support and then themselves builds independent relationships with out-of-state capital (directly or via local relationships), that will create very different dynamics relative to a situation in which their local capital syndicates with its own existing out-of-state syndicate partners.

Is building those out-of-state relationship easy? Of course not. But it needs to start early. The companies that successfully receive out-of-state participation in their Series A round often were building those relationships at seed.  And the best intro to a particular investor is through a founder that they already invested in, so local founders who’ve accepted out-of-state capital are vital to encouraging that capital to engage more local companies. Once a foreign VC has made an investment in a city, it is a lot easier for them to look at others.

The angel v. institutional capital divide, highlighted somewhat in “Protect Your Angel Investors” is important here too. True angel investors – not the ones that behave essentially like micro-VCs, but the ones who are playing with their own money and who are really in it for more than just a return – typically behave very differently from institutional capital. They are usually more patient, more attached to the founder team, and usually aren’t laser-set on a “10x or bust” mindset that institutional investment often brings. Angel investors with broad networks can play a huge role in encouraging out-of-state capital to enter new ecosystems.

Just please for all things holy ignore any set of lawyers pretending to provide ‘special access’ to out-of-state investors. There is a hierarchy of paths to investors. If lawyers are even on it, they are near the bottom.

3. De-risk long-distance investment by improving communication.

If I’m an investor deciding whether to invest locally or make a bet on a team 1,000 miles away, I see substantial additional risk in the latter simply because of the added friction in communication. This is particularly important at seed/Series A, where feedback loops between investors and founders are more important. Think of ways to signal to long-distance investors that you will actively remove that friction.

Videoconferencing, well-done regular investor updates like through AngelSpan, committing to flying to meet-up in person regularly, are a few ways to do this. If entire companies can run with remote teams, leverage similar mechanics/tools to make long-distance startup investment seem natural and logical.

4. Reduce search costs. Successful curation is king. 

Finally, while communication issues often make long-distance investment at least seem difficult, you should never ignore the fact that to any investor, simply vetting out-of-state companies is much harder than vetting local ones. Most institutional investors build in various filters and qualification mechanisms into their pipeline/deal flow, and they often break down when looking at companies that are mostly outside of their usual network.

So creating credible, successful curation mechanisms to reduce the ‘search costs’ of institutional investors exploring non-local markets is essential. The obvious answer here is, and has been, accelerators; at least to the extent that accelerators aren’t beholden to particular local funds (in some markets, they are). The most prominent accelerators are playing extremely important roles in connecting companies in one market to investors in other markets, because those investors trust that the accelerator has done a significant amount of pre-qualifying for them. In fact, this curation dynamic is part of the core value proposition of accelerators in the first place.

Another obvious answer is angel investors with prominent personal brands. As angel investors develop broader reputations for selecting winners, out-of-state institutional capital can leverage them to reduce the search costs of exploring other markets.

So, is raising a Series A outside of Silicon Valley and NYC really hard? Absolutely. Then why the reason for optimism? Because every single variable/dynamic mentioned above is improving, and at an accelerated pace. Founders are finding each other and communicating directly, sharing accurate information about the investor community and other market players; aided by modern networking and communication tools. Local angels and entrepreneurs are actively using those same tools to expand their networks far beyond their local ecosystem. Tools for long-distance communication and investor relations are maturing. And accelerators and prominent angels are increasingly becoming curation mechanisms leveraged by institutional investors to reduce search costs and explore new markets.

We are certainly seeing all of this happening at an increasing rate in our work in the market. As additional funds that are more comfortable operating in the new environment pop up, and as geographic barriers are reduced for capital flows, the more established players are increasingly more concerned with their brands and reputation. Instead of a “scarcity culture,” an open, transparent market culture favors investors that deliver real value and build durable, authentic brands.

Raising local and out-of-state institutional capital, and ensuring you’re working with good people, is still extremely hard if you’re not in a top-tier ecosystem. And speaking as ‘just’ a lawyer, I don’t want to minimize that fact in any way.  But the truth is that it’s also never been easier, and the core trends suggest it will keep getting better. 

How to Avoid “Captive” Company Counsel

Background Reading: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

This post is going to make some people uncomfortable. People who work with me know that I’m not the type who likes to irritate others just for the fun of it. But I’m always willing to say something that needs to be said, and I’ve always structured my business relationships and life in a way that I’m not prevented from saying it.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

Inexperience v. Seasoned Veterans

Founders, particularly inexperienced first-time founders, face enormous uncertainty and opacity as they build their companies. In that environment, they’re tasked with making complex long-term decisions, on behalf of themselves and other stakeholders, with very high-stakes implications; including distributional implications as to who gets what share of the limited pie, and who gets to decide when the pie gets eaten.

More so, as founders raise capital, they engage with highly experienced, sophisticated, repeat player parties who have gone through the same process dozens of times. Those parties (investors) are typically aligned with founders/management in the sense that they want the company to be a success, but there is significant misalignment in the fact that each side wants their share of the pie to be larger than the other, and each side often disagrees on when it’s time to start eating. In the case of institutional investors, they have a legal obligation (to their own investors) to get as high of a return for their investment as possible; in other words, to get as much of the pie for themselves (and as large of a pie) as they can.

Counsel should level the playing field. 

In this environment: inexperienced founders/management working with highly seasoned third-parties with significant misaligned financial motivations, founders/management have to rely on trusted advisors to level the playing field; to ensure that their inexperience is not leveraged unfairly to their detriment. 

Without question, one of, if not “the” core advisor that startups turn to for leveling the playing field in interacting with highly seasoned investors, particularly at early stage, is Company Counsel; the lawyers hired to represent the company. Startup lawyers have a front-row seat to deals/activities in the market that cover a much broader, and larger, area than any particular investor sees, and they leverage that expertise to help startup teams navigate what, to them, is brand new territory.

Company counsel’s job is not to represent the founders personally – see A Startup Lawyer is Not a Founder’s Lawyer – nor the investors, but the entire company, including all of its stockholders as a whole. The best analogue I can think of is a family therapist, who doesn’t represent the parents or the children, but is looking for the well-being of the family unit.  If someone is threatening the well-being of the family (the company), or trying to unfairly dominate it in a counter-productive way, the therapist (company counsel) helps address it. Sidenote: my job really does resemble that of a therapist sometimes.

The best company lawyers combine a “win-win” attitude (grow the pie) with a long-sighted, subtle skepticism over each individual actor’s motivations; monitoring how actions could result in unfairly taking one person’s part of the pie and handing it to someone else.

Many startup lawyers are “captive” to institutional investors. 

So the founders-investor relationship is inherently imbalanced in favor of the seasoned, experienced investors at the table, and company counsel is supposed to play a strong role in correcting the imbalance. Clearly then, any factors that raise doubts as to the independence of company counsel; factors that might make him/her ‘captive’ to the interests of the money at the table, are cause for serious concern.

In “Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers” I described how the business development practices of certain startup/vc lawyers give companies every reason to be worried that their company counsel is inherently incapable of providing that ‘balance’ that they are supposed to rely on.  Many lawyers know that if they can win a relationship with a VC fund, that relationship can be worth dozens of deals/clients to them in a manner of just a few years; far far more efficient biz dev than going after companies one by one. So building economic ties with those VCs becomes a major source of business for lawyers, including lawyers who act as company counsel. 

I don’t waste any breathe or time trying to actually convince anyone that this scenario is a serious conflict of interest problem; certainly not lawyers. See the Upton Sinclair quote above.  I simply explain to founders/management in very clear terms how things in fact work, and let smart people arrive at their own conclusions. Sunshine is a great disinfectant.

Chess: Losing the negotiation before it starts. 

In my school days before becoming a lawyer, I found negotiation strategy and psychology to be a fascinating area to study. Winning a negotiation and getting what you want in a deal is, to those who are observant, an intricate game of human behavioral chess. To get what I want, I could simply negotiate very aggressively at the negotiation table. That can work. But there’s a cost to it. It spends social capital that I’d prefer to keep. I come off as overly self-interested, when as a long-term player I’d prefer to be seen as a friendly, trustworthy guy; in line my PR/marketing efforts.

A much more effective strategy is to win by preventing the negotiation altogether.  A simple checkers player wins by brute force negotiation. But a ‘chess player’ in business wins by controlling the environment of the negotiation, and the people involved, and in many cases preventing negotiation entirely. Ensure companies are using my preferred lawyers, swell guys that they are, and who I know won’t step out of line with the financial ties I have on them. Then deliver a “fair” term sheet. The founders then take that term sheet to those lawyers, maybe there’s a little back-and-forth for good measure, and we move forward, with ‘our guys’ on the inside long-term.

By convincing founders/management to use captive company counsel, investors can get what they want – both in a financing and long-term – without even having to negotiate much for it. When requesting certain terms, making certain decisions, or engaging in certain behaviors, independent company counsel will properly advise the team on how to respond or defend themselves; but captive counsel will just say it’s all normal and standard, lest he anger the people really funding his salary. 

I know some people will try to stop me right there. I’m being overly cynical here, they’d say. This is just how the business works. Surely no serious investor would actually use their influence over company counsel to push things unfairly in their favor.

Oh really? Many VC lawyers, including myself personally, have observed situations in which a negotiation is not going in the direction an investor would like, and off-the-record phone calls to company counsel get made. “We’re hoping to preserve our long-term relationship here, beyond just one deal.” “Our fund is actively seeking firms to partner with long-term.” “If this deal goes *as hoped*, we’d love to explore other opportunities to work together.”  To a lawyer who plays both sides of the table, you are one deal, while a VC fund’s “favor” can mean many, many deals.  Don’t delude yourself into thinking that favor is free.

I am happy to have a discussion about the issues I bring up here, and to be clear, there are many well-respected investors who respect the appropriate boundaries.  But please don’t try to feed me or companies candy-coated bullshit about the angelic “professionalism” of business parties when 7, 8, 9 figures are on the line, and a few easy phone calls and veiled threats (or bribes) can ensure they stay in the ‘right place.’ If your investors would never make those phone calls, then there shouldn’t be a problem with selecting company counsel with which they can’t make those phone calls. 

Cost control as sleight-of-hand. 

Notice the subtleness in how certain investors (including some blogs) talk about lawyers and legal fees. Why can’t we just close a deal for a few thousand dollars? This stuff has become so standard, let’s just keep the negotiations “between the business parties” and close this thing quickly.

Yes, let’s move fast (read: not discuss the terms much) and keep it “between the business parties”; where one side is inexperienced and doing it for the first time, and the other side has done it 50 times. That’ll keep it “fair.”

We’re negotiating and discussing transactions where even small changes could mean millions of dollars in one pocket or another, but let’s “control the legal fees” to save $10-20K right now. Yeah, gotta watch the legal budget. Really appreciate your “concern” there.

If you are building a company on a trajectory to be worth at least a comfortably 8 or 9-figure exit (which if you are talking to serious tech investors, you are), the idea that you should minimize time spent working with counsel, because it’s all just boilerplate and you’re better off keeping the legal fees for something more valuable, is a mirage set up to keep teams ignorant of what they’re getting into, and how they can properly navigate it. Telling a company “don’t ask your lawyers about this” sounds suspicious. “Let’s save some legal fees” sounds much better. But there’s no difference. You are being played. 

Balanced, but also competent. 

Stepping back a bit, it’s important to also clarify what I am not saying in this post. I am not saying that investors and other stakeholders in a company should not have an interest in ensuring that company counsel is competent and trustworthy. Founders do occasionally engage lawyers, typically for affordability reasons, that simply do not understand the market norms of venture capital financing. Using those types of lawyers ends up being a disaster, because they will slow down deals and offer all kinds of comments that aren’t about ensuring fairness and balance, but are simply the result of their not knowing how these types of deals get done. That will drive the legal bill through the roof, with little benefit.

Company counsel should have strong experience in venture capital deals.  Sometimes when investors request a change in company counsel, they have valid concerns about that counsel’s competence. Assess the merits of those concerns. However, it is one thing for your investors to say “this lawyer won’t work,” and then leave it to the company to find new, independent counsel. It is a completely different, and far more questionable, thing for them to insist that you use their preferred lawyer. 

Avoiding captive counsel. 

Here are a few simple questions to ask a set of lawyers to ensure they can be relied upon as company counsel to fairly represent a VC-backed company, particularly one with inexperienced founders:

  • What venture funds / investor funds do you personally (the lawyer you’re directly working with) represent as investor counsel, and how many deals have you done in the past 3 years for them?
  • What about your law firm generally? (for very large firms, this is less important)
  • How many of your firm’s clients are portfolio companies of X fund, and how did you become connected to those companies? May I reach out to the companies to confirm?
  • Can I get your commitment to not pursue investor-side work for X fund while you are our company counsel?

Larger ecosystems and larger law firms are generally less prone to this problem, because it is harder for individual players to really throw their weight around as a percentage of a larger firm’s revenue. That is to say, if the lawyer you’re working with doesn’t personally represent/rely upon X fund, but some other lawyer in the large law firm does, it’s less likely those “phone calls” could be effectively made. Although even in Silicon Valley and NYC BigLaw I’ve seen situations in which a fund will ‘nudge’ a set of founders to their preferred partner at a large firm. 100% captive.

In smaller firms, which are significantly more exposed to this problem due to their size, you’ll sometimes find that a single fund accounts for a massive percentage of that firm’s pipeline revenue. Those lawyers will slap their mothers if the fund asks them to, and companies are wise to avoid using them as company counsel.

The costs to companies of having captive counsel can be severe. Rushed, unfair sales because a particular fund’s LPs suddenly decided they need liquidity. Refusals to pursue other potential investors because the ‘right’ term sheet from ‘friendly’ investors has been delivered. Executive changes installing ‘friendly’ new management without an objective recruiting or vetting process. Early firing of founders without reasonable opportunities for coaching. The list goes on.

This is not theoretical. When company counsel is captive, their passivity will allow the preferences of a portion of the cap table to dictate the trajectory of the entire company, without the checks and balances that a properly governed company should have. And yet the sad fact is that inexperienced founders often don’t even have the frame of reference to know it is happening, or that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Many just assume, wrongly, that “this is how these things work,” when really that’s only how it works when you hire advisors who can’t, no matter how much they protest basic facts of human behavior, be objective. 

Don’t just go with the lawyer that the VCs insist upon. These lawyers will work with the VC on a hundred financings and with you on only one. Where do you think their loyalties lie? Get your own lawyer, and don’t budge.” – Naval RavikantLawyers or Insurance Salesman?

This issue is not about labeling one group of market players as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad.’ Hardly. There are many, many investors in the market who are phenomenal people with deep ethics. They should have nothing to worry about in ensuring their portfolio companies hire competent, independent counsel. And the best companies always maintain transparent, friendly relationships with their investors.

This is about acknowledging that no one in any tech ecosystem ever has more skin in the game, financially and emotionally, than first-time entrepreneurs; not even close.  And yet at the same time, their inexperience means that their closest advisors play an outsized role in helping them navigate the various relationships and risks that they are exposed to. Pushing startups to use their investors’ lawyers as company counsel is, plainly, an unjustifiable mechanism of control; one that anyone who supports entrepreneurship and tech “ecosystems” should not tolerate. 

People with far more experience and power than tech entrepreneurs will demand that their company counsel be independent and objective, because the fairest outcomes result when everyone at the table is well-advised. Ignore all attempts to argue the contrary. Founders should demand the exact same for their companies.