Startup Advisors: Best Practices

Background Reading:

Advisors. The best startups have great ones. They save you lots of headaches, time, and money. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve come across any successful client that didn’t have a strong set of advisors. Here’s some advice on how to not screw it up:

Advisory ‘Boards’ Rarely Exist.

A set of advisors is sometimes referred to as an advisory ‘board,’ but 99% of the time that’s just a term to make it sound cool. The advisory ‘board’ never meets as a group, and often doesn’t even know each other. They’re just a loose set of advisors that a company works with 1:1, or occasionally in smaller groups. Nothing like a Board of Directors, which actually does have to coordinate schedules.

Don’t Stay Local.

As the first linked post above explains in depth, 20 minutes on the phone with someone who has the right expertise is 1000x more valuable than days spent with someone who is more accessible, but can’t provide real insight that isn’t available already via blog posts or books. This means that if you’re relying solely on the very limited pool of people available via your local business ecosystem, you’re doing it wrong.

LinkedIn, Twitter, Angellist, E-mail, Phone. Work ’em. Connect with the key people in your local ecosystem who can make things happen, but don’t fish only in your little pond.

Don’t Confuse Mentors with Advisors.

Mentors can be really valuable to new founders. They can provide emotional support, friendship, coaching, and all kinds of other things. But are those the kinds of things that deserve an equity grant?

It’s ultimately the team’s call. But just realize that those are not the kinds of things that real advisors are meant for. Advisors provide real strategic insight, connections, recruiting, investor introductions, things that go beyond moral support for the founders and actually move the ball forward for the company in an obvious way. That’s the kind of value-add that typically merits equity.

Get Independent Viewpoints

For high-stakes, complex questions for which the answer isn’t clear, advice needs to be triangulated. You don’t treat any particular person’s perspective as gospel; instead you speak with multiple people and combine all of their viewpoints to make your judgment call.

That sort of triangulation is not possible when all of your advisors have the same background, are part of the same circles, etc. Especially when the questions involve big decisions for which various stakeholders have incentives to favor one option over another, you want advisors who are detached from those incentives, so their advice is objective. This, btw, is also the case with lawyers.

Favor Intellectual Honesty over Politeness

The whole point of getting outside advice is to help you see things you can’t see on your own. If your strategy for choosing advisors is to work only with the people who are agreeable to your own opinions, you’re wasting your time. People who are blunt with their advice, but deliver real insight when they give it, can be game changers for a company. 

Use an Advisor Agreement.

It’s not magical; templates abound. The Founder Institute’s FAST Agreement is perfectly acceptable, and even simplifies equity calculations. The most important thing is that an Advisor Agreement removes any ambiguity as to (i) compensation owed for advisory services, (ii) who owns the contributions, IP, etc. that result from the advisory (the company), and (iii) confidentiality of any info shared. Yes, any vc lawyer has seen founders get in trouble with these issues for not taking the time to document it properly.

Equity; %, Vesting Schedule, Cliff, Acceleration.

If an advisor expects cash from an early-stage startup, that’s usually a red flag, short of a really unusual circumstance.

The FAST Agreement has pretty solid guidelines for what’s appropriate in terms of equity %, depending on the Company stage. Pre-equity round, 0.25%-0.5% is a typical advisor. 1% is someone extremely strategic whose name you absolutely want behind your company. After an equity round, the %s naturally shift down a bit because the company is more valuable.

1 or 2-year vesting schedule and a 3-month cliff, and full single-trigger acceleration on a change of control.  Advisors get full acceleration because acquirers never expect them to stick around after a sale, unlike founders or executives.

Use that cliff.

We regularly see founders engage an advisor expecting tons of value to be provided, and then crickets once the equity is granted. But the founders don’t do anything about it. 3-months should be more than enough time to know whether a new advisor will really deliver the goods, and if not cut the cord and get that equity back for re-use.

 The hard part, of course, is finding the right advisors and selling them on your vision, so they’ll give you the time. If no one on your team knows how to hustle and sell, either start learning yesterday, find someone who can, or (honestly) just give up now. Selling, in a dozen different ways (including to advisors), is 75% of what a competent founder CEO does.

Fatal Errors in Early Startup Hiring

I don’t pretend to be an expert in HR or tech recruiting, at all. However, being a VC lawyer gives you a deep inside view into a lot of what goes right and what goes wrong in early-stage hiring for startups; particularly what goes wrong, because that’s usually when lawyers get called in. Lots of data points to notice patterns. While there are a whole lot more issues that I’m not covering, below are a few key recruiting errors (tactical, not legal) that I’ve regularly seen Founder CEOs make as they start trying to expand their roster.

Hiring Sociopaths

Well that escalated quickly, didn’t it. Very very very^2 few people are so talented that they can make up for having a toxic personality. What is toxic? Someone who either (i) can’t control their own emotions, or (ii) seems to somehow regularly trigger other peoples’ emotions, in a bad way.

The early days of a startup are chaotic. You need personalities that will absorb some of that chaos, and make it easier to manage, not harder. Character and values are at least as important as the person’s skillset. When I hire lawyers, I pay at least as much attention to subtle cues in a person’s behavior as I do to their analytical skills; their facial expressions, manner of speaking, how they react to others, how they describe other people and themselves. I’ve seen what it’s like to work in places where there is even just 1 super toxic personality. It ruins everything, and can sink a company.

That doesn’t mean emotions in general are bad. Emotion often means you care about something. It’s OK for people to get emotional about stuff; better than people who are disengaged and stoic all the time. But there’s a world of difference between getting emotional because you care about something v. just because you can’t control yourself, or don’t want to. Blind reference checks help a lot.

Hiring “Big Company” People

Jeff Bussgang’s “jungle, then dirt road, then highway” metaphor is valuable for understanding how you can go wrong in hiring people who aren’t the right fit for a startup environment. A Series C or later company operates extremely differently from how a seed or Series A company does. Later-stage companies have higher salaries, more narrowly defined roles, more predictability, more formality, more perks. Earlier stage means lower salaries (but more equity), more flexible and broad roles designed to ‘just get it done’ (whatever ‘it’ happens to be that day), more unpredictability, and closer-knit/more casual culture. “Highway” people usually can’t handle the jungle, or even the dirt road.

Problems arise when a company has raised a seed or Series A and suddenly wants to present themselves as one of the big dogs by hiring someone with a very impressive resume and title. That person will very often want a compensation package that strains the company’s budget, and a level of resources and order that simply isn’t appropriate for early stage. Talent can come in the form of a lot of different cultures and personalities. Make sure you’re hiring talent with realistic expectations for your company’s stage. Salary v. equity expectations are often a valuable signal here, and can select for the right or wrong people.

And a big thing to watch out for: I’ve known of VCs who subtly push founder CEOs to hire “big company” people sooner than they are really needed, to create a greater sense of urgency in needing to raise a new round, that they lead. If an investor has put some seed or Series A money in your company and wants to lead your Series A or B, they have an incentive to shrink your runway by filling your payroll with high-salary people earlier than is appropriate.  More payroll means you’re forced to close your Series A (or Series B) sooner, and at a lower valuation, than you otherwise would’ve wanted; increasing their ownership. Be mindful of this dynamic, and ensure you have a total grasp of what your talent needs are and aren’t. 

Hiring Too Fast

You see far more companies that die because they hired too fast, and eventually couldn’t keep up with payroll, than the converse. Successful entrepreneurs know how to be scrappy and resourceful; seemingly magically figuring out a way to achieve results with far fewer resources than other people could. That should apply to hiring as well, and it’s often achieved by ensuring that you aren’t hiring “big company” people (see above) with (i) unrealistic salary expectations, and (ii) such specialized skillsets that they leave needs unfilled that require hiring more people.

Hiring extremely talented, flexible generalists appropriately suited (and compensated) for early-stage is often how resourceful CEOs keep their early-stage company “default alive” instead of “default dead,” to use Paul Graham’s language.  As a general matter, at early stage someone who is really good at X, Y, and Z is more valuable, and a much safer hire, than someone who is world class at just X.

Hiring Friends or Family

If you build anything that starts getting traction, there will come a time when people start suggesting their friends and family to fill job positions. In some sense, this is not a bad thing. Recruiting from your existing roster’s network is actually a very smart and common way to find quality candidates without needing to pay recruiters. The danger, of course, lies in the psychological tendency for immature founders to hire people simply because they like them, rather than because those people actually have the talent and skills the company needs. 

Only go down this path if you are 100% comfortable saying ‘no’ over and over again, because you’ll need to. Frankly, if you’re CEO and don’t know how to say “no” when you need to (often), you’re going to face much bigger problems than hiring. 

Friends and family are easy to hire, but they’re much harder to fire because of the emotional and political dynamics surrounding the personal relationship. And hiring people because of existing relationships, instead of because of merit, is also a fast way to create an insular, mediocre mono-culture of people who are all buddies with each other, as opposed to a performance driven one. As a resource-strapped early-stage company trying to navigate chaos, you can’t afford to have a low performance culture. Hire for merit from Day 1.

As I said, there are dozens of big mistakes companies make in hiring, and I’m sure there are fantastic blog posts out there from experts on the subject. The above is just a few really core tactical blunders VC lawyers see founder teams make, because we’re usually called in to help the team clean up the mess from a legal perspective.

In the early days, hire extremely talented, flexible and mature team-players with realistic expectations about startup life, not too early, and not just because you like them or they are someone’s friend. It’ll save you an enormous amount of headaches… and legal fees.

It’s Not Introvert v. Extrovert. It’s Whether You Can Sell.

TL;DR: People from various intellectual/technical backgrounds tend to over-value IQ and undervalue EQ; meaning that they neglect just how crucial communication/sales skills are for executives/founders, especially a CEO.

I spend a good amount of my time training lawyers not only on how to use technology effectively (because lawyers are second only to doctors in sucking at tech adoption), but on the key ‘soft’ skills that underly client satisfaction. As a profession, lawyers dramatically over-value their credentials and under-value basic human skills like the ability to charismatically start, lead, and end a serious conversation. But when you step back and analyze how lawyers perform throughout their careers, it becomes extremely clear that far less ‘intelligent’ lawyers are the employers of lawyers with significantly better credentials.

Why would that be? Because for lawyers, legal skills get you a job, but communication skills get you clients. And without clients, no one has jobs. Any lawyer who wants to move from being a “worker bee” to leading client relationships needs to self-critically assess and devote serious attention to her/his communication skills: reading people for their pain points/values and adjusting your message, building rapport with diverse people, speaking crisply and confidently, etc. And the exact same can be said about a founder who wants to be and stay CEO.

Everything is Selling

When investors want to discuss investment, when employees want to discuss employment, or when key early customers want to discuss the product/business, whom do they ask for? The company’s technological savant? No. They want to talk to the CEO. The 3 core jobs of a founder CEO are to find customers, recruit employees, and close on investment. All three of those require strong sales and communication skills, because 90% of the work is deep, serious conversation. As the company scales, those tasks become more segmented, but at early-stage the CEO, and only the CEO, can get them done effectively.

All the time I see founder teams full of MIT, Stanford, etc. technical degrees, and a CEO who went to an unremarkable school. But 5 minutes into a conversation with them you know exactly why he’s CEO. He can sell. And I’ll see VCs who are fine keeping X founder as CEO, but insist that Y step aside for an outside CEO. Why? Because Y can’t sell. Sure, I may be over-simplifying a bit, but not by much. Assuming you aren’t dealing with a VC who always replaces founders purely for control purposes, whether or not a VC trusts you in the CEO seat often boils down to whether you can look them straight in the eye and convince them, through well-articulated conversation, that you are ‘CEO material.’

Sales Skills ≠ Extrovert. Find a Coach.

Like any other skill, sales skills can be learned, practiced, and taught, but it takes honest self-criticism and time. And they do not even remotely boil down to whether or not you are an extrovert. Shyness/social anxiety/bad communication are dysfunctions. Introversion is not a dysfunction; it’s just a personality orientation. Sales/communication skills tend to come more naturally to extroverts, but there are extroverts who are terrible at sales (often because they are glad-hander loudmouths), and there are introverts who are fantastic at it. Apart from self-practice, there are excellent executive coaches who can be engaged to help founders improve their ‘presence’ in conversation.

By no means should the above be interpreted by smart, technical founders as that they absolutely need to go out and find a schmoozer MBA to put on their team. The best lawyers (and executives) are extremely technically smart and know how to communicate. It should, however, be read to mean that you should rid yourself of the delusion that your technical skills/intelligence alone will ensure your position on your company’s executive team. ‘Soft skills’ are at least as important as ‘hard’ ones, and the faster you improve yours, the greater chances you’ll have of getting customers, employees, and investors to not only ‘buy’ your product and company, but ‘buy’ you as an executive as well.

Rich v. King: The (Core) Founder’s Dilemma

TL;DR Nutshell: Much of the tension between founders and outside investors lies with one question, highlighted (years ago) by Noam Wasserman (HBS) as the core “founder dilemma”: do you want to be rich, or do you want to be king? When both founders and investors are honest with each other (and themselves) about their feelings about, and approach to, this dilemma, their relationship ends up running far more smoothly.

Background Reading:

Rich or King

In the majority of circumstances (statistically) the wealth accrued by entrepreneurs is inversely correlated with their percentage ownership stake in companies. In other words, founders who give away more equity and control in their companies (to other employees, investors, etc.) end up, on average, building larger, more valuable companies, and therefore become much richer than founders unwilling to give up control. That inverse relationship is the foundation of what Noam Wasserman, a professor at Harvard Business School, calls the “Founder’s Dilemma.”

Obviously, when any particular company (in isolation) is extremely successful, founders are able to maintain more control and ownership relative to companies that are less successful. We all know stories about the (rare) Facebooks of the world in which founders have maintained significant control through many rounds of funding and even IPO.  But overall the types (categories) of businesses in which entrepreneurs give up control in order to attract capital, talent, and other resources will grow much much larger (and enrich the founders) relative to the types of companies in which entrepreneurs maintain a tighter grip.

This is why Mr. Wasserman says that if founders want to avoid significant headache and heartache in the course of building their business, one of the first questions they need to ask themselves, and be honest about, is: do you want to be rich, or do you want to be king? Because very very very rarely can you be both.

Some founders legitimately care less about money than about ensuring that their business stays in alignment with their long-term vision/mission. They certainly want to be successful, but a removal from the leadership position in their company would, in their mind, mean personal failure, no matter how much gold they can expect to line their pockets with.

Other founders want to retain control/influence in their company as long as they feel that doing so will increase their chances of becoming financially successful, but the true, primary end-goal is financial success, and they will willingly step down if they feel someone else can scale the company better and faster.

Kings and VCs Don’t Mix

If you are very heavily a “King” founder, you need to think very very carefully about whether you should take institutional venture capital at all. VCs fall along a spectrum in terms of how much deference/respect they give to founder CEOs. Some (the good ones) will assume a coaching perspective, respecting a founder CEO as the head of the company and pushing her/him to learn and become a great leader. Others (the bad ones) will move as fast as they can to undermine founders and fill management with their handpicked roster of outsiders. The best way to find out who the Coaches and Underminers are is to ask people (privately and off-the-record) who’ve worked with them, particularly other founder CEOs.

However, while the best VCs give founders real opportunities to learn and excel, every-single-one will replace a founder if/when it becomes clear that doing so is required to continue scaling the business. Why? Because VCs are profit-obsessed vultures? No, because they have bosses who hired them to make them money, by achieving big exits. It’s their job.  So even if you have the best, most respectful set of VCs on the planet, the clock is ticking once that money hits the bank. If you can’t handle the thought of not being CEO of your company, no matter how large it gets, don’t take VC money. Ever.

The Jungle, The Dirt Road, and The Highway

What many first-time founders don’t realize, though, is that as many startups scale and become large enterprises, there often comes a time when a founder CEO wants to be replaced. Jeff Bussgang’s three stages of companies: the jungle (earliest stages), the dirt road (early scaling), and the highway (mature company/late-stage growth) help explain why.

To be a successful founder, you usually need a personality that thrives in, or at least is highly capable of handling, chaos (the jungle). Meetings, committees, structure, process, reporting obligations, policies, policies on meetings, meetings on policies, etc. are often the exact kinds of things that founders are avoiding by starting up their own companies instead of taking jobs at BigCo. They thrive in following their intuition/judgments, tackling tough problems, and being on the ground strategizing about product and selling the Company’s vision.

But as companies become full-scale enterprises with hundreds of employees, all of that “structure” becomes necessary. You simply cannot run a 500 employee multi-national company like a Series A startup. Great founders often succeed in the jungle, and thrive on the dirt road (when the company is a startup), but start feeling suffocated, uninspired, and disengaged on the highway. And of course, professional CEOs are the reverse: they are trained to keep the rocketship steady and fueled once its cleared the roughest atmosphere, but their skillset breaks down if required to operate in the iterative, intuitive, grassroots environment of early-stage companies.

“Rich” founders who understand their strengths, and when those strengths are no longer optimal for the stage of their company, are able to actively participate in the executive succession planning of their companies, rather than putting up a fight with their Board.  Some decide to completely step away from the company they’ve built in order to go build something new. Others will take a role in their company that leverages their strengths – removed from the day-to-day processes and bureaucracy of the enterprise, and focused exclusively (as an example) on higher-level product and strategy.  Some founders will (happily) make the transition between jungle, dirt road, and highway without giving up the CEO title, but those are few and far between.

The important thing in all circumstances is that founders not fight the reality of what it means to take on institutional capital and build a large, scaled company. Work within that reality to achieve financial and personal success. Know yourself. 

Start Off With Transparency of Values and Vision

Control-freak founders are not alone to blame for the ‘founder’s dilemma’ dysfunctions of the VC-founder relationship. Certain VCs fail to be upfront with founders about their expectations and style of corporate governance. In order to “get the deal,” they’ll talk up how supportive and founder friendly they are, and once the cash is deposited immediately start running through the playbook described in How Founders Lose Control of Their Companies A founder who wants to be King and a VC who pretends (temporarily) to be OK with that is a perfect recipe for dysfunction at the Board level, which usually ends up destroying value.

As trite as it sounds, honesty and transparency go a very long way here. Founders should be open about their vision for the Company, their expectations for how they’ll interact with their Board, and their attitude towards when and how to recruit outside management.  VCs shouldn’t beat around the bush about what the job of a venture capitalist is, and their approach to Board governance and executive recruitment.

The narrative of the founder CEO pushed out by VCs he now hates isn’t the only narrative out there. There are plenty of success stories of founders who built strong, trusting relationships with investors who still did their jobs as VCs and ensured professional management (that the founders can trust) was brought in at the right time. It just depends on the people.  Building and maintaining trust is hard. But so is building and scaling a company. Cut the BS, communicate like adults, and then focus on building something awesome and getting rich, together. 

When LLCs Make Sense for Startups

TL;DR Nutshell: In the vast majority of instances, tech startups are best served by starting out as Corporations (C or S-corps, but usually C-Corps) on Day 1, and lawyers suggesting otherwise are usually generalists who lack tech/vc-specific domain expertise to understand why. However, there is a narrow set of circumstances in which LLCs make sense for a startup.

Background Reading:

This post is about the “almost” part of that tweet. But to get there, it’s important to address the “simpler” and “tax efficient” aspects, because those are the two core reasons that I often hear pushed onto founders for why they should be LLCs.

LLCs may be simpler generally, but Tech Startup LLCs with investor capital and equity compensation never are.

Here’s a hypothetical: Imagine you’re an athlete who’s signed up for a football camp held in Boston in the middle of February. Your general knowledge of Boston weather tells you that it is going to be a** cold. You ask a few other people with knowledge of Boston, including me (I went to law school there), and receive confirmation that Boston is a** cold in February. So you show up to the camp with only your winter gear… but it turns out the camp is entirely indoors in a heated facility. Whoops. Should’ve asked someone with true domain-specific knowledge of that camp, not just people with general knowledge. 

That, in a nutshell, is what happens when lawyers and other business people tell tech founders to use LLCs. LLCs are extremely common in the general legal world. For simple operations with one or a small number of owners, they are by far the dominant legal structure, because they usually are simpler. However, for tech startups, who very often (i) use equity as a significant part of their compensation for employees/service providers, and (ii) often raise capital with multiple equity classes, complex preferences/rights, etc., things get extremely complex under an LLC structure, much more so than with corporations. The amount of tax and legal analysis that has to be done to issue equity compensation and/or raise capital in an LLC is (without exaggerating) 10x that of a corporation.

So, if your plan is to raise capital and use equity as a form of compensation for employees and contractors (which is usually a hallmark of a tech startup), do not delude yourself for a second that an LLC will be simpler than a corporation. 

The “Double Tax” issue usually only matters if your startup is a “cash cow.”

Yes, in a general sense LLCs have one layer of tax and C-corps have two. That is another reason why (as stated above), LLCs have become a very dominant legal structure, not just for simple companies but also for many large businesses as well. Again, though, context is key. The “additional layer” of tax that corporations face is on net profits; after accounting for expenses, including salaries. No net profits, no corporate tax. So if a startup is going to be generating substantial profits (taxed once) with the end-goal of distributing those profits to shareholders (taxed again at individual level) as a dividend, the two layers are a problem.

But how many high-growth tech startups do you know that, instead of reinvesting profits for growth, pay profits out as dividends? Not many; certainly not in the first 5-10 years of the company’s life. Most high-growth tech startups deliberately operate at a net loss for a very long period of time, and therefore (i) aren’t worrying about taxes on net profits, and also (ii) are taking advantage of those losses at the corporate level in a way that may not be even use-able on the individual level. This, btw, is also why S-corps are usually not very helpful for tech startups either.

And to add an additional wrinkle: in an acquisition, corporations often have the ability to do tax-deferred stock swaps, whereas LLCs don’t. So, in short, the “LLCs save a lot of taxes” perspective, while generally correct, is usually misapplied to tech startups by people who simply don’t do enough startup/vc work to give sound advice. Yes, VCs often push companies to be C-Corps (read the background articles), but VCs are hardly the only reason why the C-Corp structure is used in tech. 

LLCs therefore make sense for tech startups that:
(i)
expect substantial net profits very early on;
(ii) aren’t planning on raising institutional venture capital, and/or
(iii) aren’t planning on using equity to compensate a lot of people.

Lots of net profits early on (rare)? The single layer of tax may be worth it, and even institutional VCs sometimes are willing to accept the complexity of an LLC to take advantage of the tax savings.  Not planning on raising VC money any time soon? Other types of non-tech investors are usually more comfortable with LLCs than VCs are. Not planning on paying your employees with equity? Then you’ll avoid the tax nightmare of issuing LLC equity to dozens/hundreds of people.

Few tech startups fit the above scenario, and that’s why few are LLCs. The classic tech startups that operate (rationally) as LLCs are bootstrapped/self-funded software and app companies with no plans to scale very quickly with outside capital, and large “marketplace” startups for which the actual investment in the technology is minimal relative to the large amount of revenue/profit pushed through the marketplace. For almost everyone else, C-corps are king, and for good reason.

p.s. I am not your tax lawyer, and am not pretending to know the right answer for your specific company. The above is just general knowledge; not legal advice. If you rely exclusively on a blog post to determine your legal structure, without talking to a professional to understand your context, you’ve taken on the risk of screwing it up.