Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law

TL;DR: Standardization reduces time and fees, but at the cost of increased inflexibility. And sometimes, flexibility matters more.

Related reading:

Imagine you’re about to have a baby. You start asking your OBGYN about the facilities, preparations, etc., and the response you get is: “don’t worry about it, it’s all standard.”

Ok…, but your family has a history of certain unique hereditary conditions. Things can go wrong. You try to prod further. “Don’t worry, everything is going to be standard procedure.”

Are all people “standard”? Well, are all companies?

Standardization has its place, and certainly has its benefits. Those benefits include:

  • Lower Costs (at least upfront);
  • Faster execution, often enabled by technology;
  • Easier review.

In short, standardization makes things cheaper and faster. As great as that is, for any high stakes situation, a half-intelligent person will step back and ask: are speed and low cost really my top priorities here?

The purpose of this post is to discuss why the general push toward standardizing all financing documentation for startups, while clearly lowering up-front legal fees, is not always as “founder friendly” as the automation companies, investors, and other parties who also benefit from standardization, would have you believe. Nothing is free.

As I’ve written before a few times: “don’t ask your lawyers about this” sounds sketchy, and potentially raises red flags. If you want a novice team to simply move on and not ask questions, a real chess player will say “let’s save some legal fees.”

We’re negotiating over millions of dollars with potentially tens or hundreds of millions in long-term implications, but great, let’s save a few thousand in legal fees now by “streamlining” things. Right.

Who chooses the “standard”?

By far one of the most over-used phrases I hear in financing negotiations is “this is standard.” Says who? Do you have data? When you personally close dozens of financings a year across state lines, and have visibility into hundreds, like our lawyers do, it is very amusing when someone who makes maybe a handful of investments a year starts trying to lecture you on what’s “standard.”

The other day I heard a VC say that not having an independent director on the Board post-Series A is “standard,” and virtually everyone else in the room could smell the manure.

If you are looking to adopt market “standards,” make sure they are actually standards. Work with advisors with broad market experience to verify claims, and triangulate advice from multiple, independent advisors. Don’t let anyone simply dictate to you what the “standard” is. 

Serial players benefit from standardization. It’s not about saving companies legal fees.

Investors have portfolio incentives; meaning that they have their bets spread around a dozen or two dozen companies, sometimes much more if they’re a “spray and pray” kind of fund. For investors who look for unicorns, they expect most of their investments to fail, and just need 1 or 2 grand slams to make their returns. Unicorn investors demand very high growth, because even if such an approach can increase the number of failures, it will also maximize overall returns across the portfolio by turning up the juice on the 1 or 2 unicorns.

Entrepreneurs and their employees, on the other hand, have “one shot” incentives. Their net worth is concentrated in one company, and therefore the specific details, and risks, applied to their specific company matter a lot more to them.

The emphasis on very fast, very cheap financings benefits, above all else, large investors with broad portfolios who are looking to minimize their costs on any particular bet. It is not something developed out of beneficence toward companies; who often stand to gain more from adopting structures better suited to their specific circumstances. 

Standardization necessitates inflexibility, and when you’re fully invested for the long-haul in one specific company, flexibility may matter much more to you than simply moving as fast and cheaply as possible.

So who is standardization really for? The people who work in volume.

Lies about fixed legal fees.

One of the worst lies spread throughout some startup law circles is that fixed fees somehow “align” incentives between clients (companies) and lawyers. The argument is that, if lawyers bill by the hour, they will simply bill endlessly without reason. Thus, fixing their fees “solves the problem.”

Except it doesn’t.

Assuming all lawyers are principle-less economic actors who will do whatever maximizes their profits (cynical, but the general argument here is cynical), fixing legal fees does not align incentives between a client and the lawyer; it reverses them.

If Mr. Jerk Lawyer will run up the bill unjustifiably when the economics are hourly, he will, once you fix his fees, reverse course and do the absolute bare minimum necessary to complete the work; pocketing the difference. Why put in that extra hour or two to discuss a few nuances with potentially very material implications to the team, if it just hurts my fixed fee ROI? “This is fine and standard” is a much easier answer. Trust me, the minimum professional standards to avoid malpractice are very low. Close the deal, and move on to the next one.

Oh, but wait, the fixed fee proponent would retort: the fixed fee lawyer will still do a great job because he’s concerned about reputation. Response: (i) isn’t the hourly billing lawyer also concerned about reputation? (ii) you often don’t find out whether the lawyering you got was “good” or “bad” until years later. The difference between great counsel and bad counsel is in nuanced, long-term details not visible at closing. A-players and C-players can both close deals. I’ll let you guess which ones more often agree to fixed fees. 

There is a place for fixing legal fees when the work being done really is commoditized, and not of high strategic significance to a company in the long-term.  But anyone who thinks that fixed fees are some kind of magical solution to long-term lawyer-client relationships is, to put it bluntly, full of sh**. In attempting to solve one problem, they create other ones. So let’s all please stop pretending that when investors insist that you cap your legal fees when negotiating against them that they’re doing it to save you money. It’s a way to get your lawyers to stop talking to you. 

Our view is that clients definitely deserve some level of predictability in their fees, and we provide that by crunching data across our broad client base, and providing clients budget ranges based on that hard data. We also keep clients regularly updated on accrued billings, to avoid surprises. I promise to deliver transparency and data-driven predictability within reason, but I need, and smart clients want me to have, the flexibility to address unforeseen issues that, in my judgment, are material enough to fix, even if I could get away with ignoring them without anyone noticing for years.

Reputation plays a huge role in keeping legal fees reasonable. You’ll go much further diligencing a set of lawyers, asking their clients whether they feel they keep their bills honest, instead of adopting some nonsense idea that fixing/capping fees will magically produce the outcome you really want.

Standardization and Flexibility need to be balanced.

All good startup lawyers adopt some level of standardization, as they should. There is a lot of room for creating uniform practices that save time and money, without damaging quality and flexibility. But any attempts to pretend that complex, high-stakes law can be “productized” should raise serious skepticism, at least from entrepreneurs who view their company as something more than just another cookie-cutter number in someone else’s portfolio.

If I refuse to fix all of my legal fees, it’s because the reality of serious startup law does not fall along some neat bell curve; not when you represent a diverse client base, with diverse goals beyond simply getting as big as possible as fast as possible. There is far more qualitative nuance to strategic lawyering than there is even in healthcare, where the goals are much cleaner, quality is more easily evaluated, and the base structure of each “client” (biology) is more uniform. Business goals are subjective, and the right outcome for one client may look totally different for another, requiring totally divergent, and unpredictable, levels of work. That requires flexibility, both in process and pricing.

Where the final outcome really matters, speed and low cost are not the top priorities. Leave room for flexibility and real strategic guidance, or you’ll move very fast and very cheaply right into a brick wall.

Why Startups Need Signals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common early-stage startup signals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAFEs v. Convertible Notes, updated.

TL;DR: Still not seeing a ton of SAFE adoption, albeit a slight uptick. Convertible Notes still dominate outside of SV and pockets of LA/NYC.

Background Reading:

A recurring theme of this blog is that the advice and strategy you take for fundraising needs to be right-sized and contextualized for where you are located. Because by an order of magnitude Silicon Valley has the most startups, VCs, large exits, etc., the majority of the content available online for founders to educate themselves comes from Silicon Valley. A lot of it is very good, but a lot is also totally inappropriate for a founder in, say, Austin, Boulder, or Atlanta (or markets like them); where the dynamics between entrepreneurs and investors are fundamentally different.

Context matters. 

Y Combinator created the SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) a few years ago as an “upgrade” on convertible notes. It is a well-drafted document, but when you get down to brass tacks, a SAFE is basically a convertible note without interest or a maturity date. Purely from the perspective of founders, it is a fantastic deal. Most convertible notes are already slimmed down in terms of investor rights, and SAFEs effectively strip those rights down even further by removing the “reckoning day” of maturity.

The problem with SAFE usage for “normals” outside of Silicon Valley (and perhaps Los Angeles and NYC, which mirror SV much more so than other markets) is that it reflects the unique market leverage of the people who produced it: Y Combinator. Apart from YC itself, Silicon Valley already is an aberration among startup ecosystems. The concentration of seed funds and venture capitalists in such a small geographic area creates a level of hyper competition that is not even close to what is seen anywhere else in the world. And Y Combinator is, to some extent, the Silicon Valley of Silicon Valley. It takes competition among investors to an even higher level, where many founders can effectively dictate terms.

It’s therefore unsurprising that YC produced a security that effectively tells investors “Here are the terms. Thank you for your money. Talk soon, when we get around to it.” That’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s not entirely off base from how many investors I run into view SAFEs. And it should therefore also be unsurprising when investors outside of that environment respond with “Excuse me?”

So when founders I work with ask me if they should consider using SAFEs, my viewpoint can be summarized as follows:

  1. Only if you believe that all of your seed investors will accept them. Because if only your earliest investors (most trusting/risk-tolerant) will take them, they are not going to be happy about later investors getting real debt, and you will have to re-do everything.
  2. In 99% of cases, you’re better off just asking for a convertible note with (i) a low interest rate, and (ii) a long maturity date (24-36 months). For all intents and purposes, it is effectively the same thing, but will keep “normal” angels investing in “normal” companies more comfortable.

A conventional convertible note with a low interest rate and reasonable maturity period represents a balanced tradeoff: give us some trust and freedom to iterate quickly and get to a serious milestone (minimal restrictions), and in exchange we’ll give you a mechanism for holding us accountable if we don’t perform (maturity). A SAFE, however, reflects the expectation that investors should hand over their money and hope for the best. I rarely see angels or seed funds that use a maturity date to actually harm the company, but that doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable for them to expect somprotection if they aren’t getting the kinds of rights (board representation, voting rights, etc.) that equity investors would get.

Know thyself, and thy leverage. 

There is a subculture among certain entrepreneurs that acts a tad self-entitled to investor money; and I’m sure you can guess where that culture originated. I can say that as a lawyer who (deliberately) represents exactly zero startup investors. I always tell my clients, if I detect it, to snap out of it. You won’t win with it. If you aren’t the CalTech/MIT superstar in the room, then don’t take her advice, or follow her lead, on how to get a job. Persistence and hustle work best when combined with self-awareness and humility.

I have seen a slight uptick in SAFE usage, but it’s almost just a blip. Convertible notes still dominate, and for understandable reasons.  They’re investors, not philanthropists to your entrepreneurial dreams. See “Angel Investors v. ‘Angel’ Investors” for understanding how many Angels you encounter actually think about startup investing.

The truth is that SAFE culture, which reflects YC culture, is a broad reflection of the binary dynamics of how Silicon Valley approaches fundraising; touched upon in Not Building a Unicorn. Billion or bust. If you haven’t made things happen and my seed investment hasn’t 5x-ed into your Series A, I’m already moving on and focusing on the unicorn in my 30-company portfolio.

But if you’re not building a unicorn, that’s not how your investors think, and you need to act accordingly.

Maturity about Maturity. 

So if the idea of your convertible notes maturing scares you, well, entrepreneurship is scary. First, ensure it’s long enough to give you a legitimate, but reasonable amount of runway to make things happen. If your angels have given you 3 years to convert their notes, that’s a very fair amount of runway. I personally think less than 24 months is usually unreasonable, given the timeline most companies need to get real traction and attract more capital.

Second, there are mechanisms you can build into a convertible note to further help with hitting maturity. The most common and important is ensuring a majority of the principal can extend maturity for everyone; so if enough of your early investors still support you, you get more time. Extensions are very common.

Automatic extension, or conversion into common stock, upon achieving certain milestones – for example, upon raising an additional convertible note round, or hitting certain metrics – are another good option. Lawyers specialized in early-stage financing can help here.

The people who are the best at sales are also the best at getting into the heads of their buyers, and understanding their concerns. The same is true for founders “selling” to investors. It is not unreasonable for investors in high risk startups to expect some downside protection in the highest risk segment of a startup’s history, and that’s why so many angels and seed funds reject SAFEs. Give them what they want, while getting what you need. And don’t spend too much time listening to people who are experts in a world that you don’t live in.

Tiered Valuation Caps

TL;DR: Using a “tiered” valuation cap structure in a convertible note or SAFE can provide flexibility that bridges the gap between (i) what founders expect their company to be worth in the near future, and (ii) what investors are comfortable accepting now.

Background Reading:

This post assumes that, for a company’s early seed round, they’ve decided to use convertible notes or SAFEs; because the majority of startups do. SAFEs and Notes are optimized for speed and simplicity, with a cost of future uncertainty and dilution. They have their downsides, which are discussed in some of the above links.

Convertible notes/SAFEs are usually executed around times of maximal uncertainty for a company; the very early stages. For that reason, pegging an appropriate valuation can be very difficult for investors. The valuation cap has evolved into a proxy for valuation, even though by definition it is in fact a cap on valuation, and if things go south, the actual valuation at which the security converts goes downward with it.

Traditional valuation caps: downside protection for investors. No upside for founders.

When you think about it, though, the valuation cap structure is a bit one-sided. If things go badly, investors get a lower price. But what if things go very well very quickly? Under the standard approach, even if the outlook for the company dramatically changes (positively) within 1 month post-closing (which at seed stage can happen), the valuation cap is what it is.  Normally this is accepted as given, much like how when you close an equity round, the price you got is the price you got.

However, there are circumstances in which founders know there are potential serious milestones on the short-term horizon that would dramatically influence valuation, but they need to close their seed money now. Obviously, smart investors reward results, not promises; so they’re not going to budge on valuation just because the founders are confident they’ll hit a milestone in a month. Tiered valuation caps are a useful mechanism for bridging this uncertainty gap in seed rounds.

Tiered valuations can bridge the uncertainty gap, and give companies some valuation upside. 

A tiered valuation cap would look something like this (language simplified because this isn’t an actual contract):

  • If the Company achieves [X milestone], the valuation cap will be [A];
  • If the Company does not achieve [X milestone], the valuation cap will instead be [B].

Convertible notes and SAFEs are optimally designed for providing this kind of valuation flexibility. It is much more complicated to implement something like this in an equity round, which is why you almost never see it. Also, there are a number of other nuances around valuation caps that are too “in the weeds” to get into in this post, but that, depending on the circumstances, may make sense for a company. One example would be, if a certain important milestone is hit, turning the valuation cap into a hard valuation.

Standardization v. Flexibility

Something related to the above that is worth briefly discussing is why, despite there being many logical circumstances in which deviation from “standardized” startup investment structures makes total sense and would be acceptable to both sides of the table, founders are often encouraged to “move fast” and stick to the usual docs.

There is a mindset in parts of the startup world – and very much coming out of Silicon Valley – that promotes the idea that startup legal documentation should all be standardized and closed as fast as possible, with minimal fuss. The PR story behind that trend – the way it gets sold – is that it’s about saving companies money. Don’t bother actually talking to counsel on these “standard” things; you’ve got to stay lean and focus on “more important” stuff.  Sounds legit.

Of course, every heavily promoted story has incentives behind it. Who benefits from saying “nevermind with the lawyers; just close quickly?” Software companies selling you the automated tool that relies on inflexible standardization, for one part. Savvy investors (repeat players) who have a 10x better understanding (than you do) of what the documents actually say, for another. As I wrote in “How to avoid ‘Captive’ Company Counsel“, it is very amusing when, during high-stakes negotiations where small variances in terms can have multi-million dollar long-term implications, certain investors take such a keen interest in “watching the legal bill.”

Everyone’s favorite sucker is the guy who shoots himself in the foot, and then sings a song about it.

Always always remember: if you’re doing this for the first time, and someone else has done it dozens, the “let’s get this done quickly” mindset is definitely saving someone money; but it’s usually not you. If a few discussions with counsel could result in a 25% higher seed valuation, you tell me if that is “wasted” legal fees. 

There are times when the standard terms make sense, but there are a lot of times when they don’t. Companies not fully on the “move fast and break things” train should slow down and take advantage of some customization when it could have a serious impact on dilution. Good investors who don’t view you as just another number in their “spray and pray” portfolio won’t criticize you for doing so.

ps. for the best companies, the “standard” valuation in an accelerator’s convertible note/SAFE is almost always negotiable.

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.