Gatekeepers and Ecosystems

TL;DR: Relationships are important, but a business mindset that prioritizes ‘relationships’ over real value delivery enables gatekeeping and cronyism, both of which are contradictory to entrepreneurship, and can suffocate a business ecosystem.

Background Reading:

As I’m known to do on occasion, I’m going to get a bit personal with this post; because the backstory (my backstory) helps explain the message.

To say that, growing up, I did not come from money would be an understatement. When I was born, my parents (mexican immigrants) were selling tomatoes and avocados out of a pickup truck.

In a sort of american dream story, that pickup truck eventually became a moderately successful produce business, where I spent a good portion of my elementary school off-time sorting produce and invoices. Unfortunately, through a series of bad, misguided decisions, that business eventually ended in bankruptcy, and my parents in divorce. My sisters and I were raised by my single mother, who supported us by selling perfume at an indoor flea market; her small business, where I worked for most of my teenage years.

Yes, to get from there to where I am now took an enormous amount of work and hustle; hours a day commuting to public schools in better neighborhoods, days without sleep to get the grades that would get the scholarships that would pay for the colleges that I otherwise couldn’t afford, even while working, etc. But the real reason I tell that story, and this is where it connects to the crux of this post, is this: I would not be even close to where I am today if it weren’t for people willing to work with and support others purely because of their talent and merit, regardless of whom those ‘others’ knew or where they came from. 

Those people are the reason I’m here. And the underlined portion of that sentence is what makes all the difference.  Because I came from nowhere, and knew no one.

There are very few statements about business that I find more obnoxious than, “it’s all about relationships.” Not because I don’t value them. To the contrary, I think building trusting, deep relationships is one of the most important things CEOs can do. See: Burned Relationships Burn Down Companies. What truly unsettles me about that perspective is two-fold:

  A.  It reflects a pervasive mindset on how to achieve success that, when played out over time, concentrates opportunity in pockets of people who all know each other. People who go to the right schools, live in the right neighborhoods, etc. are able, despite being all kinds of mediocre, to leverage their ‘relationships’ to keep out those who are far hungrier, and far more talented, but simply don’t have the right ‘relationships.’ 

  B.  It creates gatekeepers, who can use their access to the right ‘relationships’ to control a market. And gatekeepers are the exact opposite of true business ecosystems. Gatekeepers, and the idea that you have to know specific people in order to succeed, are contradictory to entrepreneurship.

I’ve observed how, in a variety of markets and startup ecosystems, pockets of people have attempted to become gatekeepers. It never ends well.  Influencers/connectors, meaning people who serve as ‘nodes’ of an ecosystem by knowing lots of people and helping them connect with each other, are a great thing. Every town needs them. A gatekeeper, however, is an influencer/connector who has devolved into using their relationships to cut off the market from others who won’t go through them. Rather than facilitating an ecosystem, they use the “it’s all about relationships” fallacy to artificially centralize it. 

Relationships do matter. Relationship-building skills are important. But the people who most emphasize the supremacy of relationships, instead of prioritizing authentic differentiation and value proposition, are often the most mediocre. Fact. By stating that relationships are what matter most, you’re indirectly acknowledging that your success has come from whom you know instead of from what you can actually deliver

I remember as a kid driving through the “rich people” neighborhoods (upper middle class), imagining how amazingly talented everyone living in those homes must be. There’s no way they could be that successful if they weren’t the best of the best, right? Now, I’m nauseated by how many people I’ve encountered over the years who’ve coasted into success simply by (i) being competent, yet uninspiring, and (ii) leveraging relationships they built during their childhood and college years. Because it’s “all about relationships.”  When lawyers are coached on how to build up a client base, the first thing they almost always hear is “start building relationships.” And perhaps work on your sports trivia while you’re at it.

People who truly believe it’s “all about relationships” do not become successful entrepreneurs. Great entrepreneurs focus first and foremost on developing a legitimate, differentiated, and defensible value proposition, and then building the right relationships from there. Be so good that the right people – the ones who don’t think it’s all about relationships and quid pro quo – can’t ignore you. The relationships will follow. 

When clients approach our firm, I am happier when I hear that they have scoped the market. It serves as a great starting point for explaining how and why, instead of following the old playbook, we’ve built our reputation by completely re-tooling how law firms run: better technology, a unique culture built through unique recruiting, billing rates hundreds of dollars per hour below market, extremely high client satisfaction, strong policies against conflicts of interest, and competitive market compensation for top lawyers who work 25% fewer hours than the firms they leave.

Many don’t realize it, but that last part has been part of my core mission the whole time. Our firm is built, from the ground up, to allow lawyers to have healthy personal lives, instead of pushing them (for the enrichment of partners) into workaholism. So that they don’t end up overworked and divorced. Like my parents. I told you the backstory mattered here.

Yeah, we’ve got relationships. But they were and are earned; not given, and not bought. To this day, I shut down any suggestion that we establish economics-driven (as opposed to merit driven) referral arrangements with anyone. Not everyone is happy about it. You can’t make everyone happy. It is not all about relationships.

A true business ecosystem cannot be controlled. And true entrepreneurs cannot be held back by gatekeepers; they find a way around them, eventually. It’s what they do. Give people a chance if they are hungry, and can demonstrate real skill. Even if they come from nowhere, and know no one. 

Angel Investors v. “Angel” Investors

TL;DR: The term “angel” investor has connotations that in reality don’t apply to a significant portion of early-stage seed investors outside of Silicon Valley. Historically, angel investors were very wealthy individuals who’d take big, almost irrational (from a risk-adjusted perspective) bets on entrepreneurs for reasons that go well-beyond a profit motive. Many “angels” that you’ll encounter as an entrepreneur, however, think and act in a much more self-interested, conservative manner; much like venture capitalists, but with smaller checkbooks. Both types are crucial to startup ecosystems, but knowing the difference is still important.

Related Reading:

One of the core reasons behind this blog’s existence is that the majority of legal/fundraising advice available to startup entrepreneurs comes from places (like Silicon Valley or NYC) that are dramatically different (in terms of access to capital and key resources) from the environments in which most tech entrepreneurs find themselves. That doesn’t mean at all that SV or NYC advice is bad or wrong. On the contrary, much of it is very very good and founders who look only to local advice will screw themselves – see: The Problem with Localism. But founders also need to understand the mismatches between the advice/culture they’re exposed to on the most popular podcasts, blogs, etc., and how things tend to work for normals.

One important area where I see the disconnect arise is in founders’ expectations in interacting with “angel” investors. The typical “angel” investor that you encounter in Austin, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, or Miami does not look, think, or act like what Silicon Valley people have historically referred to as “Angels.” 

Classic Angels

While the full origin of the term “angel” investor goes beyond this post, in general very early stage investors were very wealthy individuals who, in addition to other activities, wanted to “give back” to the business community by making bets on promising entrepreneurs that no one else (rational) would be willing to make. Hence, their investments were “angelic.” While this doesn’t mean at all that Angels didn’t scrutinize their investments, or that that they acted completely out of charity (hardly), the term absolutely has (correct) connotations of motives that are much broader than just making a great return.

These classic “Angels” were wealthy enough that writing a $100K or $200K+ check barely moves their needle, and so they could take the risk of investing in a company with little more than a very promising team and an idea, and perhaps the very early beginnings of a product. If it fails, NBD. They’re doing it for the relationships, the excitement, and the chance at supporting something new.  I often see founders take very early money from investors that fit the classic “Angel” profile, but those relationships take a long time to build. They don’t spark over a pitch contest or business plan competition.

Anyone who says there isn’t enough money in Texas/the South is painting with way too broad of a brush. There’s tons of money floating around here and elsewhere. The core difference is that in Silicon Valley, the true capital-A “Angel’ money was created in tech, and therefore much more easily flows back into early-stage tech (because the Angels trust their judgment on tech teams/companies). Outside of that environment, much of the ‘Angel’ money comes from other industries (like Energy, Healthcare, etc.), and so much more relationship-building, selling, and (cultural) translation is needed to convince it to go into a tech startup.  Great t-shirts and a pitch deck won’t get you there.

Most “Angels”

In most other tech ecosystems (outside of SV), when people speak of “angel” investors they are often talking about successful individuals who, while willing to take on the risk of early-stage seed investment (which is great), are not so wealthy and altruistic that they’ll barely feel losing $100K-$200K.  That means that most “angels” seen in non-SV ecosystems are much more conservative in how they pick their investments (and will therefore have higher expectations), because to many of them angel investing really is about making a great financial return.

Classic Angel investors were/are generally very wealthy senior executives and business people with net worths well into 8 figures and above, who will bet on team, vision, and minimal traction (if any); so very early stage. The majority of “angels” that entrepreneurs encounter in their own ecosystems, however, come from broader backgrounds (lawyers, doctors, real estate, business owners, etc.) and are affluent/comfortable, but not quite the 0.1% (their angel investments are material to them), and they”ll often want to see clear customer traction, revenue, and a more mature product; and a lower valuation. 

Of course, there are far more “angels” than Angels, so I’m not suggesting at all that the more conservative, self-interested nature of typical “angel’ investors is bad or a problem. They are crucial to startup ecosystems. I’m not running around writing $100K checks on team+vision either. But the distinction between the two categories often gets lost on first-time entrepreneurs, with negative consequences.

You likely need a Pre-Angel Plan

So the net result of the above is that tech entrepreneurs outside of the most dense ecosystems like SV and NYC encounter much higher expectations from “angels,” and therefore (and I’ve written this in prior posts) pre-angel money, what is typically called “friends and family” money, is often essential to building something attractive to “angels.” If I encounter a founder team planning to start a company without a viable path to $50K-$200K in initial funds, either from their own savings, friends and family, or a classic Angel, that is very often a red flag. Not game over, but it is a concern. 

It’s certainly been done before, especially when the founder team is very self-contained and willing to work for nothing until there is real traction, but most companies will never make it to the “angel” investment stage (product, traction, revenue) without either bootstrap/F&F funds, or a classic Angel investor willing to make a big bet. Accelerators have helped with this issue by (often) being the first non-F&F money in and serving as a valuable signal to “angels”, and they deserve credit for that, but even getting to a point where you’re attractive to a top accelerator often takes some real cash.

In short: most angel investors are much more conservative, and have higher expectations, than the term “angel” suggests, because they’re in a different category from the classic wealthy “Angel” investors that give the term its meaning. Be mindful of that fact, and prepare for it in your early-stage fundraising strategy.

Did you get a “good” valuation?

TL;DR: What a “good” valuation is depends highly on context: geography, industry, timing, size, team experience, value-add of money, control terms, and a dozen other variables. Be careful using very fuzzy guidelines/statistics, or anecdotes, for assessing whether you got a good deal. The best valuation for your company is ultimately the one that closes.

VC lawyers get asked all the time by their clients to judge whether their financing terms are good, fair, etc; especially valuation. And that’s for good reason. There are very few players in ecosystems who see enough volume and breadth of deals to provide a truly informed assessment of a financing’s terms. Executives have usually only seen their own companies. Accelerators see only their cohort’s. Most advisors/mentors have even more limited visibility.

But VC lawyers/firms with well-established practices see deals that cross geographic, industry, stage, etc. boundaries.  In addition to a firm’s internal deal flow, there are third-party resources that can be subscribed to with data on VC valuations across the country and the world. Those resources tend to be expensive (5-figure annual subscriptions), and only firms with deep VC practices will pay for them. Given how much you’ll be relying on your lawyers for advice on your financing terms (for the above-mentioned reasons), ensuring that they are objective (and not biased in favor of your investors) is crucial. 

The above all being said, founders should understand that determining valuation at the early stages of a company (seed, Series A, B) is far far more an art than a science. It is for the investor making the investment, and it is for the people judging whether the terms are “good.” That’s why relying on broad metrics like “median Series A valuation is X” is problematic; there are simply too many variables for each company that could justify deviating from the median, in either direction (lower or higher).

What some people call a seed round, others might call a Series A. Some companies raise a Series A very early on in their company’s history because the nature of their product requires serious capital expense to even get to early milestones. Other companies bootstrap for a decade and only use a Series A as true growth capital (the way others would use a Series C or D). I saw a $150MM ‘Series A’ once. I’ve also seen $500K ‘Series A’s. And everything in between as well. So whenever someone asks me “what’s a good Seed or Series A valuation?” the answer has to start out with: “it depends.” 

Below is a break-down of the mental analysis that I might use in assessing a company’s valuation. Remember, it is an art, not a science. There are widely varying opinions here, and this is just one of them. Consider it a set of suggested guidelines, not rules.

1. What was the last valuation a professional investor was willing to pay, and what progress has been made since then?

The easiest answer to “what is X worth?” is “whatever price someone was willing to pay.” While not entirely helpful in the VC context, it certainly is relevant. If you’re doing a Series A and you have institutionals who invested in a convertible note at a $5MM cap a year ago, the obvious question then is “how much progress has been made since then?” This, btw, is why it’s dangerous for companies to set their own valuations without a true market check from professional investors. Your earlier valuations will influence your later ones.

2. What city are you in?

Location. Location. Location. One of the strongest determinants of valuations is the density of startup capital in the city your company operates in; because density means competition. Silicon Valley valuations are not 2-3x those of the rest of the country because the VCs there are just nice guys who are willing to pay more. It’s a function of market competition. SV has the highest valuations. NYC follows. And then there’s the rest of the country, with variations by city. Austin valuations are generally higher than Atlanta’s, which are generally higher than Houston’s or Miami’s. General deal terms are also more company-friendly where there is more investment density.

While the entire concept of “founder friendly” investors does have an important moral/human dynamic to it, people who play in the space enough know that at some foundational level it is a form of self-interested brand differentiation. The ‘friendliest’ investors are the ones in the most competitive, transparent (reputationally) markets. Why take our money over theirs? Because we’re ‘founder friendly’… which can mean a whole lot of things; some of which are relevant, and others which are nonsense.

Yes, online networks are breaking down geographic barriers and you are seeing more capital flow between cities/states, but the data is still crystal clear that if a Silicon Valley VC is investing in an Atlanta or Austin company, they are going to want to pay something closer to Atlanta or Austin (not SV) prices. Much like all the Ex-Californians buying up Austin homes, they likely will pay slightly above the local market (and in both cases, it pisses off local buyers), but not much. 

3. How much is being raised?

Valuations can (and often do) vary widely between markets, while the actual dilution that founders absorb doesn’t vary as much. How is that? Because founders in markets with higher valuations raise larger amounts of money, and founders in markets with lower valuations raise smaller amounts of money; in each case getting the VCs/investors to their desired %. A $1MM raise at a $4MM valuation produces the same dilution as a $5MM raise at a $20MM valuation.

You should never close any round without modeling (lawyers often help here) the actual dilution you are going to absorb from the round, including any changes required to your option pool. Many investors focus first on their desired % and then back into the right valuation and round size. Smart founders should focus on %s as well. It’s not intuitive; especially if you have multiple rounds involved.

4. Who are the investors?

Value-add, known-brand institutional VCs and professional angels that will be deeply engaged in building your company after the check hits are (obviously) worth a lot more than investors who just bring money. And they will often price themselves accordingly (lower valuations). Some money is greener.

Diligencing the valuations your specific investors were willing to pay for their past investments is a smart move. Again, it still requires discussions about the differences between companies, but it can help address any statements like “we never pay more than $X MM for Series A.”

5. What are the other terms?

A $4MM valuation with a 1x non-participating liquidation preference looks very very different in an exit from a $6MM valuation with a 2x participating liquidation preference. So does a $3.5MM valuation with investors getting 1 out of 3 Board seats v. a $5MM valuation with them getting 2/3. The non-valuation terms matter. A lot. Juicing up valuations by accepting terrible ‘other’ terms gets a lot of companies in trouble. 

6. Other Business-Focused Variables

  • What are valuations within this specific industry looking like over the past 12 months?
  • What are the obvious acquirers paying for companies they buy?
  • Where is the company in terms of revenue? Revenue-multiples generally don’t have a place in early-stage, but a $25K MRR v. $300K MRR absolutely influences valuation.
  • Any serial entrepreneurs on the team? Good schools? Other de-risking signals?
  • What’s growth look like?
  • Size of market?
  • etc. etc. etc.

Obviously, multiple term sheets are a great way to have a very clear idea of where your valuation should be, but in most non-SV markets that is a privilege bestowed on a small fraction of companies.

Take-homes:

A. If your friend’s startup got X valuation for their Series A round, that can be totally irrelevant to what valuation you should get,

B. Other terms of the financing matter a lot too, as well as who is delivering them, and

C. If you have in your hand a deal that isn’t exactly at the valuation you wanted, remember that there are thousands of founders out there who got a valuation of $0.

Over-optimizing for valuation can mean under-optimizing on a host of things that matter far more for building your business. Get the best deal that you can actually get, given your business, location, and investors, and then move forward. And ignore the broad market data, particularly the Silicon Valley data, that isn’t relevant to your own company.

Bad Advisors: The Problem with Localism

TL;DR Nutshell: One hour with an advisor who has exactly the domain expertise your company needs could be infinitely more valuable than 100 hours with someone who doesn’t. Yet, unless you live in a large ecosystem, that all-star may not be in your city. So go find her. Time is precious and mistakes are costly. Never put localism before competence and results.

Related Reading:

My wife loves farmers markets.  I love healthy, delicious fresh food, as well as supporting decentralized agriculture over conventional mega farms.  But I also personally have a ‘thing’ against rewarding inefficiency and mediocrity. I dislike the way in which a lot of the pro-local ethos appears to almost celebrate how badly businesses can be run – hand-made, hand-picked, artisanal, small batch, etc. etc. If it doesn’t actually produce a tangible benefit to the consumer (better taste, as an example), why should I wake up early on a Saturday morning just to reward your bad business skills?

Funny thing is that there’s one local farm here in Austin that has begun to just dominate farmers markets. More variety, more staff, consistent quality, better pricing, even better branding. They’re everywhere. I love it, and whenever I have to go to a farmers market, I usually just end up shopping at that one booth. And when I’m not at a farmers market, I’m probably shopping at Whole Foods, which is the farmers market fully self-actualized. Say what you want about its prices, but John Mackey and WF took the pro-local, pro-environment, humane food value structure and scaled it (out of Austin) like no one else has since. And it is spectacular.

Touchdowns; Not Pep Rallies. 

Now back to tech. Celebrating your local business / startup ecosystem is a great thing. There’s deep value in the close, repeat relationships and networks that develop through working with people within your city. But with that being said, there is still a completely unavoidable fact: nothing comes even close to supporting a local startup ecosystem as much as the building of scaled, successful tech companies. All the meet-ups, startup crawls, networking events, hackathons, pitch contests, publications, parties, etc. are great and important in their own way, but, to repeat, nothing matters more than the building of great companies. Touchdowns. Wins.  Pep rallies do not attract the kind of deep talent that ignites a local economy; awesome companies do.

Once you accept that building successful companies trumps all else, there’s another unavoidable fact: working with highly competent, experienced advisors with truly valuable insight for your specific company, whether they’re in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Houston, Boston, London, Dallas, or wherever, comes first, second, and third before working with someone who may be more accessible to you locally, but can’t deliver nearly as much value. 

If it’s my company, my capital, and my employees on the line, I ain’t got time for the guy selling his tiny backyard tomatoes across the street, even if he knows everyone in town. I need that big, juicy peak game stuff, and if I have to go to the coasts to get it, so be it. Hit your goals with quality, imported help (if necessary), and you’ll sow a dozen A+ farmers in your city for the next entrepreneur to reap. THAT’s how to support your ecosystem.

Bad Advisors <> Influencers. 

Bad advisors are usually influential, well-known people in a local economy. They aren’t bad people. They just don’t have very useful advice, and often give bad advice, to early-stage founders. 

If you want to start a startup-oriented business – let’s use an incubator as an example – and generate a lot of buzz around town, you are going to want to work with the influencers in your community. They know whom to call, what strings to pull, and can even usually put in some cash, to help establish your incubator’s brand around town. What do all of those influencers expect in return? Profit? Perhaps. But more often than not, they want access. They want to be involved. How can they get involved? As mentors /advisors.

So it should not surprise you that when a new incubator, accelerator, co-working space, or other startup-oriented org launches in your town, a significant portion of the people involved will be there not because of the value they can bring to startups, but because of the value they brought to the person starting the incubator, accelerator, or what not. They may be C-suite executives at a prominent local company who have never worked anywhere with fewer than 200 employees. They may be wealthy businessmen in industries totally unrelated to your own. Sometimes it’s just a guy who is really F’ing good at networking.

It’s an unfortunate fact of reality that many business referrals, even in tech ecosystems, are made more with an eye toward perpetuating the influence of the person making the referral (reward people who refer back, are part of your ‘circle’) than the value that the recipient of the referral will receive. Finding people who care more about merit than about rewarding their BFFs is extremely important for a founder CEO. Those people will be honest with you when there simply isn’t anyone in town worth working with. I find myself saying that often about lawyers in specific niche specialties needed by tech companies, although increasingly less so each year.

Widen your network. 

The take home here should be to (i) understand why those influential (but sometimes clueless) local people are being pitched to you as advisors, even when they don’t really have very good advice (but they may have money, and it’s green), and (ii) go find the advisors you really need, wherever they are. But please save your equity for the people actually delivering the goods. Vesting schedules with cliffs. Use them.

Videoconferencing is pretty damn good and cheap these days.  I use it with clients all the time. LinkedIn and Twitter make it 100x easier today to expand your network than even 10 years ago. Hustle. Every founder team does not need to fit the super extroverted, Type A entrepreneur stereotype, but I’ll be damned if any company can succeed without someone who can get out there and shake the right hands.

Interestingly, some people are working on building curated (important, get rid of LinkedIn’s noise) marketplaces to help founders find well-matched advisors, hopefully at some point across geographic boundaries. Bad Ass Advisors appears to be the best example I’ve seen thus far. If BAA doesn’t become a hit, something like it will. The value prop is obvious.

 Most startup ecosystems have some awesome people to work with. Find them. Local can be valuable.  But as your company grows and evolves, don’t let the geographic boundaries of your city force you to settle for influential, but not very useful advisors. Customers > Community. All day. Every day. Never forget: you’ll help your local economy and ecosystem far more by going big and going far than by going local.

Startups Need Specialist Lawyers, But Not Big Firm “Lock In”

TL;DR Nutshell: In the course of your startup’s life, you’ll need perhaps a dozen or more different kinds of specialist lawyers.  There is very little about the practice of law today that requires you to source all of those lawyers from one firm when the “right” lawyer (experience, rate, culture) may be a solo, at a boutique, or at another large firm.  Yet traditional law firms continue to push the “one firm for everything” full service model because it allows them to mark up specialist lawyers whom startups could otherwise hire for several hundreds of dollars less per hour.

Background Reading:

Most people have a good understanding of the importance of specialist doctors; that if you have a serious skin issue, you call a dermatologist, but if you have a serious heart issue, you call a cardiologist.  Biology is far too complex, and the stakes are simply too high, to rely on a single generalist who, while valuable at coordinating specialists and keeping an eye on the forest relative to the trees, couldn’t possibly be smart enough to cover every specialty without repeatedly committing malpractice.

Generalists v. Specialists

New founders typically have less of an understanding of how this generalist v. specialist divide also exists for lawyers.  If you’re a 3-person coffee shop that isn’t playing on a national scale, it may be OK to rely on a single general lawyer to incorporate you, file your trademark, and maybe handle your lease.  But if you’re a scaling startup seeking VC funding and making decisions on Day 1 that will influence your company’s prospects when it hits $25MM in revenue, you need solid specialist lawyers.

The category of “startup lawyer” is itself a specialty. It means a corporate lawyer who (you hope) specializes in working with early-stage technology companies and has closed so many angel and VC deals that she doesn’t need to be “educated” when your investors show up with a term sheet.  Startup lawyers also play the role of a generalist, sourcing and quarterbacking specialists as needs come up for their clients.

Here are just a few examples of specialist lawyers that startups often require as they grow:

  • Patent Prosecution – which itself contains dozens of sub-specialties depending on the type of science/technology. You don’t hire a patent lawyer with a background in organic chemistry to draft your IoT hardware patent.
  • Patent Litigation
  • Commercial Litigation
  • Trademarks
  • Tax – U.S., and Country-Specific
  • Tech Transactions – (Licensing, Reseller Agreements, OEM, Distribution Agreements, etc.) – subspecialties include hardware focus, SaaS focus, etc.
  • Data Security / Privacy – subspecialties include financial data privacy, HIPAA, etc.
  • Open Source IP
  • International Trade / Export Compliance
  • Employment / Labor Law – federal and state-specific
  • Employee Benefits and Compensation
  • DE Corporate Governance
  • Environmental
  • Real Estate
  • Securities Regulation
  • Immigration
  • Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A)

One of the main points that I’ve driven home in many SHL posts, and around which MEMN’s tech practice has been built, is that no single law firm can or should attempt to employ all, or even most, of the specialist lawyers that a technology company needs over its life cycle. Apple is massive and employs dozens or hundreds of different types of engineers and executives. Why? Because without doing so it could never produce the iPhone 6. Take any specific type of developer or engineer out of Apple and have her work alone or at a much smaller entity, and she couldn’t possibly produce as much value as she can being integrated at Apple.

This is just not how law practice works. Lawyers in various specialties absolutely do collaborate to ensure clients are well-represented and that work performed by various people doesn’t conflict, but with today’s SaaS/collaboration tools (which weren’t available a few years ago), that collaboration occurs just as easily (and depending on the firm, more easily) between focused, specialized firms as it does under the same massive, bureaucratic structure.  

I can call a top trademark lawyer at a 5-person boutique or a similar lawyer at a 1000-lawyer firm, and their capacity to handle 99.9% of my client’s trademark needs is virtually the same, though the boutique lawyer will be $250+/hr less (yet make the same or more per hour), and generally give my client more attention. The core value produced by large law firms is concentrated in individual professionals who, unlike people working at integrated companies like Apple, hardly become less valuable when you change their address and sig block. 

The Driver of Big Firm “Lock In”

So why don’t large firms simply break up, allowing their lawyers to drop their rates and stop wasting clients’ money? Aside from fear and inertia, there is one very serious “glue” keeping BigLaw together: origination credit.  In law firm economics, lawyers make money not only from the work they do, but also from a % (their origination credit) of the work done by other lawyers in their firm for clients they source.  If I’m a startup lawyer at a large firm and can push my client to use my firm’s trademark lawyers, patent lawyers, litigators, etc. etc., I get a cut of all those fees. I don’t get a cut if I send them to another firm with better lawyers, lower rates, and more appropriate skills. 

Many founders are shocked to find out that, for the vast majority of lawyers in BigLaw, maybe 20-25% of the amount they bill ends up in the pockets of the lawyers doing the work. You’re billed $650/hr for a patent lawyer, but maybe $175 gets to that lawyer.  Most of the rest is: (a) bloat (see above), and (b) markup to feed the origination pyramid.  

Putting aside how much this screws clients (founders), you cannot possibly understand how badly specialist lawyers would love to be able to bill clients $300/hr less, without taking a cut in their compensation. But many of them can’t, because leaving their large firms means being cut off from the deal-flow. The only specialists who are able and willing to break free are the ones with enough client loyalty (and chutzpah) that they can take clients with them. And those are the specialists MEMN likes to work with.

Boutique Corporate Lawyers and the Specialist Ecosystem

When a startup works with a startup lawyer in a large firm and needs a specialist lawyer, 99% of the time the startup lawyer will push work to his own firm’s specialists. Never mind that the specialist he chooses may be over-kill, or over-priced, or simply a poor fit. That’s his firm’s specialist, and the firm expects him to “cross-sell” into other specialties. He wants his cut.

When a startups works with an MEMN startup lawyer and needs a specialist lawyer, we assess the various options in our network (or elsewhere) and let the client choose what he/she thinks is the best fit. For example, we could go with a solid solo lawyer billing in the $200s who’s excellent for straight-forward work.  If it’s a more serious issue we could go with the slightly more expensive boutique w/ high-end specialists in the $300s or low $400s.  Or if it’s a bet-the-company issue we could go with one of the top specialists in her field who formed her own firm recently and bills at $500/hr (she was $800 at her former firm).

Granted, sometimes the absolute right lawyer is, unfortunately, still in BigLaw, and we work with her, but every year that becomes a rarer occurrence as the specialist ecosystem grows.  And I always favor lawyers outside of BigLaw because of the risks they’ve taken, the better attention they give to clients, and the fact that they are building a legal market that is less soul-sucking for the country’s top legal talent.

The point is that we leverage our vetted network of specialists to ensure clients get “full service” legal counsel, without misaligned economic incentives muddying the relationship. Clients aren’t “locked in” to any particular set of specialist lawyers, so we’re free to choose from a much broader pool. While this represents a loss in origination credit for our lawyers, it also significantly enhances their value proposition to clients, helping overall with business development.  Short-term loss, long-term gain.

Founders should be mindful of the incentives behind how their startup lawyers source specialists, because they can and will have an impact on the bottom line, and could even result in major screwups from a mismatch between what the startup actually needed and the specialist who was put on the job.  While the overall market is evolving to favor flexibility, transparency, and efficiency, a lot of traditional firms still tout b.s. about the importance of “big firm resources.” Smart founders know that “big firm resources” is, for the most part, just code for “we’re going to keep milking clients with overpriced specialists until the music stops.”