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.

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.

Don’t Rush a Term Sheet

TL;DR: No matter how many blog posts and books are out there (many of which I recommend) attempting to explain the mechanics of VC term sheets in simple terms, the reality is that VC term sheets are complicated, both in terms of how their math works and in how the various control-related provisions will impact a founder team over time. Take time to understand them, and don’t rush to sign, even if investors make you feel like you have to.

Background Reading:

Similar to the ‘automation delusion’ that I’ve written about in Legal Technical Debt, which has led some very confused founders to think that most of what startup lawyers do is getting eaten (as opposed to supplemented) by software, there’s a sentiment among parts of the founder community that VC deals have become so standardized that the only kind of analysis needed before signing a term sheet should look something like:

“$X on a $Y Pre?”

“5-person Board, with 2 common, 2 Preferred, and 1 Independent?”

“Great, here’s my signature.”

Take this approach, and you are going to get a lot of ice cold water splashed on your face very quickly, and not at all in a good way. I’ve seen it many times where founders run through a VC deal, so excited about how awesome their terms were, only to realize (sometimes at closing, sometimes years later when things have finally played out) that there were all kinds of “Gotcha’s” in the terms that they failed to fully appreciate. Having solid, independent, trustworthy advisors to walk you through terms before signing is extremely important, and it needs to be people whose advice you take seriously. See: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers and Your Best Advisors: Experienced Founders. 

Some simple principles to follow before signing a term sheet are:

A. Fabricated Deadlines Should be Pushed Back On – It is very common for a term sheet to end with something like “this term sheet will expire on [date that is 48 hours away].” That deadline is very rarely real. It’s just there to let you know that the VC expects you to move quickly.

It is unreasonable to sit on a VC’s term sheet for weeks without good reason. By the time they’ve offered you a term sheet, they’ve likely put in some real time diligencing your company, and the last thing they want is for you to take their term sheet and then “shop” it around to their competitor firms to create a bidding war.  Doing so is not how the relationship works, and will almost certainly burn your deal. So expecting you to move somewhat quickly in negotiating and then signing is fair, but if a VC is pressuring you with anything remotely like “this needs to be signed in 24/48 hours, or the deal’s gone,” what you have there is a clear picture of the kind of power politics this VC is going to play in your long-term relationship.

Move quickly and be respectful, but make sure you’re given enough time to consult with your advisors to fully grasp what you are getting into. It should be in everyone’s interest to avoid surprises long-term.

B. Model The Entire Round – VC Lawyers are usually the best people to handle this because they see dozens of deals a year and will be the most familiar with the ins-and-outs of your existing capitalization, but having multiple people running independent models is always a good idea, to catch glitches. You want to know exactly what % of the Company your lead VC expects for their money, before agreeing to a deal.

I have seen many situations where founders get distracted by a ‘high’ valuation, but when everyone is forced to agree on hard numbers they realize that the VC’s definitions were very different from what the founder team was thinking.  This is absolutely the most crucial when you have convertible notes or SAFEs on your cap table, because how they are treated in the round will significantly influence dilution. The math is not simple. At all.

C. Understand The Exclusivity Provision – Most term sheets will have a no-shop/exclusivity provision “locking you up” for 45-60 days, the amount of time it typically takes to close a deal after signing a term sheet. This is reasonable, assuming it’s not longer than that, to protect the VC from having their terms shopped around. But it also means that if you are talking to other potential VCs, the moment one term sheet arrives, everyone else should be told (without disclosing the identity or terms of the TS you have in hand) that it’s time to put forth their terms, or end discussions. Because once signed, your job is to close the signed term sheet.

D. Focus on Long-Term Control/Influence Over Decision-Making – Thinking through the various voting thresholds, board composition, and consent requirements is extremely important. Will the board be balanced, with an ‘independent’ being the tie breaker? Then being extremely clear on who the independent is, and how they’ll be chosen, is crucial. Will one of the common directors have to be the CEO at all times? Then understanding exactly how a successor CEO will be chosen is crucial, because usually at some point it’s not a founder.

If X% of the Preferred Stock is required to approve something, then you need to know (i) what %s of the Preferred will each of your investors hold, and (ii) who will the other investors be? Usually the Company gets discretion as to what money gets added to the round apart from the lead’s money, ensuring there are multiple independent voices even within the investor base, but some VCs will throw in a provision requiring that only their own connections fund the round. That heavily influences power dynamics.

There will be many situations in the Company’s life cycle where everyone on the cap table doesn’t agree on what’s the best path for the company. Ensuring balance on all material decisions, and preventing the concentration of unilateral power, is important, and yet not simple to understand without processing terms carefully. 

E. Shorter Term Sheets are Not Better – There is debate within the VC/VC Lawyer community as to whether shorter, simpler term sheets are better than longer, more detailed ones. I fall squarely in the camp that says you should have clarity on all material terms before signing and locking yourself into exclusivity; not just the economic ones.  That means any sentences like “the Preferred Stock will have ‘customary’ protective provisions” (meaning they will have the right to block certain company actions) should be converted into an exact list of what those provisions will be. I can guarantee you your counsel’s perspective on what’s ‘customary’ is going to differ from their counsel’s.

The view among those who prefer shorter term sheets is that you should sign as soon as possible, to avoid ‘losing the deal’ (as if VC investment is that ephemeral). I don’t buy it. The moment you sign a term sheet, you are going to start racking up legal fees, and you are now bound by a no-shop/exclusivity. That means your leverage has gone down, and you are much more exposed to being pressured into unfavorable terms to simply ‘get the deal closed.’ Politely and respectfully negotiate a term sheet to make it clear what all of the core economic and control terms are. The alignment and lack of surprises on the back end is well-worth the extra time on the front end. 

In short, the core message here is know what you are signing. Make sure your VCs know that you are committed, and aren’t going to play games by shopping their terms. But also make sure you are talking to the right people to ensure that the deal you think you’re getting is in fact the one in your hands.

Your Best Advisors: Experienced Founders

TL;DR Nutshell: While great advice for a founder team can come from all kinds of sources, nothing comes close to matching the value of advice from other founders (preferably local ones) who have been through the exact same fire themselves, and made it to the other side.

Related Reading:

Suddenly, everyone who just shows up to school gets a participation trophy, every lawyer with small clients is a ‘startup lawyer,’ and everyone who can pull a few strings is a startup ‘advisor’ or ‘mentor.’ While there are truly great advisors/mentors out there, I see founders constantly wasting time, equity, and in some cases money on people who have very little substantive value to deliver to an early-stage technology company.

While the above-linked post gets more in-depth into the source of the problem, this one is about one specific type of ‘advisor’ that every single founder team should have: other experienced founders; specifically founders who have gone through a successful fundraising process, dealt with the nuances of founder-investor relations (preferably with the same/similar types of investors), and either achieved an exit, failed (you can get great advice from people who failed), or are still going strong.

Cut Through the PR

Given how easy it is to orchestrate personal branding and online PR that obscures the truth, every founder team needs people to talk to, privately and confidentially, to get direct, relevant, unvarnished advice; the kind that doesn’t make it onto twitter or blog posts. And there’s no better place to find that advice than experienced founders. 

Want to know what it’s actually like to work with a lawyer? You don’t ask other lawyers, or google, or other people in the market who know her; you ask her clients. Want to know what it’s actually like to work with a specific VC? You don’t ask twitter, or angel investors, or people who run accelerators. You ask their portfolio companies. And more specifically, within those companies you don’t ask the CEO put in place at the first large round and who managed to negotiate the ‘founder’ title for himself; you ask the original founder team that took the first check.

I can’t tell you how often founders will ask the wrong people about a lawyer, a VC, an accelerator, or some other service provider, and then get a complete 180 degree, unvarnished perspective when they ask, off the record, the direct ‘users’ of those people. That’s how you find out that the X lawyer who is ‘extremely well respected and well-known’ happens to take a week to respond to founder e-mails; or that Y ‘well-connected’ VC uses shady tactics to coerce founders into accepting unfair terms. You won’t get it from twitter. And you won’t get it from people who didn’t sit directly in the founder chair. 

There is a world of difference between talking to people who know about the challenges of being a founder v. those who lived them.

Finding Experienced Founders

Don’t expect seasoned founders to be running around town doing free office hours for random founder teams with an idea and hope. They’re not mother teresa. They’re sought-after, extremely busy people, and expect to have their time respected just like anyone else. So hustle to connect with them just like how you hustle to connect with other important people. Meetups, LinkedIn, Twitter, Accelerator Alumni Networks, etc. While I have serious reservations about lawyers connecting clients directly to investors, I think great VC lawyers are excellent connectors to experienced founder teams, as long as the ‘intro request’ makes sense.

But you can know that most excellent founder CEOs I know, even the ‘tougher’ ones, have a special, soft place in their heart for other founder CEOs fighting the same fight. Despite the fact that their advice is probably some of the most valuable you’ll ever find, they’re often the last people to ask for ‘advisor equity’ in exchange for their advice. Although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t voluntarily offer it to them.

In short, very very few founder teams can make it very far purely on their own judgment. They need independent advisors to consult with on relevant issues. But most advisors don’t have first-hand knowledge of the core challenges of being a founder, and therefore aren’t qualified to advise on those issues. That knowledge lies with experienced founders. Find them.