Promising Equity v. Issuing Equity

Background Reading:

An underlying theme of a number of SHL posts has been the common misunderstanding among young, first-time founders around what startup/vc lawyers in fact do. As I wrote in Legal Technical Debt, a mindset has emerged from certain startup circles suggesting that virtually anything legal that startups do at early-stage, from forming their company to raising seed financing, can be automated with software.

That confused mindset leads founders to (i) assume that all lawyers are just luddites over-charging startups for effectively filling in forms, and (ii) results in founders accruing an enormous amount of compounding ‘legal technical debt’ from badly drafted documents, mis-matched contracts, missed legal steps, etc. For companies that fail fast, the debt never comes due. And yes, there is a clear correlation, from my experience, between founders who arrogantly think lawyers are worthless and those that never build anything of significance.  Dumb people believe and do dumb things.

For those founders that do end up building a real business, however, the 10x cleanup cost of legal technical debt (relative to what it would’ve cost to do it correctly from the start) is often brutally painful. There are a lot of very interesting new tools out there being built to streamline and optimize how tech/vc lawyers work, and you should certainly look for lawyers who are using them. But if you think for a second that you’re going to build a real tech company without needing serious lawyers who can safely manage significant legal complexity, you are, without question, deluding yourself.  

A significant source of “automation confusion” arises from founders not understanding the difference between promising equity and actually issuing equity. I’ve noticed this from how many of our own (very early stage) clients will randomly e-mail us a set of contracts executed over a period of several months with a short message like: “we went ahead and *issued* some equity on our own.  just FYI.”  This blog post will save me from having to write the same e-mail 30 times in the future.

Promising Equity 

I can promise someone equity in 5 seconds, and 1 sentence.

“I promise to issue you 10,000 shares.”

See, it’s not hard. Promising equity is exactly as easy, and as automatable, as it sounds.  Anyone who automates a contract for promising equity, which usually means filling in numbers into a static template, doesn’t deserve the slightest bit of praise for innovation. It’s been do-able for decades.

Sure, people still make mistakes in promising equity all the time. They calculate the number of shares incorrectly, or they get the vesting schedule wrong (or don’t offer one at all), or they simply grabbed the wrong form to begin with.  But the point is that, perhaps with a little guidance from educational materials and a boilerplate form, promising someone equity is do-able as a DIY project.

Reality Check

The problem, of course, is that promising equity is 2% of the much more complicated process needed to actually issue equity. To correctly accomplish the issuance of equity from your company and into the hands of the intended recipient, a web of highly contextual legal analysis needs to occur. Just a short (non-exhaustive) example:

  • What kind of entity are you? That influences the type of equity you can issue.
  • Stock? Option?
    • If Stock, at what price?
    • If Option, at what price? To an employee, or a contractor?
  • Vesting schedule? 83(b)? Acceleration?
  • Was the price set correctly to avoid tax consequences?
  • Enough authorized shares?
  • Correct class of equity?
  • Is it being issued under an equity plan?
  • Was the plan adopted correctly?
  • Are there enough shares in the plan?
  • Is the recipient eligible to receive the equity under securities laws and tax rules?
  • Any state-specific rules/filings to comply with?
  • Any contractual approvals needed?
  • Any cap table adjustments needed, like anti-dilution?
  • Approved by Board?
  • Anyone else that needs to be notified about the Board action?
  • Any spouses we need to worry about for community property purposes?

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Want to try automating that? Good luck to you. Medical care will be fully automated before complex legal work is. Why? Because there’s far less variability in biology than there is between the legal structures of companies. You simply cannot automate (not in a commercially viable way, at least) in an environment where every use case has a totally different starting point, context, and history, in an infinite number of combinations. Even less so where high-stakes errors are cemented in ways (via contract execution and enforceability) that do not allow for quick and easy bug fixes. That is precisely the world in which serious VC lawyers operate.

Believe me, I empathize deeply with the disdain for lawyers held by many entrepreneurs, and share some of it myself. As someone who manages recruiting for our firm, I constantly find myself fighting a sense that the legal field is a magnet for people who think that perfecting their punctuation matters more than learning to actually advise clients on the what, why, and how of startup law.

But there are lawyers in the market who know how to get things done efficiently and correctly. I hire those lawyers. You can either (i) pay them now, (ii) pay them 10x later, or (iii) assume your company will fail before the debt comes due.

Startup Advisors: Best Practices

Background Reading:

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

Advisory ‘Boards’ Rarely Exist.

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

Don’t Stay Local.

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

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

Don’t Confuse Mentors with Advisors.

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

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

Get Independent Viewpoints

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

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

Favor Intellectual Honesty over Politeness

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

Use an Advisor Agreement.

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

Equity; %, Vesting Schedule, Cliff, Acceleration.

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

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

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

Use that cliff.

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

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

When You’re Not CEO Material

TL;DR: Before you even talk to VCs, know your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and work on them. Know your VCs by asking honest questions early on, and verifying answers in the market. And be proactive and honest about what you really want to be doing at your company, and what matters most to you. When CEO succession drama starts to damage a company, it’s almost always because the founder and the VCs failed to (i) align themselves on their approach to Company management and recruiting early on, and (ii) create an environment of trust and transparency where founders can give up some control without fearing that the fruits of their hard work are being given up as well.

Background Reading:

No matter how much certain investors market themselves as “founder friendly,” no competent VC can guarantee a Founder CEO that they will stay CEO. VCs have a job to do: to turn other people’s money into more money. To the extent they are convinced that keeping a founder as CEO will maximize their chances of doing that (long-term), they will do so. Otherwise, they will tell a founder CEO, sooner or later, that a new CEO is needed.

“Founder Friendly” VCs are the ones who’ve concluded that being friendly to founders helps them make more money.  They are not your BFFs, and you shouldn’t need them to be.

The below are some thoughts, from someone who’s seen it play out many times, on how founders should approach the “Are you CEO material?” issue; both before the hard conversation has arrived, and after.

First: Answer Your Founder’s Dilemma: Rich or King?

If staying in control of your company is much more important to you than achieving an excellent financial return, you should significantly reconsider whether venture capital is right for you at all.  Remember: VCs have a job to do, which is to make lots of money. You bring them on to align yourself with them so that when they make lots of money, you make lots of money.

It’s fine and common if you have a certain ‘mission’ that runs alongside the goal of building successful, profitable business; most great founders do.  But if you’re working with VCs, (i) that mission better be the kind of mission that unlocks lots of benjamins, and (ii) you better be OK at some point handing over the crown and becoming a part of, but not the leader of, management. Because, statistically, most founder CEOs eventually get replaced; voluntarily or involuntarily.

Second: Find Out if a VC is a Coach or Underminer

While all VCs are in it to make money, their philosophies regarding how much “coaching” to give founder CEOs vary wildly. Some VCs know that a founder CEO most likely will need to be replaced once the company has become a true enterprise, but they see value in keeping a founder in the CEO seat for some time and coaching them on their gaps, and also helping them fill some those gaps with other senior hires.  Other VCs virtually never let a first-time founder CEO remain in their position post-Series A. They are fine having them as CTO or COO, but they will almost always make their large check contingent on bringing in one of their preferred professionals.

There is no way to know whether you are working with a Coach or an Underminer other than to (i) directly ask (early) the VC what their perspective is on senior management post-closing, and (ii) examine the existing portfolio of the VC to see what has in fact happened every time they’ve closed a round. Trustworthy advisors who are active in the market are helpful here, as is LinkedIn.

If you’re working with an Underminer, and there are no other options, it is what it is. Work within that reality (see Step 4).

Third: Realize that you are being “sized up” from the moment you first speak to investors.

No one should pretend that “good CEOs” fit neatly into some contrived stereotype. Their personalities, appearance, backgrounds, etc. can vary significantly. However, the core jobs of a CEO, particularly at early stage, are quite uniform: (i) recruit employees, (ii) recruit investors and strategic partners, & (iii) manage and lead everyone to execute effectively on the strategy. From the moment you first interact with investors, they are asking themselves whether a founder CEO can do those things.

Fact: everything about your interactions with lead investors, from the tone and confidence of your communications, to body language and eye contact, and how you respond to push-back and calculated aggression, will influence their perception of whether you are “CEO material.” Complain all you want about prejudices, bias, judging books from covers, etc., but that is just reality. Leadership is not handed charitably. It’s asserted by behavior and results. The concept of “executive presence” is something worth familiarizing yourself with.

No, this does not mean you need to pretend to be some gun-slinging, type A alpha executive. Many great CEOs are calm and collected. But the fact of the matter is that being a CEO of any company requires the ability to have hard conversations and take some heat. If you can’t hold your own in a direct conversation with a VC, they will infer that you can’t do so in the many other key conversations that a CEO needs to have to lead a company.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard something like “That founder? He’s got a bit of an ego,” to which I usually respond, “What do you think it takes?” Ego? Thick skin? Stubborn? Chip on their shoulder? A little prickly? You better f***ing believe it.  Industries usually don’t get blasted open by people overflowing with tenderness and sensitivity.

Fourth: Focus long-term on transparency and influence; not control.

I’ve found over time that many founder CEOs do not actually enjoy being CEO, especially as the company starts growing significantly (~post Series B). They insist on staying in the CEO seat, not because they truly think it best suits their skillset, but because of a fear that stepping down from the top automatically means totally losing influence and visibility into where the company is headed. A culture of transparency and clear communication at the board level can resolve this disconnect and avoid dysfunction.

The key issue here is not whether the Company needs a new CEO, but how to handle succession. The perfect way to create mistrust between founders and their board/management is for VCs to parachute in C-level hires with minimal founder involvement in the recruitment and selection process. It looks something like “We are getting a new CEO, and it’s X (often who was a CEO at a prior portfolio company).” In this scenario, the recruitment of new executives feels far less like the leveraging of much-needed, independent new talent for the benefit of everyone, and more like the investors taking control over management by hiring their loyalists under the pretense of ‘upgrading’ the team. 

When a founder CEO is able to propose her own candidates for the CEO position (and other C-level positions), and play a lead role in interviewing, vetting, and training the prospects, succession goes substantially smoother for everyone. In that scenario, much like a truly independent director, the founders will view the new CEO and other C-level hires as balanced people whose long-term vision and values are closely aligned with the original team. Trust is preserved, and that trust, along with a continued seat at the Board table and contractual protections around their equity and compensation, frees founders to move to positions in the company that are better suited for their skills (CTO, Chief of Product, Chief of Strategy, COO, etc. etc.), and which they usually enjoy more.

Again, different VCs have different philosophies on how to approach CEO/Executive succession, including timing. The only way to find out is to get a dialogue going early on, before term sheets are delivered, and verify the answers by talking, privately, to portfolio companies. As always, having your inner circle of advisors to, confidentially and off-the-record, help you gather that information is key.

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.

Founder Education

TL;DR: Accelerators have emerged as elite universities of sorts for tech entrepreneurs. But they offer a bundled value proposition at a price (in terms of time and equity) that doesn’t work for everyone. For those teams in need of just the educational aspects of an accelerator, other (quality, but lower cost) offerings are starting to be developed that should be considered.

I’m a huge proponent of curation and leveraging the knowledge of trustworthy domain experts to avoid burning time; time that could otherwise be spent running a company.

The value of curation in the lives of founders is perhaps reflected best, above all else, in the rise of accelerators. Accelerators’ core value proposition to founders is that, in exchange for (i) several weeks of their time, (ii) an equity stake, and (iii) rights to invest in future investment rounds, founders in accelerators gain virtually immediate access to significantly curated resources: investors, mentors, other founder teams, prime office space, educational content, etc.

And on the flip side, great accelerators are able to attract quality resources by promising the people who provide those resources access to a curated set of startups; saving them time from having to sort them out in the general marketplace.

Of course, the value of those resources and their curation varies wildly depending on the quality of the accelerator. Top accelerators have proven invaluable to many young, inexperienced founder teams who’ve saved countless time searching, networking, vetting, etc. by tapping into an accelerator’s network and resources. Lower quality accelerators, however, are often a time suck, and much like the “Top Startups to Watch” lists we all see get thrown around, can serve as a damaging and distracting vanity metric.

But as much of a fan as I am of great accelerators, the reality remains that accelerators offer a bundled value proposition. And not every founder team needs, or is willing to ‘pay’ for, the entire bundle. Some founders have already arrived at a successful business model showing strong traction, and are good in the advisor department, but just need connections to Series A investors.  Other teams are well-funded, and already have their own office space, but could really use some guidance on the ‘fundamentals’ of recruiting, managing a scaling company, etc. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if resources are developed in startup ecosystems to address these types of companies for which a typical accelerator isn’t the right fit.

Every now and then I use SHL to spread awareness about new resources in the market that I feel are really adding something differentiated and high value for founders relative to what’s currently available. Years ago I wrote about Clerky and how it filled a void in the market of startups that just need a super-fast, totally standard incorporation and corporate organization, and due to capital constraints are willing to go through it without a lawyer. I also wrote about how eShares was using a SaaS model to liberate early-stage startups form burning money on 409A valuations. I later wrote about how services like Bad Ass Advisors can help companies connect with specialized advisors/mentors beyond the limited roster of people available in their local market.

Today, I’m writing about another topic: Founder Education; meaning how founders can get access to the wisdom/pattern recognition of people who’ve observed dozens, or even hundreds, of startups. It includes best practices on topics like starting a company, finding advisors, finding product-market fit, using advisors, compensating people with equity, targeting investors, understanding metrics, building sales/distribution channels, etc. etc. Books and blogs are great, but they can only go so far, and sorting gold from garbage gets hard. Top accelerators have developed internal curriculums for these sorts of topics, but (remember) they come bundled with a lot of other resources, and at a price, that don’t necessarily work for all companies.

In Austin, I was recently introduced to Founders Academy; an educational curriculum designed for tech founders. It’s run by Gordon Daugherty, a very well-known and respected (including by me, and SHL readers know I’m jaded from experience) startup advisor in Austin who’s had a front seat for some time at one of Austin’s best known accelerators, Capital Factory. Gordon’s built Founders Academy into a packaged, structured curriculum for new tech founders; offered both as a set of online videos that you can buy, and also as an in-person course (taught by Gordon over a few days) that founders can sign up for.

I got some feedback from a few teams that participated in the in-person course, and they all said it was extremely valuable for the price of a few hundred dollars.  I’ve reviewed much of the material myself, and have also interacted with Gordon enough, to say that he knows what he’s talking about, and because his background is in Austin / Texas, his curriculum will resonate well with founders operating in markets that aren’t Silicon Valley.

As I’ve written about before on: Bad Advisors: The Problem with Localism, many tech entrepreneurs operating in second and third-tier ecosystems run into a serious problem when they limit their pool of advisors to their city’s geographic boundaries: they get bad (sometimes really bad) advice. Founders Academy, and other programs like it (if you know of them, leave comments please) thankfully help solve that problem by scaling the wisdom of domain experts (advisors who aren’t charlatans) in ways that are more structured and digestible than just blog posts or books.

Education means leveraging the wisdom of others, so you can avoid the mistakes that they made. For tech entrepreneurs who don’t have time or money to waste, the right kind of education is invaluable. And while top accelerators have emerged as the elite universities of the tech startup world, they clearly aren’t for everyone. It’s great to see quality educational resources popping up to fill the void.

p.s. Like Clerky, eShares, and Bad Ass Advisors, I don’t have any ownership interest in Founder Academy. The mention was entirely earned.