TL;DR: Fully automated startup financing tools often utilize templates designed by and for investors. They claim to save founders money by reducing legal fees, but founders often end up giving 10-20x+ (relative to fees) away in cap table value as a result of the inflexibility and lack of trusted oversight over the “code.” Using vetted and trusted templates, while still incorporating non-conflicted counsel into the negotiation and review process, provides the best of both worlds: common starting points, with flexibility and trust.
- The Carta SAFE for Seed Rounds
- The Race to the Bottom in Startup Law
- Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law
“No Code” is a term I’ve been hearing more often lately. It refers to new tools that allow users to “program” various processes without actually having to code them; effectively modules of tools that are interoperable and allow building semi-customized programs without needing to actually get into coding. Very useful.
While “no code” seems to certainly have a good value proposition for many user contexts, it occurred to me recently that “no code” is good short-hand for the startup financing approach that parts of the investor community, and to some extent the tech automation community, has tried to peddle onto startup ecosystems and founders. By pushing the minimization of “friction” in funding (just sign fully automated templates), with the key “carrot” being the reduction in legal fees, these players want founders to think that it’s in their interests to simply close their financings with a few clicks, instead of leveraging lawyers to actually negotiate and flexibly customize the “code” (language).
The reasons behind why tech automation companies would push this perspective are obvious: they want to make money by selling you automation tools. But the reasons why the investor community is incentivized to also back this approach require a bit more explanation. For one example, see: Why Startups Should Avoid YC’s Post-Money SAFE. First-time founders are what you would call “one shot” players in the startup ecosystem. They are new, inexperienced, and laser-focused on the single company they are building. Investors, including prominent accelerators, are instead repeat players. They are highly experienced, resource-rich, and stand to benefit significantly if they can sway the norms/”standards” of the market in their favor.
The most prominent, high-brand investors have all kinds of microphones and mechanisms for nudging the market in ways to make themselves more money, especially because the founders usually absorbing the content have little experience and knowledge for assessing substance. One of those ways is to push templates that they (the investors) themselves have drafted, and create an impression that those templates are some kind of standard that everyone should adhere to without any customization. Of course, they’re far too clever to come out and say overtly that these templates are designed to make investors more money, so instead they’ll latch on to more palatable messaging: these templates will save you legal fees and help you close faster.
To summarize, investors and tech automation companies push the “no code” approach to early-stage funding out of self-interest, but they use the “save you legal fees” marketing message to get founders to buy in. The problem that not enough people talk about is that by taking the “no code” approach, founders become permanently stuck with the pre-packaged and inflexible code (contract language) that these players provide. And as I’ve written extensively on this blog, the code is dirty.
I want to emphasize the word permanently here. Look up what most “no code” tools do. They help you sort contacts, build a spreadsheet, maybe build some low-stakes automation processes. Good stuff, but very different from, say, permanently signing contractual terms for millions of dollars that in the long-run can have billion-dollar economic and power implications. In startup funding, we are talking about executing on issues that are literally 1000x more consequential, and un-modifiable once signed, than all the other areas where “no code” approaches are applied.
Having a trusted advisor (lawyer) make even just a few tweaks to a template document, or flexibly choosing a better-fit template to begin with, can have million/billion-dollar implications for a company. Given the enormous stakes involved – what bank account exit money goes into, and who gets ultimate decision-making power over an enterprise – founders need to think very hard about whether getting boxed into an inflexible automation tool, in order to save at most $5-25k in fees in a seed financing, is actually the smart approach. I see inexperienced founders regularly handing over millions in cap table value to investors, and in some instances unwittingly giving those investors strong “choke point” power over their governance, all because the founders were convinced that lawyers are a boogeyman extracting money to just push paper and hand-waive with no value-add.
Notice here that I’m not advocating for a wholesale reversion to the old-school days of simply letting lawyers take full control of the negotiation process, using whatever forms and standards they want. There is enormous value in having market-respected starting points for negotiation; sets of templates known and understood by investors, and trusted by lawyers who represent companies (and not investors), that can then be flexibly modified to arrive at a final deal that makes sense for a specific context. By having your lawyers (who hopefully aren’t conflicted with the investors they’re negotiating with) draft initial deal docs from a reputable template, the lawyers on the investor side can redline against that familiar starting point, instantly reducing the amount of up-front negotiation by 80% because they aren’t working with language (code) they’ve never seen.
What I’m effectively advocating for here is an “open source” approach to high-stakes early-stage startup law. It allows for some standardization (efficiency), but also flexible customization, to ensure every deal is fair for the parties involved. And importantly, it ensures that the templatization and customization is transparent and “open,” with lawyers from both the investor and startup (company-side) community participating; instead of the one-sided “here are the standards” model that certain VCs have tried to adopt. We can deliver founders and investors substantial efficiencies in fundraising, without using “saving fees” as an excuse for burdening founders with inflexibility and “dirty” code (contracts) that simply aren’t justified.
With this in mind, I’ve published a Seed Round Template Library, with links to templates for convertible notes, pre-money SAFEs, seed equity, and full NVCA docs, along with a few educational articles. By using these starting points, founders can have the efficiencies of working from vetted and trusted language, but without the enormous costs of using fully automated templates designed to favor investors.