Negotiation is Relationship Building

TL;DR: Aggressive investors, especially early-stage ones, hate it when you negotiate with them; but they’ll often mask their frustration by accusing you (and your lawyers) of nit-picking and not staying (air quotes) “standard.” It shouldn’t take a ton of explaining as to why that’s the case, but the truth is that there are very few ways to get to know your investors better than through negotiation of a financing or a difficult Board-level issue. People can say any number of nice-sounding things over beers, or in casual conversation, but the truth comes out when you ask someone to commit to it on paper.

As I’ve written in several prior posts, including Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems, the world of startups is quite unique given the high inequality of experience and power between the business parties involved. In most business contexts, you’ve got relatively seasoned executives on both sides negotiating with each other. But in the startup context, you often have highly-networked, experienced, wealthy, and influential investors negotiating with a first-time entrepreneur who is ‘unequal’ in experience to the investor in every category. Obviously, investors enjoy this environment. It keeps them in control, and offers numerous opportunities to push things in the direction that they prefer… unless of course when annoying negotiations, or advisors, get in the way.

But then again, many startup investors are constrained in the ways that they can express frustration when they don’t get what they want. Because many of them have come to rely on public marketing personas – via blogs, social media, etc. – of “friendliness,” if they pound the table and simply tell a founder to shut up and sign the docs, word will get around; hurting their brand and pipeline. It’s too visible, and too easy for the entrepreneur to quickly react to. So they need to be smarter and more subtle about how they can constrain negotiations, and keep the playing field slanted in their favor, but in a way that’s more difficult to detect.

In the early stages of a startup, there are very few advisors that a set of entrepreneurs will encounter with deeper negotiation experience, and ability to level the playing field between startups and their investors, than a seasoned startup lawyer who is independent from the money. They often see dozens of financings a year, across numerous geographies and industries, and have also observed the full playbook of power games that aggressive investors can play on Boards, deals, and cap tables. This makes them important “equalizers” in the founder-VC dynamic, and it’s precisely why you constantly see the investor community engaging in strategies to gain influence over, or otherwise silence, the legal community.

Behind the well-spun rhetoric about “saving” founders legal fees, and helping “streamline” things for startups, is in many cases a strategy by influential investors to remove independent counsel from the negotiation table, because in doing so investors can fully enjoy the advantages of how much more experienced and influential they are than first-time founders & employees. Lawyers heavily dependent on the investor community for referrals have been more than happy to collude with the money in this scheme, at the expense of common stockholders who, as a result, are deprived of real strategic counsel.

Imagine for a second that Apple and Google – two equally powerful companies with equally seasoned executives – are negotiating a high-stakes deal with each other. Now imagine if someone at Google suddenly tried to tell Apple what lawyers they should be using to negotiate the deal. You would immediately expect a response along the lines of, “You must be joking, right?” What if Apple tried to tell Google how much they should spend on their advisors in negotiating/structuring the deal? Again, same reaction, which you would expect in the vast majority of business contexts and industries. Seasoned business executives have a very keen understanding of incentives, and don’t react lightly to someone reaching across the table out of some pretense of being “helpful.”

And yet this sort of behavior is extremely common in startup ecosystems. Why? The stated reason from the investor community – the “spin” if you will – is that they’re looking out for the entrepreneur. Can’t let those loudmouth, over-billing lawyers take advantage of founders, right? It’s much better if investors, surely out of good will and generosity, reach across the table and ensure things are being done “properly.” While in almost any other business context this would be seen as obviously self-interested and disrespectful infantilization, the experience and power inequality that is unique to startup ecosystems enables investors to take on a paternalistic “this is how things should work” stance in high-stakes discussions with common stockholders. Few things irritate those investors more than hearing an experienced lawyer respond unapologetically, “here is how things actually work.”

When there’s no one on the other side of the table to push back on behalf of the inexperienced players (the common stock), with credible experience and expertise, the experienced money has an easy time pushing important discussions, negotiations, and many other important company matters in the direction that they want. The following are the most common strategies that aggressive (and smart) startup investors will use to minimize negotiation, and therefore get what they want, while still maintaining an appearance of non-aggression:

A. Get startups to use “captive” lawyers.

I’ve written extensively about this already. See How to avoid “captive” company counsel and When VCs “Own” Your Startup’s Lawyers.  By emphasizing how much money will be “saved” by using “familiar” lawyers, entrepreneurs are often pushed to use lawyers who ultimately are controlled by the money. Those lawyers have every reason to keep their mouth shut in negotiations, because the money has heavy influence over the lawyers’ client pipeline.

B. Shrink the legal budget, to get lawyers to stay quiet. 

Negotiation takes time. Because of their experience, VCs often know how to negotiate deals themselves, without much need for lawyer involvement; certainly term sheets and Board issues. But first-time entrepreneurs and startup employees (common stockholders) are in the opposite situation. They rely heavily on outside advisors to walk them through terms and negotiate, and that requires a budget.

As we’ve said above, aggressive VCs hate negotiation. They know what they want, and they’re accustomed to being able to pressure founders into getting it. Any extra time negotiating (supported by counsel) means shrinking the power inequality between the VC and the entrepreneurs, so a great way to shrink that time is to shrink the budget. To the common stockholders, the extra time may be totally worth it, given how high-stakes and permanent the terms being negotiated are. But by saying something like “this deal shouldn’t cost more than $X” in legal fees, the investor has found an indirect way to get the lawyer to shut up in negotiating against… whom? The investor himself.

Flat fees are also a great tool for VCs to get your lawyers to rush their work. Under a flat fee model, the less your lawyer negotiates/advises you, the more of the fee they pocket while being able to do work for someone else. Less work means more ROI. Watch incentives.

If investors have opinions about how much to spend on legal in negotiating with a third-party, that’s great. Founders can often get good info from other experienced entrepreneurs as well. But the fact that certain investors are dictating to startups how much they should spend in negotiating against them is a sad joke. When a VC with a prominent blog throws into a post that a financing shouldn’t cost more than $X, process the incentives behind the statement. I bet he also has a list of preferred firms who’d be more than happy to “fit” within the budget for you. By convincing founders to view the selection of legal counsel as simply about who can do it faster/cheaper, investors create a race to the bottom where the winner just stays quiet and does what the investor wants. When VCs try to “save” you fees on a financing or serious Board issue, what they’re really doing is saving themselves from having to negotiate.

Investors should acknowledge their conflict of interest, stop treating startup teams like children, and keep their opinions on the legal budget to themselves.

C. Scare founders into rushing negotiations, for fear of losing the deal. 

“Time kills deals.” “Don’t lose momentum.” “Close fast and get back to the business.” Who hasn’t heard this over and over again from the investor community?

Sure, taking too long could kill a deal. But signing a terrible deal, or wedding yourself to bad actors, kills companies, or common stockholders. The number of times I’ve seen a deal actually die because founders chose to slow down enough to understand the structure, and move it to a better place for the common stock, is near zero. Remember the title of this post. Negotiation is relationship building. The point of negotiation isn’t just to get better terms. It’s also to observe the reactions of your potential investors when you ask them for something; because those reactions will tell you far more about whom you’re really working with than blog posts and tweets will. 

When you push back (respectfully), you are signaling not only what you care about, but the level of backbone they can expect from you in the on-going relationship. You’re setting the “terms” not just of a deal, but the dynamics of the relationship itself. Are you easily intimidated? Can you handle a high-pressure discussion? CEOs need to be able to. Your behavior in interacting with your lead investors heavily influences their judgment of how effective you’ll be in other difficult discussions with employees, commercial partners, etc.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen founders rush through deals, only to find that once the ink has dried, the person they are now in a long-term and permanent relationship with is very different from what was portrayed pre-signing.

D. Fabricate “standards” and exert political/social pressure on startups to use them. 

See: The Problem with “Standard” Term Sheets (including YCs). Standards can be great, when drafted and implemented in a way that allows all sides to voice their perspective. They can offer a common starting point for negotiations. The problem with so-called “standards” in startup ecosystems is that, given the above-discussed power inequality, investors are the ones unilaterally setting the standards; and they then use their political influence to spread them across a market, creating social pressure to use them.

One influential investor creates a so-called “standard” document, without input from lawyers who are independent from the investor community, and publishes it on their well-followed blog. Other investors with strong social media followings, liking the “standard” because of how it’s written for them, then start sharing, liking, re-tweeting, blogging, and adopting the “standard” on their deals; emphasizing how much money everyone will “save” from keeping it “standard.” Couple that with the leverage investors have worked to build over startup lawyers, who can be pressured into adopting those “standards,” and then have the investors squeeze the legal budget tight to minimize negotiation, and you can see how groups of coordinated, high-profile investors can indirectly force an ecosystem to use their biased “standards” without negotiation.

Think about all the most well-followed blogs, podcasts, etc. that founders go to for advice on funding. How many of them are not published by investors? What about the most followed twitter profiles? VCs are repeat players. They have the time and resources to build strong networks and distribution platforms for disseminating their preferences in ecosystems, maintaining heavy influence over the microphones and amplifying narratives that suit their interests. You really think they’re all doing it to save founders money? First-time entrepreneurs and early employees, who are heads-down building their companies (not blogging and tweeting about startup fundraising and governance) aren’t coordinated or influential enough to counterbalance the dynamic. And if they even tried to speak out, the investor community has more than enough ways to retaliate and silence them.

This is why the info you hear offline (and privately) in ecosystems is often starkly different from what you hear online.

Then when a first-time entrepreneur – a “one shot” player without much ecosystem leverage – is advised to question the standard, a VC can use the whole investor-dominated ecosystem backdrop to exert pressure. “What? This is “standard.” X, Y, and Z funds all use it. Why are you nit-picking? Time kills deals.”

There’s a very manipulative game in how aggressive investors apply this pressure, often playing on the entrepreneur’s self-image. Founders want to see themselves as bold risk-takers, and there’s often a level of insecurity in interacting with seasoned investors, who might be former (and successful) entrepreneurs themselves. By saying something like “This is nit-picking. Why are you wasting time?” the investor is subtly saying “I thought you were a real entrepreneur. A real entrepreneur would close this deal.” It’s an extremely clever way to use the imbalance in the relationship to get the startup to stay quiet, and hand the investor control; not that distant from the kind of social pressure-driven power games you might encounter in a middle school.

There is a “range” of acceptable negotiation. 

Imagine two lines on a negotiation table, with space in-between them. Move past the farther line, and you are over-negotiating, and really nit-picking over things that are unlikely to matter. If you really feel like the lawyer you are working with is pushing you in this direction, then your failure started in hiring the wrong lawyer. Very young, inexperienced lawyers may try to over-state their skillset, and impress you with endless comments. But experienced Partners with successful practices have neither the time nor the desire to play games with nonsense. You don’t build a strong client base by killing deals. Competition among reputable firms, and reputation among entrepreneurs, are constraints on startup lawyers who might want to run up a bill unnecessarily.

So beyond that farther line, you’re over-negotiating. But before the closer line, you are rushing the deal. You’re naively allowing a highly misaligned (economically) investor to muzzle negotiations and pressure you to just do what they want. And in doing so, you are solidifying relationship dynamics that will inform how that investor treats you going forward; knowing that with a little pressure, or clever rhetoric, they can make you dance. Your company’s lawyers are there to honestly advise the company on important issues of clear misalignment; not to overly ingratiate themselves to the money.

Within those two lines is a range of acceptable negotiation. Understand the incentives of both overly-aggressive lawyers and overly-aggressive investors to move you out of that range; and that highly experienced startup investors are very skilled at masking aggression with false “friendliness” and marketing. In the lawyer context, you should have plenty of time long before the negotiation to have done your diligence and ensured you’re working with a Partner whose judgment you truly respect. In the investor context, you should also have done some diligence on their reputation to better understand how they work.

High-integrity investors who view their investment as the building of a balanced, long-term relationship will respond respectfully to negotiation; and not try to infantilize you by questioning your judgment or that of your counsel. It doesn’t mean they’ll give you everything you want. But they’ll be honest and open about their perspective, and what they’ll be flexible on v. what is a sticking point, and give you an opportunity to do the same. No pressure tactics needed. If they instead respond with frustration over your desire to deviate from what they want, or nonsense about why you’re not sticking to their idea of “standard,” you now have some important data on how they approach things, and how they view the relationship.

When aggressive investors over-emphasize the importance of “minimizing friction” in funding, and not “losing momentum,” they sell it as being about saving you time and money. But behind the spin is the fact that they view your company (and the employees and customers who depend on it) as a number in their portfolio, and would much prefer that you just shut up and make them rich, or die trying. Given you have 100x more skin in this one game than any “unicorn hunter” with a diversified portfolio, you have every reason to push back (again, respectfully) for a deal that works for this company.

No one’s perspective (not an investor, nor a lawyer helping you negotiate with an investor) deserves to be treated like gospel. As a leader, your job is to triangulate advice from many people, all with their own incentives and biases, and make the call based on what you see as the right move for your company’s unique context. Work with experienced advisors whose judgment you trust and can’t be discredited by outsiders trying to use your inexperience against you, and use their insights to work within the range of acceptable negotiation. But also understand that the purpose of negotiation isn’t just about the deal itself. By moving past conversation, into actions and real commitment, it’s a valuable opportunity to have your investors show (not tell) you who they really are.

What Partners in Startup Law Firms Do

TL;DR: True “Partners” in serious law firms deliver high-impact, high-complexity legal advisory safely, because of their years of experience and having gone through deep institutional vetting processes with very high standards. Apart from Partners, firms often have a roster of non-partners who can handle more routine and “de-skilled” work efficiently without the higher rates of Partners. But inexperienced entrepreneurs run into very expensive problems when they think that, just because some of their legal needs can be done more cheaply by de-skilled legal labor, they don’t need Partners at all.

Related Reading: Startup Lawyers – Explained 

First-time founders are often mystified by the organizational structure of law firms, because of how different it is from a product-oriented business. They often think they simply need “a lawyer,” without digging deeper into the important differences among lawyers.

The first thing to understand is lawyer specialization. See Why Startups Need Specialist Lawyers. While a typical “startup lawyer” is (or should be) in fact a corporate/securities lawyer with a heavy specialization in “emerging companies” work, there are many other kinds of lawyers that scaling startups eventually need: employment, tax, commercial/tech transactions, patent (sometimes), data privacy, etc.

Once you get past understanding the specialty of the particular lawyer, you start getting into differences among lawyers within a specialty. If you engage a typical law firm, either BigLaw or a decent sized boutique (like E/N), you’ll see titles like Junior Associate (in our firm juniors are called Fellows), Senior Associate, Counsel, and Partner. Those titles are very important in terms of signaling the skillset that a particular lawyer brings to the table.

Very broadly speaking, the title “Partner” refers to the most senior (in expertise) people within a law firm. In a law firm that recruits top-tier legal talent, just being hired by the firm requires being in the top 5-10% of the overall talent pool. After the initial “filter” of getting hired, a lawyer has to have at least 7-9 yrs of experience within a specialty before they’re even eligible to become a Partner. Achieving that level of experience is by no means an automatic ticket. A very small % of lawyers in the market are eligible to even be hired by a top-tier firm, and then an even smaller % of those lawyers will make Partner. On top of needing to have done the job for X number of years, serious law firms have strict criteria for vetting the work product and judgment that a lawyer has produced, from a quality, complexity, and client satisfaction standpoint, in order to determine whether they are, in a sense, worthy of the Partner title.

You can think of serious law firms as universities for specialized vetting and practical training of lawyers, and the Partner title as a PhD.  That obviously means that the legitimacy of the law firm’s brand matters wildly for whether the term Partner even means anything. Just like a PhD from Harvard or Stanford, or any institution highly regarded within a particular field, says a lot more than one from a school no one has ever heard of, anyone with minimal credentials can hang out a shingle and call themselves a “Partner” of their firm; in which case the title is meaningless.

Within the legal field, you’ll often see a single lawyer get preciously close to being fired by Law Firm A because of how low quality that lawyer’s work product is (not even meeting Firm A’s minimum standards), and yet end up a “Partner” at random Law Firm B that dishes titles out like candy, because their brand lacks real value. Law firms are not created equal. Not even close.

Why is all of this vetting even necessary? Specialization, even sub-specialization, and heavy quality filtering processes are unusual for many fields and industries. The answer relates to issues I’ve discussed in Legal Technical Debt. Unlike software and other product-oriented industries, mistakes in law, particularly high-stakes law, are often extremely expensive to fix, if they are even fixable at all. Not infrequently, they’re permanent. Once a contract is signed, or an action with potential legal liability is taken, there’s no v1.2 over-the-air fix that can be issued unilaterally if bugs (errors) arise. Contracts would be pointless if you could tweak important terms without the other side’s consent.

This is why applying software industry thinking like “move fast and break things” can be spectacularly disastrous when approaching legal issues, because that thinking only works when you can take an iterative approach to low-stakes bugs. To make matters even worse and harder, legal mistakes are rarely discovered immediately after they are committed. They often sit in the background for years until the full reality comes out, with “interest” having compounded on the “debt.” The “complexity” that top-tier firms are designed to safely manage isn’t something that they themselves fabricate out of thin air. As companies grow, the number of relevant (extremely smart) parties with competing/conflicting high-stakes interests grows, as do the number of legal issues they touch; and many of those issues weave into each other by necessity such that a move on one triggers cascading, unintuitive effects on others. The complexity (and cost of errors) is inherent and unavoidable, like a highly contextualized and fragmented code base of contracts, relationships, regulations, and complex formulas, but where the cost of a “bug” is 50x.

So within top-tier law firms with reputable brands and vetting processes, Partners represent the highest level of flexible expertise, quality control, and experienced judgment that a particular firm is able to offer for managing very high-stakes, very complex and strategic issues safely without producing expensive errors whose costs are borne by clients. And ensuring you have direct access to that expertise is important for your most complex, high-stakes legal advisory.  But that being said, not everything you need from a law firm requires such a high level of expertise; and that’s why law firms have lower-cost, well-trained people with other titles and levels of vetting, like associates and paralegals.

As you move from Partners to lower-level professionals, the process is often referred to in some circles as de-skilling. It basically means that the law firm as an institution has put in place the appropriate quality control mechanisms to allow people with less fully-vetted and more narrow skillsets to do a limited segment of work that is appropriate for their abilities, while still producing an end-product meeting the firm’s quality standards. Highly-detailed checklists, template forms, and software-supported systems of institutional knowledge are common ways that law firms de-skill legal work (make it easier to do by introducing training wheels and boundaries) and push it down to people who charge less but are also more available than Partners.

Partners, for example, don’t need to issue your random option grants. Non-lawyers with appropriate oversight can do that. A Partner also doesn’t need to review your random NDA.  But a high-stakes term sheet, M&A deal, or key hire? You don’t want a non-partner leading that, because it’s too high-stakes and the right output depends too much on highly contextualized, subjective, and complex nuances (human judgment) as opposed to simplified rules that a lower-level professional can follow. The typical way a startup engages a law firm is to view one or two Partners as the quarterbacks and main contacts of the legal team, who can then delegate lower-level, de-skilled work to cheaper but still well-monitored professionals. This puts the most experienced and trusted legal advisors in charge of the highest leverage strategic issues, while integrating them with cheaper professionals who can also get more routine work done.

The spectrum of Partners for high-stakes, high-complexity work through de-skilled professionals like associates and paralegals helps explain a lot about the different kinds of legal service providers you’ll encounter in the market.

Some firms (often small niche boutiques) are all Partners. Not a single lower-level non-partner on the roster. That can make sense if the work being done is all extremely complex and bespoke, as might be the case in very cutting edge fields. But in most fields (including corporate/securities law) a Partner-only firm will just mean you’re overpaying for work that could be done safely by someone cheaper, and also probably be done faster because larger rosters of professionals with different skillsets prevent bottlenecks by allowing work to be triaged (like a hospital). See: When a Startup Lawyer Can’t Scale for a deep-dive into what happens when startups engage solo lawyers or Partners who don’t have real infrastructure for scalability and full service.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are so-called law firms that don’t have any true Partners, meaning no one whose fully led a client base into high-stakes 9 or 10-figure highly-complex transactions, and gone through the vetting process of already reputable firms and achieved the Partner title in a meaningful sense. Firms full of non-partners will heavily gravitate toward de-skilled work, which often means large amounts of standardization and therefore inflexibility. Their less-experienced lawyers and professionals aren’t capable of handling high levels of complexity safely, so they’ll necessarily attempt to standardize their offerings to make them easier and safer to deliver; with the value proposition being that they can also be cheaper, because they have no expensive Partners to pay.

This heavily de-skilled and standardized approach to legal can work for a certain kind of client needing certain kinds of lower-stakes work, but it will run into problems if they try to handle everything a growing client needs, including higher complexity, higher-stakes transactions that simply cannot be simplified or distilled into an algorithm or checklist for lower-level professionals to manage. While some non-partner firms still refer to themselves as law firms, others instead refer to themselves as “alternative legal services providers.” Ultimately what they call themselves matters less than the fact that their value proposition to clients is very different from a law firm with true Partners.

A real top-tier law firm offers a blend of high-complexity, high-stakes Partner-led flexible legal judgment with more routinized de-skilled work, while an alternative legal provider leans heavily on de-skilled, more routine low-stakes work that “tops out” on how much flexibility and complexity in can handle. Serious firms are designed like Partner-centric creative studios at the top of their hierarchy, because their core value proposition is extremely well-trained and specialized intellectual horsepower capable of addressing hundreds/thousands of unique and very high-impact circumstances effectively. Highly-vetted (and compensated) Partners are the only “full stack” experts capable of ensuring quality control of that kind of highly variable and complex service with extremely high error costs. Remove those Partners, and the whole thing collapses into a nuclear disaster of errors and poor judgment.

Alternative legal providers are, instead, structured more like factories or product-oriented companies, because their offering is by necessity limited and simplified through routinization and inflexibility. Eliminate Partners (with their unique and rare, and therefore expensive, skillset) from your cost structure, and you’ll certainly cut costs, but you’ve also set a hard ceiling on how much flexibility and complexity your operation can now handle without a blow-up. The core “service” of an alternative provider isn’t actually experienced, flexible human judgment, but rigid institutional processes with less-skilled (cheaper) people adding a light layer of variability.

It’s much riskier for a startup led by inexperienced entrepreneurs to engage a non-partner alternative legal provider (instead of a law firm) than it would be for, say, a large company with an in-house counsel. Why? Remember, true Partners serve as the highest-level quality control and strategic quarterbacks of a legal team. If you’re a large company with highly experienced in-house counsel, they (the in-house lawyer) can serve as your Partner of sorts; developing a unique strategy appropriate for the context, monitoring for errors, and coordinating different appropriately trained people to execute on the strategy. But early-stage startups don’t have highly experienced (and highly paid) in-house lawyers. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in some cases even millions, a year.

Because inexperienced entrepreneurs have no idea how to appropriately vet and triage high-stakes legal work, or how to develop a contextualized and flexible legal strategy, having them engage legal service providers full of nothing but non-partners capable of only managing a limited scope of “standardized” work starts off a very long-term game of legal russian roulette. Sure, your option grants will probably be done right, as will an NDA review. But eventually (pretty quickly, usually) a higher-stakes, higher-complexity situation arises, and cookie-cutter de-skilled offerings just won’t work. No serious company follows a fully “standard” (whatever that means) growth trajectory.

Real Partners are expensive, and you often need them only for your highest-stakes issues where a wrong decision can have million or even billion-dollar implications, but when you need them, you really need them.  These kinds of situations arise often and unpredictably in the early days of a fragile, chaotic startup where the overall trajectory of the entire business is still being sorted out, founders are negotiating with market players 100x as experienced as they are, and a single decision can produce permanent consequences that you’ll have to live with for years.

So when entrepreneurs are diligencing firms to work with, they need to be thinking about a number of variables:

  • Does the firm have the right specialty of work I’m looking for, and access to other specialties I might need?
  • Does this firm have true Partners (with credible expertise and vetted backgrounds) that I can trust to handle non-routine and very high-stakes, high-complexity matters safely?
  • But do they also have the appropriate institutional infrastructure of lower-level professionals to get less high-stakes but still important work done on time and correctly (de-skilled work)?

Partners are necessary for high-stakes, high-complexity work that can’t fit within a template framework. Non-partners (and infrastructure) are necessary for speed and efficiency on day-to-day needs that are more predictable. When the “buyer” of legal services is an experienced in-house general counsel, they can often do without Partners. That’s why a lot of the most successful alternative legal service providers (who don’t have Partners) entering the market are targeting large companies with in-house counsel who can safely bypass Partners for specific segments of more routine, lower-stakes work, while correctly identifying higher-impact issues and applying Partner-level expertise to them.

But startups led by entrepreneurs engaging directly with a firm should understand that because no one on their internal roster has the expertise to credibly handle and triage the most high-impact, high-complexity legal issues that they’ll inevitably run into as they scale, Partners are essential, including for interacting with highly experienced and misaligned players on the other side of the negotiation table (like investors) who have their own Partners advising them. Focusing too much on routine, low-stakes things like how quickly or cheaply a firm can check off some boxes or fill in a template misses the much bigger picture of why the number of law firms taken seriously by the top players in the industry is much smaller than the total number of firms in the market.

People building a coffee shop or other small business (with very limited legal needs) might engage LegalZoom, or a productized de-skilled legal offering that looks like LegalZoom with paralegals and moderately-skilled attorneys added on top to add a narrow band of customization. And large companies with experienced in-house counsel will regularly engage alternative providers for narrow segments of lower-stakes work that doesn’t require Partner attention. But early-stage executives building highly complex enterprises facing extremely high-impact strategic legal decisions know that the issues they’re touching are much higher-stakes, and focus on the Partners of the firms they engage for that reason.

Some alternative legal providers are very open about their narrow capabilities, and how they’re very different from an actual law firm. They are serving a legitimate, unmet need by heavily productizing a narrow segment of high-volume, lower-margin work. Clerky is a great example of a reliable, productized startup legal offering that doesn’t pretend to replace law firms, and is open in its marketing about what it is and what it’s not; a tool for handling a very limited scope of work for very early-stage startups who can’t yet afford quality counsel, or have counsel but need extremely simple, standardized tasks done cheaply but safely (with software automation) because of their small budget.

But sometimes alternative providers like to mask their limitations, and market themselves as “full service” firms; and Partners at actual law firms then grab some popcorn and wait for the fireworks. While scaled enterprises with experienced in-house counsel are the most appropriate market for de-skilled legal “products,” those “buyers” are also far more scrutinizing of legal services because they have the experience and judgment to separate fact from fiction. Inexperienced entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know about legal, which makes them easier targets for bad actors peddling X or Y legal product as a comprehensive solution, when they actually carry enormous gaps and limitations that will only become obvious when it’s too late to fix them. First-time founders are also prime targets for misaligned but clever market players (investors, commercial partners, acquirers) across the table who might want a young, inexperienced startup to be disarmed with less capable advisors; allowing that player to then take advantage of the uneven playing field.

De-skilled legal labor enabled by technology and well-designed processes absolutely has its place in the market – and well-run firms take advantage of it; but it’s as a supplement to the high-stakes, high-complexity work that the smartest industry players trust top-tier firms and Partners to do, not as a replacement. Anyone suggesting otherwise is marketing a highly-polished time bomb as a solution. 

Ask a law firm the right questions about the scalability and credibility of their expertise, including their Partners, or the reality check delivered to you when the legal “technical debt” comes due will be ice cold.

Why Startups shouldn’t use YC’s Post-Money SAFE

TL;DR: It gives your seed investors a level of extreme anti-dilution protection that is virtually unheard of in startup finance, making it worse than seed equity and conventional convertible notes in terms of economics for most seed stage companies. There are far better, more balanced ways to “clarify” ownership for seed investors without forcing founders and employees to absorb additional dilution risk.

Related Reading: TechCrunch: Why convertible notes are safer than SAFEs. 

A regular underlying theme you’ll read on SHL is that key players in the startup community are incredibly talented at taking a viewpoint that is clearly (to experienced players) investor-biased, but spinning / marketing it as somehow “startup friendly.”  And lawyers captive to the interests of investors are always happy to play along, knowing that inexperienced teams can be easily duped.

One example is how “moving fast” in startup financing negotiations is always a good thing for entrepreneurs. Investors are diversified, wealthy, and 100x as experienced as founders in deal terms and economics, but it’s somehow in the founders’ interest to sign whatever template the investor puts on the table, instead of actually reviewing, negotiating, and processing the long-term implications? Right. Thanks for the awesome insight, champ.

Y Combinator’s move to have its SAFEs convert on a post-money, instead of pre-money, basis is another great example. Their argument is that it helps “clarify” how the SAFEs will convert on the cap table. Clarity is great, right? Who can argue with clarity?

What’s not emphasized prominently enough is that the way they delivered that “clarity” is by implementing anti-dilution protection for SAFE investors that is more aggressive than anything remotely “standard” in the industry; and that wasn’t necessary at all to provide “clarity.” Under YC’s new SAFE, the common stock absorbs all dilution from any subsequent SAFE or convertible note rounds until an equity round, while SAFE holders are fully protected from that dilution. That is crazy. It’s the equivalent of “full ratchet” anti-dilution, which has become almost non-existent in startup finance because of how company unfriendly it is. In fact, it’s worse than full ratchet because in a typical anti-dilution context it only triggers if the valuation is lower. In this case, SAFE holders get fully protected for convertible dilution even if the valuation cap is higher. It’s a cap table grab that in the vast majority of contexts won’t be made up for by other more minor changes to the SAFE (around pro-rata rights and option pool treatment) if a company ends up doing multiple convertible rounds.

When you’re raising your initial seed money, you have absolutely no idea what the future might hold. The notion that you can predict at your initial SAFE closing whether you’ll be able to raise an equity round as your next funding (in order to convert your SAFEs), or instead need another convertible round (in which case your SAFE holders are fully protected from dilution), is absurd. Honest advisors and investors will admit it. Given the dynamics of most seed stage startups, the post-money SAFE therefore offers the worst economics (for companies) of all seed funding structures.

Yes, YC’s original SAFE has contributed to a problem for many SAFE investors, but that problem is the result of an imbalanced lack of accountability in the original SAFE structure; not a need to re-do conversion economics. As mentioned in the above TechCrunch article, the reason convertible notes are still the dominant convertible seed instrument across the country is that the maturity date in a convertible note serves as a valuable “accountability” mechanism in a seed financing. A 2-3 year maturity gives founders a sense of urgency to get to a conversion event, or at least stay in communication with investors about their financing plans. By eliminating maturity, SAFEs enabled a culture of runaway serial seed financings constantly delaying conversion, creating significant uncertainty for seed investors.

YC now wants to “fix” the problem they themselves enabled, but the “solution” goes too far in the opposite direction by requiring the common stock (founders and early employees) to absorb an inordinate amount of dilution risk. If “clarity” around conversion economics is really the concern of seed investors, there are already several far more balanced options for delivering that clarity:

Seed Equity – Series Seed templates already exist that are dramatically more streamlined than full Series A docs, but solidify ownership for seed investors on Day 1, with normal weighted average (not full ratchet) anti-dilution. 100% clarity on ownership. Closing a seed equity deal is usually a quarter to a third of the cost of a Series A, because the docs are simpler. Seed equity is an under-appreciated way to align the common stock and seed investors in terms of post-funding dilution. Yes, it takes a bit more time than just signing a template SAFE, but it’s an increasingly popular option both among entrepreneurs (because it reduces dilution) and investors (because it provides certainty); and for good reason.

Harden the denominator – Another option I’ve mentioned before in Why Notes and SAFEs are Extra Dilutive is to simply “harden” the denominator (the capitalization) that will be used for conversion on Day 1, while letting the valuation float (typically capped). This ensures everyone (common and investors) are diluted by subsequent investors, just like an equity round, while allowing you to easily model conversion at a valuation cap from Day 1. If the real motivation for the SAFE changes was in fact the ability to more easily model SAFE ownership on the cap table – instead of shifting economics in favor of investors – this (hardening the conversion denominator) would’ve been a far more logical approach than building significant anti-dilution mechanisms into the valuation cap.

Add a Maturity Date – Again, the reason why, outside of Silicon Valley, so many seed investors balk at the SAFE structure altogether is because of the complete lack of accountability mechanisms it contains. No voting rights or board seat. No maturity date. Just hand over your money, and hope for the best. I don’t represent a single tech investor – all companies – and yet I agree that SAFEs created more problems than they solved. Convertible notes with reasonable maturity dates (2-3 years) are a simple way for investors and entrepreneurs to get aligned on seed fundraising plans, and if after an initial seed round the company needs to raise a second seed and extend maturity, it forces a valuable conversation with investors so everyone can get aligned.

Conventional convertible notes – which are far more of an (air quotes) “standard” across the country than any SAFE structure – don’t protect the noteholders from all dilution that happens before an equity round. That leaves flexibility for additional note fundraising (which very often happens, at improved valuations) before maturity, with the noteholders sharing in that dilution. If a client asks me whether they should take a low-interest capped convertible note with a 3-yr maturity v. a capped Post-Money SAFE for their first seed raise, my answer will be the convertible note. Every time, unless they are somehow 100% positive that their next raise is an equity round. The legal fees will be virtually identical.

Before anyone even tries to argue that signing YC’s template is nevertheless worth it because otherwise money is “wasted” on legal fees, let’s be crystal clear: the economics of the post-money SAFE can end up so bad for a startup that a material % of the cap table worth as much as 7-figures can shift over to the seed investors (relative to a different structure) if the company ends up doing additional convertible rounds after its original SAFE; which very often happens. Do the math.

The whole “you should mindlessly sign this template or OMG the legal fees!” argument is just one more example of the sleight-of-hand rhetoric peddled by very clever investors to dupe founders into penny wise, pound foolish decisions that end up lining an investor’s pocket. It can take only a few sentences, or even the deletion of a handful of words, to make the economics of a seed instrument more balanced. Smart entrepreneurs understand that experienced advisors can be extremely valuable (and efficient) “equalizers” in these sorts of negotiations.

When I first reviewed the new post-money SAFE, my reaction was: what on earth is YC doing? I had a similar reaction to its so-called “Standard” Series A Term Sheet, which itself is far more investor friendly than the marketing conveys and should be rejected by entrepreneurs. Ironically, YC’s changes to the SAFE were purportedly driven by the need for “clarity,” and yet their recently released Series A term sheet leaves enormous control points vague and prone to gaming post-term sheet. The extra “clarity” in the SAFE favors investors. The vagueness in the Series A term sheet also favors investors. Surprised? Entrepreneurs are going to get hurt by continuing to let investors unilaterally set their own so-called “standards.”

One might argue that YC’s shift (as an accelerator and investor) from overly founder-biased to overly investor-biased docs parallels the natural pricing progression of a company that initially needed to subsidize adoption, but has now achieved market leverage. Low-ball pricing early to get traction (be very founder friendly), but once you’ve got the brand and market dominance, ratchet it up (drop the hard terms). Tread carefully. YC is more than entitled to significantly change the economics of their own investments. But the full implications of the shift need to be spelled out, before entrepreneurs start running with it on their own non-YC deals. The old pre-money SAFE was so startup friendly from a control standpoint that many investors refused to sign one. The new post-money SAFE is at the opposite extreme in terms of economics, and deserves to be treated as a niche security utilized only when more balanced structures won’t work.

The most important thing any startup team needs to understand for seed fundraising is that a fully “standard” approach does not exist, and will not exist so long as entrepreneurs and investors continue to carry different priorities, and companies continue to operate in different contexts. Certainly a number of prominent investor voices want to suggest that a standard exists, and conveniently, it’s a standard they drafted; but it’s really just one option among many, all of which should be treated as flexibly negotiable for the context.

Another important lesson is that “founder friendliness” (or at least the appearance of it) in startup ecosystems is a business development strategy for investors to get deal flow, and it by no means eliminates the misaligned incentives of investors (including accelerators). At your exit, there are one of two pockets the money can go into: the common stock or the investors. No amount of “friendliness” changes the fact that every cap table adds up to 100%. Treat the fundraising advice of investors – even the really super nice, helpful, “founder friendly,” “give first,” “mission driven,” “we’re not really here for the money” ones – accordingly. The most clever way to win a zero-sum game is to convince the most naive players that it’s not a zero-sum game.

Don’t get me wrong, “friendly” investors are great. I like them way more than the hard-driving vultures of yesteryear. But let’s not drink so much kool-aid that we forget they are, still, investors who are here to make money that could otherwise go to the common stock; not your BFFs, and certainly not philanthropists to your entrepreneurial dreams.

A quick “spin” translation guide for startups navigating seed funding:

“You should close this deal fast, or you might lose momentum.” = “Don’t negotiate or question this template I created. I know what’s good for you.”

“Let’s not ‘waste’ money on lawyers for this ‘standard’ deal.”  = “Don’t spend time and money with independent, highly experienced advisors who can explain all these high-stakes terms and potentially save a large portion of your cap table worth an order of magnitude more than the fees you spend. I’d prefer that money go to me.”

“We’re ‘founder friendly’ investors, and were even entrepreneurs ourselves once.” = “We’ve realized that in a competitive funding market, being ‘nice’ is the best way to get more deal flow. It helps us make more money. Just like Post-Money SAFEs.”

“Let’s use a Post-Money SAFE. It helps ‘clarify’ the cap table for everyone.” = “Let’s use a seed structure that is worse for the common stock economically in the most important way, but at least it’ll make modeling in a spreadsheet easier. Don’t bother exploring alternatives that can also ‘clarify’ the cap table without the terrible economics.”

There are pluses and minuses to each seed financing structure, and the right one depends significantly on context. Work with experienced advisors who understand the ins and outs of all the structures, and how they can be flexibly modified if needed. In the case of startup lawyers specifically, avoid firms that are really shills for your investors, so you can trust their advice. That’s the only way you can ensure no one is using your inexperience – or fabricating an exaggerated sense of urgency – to take advantage of you and your cap table.

How Startup Employees Get Taken Advantage Of

TL;DR: When startup employees get taken advantage of in startup equity economics, it’s often not just about bad documentation or strategy. It’s about incentives, and games being played by influential “insiders” to gain control over the startup’s corporate governance. Ensuring common stock representation on the Board, independence of company counsel (from investors), and monitoring “sweeteners” given to common representatives on the Board are strong strategies for protecting against bad actors.

Related Reading:

A common message heard among experienced market players, and with which I completely agree, is this: if you are seeing significant dysfunction in any organization or market, watch incentives. In small, simple, close-knit groups (like families and tribes), shared principles and values can often be relied on to ensure everyone plays fairly and does what’s best for the group.  But expand the size of the group, diversify the people involved, and raise the stakes, and people will inevitably gravitate toward their self-interest and incentives. The way to achieve an optimal and fair outcome at scale is not through “mission statements” or virtue signaling, but focusing on achieving alignment (where possible) of incentives, and fair representation of the various constituencies at the bargaining table.

A topic that is deservedly getting a lot of attention lately is the outcomes of startup employees as it relates to their equity stakes in the startups that employ them. I see a lot being written about it in the various usual tech/startup publications, and we are also seeing companies reaching out to us asking about potential modifications to the “usual” approaches.  The problem being discussed is whether startup employees are getting the short end of the stick as companies grow and scale, with other players at the table (particularly the Board of Directors) playing games that allow certain players to get rewarded, while off-loading downside risk to those unable to protect themselves.

The short answer is that, yes, there are a number of games being played in the market that allow influential “insiders” of growing startups to make money, while shifting risk to the less powerful and experienced participants on the cap table. The end-result is situations where high-growth startups either go completely bust, or end up exiting at a price that didn’t “clear” investors’ liquidation preferences, and yet somehow a bunch of people still made a lot of money along the way, while startup employees got equity worth nothing.

The point of this post isn’t to discuss the various tactics being used by aggressive players to screw employees, but to discuss a higher-level issue that is closer to the root problem: corporate governance, and the subtle detachment of employee equity economics from other cap table players. When some people on the Board have economic incentives close to fully aligned with employees (common stockholders whose “investment” is labor, not capital, and often sunk), they are significantly more likely to deliver the necessary pushback to protect employees from absorbing more risk than is appropriate.  But if smart players find ways to detach those Board members’ interests from the employees who can’t see the full details of the company’s financing and growth strategy, things go off the rails.

Corporate governance and fiduciary duties.

Broadly speaking, corporate governance is the way in which a company is run at the highest levels of its organizational and power structure, particularly the Board of Directors. Under Delaware law (and most states/countries’ corporate law), the Board has fiduciary duties to impartially serve the interests of the stockholders on the cap table. Regardless of their personal interests, a Board is supposed to be focused on a financing and exit strategy that maximizes the returns for the whole cap table, particularly those at the bottom of the liquidation preference stack and who lack the visibility, influence, and experience to negotiate on their own behalf. That obviously includes, to a large extent, employee stockholders.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Remember the fundamental rule: watch incentives. Having a Board of directors that nominally professes a commitment to its fiduciary duties is one thing. But maximizing economic alignment between the Board and the remainder of the cap table is lightyears better.

“One Shot” common stockholders v. “Repeat Player” investors

As I’ve written many times before, anyone who behaves as if investors (capital) and founders/employees (labor) are fully aligned economically as startups grow, raise money, and exit is either lying, or so spectacularly ignorant of how the game actually works that they should put the pacifier back in their mouth and gain more experience before commenting.

Common stockholders (founders, employees) are usually inexperienced, not wealthy, at the bottom of the liquidation “waterfall” (how money flows in an exit), not independently represented by counsel, and not diversified. Preferred stockholders (investors) are usually the polar opposite: highly experienced, wealthy, have their own lawyers, heavily diversified, and with a liquidation preference or debt claim that prioritizes their investment in an exit. Common stockholders’ “investment” (their labor) is also often sunk, while major investors have pro-rata rights that allow them to true-up their ownership if they face dilution.

Investors are far more incentivized to push for risky growth strategies that might achieve extremely large exits, but also raise the risk of a bust in which the undiversified, unprotected common equity gets nothing. Common stockholders are far more likely to be concerned about risk, dilution and dependence on capital, and the timing / achievability of an exit. This tension never goes away, and plays out in Board discussions on an ongoing basis.

As I’ve also written before, this is a core reason why clever investors will often pursue any number of strategies to put in place company counsel (the lawyers who advise the company and the Board) whose loyalty is ultimately to the investors. A law firm whom the money can “squeeze” – like one that heavily relies on them for referrals, or who does a large volume of other work for the investors – is significantly more likely to stay quiet and follow along if a Board begins to pursue strategies that favor investor interests at the expense of common interests. See: When VCs “own” your startup’s lawyers. 

When Board composition is discussed in a financing, founder representation on the Board is often portrayed as being purely about the founders’ own personal interests; but that’s incorrect. Founders are often the largest and earliest common stockholders on the cap table, which heavily aligns them economically with employees, particularly early employees, in being concerned about risk and dilution.

Unless someone finds a way to change that alignment.

Founders and employees: alignment v. misalignment. 

Very high-growth companies raising large late-stage rounds represent many opportunities for Boards to “buy” the vote of founders or other common directors (like professional CEOs) at the expense of the employee portion of the cap table. In a scenario where a Board is pursuing an extremely high risk growth and financing strategy, and accepting financing terms making it highly likely the early common will get washed out or heavily diluted, a typical entrepreneur with a large early common stock stake will play their role in vocally pushing for alternatives.

But any number of levers can be pulled to silence that push-back: a cash bonus, an opportunity for liquidity that isn’t shared pro-rata with the rest of the employee pool, a generous refresher grant given post-financing to reduce the impact on the founder/executive (while pushing more dilution onto “sunk” stockholders). These represent just a few of the strategies that clever later-stage investors will implement to incentivize entrepreneurs (or other executives) to ignore the risk and dilution they are piling onto employees.

Of course, it’s impossible to generalize across all startups that end up with bad, imbalanced outcomes. The fact that any particular company ended up in a spot where the employees got disproportionately washed out isn’t indicative in and of itself that unfair (and unethical) games were being played. Sometimes there’s a strong justification for giving a limited number of people liquidity, while denying it to others. Sometimes the Board really was doing its best to achieve the best outcome for the “labor” equity. Sometimes.

Principles for protecting employee stockholders. 

That, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t general principles that companies can implement to better protect employee stockholders, and better align the Board with their interests.

First, common stockholder representation on a Board of Directors is not just about founders. It’s about recognizing the misalignment of incentives between the “one shot” common stock and the “repeat player” preferred stockholders, and ensuring the former have a real, unmuzzled voice in governance. Founders are the largest and earliest common stockholders, and therefore the most incentivized to represent the interests of the common in Board discussions.

Second, take seriously who company counsel is, and make sure they are independent from the influence of the main investors on the cap table. Company counsel’s job is, in part, to advise a Board on how to best fulfill its fiduciary duties. You better believe the advisory changes when the money has ways to make counsel shut up. Packing a company with people whom the money “owns” (including executives, lawyers, directors, and other advisors) is an extremely common, but often subtle and hidden, strategy for aggressive investors to gain power over a startup’s governance.

Third, any “extra” incentives being handed to Board representatives of the common stock (including founders) in later-stage rounds deserve heightened scrutiny and transparency. That “something extra” can very well be a way to purchase the vote of someone who would otherwise have called out behavior that is off-loading risk to stockholders lacking visibility and influence.

Startup corporate governance is a highly intricate, multi-step game of 3D chess, often with extremely smart players who know where their incentives really lie. Don’t get played.

p.s. the NYT article linked near the beginning of this post is provided strictly as an example of the kinds of problems that might arise in high-growth startups. I have no inside knowledge of what happened with that specific company, and this post is not about them. 

The Problem with “Standard” Term Sheets (including YC’s)

TL;DR: Whenever an influential organization publishes a so-called “standard” financing document, important questions need to be asked about not just its specific terms, but also the entire concept of “standard” terms in general, and potential biases in their creation. In YC’s case, their decision to keep their “standard” TS very short (for speed purposes), and not address key economic/control issues, favors investors by deferring negotiation on those issues to a context (after signing) where common stockholders have less flexibility and leverage. YC’s default terms also give VCs substantial power that is hardly a “standard.” In the broader context (apart from YC), there are serious problems emerging in the startup legal market with how certain narratives around “standards”, closing fast, and the hiring of lawyers with deep conflicts of interest, are leading (and tricking) entrepreneurs & early employees into adopting legal strategies that hurt their long-term interests.

In Startup Law and financing, standardization and templates are often celebrated as noble, generous attempts at saving entrepreneurs money that they would otherwise “waste” on advisory fees. While it is definitely true that, to a point, creating uniform language improves efficiency, there are very real, and often dangerous, high-stakes issues that founders need to hear about regarding “standards,” but unfortunately they often don’t. The narrative of ‘reducing friction’ in financings has devolved into a clever excuse for imposing imbalanced terms on inexperienced startups, and keeping them ignorant of both the long-term implications and potential alternatives. 

Take Y Combinator’s recent so-called “Standard and Clean” Series A Term Sheet as just one example. YC has placed itself at the forefront of attempting to standardize early-stage fundraising docs for startups.  The SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) has become in Silicon Valley a dominant instrument for seed fundraising, though survey data (and our experience) suggests it’s not nearly as dominant outside of California.

Given that the SAFE was, relative to other instruments used in the market (like convertible notes) a quite company-friendly agreement, YC established itself as offering very “founder friendly” standards in templates they create.  So one would’ve expected that their “Standard and Clean” term sheet would follow the same trajectory. However, when we reviewed YC’s term sheet, our initial response – as lawyers who represent companies, and only companies (not their investors) – was “Uh oh.”

Side note: Recent changes to the SAFE instrument made by YC have made SAFEs significantly less company-friendly from an economics standpoint, which when combined with YC’s release of its problematic Series A term sheet template, suggests a reversal of YC’s historical philosophy on having “founder friendly” documentation. This means entrepreneurs should be extra cautious before rushing to use YC’s favored forms.

Short term sheets benefit investors

First, YC’s term sheet is remarkably short as far as equity term sheets go. The reason is somewhat reflected in their own blog post’s words:

“So don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal: closing fast and getting back to work.”

Short term sheets get signed faster than longer ones, because there’s less to discuss. Here’s the problem with short term sheets, though: once you sign a term sheet, two things happen:

A. You are now locked in with a “no shop” clause. That requires you to inform any other investors you were talking to that you are taking someone else’s deal. Good luck going back to them if this deal ends up not closing.

B. You start racking up legal fees with your own lawyers, which for a cash-limited startup puts pressure to close, and accept terms on the table, in order to pay those fees.

In other words, once you sign a term sheet, your leverage and flexibility dramatically go down. It becomes far easier for investors to pressure you with this or that language (which they will usually claim is also “standard”) than it would’ve been during the term sheet phase. So rushing to sign a short term sheet favors investors over startups.  Slowing down and clarifying all material points at the term sheet phase also saves legal fees, because it reduces back-and-forth with the lengthier definitive documents.

Fair enough, you might say. YC favors moving fast anyway, because there can be benefits to moving fast for everyone. OK.

YC gives VCs full veto rights on equity financings

Here’s a second issue: as drafted, YC’s “standard and clean” terms give your VCs and other investors a complete veto right over all future equity financings, regardless of what the Board composition is. In other words, even if the common stock controls the Board (which shouldn’t necessarily be the case), and has a deal on the table with great terms, your VCs can block it simply because they, for whatever self-interested reason, don’t like it.

This is usually a point at which at least a few founders might be thinking “WTF?”

When you move to close an equity financing, there are at least two approvals that need to happen: Board and Stockholder votes. The Board vote is subject to fiduciary duties, but the stockholder vote isn’t, save for a few narrow circumstances. In a stockholder vote, you can block something for whatever reason you want, effectively. Yes, we have seen VCs block deals that common stockholders wanted, and with great terms; but because the VCs had self-interested reasons for favoring another deal, they refused to approve. This can give them remarkable power over what deals get done and don’t.

To be fair, YC points out this hard veto right in their blog post’s footnotes. Putting aside the fact that those footnotes won’t make it into a redline, probably their expectation is that good startup lawyers will always mention the issue to their clients, and negotiate if possible. In other words, their “standard” perhaps isn’t as big of a problem because it will be negotiated. And that brings us to a more important point in this post, which isn’t about YC specifically, but the entire concept of “standard” terms.

What is “standard”?

What exactly do we mean when we say something is “standard”? Whose data are we using?

Given that investors are on one side of a deal, and entrepreneurs (and other employees) on another, might we be a little cautious in letting investors be the ones telling the market what the “standards” are?

When YC, with its prominent brand, places the label of “standard” on giving VCs unilateral veto rights on future financings, that influences the market, even if unintentionally, in favor of VCs. Now lawyers representing the interests of startups/common stockholders (like us) have to negotiate not just with investors across the table, but against a now so-called “standard.”

We’ve closed many, many deals where we don’t give VCs this kind of broad veto right, and soften it significantly to make it more balanced. But now when we push back on giving VC’s these veto rights, their response is going to be: “Look at YC’s term sheet. Giving us a hard veto is the market standard.”

Which leads to another question: what is the appropriate threshold for something becoming “standard”? 75%? More than 50%? If 49% of deals don’t have a provision, or even 10%, there are good arguments that there are in fact multiple “standards.” But when some “standards” favor repeat players with microphones and dominance over startup ecosystems, while other “standards” favor “one shot” players (like first-time entrepreneurs and employees), which ones do you think get publicized? Taking a 75% standard, as an example, and then prominently publicizing it as the “standard” can be a way to move the market to 100%, with “efficiency” as a weak excuse for eliminating flexibility on such a high-stakes provision.

Even if we had perfect objective data, at what point should startups place more weight on their own priorities, unique context, and leverage for the permanent, highest-stakes economic and power terms of their company’s governance, instead of aggregated, anonymized data covering a huge diversity of companies?

One could argue that the publication by investors of their own so-called “standards” is a kind of assertion of market power, and a way to influence long-term the data that is then used to justify those same standards. Do common stockholders have the ability to do the same and ensure balance? No, they don’t. They depend on individual lawyers to represent their interests and help make up for the power inequality. And that finally brings us to an even bigger problem.

The “own the advisors” game.

Let us paint a picture of a “game” of sorts for you. The game has two broad sets of players: “one shot” players and repeat players.

The “one shot” players are first-time entrepreneurs and early employees; common stockholders. They are usually not diversified, which means their wealth is concentrated in their one company. They also typically lack significant personal wealth, and don’t have downside protection on their equity, further magnifying their “skin” in this “one shot” that they have. Finally, not having played the game before, they rely on experienced, trusted (hopefully) outside advisors (like lawyers) to help them not get taken advantage of.

The “repeat players” (investors, accelerators) are in the polar opposite situation. They are wealthy, diversified, downside protected (liquidation preference or a debt claim), and they’ve played the game many, many times. In the case of the largest repeat players, they’re also incentivized to take significant risks in order to “swing for the fences” and go after risky big prizes, even if doing so increases the number of total failures; failures which hit the one shot players far harder because they aren’t diversified across a portfolio juiced for “power law” returns.

There is a fundamental misalignment here that never goes away, and feeds into many high-stakes decisions (and disagreements) in a company’s history around recruiting, risk, fundraising, exits, etc. Both sides want to make money, but they are often misaligned in their perspectives on how to do so, whom to raise funding from (and on what terms), and what level of risk is acceptable. The repeat players have 100x the experience of the one shot players, but the one shot players hope their advisors can help “balance” the inequality as they navigate this misalignment.

Now, let’s say I’m a very smart repeat player – a “chess player” of sorts – and I’d prefer that this “balancing” not really happen. I make more money, and keep more control, if I can somehow get in the way of the lawyers helping the one shot players. But at the same time, if I look too visibly aggressive in doing so, the one shot players won’t want to play with me at all. So as an investor I want to win, but in a way that preserves a public image of selflessness so that inexperienced players keep coming to me, and preferably with minimal defenses. What’s a good multi-step strategy?

Here’s a suggestion.

1. Create “standards” for the game, based on limited data, and with microphones, that the one shot players can’t see or influence. Publish these so-called “standards” while emphasizing how much money they’ll “save” everyone by using them. Talk a bit about how you were once yourself a one shot player (former entrepreneur), so you’re really doing this out of selfless empathy for the new folks; even if now you’re highly misaligned.

2. Build relationships with lawyers that the one shot players hire for advice, by hiring those same firms on the much larger volume of deals you control, and also referring other people to them from your broad network as a repeat player. This ability to refer lots of work to said lawyers is a “currency” that the inexperienced one shot players always lack.

3. Recommend to the one shot players that they hire these same awesome lawyers that you (the repeat player) prefer, because of how “efficient” and “high quality” they are, and how well they know the “standards.” You know that those lawyers view you as a source of 50x as much “deal flow” as any one shot player, and would never do anything to jeopardize that deal flow. Emphasize how much money will be “saved” by using “familiar” lawyers.

4. Tell the one shot players that, given everything is “standard” anyway, they should focus on “closing fast” and saving fees. In fact, they should hire the lawyers on a flat fee, which ensures that the faster the lawyers move (the less time they spend advising the inexperienced startup and negotiating on its behalf), the more money those lawyers make. You can have two sets of lawyers who charge the exact same end-price, but those charging a “flat fee” (as opposed to billing by time worked) are actually rewarded for doing less work, with an improved margin.

5. With the “standard” (that repeat players created) in hand, the lawyers (that repeat players control) “close fast” (earning a better margin on their flat fee), with minimal discussion or negotiation, so everyone can move on and not “waste money” on unnecessary advisory.

6. The repeat players, very happy with how “high quality” and “efficient” the captive lawyers were at closing on their standard, refer them more work; regardless of how well it served the one shot players who, on paper, were the client.

7. Rinse and repeat over many iterations. Now we have market data that validates the “standards” that the repeat players created, further entrenching it.    

Does this game sound familiar to anyone? We bet it does to startup lawyers.

We go more in-depth into how the game is played, and strategies for avoiding it, in Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems and How to Avoid “Captive” Company Counsel.

The core point is this: there is a structural problem with how certain startup ecosystems have evolved to approach “legal” and the hiring of lawyers. It’s the result of a significant imbalance of power between “one shot” startups and the repeat player investors/accelerators they work with, the latter of which have found many (not all) startup lawyers quite eager to flout conflicts of interest in order to generate business for themselves.

“One shot” common stockholders (entrepreneurs, employees) and “repeat player” investors (including accelerators) are not fully aligned in terms of economics and incentives, given the above-described differences as it relates to diversification, wealth, experience, and downside protection. Repeat players, through their ability to operate as brokers/gatekeepers of referrals, have increasingly pushed founders to hire law firms that are ultimately “captive” to investors, and even then sometimes insist that those law firms adopt billing practices (like flat fees) that actually reward lawyers for rushing work and under-advising inexperienced startups. 

And all of this is done under the pretense of wanting to help founders “save” money. In this game, the appearance of “founder friendliness” is often a marketing tool to help lull first-timers into forgetting how misaligned they are from the money players, and then taking advice from those same money players that ends up, unsurprisingly, being an “own goal.” Former entrepreneurs-turned-investors are often the most skilled at using their pasts (as entrepreneurs) as smoke and mirrors to get now first-time entrepreneurs and early employees to forget their misalignment, and take their advice as gospel.

In fact, if you look around the market and find startup law practices that have grown at an abnormally fast, seemingly non-organic, pace, what you’ll often find is lawyers willing to juice this conflict of interest-driven game as far as possible, to a point getting preciously close to meriting litigation. We’ve seen at least one threatened law suit already.

We see the negative consequences of this game all the time around the country, as inexperienced “one shot” common stockholders (including entrepreneurs) are duped into signing (air quotes) “standard” deals, and taking certain “standard” actions, while having no real clue as to what the long-term consequences are because everyone was celebrating how great of an idea it is to “close fast” and keep it “standard.” When the long-term consequences of the “standard” docs and actions play out, it becomes clear no one ever actually explained to the inexperienced common stockholders and the company what the real implications were, or how they could’ve been negotiated for more balance; because everyone capable of doing so was ultimately incentivized to favor the interests of the money. 

So not only are we increasingly pushing so-called “standards” that are themselves biased and questionable, we’re depriving the most inexperienced and exposed people in the ecosystem, the new entrepreneurs and early employees, of the right to even be truly independently advised in assessing those “standards.” And we’re selling it all as noble and well-intentioned because it purportedly “saves” them fees, even if the long-term negative consequences for them far exceed whatever fees they “save.”

To be sure, not every team gets hurt by the emergent “close fast and keep it standard” dogma; in much the same way that not everyone who smokes gets cancer. Some teams manage to protect themselves in other ways, regardless of what the docs say, or are lucky to work with lawyers who fully do their job. But the issue is so pervasive, and there is enough damage occurring to inexperienced players, that it needs to be, at a minimum, discussed out in the open by people not incentivized to dismiss or downplay it.

We believe that startups are more than capable of making their own decisions as to how they want to hire advisors, including counsel, once they’ve heard the full story and potential implications. Part of the problem is how little open and honest discussion occurs on the topic, and how much market pressure to use captive lawyers is applied quietly in the background, precisely because the market is dominated by repeat player perspectives; many of which are cleverly spun and publicized as “friendly.”

Negotiating the YC “Standard and Clean” Term Sheet

To be crystal clear, this broader diagnosis of the market is not about YC at all. YC is a great organization, and many of our firm’s clients (including YC companies) have fantastic things to say about their program. We have no idea what YC’s arrangements are in terms of referring companies to certain conflicted or non-conflicted law firms, or the kinds of economic arrangements they promote with those firms. For all we know, YC legitimately believed that they could post this “standard,” and then expect truly independent, non-captive lawyers to then do their job and produce fair outcomes.

But while we have your attention, given that this “standard and clean” term sheet is already out there, a few suggestions that we would give to companies and common stockholders before signing it:

A. Soften the vetoBuild some “boundaries” around the veto right on future financings. For example, if the valuation is a certain amount above the current price (not a down round), perhaps a Board vote should be sufficient. The Board is subject to fiduciary duties, which can constrain bad actors. Maintain some kind of “path” to a value accretive financing, even if the current money gets hostile and tries to reduce competition, or force a deal with their “friends.” There should also typically be some kind of ownership threshold below which all VC vetoes go away.

B. Clarify the shadow preferred’s economicsBe clearer about the economics of the “shadow preferred” referenced for Notes/SAFEs. What are their liquidation preferences? Term sheets are a good opportunity to address any liquidation overhangs if the Notes/SAFEs themselves don’t address them.

C. Clarify the common stock’s board voting rightsDo the common stockholders have to be employees in order to vote for the common stock’s board seats? This has significant power implications long-term, because there can be any number of reasons why early common stockholders might leave the company (or be forced out), and still want a voice (even if not control) in governance; and for good reasons. When there’s a power shift, common stockholders remaining on payroll are usually far more beholden to the money, and because their equity was often issued later (at a higher price), their economics and incentives are more aligned with later investors. Make VCs explain in full just why exactly it’s so important that all common directors be service providers, or be elected by service providers, to the company. Listen closely enough, and you’ll understand how the arguments are often thinly veiled power plays.

Also, does one common director have to be the CEO? This is usually (but not always) the case. Discuss it and spell it out in the term sheet. Just like the previously mentioned point, given that the CEO position often eventually gets filled by a later common stockholder recruited by the Board, with different priorities and incentives from early common stockholders, this has control implications long-term. Again, tying common director positions (and the voting in their elections) to being on payroll is often a subtle power move to eventually exclude (as a company scales) early common stockholders from having visibility and a say in company governance; because they’re the people most likely to disagree with later-stage investors on how to scale, when to exit, and how much risk is acceptable.

Provide a “yes” or a “no” to these questions. Silence means shifting negotiation post-term sheet, where the common have less flexibility. Be mindful of how some players will spin this discussion into a caricature of founders not wanting to give up control. Control and a voice/visibility are two completely separate issues. There are many constituencies on a cap table with various incentives and interests. There are good arguments for why, as a company scales and the stakes get higher, early common stockholders – who are the most exposed to dilution and risk – should still have some say and visibility (even if not control) in company governance, to voice concerns around risk, financing strategy, recruiting, exits, etc. Conflating the narrow context of a founder unwilling to share control with the far broader, and far more legitimate reality that early common stockholders and investors have very different incentives and perspectives on company growth, is a common straw-man tactic for obfuscating the issue.  Both sides deserve to have un-muzzled voices in governance.

D. Clarify the anti-dilution exceptionsBe clearer about the exceptions to anti-dilution adjustments, instead of engaging in a post-signing “battle of the standards.” While not always an issue, these can sometimes be ways for the preferred to squeeze the common by refusing to waive anti-dilution unless they “give” on something. Spell them out in the term sheet.

E. Clarify how all Board voting will happenAre there specific Board actions that, aside from a Board majority, the investors expect for their own directors to have veto over? If not, say so. If so, list them. VC docs often have a section, apart from stockholder veto rights, that give the preferred directors veto (at the Board level) over certain key actions. If you’re silent about this issue, instead of making it clear that a majority governs all the time, investors will often claim that it’s an open point for negotiation in the docs. Silence is not your friend.

If YC truly wants their term sheet to serve as a balanced (and not biased) reference point for Series A deals (and I believe they do), they should prominently address at least these core economic and control issues; not in a passing blog post reference, but squarely in the document with appropriate brackets so as not to signal a “default” and therefore not slant negotiations. Having public templates as starting points, like the NVCA has done for some time, can be helpful, and we utilize them regularly to streamline negotiation and save fees. But it’s a big responsibility and needs to be done carefully; with input from people on the other side of the table whom the money can’t “squeeze” if they speak honestly and openly.

The general theme here is that you should be clear in the term sheet on all material issues. Nothing is more material than economics and control. Keeping it short, and glossing over things by referencing a nebulous “standard,” or simply not addressing a point at all, favors investors because it transfers negotiation to a context where the company has less optionality and flexibility. We’ve closed deals that land, after transparent discussion and negotiation, in any number of places on these above-mentioned points. The real point we’re trying to emphasize in this post isn’t about pushing deals to go in one direction or another – that depends on the context – but highlighting just how often these issues aren’t even discussed with startup teams because of games that investors and lawyers are playing, and their incentives to “close fast.”

Some people argue that you should “sign fast” on a term sheet because if you negotiate, you might “lose the deal.” We don’t see that actually happen in practice, and can’t think of a clearer signal that you might not want to take someone’s money than being told that the deal will die if you try to clarify even a few material points. This, again, is the kind of sleight of hand rhetoric that sounds like it’s advice to help entrepreneurs, when in fact it helps investors. In reality, spending more time to achieve alignment on a more detailed term sheet expedites drafting and closing once the term sheet is signed.

Start asking the right questions.

In a game of the inexperienced v. the highly experienced, moving very fast, and not taking the time to ask important high-stakes questions, favors the experienced. Great startup lawyers prioritize deals because they know they deserve urgency, but show us lawyers who act as if speed should be a founder team’s top priority in a financing, and we’ll show you lawyers who are captured by money players. In too many cases, startup entrepreneurs’ cultural inclination toward speed and automation – which in the right contexts is a good thing – has been hijacked by misaligned but very clever repeat players in order to dupe the inexperienced into adopting legal strategies that actually hurt their interests.

Wrapping this topic up, as counsel our job isn’t to always provide startup clients direct answers, but sometimes to simply ensure they, in their inexperience and unequal power in the market, are asking the right questions. Questions like:

  • What do we really mean by “standard”? Can the data be manipulated?
  • Whose “standard” is it, and are they biased? Can their “founder friendliness” be a marketing tactic instead of full reality?
  • How much should I even care whatever “standard” means, at least as it relates to my most high-stakes terms, if I’m building a unique company with its own priorities, context, leverage, etc.?
  • Might it be a bigger problem (than my investors will acknowledge) if my company counsel is far more motivated, via referrals and other economic ties, to keep my investors happy instead of the inexperienced common stockholders whose skin is entirely in this one company?
  • Is “moving fast” and rewarding my company’s lawyers for minimizing their involvement (with flat fees) really in my best interests, or is “saving money” a clever excuse to keep me ignorant and not properly advised of what I’m getting into, so that more experienced players can then take advantage of the imbalance?

We don’t pretend to have universal answers for these questions, because there aren’t any. Where you land depends on the context, the people involved, their unique priorities, and the kind of relationship they expect to have going forward. You know, a lot like term sheets.

This post (which is not legal advice, btw) was co-authored with my NYC colleague, Jeremy Raphael.