Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems

TL;DR: The highly unequal relationship and power dynamics in most startup ecosystems mean that what is visible publicly is not an accurate representation of how the game is actually played, because few people are willing to speak honestly and openly. This makes off-the-record diligence, and watching loyalties of your most high-stakes relationships (including counsel), essential in order to prevent repeat “money” players (investors, accelerators) from dominating the voices of less influential “one shot” players (first-time entrepreneurs, employees) both on boards of directors and in the market generally.

Background Reading:

There are a few underlying themes that have been covered in a number of SHL posts and are relevant to this one:

First, there is a fundamental divide and tension between inexperienced, “one shot” common stockholders and “repeat player” investor preferred stockholders (VCs, seed funds, accelerators) that feeds into all of the most high-stakes decisions around how to build and grow a company. It has nothing to do with good v. bad people. It has to do with core economic incentives.

Common stockholders (founders, early employees) typically have their wealth concentrated in their one company (not diversified), do not have substantial wealth as a backup in the event of failure, do not have the downside protection of a liquidation preference or debt claim on the company, and have almost no experience in the subtle nuances of startup economics and governance. This dramatically influences their perspective on what kind of business to build, how to finance it, whom to hire in doing so, and how much risk to take in order to achieve a successful outcome; including how to define “successful.”

Preferred stockholders / repeat players (investors, accelerators) are the polar opposite of this scenario. No matter how “founder friendly” they are, or at least pretend to be via PR efforts (more on that below), their core economic interests are not aligned with one shot players. They are already wealthy, significantly diversified, have substantial experience with startup economics and governance, and have downside protection that ensures they get paid back first in a downside scenario.  In the case of institutional investors, they also are incentivized to pursue growth and exit strategies that will achieve rare “unicorn” returns, even if those same strategies lead to a large amount of failures; failures which hit common stockholders 100x harder than diversified, down-side protected investors.

And the fact that some of the repeat players are themselves former founders (now wealthy and diversified) is irrelevant to the fundamental economic misalignment; though investors will often use their entrepreneurial histories as smoke and mirrors to distract now first-time founders from that fact. They can probably empathize more with the common’s challenges, and help with execution, but they didn’t become wealthy by ignoring their economic interests. In fact, I would argue from experience that the moves/behavior of entrepreneurs-turned-investors should be scrutinized more, not less, because they’re almost always far smarter “chess players” at the game than the MBA-types are.

Second, apart from the economic misalignment between the common and preferred, there is a widely unequal amount of experience between the two groups. A first-time founder team or set of early employees do not have years of experience seeing the ins and outs of board governance, or how subtle deal terms and decisions play out in terms of economics and power.  The preferred, however, are usually repeat players. They know the game, and how to play it. This means that the set of core advisors that common stockholders hire to leverage their own experience and skillset in “leveling the playing field” is monumentally important; including their ability to trust that those advisors will help ensure that the preferred do not leverage their greater experience and power to muzzle the common’s perspective.

This second point relates to why having company counsel who is not dependent on your VCs / the money is so important; and it also highlights why repeat players go to such enormous efforts to either force or cleverly trick inexperienced teams into hiring lawyers who are captive to the interests of the preferred.  We’ve observed this in pockets of every startup ecosystem we’ve worked in: that aggressive investors work hard to gain influence over the lawyers who represent startups.  The moment we became visible in the market as a growing presence in startup ecosystems, we lost count of how many of the strongest money players reached out to us to “explore” a relationship; even though they already had “relationships” with plenty of firms. It wasn’t that they needed lawyers; it’s their power playbook.

The point of this post is how these above facts – the economic misalignment, and particularly the greater experience – of influential investors (including accelerators) plays out into how they exert power, often covertly, in startup ecosystems; not just with lawyers.

Think of any kind of business that needs to work with startups as clients: obviously lawyers, but also accountants, HR, outsourced CFO, benefits, real estate, even journalists who need access to entrepreneurs in order to write articles. All of those people need strategies for “filtering” startups (finding the more viable ones) and then gaining access to them; and they’re going to look for strategies that are the most efficient and less time consuming.

What many of these service providers come to realize is that an obviously efficient strategy is to work through VCs and other influential investors/accelerators. They’re doing the filtering, and because they’re repeat players, have relationships with lots of companies.  So the service providers reach out to the prominent repeat players (investors, accelerators), who immediately recognize the power that this role as “gatekeepers” and brokers of relationships gives them over the ecosystem.

And when I say “power over the ecosystem,” what I mean is power over what people will say publicly, what they won’t say, and what “support” businesses become successful (or not) via the direction (or restriction) of referral pipelines. It heavily plays out into what gets written and not written on social media and in tech publications, and said at public events; because people are terrified of pissing off someone who will then cut them off from their lifeblood of clients.

“One shot” players are, by virtue of not being repeat players and lacking significant relationships, unable to counterbalance this dynamic.  Put together a system of highly influential and wealthy repeat players and inexperienced, less influential “one shot” players, and you can bet your life that it will inevitably tilt itself toward those who can exert power; with strategies to obscure the tilting from the inexperienced. The ability to offer (and restrict) access to valuable relationships is the leverage that repeat players use to exert power in startup ecosystems and ensure their interests are favored; even when they aren’t formally the “client.”

So let’s tie this all together. Founders and other early startup employees are significantly misaligned from the repeat player investor community in a way that has nothing to do with ethics, but core incentives and risk tolerance; and this is independent of the more obvious misalignment re: each side’s desire for more ownership of the cap table. They’re also totally lacking in experience on how to navigate the complexities of startup growth and governance, and therefore rely heavily on trusted outside advisors to level the playing field. Finally, the most aggressive repeat players will position themselves as gatekeepers to the ecosystem (or at least a valuable portion of it), exerting significant control over the market of advisors available to founders by their ability to offer, or deny, access to startups.

What’s the conclusion here? There are two:

A. What you often see written or said publicly in startup ecosystems is not an accurate representation of how the game is actually played, because very few people are willing to talk openly about it, for fear of being cut off by gatekeepers.  Others will say positive things publicly because of a quid-pro-quo understanding in the background. This significantly increases the importance of off-the-record “blind” diligence to get the real story about a particular repeat player. If you are diligencing an influential investor or an accelerator, it is important that said entity not know whom you are contacting (or at least not everyone) in conducting that diligence.  That is the only way that they cannot retaliate against any particular person who says something negative; and you’re therefore more likely to get an honest answer.

You will absolutely encounter people who will say that the whole idea of “retaliation” is some kind of paranoid fabrication, but remember how the chess game is played: the appearance of “founder friendliness” is often a marketing tool. Of course the smartest users of that tool are going to wave away all this talk of bad actors, doing heavy diligence, and protecting yourself as unnecessary. Come on, they’re good guys. Just trust them, or their tweets. We’re all “aligned” here.

When you have an inherent and substantial power advantage, it is an extremely effective strategy to create a non-adversarial, “friendly” PR image of yourself, downplaying that power.  Inexperienced, naive first-time players then buy into this idea that you’re not really about making money, and come to the table with minimal defenses; at which point you can get to work and surround them with relationships you “own.”

The money players with truly nothing to hide won’t be dismissive or defensive at all about the common’s need to conduct blind diligence and ensure the independence of their key relationships. Reactions are often a key “tell.”  If you truly have a great reputation, and you have no intent to use the common’s inexperience and unequal power against them, then what exactly is the problem with respecting their right to be cautious and protect themselves?

There are definitely good people in the market, including those who put integrity and reputation above money, but only idiots navigate a highly unequal and opaque world under the premise that everyone is an angel, and you should “just trust them.” Being a “win-win” person is not in tension with ensuring your backside is covered. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to cleverly disarm you, and is defending an approach that has clearly served them well.

B. To prevent repeat players from dominating the perspective of “one shot” common stockholders both on startup boards of directors, and in ecosystems generally, the “one shot” players must pay extremely close attention to the relationships of their high-stakes key advisors and executive hires, to ensure they can’t be manipulated (with bribes or threats) by the money’s relationship leverage.  No rational human being who cares about being successful bites the hand that most feeds them; no matter how “nice” they are. That is the case with lawyers, with “independent” directors on boards, with other key advisors, and also with high-level executives that you might recruit into your company. Pay attention to loyalties, and diversify the people whose rolodexes you are dependent on.

In the case of lawyers, aggressive repeat players and their shills will often talk about how startup dynamics are “different” and it’s “not a big deal” for company counsel to have dependencies (via engagements and referral relationships) with the preferred stockholders. They even argue that the lawyers’ “familiarity” with the investors will help the common negotiate better and save legal fees. How generous. An honest assessment of the situation is that startups are different, but different in a way that conflicts of interest matter more than usual. Outside of the world of promising startups run by first-time executives negotiating financing/governance with highly experienced investors, you rarely see high-stakes business contexts where there is such a dramatic inequality of experience and power between groups, and such a high level of dependence on counsel (on the part of the one shot common) for high-impact strategic guidance.

Repeat players aren’t reaching across the table and manipulating startup lawyers because it’s “not a big deal.” They’re doing it because the payoff is so uniquely high, and the power inequality (reinforced by the preferred’s inherent dominance over key ecosystem relationships) makes it so easy to do. Couple a basic understanding of human nature/incentives with the fact that the Board’s primary fiduciary duties under Delaware law are to the common stock, and any honest, impartial advisor will acknowledge that experienced company counsel who doesn’t work for the repeat players across the table on other engagements, and who doesn’t rely on them for referrals (in other words, is not conflicted), is one of the clearest ways to (a) ensure the common’s perspective gets a fair voice, and accurate advisory, in key Board decisions, and (b) help the Board do its actual job.

There is a clever narrative pushed around startup ecosystems painting a picture of startup finance and governance as always full of warm, balanced transparency and generosity, with common stockholders and investors holding hands and being “fully aligned” as they build shareholder value together without bias, disagreement, or power plays. But notice how quickly the tone changes from some parts of the investor community the moment you suggest that the common be afforded even minimal defensive protections, like company counsel that investors can’t manipulate. Suddenly you’re being “overly adversarial.” Oh, so are the transparency and generosity, and “kumbaya” sing-alongs, only available if the common keep their necks directly under the boots of the powerful, but oh so benevolent and soft-heeled, money? Funny how that works. Smart common stockholders won’t accept “benevolent dictatorship” as the model for their company’s governance. The way you address power inequality is by actually addressing it; not by taking someone’s BS reassurances that they’ll be “really nice” with how they use it.

You should absolutely want transparency, fairness, and generosity to be the guiding principles of your relationship with your investors – that’s always my advice to founders on Day 1. Also understand that while the common’s perspective deserves to be heard and respected (and not muzzled or infantilized), it is obviously not always right. Balanced governance is good governance; and true “balance” requires real, independent ‘weight’ on both sides. Too many repeat players have manipulated the market into a charade – propped up by pretensions of “friendliness” and “cost saving” – where inexperienced common stockholders become unwittingly dependent on advisors to help them negotiate with investors 100x as experienced as they are, when in fact those advisors are far more motivated to keep the investors happy than their own (on paper) clients.

High-integrity startup ecosystem players should forcefully assert that the “friendly” ethos promoted by VCs and accelerators only has real substance if they’re willing to stay on their side of the table, and not use their structural power advantage to maintain influence over the key people whom founders and employees depend on for high-stakes guidance and decision-making. Call out the hypocrisy of those who put on a marketing-driven veneer of supporting startups and entrepreneurs, while quietly interfering with their right to independent relationships and advisory; including independent company counsel that repeat players can’t “squeeze” with their relationship leverage.

A lot of the most egregious stories of startup flame-outs that you see written about – who grew too fast chasing a unicorn exit, raised more money than a business could sustain, took a high-risk strategy that blew up, or perhaps achieved a large exit while returning peanuts to the early common – are the end-result of a complex game by which repeat players come to exert so much power over how a particular startup scales that the voice of the “one shot” players – the early common stockholders without deep pockets or contacts – gets completely silenced until it’s too late. Gaining control over key company relationships is a significant part of how that game is played. And what’s written about publicly is just the tip of the iceberg.

To put a bow on this post, healthy skepticism over what you see and hear publicly, and good instincts for understanding the importance of incentives and loyalties, are essential for any inexperienced team entering a startup ecosystem. The image of wealthy, powerful people “winning” only by loudly and aggressively pounding the negotiation table is a caricature of how complex business actually works; but it’s a caricature that often dupes inexperienced founders into thinking that everyone else who smiles and seems helpful must be aligned with their interests. Assholes are easy to spot, and the smartest winners are almost never visible assholes. Good people still follow their incentives; and aggressive but smart money players know how to assert their power while preserving a public image of selflessness and generosity. Navigate the market, and recruit your advisors, accordingly.