Startup Governance Choke Points: Protective Provisions

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As I’ve written many times before, one variable that makes the world of startup governance very different from other areas of corporate law is the substantial imbalance of experience and knowledge between the business parties involved. On one side you often have seasoned VCs who’ve been in the game for decades. On the other you often have an inexperienced entrepreneur for whom all of the complex terms in the docs are completely new. This imbalance leaves open numerous opportunities for leveraging founders’ inexperience to gain an advantage in negotiations either in deals or on complex board matters.

This can make the role that corporate lawyers play in VC<>founder dynamics quite pivotal. Whereas seasoned executives at mature companies usually rely on legal counsel for executing specific directives, but not for material strategic guidance, in the startup world good VC lawyers serve as strategic  “equalizers” at the negotiation table. This is why guarding against any conflicts of interest between your lead lawyers and your VCs is so important (see above-linked post). If your lawyers’ job is to help you guard against unreasonable demands or expectations from your counterparties, you don’t want those counterparties to have leverage over those lawyers. No one bites a hand that feeds them. VCs know this, and deliberately feed (engage and send referrals to) *lots* of lawyers in the ecosystem.

Because of this imbalance of experience, and even the tendency for some VC lawyers to not fully educate founders on the material nuances of deal terms and governance issues, I regularly encounter founding teams with overlooked “choke points” in their companies’ deal and governance docs. By choke points I mean areas where, if there were a material disagreement between the common stock and investors, the latter could push a button that really puts the common in a bind. It’s not unusual to find founders who simplistically think something like, “well the VCs don’t have a Board majority, so they can’t really block anything.” Trust me, it’s never so simple.

The hidden VC “block” on future fundraising. 

One of the most common hidden “choke points” I see in startup governance is overly broad protective provisions. These are located in the company’s Certificate of Incorporation (charter), and basically are a list of things that the company cannot do without the approval of a majority or supermajority of either the preferred stock broadly, or a specific subset of preferred stock. Given that the preferred stock almost always means the investors, these are effectively hard blocks (veto rights) over very material actions of the company. No matter what your cap table or Board composition looks like, these protective provisions mandate that you get the consent of your VCs for whatever is on that list.

Fair enough, you might say. The investors should have a list of certain things that require their approval, right? Of course. Balanced governance is good governance. But good, balanced governance terms should protect against the possibility of misalignment of incentives, and even conflicts of interest, in governance decisions for the company. In other words, they should prevent situations where someone can take an action, or block an action, purely out of self-interested motivations, while harming the cap table overall.

Very often so-called “standard” (there are all kinds of biases in what ends up being called standard) VC deal terms will give VCs protective provision veto rights over these sorts of actions:

  • creating any new series of preferred stock
  • making any change to the size of the Board of Directors
  • issuing any kind of debt or debt-like instrument.

The end-result of these protective provision is that, at the end of the day, you need your VC’s permission to raise any new money, because you can’t raise money without taking at least some of the above actions.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in: regardless of what your Board or cap table composition looks like – even if a VC is a minority holder, and the preferred don’t have a majority on the Board – the kinds of protective provisions that many VC lawyers call (air quotes) “standard” allow your VC(s) to completely block your ability to raise any new financing, no matter what the terms for that financing are. A “choke point” indeed.

Why is this a problem? Well, to begin with it’s a serious problem that I encounter so many founding teams that aren’t even aware that their governance docs have this kind of choke point, because nobody told them. A fair deal negotiation should require clear understanding on both sides. But more broadly, the problem is that VCs can have all kinds of self-interested reasons for influencing what kind of funding strategy a startup will take. They may want to block a lead from competing with them, for example. Or they may want to ensure that the follow-on funding is led by a syndicate that is “friendly” (to them) as opposed to one whose vision may align more with the goals of the common stock.

I have encountered startup teams several times who think they are in control of their company’s fundraising strategy, again because they simplistically looked at just their cap table and board composition, only to have a VC inform them that, in fact, the VC is in control because of an obscure protective provision that the founders never even read.

Preventing / Negotiating this Choke Point

The simplest way to prevent your VCs from having this chokehold on your fundraising strategy is to delete the protective provision(s) entirely. That may work, but often it doesn’t. Again, balanced governance is good governance. It’s reasonable for VCs to expect some protections in ensuring the company isn’t willy-nilly fundraising with terms that are problematic. I agree with that. But as I said above, it’s also unreasonable for the VCs to expect a hard block on any fundraising whatsoever, regardless of terms.

A more balanced way of “massaging” these protective provisions is putting conditions or boundaries around when the veto right is actually effective. For example, you might say that the veto right is not enforceable (the VCs can’t block a deal) if:

  • the new financing is an up-round, or X% higher in share price than the previous raise;
  • is a minimum of $X in funding;
  • maintains a Board with specific VC representation;
  • doesn’t involve payment to a founder, to ensure they are objective.

There are all kinds of conditions you could add to provide that only “good” (higher valuation, legitimate amount of money, balanced Board representation, etc.) financings can get past a VC block. Putting this kind of list in a term sheet can be an excellent conversation starter with a VC as to what they see as the long-term fundraising strategy, and where their own red lines are. It allows you to candidly ask your VC, “OK, if the deal checks all of these boxes, why exactly do you still need a veto right over it?”

But if your VC simply responds with a “this won’t work, we need a hard veto on fundraising” position on the negotiation – at a minimum you now have valuable data as to this VC’s worldview on governance and power dynamics in their portfolio. See Negotiation is Relationship Building. Regardless of where deal terms end up, forcing a discussion about them, and requiring the other side to articulate their position clearly, still serves a valuable purpose. Sometimes you don’t have the leverage to achieve better balance in your deal terms, but it’s always a positive to at least have your eyes wide open.

Putting substantive deal terms aside, I enjoy helping founding teams understand that many of the most (air quotes) “founder friendly” investors in the market are still far from charitable actors, and can be quite clever and subtle in their methods for maintaining power, despite the “friendly” public persona. See: Trust, “Friendliness” and Zero-Sum Startup Games. Note: this is not a moral judgment, but just an acknowledgement of reality. You and I aren’t Mother Teresa either. Navigate the market with the clear-eyed understanding that everyone is following their incentives, and protect your company accordingly.

A less balanced, but still improved, configuration of these protective provisions is to create an exception if a VC Board member approves the deal. You might (understandably) think: how is this better, if the VC Board member can just refuse to approve? Without getting too in the weeds, Board members have fiduciary duties to the cap table overall, whereas non-controlling stockholders generally do not. So at least theoretically, you could call out, and even sue, a Board member if it’s blatantly obvious that they are blocking a particular deal for reasons that are more about their own interests than the company’s.

I say theoretically, because the smartest and most aggressive investors, if they really want to play games with pushing your fundraising strategy in their preferred direction (and away from the preferences of the common), will be quite creative in developing plausible deniability for their behavior: they blocked the deal because that other lead wasn’t “value add” enough, they don’t believe now is the right time to raise because of market conditions, they’re concerned about X or Y thing that at least gives them an argument that they are still looking out for the company. So don’t get too excited about these fiduciary-related exceptions to protective provisions. They’re not nearly as helpful as the better strategy of putting concrete bypasses to a protective provision veto.

To be very clear, I still see quite a few founding teams who are fully informed about these issues, have a candid conversation with their VCs about it, and still ultimately put in some kind of hard VC-driven block on fundraising. I of course also see plenty of teams who, as soon as we bring this topic up to them, dig their heels squarely in the sand and completely refuse to do a deal unless the VC vetoes are removed/modified. It depends on context, leverage, values, trust, etc. But in all cases it is a net positive for the inexperienced founding team to know what they are signing.

Startup governance and power dynamics are much more nuanced than just what your Board and cap table look like, or the usual 2-3 high-level terms that founders read in a term sheet, thinking everything else is just “boilerplate.” Ensure you’re surrounded by objective, experienced advisors who can help you understand those nuances, so the deal you think you’re signing is in fact the one on the table.