TL;DR: There are effective and efficient ways to lower your closing costs, in terms of legal fees and other expenses, for your seed round. But be mindful of the lean v. cheap distinction. A lot of founders myopically over-cut corners thinking that minimizing negotiation or deal structuring saves them money. This can easily cost 10-20x+ long-term in terms of economics (dilution) and governance power, because teams end up mindlessly signing terms against their interests. Thoughtful customization, combined with lean process and tools, gets you to a better outcome. Thinking lean – balancing flexibility, optimization, and efficiency – but not short-sightedly cheap, protects you from being penny wise but pound foolish.
There are two broad categories of costs for closing a seed round:
- Legal Fees – Including whether you are using an incumbent “BigLaw” firm or a leaner boutique, and how you structure the round.
- Post-Closing Expenses – Including state and securities filing fees, as well as 409A/cap table software costs
Seed Round Legal Fees
BigLaw v. Elite Boutique?
Without a doubt the two most significant drivers of legal fees are: (1) the type of law firm you are using, and (2) the round structure (contracts) you and your lead investors choose. For a deep-dive on the “type of law firm” issue, see: Startup Legal Fee Cost Containment (Safely). In short, what has happened over the last decade or so is the incumbent Silicon Valley-based firms (BigLaw) have raised their pricing and grown so bloated (IMO) that they have simply overshot the needs of a huge segment of the startup ecosystem, especially at the earlier stages.
Granted, the market has historically not done a very good job of offering viable, credible alternatives to BigLaw in this space. What we’ve more often seen is (what I lovingly call) “shit firms” full of cheap but poorly-qualified lawyers, or peddlers of half-baked legal automation software that simply can’t handle the contextual nuances of high-growth companies. Lean but still elite boutique law firms, like Optimal (our firm), offer a more balanced package of highly-trained and credible professionals, including top-tier Partners, but lower costs derived from a more efficient firm operating structure.
To put this into more concrete numbers: a Partner in an incumbent “BigLaw” SV-based law firm will typically cost at least $900-1400 per hour (I did not add an extra zero there), often more. At an elite lean boutique firm, the Partner will have an extremely similar background in terms of credentials, training, and experience, but be more like $450-650 per hour. Certainly not cheap – remember Partners don’t do most of the work in early-stage, they oversee things (quality control) and strategize with the C-suite and Board – but dramatically leaner than BigLaw. What allows leaner law firms to do this, while retaining top talent, is that they “burn” so much less money than firms built on traditional operating models. They can pay lawyers extremely well, but at lower rates.
Convertibles (Note or SAFE) v. Equity (Seed Equity or NVCA)?
The second big driver of legal fees in a seed round is the contract structure you and your investors use. Certain market players like to pretend as if this decision is very easy and simple, often because they make money nudging you in one direction, but it really is not that universal or clean cut.
Convertible instruments (convertible notes or SAFEs) are most certainly cheaper to close on and negotiate. Even within that category, however, there are key nuances. For example, whether there’s a valuation cap or not, whether that valuation cap is post-money v. pre-money, and of course whether you’re using convertible debt (notes) or SAFEs. Good reading on this: SAFEs v. Convertible Notes and A “Fix” for Post-Money SAFEs. These nuances can have enormously consequential (economically) impacts on a company.
While the big positive of convertible notes and SAFEs is speed and simplicity, their primary downside is uncertainty. They do not harden economics or governance rights the way that an equity round does, but instead deliberately punt on various hard questions to the future – this is precisely how they simplify things. In many cases, this is a feature and not a bug, but not always. A huge number of startups are feeling these downsides in this heavy post-pandemic post-ZIRP economic downturn that the ecosystem is experiencing.
So many founders drank the “click click close” kool-aid suggesting that seed rounds are all “standard” and they should just sign YC’s default post-money SAFE. The main peddlers of this perspective were specific investors, who profited from pushing a contract structure designed for their economic interests, and automated financing companies who need you to not negotiate your deals, and believe it’s all “boilerplate,” so that you can let their software tool close everything for you. Obviously, automation software breaks down when confronted with any meaningful level of flexibility or structure nuance.
Now that these startup teams need to raise more money in hard times, they’re feeling the pain of having failed to do a bit more negotiation up-front, including by hardening investor economics when valuations were higher instead of simply relying on a moving valuation cap with no floor. The harsh anti-dilution mechanics of YC’s default SAFE are also imposing significant dilution on founders, whereas if they had just done a tad more thinking and structuring up-front they could’ve saved themselves potentially tens of millions of dollars worth of dilution. Losing millions in dilution in order to save a few thousand in fees is a perfect example of penny-wise, pound-foolish judgment.
See Myths about Seed Equity Rounds for a deep-dive into when equity, instead of a convertible, can make sense for your seed round. Choosing a simplified “seed equity” structure, instead of the longer, more complex NVCA-based equity deal contracts, can save tens of thousands in legal fees, and safely (without material hidden risks). You and your counsel will just need to get your investors comfortable with it, if possible.
Concrete Legal Fee Numbers:
If you’re using a lean elite boutique law firm, closing a convertible note or SAFE round is at most a few thousand dollars in legal fees ($2.5K-$5K). A little more if it’s heavily negotiated, but rarely more than $10K. BigLaw, with often double the rates, will naturally be more. This is for company-side costs. Investors usually pay their own fees in convertible rounds.
For simplified seed equity (not NVCA), a more typical range from a boutique law firm is $15K-$25K if we’re thinking of a 10%-90%-ile range, with below that range being zero negotiation super-fast closing, and above that range being when more heavy negotiation or cleanup diligence issues are involved. Again, BigLaw with its higher rates is probably twice that.
Some VCs will insist on structuring “seed rounds” in the exact same format as a Series A, using NVCA-based forms. This adds significant complexity and drafting time, as it’s a rejection of the simplified seed equity structure. For this structure, with a lean boutique a reasonable 10/90 range is $25K-$40K. This is about what Series A’s cost at elite boutiques as well. Again, BigLaw’s rates will drive that higher if you go that route. But importantly, a small minority of seed rounds are structured this way, as using this structure is more a response to a particular fund’s idiosyncratic preferences, and not some inherent necessity of seed financing.
Only perhaps 10-15% of these cost ranges boil down to what might be called “administrative” work – paralegal-esque mechanics like coordinating signatures, inputting numbers, etc. The real drivers are high-impact legal work of negotiation (including educating executives and Boards), structuring, drafting, and integration of the “code” (contract language) for the deal and planned corporate governance arrangement.
Sidenote to law firms: See Legal Tech for Startup Lawyers for some experienced advice on helpful software for reducing administrative time on financings.
The key takeaway is how much seed rounds cost to close is heavily driven by the type of law firm you’re using, and the contract structure. My point here is not to pretend there is some formulaic, straightforward answer as to what any particular company should choose. It depends on context. My suggestion, however, is that founders actually act like executives and exercise some judgment – weighing the pros and cons, balancing flexibility v. speed, negotiation v. automation – instead of biting into X or Y peddler’s nonsense as to whatever a “standard” seed round looks like. We’re talking here about selling 10-30% of your cap table. Don’t be a myopic fool.
Other Seed Round Expenses
While not as meaningful as legal fees, there are a few other expenses that still impact the bottom line in a seed round. State filing fees, along with securities filings, can run you anywhere from $750-2,000 as a 10/90 range.
Carta or Pulley?
Higher than state or filing fees will be the cost of adopting capitalization table software and getting a 409A valuation; the latter of which is usually recommended if you intend to grant options after closing your round. Before a seed round, adopting any kind of cap table tool apart from MS Excel has always struck me as pointless. At under 10-20 cap table stakeholders, it’s not hard for a competent team, in collaboration with competent counsel, to maintain a spreadsheet. In fact, when very early founders introduce third-party cap table software into the mix, I sometimes see more mistakes, not fewer ones.
Historically, Carta has been the big incumbent player in this space, and deservedly so. But as is the case with many incumbents, there are growing concerns in the market about feature creep and excessive (rising) pricing. Sentiments like:
several portcos have switched from carta to pulley recently and saved ~50%
curious to hear from folks who’ve migrated and how they are feeling about it!
— Rex Salisbury (@rexsalisbury) March 22, 2023
A big concern among law firms and VCs has been that no other leaner alternatives seemed to be gaining sufficient market share to counteract the network effect advantages that Carta has. But from what we’ve been observing, Pulley (Founders Fund Series B-funded) appears to be reaching a threshold where, at a minimum, founders need to be aware of them as a significantly less costly and simpler cap table + 409A option to the tune of thousands of dollars per year. Most serious law firms in this space are growing comfortable and familiar with it. Its simpler, more focused interface is certainly helpful.
We also published The Open Startup Model for founders who (understandably) want to avoid the cost of a third-party capitalization tool entirely until later in their company’s trajectory. A lot of lean companies get by just fine during seed stage, and sometimes even Series A, relying on a simple but well-organized excel model.
All smart founding teams are rightfully concerned about not over-spending to close their seed funding. But there’s a lot of opaque, and sometimes patently false, information available in the market as various commentators “talk their book” instead of laying out all the factors honestly.
On legal fees, law firm type and deal structure are big drivers. For the former, it’s BigLaw v. elite boutique. For the latter, the decision matrix is multi-variate. If convertibles: SAFE or Note, and within those categories, type of valuation cap. If equity: simplified seed equity or NVCA. Where you land on deal structure has millions of dollars in implications long-term. Take the time to exercise real judgment on this issue. Remember: lean, not cheap.
On post-closing cap tables and 409As, Carta is the quite expensive but solid incumbent, and Pulley is the increasingly attractive lean alternative. Assess both. Also consider just leaning on an Excel-based cap model.