TL;DR: In the earliest stages of a startup, paying for a proprietary cap table tool, or simply dealing with the hassle of a 3rd-party intermediary software layer for modeling your capitalization, is not really necessary. We’re publishing the Open Startup Model, an Excel-based “open source” cap table and pro-forma that startups and their lawyers or other experienced advisors (if they don’t already have their own tools) can use for free. It’s based on the pro-forma structure we’ve used for hundreds of deals, and is flexible, editable and auditable.
- “No Code” v. “Open Source” Approaches to Early-Stage Startup Law
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In the beginning, there was Microsoft Excel, and it was good (enough).
For decades, startup cap tables and pro-forma financing models were maintained on Excel. It wasn’t perfect (nothing is), but it worked well enough. Then as the ecosystem matured, we saw the emergence of specialized cap table software, like Carta (pricier incumbent) and Pulley (leaner alternative). These tools make a lot of sense at moderate (not low) levels of cap table complexity – based on our experience at Optimal, typically around Series A or post-Seed.
But somewhere along the way some founders got the impression that these tools might be needed as early as the incorporation of the company, when there are only a handful of people on the cap table. The argument, certainly made by the cap table software vendors themselves, is that Excel is too clunky, and too error-prone. There is also a land grab dynamic here, in that it isn’t necessarily profitable for these tools to have tons of very small companies on them, but they have to build super early-stage offerings to prevent their competitors from owning the pipeline. There’s no simple way for the tools to agree to leave young companies alone, so we get these silly value-destroying attempts to onboard everyone.
All of this is, candidly, nonsense. I’ve seen seed-stage companies spending thousands of dollars a year and getting absolutely nothing extra of value that they couldn’t get from a basic excel spreadsheet maintained by someone moderately competent.
What makes old-school Microsoft Excel a still-used tool in startup finance is its flexibility, auditability, simplicity, and affordability (free, essentially). It’s really only once you’ve crossed about 20 cap table stakeholders that in our experience, as counsel to hundreds of VC-backed companies, a third-party tool starts to make sense. Before then, I often see more mistakes when founders try to use an inflexible outside tool than when they simply collaborate with a sharp outside advisor to keep things clean and simple on a spreadsheet.
In the really early days, before the entire seed ecosystem even existed, most financing was in equity rounds. But as the SaaS revolution got started, financings both shrunk in size and exploded in volume, with equity rounds no longer making sense in many cases. So we got seed-stage convertible notes. Then we got notes with pre-money valuation caps, discounts, or both. Then you got pre-money SAFEs. Then you got post-money SAFEs, and various flavors of them. Then you got post-money convertible notes. Time-based discounts and caps. Milestone-based caps. Don’t forget friends & family SAFEs, which are slightly different. Oh, and let’s not forget seed equity v. NVCA equity. Even within these categories there are various nuances and flavors.
It is not surprising to us at all that the ecosystem has resisted all attempts to hyper-standardize fundraising instruments, notwithstanding the valiant (even if self-interested) attempts by high-profile VCs or software tools to centralize all fundraising terms. This reflects the decentralized reality of the startup ecosystem. Startups are not uniform commodities, nor are their investors. In the latter category, think of bootstrapping, friends and family, angels, super angels, angel syndicates, pre-seed funds, seed funds, family offices, crowdfunding, accelerators, VCs with seed fund arms, strategic investors.
Couple that organic diversity on the investor side with the extremely diverse industries, business models, geographies, team compositions and cultures, risk tolerances, and exit expectations of startup companies. Do we really expect all of these sophisticated business people playing with millions and tens of millions of dollars, gunning for hundreds of millions to billions, to fit into one or two template financing structures because some VC, accelerator, or cap table software says they should? Because of some childish aversion to actually reading a contract and tweaking a few terms?
The only people misguidedly trying to hyper-standardize this complex ecosystem are (i) specific VCs who profit from controlling terms, with their preferred templates, and (ii) specific software companies (often funded by the aforementioned VCs) who want to build some centralized proprietary tool on which all startup financing would at some point become dependent (surely with juicy margins to them as a result). Neither of these types of rent-seeking gatekeepers are looking out for the ecosystem itself, and its diversity of preferences and priorities; certainly not for entrepreneurs. They’re looking out for themselves (for which, as market actors, I don’t fault them).
Many entrepreneurs and startup teams in particular have lost huge amounts of equity and money by being misled into signing inflexible contracts that they thought were “standard,” but really aren’t. The smallest bit of tweaking and negotiation can produce enormous differences in financial outcomes.
Given the diversity of businesses and investors in the startup ecosystem, which inevitably leads to a diversity of funding instruments, flexibility of any viable wide-reaching startup capitalization model is key. That’s why MS Excel still matters, because of how flexible it is. Flexible and transparently auditable in the way that open source code is flexible; and proprietary “no code” tools are not.
Led by a Partner colleague of mine, Jay Buchanan, we’ve published the Open Startup Model. Free, Excel-based, flexibly customizable and auditable, even “forkable” if others want to iterate on it. “Open Source” effectively. It’s based on the same model we’ve used hundreds of times at Optimal, with clients backed by elite VCs like a16z, Sequoia, Accel, Khosla etc. and dozens of “long tail” funds across the world as well. It works from the formation of the company through Series A (or a Series Seed equity round).
Jay will be writing periodically at OpenStartupModel.com, with info on how to take better advantage of it. Just like open source code isn’t intended to be handled by untrained end-users, this model is not intended to be entirely self-serve by founders. We are modeling very high-stakes and complex economics here. Rather, it’s meant to be a potential starting and focal point for various experienced market participants (including lawyers) to work with founders on.
Just as we are big believers in the thoughtful integration of elite legal industry values and lean tech values, we think an “open” startup ecosystem, with its enormous organic diversity of market players, is far healthier and more sustainable than misguided attempts to centralize everything behind a handful of rigid proprietary structures and tools. An open pro-forma model, together with our open-source contract templates that we’ve published here on SHL, is part of that vision.
In that vision, it’s not necessary that dozens of different actors come to agree on some “standard.” These templates and models will look extremely recognizable to all the serious law firms and other key players in the market. That alone saves time if startups or lawyers want to use them, and as institutions get more “reps,” efficiencies follow as institutional knowledge is gained.
We hope everyone – founders, lawyers, investors – will find this helpful, and welcome any feedback on improving it; particularly if “bugs” are found. As a final legal tech tip for lawyers, the ability to redline excel models, much like how you redline contracts, is super important and improves efficiency in reviewing model changes. Litera Compare is our favorite redlining tool for excel files.
As a separate tip for startup founders, if you need a 409A valuation, but don’t want to pay extra for a third-party cap table tool (because Excel is fine for now), Eqvista and Scalar have lean 409A-only (no extra software) offerings. Some seed-stage companies go this route, combining Excel and a 409A valuation without the extra bells and whistles of the pricier cap table tools, until their cap table has grown more complex (typically post-Series A).
Finally, once you get to the point of needing to onboard to Carta or Pulley (if you’re successful, you will get there eventually), the following may be helpful for saving on their costs.