- Early v. Late-Stage Stockholders in Startup Governance
- How Startup Employees Get Taken Advantage Of
- Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems
Anyone looking to build a meaningful business needs to understand the importance of “alignment.” Alignment refers to the fact that building your company is going to involve the participation of numerous categories of people – founders, employees, executives, investors, etc. – all of whom come to the table with different incentives and motivations; and they are hardly going to be naturally in sync with one another. To make them all “play nice” you need to find ways of getting them aligned on a single vision, so you can get their approval and support on key transactions. It’s never as simple as it sounds.
Part of the “tension” in incentives stems from the fact that different people have different characteristics and legitimate needs. For example, most major preferred stockholders (VCs) are going to be affluent individuals with diversified portfolios, and (importantly) downside risk protection in the form of a liquidation preference. This means that, other than the absolute worst scenarios, they get their money back before the common stockholders (founders, employees) get anything. They also tend to be more interested in pursuing larger exits to satisfy their LPs return expectations, even if the paths to those exits take longer and involve more risk. Their already existing wealth means the potential return from this one individual company isn’t “life changing” for them in the way it could be for a founder or early employee. A life changing exit for a founder may be a waste of time for a large VC fund.
Patience is a lot harder when 80-90% of your net worth is sitting in unrealized value on a single company’s cap table. It’s much easier when you’re already in the 0.1%, and you’re just stacking more gold on top of an already healthy balance.
Even within broad categories like “common stockholder” there is very often misalignment of incentives and interests. Earlier common stockholders, like founders, sit in very different positions from later common stockholders, like professional executives. Someone who has been working at a company for 6 yrs and has tens of millions of dollars in fully vested equity value is going to assess the terms of a later-stage financing or acquisition offer very differently from someone who just showed up at Series B, got their stock at a relatively high exercise price, and thus needs the business to appreciate much more in value before they can really get much out of their equity.
Corporate Governance is the professional field of managing the relationships among the various constituents of a corporation and their varied interests. Good governance means achieving good alignment. Bad governance often results from ignoring misalignment, and letting it metastasize into destructive conflict, or other times into collusion or corruption. In Corporate Law, there are legal mechanisms in place to attempt to protect against misalignment getting out of hand in a corporation (including a startup). Members of a Board of Directors, for example, have enforceable fiduciary duties to look out for the interests of all the stockholders on a cap table, not just their own personal interests. If evidence arises that they approved a self-interested transaction at the expense of smaller holders not represented on the Board, those smaller holders can sue.
The source of governance conflict that gets the most attention in startups is the tension between founders and venture capitalists, particularly as it relates to power (who ultimately calls the shots) within a company. This power tension is real, but it’s not what I intend to write about here. There are plenty of other posts on this blog about that topic.
Aside from hard power, conflict can arise between founders/common stockholders and investors because of economic misalignment. As mentioned above, given their different positions in terms of affluence, risk-tolerance, and concentration of personal wealth, it’s not uncommon to encounter situations where founders or common stockholders want to pursue path A for a company, while investors are insistent on pursuing path B. In the worst circumstances, this can get into battles over voting power and Board structure. I’ve even seen situations in which investors attempt a “coup” by swiftly removing founders from a Board in order to force through their preferred agenda.
From a preventive standpoint, one of the best ways to avoid this sort of conflict is fairly obvious: ask the hard questions up front and get alignment on vision before anyone writes a check. Founders and investors should be candid with each other about their needs and expectations, and both sides should conduct diligence (reference checks, including blind ones if available) to verify that the answers they’re getting are in sync with past behavior.
Another tool for achieving better economic alignment between founders/common and investors/preferred is allowing the common stock to get liquidity in financings. Years ago the predominant view was that letting founders take money off the table was a bad idea, because everyone wanted them “hungry” to achieve a strong exit. The fear was that by letting them liquidate some wealth, they’d lose motivation and no longer push as hard. While this was a legitimate “alignment” concern, the general wisdom today is (for good reason) that it was actually getting the issue backwards.
More often than not, failing to let founders get some early liquidity is a source of misalignment with investors. Investors want to let the business continue growing and go for a grand slam, but founders (and their families typically) are impatient to finally realize some of the value that they’ve built. It can be very frustrating for a spouse to see a headline that a founder’s company is worth 8-9 figures, and yet they still can’t buy that home they’ve been eyeing and talking about for half a decade. Letting founders liquidate a small portion of their holdings (5-15%) – enough to ease some of their financial pressure but not enough that a later exit is no longer meaningful for them – can go a long way in achieving better alignment between the early common and the investor base. It makes founders more patient and thus better aligned with other stockholders with longer time horizons.
Today, I far more often see VCs and other investors be far smarter about founder and other early common stockholder liquidity. At seed stage it is still considered inappropriate (for good reason typically), and in most cases Series A is too early as well; though we are seeing some founder liquidity as early as higher-value Series As that are oversubscribed. By Series B it is more often than not part of a term sheet discussion.
But be careful. Relevant players should avoid any impropriety indicating that VCs are offering founders liquidity in exchange for better overall deal terms. That’s a fiduciary duty violation, because it benefits individual Board members while harming the cap table overall. For more on these kinds of risks, see the “corruption” part of this post below.
Aside from destructive conflict in company governance, another concern is when various constituents on a cap table are able to consolidate their voting power in order to force through initiatives that may be sub-optimal for the cap table as a whole, but benefit the players doing the forcing.
One way in which this happens involves larger cap table players, with an interest in having their preferred deals approved, using quid-pro-quo tactics to convince other cap table holders to accept Deal A over Deal B because Deal A aligns more with the interests of the existing money players. For example, if a Series A lead currently holds a board seat and wants to lead a Series B, that VC has an interest in not only minimizing competition for that deal, but (assuming they don’t already have a hard block from a voting % perspective) also convincing other cap table players to go along with them.
All else being equal, an early seed fund investor should be more aligned with a founder than a Series A lead as to evaluating a Series B deal led by the Series A VC. They want the highest valuation, and the lowest dilution, possible. While the Series A VC is on both sides of the deal, both the seed and founder are only on one (along with the rest of the cap table). This is good from an alignment perspective. But all else isn’t always equal. For example, the seed fund and the Series A VC may have pre-existing relationships. The Series A lead and seed fund may share investment opportunities with each other in the market, and thus have an interest in keeping each other happy in a long-term sense despite their narrow misalignment on a particular company.
All it takes is for the Series A lead to invite the seed investor out to lunch, remind them of their extraneous relationships and interests, and now we have a collusion arrangement in which the seed fund may be motivated to approve a sub-optimal (for the company) Series B arrangement because of secondary benefits promised by the Series A lead on deals outside of this one.
This exact kind of dynamic can happen between VCs and lawyers, by the way. See: How to Avoid “Captive” Company Counsel. Many VCs very deliberately build relationships with influential corporate lawyers in startup ecosystems, because they know very well that a lawyer who depends on a VC for referrals and other work isn’t going to push as hard for his or her client if that client happens to be across the table from said VC. Watch conflicts of interest.
The key preventive tactic here is: pay very close attention to relationships between people on your cap table, on your Board, and among your key advisors and executives. It is too simplistic to look at the %s on your cap table and assume that because no particular holder has a number-based veto majority that you are safe. The most aggressive and smart players are very talented at cap table politics. Diversify this pool of people by ensuring that they are truly independent of one another, preferably even geographically, so that they will be more motivated by the core incentive structure of your own cap table and deals, and not by extraneous factors that muck up incentives.
Collusion involves simply coordinating with someone else to achieve a desired goal, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that collusion violates some duty you have to other people. A seed investor who doesn’t sit on your board has no fiduciary duty to you or anyone else on your cap table. So if they collude with your Series A lead to force through some deal that you don’t like, you may not like it, but you don’t really have any statutory legal right – aside from contractual rights you and your lawyers may have negotiated for – to make them do otherwise.
When collusion becomes corruption, however, someone doing the collusion is in fact going against their legal obligations, and trying to hide it. A common kind of governance corruption I’ve encountered is when VCs try to ensure that senior executive hires are people with whom they have long-standing historical relationships, even when other highly qualified candidates are available. Those executives will typically sit as common stockholder Board members, and have duties to pursue the best interests of the Company as executive officers. But because of background dependencies those executives have on specific VCs – those VCs may have gotten them good jobs in the past, and will get them good jobs in the future – they’re going to ensure the VCs always stay happy.
If as a founder you suddenly find out that your VCs know about certain private matters going on in the company that weren’t formally disclosed to them, there’s a very high chance there are background relationships and dependencies you were ignoring. While it’s always great for investors to bring their rolodexes and LinkedIn networks to the table when a portfolio company needs to make key hires, my advice is to generally ensure that there is still an objective process for sourcing high-quality, independent candidates as well.
A more serious form of potential corruption – and an extremely clever one – that I’ve observed in the market in recent years involves VCs and founders. Imagine VC X is a high-profile VC fund that sees lots of high-growth angel investment opportunities. The ability to “trade” access to those opportunities is extremely lucrative currency, and VCs are experts at using that currency to build relationships and influence in the market.
VC X is an investor in Company A. Founder Y is a founder of Company A. Normally, as we’ve seen, the economic misalignment between Founder Y and VC X as it relates to Company A ensures that Founder Y will negotiate for as high of a valuation as possible because she wants to minimize her dilution. This puts Founder Y very much in alignment with other common stockholders on the cap table (employees) because they too want to minimize dilution. But obviously VC X would prefer to get better terms.
What if VC X offers Founder Y “access” to the angel investment opportunities it sees in the market? Suddenly we have an extraneous quid-pro-quo arrangement that mucks up the incentive alignment between Founder Y and other common stockholders. While on this company Founder Y may want to make VC X provide as good of terms as possible for the common stock, Founder Y now wants to keep her relationship warm with VC X outside of the company, because VC X is now a lucrative source of angel deal flow for Founder Y.
See the problem? Founder Y can make money by accepting worse terms for the company and cap table as a whole, because it benefits VC X, who rewards the founder with outside angel investment opportunities. The founder’s alignment, and fiduciary responsibility, to the rest of the common stock has been corrupted by outside quid-pro-quo.
I have seen founders co-investing in the market alongside the VCs who are currently the leads in those founders’ own companies. The VCs are not doing this to just be nice and generous. They’re using their deal visibility as a currency to gain favor with founders, potentially at the expense of the smaller common stockholders whom the founders should be representing from a fiduciary perspective.
This is an extremely hard governance issue to detect because it involves the private behavior of executives and VCs completely outside of the context of an individual company. It is unclear whether default statutory rules would ever require Founder Y and VC X to disclose the outside arrangements they have, given they aren’t true affiliated parties in the classic sense of the word. Frankly, it’s kind of a “cutting edge” problem, because while investors have forever traded deal flow with other investors to build collusive relationships, only recently has this strategy (very cleverly) been extended to founders.
But it’s something everyone, including counsel, should keep their eye on. It may even be worth considering creating new disclosure requirements regarding anyone purporting to represent the common stock on a Board (founders included) and co-investment or investment referral relationships with key preferred stockholders. We certainly want founders and VCs to be aligned on maximizing the value of a particular company. But this (trading deal flow outside of the company as quid-pro-quo favors) is not that. The losers are the employees and smaller investors whose interests aren’t properly being looked after, because founders as common board members may be favoring particular VCs on the cap table over other outside offers that have better (for the company’s stockholders) terms but don’t come with juicy personal investment opportunities on the side.
It’s somewhat ironic that ten years ago company-side startup lawyers had to think a lot about overly aggressive “asshole” VCs who mistreated founders, in many cases to the detriment of a company. But today it’s much harder for VCs to play that game because the ecosystem has become so much more competitive and transparent reputationally. Now we instead need to have a conversation about the exact reverse: “founder friendliness” getting so out of hand that it’s now potentially generating fiduciary duty issues and harming smaller cap table holders. As expected, Silicon Valley is, from my observation, where things have flipped the most.
When the stakes and dollar values are very high – and in top-tier startup land they very often are – incentives drive behavior. Understand how the incentives align and misalign among the key constituencies on a cap table, and use that knowledge to achieve outcomes that maximize value not just for particular “insiders” on the cap table, but all stockholders who’ve contributed to the company.