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.

Don’t be an Asshole.

TL;DR: You probably can’t afford to be one.

Background Reading:

A regular theme of SHL involves different ways for founders and executives to protect themselves from bad actors – often via advice that I’m able to give by being in a position of not representing any institutional investors, deliberately. If you want more on that, see: How to avoid “captive” company counsel. 

The purpose of this post is to flip the topic, and discuss why there are very real, non-warm-and-fuzzy, reasons why entrepreneurs/execs should be very careful not to behave like bad actors themselves.

If you apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the business world, you arrive at one very real truth: the most talented, value-additive people in any industry are virtually never in it just for the money. They have enough, and trust their ability to earn more. Their talent allows them to care about other things: like challenging work, trust, friendship, impact, fun, respect, etc. By no means does this suggest they don’t care about money at all – in some cases money is a way for them to ensure they are being valued and respected for what they deliver. But it does mean that anyone who approaches these people with a kind of opportunistic cost-benefit analysis is likely to get ice cold water poured on them, very fast.

Startup ecosystems are full of these kinds of people. If all they cared about was money, they’d never touch early-stage.  If they’re working with startups (and your very early-stage risky startup), there are non-financial motivations higher on the hierarchy of needs at play, and you need to be mindful of that as you interact with them.

When you’re building your brand new or very early-stage company, unless you have a LinkedIn profile that screams “winner,” people all around you are going to be risking their time and money in working with you. There are 1,000 reasons why they might say no, and move on to someone else with a different risk profile. The absolute last thing you want to do is give them a reason to walk away, because they smell an asshole. And trust me, they will walk away. 

“Startup people” react much more viscerally to assholes than “corporate people” do, because the startup world often selects for people who won’t do or tolerate anything for a big payout. The large hierarchies of corporate environments enable, naturally, more hierarchical behavior among peers. In contrast, the “flatter” nature of startup ecosystems generates, and enforces, more “democratic” (respect everyone) norms.

As startup lawyers, we’re often in a position to see firsthand who the assholes in the entrepreneurial community are. They treat lawyers and many other service providers as line items to be deferred, discounted, and written-off to the very last dime, as much as possible; and will play games to manipulate people into giving them more for less. Thinking extremely myopically, these assholes think they’re doing what’s best for their company by grabbing as much as possible on the table – but played out over time, they’re actually whittling down the number of people who will work with them to those who simply don’t have other options. And when someone doesn’t have options, it’s often for a reason. Interestingly, assholes have a way of ending up stuck with other assholes. 

All of this applies just as well to top investors, particularly angel investors (with more freedom than VCs) who know they deliver a lot more than money. God help you if you give them even the slightest reason to think you’re an asshole. Information travels fast.

The definition of a mercenary is someone whose every decision is cost-benefit calculated for money. The fact is that if you build a reputation in a startup ecosystem for being a mercenary – always maximize the valuation, minimize the equity grant, discount the bill – you’re dramatically reducing your chances of making money, simply because of the personalities and values you tend to find in the startup world.

Be careful out there. Don’t be an asshole. On top of it being simply wrong, you probably can’t afford it.

How Angels & Seed Funds compete with VCs

TL;DR: The emerging “seed ecosystem” of angel groups, seed funds, and accelerators now provides local startups a viable path to seed funding, and eventually “going national,” w/o having to prematurely commit to a Series A lead.  That has dramatically reduced the leverage that local institutional funds once had over their local ecosystems.

Background Reading:

Once upon a time, startup ecosystems (if they could even really be called that) outside of Silicon Valley had only a handful of local VC funds writing checks. Without AngelList, LinkedIn, Twitter, Accelerators, good videoconferencing, and the many other recent developments that have reduced geographic friction in startup capital flows, those funds effectively “owned” their cities, including most of the startup lawyers in those cities; which often resulted in harsh terms and aggressive behavior. For more on this, see: Local v. Out-of-State VCs.

Raising “angel” money in that era often meant needing close connections (family, friends, professional) to very high net worth individuals willing to make big bets on you until you were ready for one of the few local funds to take you under their wing. If you were one of those lucky few chosen, those local VC funds would then, once they were out of their own capital, show you off to one of their trusted out-of-state growth capital funds.

The pipeline was narrowly defined, and choice was minimal: local angels (or friends and family), then local VC, then out-of-state growth capital.

Times have changed.

Today, angel groups are much bigger, organized, and collaborative across city and state lines. Seed funds – which weren’t really even much of a concept a few years ago – will write checks of a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars for rounds that may have been called Series A 3-5 years ago, but are now “seed” rounds. Prominent accelerators have themselves joined the mix, writing their own 6-figure checks and serving as valuable filters / signaling mechanisms to reduce the search costs of investors.

This “seed ecosystem” of organized angels, flexible seed funds, and accelerators has not only increased the amount of “pre-VC” capital available to startups, but very importantly, it has significantly reduced the leverage that local VC funds have over their local startup ecosystems. 

As I wrote in Optionality: Always have a Plan B, sunk money has very different incentives from future money. A seed fund/angel that has mostly maxed out the amount of capital it can fund you with has every incentive to help you find a great Series A lead at a great valuation; they are quite aligned with the common stock. They want a higher valuation and better terms for the existing cap table, just like you do, because they are being diluted too.

However, a VC fund that wrote you a small seed check but wants to lead your Series A has very different incentives. The “seed ecosystem” wants to maximize your Series A options, while a VC fund wants to minimize them, until it gets the deal it wants.

Foreign capital will usually require some heightened level of de-risking or credible signaling before it will cross state lines. It’s much less risky to rely on my local referral sources, and “monitor” my portfolio where I can drop in by the office whenever I need to. If I’m going to write a check a thousand miles away, I need a little more reason to do so. In that regard, it’s well-known that there is a “flipping” point beyond which the pool of capital available to a startup moves from being mostly local to much more national: that point is somewhere between $500k-$2MM ARR (it used to be higher, and can be even lower if you have a strong network). 

Historically, reaching that flipping point was almost impossible without local VC, and this effectively kept startup ecosystems captive to their local funds. The new seed ecosystem, with its ability to often fund 7-figure rounds all on its own, has changed that. Now, if a desirable startup wants to, it can often raise $1-2MM in seed capital without taking a single traditional VC check, then use that to hit the “flipping” point, after which the number of VCs it can talk to goes up considerably. 

Of course, this dynamic is not always so clean cut.  More progressive VCs have wisely developed symbiotic relationships with this seed ecosystem for the obvious reason that it can serve as a pipeline when startups are ready for bigger checks. That is a smart move. What we’ve also seen is that large VCs are playing much “nicer” in seed rounds than they used to, as an acknowledgement of their reduced control over the market. Years ago you much more often saw VCs condition a $250K or $500K check on a side letter giving them the right to lead your Series A. That is increasingly becoming an anachronism, and for good reason.

At the same time that AngelList, accelerators, LinkedIn networks, and other signaling / communication mechanisms for startups are giving foreign capital more “visibility” into other ecosystems, allowing it to invest earlier and more geographically dispersed, the emergent seed ecosystem is also increasingly allowing local startups to “go national” without having to commit themselves to a particular VC fund. The obvious winners in this new world are entrepreneurs and investors willing to be open and flexible with how they fund companies. The losers are the traditional investors – particularly those who used their old leverage to squeeze founders – who haven’t understood that the old game is gone, and it’s not coming back.

Optionality: Always have a Plan B

TL;DR: Always build some optionality into your startup’s financing strategy. Failing to do so will overly expose you to being squeezed by sophisticated players who can see how dependent you are on them.

Background reading:

The below is a fact pattern that we have seen happen with several of our clients. It will provide some context for why the point of this post is so important.

Company X has raised a decent-sized seed round, which includes several angels as well as a “lead” VC; though that VC is not on the Board. The Company knows that it will run out of funds in 3 months if it does not raise more money, and it has been in regular communication with the VC about that. The VC reassures the founders that they will “support” them with a new bridge round. A month passes, and the founders ask about the bridge. “Don’t worry, we’ll cover you” is the response. Then another month passes, with more reassurances, but no money. Then 2 weeks before their fume date (the date they’ll miss payroll), the VC drops a term sheet with very onerous terms, including a low valuation, and mandated changes to the executive team. The VC makes it clear that they won’t fund unless those terms are accepted. The founders panic. 

Before we dive in, there are a few important points worth making about this situation. First, it was clear every time that it has come up that the bait-and-switch dynamic was planned by the lead investor. They paid very close attention to the exact date that the Company would run out of funds, and timed the “switch” to deliver maximal pressure. Second, the regular “reassurances” provided to the founder team were calculated to discourage them from using their time to find other funding sources. Third, the best way to avoid investors who engage in this kind of “below the belt” behavior is to do your diligence before accepting their check; see: Ask the Users. 

Always have a Plan B.

A startup’s ability to avoid being burned by the above behavior depends on its level of strategic optionality.  Optionality means strategically avoiding a situation in which you have no choice but to depend on one investor/investor group for funding. This is very different from not committing to certain lead investors as your main funding sources. “Party rounds” are what you call financings where literally every investor is a small check. The end-result of a party round is that no one has enough skin in the game to really support the company when it hits a snag. You really are just an option to them. 

I strongly support having true lead investors writing larger checks in your rounds, because they will usually provide far more support than just money. And if you’ve done your homework and have a little luck, they’ll never even think about engaging in the kind of behavior described above. But in all cases the best way to maximize the likelihood of good behavior is to ensure a right of exit if someone decides to cross a line. I always try to work with “good people.” But no good strategist builds their life or company around the full expectation that everyone will be good. 

Lead fundraising yourself.

CEOs sometimes believe that they are doing themselves a favor by letting a lead investor do their fundraising for them – coordinating intros, negotiating terms with outsiders, etc. – so they can “focus on the business.” It often backfires. Angels and seed funds whose money has been sunk into the company, and who aren’t planning on writing larger checks in the future, are usually quite aligned with the founders/common stock in helping raise a Series A or future round. They’re being diluted just like you are.

But a VC fund with plenty of dry powder and a desire for better future terms is significantly mis-aligned with everyone else. Watch incentives closely.  Founders/the lead common holders should maintain visibility and control in fundraising discussions, with trusted independent advisors close by. 

Start early, and don’t tolerate unnecessary obfuscation and delays. 

Do not wait until a few weeks from your fume date to start communicating with investors for new funds. If someone says they will support you, great: when, and what are the terms? You want to know them now, not later. “We will support you” means very little without knowing what the price will be.

Expecting things to happen in a few days is unrealistic, but a month or more of delays is usually a sign that someone is playing games, and it’s time to pull the plug. No serious fund worth working with is that busy.

Build “diversity” into your investor base.

The power dynamics in a company are very different when all the major investors have strong relationships/dependencies with each other, and communicate regularly, relative to when various players come from different “circles.” Geographic diversity – meaning taking money from various cities/states – is a good strategy to avoid unhealthy concentration of power among your investor base. Also, diversity of investor types – angels, seed funds, institutionals, strategics – will ensure that your investor base includes people with differing incentives/viewpoints, which reduces the likelihood of collusion. 

In the scenario where a bad actor has tried a “bait and switch” on a founder team, a group of angels willing to write quick checks for an emergency bridge, or a lender offering a credit line, can be enormously valuable to relieve pressure and build time to correct course.

Contracts matter. A lot. 

Every commitment you make to investors requiring their approval, or guaranteeing their participation, in future rounds can have material strategic implications for how much optionality you have. Protective provisions matter. Super pro rata rights and side letters matter.  When you see dozens of financings a year, you regularly see how commitments made at seed/pre-seed stage play out over years and seriously affect the course of fundraising.

Good lawyers well-versed in the ins and outs of startup financing will go much further than just plugging some numbers into a template, which software can do.  They’ll dig deep on how the specific terms you’re looking at will impact the company, in its specific context, and how much room there is to stay within “market” norms while still keeping flexible paths open for the future. That’s, of course, assuming they aren’t actually working for your investors.

Make money, and own your payroll.

The ultimate optionality is being able to run on revenue if you need to; being “default alive” in Paul Graham’s words. Yes, you may grow slower than you’d like, but growing more slowly is always lightyears better than being forced into a bad deal.

Every salaried employee on your payroll raises the revenue threshold needed for your company to be default alive. Ensure that every member of your roster is essential, and that there aren’t redundancies that could be addressed by asking someone to be more of a generalist. And don’t let an institutional investor pressure you into hiring a high-salaried professional executive unless you have a clear strategy for how you are going to afford them, because, yes, that is another way that they can add fundraising pressure.

Stay in control of your fundraising. Start discussions early, and don’t tolerate delays. Build diversity of geography and incentives into your investor base. Let your lawyers do their actual job. And finally, watch your payroll closely. Following those guidelines will minimize anyone’s ability to squeeze you, and your investors will then act accordingly.

ICOs and Crowdfunding

TL;DR: Crowdfunding failed at fulfilling its goal of unlocking a massive new source of unprofessional capital for startups. Regulated, fully legally compliant token offerings (not the mostly unlawful ones done historically) may succeed where crowdfunding failed.

I am not going to spend any time in this post explaining or defining ICOs or Crypto. I know most SHL readers are familiar with them and, if not, a quick google search will do the job.

There was a time, I would say between 2016 and some of 2017, during which ICOs/Token Offerings were certainly on our firm’s radar as potential fundraising mechanisms for startups, but we were highly skeptical of their legal compliance; for reasons that the SEC and other regulatory agencies have now made clear. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of crypto tokens today are securities under U.S. law and that, just like a convertible note or SAFE, U.S. companies issuing them need to find some way of staying within the applicable legal boundaries. Forming some offshore entity to try to get around the securities law issues (tax issues are a separate matter) is playing with fire, and don’t expect us to play with you.

On top of the obvious legal issues, our skepticism of ICOs was supported by the fact that most of the teams we saw pursuing ICOs were, shall we say, not the “caliber” we like to work with. It was clear that in the early days the ICO space had an adverse selection problem: putting aside the small number of stellar teams building unicorns with legitimate reasons for being in crypto, the significant majority of the projects pursuing ICOs were simply the rejects of the conventional angel/seed fundraising world.

In other words, my skepticism of ICOs paralleled to a large extent my skepticism of “crowdfunding.” While the pre-sale kind of crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo) has clearly been impactful, securities crowdfunding was pitched to the world as opening the floodgates of this vast world of middle class capital just dying to get into hot startups. It didn’t work out that way.

First, the middle class in America is trying hard to afford college, housing, and healthcare, and have some kind of retirement in place. It never was dying to invest in startups; beyond the occasional “man I wish I’d gotten into Facebook” hindsight remark. Second, average investors aren’t stupid, and are well aware that most crowdfunding sites are not full of A-level teams, but are often packed with the teams rejected by professional angel and seed investors. Startup investing in general is extremely high-risk even for professionals. Given the adverse selection issues, it’s orders of magnitude riskier for every-day investors seeing only the bottom 20%. Given all of this, the supply of capital simply isn’t there.

As of today, the impact of non-accredited investor crowdfunding on the general startup ecosystem has been marginal, at best, and I don’t see that changing much in the near future.

But… over the past year or so I’ve come to believe in the possibility that legally compliant (regulated) ICOs/token offerings may have a legitimate shot at realizing crowdfunding’s unfulfilled dreams. Here’s why: 

A. Unlike the average middle class American, the newly created “crypto rich” have (i) significant disposable income and, (ii) from the simple fact that they got into crypto early, tend to be much more tech literate and interested in early-stage projects than the average investor. They trust their ability to judge early-stage technology, and are therefore willing to invest in risky projects.

B. Regulatory agencies, instead of pounding the industry into non-existence by banning everything, have instead taken a more measured approach by going after the most egregious bad actors, but also extending an olive branch to those interested in finding fundraising mechanisms compatible with a valid legal framework.

C. Crowdfunding platforms, eyeing an opportunity to tap a market that actually exists, are pivoting toward supporting ICOs/token offerings that work within the legal framework created by the crowdfunding movement. That framework certainly adds some friction around how the classic wild-west “easy money” ICOs have historically been conducted, but it is significantly more greased (and could be greased further) than conventional startup investing; including “mini IPO” regulations that were previously passed that could allow tokens to be traded openly in a way that doesn’t bust securities laws.

D. The average caliber of teams we see approaching us with an interest in a token offering has gone up significantly. We have a few clients actively working on token offerings fully compliant with securities laws right now.

E. While most token offerings until now have involved utility tokens that actually serve a function in the operation of the company’s technology (which limits the types of companies that can offer them), the infrastructure is being built for “security tokens” that allow almost any asset – including shares in a corporation – to be sold and traded much like utility tokens.

I was quite skeptical of non-accredited “crowdfunding” generally. I was also deeply skeptical of the easy-money ICO boom that made headlines over the past few years. But I’m becoming cautiously optimistic that the infrastructure and demand is coming for a legally compliant ICO/Token Offering wave that could win where crowdfunding lost. The next 2 years will be interesting to watch.