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.

Alignment in Startup Governance: Conflict, Collusion, Corruption

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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.

Conflict

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.

Collusion

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.

Corruption

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 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. Also, build the pipeline process in a way such that no one gets the feeling that it was really a VC hiring them instead of the C-suite team or broader Board. Executives should not be reporting to VCs individually without the involvement and knowledge of the Board.

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 (I don’t represent investors) 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. Unsurprisingly, 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,” but for all stockholders who’ve contributed to the company.

Diversity in Startups: Whining, Warring, Winning

Recommended Reading: The Weaponization of Diversity

Almost two years ago I wrote a lengthy personal essay regarding my own story growing up as a low-income child of Mexican immigrants, weaving through the American educational system (UT Austin, Harvard Law), and eventually finding success in startups and venture capital as a managing partner of an elite boutique law firm specialized in that field. In that essay I described the significant cultural divide I observed growing up in the latino community in Houston, between the educational expectations I had at home driven by my elite college educated Mexican mother, and the cultural values of my latino peers; all of whom came from blue collar and laborer backgrounds.

We lived in the same neighborhood and were all lower-income, but our home cultures were starkly different. Many of my latino friends found my study habits extremely peculiar and aberrant from how they felt a latino child “should” grow up. As a result I was often labeled a “coconut” (brown on the outside, ‘white’ on the inside).

In that essay I applied my own childhood observations to research I’ve reviewed regarding the under-representation of certain minorities in various high-performance professions (tech entrepreneurship, elite law, etc.), as well as to my observations as an adult responsible for recruiting lawyers into our firm. My general thesis is that “warmongering” over diversity in these industries has resulted in two very negative dynamics.

First, it leads to the silencing of many people – good, very much not racist, progressive people – who see a clear causal relationship between home culture, including childhood educational values, and under-representation in elite industries dependent on compounding education and training; like tech and law. For fear of being penalized personally and professionally, these people avoid contributing constructively to the discussion, and as a result the general topic of diversity becomes dominated by stale and exhausted narratives suggesting that “racism” and “unconscious bias” are supremely explanatory for disparities. Because these narratives are (flatly) wrong, the results of their non-solutions are disappointing.

Second, aggressive pressure to increase representation in elite industries leads employers, investors, and other decision-makers to make rushed hirings, promotions, and investments in URM (under-represented minority) candidates. Because the market isn’t nearly as irrational, discriminatory, and “racist” as many people make it out to be, a significant portion of those individuals who are elevated by these “affirmative action” initiatives end up very visibly underperforming. That underperformance ends up reinforcing stereotypes (bias) in the minds of observants. In other words, it backfires. Being overly aggressive and simplistic with increasing representation of URMs in highly competitive meritocratic industries, when their under-representation broadly is actually reflective of real performance issues (on average) in the marketplace, ends up harming those same groups in the long-run by strengthening stereotypes that we should instead be strategically and methodically weakening.

The essay is long for a reason. This is an extremely sensitive and nuanced topic, and to give it its due requires time and depth. For that reason, I respectfully ask that anyone bothered or offended by the above paragraphs please actually read the essay, to understand the real point I am making. It is not victim blaming. It is not pretending socioeconomic inequality isn’t a problem. And it most certainly is not pretending that racism and discrimination do not exist at all in our society. Rather, it is an honest attempt to explain why, all else being equal, focusing on racism and “unconscious bias” as the primary reasons why URMs, like American Latinos, are under-represented in elite industries has been incredibly unproductive, even counterproductive, and it will continue as such until we inject some sincerity and reality into the discussion.

The purpose of this post is to be less theoretical and analytical than the original essay, and more practical. How should founders, CEOs, and Boards of Directors in the startup ecosystem respond to concerns about diversity and the under-representation of certain minority groups? How can they empathetically listen to the variety of voices on this topic, while constructively and safely fulfilling their fiduciary duties to maximize the performance and success of their businesses? To cover this topic, I’m going to touch on three categories of approaches advocated by “diversity activists” in elite industries (including tech startups) – whining, warring, and winning – and why it’s in the interest of both key decision-makers and under-represented minority groups to steer discussion and action toward the latter.

Whining

This post assumes the perspective of my original essay; those claiming that “racism” and “bias” are the main drivers of under-representation of URMs (or at least of American Latinos specifically) in elite industries are flatly, demonstrably, wrong. Of course isolated instances of racism and discrimination can be found in a country of 300 million people, just as they can be found all over the world. These isolated cases are unacceptable, illegal, and deserve to be addressed forcefully.

But pointing to a limited number of isolated anecdotes does not in any way demonstrate that the startup ecosystem as a whole is racist. We are talking about an industry full of thousands of individual companies, and hundreds of venture capital funds, all led by highly educated and progressive people from an enormously diverse set of ethnicities and nationalities. These people are not all racists, and they would be punished financially by market competition if they were neglecting high-performing undervalued talent that competitors could then recruit or invest in.

In fact, the startup ecosystem is one of the most diverse (in terms of skin colors, surnames, ethnicities, etc.) industries you will find in America. Its diversity is part of what drew me to that kind of work in the first place. Not only is the industry incredibly diverse, it is so starved of high-performing talent that it has had to bid average salaries far above other industry norms, and aggressively recruit internationally, in order to fulfill demand; stretching even further the credibility of the suggestion that tech companies would, simply out of irrational prejudice, ignore millions of high-performing candidates available for work.

The industry is, however, fiercely, almost olympically, competitive and meritocratic; by necessity. We are talking about very small entities, with very limited budgets running usually at a perpetual operating loss, in hyper-competitive markets often filled by incumbents 100x in size, and funded by high-risk investors with high-stakes expectations of returns from their own LPs. The room for error in this segment of the economy is smaller, and the cost of underperformance is higher, than anywhere else in the market.

Saying that underperformance is the main reason URMs are under-represented in elite industries, like tech startups, is not a slam dunk argument for silencing debate; much like it isn’t in other policy discourse about race and social justice. In other parts of the economy, like universities and government, there are many activists who will argue that even if URMs underperform, organizations are responsible for elevating them anyway. This is, in essence, the argument for “affirmative action.”

The affirmative action debate in the university context gains its legitimacy from the fact that most universities are non-profit entities with missions that can be tied very closely to broader issues of social justice and fairness. Elite universities also in particular have large endowments, and spend at least 4-years with students – a fair amount of time to “catch up” – before those students enter the marketplace. Thus it takes some rhetorical gymnastics for an elite university with an endowment the size of a small country’s GDP to say that it can’t “afford” to accept and train some number of underperformers in order to pursue some higher-level societal goal.

As we move from large elite universities to large for-profit employers, the argument for “affirmative action” begins to reach stronger resistance, but not so much that there isn’t room for reasonable debate. Once a company has reached a market capitalization of, say, $25 billion, with thousands of employees and layers of staff, the idea that it too “can’t afford” to incur some costs to pursue a broader societal concept of “fairness” is far from obvious. This is why various “diversity initiatives” are not uncommon in large companies. You see them in law as well, with “diversity fellowships” in the AmLaw 100.

Gains have been made in improving the representation of URMs in large, for-profit companies, particularly at entry and mid-level positions. But activists are now starting to turn their attention to the C-suite, noticing that far smaller gains have been made there. And this is where the very real challenges and constraints of startups and much larger companies start to look similar, in terms of their legitimate inability to afford substantial underperformance. Underperformance from a CEO or CFO is catastrophic at a Pfizer or an Apple just as it is at a far smaller startup. Your views about social justice and fairness may have some legitimacy and weight in the non-profit university context, and in some market contexts, but that legitimacy ends when it starts threatening entire companies and industries, on whom millions of peoples’ livelihoods, and the economy at large, depend.

What’s a word used to describe situations when someone makes strong complaints for X or Y, often citing “unfairness,” and yet the justified response is that it simply can’t and won’t be done? Whining. I understand some people may object to my use of this term as being overly dismissive and offensive, but I nevertheless think it accurately captures the tone and language often encountered by key decision-makers in the startup ecosystem when “diversity” is used as a reason to question their judgment.

In this context, of high-stakes startups and venture capital, we aren’t talking about the right to any kind of employment, or the right to use a particular essential facility or public resource. We’re not talking about civil or human rights; the contexts in which morality and fairness really should override all other concerns. Far more often, we see someone already earning a relatively comfortable salary in a white collar job using “diversity” as a reason why they should be earning an even higher salary in a more senior position. Or someone already in the top quartile of education and income nevertheless arguing that they should receive millions of dollars in private funding for their business, because they are “diverse.” In other words, here “diversity” looks far less like a legitimate, authentic moral argument for societal fairness, and more like a rhetorical device for self-promotion and advancement.

I’m sorry, but Cesar Chavez fought for oppressed very low-wage farm workers. His spirit should not be invoked while discussing whether or not a software engineer or lawyer deserves a promotion. Speaking as someone who grew up surrounded by true low-wage laborers, let’s not hijack their challenges and the moral force of their causes for high-class soft-handed gains.

My advice to key decision-makers when they encounter this kind of argument is to focus on specifics and context. Is the argument being made that this particular individual has been judged by different performance standards than those applied to other similarly positioned individuals? That is illegal, and should be addressed immediately. But if that isn’t really the argument – and it often isn’t – but rather someone is trying to claim an entitlement to “affirmative action” treatment from a startup, return to the specific context in which it is being raised.

We are not an elite non-profit university with a billion-dollar endowment and years to help someone catch up on performance. We are not a Fortune 500 company with enormous insulation in the market to absorb the costs of helping someone meet performance standards. We’re a startup trying to survive and fulfill our obligations to our employees and investors to build a successful business in a hyper-competitive market. For that reason, we need performance today, and those who can’t perform today are not the responsibility of startups. In this context, expecting a private business to absorb the cost of fixing enormously complex and nuanced social and historical issues is unreasonable and unsustainable.

Many intelligent, thoughtful, progressive people who support upper-income diversity in far more appropriate and sustainable contexts will understandably draw a hard line when asked to risk the survival of their own businesses and careers for such a cause; the equivalent of levying a tax on people who simply do not have the means to pay it. We need to leave space for people agreeing on the goal of greater diversity to still be open and honest about the very real problems with specific tactics for achieving it.

Warring

When mere arguments and complaints about “fairness” have not resulted in the action that diversity activists want to see, the most aggressive have turned to weaponizing and politicizing diversity. In other words, they start using economic punishment as a way to force private market actors to improve their “diversity numbers.”

For very large consumer-focused companies, weaponizing diversity can take the form of public shaming and threats of economic boycotts. Activists may put together statistics about “disproportionate representation” at X or Y company, and fund a PR campaign to make those numbers highly visible. Public backlash then results, with consumers withholding their purchasing dollars, and the company responds by increasing their hiring of the appropriate groups. This is effectively politicizing hiring, by making it no longer simply about the productivity of the individual candidate, but about how that candidate’s characteristics feed into statistics that then impact the public image of the company, which then impacts the purchasing of the company’s products and services, and ultimately benefits the bottom line. It can be highly effective in some mass-market contexts.

In more private areas of the economy, this sort of weaponization can take the form of channeling investment dollars or referrals of work depending on a particular company’s “diversity statistics.” For example, very large Fortune 500 companies who have responded to their own weaponized diversity incentives by upping “diverse” hiring in their ranks, can make sending legal work to X or Y law firm dependent on that firm meeting certain diversity statistics for its own roster of lawyers. Activist limited partners of venture capital funds have started this tactic as well, pressing the venture partners that they fund to improve the “diversity” of their portfolio.

This is where benign pushing for diversity now becomes much more aggressive shoving. Do it, or it will cost you money that we control. Is it effective?

As I mentioned in my original essay, no one engaging in a serious discussion about diversity issues argues that high-performing URMs simply do not exist. That would be racist, but no one is saying that. What they say is that for historical, socioeconomic, and (importantly) cultural reasons high-performing URMs are much harder to come by in the market. What happens when you have a scarce resource for which demand is subsidized with economic incentives? Those who can pay top dollar are able to obtain it, and those who can’t don’t.

Already elite companies, capable of paying the highest amounts of compensation, absorb the more limited number of high-performing URMs; high-performers who wouldn’t have had trouble getting work to begin with. These companies are then able to promote how “diverse” and progressive they are, as if their superior cultures are the reason they are so “inclusive.” Weaker and smaller companies (startups?) can’t afford to bid away those in-demand high-performers from the deep-pocketed elite, and so they end up being less “diverse.” Calling one “inclusive” and the other “racist” completely misses the mark of what is actually happening. It’s about money.

It’s unclear that, even at large companies, using sticks and stones for diversity has moved the needle much on the core issue (the supply of high-performing URMs) other than creating a bidding war for the already-existing high-performers in the market; a war which benefits those able to pay the highest comp packages. There is, however, an emerging strategy that both large companies and startups are increasingly adopting in response to aggressive warring over diversity, and it almost certainly wasn’t intended by activists.

Have you noticed how in recent years the startup and tech ecosystem has dramatically increased its involvement in both Africa and Latin America? There are surely a number of reasons for this, but one big reason is companies realized that international hiring is a highly effective way to disarm some of the strongest rhetoric from diversity activists. If you know there are complex social, historical, cultural, etc. reasons why it is not feasible to dramatically increase your domestic (US-side) URM recruiting and investment without running up against very costly performance issues, but you also know that you really aren’t racist and that skin color and ethnicity are not drivers of your decision-making, there is a growing industry more than happy to help you recruit highly qualified talent directly from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, among other countries full of ambitious, driven prospects.

Because American companies can pay so much better than local industry in those countries, they can recruit among the cream from their very large populations. Also, those populations aren’t subject to the historical, cultural, and immigration selection dynamics that are the core backdrop (see my essay) of why American URMs struggle disproportionately with performance in education-driven technical industries. Google and tomorrow’s Googles want diverse high-performing talent, but they are not fools, and will recruit directly in Mexico City or Lagos before diversity warriors force them into hiring US-side underperformers that they can’t even acknowledge as underperformers (and thus in need of extra training or lower-level roles) because someone will accuse them of being racist.

Thus we are seeing tech companies and startups increasing their “diversity” with more international talent. Is this a “win” for diversity? It depends on whom you ask. If the goal was simply to increase the number of latino and black people in tech and startups, then yes it is definitely a win. But if the goal was to increase hiring and investment in American under-represented minorities, then no, much less progress is being made. Such little progress will continue until activists are willing to put down their weapons, and let industry be honest about the real causal relationships behind disparities. Until that happens, no one should blame founders, CEOs, and Boards for taking a logical path, via international hiring, that proves they aren’t racist, while still fulfilling their obligation to recruit high-performing talent that furthers the survival and success of their companies.

International hiring and investment is a very effective near-term tool for improving the diversity of the startup ecosystem, even if it’s not the result that warmongering activists actually wanted to force decision-makers into.

Winning

We are thus faced with the fundamental tension in the diversity debate as applied to startups, and other high-performance, high-stakes industries. Diversity and increasing representation of minorities is a categorically good thing in an abstract sense. You will be hard-pressed to find someone actually say, publicly or privately, that they’d prefer a less diverse startup ecosystem. That would be inane.

But startups operate in the most competitive, high-stakes, low-margin-of-error segment of the modern economy. Arguments and tactics used by diversity activists that have found some success in universities, and even in large companies, face a fundamentally different set of constraints and realities in the startup economy. As I said in my original essay, and I will repeat here, if you want to see more URMs in startups, you need to actually help them win.

Whining and warring will not materially move the needle on diversity in a startup ecosystem that simply cannot safely absorb underperformance in the way that universities and massive companies can. Winning will. Unambiguous, credible, level-playing-field winning. You know who really doesn’t care about representative disparities, and judges a startup’s products and services purely on their objective merits? Their customers. There is no more brutal judge of performance than the open market, and for that reason no one does URMs any favors by acting as if affirmative action special treatment should continue well past the educational system and into the for-profit marketplace. When results, and only results, silence all other factors, help people actually deliver.

The most honest and effective diversity activists in tech and startups do not adopt childish arguments suggesting that hundreds of founders and VCs are “racists.” Nor do they suggest that highly competent and progressive executives are ignoring high-performing talent out of some dramatically oversold idea of “unconscious bias.” Rather, they understand performance gaps are real, and are doing the work of filling those gaps; via additional resources, training, and networks applied to under-represented candidates. This is a perfect corollary to how elite universities who’ve adopted affirmative action policies didn’t do so by simply throwing sub-qualified URM students into their schools and hoping for the best. They thoughtfully implemented extra training and resources to help those students “catch up” to the performance of the rest of their student bodies.

This costs time and money. As I’ve emphasized, elite universities are very large, very rich orgs with plenty of time and money to pursue higher-level societal goals. The vast majority of the players in the startup ecosystem simply do not have the time or resources to play a material role in this process. For completely understandable reasons, they can only afford to recruit and invest in today’s winners, with the ethnic or racial makeup of their teams and portfolios being neither here nor there. That is their mandate. It doesn’t make them racists or jerks. It makes them pragmatic, normal businesspeople with a job to do.

But tomorrow’s winners, including those who are under-represented minorities, are being trained, built, and elevated by honest people who aren’t shying away from uncomfortable realities. They aren’t throwing colleagues and friends under a bus with slanderous labels. They also aren’t pretending that feel-good messaging, “bias workshops,” or public guilting and shaming of decision-makers are the key to success for URMs in a highly competitive market economy. They’re addressing the game actually on the field, and putting in the time and resources to help URMs win it, under the same rules everyone else plays by.

We all want to see a more “diverse” startup ecosystem, in every sense of the word. To get there we need less whining, less warring, and good people willing to put in the work and honesty to ensure there’s far more winning.

Early v. Late-Stage Common Stockholders in Startup Governance

TL;DR: While the preferred v. common stock divide gets the most discussion in startup corporate governance, and for good reason, the early v. later-stage common stock divide is also highly material. Given their different stock price entry points, early common stockholders (like founders and early employees) are not economically aligned with common stockholders added to the cap table in Series B and later rounds. This has important power implications as to who among the common stock gets to fill the Board’s common stock seats, or vote on other key matters. Clever investors will often put in subtle deal terms that allow them to silence the early common stock in favor of later-stage common stockholders who are far more likely to agree with the interests of the money.

Background reading: The Problem with “Standard” Term Sheets

The Common Stock v. Preferred Stock divide is the most important, and most discussed, concept in corporate governance as it relates to startups. The largest common stockholders are typically founders, followed by employees. Preferred stockholders are investors. Sometimes in growth rounds investors will dip into the common stock via secondary sales, which muddies the divide, but for the most part the divide is real and always worth watching.

Investors (preferred) are diversified, need to generate high-returns for their LPs, prefer to minimize competition in rounds where they have the ability to lead, and have downside-protection in the form of a liquidation preference. Common stockholders, particularly founders and early employees, are far more “invested” in this one company, want to maximize competition among potential investors to increase valuations, and don’t have downside protection. That creates fundamental incentive misalignments.

This divide becomes extremely important when discussing the two key “power centers” in a company’s corporate structure: (i) the Board of Directors, and (ii) veto rights at the stockholder level. The latter usually takes the form of overt veto rights (often called protective provisions) spelled out in a charter, but there are also often more subtle veto rights that can have serious power implications; like when a particular party’s consent is needed to amend a contract that is essential for closing a new financing.

When founders (and their legal advisors) actually know what they’re doing, they’ll pay extremely close attention in financing terms to how the Board composition is allocated between the common v. preferred constituencies, and whether either group is given “choke point” veto rights that could be utilized to exert inappropriate power over the company. Unfortunately, because founders are often encouraged (usually by clever investors) to mindlessly rush through deals, and even sign template documents produced by investors, extremely material nuances get glossed over, with the far more experienced VCs benefiting from the rushing. It gets even worse when the lawyers startups use are actually working for the VCs.

As just one example, founders will often focus exclusively on high-level Board composition, because it’s the easiest to understand. They’ll say something like, “well, the common still controls the Board, so everything else doesn’t matter.” But that’s simply not true. You may have control over your Board, but if your preferred stockholders have a hard veto over your ability to close any future financing – if the preferred have to approve any amendments to your charter, you can’t close new equity – then your investors are really in control of your financing strategy. The Board is important, but it’s not everything.

The purpose of this post is to highlight another important “divide” among constituencies on the cap table: early-stage common stockholders (founders and employees) v. later-stage common stockholders (later hires, C-level execs who replace founders). While less relevant Pre-Series A, this divide becomes much more important in growth-stage financings, and plays into the power dynamics of company governance in ways that early-stockholders are often poorly advised on.

Any party’s “entry point” on the cap table has an extremely material impact on their outlook for financing and exit strategy. If I got my common stock in Year 1, which is the case with founders and early employees, the price I “paid” for that stock is extremely low. But if I showed up at Year 4, I paid much more for my stock, or I have an option exercise price that is substantially higher.

Fast-forward to Year 5. The company’s valuation is tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The Y1 common stockholder is sitting on substantial value in their equity. Multiples upon multiples of what they paid for their stock. They’ve also been grinding it out for years. The Y4 common stockholder, however, is in a very different position. They only recently joined the company, and their equity is only worth whatever appreciation has occurred in the past year.

Now an acquisition offer for $300 million comes in. Put aside what investors (preferred stockholders) think about the offer. Do you think the “common stock” are all going to see things in the same way? Is the Y1 common stockholder going to see the costs/benefits of this offer in the same way that the Y4 common holder will? Absolutely not. Later-stage common stockholders have far less sunk wealth and value in their equity than early-stage common stockholders do, and this fundamentally changes their incentives.

Now apply this early-stage v. late-stage common stock divide to Board composition. Simplistically, founders often just think about “common stock” seats. But who among the common stock gets to fill those seats? Investors who want to neutralize the voice of the early common stock on a Board of Directors will put in subtle deal terms that allow them long-term to replace early common stockholders with later-stage common stockholders on the Board, because the later-stage holders (often newly hired executives) will be more aligned with later-stage investors who want to pursue “billion or bust” growth and exit strategies. A Y1 common stockholder has far more to lose in turning down an exit offer, and instead trying for an even bigger exit, than a Y4 common stockholder does.

The most popular way that this shows up in terms sheets / equity deals is language stating that only common stockholders providing services to the Company get to vote in the common’s Board elections, or in approving other key transactions. Once you’re no longer on payroll, you lose your right to vote your stock, even if you still hold a substantial portion of the cap table.

Through the natural progression of a company’s growth, founders and early employees will usually step down from their positions, or be removed involuntarily. Whether or not that should happen is entirely contextual. However, it is one thing to say that an early common stockholder is no longer the right person to fill X position as an employee, but it is an entirely different thing to say that such early common stockholder should have no say at the Board level as to how the company should be run. Whether or not I am employed by a company has no bearing on the fact that I still own part of that company. The entire point of appropriate corporate governance is to ensure that the Board is properly representing the various constituencies on the cap table. Early common stockholders are a valid constituency with a valid perspective distinct from executives hired in later stages by the Board.

Deal terms that make a common stockholder’s voting rights contingent on being employed by the company are usually little more than a power play by investors to silence the constituency most likely to disagree with them on material governance matters, and instead fill common Board seats with later-stage executives who will toe the line. Importantly, aggressive investors will often rhetorically spin this issue as being simply about “founder control,” to make it easier to dismiss as self-interested, but that is flatly inaccurate. Many Y1 or Y2 common stockholders are not founders, but their economic incentives are far more aligned with a founder, who also got their stock very early, than with an executive hired in Y5+.

Yes, the largest early common stockholders will often be founders, but the reason for giving them a long-term right to fill Common Board seats is not about giving them power as founders, but as representatives of a key constituency on the cap table that is misaligned with the interests of investors and later-stage common holders. This isn’t “founder friendliness.” It’s balanced corporate governance.

The message for early common stockholders in startups is straightforward: don’t be misled by simplistic assessments of term sheets and deal terms. It’s not just about the common stock v. preferred, but whether all of the common stock gets a voice; not just the common holders cherry-picked by investors.

Negotiation is Relationship Building

TL;DR: Aggressive investors, especially early-stage ones, hate it when you negotiate with them; but they’ll often mask their frustration by accusing you (and your lawyers) of nit-picking and not staying (air quotes) “standard.” It shouldn’t take a ton of explaining as to why that’s the case, but the truth is that there are very few ways to get to know your investors better than through negotiation of a financing or a difficult Board-level issue. People can say any number of nice-sounding things over beers, or in casual conversation, but the truth comes out when you ask someone to commit to it on paper.

As I’ve written in several prior posts, including Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems, the world of startups is quite unique given the high inequality of experience and power between the business parties involved. In most business contexts, you’ve got relatively seasoned executives on both sides negotiating with each other. But in the startup context, you often have highly-networked, experienced, wealthy, and influential investors negotiating with a first-time entrepreneur who is ‘unequal’ in experience to the investor in every category. Obviously, investors enjoy this environment. It gives them a significant amount of control, and offers numerous opportunities to push things in the direction that they prefer… unless of course when annoying negotiations, or experienced outside advisors, get in the way.

But then again, many startup investors are constrained in the ways that they can express frustration when they don’t get what they want. Because many of them have come to rely on public marketing personas – via blogs, social media, etc. – of “friendliness,” if they pound the table and simply tell a founder to shut up and sign the docs, word will get around; hurting their brand and pipeline. It’s too visible, and too easy for the entrepreneur to quickly react to. So they need to be smarter and more subtle about how they can constrain negotiations, and keep the playing field slanted in their favor, but in a way that’s more difficult to detect.

In the early stages of a startup, there are very few advisors that a set of entrepreneurs will encounter with deeper negotiation experience, and ability to level the playing field between startups and their investors, than a seasoned startup lawyer who is independent from the money. They often see dozens of financings a year, across numerous geographies and industries, and have also observed the full playbook of power games that aggressive investors can play on Boards, deals, and cap tables. This makes them important “equalizers” in the founder-VC dynamic, and it’s precisely why you constantly see the investor community engaging in strategies to gain influence over, or otherwise silence, the legal community.

Behind the well-spun rhetoric about “saving” founders legal fees, and helping “streamline” things for startups, is in many cases a strategy by influential investors to remove independent counsel from the negotiation table, because in doing so investors can fully enjoy the advantages of how much more experienced and influential they are than first-time founders & employees. Lawyers heavily dependent on the investor community for referrals have been more than happy to collude with the money in this scheme, at the expense of common stockholders who, as a result, are deprived of real strategic counsel.

Imagine for a second that Apple and Google – two equally powerful companies with equally seasoned executives – are negotiating a high-stakes deal with each other. Now imagine if someone at Google suddenly tried to tell Apple what lawyers they should be using to negotiate the deal. You would immediately expect a response along the lines of, “You must be joking, right?” What if Apple tried to tell Google how much they should spend on their advisors in negotiating/structuring the deal? Again, same reaction, which you would expect in the vast majority of business contexts and industries. Seasoned business executives have a very keen understanding of incentives, and don’t react lightly to someone reaching across the table out of some pretense of being “helpful.”

And yet this sort of behavior is extremely common in startup ecosystems. Why? The stated reason from the investor community – the “spin” if you will – is that they’re looking out for the entrepreneur. Can’t let those loudmouth, over-billing lawyers take advantage of founders, right? It’s much better if investors, surely out of good will and generosity, reach across the table and ensure things are being done “properly.” While in almost any other business context this would be seen as obviously self-interested and patronizing infantilization, the experience and power inequality that is unique to startup ecosystems enables investors to take on a paternalistic “this is how things should work” stance in high-stakes discussions with common stockholders. Few things irritate those investors more than hearing an experienced lawyer respond unapologetically, “here is how things actually work.”

When there’s no one on the other side of the table to push back on behalf of the inexperienced players (the common stock), with credible experience and expertise, the experienced money has an easy time pushing important discussions, negotiations, and many other important company matters in the direction that they want. The following are the most common strategies that aggressive (and smart) startup investors will use to minimize negotiation, and therefore get what they want, while still maintaining an appearance of non-aggression:

A. Get startups to use “captive” lawyers.

I’ve written extensively about this already. See How to avoid “captive” company counsel and When VCs “Own” Your Startup’s Lawyers.  By emphasizing how much money will be “saved” by using “familiar” lawyers, entrepreneurs are often pushed to use lawyers who ultimately are controlled by the money. Those lawyers have every reason to keep their mouth shut in negotiations, because the money has heavy influence over the lawyers’ client pipeline.

B. Shrink the legal budget, to get lawyers to stay quiet. 

Negotiation takes time. Because of their experience, VCs often know how to negotiate deals themselves, without much need for lawyer involvement; certainly term sheets and Board issues. But first-time entrepreneurs and startup employees (common stockholders) are in the opposite situation. They rely heavily on outside advisors to walk them through terms and negotiate, and that requires a budget.

As we’ve said above, aggressive VCs hate negotiation. They know what they want, and they’re accustomed to being able to pressure founders into getting it. Any extra time negotiating (supported by counsel) means shrinking the power inequality between the VC and the entrepreneurs, so a great way to shrink that time is to shrink the budget. To the common stockholders, the extra time may be totally worth it, given how high-stakes and permanent the terms being negotiated are. But by saying something like “this deal shouldn’t cost more than $X” in legal fees, the investor has found an indirect way to get the lawyer to shut up in negotiating against… whom? The investor himself.

Flat fees are also a great tool for VCs to get your lawyers to rush their work. Under a flat fee model, the less your lawyer negotiates/advises you, the more of the fee they pocket while being able to do work for someone else. Less work means more ROI. Watch incentives.

If investors have opinions about how much to spend on legal in negotiating with a third-party, that’s great. Founders can often get good info from other experienced entrepreneurs as well. But the fact that certain investors are dictating to startups how much they should spend in negotiating against them is a sad joke. When a VC with a prominent blog throws into a post that a financing shouldn’t cost more than $X, process the incentives behind the statement. I bet he also has a list of preferred firms who’d be more than happy to “fit” within the budget for you. By convincing founders to view the selection of legal counsel as simply about who can do it faster/cheaper, investors create a race to the bottom where the winner just stays quiet and does what the investor wants. When VCs try to “save” you fees on a financing or serious Board issue, what they’re really doing is saving themselves from having to negotiate.

Investors should acknowledge their conflict of interest, stop treating startup teams like children, and keep their opinions on the legal budget to themselves.

C. Scare founders into rushing negotiations, for fear of losing the deal. 

“Time kills deals.” “Don’t lose momentum.” “Close fast and get back to the business.” Who hasn’t heard this over and over again from the investor community?

Sure, taking too long could kill a deal. But signing a terrible deal, or wedding yourself to bad actors, kills companies, or common stockholders. The number of times I’ve seen a deal actually die because founders chose to slow down enough to understand the structure, and move it to a better place for the common stock, is near zero. Remember the title of this post. Negotiation is relationship building. The point of negotiation isn’t just to get better terms. It’s also to observe the reactions of your potential investors when you ask them for something; because those reactions will tell you far more about whom you’re really working with than blog posts and tweets will. 

When you push back (respectfully), you are signaling not only what you care about, but the level of backbone they can expect from you in the on-going relationship. You’re setting the “terms” not just of a deal, but the dynamics of the relationship itself. Are you easily intimidated? Can you handle a high-pressure discussion? CEOs need to be able to. Your behavior in interacting with your lead investors heavily influences their judgment of how effective you’ll be in other difficult discussions with employees, commercial partners, etc.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen founders rush through deals, only to find that once the ink has dried, the person they are now in a long-term and permanent relationship with is very different from what was portrayed pre-signing.

D. Fabricate “standards” and exert political/social pressure on startups to use them. 

See: The Problem with “Standard” Term Sheets (including YCs). Standards can be great, when drafted and implemented in a way that allows all sides to voice their perspective. They can offer a common starting point for negotiations. The problem with so-called “standards” in startup ecosystems is that, given the above-discussed power inequality, investors are the ones unilaterally setting the standards; and they then use their political influence to spread them across a market, creating social pressure to use them.

One influential investor creates a so-called “standard” document, without input from lawyers who are independent from the investor community, and publishes it on their well-followed blog. Other investors with strong social media followings, liking the “standard” because of how it’s written for them, then start sharing, liking, re-tweeting, blogging, and adopting the “standard” on their deals; emphasizing how much money everyone will “save” from keeping it “standard.” Couple that with the leverage investors have worked to build over startup lawyers, who can be pressured into adopting those “standards,” and then have the investors squeeze the legal budget tight to minimize negotiation, and you can see how groups of coordinated, high-profile investors can indirectly force an ecosystem to use their biased “standards” without negotiation.

Think about all the most well-followed blogs, podcasts, etc. that founders go to for advice on funding. How many of them are not published by investors? What about the most followed twitter profiles? VCs are repeat players. They have the time and resources to build strong networks and distribution platforms for disseminating their preferences in ecosystems, maintaining heavy influence over the microphones and amplifying narratives that suit their interests. You really think they’re all doing it to save founders money? First-time entrepreneurs and early employees, who are heads-down building their companies (not blogging and tweeting about startup fundraising and governance) aren’t coordinated or influential enough to counterbalance the dynamic. And if they even tried to speak out, the investor community has more than enough ways to retaliate and silence them.

This is why the info you hear offline (and privately) in ecosystems is often starkly different from what you hear online.

Then when a first-time entrepreneur – a “one shot” player without much ecosystem leverage – is advised to question the standard, a VC can use the whole investor-dominated ecosystem backdrop to exert pressure. “What? This is “standard.” X, Y, and Z funds all use it. Why are you nit-picking? Time kills deals.”

There’s a very manipulative game in how aggressive investors apply this pressure, often playing on the entrepreneur’s self-image. Founders want to see themselves as bold risk-takers, and there’s often a level of insecurity in interacting with seasoned investors, who might be former (and successful) entrepreneurs themselves. By saying something like “This is nit-picking. Why are you wasting time?” the investor is subtly saying “I thought you were a real entrepreneur. A real entrepreneur would close this deal.” It’s an extremely clever way to use the imbalance in the relationship to get the startup to stay quiet, and hand the investor control; not that distant from the kind of social pressure-driven power games you might encounter in a middle school.

There is a “range” of acceptable negotiation. 

Imagine two lines on a negotiation table, with space in-between them. Move past the farther line, and you are over-negotiating, and really nit-picking over things that are unlikely to matter. If you really feel like the lawyer you are working with is pushing you in this direction, then your failure started in hiring the wrong lawyer. Very young, inexperienced lawyers may try to over-state their skillset, and impress you with endless comments. But experienced Partners with successful practices have neither the time nor the desire to play games with nonsense. You don’t build a strong client base by killing deals. Competition among reputable firms, and reputation among entrepreneurs, are constraints on startup lawyers who might want to run up a bill unnecessarily.

So beyond that farther line, you’re over-negotiating. But before the closer line, you are rushing the deal. You’re naively allowing a highly misaligned (economically) investor to muzzle negotiations and pressure you to just do what they want. And in doing so, you are solidifying relationship dynamics that will inform how that investor treats you going forward; knowing that with a little pressure, or clever rhetoric, they can make you dance. Your company’s lawyers are there to honestly advise the company on important issues of clear misalignment; not to overly ingratiate themselves to the money.

Within those two lines is a range of acceptable negotiation. Understand the incentives of both overly-aggressive lawyers and overly-aggressive investors to move you out of that range; and that highly experienced startup investors are very skilled at masking aggression with false “friendliness” and marketing. In the lawyer context, you should have plenty of time long before the negotiation to have done your diligence and ensured you’re working with a Partner whose judgment you truly respect. In the investor context, you should also have done some diligence on their reputation to better understand how they work.

High-integrity investors who view their investment as the building of a balanced, long-term relationship will respond respectfully to negotiation; and not try to infantilize you by questioning your judgment or that of your counsel. It doesn’t mean they’ll give you everything you want. But they’ll be honest and open about their perspective, and what they’ll be flexible on v. what is a sticking point, and give you an opportunity to do the same. No pressure tactics needed. If they instead respond with frustration over your desire to deviate from what they want, or nonsense about why you’re not sticking to their idea of “standard,” you now have some important data on how they approach things, and how they view the relationship.

When aggressive investors over-emphasize the importance of “minimizing friction” in funding, and not “losing momentum,” they sell it as being about saving you time and money. But behind the spin is the fact that they may view your company (and the employees and customers who depend on it) as a number in their portfolio, and would much prefer that you just shut up and make them rich, or die trying. Given you have 100x more skin in this one game than any “unicorn hunter” with a diversified portfolio, you have every reason to push back (again, respectfully) for a deal that works for this company.

No one’s perspective (not an investor, nor a lawyer helping you negotiate with an investor) deserves to be treated like gospel. As a leader, your job is to triangulate advice from many people, all with their own incentives and biases, and make the call based on what you see as the right move for your company’s unique context. Work with experienced advisors whose judgment you trust and can’t be discredited by outsiders trying to use your inexperience against you, and use their insights to work within the range of acceptable negotiation. But also understand that the purpose of negotiation isn’t just about the deal itself. By moving past conversation, into actions and real commitment, it’s a valuable opportunity to have your investors show (not tell) you who they really are.