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.

How Startup Employees Get Taken Advantage Of

TL;DR: When startup employees get taken advantage of in startup equity economics, it’s often not just about bad documentation or strategy. It’s about incentives, and games being played by influential “insiders” to gain control over the startup’s corporate governance. Ensuring common stock representation on the Board, independence of company counsel (from investors), and monitoring “sweeteners” given to common representatives on the Board are strong strategies for protecting against bad actors.

Related Reading:

A common message heard among experienced market players, and with which I completely agree, is this: if you are seeing significant dysfunction in any organization or market, watch incentives. In small, simple, close-knit groups (like families and tribes), shared principles and values can often be relied on to ensure everyone plays fairly and does what’s best for the group.  But expand the size of the group, diversify the people involved, and raise the stakes, and people will inevitably gravitate toward their self-interest and incentives. The way to achieve an optimal and fair outcome at scale is not through “mission statements” or virtue signaling, but focusing on achieving alignment (where possible) of incentives, and fair representation of the various constituencies at the bargaining table.

A topic that is deservedly getting a lot of attention lately is the outcomes of startup employees as it relates to their equity stakes in the startups that employ them. I see a lot being written about it in the various usual tech/startup publications, and we are also seeing companies reaching out to us asking about potential modifications to the “usual” approaches.  The problem being discussed is whether startup employees are getting the short end of the stick as companies grow and scale, with other players at the table (particularly the Board of Directors) playing games that allow certain players to get rewarded, while off-loading downside risk to those unable to protect themselves.

The short answer is that, yes, there are a number of games being played in the market that allow influential “insiders” of growing startups to make money, while shifting risk to the less powerful and experienced participants on the cap table. The end-result is situations where high-growth startups either go completely bust, or end up exiting at a price that didn’t “clear” investors’ liquidation preferences, and yet somehow a bunch of people still made a lot of money along the way, while startup employees got equity worth nothing.

The point of this post isn’t to discuss the various tactics being used by aggressive players to screw employees, but to discuss a higher-level issue that is closer to the root problem: corporate governance, and the subtle detachment of employee equity economics from other cap table players. When some people on the Board have economic incentives close to fully aligned with employees (common stockholders whose “investment” is labor, not capital, and often sunk), they are significantly more likely to deliver the necessary pushback to protect employees from absorbing more risk than is appropriate.  But if smart players find ways to detach those Board members’ interests from the employees who can’t see the full details of the company’s financing and growth strategy, things go off the rails.

Corporate governance and fiduciary duties.

Broadly speaking, corporate governance is the way in which a company is run at the highest levels of its organizational and power structure, particularly the Board of Directors. Under Delaware law (and most states/countries’ corporate law), the Board has fiduciary duties to impartially serve the interests of the stockholders on the cap table. Regardless of their personal interests, a Board is supposed to be focused on a financing and exit strategy that maximizes the returns for the whole cap table, particularly those at the bottom of the liquidation preference stack and who lack the visibility, influence, and experience to negotiate on their own behalf. That obviously includes, to a large extent, employee stockholders.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Remember the fundamental rule: watch incentives. Having a Board of directors that nominally professes a commitment to its fiduciary duties is one thing. But maximizing economic alignment between the Board and the remainder of the cap table is lightyears better.

“One Shot” common stockholders v. “Repeat Player” investors

As I’ve written many times before, anyone who behaves as if investors (capital) and founders/employees (labor) are fully aligned economically as startups grow, raise money, and exit is either lying, or so spectacularly ignorant of how the game actually works that they should put the pacifier back in their mouth and gain more experience before commenting.

Common stockholders (founders, employees) are usually inexperienced, not wealthy, at the bottom of the liquidation “waterfall” (how money flows in an exit), not independently represented by counsel, and not diversified. Preferred stockholders (investors) are usually the polar opposite: highly experienced, wealthy, have their own lawyers, heavily diversified, and with a liquidation preference or debt claim that prioritizes their investment in an exit. Common stockholders’ “investment” (their labor) is also often sunk, while major investors have pro-rata rights that allow them to true-up their ownership if they face dilution.

Investors are far more incentivized to push for risky growth strategies that might achieve extremely large exits, but also raise the risk of a bust in which the undiversified, unprotected common equity gets nothing. Common stockholders are far more likely to be concerned about risk, dilution and dependence on capital, and the timing / achievability of an exit. This tension never goes away, and plays out in Board discussions on an ongoing basis.

As I’ve also written before, this is a core reason why clever investors will often pursue any number of strategies to put in place company counsel (the lawyers who advise the company and the Board) whose loyalty is ultimately to the investors. A law firm whom the money can “squeeze” – like one that heavily relies on them for referrals, or who does a large volume of other work for the investors – is significantly more likely to stay quiet and follow along if a Board begins to pursue strategies that favor investor interests at the expense of common interests. See: When VCs “own” your startup’s lawyers. 

When Board composition is discussed in a financing, founder representation on the Board is often portrayed as being purely about the founders’ own personal interests; but that’s incorrect. Founders are often the largest and earliest common stockholders on the cap table, which heavily aligns them economically with employees, particularly early employees, in being concerned about risk and dilution.

Unless someone finds a way to change that alignment.

Founders and employees: alignment v. misalignment.

Very high-growth companies raising large late-stage rounds represent many opportunities for Boards to “buy” the vote of founders or other common directors (like professional CEOs) at the expense of the employee portion of the cap table. In a scenario where a Board is pursuing an extremely high risk growth and financing strategy, and accepting financing terms making it highly likely the early common will get washed out or heavily diluted, a typical entrepreneur with a large early common stock stake will play their role in vocally pushing for alternatives.

But any number of levers can be pulled to silence that push-back: a cash bonus, an opportunity for liquidity that isn’t shared pro-rata with the rest of the employee pool, a generous refresher grant given post-financing to reduce the impact on the founder/executive (while pushing more dilution onto “sunk” stockholders). These represent just a few of the strategies that clever later-stage investors will implement to incentivize entrepreneurs (or other executives) to ignore the risk and dilution they are piling onto employees.

Of course, it’s impossible to generalize across all startups that end up with bad, imbalanced outcomes. The fact that any particular company ended up in a spot where the employees got disproportionately washed out isn’t indicative in and of itself that unfair (and unethical) games were being played. Sometimes there’s a strong justification for giving a limited number of people liquidity, while denying it to others. Sometimes the Board really was doing its best to achieve the best outcome for the “labor” equity. Sometimes.

Principles for protecting employee stockholders.

That, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t general principles that companies can implement to better protect employee stockholders, and better align the Board with their interests.

First, common stockholder representation on a Board of Directors is not just about founders. It’s about recognizing the misalignment of incentives between the “one shot” common stock and the “repeat player” preferred stockholders, and ensuring the former have a real, unmuzzled voice in governance. Founders are the largest and earliest common stockholders, and therefore the most incentivized to represent the interests of the common in Board discussions.

Second, take seriously who company counsel is, and make sure they are independent from the influence of the main investors on the cap table. Company counsel’s job is, in part, to advise a Board on how to best fulfill its fiduciary duties. You better believe the advisory changes when the money has ways to make counsel shut up. Packing a company with people whom the money “owns” (including executives, lawyers, directors, and other advisors) is an extremely common, but often subtle and hidden, strategy for aggressive investors to gain power over a startup’s governance.

Third, any “extra” incentives being handed to Board representatives of the common stock (including founders) in later-stage rounds deserve heightened scrutiny and transparency. That “something extra” can very well be a way to purchase the vote of someone who would otherwise have called out behavior that is off-loading risk to stockholders lacking visibility and influence.

Startup corporate governance is a highly intricate, multi-step game of 3D chess, often with extremely smart players who know where their incentives really lie. Don’t get played.

p.s. the NYT article linked near the beginning of this post is provided strictly as an example of the kinds of problems that might arise in high-growth startups. I have no inside knowledge of what happened with that specific company, and this post is not about them. 

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 (on blogs, social media, etc.) is not an accurate representation of how the game is actually played, because few people are willing to speak honestly and openly for fear of being penalized by a well-connected gatekeeper. 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. Hire and engage people without hidden dependencies on your investors.

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, in startup dynamics 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 fully 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, right?

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, so the smartest winners are almost never easily 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.

Contracts v. Might Makes Right

TL;DR: When a first-time entrepreneur is navigating an environment full of entrenched players who all know and depend on each other, the difference between a balanced decision process and a shake down can come down to a contract. Take contracts, and the independence of the lawyers who help negotiate them, seriously.

Background reading:

A background theme of many SHL posts is the following: entrepreneurs enter their startup ecosystems, from the beginning, at a massive structural disadvantage relative to the various market players they are going to be negotiating with. Everyone else knows each other, has worked with each other over the years, and has already made their money. And then you show up.

Now assume that environment as the background, and then imagine you start striking deals with these people: for a financing, a partnership, participation in a program, etc., but assume there are no contracts or lawyers involved. What do you think will eventually happen? Here’s how it will play out: as long as you continue to deliver exactly what everyone wants from you, very little will happen. When everyone’s expectations and preferences are 100% aligned in the short term, the absence of contracts means very little. They’ll “let” you stay in the spot you’re in. 

Until things (inevitably) go sideways. A market shift suddenly means a change in strategy might be necessary, but there’s disagreement on how and when. A quarter comes in under projections, and there’s disagreement as to what that means. A potential outside investor expresses interest in making an investment, and there’s internal disagreement as to whether it should be pursued.

I focus here on the word disagreement, because in many situations on high-level strategic issues, the right answer isn’t always clear cut. The goal (grow the company, improve economics) may be clear, but the right execution strategy is far harder to see.  People will disagree, and where they stand on an issue often rests on where they sit. For example, “portfolio” players (institutional investors) will often be far more comfortable, and even insistent, on taking higher risk (but much higher reward) growth strategies than entrepreneurs and employees, who have only “one shot.”  See Common Stock v. Preferred Stock for a more in-depth discussion on the substantial misalignment between “one shot” players (entrepreneurs, employees), who usually hold common stock, v. portfolio/repeat players (investors), who usually hold preferred stock.

The core point of this post is this: in an environment of substantial disagreement, and where everyone other than the entrepreneur is a repeat player that knows and has economic ties to each other, the first-time entrepreneur (who speaks for the early common stockholders generally) will lose every timeunless contracts in place say otherwise. 

In the absence of laws and contracts, the law of the market is “might makes right,” and established, repeat players have all the might.  

Here is a scenario that I’ve encountered far too often (although increasingly less so as awareness has increased) that is almost comical when viewed objectively:

  • A financing has closed, putting in place a “balanced” Board of 2 VC directors, 2 common directors (one of which is a new CEO, the other a founder), and an “independent” director.
  • In attendance at the meeting are 6 people: the Board and company counsel.
  • The 2 VCs regularly syndicate deals with each other and have known each other for a decade.
  • The new CEO is a well-known professional CEO who has worked in several portfolio co’s of one of the VCs, and was “recommended” by that VC for the position.
  • The “independent” director is an executive well-known in the local market who also has worked with the VCs at the table for over a decade, both of whom recommended her for the position.
  • “Company counsel” represents 6 portfolio companies of the VCs at the table, and has represented them as investor counsel on as many deals, and is actually currently doing so for other deals. In fact, company counsel became company counsel because he came “highly recommended” by the VCs when they were first negotiating the deal with the entrepreneur.

So let’s summarize: there are 6 people at the meeting, and 5 of them have all worked with each other for over a decade, regularly send deals to each other, and in some cases (at least with respect to the lawyer and a VC) are currently working with each other on other deals not related to this company. And then there’s the entrepreneur.

Wow, now there’s one “balanced” Board, don’t you think? I’ve encountered entrepreneurs (whose companies are not clients) in this situation before. I let them know that, whatever they think their position at the company is or will be, they are simply leasing that position until their investors, who hold virtually all the cards and relationships, decide otherwise; and regardless of what the common stockholders think. It’s possible things turn out fine, as long as all goes as planned. It’s also very possible they won’t.  But what’s absolutely clear is who decides, in the end.

The difference between a well-advised entrepreneur and the one in the above scenario is this: the former will have real protections in place to ensure the common stock are treated fairly, and have their voice on key company matters. The latter may feel protected, but ultimately their position is at the discretion of their investors; and protection that is contingent on the whims of people on the other side isn’t protection at all.

Well-drafted contracts are, when negotiated in a transparent manner, a key mechanism for controlling the power of sophisticated repeat players who, absent those contracts, can simply force through whatever they want because of their political / economic leverage. What else might this reality tell us about negotiation dynamics in startup ecosystems?

Rushing through negotiations / contract drafting favors established players.

If the default market position gives power to established players, and contracts are a mechanism for controlling that power, the inevitable result is that those established players (at least the most aggressive ones) will try to get entrepreneurs to rush through contract negotiations.

“Let’s just go with what’s standard.”

“It’s all boilerplate.”

“Let’s save legal fees and put them toward building the business.”

“Time kills deals. Let’s get this closed.”

If someone is telling you that what the documents say doesn’t really matter, or that you should just stick to a template, it’s because, outside of the contract, they’re in control.  That doesn’t mean you should burn endless amounts of time negotiating every point, but take the material provisions seriously.

A market ethos of “relax, we’re all friends here” is designed to favor power players.

Old-school business folks know very well how large amounts of alcohol have often been used to seal business deals. In the startup world, alcohol may still be used, but just as effective is fabricating an environment suggesting to first-time entrepreneurs that everyone is just holding hands and singing kumbaya, and being independently well-advised isn’t necessary.

I’m all for having very friendly relations with your business partners. Life is too short to work with people you don’t get along with well.  But any time someone extends that thinking to the point of telling entrepreneurs that “everyone is aligned” and they should let go of the skepticism to focus on “more important things,” I call bullshit. Alcohol and kool-aid; stay sober in business.

“Billion or bust” growth trajectories mean contracts matter less. Outside of those scenarios, they matter more. 

Among emerging company (startup) lawyers, it’s always been well-known that the Silicon Valley ecosystem as a whole takes standardization, automated templates, and rapid angel/VC closings to an extreme relative to the rest of the country/world. I’ve pondered why that’s the case, and in discussing with various market players, concluded that it has a lot to do with the kinds of companies that Silicon Valley tends to target: billion or bust is a good way to summarize it. I wrote about this in Not Building a Unicorn. 

If the mindset of an ecosystem is significantly “power law” oriented in the sense that “winners” are billion-dollar companies, and everyone else will just crash and burn trying to be one of those billion-dollar companies, I can see why the finer details of deal negotiation may be seen as an afterthought. That environment, which is very unusual when compared to most of the business world, leaves a lot less room for the “middle” scenarios – things aren’t going terribly, and we’re clearly building a solid business. but neither is this a rocket ship, and there are hard questions to be decided – where the deep details of who has what contractual rights really matter.

In a heavily binary “unicorn” world, you’re either knocking it out of the park, in which case no one even reads the contracts and just lets you do your thing, or you’re crashing and burning, in which case the docs are just useless paper. As a law firm headquartered in Austin and structured for non-unicorns, we don’t work in that world, and actually avoid it.

For true “balance,” pay close attention to relationships.

In my opinion and experience, the best outcomes result when the power structure of a company (both contractual and political) doesn’t give any single group on the cap table the ability to force through their preferences, but instead requires some hard conversations and real “across the aisle” coalition building to make a major change.

Balanced boards are, on top of other contractual mechanics, a fantastic way of achieving this, when they are in fact balanced. The above-described scenario where everyone except for the entrepreneur knows and has strong economies ties to each other, including a company counsel “captive” to the VCs, is a joke; and sadly, a joke played on too many startups.

As I wrote in Optionality: Always have a Plan B, build diversity of relationships into your Board and cap table. Feel free to let “the money” recommend people, because their rolodexes are valuable, and are often part of the reason why you’ve engaged with them. But you should be deeply skeptical of any suggestion that the preferred stockholders should, alone, decide who the CEO is, who company counsel is, who the independent director is, etc. etc. Letting them do that certainly may get your deals and decisions closed faster, but unless you are successful in delivering a true rocket ship, you will ultimately regret it.

The common stock, including the founding team and early employees, need a strong voice at the table, especially given the power imbalance with repeat players. Well-negotiated contracts and independent, trustworthy company counsel are the way to ensure they have that voice.