Independent Counsel in an Economic Downturn

TL;DR: In all parts of an economic cycle, up or down, there is significant value in having independent (from investors) strategic counsel that you can trust to protect the common stock in navigating negotiations with investors who are 20x as experienced as the founding team. In a downturn, however, the number of “company unfriendly” possibilities in deal and governance terms goes up ten-fold. That means the value of independent, trustworthy counsel shoots up as well.

Background reading:

I’ve written multiple posts on the topic of how first-time entrepreneurs place themselves at an enormous disadvantage when they hire, as a company counsel, lawyers with deep ties to their lead investors. To people with good instincts, the reasons are obvious, but for those who need it spelled out:

A. First time entrepreneurs are regularly interacting, on financing and governance issues, with market players who are (i) misaligned economically with the common stock, and (ii) 20x as experienced as the management team and largest common stockholders. They rely heavily on experienced outside advisors to “level the playing field” in the negotiations.

B. One of the most impactful strategic advisors an early set of founders/management can look to for navigating this high-stakes environment is an experienced “emerging companies” specialized corporate lawyer (startup lawyer), who (if vetted properly) sees far more deals and board matters in any given month than many sophisticated investors see in an entire year.

C. Because investors have contacts with/access to lots of potential deal work, and corporate lawyers need deal work, aggressive investors have come to realize that their “deal flow” is a valuable currency that can be leveraged with an overly eager portion of the “startup lawyer” community; shall we say, “nudging” them to follow the investors’ preferred protocols in exchange for referrals. By pretending that only a handful of firms have credible/quality lawyers, they also try to block law firms with more independent, but still highly experienced, lawyers from getting a foothold in the market.

D. Founders, because they lack their own contacts and experience vetting lawyers, often find themselves influenced into hiring these “captive” lawyers. As a result, they are deprived of some of the most strategic and high-value guidance that smarter teams are able to tap into for protecting the common stock.

For a deeper dive into how this game is fully played out in the market, read the above-linked posts. The point here is not to promote an exaggeratedly adversarial take on startup-investor relations, but to emphasize a simple reality of how things really work.

The main point of this post is: in an economic downturn, when company “unfriendly’ terms are going to be far more on the table than they were in years past, the value of independent strategic counsel is magnified ten-fold. In go-go times when competition for deals and excess amounts of capital shoot valuations up and “bad terms” down, deal terms gravitate toward a closer-to cookie-cutter, minimalist kind of flavor: good valuation, 1x liquidation preference non-participating, minimal covenants, and sign the deal.

That doesn’t mean there’s really a “standard” – I’ve also written extensively about how saying “this is standard” has become the preferred method for clever investors to trick startup teams into mindlessly signing docs that are against their company’s long-term interests. But, in good times deals do tend to start looking a lot more like each other in a way that makes negotiation a little easier.

But when there’s an economic shock like what we’re experiencing right now from COVID-19, and the investor community starts to improve in their leverage, it’s inevitable that you start seeing a lot more “creativity” from VCs with terms: higher liquidation preferences, participating preferred, broader covenants and veto rights, more aggressive anti-dilution, tighter maturity dates on convertible notes, etc. etc.

In this environment, it is incalculably valuable to have people to turn to, including independent deal lawyers, who can tell you what really is within the range of reasonableness, what to accept v. push-back on, and generally what is “fair” given the environment you’re fundraising in. Independent counsel will help you protect the common stockholders, while granting your investors some terms that you may not have needed to accept a year or two ago. Captive counsel, however, will know that his/her “good behavior” (for the investors) in structuring the terms will ensure more deal flow from their real clients. And because most startup teams are understandably lacking in market visibility, they have no way to quality-check the advice they’re getting. Trust is everything here.

Research and diligence your legal counsel just like how you’d diligence any high-stakes advisor. Importantly, ask them what VCs they (and their firm) represent and/or rely on for referrals. They may be great, very smart people, but if the answers you get make it clear that they are closely tied to people likely to write you checks, find someone with more independence. A muzzled corporate lawyer is ultimately an over-priced paper pusher.

 

The Race to the Bottom in Startup Law

TL;DR: There is a long-standing race to the bottom occurring in startup law, led by certain firms who’ve chosen to ignore the ethical standards of the profession in order to maximize revenue. The end-result of that race is damaged startups who are being led to believe that they’re getting “efficiency,” when what they’re really getting is biased garbage advice and a time bomb.

Background Reading:

Regulated professions are regulated for a reason. In the case of law, much like healthcare, you are dealing with significant information asymmetries on very high-stakes issues where decisions have permanent consequences; where malpractice or bad ethics can seriously and irreversibly damage a “client.” That is undeniably the case in high-growth Startup Law, where you very often have inexperienced business people (founders, early employees) navigating very complex and high-dollar issues; and to make it even harder, on the other side of those issues are often misaligned money players who are 30x as experienced at the entire game than founders/employees are.

The world of early-stage startup businesses is quite unique in this respect from the rest of the business world. In most high-dollar business contexts, there’s an equal balance of experience and influence on both sides of the table. Company A has seasoned execs, and Company B has seasoned execs. But not so in early-stage. Company X often has entrepreneurs who are doing this thing for the first time, and have very few connections to the broader business ecosystem. Investor Y, whom they are negotiating with and who influences decisions on their Board, has been in the business for 10-20+ years, has done 50-100 deals, and has spent all of that time becoming fabulously networked with other investors, accelerators, serial executives, lawyers, advisors, mentors, etc.

This imbalance presents an opportunity; an opportunity to use the experience/power inequality to push deals and high-level business decisions in the direction that the money players want, often without the inexperienced players really even understanding what is happening. Now, what is the role that lawyers (counsel) are supposed to play in this game? Lawyers serving as company counsel are supposed to take their broad level of experience and market understanding – surpassing that of most investors – and use it to “level” the playing field for the common stock (founders and early employees). Experienced, talented corporate lawyers are supposed to be the “equalizers” that early-stage companies (particularly common stockholders) rely on to ensure no one takes advantage of them on deals and corporate governance. Great for the common stock. Not so great for the clever money; which would obviously much prefer to keep the field slanted in their favor.

So let’s say I’m a very smart money player, and if I can find a way to neutralize the role of independent company counsel, to maximize my leverage, what should I do? Negotiating very aggressively against the lawyers and startups is a failed strategy. It’s too visible. Early-stage capital has become more competitive, and money players rely on personas of “friendliness” for deal flow. Angrily pounding the table would quickly shatter that persona. You need to me much smarter than that at this game.

You start with asking yourself: what do these lawyers need in order to fully do their job as strategic advisors? The answer is two-fold: (i) clients, and (ii) time. Without clients (referrals), lawyers can’t stay in business. And without time to study issues and negotiate, and ability to charge for that time, they can’t advise companies properly. That’s where the strategy lies. I often refer to this strategy as the “Race to the Bottom” in Startup Law.

Buy counsel’s favor with referrals.

As a repeat player with “access” to lots of deals and potential clients, investors can “buy” the favor of law firms by simply channeling referrals to them. First-time entrepreneurs have absolutely no counter-balancing resource in this area, because they just aren’t that well-networked or influential. Pay close attention in startup ecosystems and you’ll often realize how many of the most prominent lawyers built their practices by riding referrals from a few repeat players. Doing a great job for companies certainly can get you business, but doing a great job for investors (so that they refer companies and deals to you) can get you 20x that, because of the volume they touch.

So Step 1 of the Race to the Bottom is to make it clear to law firms that those who “behave” (by biasing the advice they give to inexperienced startups) will get business, and those who don’t won’t. The lawyers/firms most motivated by maximizing their business, and most willing to flout conflicts of interest in order to get that business, start competing at how far they can go to win the favor of these juicy referral sources, while minimizing the visibility of this game to inexperienced outsiders.

Squeeze counsel’s time.

For a company lawyer to do their job in advising a startup, they need time. Answering questions, explaining issues, and negotiating all take time, especially when the executives you’re working with are completely inexperienced (which in early-stage startups, they often are). Seasoned investors, however, don’t need nearly that much time from lawyers, because they’ve played the game 30 times already. So startups need a lot of lawyer time, but investors don’t. Opportunity? You bet.

But again we reach the “visibility” problem. If an investor simply tells the founders, “stop talking to your lawyers,” that’s too easy to read into. A far more successful narrative is: “let’s save some legal fees.”

“Your lawyer is just over-billing. Their request isn’t “standard” and is a waste of time.”

“This deal is all standard/boilerplate. Let’s move quickly to close without lawyer hand-waiving.”

“We really don’t have the budget to get lawyers involved on this Board issue.”

“I’m saving you some legal fees. Cap your legal bill at X.”

“Here, just sign this template (that I created). It’ll save you fees.”

I’ve often found it very amusing how certain aggressive investors, happy to write you large checks for funding talent wars and expensive bay area offices, suddenly have lots of (air quotes) “insights” to share when discussion turns to the legal budget. Increasing your burn rate makes you more dependent on the money, which they often like; but heaven forbid you spend capital on a service that reduces their influence/leverage. Thank goodness they’re ever so generously “looking out” for the bottom line.

If an experienced investor knows the lawyer across the table needs time to explain to inexperienced founders why the terms or decisions such investor is pushing for should be resisted, and such investor prefers that the lawyer stay quiet, the answer is not to explicitly tell the lawyer to shut up. Too visible. The investor instead gets the founders to do it themselves, by suggesting that they should focus on minimizing their legal bill. Nevermind that the issues a great (and independent) lawyer will bring up are 10-20x+ more consequential long-term than the rate the lawyer is charging. By getting founders to myopically think that legal advisory is just empty hand-waiving, and therefore be unwilling to pay for real counsel, investors are able to silence counsel by making it unprofitable for them to speak up. With no one else at the table who actually knows the game, the money then gets free rein to set the rules.

One particularly clever strategy here is worth highlighting: fixed or subscription fees. Most high-end lawyers bill by time, and for good reason. See: Startup Law Pricing: Fixed v. Hourly. The highly contextualized needs of varying businesses are simply too diverse for high-end outside corporate counsel to set broad standardized costs for legal work. High-growth businesses across diverse industries and contexts are far more diversified in their legal needs than the medical needs of patients (fixed fees in healthcare can work), and so there’s just no neat bell curve to enable a viable general flat fee system without setting serious (and dangerous) constraints on what a corporate law firm is able to do.

Investors who push company lawyers to work on fixed/subscription fees know exactly what the end-result of that fee structure’s incentives will be: staying quiet about negotiation points, rushing work, and delegating to cheaper, inexperienced people who just follow standardized checklists/scripts. Market competition sets constraints on how much law firms can charge while remaining competitive, but in an hourly rate structure a law firm still has to at least do the work to get paid. Under a flat or fixed subscription fee, the incentives are reversed. Every extra minute of advisory or customization is lost margin, so cut every corner imaginable, as long as the client can’t see it. And because in the case of early-stage startups the client is often led by an inexperienced founder with no in-house general counsel to vet work product or know what questions outside counsel should be asking, hiding all the shirking/corner-cutting from the client is quite easy.

Firms who simply don’t care about ethics and quality are happy to have you pay them for doing the absolute bare minimum of work, via a flat or subscription fee; and clever investors will happily reward their weak company-side advisory with continued referrals.

The Race to the Bottom.

So what is the predictable end-result of this race to the bottom in startup law, where massive conflicts of interest with the investor community are conveniently overlooked, and lawyers are incentivized to keep their mouths shut and rush work in a standardized assembly-line built to the specifications of unethical investors? In terms of a law firm’s operating structure, it looks like this:

A. The law firm has deep ties to, and referral dependencies with, very influential money players in the startup ecosystem, including VC funds and high-profile accelerators; rendering it completely uncredible to suggest that those investors don’t influence the firm’s advisory. A significant portion of the firm’s business comes from investor referrals, ensuring the firm follows the investors’ preferred protocols.

B. Highly experienced, true Partners and Senior Lawyers are virtually non-existent at the firm, with minimal contact with early-stage startups. It’s only lawyers with many years of specialized experience and vetting who know how to navigate significant high-stakes complexity. Juniors – like lawyers who’ve only practiced for a few years, or paralegals – are only able to safely handle legal work that fits within narrow parameters. Often referred to as “de-skilling” in professional circles, this ensures that when a startup is negotiating against a highly experienced player, the person advising the startup is minimally skilled (and cheaper to the firm). They’ll basically check boxes and fill in forms. Investors will love it. The most highly experienced and talented lawyers (Senior Partners) are the most expensive people on a law firm’s payroll. By eliminating them, a firm can improve margins under a flat or subscription fee model, while torpedoing quality and flexibility. Firms that care most about growing revenue, whatever the impact on quality/ethics, are OK with that.

C. The firm vocally touts the purportedly enormous benefits of standardization, inflexible automation technology, speed, and fixed/subscription fees. By pushing a message that founders should just focus on minimizing legal bills and fixing their costs, the firm hopes they’ll overlook the quality issues with their weak, cookie-cutter counsel. This firm is happy to pretend that it’s in startups’/founders’ best interest to just handle legal work as quickly and automatically as possible. The fixed/subscription fees ensure that the firm is rewarded for cutting corners, delegating work to inexperienced people, and just filling in templates with minimal negotiation or advisory. They’re happy to peddle the templates/form documents, and follow the protocols, that certain aggressive investors (falsely) claim are “standard,” particularly those investors whom the firm depends on for referrals.

D. The firm attracts lawyers who are less interested in actually practicing high-stakes law for the long-term, and the quality accountability that entails, and instead care more about finding future job opportunities with high-growth startups or VC funds. The fact that the firm’s incentive structure totally constrains their ability to actually practice high-level law (and properly advise clients) doesn’t bother them, as long as they get paid and have access to good networking opportunities.

I’ve seen different law firms reach different levels of this race to the bottom. Without a doubt, Silicon Valley culture, with its historical “move fast and break things” approach to raising as much money as possible as quickly as possible in hopes of being a unicorn, has reached some of the most extreme points. Entrepreneurs who fully understand the implications of this race to the bottom, and want to avoid them completely for their business, should read: Checklist for Choosing a Startup Lawyer.

To be crystal clear, I am a big believer in efficiency, and the thoughtful use of well-applied technology to stay “lean” on legal. It’s why I left BigLaw years ago to build out an unapologetically high-end boutique firm, where top-tier lawyers’ rates are hundreds of dollars an hour lower than the conventional firms they left. Their lives are also far healthier because they bill fewer hours. Legal technology is a part of our model, and we are definitely early adopters, but I’m not going to over-hype its significance. The truth is at the top tier of emerging tech/vc law, there’s too much complexity, contextual diversity, and massively high error cost for software to make a huge dent; with deep non-apologies to the software engineers hell-bent on “disrupting” lawyers with an app. We’re talking about highly complex, highly unique companies navigating serious decisions and 8-10+ figure transactions involving very sophisticated players; not a coffee shop or plumbing company.

We’ve grown profitably and sustainably every year since I got here, with 2019 being our best year yet. But I also care deeply about professional ethics, and doing the actual job that inexperienced and vulnerable clients pay me to do. That means cutting out fat from the legal industry, but not muscle. It means delivering highly experienced, specialized strategic counsel capable of flexibly addressing clients’ varying needs as they come up, while leaving out the many other layers of unproductive overhead that traditional firms are often burdened with. See: When Startup Law Firms Don’t Sell Legal Services. Top-tier law can be made leaner and more accessible, but it requires leadership/stakeholders that take professional ethics and quality standards seriously, rather than treating legal work like just another product to recklessly hack and market your way into maximal growth.

We’re in an extremely exciting time for the legal industry. While BigLaw will always serve the largest and most complex deals, I believe the future of the industry (at least the segment that serves non-billion-dollar “happily not a unicorn” clients) is a diversified ecosystem of lean, specialized firms operating far more flexibly and efficiently than traditional mega firms; enabled by technology and operating structures that cut costs without cutting corners. That is the kind of innovation clients, including startups, need and deserve. Blatant flouting of conflicts of interest, and massive dilution of the quality of legal counsel, is not innovation. It’s a race to the bottom, in which the losers (inexperienced teams) are being taken for a ride.

Trust, “Friendliness,” and Zero-Sum Startup Games

Background reading: Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems

TL;DR: In many areas of business (and in broader society) rhetoric around “positive sum” thinking and “friendliness” is used to disarm the inexperienced, so that seasoned players can then take advantage. Startups shouldn’t drink too much of the kool-aid. Smile, but CYA.

An underlying theme of much of my writing on SHL is that first-time founders and employees of startups, being completely new to the highly complex “game” of building high-growth companies and raising funding, are heavily exposed to manipulation by sophisticated repeat players who’ve been playing the same game for years or even decades. There are many important tactical topics in that game – around funding, recruiting, sales, exits – all of which merit different conversations, but the point of this post is really a more “meta” issue. I’m going to talk about the perspective that should be brought to the table in navigating this environment.

A concept you often hear in startup ecosystems is the distinction between zero-sum and positive-sum games. The former are where there’s a fixed/scarce resource (like $), and so people behave more competitively/aggressively to get a larger share, and there’s less cooperation between players. In positive-sum games, the thinking goes, acting competitively is destructive and everyone wins by being more cooperative and sharing the larger pie. Sports are the quintessential zero-sum game. Someone wins, and someone loses. Capitalism is, broadly, a positive-sum game because in a business deal, both sides generally make more money than if the deal had never happened.

The reality – and its a reality that clever players try to obscure from the naive – is that business relationships (including startup ecosystems) are full of both positive and zero-sum games, many of which are unavoidably linked. It is, therefore, a false dichotomy. In many cases, there are zero-sum games within positive sum games. In fact, rhetoric about “positive-sum” thinking, friendliness, trust, and “win-win” is a common tactic used by powerful players to keep their status from being threatened.

For a better understanding of how this plays out in broader society (not startup ecosystems), I’d recommend reading “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” by Anand Giridharadas, who deep-dives into how, in many cases, very wealthy and powerful people (i) on the one hand, fund politicians/legislation that cut taxes and funding for democratically solving social problems while (ii) simultaneously, spending a smaller portion of the saved money on “philanthropic” or “social enterprise” initiatives aimed at addressing those same social problems, but in a privatized way where they are in more control. The latter of course comes with a hefty share of feel-good messaging about “giving back” and helping people.

The net outcome is that those powerful players direct discussion away from the full spectrum of solutions that may require addressing some unavoidable zero-sum realities, and instead get society to myopically focus on a narrower segment of purportedly “win-win” options that don’t actually threaten the power and status of the elite priesthood. There is much room to debate the degree to which Giridharadas’ perspective is an accurate representation of American philanthropy/social enterprise, but anyone with an ounce of honesty will acknowledge that it is definitely there, and large.

Once you’ve successfully won enough zero-sum games (acquiring wealth and influence), it can be in your self-interest to cleverly get everyone around you to now only think about “positive sum” perspectives, because by staying on only those topics, you’re guaranteed to never lose your status as a power player. Warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric and “friendliness” are often not a reflection of some newly discovered moral high-ground among the dominant wealthy, but instead a self-interested strategy for wealth and power preservation.

While the details are clearly different, this dynamic plays out all over startup ecosystems. They are full of influential market actors (accelerators, investors, executives) acting as agents for profit/returns driven principals, and in many cases legally obligated to maximize returns, and yet listen to much of the language they use on blogs, social media, events, etc. and an outsider might think they were all employees of UNICEF. This is especially the case in Silicon Valley, which seems to have gone all “namaste” over the past few years; with SV’s investor microphones full of messages about mindfulness, empathy, “positive sum” thinking, and whatever other type of virtue signaling is in vogue.  Come take our money, or join our accelerator, or both. We’re such nice people, you can just let your guard down as we hold hands and build wealth together.

Scratch the surface of the “kumbaya” narratives, and what becomes clear is that visible “friendliness” has become part of these startup players’ profit-driven marketing strategies. With enough competition, market actors look for ways of differentiating themselves, and “friendliness” (or at least the appearance of it) becomes one variable among many to offer some differentiation; but it doesn’t change any of the fundamentals of the relationship. Just like how “win-win” private social enterprise initiatives can be a clever strategy of the wealthy to distract society away from public initiatives that actually threaten oligarchic power, excessive “friendliness” is often used by startup money players to disarm and manipulate inexperienced companies into taking actions that are sub-optimal, because they lack the perspective and experience to understand the game in full context.

With enough inequality of experience and influence between players (which is absolutely the case between “one shot” entrepreneurs and sophisticated repeat player investors) you can play all kinds of hidden and obscure zero-sum games in the background and – as long you do a good enough job of ensuring no one calls them out in the open – still maintain a public facade of friendliness and selflessness. 

As startup lawyers, the way that we see this game played out is often in the selection of legal counsel and negotiation of financings/corporate governance. In most business contexts, there’s a clear, unambiguous understanding that the relationship between companies and their investors – and between “one shot” common stockholders v. repeat player investors – has numerous areas of unavoidable misalignment and zero-sum dynamics. Every cap table adds up to 100%. Kind of hard to avoid “zero sum” dynamics there. As acknowledgement of all this misalignment, working with counsel (and other advisors) who are experienced but independent from the money is seen, by seasoned players, as a no-brainer.

But then the cotton candy “kumbaya” crowd of the startup world shows up. We’re all “aligned” here. Let’s just use this (air quotes) “standard” document (nevermind that I or another investor created it) and close quickly without negotiation, to “save money.” Go ahead and hire this executive that I (the VC) have known for 10 years, instead of following an objective recruiting process, because we all “trust” each other here. Go ahead and hire this law firm (that also works for us on 10x more deals) because they “know us” well and will help you (again) “save money.” Conflicts of interest? Come on. We’re all “friendly” here. Mindfulness, empathy, something something “positive sum” and save the whales, remember?

Call out the problems in this perspective, even as diplomatically as remotely possible, and some will accuse you of being overly “adversarial.” That’s the same zero-sum v. positive-sum false dichotomy rearing its head in the startup game. Are “adversarial” and “namaste” the only two options here? Of course not. You can be friendly without being a naive “sucker.” Countless successful business people know how to combine a cooperative positive-sum perspective generally with a smart skepticism that ensures they won’t be taken advantage of. That’s the mindset entrepreneurs should adopt in navigating startup ecosystems.

I’ve found myself in numerous discussions with startup ecosystem players where I’m forced to address this false dichotomy head on and, at times, bluntly. I’m known as a pretty friendly, relationship driven guy. But I will be the last person at the table, and on the planet, to accept some “mickey mouse club” bullshit suggesting that startups, accelerators, investors, etc. are all just going to hold hands and sing kumbaya as they build shareholder value together in a positive-sum nirvana. Please. Let’s talk about our business relationships like straight-shooting adults; and not mislead new entrepreneurs and employees with nonsensical platitudes that obscure how the game is really played.

Some of the most aggressive (money driven) startup players are the most aggressive in marketing themselves as “friendly” people. But experienced and honest observers can watch their moves and see what’s really happening. Relationships in startup ecosystems have numerous high-stakes zero-sum games intertwined with positive-sum ones; and the former make caution and trustworthy advisors a necessity. Yes, the broader relationship is win-win. You hand me money or advice/connections, and I hopefully use it to make more money, and we all “win” in the long run. But that doesn’t, in the slightest, mean that within the course of that relationship there aren’t countless areas of financial and power-driven misalignment; and therefore opportunities for seasoned players to take advantage of inexperienced ones, if they’re not well advised.

Be friendly, when it’s reciprocated. Build transparent relationships. There’s no need to be an asshole. Startups are definitely a long-term game where politeness and optimism are assets; and it’s not at all a bad thing that the money has started using “niceness” in order to make more money. But don’t drink anyone’s kool-aid suggesting that everything is smiles and rainbows, so just “trust” them to make high-stakes decisions for you, without independent oversight. Those players are the most dangerous of all.

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 is not an accurate representation of how the game is actually played, because few people are willing to speak honestly and openly. This makes off-the-record diligence, and watching loyalties of your most high-stakes relationships (including counsel), essential in order to prevent repeat “money” players (investors, accelerators) from dominating the voices of less influential “one shot” players (first-time entrepreneurs, employees) both on boards of directors and in the market generally.

Background Reading:

There are a few underlying themes that have been covered in a number of SHL posts and are relevant to this one:

First, 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.