Why BigLaw Over-Automates Startup Law

TL;DR: BigLaw’s very high operating costs require it to charge 3-4x of what its typical lawyers actually earn. This makes rates often stratospherically high. While billion-dollar companies that use BigLaw can afford those rates, early-stage startups often cannot. BigLaw is responding at times by hyper-standardizing and hyper-automating early-stage work. This has significant downsides, as companies lose out on flexibility, advocacy, and strategic guidance for very high impact projects, like financings. Much of this standardization ends up favoring VCs over startup teams. Elite lean boutique law firms offer an alternative approach, in which lower overhead allows for lower costs without requiring substantial inflexibility. In the end, this trend toward over-automation is leading many clients and lawyers to balk, and alternative approaches for achieving efficiency (while remaining flexible) are rightfully emerging.

Lawyers are not cheap. Elite lawyers – the kind with very extensive top-tier training, experience, and ability to handle high-stakes complexity – are in fact quite expensive.

Then again, elite human talent of all sorts is quite expensive. Top doctors make over half a million a year. Top software developers can make into the millions, and their “bugs” are much more easily corrected than bugs in contracts; which by design often can’t be “fixed” once they are signed.

I candidly find it amusing when “tech people” criticize elite lawyers for the amounts they earn, given what similarly elite talent in other industries (tech included) makes. If you’re expecting an apology, it’s going to be a while.

That being said, criticizing what people earn is not the same thing as criticizing what firms charge. There are in fact quite a few firms in “BigLaw,” including those who work with startups, where a lawyer charging over $1,000 an hour is in fact earning only a small fraction of that, maybe $200 or $250. “The beast” (the bloated institution) absorbs the rest. That, in my opinion as a leader of an elite lean boutique firm precisely designed to address this problem, is a very valid criticism.

Traditional elite law firms in “BigLaw” have virtually all designed themselves, with minor variances, around a similar high-overhead business model. They charge 3-4x+ what their typical lawyers are actually earning. That overhead pays for extremely posh offices designed to signal “prestige,” armies of non-lawyer staff, lavish events and other programming, as well as a small cadre of equity partners who absorb millions, sometimes tens of millions, in profits every year per partner without doing much of the actual billing.

The fact that BigLaw has entrenched itself in this way of doing legal business makes it very difficult, even impossible, to meaningfully address “efficiency” at an institutional level. It would require sacrificing too many sacred cows with political leverage in the firms’ bureaucracies. Thus when BigLaw does try to do something to become more efficient, or at least appear more efficient, it’s options are constrained. One option that is always on the table is adopting (often pricey) automation software, because it ostensibly allows charging less without actually having to do human legal work (contextual, flexible, strategic) any more efficiently.

Don’t deliver more efficient lawyers. Instead, make clients use dumbed-down, inflexible, and often quite clunky software. They can talk to professionals only once they can afford $900/hr for an associate and $1400/hr for a partner.

I’ve written about this issue before, such as in Vaporware Technology Won’t Hide Your Firm’s Business Model Problems (on Above the Law). Lean elite boutique law firms are about what I call substractive innovation. Finding efficiency by removing unnecessary (for clients) costs, and re-designing a firm’s operations around that leaner operating model. Yes, this does involve technology, but a particular kind of technology meant to replace unneeded overhead and traditional processes; not to simply layer on new software without otherwise changing much at all about the firm itself.

BigLaw, for the above reasons, is usually incapable of this kind of innovation. It virtually always leans more towards additive so-called “innovation” – buying more and more things that purportedly bring efficiency.

Tying this all together. BigLaw – which in 99.9% of cases works with billion-dollar multinational high-stakes projects for whom charging over $1,000 an hour is not a budget problem – has to charge a lot for its lawyers. 3-4x what those lawyers actually earn. The portion of BigLaw that actually touches early-stage startups – 0.1% of what BigLaw as a whole category really does – faces a problem. Early startups are not billion-dollar multi-national entities.

That’s a big constraint on what BigLaw as it relates to startups can really charge. Startups are constantly balking at what they are charged by BigLaw. The way some of BigLaw is addressing this is by removing their elite lawyers almost entirely from that segment of work. Automation – I would say over automation – combined with what is often called in industry circles “de-skilling” (delegating to lower-level staff).

BigLaw is thus heavily incentivized to over-automate Startup Law. As I’ve written before in many contexts, automation in law is not a free lunch. Not even close. It relies on heavy standardization and inflexibility for it to be workable at all. The problem is that a lot of what founders ask lawyers to do in early-stage Startup Law is extremely high-stakes from a financial perspective. Even minor tweaks to language in docs can have 8 to 10+ figure implications. We are not talking about parking tickets or coffee shops.

The extremely myopic way in which pockets of Silicon Valley have over-adopted YC’s Post-Money SAFE is a perfect example of this. Only now are many founders coming to realize how much of an “own goal” it was to let YC pretend their terms were founder friendly and “efficient.” In that article I show how literally adding a single sentence to the Post-Money SAFE can have tens of millions of dollars in improved economics for founders, and yet the vast majority of so-called “efficient” automated startup financing tools to do not allow for this tweak. People are pretending they are saving founders money. What they are really doing is “saving” a few hundred dollars (at most) in legal fees while letting VCs (including YC) take millions from startup teams.

There are countless ways in which over-standardization and over-automation in Startup Law are costing startups and founders enormous amounts of money. Every attempt to create a so-called “standard” term sheet for equity rounds ends up with VC-favorable economic and power terms that simply are in no way, shape, or form a universal “standard.” See also Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law.

Because VCs (and accelerators) are “repeat players,” whereas individual founding teams are not, they have the market leverage to heavily bias so-called “standards” in their favor. And the software companies intending to profit from all of this legal hyper-automation are happy to help them in the process. I wrote about the outsized leverage and influence that repeat players have in startup ecosystems, including over many law firms, in Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems.

These automated financing software companies – who need law to become hyper-standardized so that they can ever-so-generously step in to charge for the automation – are heavily incentivized to publish biased “data” about so-called “standards.” For example, they’ll build a software tool offering only 2 or 3 ways to do a seed funding, all heavily standardized and therefore inflexible. They’ll market this tool, and then publish data saying things like, “80% of seed deals are Post-Money SAFEs, and so it is a standard.” Actually (if you read the footnotes), 80% of seed deals on your half-baked automated platform are Post-Money SAFEs. Selection bias. That is not the same thing as saying 80% of all seed deals in the country or world are.

These tools are lying with so-called “data” to promote their own wares. For that, who can really blame them? Everyone’s got to make a buck. But let’s please stop pretending that they actually care about what’s best for startups, or their founders and employees. I don’t criticize people for talking their book. I criticize people for pretending to be far more benevolent and selfless than they really are.

Lawyers should be telling startups and their founders whenever they are facing these sorts of issues. They should be telling founders that the Post-Money SAFE is not a universal standard, and that many many deals end up customized, or even with entirely different structures, to make the economics better. They should be negotiating term sheets to better position the governance of their client, instead of letting some VC dictate what “standard” means. Instead, many of them are over-standardizing and over-automating. Why? Because they’re in BigLaw, and that’s what BigLaw does for startups.

Because of its institutional inability to actually do human legal work more efficiently (see above paragraphs), which involves assessing context, negotiating, tweaking, advising, etc., and the fact that Startups cannot pay over $1,000 per hour for extensive advisory, much of BigLaw is choosing to delegate the entirety of early-stage startup law to software. In my opinion, this is an abdication of the responsibility of lawyers to actually advise their clients as to what is best for them. If I were a paranoid BigLaw lawyer, I’d at least worry a little about the malpractice implications of practicing law this way.

On top of the fact that this is not actually in the best interests of startups or their stockholders, many lawyers are themselves starting to balk at the machine-like evolution of BigLaw’s way of operating. Boutique law firms, where the ratio of billed rates to lawyer earnings is more like 2x instead of BigLaw’s 3-4x (dramatic efficiency) are not just about lower rates. In many segments they are emerging as refuges for lawyers who want to step off the assembly line and actually think for their job.

When lawyers are able to charge, say, $500 per hour instead of $1100, they have time to actually negotiate for their clients. On top of this being good for the client (See: Negotiation is Relationship Building), from an intellectual standpoint it’s legitimately more enjoyable. Many ECVC lawyers prefer this way of practice over acting as if every deal before Series B should just be a cookie-cutter template.

The elite boutique law ecosystem (of which Optimal is a part) is thus emerging as a win-win countertrend to BigLaw’s tendency to over-automate and over-standardize. Many elite lawyers are tired of half-baked over-technologized (air quotes) “efficiency” that isn’t really efficient at all because of what the client loses. In moving to boutiques, lawyers get to drop their rates substantially without actually earning less. Clients get to pay substantially lower rates, while getting an actual elite human professional to help them navigate complexities and protect themselves; which many prefer over clicking a few buttons on software without ever being told what their options really were.

To summarize: the traditional cost structures of BigLaw require charging 3-4x+ of what their typical lawyers actually earn. This makes their rates, including for startups, extraordinarily high. Above $1,000 per hour in many cases. Sometimes $2,000+ per hour. Startup clients, who do not fit the billion-dollar mold of BigLaw’s average client, obviously cannot afford stratospheric legal bills. BigLaw is responding by accepting hyper-standardization and hyper-automation for its earliest stage work. Clients spend more and more time interacting with junior professionals and software that operate only in very narrow, inflexible lanes; depriving clients of real advocacy or negotiation on high-stakes issues. As a result of all this, inexperienced startup teams are increasingly pushed into these myopic inflexible fundraising approaches that are costing them enormous amounts of money and governance leverage.

There are ways to avoid this problem. The one I’m obviously an advocate for is to move a lot of this legal work to leaner elite boutiques. Some of the top boutiques in ECVC can deliver real legal horse power, especially in earlier-stage deals (pre-unicorn), at half the rates of BigLaw.

There’s another option: if you absolutely are going to use BigLaw, let them charge you for what the work really takes. Why pay BigLaw at all if you’re not using the real legal talent it is designed to house? If you’re raising a $75 million equity round, yeah, you’re going to pay a few hundred thousand dollars in legal fees with BigLaw if you let them actually do their job. As a percentage of the actual raise, it’s really not that much (under 1%). The alternative – over-automation and over-standardization – will be far worse.

If that doesn’t work for a $5 million or $15 million round, then again I suggest looking into elite boutiques. Their lower rates, but still elite rosters, will produce lower legal bills without compromising on the quality of the actual advisory you’re getting. See How Much Seed Rounds Cost – Lowering Fees and Expenses Safely to understand why boutique law is an increasingly popular option among top startup teams for earlier financing rounds. Boutiques are not doing pre-seed deals all day. We have clients closing Series A, B, C, even later, and exiting at 8-9-figure valuations. As I often say, the B in BigLaw is for billions. There’s a lot that happens before billions.

Straw-man prevention disclaimer – Let me be very clear here. I am not just a Partner at Optimal. I am also its Chief Technology Officer. I work with a lot of legal tech startups. I love legal tech, and I even like targeted, thoughtful automation. I’m particularly interested in upcoming ways to integrate AI to enhance lawyers’ productivity.

Some people with very loud microphones like to pretend that the legal profession is full of nothing but luddites who want to milk the entire world for fully bespoke, terribly inefficient work product. In startup ecosystems, this attitude is most often peddled by VCs who want your lawyers to shut up, because when lawyers shut up VCs get what they want, and software automation tools; because they want you to use their inflexible software instead of an actual human.

What I am advocating for here is a more balanced perspective on when automation really is in the best interests of legal clients, and really is streamlining things, relative to when it is hiding all sorts of biases and costs because the real driver isn’t what’s best for the client but some extraneous factor like institutional constraints. I’m a big fan of automating basic option grants, which no serious professional wants to waste their time on anyway. But raising millions or tens of millions of dollars, and setting permanent power & governance terms that will influence huge segments of the modern economy? Hold the F up.

As I wrote here, the “values” of the legal industry and the software industry are very different, and both serve a very important purpose in the economy. In legal, it’s expertise, context, flexibility, negotiation, leverage, compromise, trusted advocacy. It’s about having a perspective, and pushing for it, while the other side does the same.

There can be no single answer or “standard” in this value structure, because the decision-makers and process for setting it are suspect, as conflicts of interest and subjectivity abound. Companies are different. Investors are different. Goals, industries, values all vary organically across institutions and contexts. It’s contextual “truth” arrived at via a decentralized adversarial process, as opposed to a centralized proprietary one. This concept is not entirely alien to many engineers.

In software, it’s broadly about standardizing, automating, universalizing, cutting costs and centralizing data. It’s about scale and speed, reducing “friction.” In this worldview, customization and “verification” via independent review is seen as inefficient and pointless. But is it always? When the stakes are really high?

Analogies about making private startup equity operate like “frictionless” liquid public markets are spectacularly flawed. In the latter, the transactions are impacting small percentages of the company’s capitalization, and rarely altering their fundamental governance. What happens in a startup’s earliest days sets the stage for the company’s entire growth. The present dollar value may be small, but the derivative long-term impact is massive. Post-IPO, very little of what’s being negotiated fundamentally changes anything.

Nowhere am I saying here that the legal industry’s values should take full precedence over those of the software industry. Again, I’m a big fan of productivity tools in legal. We just need to avoid myopia in letting the software industry’s values (automation, standardization) steamroll over legal’s as it relates to high-stakes legal work simply because clients think (wrongly) that they have to use BigLaw, and BigLaw can’t make its actual lawyers cheaper. Automation and standardization can be good. Automating and standardizing everything, because we won’t consider alternative possibilities for achieving efficiency, most certainly is not.

The Open Startup Pro-Forma Capitalization Model

TL;DR: In the earliest stages of a startup, paying for a proprietary cap table tool, or simply dealing with the hassle of a 3rd-party intermediary software layer for modeling your capitalization, is not really necessary. We’re publishing the Open Startup Model, an Excel-based “open source” cap table and pro-forma that startups and their lawyers or other experienced advisors (if they don’t already have their own tools) can use for free. It’s based on the pro-forma structure we’ve used for hundreds of deals, and is flexible, editable and auditable.

Background reading:

In the beginning, there was Microsoft Excel, and it was good (enough).

For decades, startup cap tables and pro-forma financing models were maintained on Excel. It wasn’t perfect (nothing is), but it worked well enough. Then as the ecosystem matured, we saw the emergence of specialized cap table software, like Carta (pricier incumbent) and Pulley (leaner alternative). These tools make a lot of sense at moderate (not low) levels of cap table complexity – based on our experience at Optimal, typically around Series A or post-Seed.

But somewhere along the way some founders got the impression that these tools might be needed as early as the incorporation of the company, when there are only a handful of people on the cap table. The argument, certainly made by the cap table software vendors themselves, is that Excel is too clunky, and too error-prone. There is also a land grab dynamic here, in that it isn’t necessarily profitable for these tools to have tons of very small companies on them, but they have to build super early-stage offerings to prevent their competitors from owning the pipeline. There’s no simple way for the tools to agree to leave young companies alone, so we get these silly value-destroying attempts to onboard everyone.

All of this is, candidly, nonsense. I’ve seen seed-stage companies spending thousands of dollars a year and getting absolutely nothing extra of value that they couldn’t get from a basic excel spreadsheet maintained by someone moderately competent.

What makes old-school Microsoft Excel a still-used tool in startup finance is its flexibility, auditability, simplicity, and affordability (free, essentially). It’s really only once you’ve crossed about 20 cap table stakeholders that in our experience, as counsel to hundreds of VC-backed companies, a third-party tool starts to make sense. Before then, I often see more mistakes when founders try to use an inflexible outside tool than when they simply collaborate with a sharp outside advisor to keep things clean and simple on a spreadsheet.

That being said, one thing that has happened is the complexity of seed funding instruments has grown over time. See the Seed Round Template Library and Seed Round Educational Articles.

In the really early days, before the entire seed ecosystem even existed, most financing was in equity rounds. But as the SaaS revolution got started, financings both shrunk in size and exploded in volume, with equity rounds no longer making sense in many cases. So we got seed-stage convertible notes. Then we got notes with pre-money valuation caps, discounts, or both. Then you got pre-money SAFEs. Then you got post-money SAFEs, and various flavors of them. Then you got post-money convertible notes. Time-based discounts and caps. Milestone-based caps. Don’t forget friends & family SAFEs, which are slightly different. Oh, and let’s not forget seed equity v. NVCA equity. Even within these categories there are various nuances and flavors.

It is not surprising to us at all that the ecosystem has resisted all attempts to hyper-standardize fundraising instruments, notwithstanding the valiant (even if self-interested) attempts by high-profile VCs or software tools to centralize all fundraising terms. This reflects the decentralized reality of the startup ecosystem. Startups are not uniform commodities, nor are their investors. In the latter category, think of bootstrapping, friends and family, angels, super angels, angel syndicates, pre-seed funds, seed funds, family offices, crowdfunding, accelerators, VCs with seed fund arms, strategic investors.

Couple that organic diversity on the investor side with the extremely diverse industries, business models, geographies, team compositions and cultures, risk tolerances, and exit expectations of startup companies. Do we really expect all of these sophisticated business people playing with millions and tens of millions of dollars, gunning for hundreds of millions to billions, to fit into one or two template financing structures because some VC, accelerator, or cap table software says they should? Because of some childish aversion to actually reading a contract and tweaking a few terms?

The only people misguidedly trying to hyper-standardize this complex ecosystem are (i) specific VCs who profit from controlling terms, with their preferred templates, and (ii) specific software companies (often funded by the aforementioned VCs) who want to build some centralized proprietary tool on which all startup financing would at some point become dependent (surely with juicy margins to them as a result). Neither of these types of rent-seeking gatekeepers are looking out for the ecosystem itself, and its diversity of preferences and priorities; certainly not for entrepreneurs. They’re looking out for themselves (for which, as market actors, I don’t fault them).

Many entrepreneurs and startup teams in particular have lost huge amounts of equity and money by being misled into signing inflexible contracts that they thought were “standard,” but really aren’t. The smallest bit of tweaking and negotiation can produce enormous differences in financial outcomes.

Given the diversity of businesses and investors in the startup ecosystem, which inevitably leads to a diversity of funding instruments, flexibility of any viable wide-reaching startup capitalization model is key. That’s why MS Excel still matters, because of how flexible it is. Flexible and transparently auditable in the way that open source code is flexible; and proprietary “no code” tools are not.

Led by a Partner colleague of mine, Jay Buchanan, we’ve published the Open Startup Model. Free, Excel-based, flexibly customizable and auditable, even “forkable” if others want to iterate on it. “Open Source” effectively. It’s based on the same model we’ve used hundreds of times at Optimal, with clients backed by elite VCs like a16z, Sequoia, Accel, Khosla etc. and dozens of “long tail” funds across the world as well. It works from the formation of the company through Series A (or a Series Seed equity round).

Jay will be writing periodically at OpenStartupModel.com, with info on how to take better advantage of it. Just like open source code isn’t intended to be handled by untrained end-users, this model is not intended to be entirely self-serve by founders. We are modeling very high-stakes and complex economics here. Rather, it’s meant to be a potential starting and focal point for various experienced market participants (including lawyers) to work with founders on.

Just as we are big believers in the thoughtful integration of elite legal industry values and lean tech values, we think an “open” startup ecosystem, with its enormous organic diversity of market players, is far healthier and more sustainable than misguided attempts to centralize everything behind a handful of rigid proprietary structures and tools. An open pro-forma model, together with our open-source contract templates that we’ve published here on SHL, is part of that vision.

In that vision, it’s not necessary that dozens of different actors come to agree on some “standard.” These templates and models will look extremely recognizable to all the serious law firms and other key players in the market. That alone saves time if startups or lawyers want to use them, and as institutions get more “reps,” efficiencies follow as institutional knowledge is gained.

We hope everyone – founders, lawyers, investors – will find this helpful, and welcome any feedback on improving it; particularly if “bugs” are found. As a final legal tech tip for lawyers, the ability to redline excel models, much like how you redline contracts, is super important and improves efficiency in reviewing model changes. Litera Compare is our favorite redlining tool for excel files.

As a separate tip for startup founders, if you need a 409A valuation, but don’t want to pay extra for a third-party cap table tool (because Excel is fine for now), Eqvista and Scalar have lean 409A-only (no extra software) offerings.  Some seed-stage companies go this route, combining Excel and a 409A valuation without the extra bells and whistles of the pricier cap table tools, until their cap table has grown more complex (typically post-Series A).

Finally, once you get to the point of needing to onboard to Carta or Pulley (if you’re successful, you will get there eventually), the following may be helpful for saving on their costs.

Post-Money Valuation Cap Convertible Note Template

Link: Post-Money Valuation Capped Convertible Note Template

See also: Seed Round Template Library

Post-money (as opposed to conventional pre-money) valuation caps have become more of a thing in early-stage startup convertible rounds. The primary benefit of a post-money cap is that it makes it clearer to investors what percentage of the cap table they are purchasing as of the day of their investment, because the “all-inclusive” valuation cap incorporates all SAFEs and/or Notes the company has raised, even if they haven’t been formally converted or modeled on the cap table. In pre-money caps, what you are buying is more ambiguous.

The extra transparency of post-money caps can be a very good thing. But as I’ve written before, and many others have pointed out, the default post-money SAFE that YC published a few years ago had a very anti-founder “gotcha” built into it. Not only did it commit to a specific % of the cap table today, but it also gave investors aggressive anti-dilution protection for any future dilution from more SAFES or Notes, all the way until an equity round in which everything converts. Tons of companies have gotten burned by this, not understanding that YC’s Post-Money SAFE structure forces the common stock alone to absorb all dilution until SAFEs convert. This is way worse economically than other financing structures for early-stage.

Frankly, YC’s decision to make its SAFE instrument so investor friendly was surprising, even acknowledging that they, as investors, surely have benefited financially from it. Giving post-closing anti-dilution protection to SAFE investors isn’t necessary at all to give them the real primary benefit of a post-money cap, which is clarity as to what they are buying today. If I’m investing into a company that already has raised some SAFEs or Notes, I surely would like a hardened commitment as to what post-money valuation I’m paying for today, but I don’t see why I should expect protection from future dilution. For that reason, we published a “fixed” post-money SAFE template. With a few added words (clearly reflected in track changes for transparency), it “fixes” this anti-dilution problem in the YC template.

Acknowledging the benefits of even a “fixed” post-money SAFE, the truth is a lot of investors around the world, and in the U.S., still aren’t comfortable with SAFEs. They think SAFEs generally skimp too much on investor protection. For example, particularly in a down market like today, some investors would prefer the debt treatment of a convertible note. Even in 2023, we still see quite a few deals closed on convertible notes instead of SAFEs. I represent exactly zero VCs or tech investors, and what I’ll say on this topic is that in reality the differences between SAFEs and Notes are not super material; and never worth losing funding over them. Go with whatever works, and just make sure you have good advisors to protect you on more material points.

Most convertible notes I see today still use the older-style of pre-money valuation cap. There’s no reason why founders, in choosing to raise on a convertible note, should be stuck only with pre-money valuation caps, given that, as I described above, there can be very good reasons for using a post-money structure.

For that reason, I’ve taken the convertible note template that’s historically been publicly available here on SHL, and made a post-money valuation cap version. The benefits of a post-money valuation cap’s clarity, but under a convertible note structure. Just one more potential template to leverage in closing an early-stage round. Importantly, it does not have YC’s harsh anti-dilution mechanisms built in. The purpose of this post-money cap is to reassure investors as to what they are investing in today. There is no promise of anti-dilution for future fundraises because, in my opinion, there shouldn’t be.

The usual disclaimers apply here. This is just a template, and it is intended for use with experienced counsel. I am not recommending that founders use this template on their own without experienced advisors. If you choose to do so, do not blame me for any negative consequences.

Related recommended reading: Myths and Lies about Seed Equity. As useful as SAFEs and Convertible Notes are for simple early-stage fundraising, my impression is that they tend to get over-used, sometimes in contexts when an equity round really makes a lot more sense. Make sure you understand the full pros and cons of an equity round, including potential “seed equity” structures that are simpler and cheaper to close than full “NVCA” equity docs. A lot of the over-use of Notes and SAFEs stems from myths and falsehoods often shared in the market about equity deals.

Milestone-Based Valuation Caps for SAFEs and Convertible Notes

TL;DR: When it’s difficult to get aligned with investors on the appropriate valuation cap in your Convertible Note or SAFE, having a tiered milestone-based valuation cap can be a reasonable compromise. If you hit the milestone, you get the better (for the company) deal. If you don’t, investors get the better deal. But avoiding ambiguity in the language is key.

Related Reading:

Equity rounds, including simplified/leaner seed equity, have always been preferred by founders for whom “certainty” over their cap table is a key priority. Equity allows you to lock in a valuation and certain level of dilution, which is often an optimal strategy in boom times when valuations are very juicy; though of course over-optimizing for valuation alone, to the exclusion of other factors (like liquidation preferences, governance power, investor value-add, etc.) is never a good idea.

But as of right now (December 2022), we are definitely not in boom times. The startup ecosystem has seen a dramatic contraction in financing activity, and uncertainty over valuations has taken over; with investors demanding that they move lower, and entrepreneurs struggling to accept the new reality.

Convertible securities (Notes and SAFEs) have always had the benefit of being more “flexible” and simple than equity. They have their downsides for sure, but in many contexts when speed-to-closing is important, and fully “hardening” a valuation is not possible, they make a lot of sense. But in times of maximal uncertainty, like now, even agreeing on an appropriate valuation cap can be tough. You believe you deserve more, but the investors, often citing all the apocalyptic data, say you’re being unrealistic.

A milestone-based valuation cap can be a good way of getting alignment on a valuation cap, especially if you’re highly confident in your ability to hit that milestone, but you have no credible way of getting an investor today to share your confidence. Investors tend to like valuation caps because they are asymmetrically investor-friendly – if the company performs well, the cap limits the valuation, but in a bad scenario, investors get downside protection (lower valuation at conversion). A milestone-based cap is a way of making the cap’s “flexibility” a bit more symmetrical, with upside for the company if it outperforms.

A milestone valuation cap would say something like (paraphrasing): “If the Company achieves X milestone by Y date, the Valuation Cap will be A. If it does not, the Valuation Cap will be B.”

Simple enough, but as always the devil is in the details. When using a milestone valuation cap, you want to minimize ambiguity and the possibility of disagreement in the future as to whether the milestone was in fact achieved.

Bad milestone language: “The Company successfully launches an alpha product to market.”

What do you mean by “successful”? In whose opinion? By what date? What constitutes a “launch”?

Better milestone language: “The Company’s product/service achieves at least 10,000 daily active users by [Month + Year], with such metric to be calculated and reported in good faith using a consistent methodology determined by the Board of Directors in its reasonable discretion.”

Not 100% air-tight – it can often be unproductive to over-engineer the language, and too much distrust between investors and management as to calculating the milestone is a bad sign – but still far clearer and less subject to disagreement than the first one.

If you find yourself cycling in discussions with investors over what the “right” valuation is for your seed round, consider committing to a milestone-based structure as a way of (i) getting alignment as to what “success” looks like post-close, and (ii) bridging the “confidence gap” between the founding team and the money.

Startup Governance Choke Points: Protective Provisions

Related Reading:

As I’ve written many times before, one variable that makes the world of startup governance very different from other areas of corporate law is the substantial imbalance of experience and knowledge between the business parties involved. On one side you often have seasoned VCs who’ve been in the game for decades. On the other you often have an inexperienced entrepreneur for whom all of the complex terms in the docs are completely new. This imbalance leaves open numerous opportunities for leveraging founders’ inexperience to gain an advantage in negotiations either in deals or on complex board matters.

This can make the role that corporate lawyers play in VC<>founder dynamics quite pivotal. Whereas seasoned executives at mature companies usually rely on legal counsel for executing specific directives, but not for material strategic guidance, in the startup world good VC lawyers serve as strategic  “equalizers” at the negotiation table. This is why guarding against any conflicts of interest between your lead lawyers and your VCs is so important (see above-linked post). If your lawyers’ job is to help you guard against unreasonable demands or expectations from your counterparties, you don’t want those counterparties to have leverage over those lawyers. No one bites a hand that feeds them. VCs know this, and deliberately feed (engage and send referrals to) *lots* of lawyers in the ecosystem.

Because of this imbalance of experience, and even the tendency for some VC lawyers to not fully educate founders on the material nuances of deal terms and governance issues, I regularly encounter founding teams with overlooked “choke points” in their companies’ deal and governance docs. By choke points I mean areas where, if there were a material disagreement between the common stock and investors, the latter could push a button that really puts the common in a bind. It’s not unusual to find founders who simplistically think something like, “well the VCs don’t have a Board majority, so they can’t really block anything.” Trust me, it’s never so simple.

The hidden VC “block” on future fundraising. 

One of the most common hidden “choke points” I see in startup governance is overly broad protective provisions. These are located in the company’s Certificate of Incorporation (charter), and basically are a list of things that the company cannot do without the approval of a majority or supermajority of either the preferred stock broadly, or a specific subset of preferred stock. Given that the preferred stock almost always means the investors, these are effectively hard blocks (veto rights) over very material actions of the company. No matter what your cap table or Board composition looks like, these protective provisions mandate that you get the consent of your VCs for whatever is on that list.

Fair enough, you might say. The investors should have a list of certain things that require their approval, right? Of course. Balanced governance is good governance. But good, balanced governance terms should protect against the possibility of misalignment of incentives, and even conflicts of interest, in governance decisions for the company. In other words, they should prevent situations where someone can take an action, or block an action, purely out of self-interested motivations, while harming the cap table overall.

Very often so-called “standard” (there are all kinds of biases in what ends up being called standard) VC deal terms will give VCs protective provision veto rights over these sorts of actions:

  • creating any new series of preferred stock
  • making any change to the size of the Board of Directors
  • issuing any kind of debt or debt-like instrument.

The end-result of these protective provision is that, at the end of the day, you need your VC’s permission to raise any new money, because you can’t raise money without taking at least some of the above actions.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in: regardless of what your Board or cap table composition looks like – even if a VC is a minority holder, and the preferred don’t have a majority on the Board – the kinds of protective provisions that many VC lawyers call (air quotes) “standard” allow your VC(s) to completely block your ability to raise any new financing, no matter what the terms for that financing are. A “choke point” indeed.

Why is this a problem? Well, to begin with it’s a serious problem that I encounter so many founding teams that aren’t even aware that their governance docs have this kind of choke point, because nobody told them. A fair deal negotiation should require clear understanding on both sides. But more broadly, the problem is that VCs can have all kinds of self-interested reasons for influencing what kind of funding strategy a startup will take. They may want to block a lead from competing with them, for example. Or they may want to ensure that the follow-on funding is led by a syndicate that is “friendly” (to them) as opposed to one whose vision may align more with the goals of the common stock.

I have encountered startup teams several times who think they are in control of their company’s fundraising strategy, again because they simplistically looked at just their cap table and board composition, only to have a VC inform them that, in fact, the VC is in control because of an obscure protective provision that the founders never even read.

Preventing / Negotiating this Choke Point

The simplest way to prevent your VCs from having this chokehold on your fundraising strategy is to delete the protective provision(s) entirely. That may work, but often it doesn’t. Again, balanced governance is good governance. It’s reasonable for VCs to expect some protections in ensuring the company isn’t willy-nilly fundraising with terms that are problematic. I agree with that. But as I said above, it’s also unreasonable for the VCs to expect a hard block on any fundraising whatsoever, regardless of terms.

A more balanced way of “massaging” these protective provisions is putting conditions or boundaries around when the veto right is actually effective. For example, you might say that the veto right is not enforceable (the VCs can’t block a deal) if:

  • the new financing is an up-round, or X% higher in share price than the previous raise;
  • is a minimum of $X in funding;
  • maintains a Board with specific VC representation;
  • doesn’t involve payment to a founder, to ensure they are objective.

There are all kinds of conditions you could add to provide that only “good” (higher valuation, legitimate amount of money, balanced Board representation, etc.) financings can get past a VC block. Putting this kind of list in a term sheet can be an excellent conversation starter with a VC as to what they see as the long-term fundraising strategy, and where their own red lines are. It allows you to candidly ask your VC, “OK, if the deal checks all of these boxes, why exactly do you still need a veto right over it?”

But if your VC simply responds with a “this won’t work, we need a hard veto on fundraising” position on the negotiation – at a minimum you now have valuable data as to this VC’s worldview on governance and power dynamics in their portfolio. See Negotiation is Relationship Building. Regardless of where deal terms end up, forcing a discussion about them, and requiring the other side to articulate their position clearly, still serves a valuable purpose. Sometimes you don’t have the leverage to achieve better balance in your deal terms, but it’s always a positive to at least have your eyes wide open.

Putting substantive deal terms aside, I enjoy helping founding teams understand that many of the most (air quotes) “founder friendly” investors in the market are still far from charitable actors, and can be quite clever and subtle in their methods for maintaining power, despite the “friendly” public persona. See: Trust, “Friendliness” and Zero-Sum Startup Games. Note: this is not a moral judgment, but just an acknowledgement of reality. You and I aren’t Mother Teresa either. Navigate the market with the clear-eyed understanding that everyone is following their incentives, and protect your company accordingly.

A less balanced, but still improved, configuration of these protective provisions is to create an exception if a VC Board member approves the deal. You might (understandably) think: how is this better, if the VC Board member can just refuse to approve? Without getting too in the weeds, Board members have fiduciary duties to the cap table overall, whereas non-controlling stockholders generally do not. So at least theoretically, you could call out, and even sue, a Board member if it’s blatantly obvious that they are blocking a particular deal for reasons that are more about their own interests than the company’s.

I say theoretically, because the smartest and most aggressive investors, if they really want to play games with pushing your fundraising strategy in their preferred direction (and away from the preferences of the common), will be quite creative in developing plausible deniability for their behavior: they blocked the deal because that other lead wasn’t “value add” enough, they don’t believe now is the right time to raise because of market conditions, they’re concerned about X or Y thing that at least gives them an argument that they are still looking out for the company. So don’t get too excited about these fiduciary-related exceptions to protective provisions. They’re not nearly as helpful as the better strategy of putting concrete bypasses to a protective provision veto.

To be very clear, I still see quite a few founding teams who are fully informed about these issues, have a candid conversation with their VCs about it, and still ultimately put in some kind of hard VC-driven block on fundraising. I of course also see plenty of teams who, as soon as we bring this topic up to them, dig their heels squarely in the sand and completely refuse to do a deal unless the VC vetoes are removed/modified. It depends on context, leverage, values, trust, etc. But in all cases it is a net positive for the inexperienced founding team to know what they are signing.

Startup governance and power dynamics are much more nuanced than just what your Board and cap table look like, or the usual 2-3 high-level terms that founders read in a term sheet, thinking everything else is just “boilerplate.” Ensure you’re surrounded by objective, experienced advisors who can help you understand those nuances, so the deal you think you’re signing is in fact the one on the table.