Startup Legal Fee Cost Containment (Safely)

Given the COVID-19 crisis, every startup (every company really) is laser-focused on cost-containment. The below are some guidelines for getting legal work done efficiently, without relying on low-quality providers who will ultimately cost you far more in the long-run because of mistakes and missteps.

Related reading: Lies About Startup Legal Fees

1. Consider working with experienced, specialized lawyers in lower-cost geographies.

Bay Area and NYC lawyers have the highest rates, for obvious reasons like that the cost of living in those cities is much higher, and the firms in those markets tend to cater to unicorns with very large, multi-national transactions requiring extremely high-cost infrastructure. While it’s already been happening for years, I suspect more startups are going to realize that ECVC (Startup) lawyers in places like Seattle, Austin, and Denver have just as much visibility and specialization, but have rates that are more accessible.

In case it hasn’t already been made clear, there is nothing about corporate/securities legal work that requires you to meet in person with your legal team. You can usually shave a few hundred dollars per hour off your bills by simply using lawyers in smaller tech markets who still have the right experience.

2. Ensure your lawyers have the right specialization, and precedent/template resources for minimizing time burn.

While parts of the ecosystem have exaggerated the extent to which a “standard” startup financing really exists – stay away from Post-Money SAFEs – every serious Startup/VC lawyer has precedent and template forms they can use as starting points to avoid reinventing the wheel. A “Corporate Lawyer” is not good enough here. There are corporate lawyers who specialize in healthcare, energy, and other industries that will have no clue about ECVC norms. Read their bio, talk to clients, and/or ask about their deal experience. “Emerging Companies” and “Venture Capital” are key words to look for, unless you’re talking about an M&A deal, in which case obviously you want an M&A lawyer.

3. Unless you really are on a unicorn track, use boutiques instead of BigLaw.

“BigLaw” refers to the largest, multi-national law firms in the country; often with armies of staff and resources designed for the most complex and largest deals in the market. For the vast majority of the startup ecosystem, these firms are overkill. We’ve closed countless VC and M&A deals where the Partner on our side was $300 per hour leaner than the Partner on the other side of the table, and their bios were virtually indistinguishable.

Using a high-end boutique can dramatically lower your overall legal costs. The key issue is assessing the background/expertise of the boutique firm’s lawyers to ensure the drop in rates isn’t resulting in a drop in quality. Top-tier boutiques achieve their efficiency by eliminating infrastructure (overhead) that non-unicorn clients don’t need; not by recruiting B-player lawyers.

4. Leverage non-Partner staff (paralegals, junior and mid-level attorneys).

Some startups think they’re going to save fees by hiring a highly-seasoned solo lawyer, but this can backfire, because that solo doesn’t have any lower-cost staff. Maybe 10-30% of the legal work a typical VC-backed startup needs will require true Partner-level attention. The rest can be safely and far more efficiently handled by well-trained and monitored lower-level staff (paralegals, and non-Partner attorneys). You want a firm that has these resources available, while still having an accessible Partner that you can go to for the most high-level strategic issues.

Having a single lawyer with 10-20 years of experience do all of your legal work is like expecting a cardiologist to take your temperature, collect your insurance info, and treat your toddler for their sniffles. It’s inefficient and unnecessary.

5. For financings, opt for “simplified” deal structures if feasible.

I suspect that during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, you’re going to see a lot more investors opting for convertible notes, because they’ll value the downside (debt) protection in case the outlook doesn’t improve in the mid-term. Convertible notes are also far simpler (lower cost) to negotiate and close than an equity round.

This is fine, and convertible notes are used hundreds/thousands of times across the country every year without problems. Just ensure you are working with specialized counsel who knows what to accept, and what to reject, in the terms. Maturity, conversion cap economics, and what happens in a down-round scenario are all key things they’ll need to pay close attention to.

If you’re able to convince investors to do an equity round, and it’s less than $2 million in total investment, you might consider a “seed equity” structure. Seed equity docs are much simpler than the classic NVCA-style VC docs, and are about 75% cheaper to close on, in terms of legal fees. They can include a provision that will allow your investors to get more robust “full” VC rights in a future round.

“Cost cutting” tips that don’t work

A. Solo lawyers won’t save you money. As mentioned above, using solo lawyers for corporate/securities (deal) work rarely results in that much efficiency. While the solo’s rates might be lower than a firm’s, the savings will be burned up by the absence of paralegals/lower-level attorneys. You also risk running into serious bottlenecks that will slow-down urgently needed work, because solos don’t have a team to help triage projects. See: Startups Scale. Solo Lawyer’s Don’t.

B. Fixed fees are more likely to result in mistakes/weak counsel than cost-saving. Fixed fees aren’t magical. Ultimately a firm has to charge a fee that aligns with what it costs to do the deal, and using a fixed fee won’t change that. But the real danger with fixed fees is that they incentivize lawyers to cut corners, because by rushing work (not negotiating/reviewing), the lawyers make more money. Ask for budget ranges, and you can talk with other founders to ensure the cost is aligned with what’s been delivered. See: The Race to the Bottom in Startup Law.

C. DIY work with fully-automated tools or templates found online will blow up in your face. Are you building a plumbing business or coffee shop? Great. Go use one of those $39.99 automated templates you can find online. Investor-backed startups are not cookie-cutter companies, and thinking you’re actually going to save money by using a fully automated template is delusional. You’re simply turning on a time bomb in your legal history that will eventually go off.

D. Do not let junior lawyers run your legal work. A huge mistake startups often make is hiring BigLaw (very high-cost firm) but thinking that by using a junior lawyer for virtually everything, they’re saving money. You do not want a junior negotiating your financing, or giving you high-stakes advice. They are great for doing checklist-oriented tasks while a Partner oversees things and interacts with the client, but not as the main legal contact. Their inexperience will cost you 10x in the long-run of whatever you think you’re saving today. If you’re struggling to cover BigLaw’s rates, the answer is to use a high-end boutique where you can still access senior lawyers but at leaner rates; not to use the most inexperienced person on BigLaw’s payroll.

There are a lot of good strategies for getting lean, but still high-quality legal counsel. The key thing is to ensure you are trimming fat from your legal budget, but not muscle.

Crisis, Relationships, and VCs

TL;DR: Startups who resisted building durable relationships with professional institutional investors, and instead pursued the “party round” competitive fundraising mindset promoted heavily by certain SV voices, are going to get a rude awakening in this current crisis. But the same may be true of startups who failed to reasonably diversify their funding options. The easiest money in good times is the first to leave the stadium in scarier times.

In talking with various market players in startup ecosystems, you’ll hear a wide spectrum of philosophies on how early-stage startups should engage with investors, particularly institutional investors (VCs). On one end of the spectrum are, of course, the VCs themselves. Predictably they tend to favor fundraising philosophies that minimize competition between investors, emphasize qualitative over quantitative (valuation, ownership %) variables, and keep the number of players on the cap table low; which improves their leverage and ability to get a bigger piece of the limited pie. Terms like “marriage” “value add” and “partnership” tend to dominate this perspective. We’ll call this “relationship maximalism.”

On the other end of the spectrum are players who might be called “competitive maximalists” as it relates to VC funding. From their perspective, there is so much capital chasing deals, and the true “value add” of institutional investors is minimal, so any smart set of founders will focus on maximizing valuation, and minimizing control given to investors. This often means “party rounds” in which lots of funds write smaller checks with no true lead. This perspective finds its greatest proponents in Silicon Valley, where the largest concentration of capital (and therefore competition among capital) can be found.

It’s important to point out that there are “money players” in the market who, at least historically, have themselves promoted the competitive maximalist view of early-stage fundraising. Prestigious startup accelerators are, effectively, a service provider whose “bundle” of value is in many ways competitive with “smart” relationship-oriented venture capital, which encourages them to promote a narrative that downplays relationship-based fundraising and promotes competitive processes. See: Why Startup Accelerators Compete with Smart Money.

In order to get more control over their pipelines, institutional VCs have moved much earlier-stage in their investing, often writing seed checks for a few hundred K as a way to get a meaningful foot in the door on a promising but very early startup. If you manage to build strong relationships very early on with VCs and “value add” angels whose brand/signal can give you access to a helpful network of talent, resources, and other investors, then your need for an “accelerator” is reduced significantly. The whole point of an accelerator is to make it easier to access talent, money, and other resources. That means your willingness to pay their “fee” of 6-8% of your cap table goes down if you can access that “bundle” via smart money, or other people, that you’ve hustled connections to on your own.

Naturally, those accelerators don’t like that, so they’re incentivized to promote a philosophy that makes founders believe all institutional investors are effectively the same, and that relationship-oriented early-stage VCs who resist competitive fundraising processes and very high valuations are largely blowing smoke. They want to, in the eyes of startups, marginalize a potential substitute (smart VCs with their own networks and value add) and promote a complement (dumb money).

Now how does this all relate to the current environment, in which the COVID-19 market shock has clearly slowed down early-stage funding? The length and intensity of the slow-down is still of course an open question with all the uncertainties around how long quarantines/lock-downs will last, and the fact that many funds are sitting on cash that they still need to deploy; but it is certainly real. How should founders approach VCs? As a venture lawyer who doesn’t represent a single institutional investor – see: Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems if you want to understand why – my opinion from experience is that the correct approach for most startups lies somewhere in the middle.

I have seen “party round” culture result in so many blowups that it clearly is reckless and should be avoided. Even some of its most vocal evangelists find themselves back-tracking on the approach as the results play out in the market. But I’ve also seen the extremely negative consequences from becoming too dependent on a single VC or syndicate of closely affiliated VCs, which increases their ability to play power games on Boards and extract value that they otherwise wouldn’t have if the cap table were slightly more competitive.

Relationships matter, and it is unquestionably the case that some institutional investors truly are worth accepting a lower valuation, a larger “lead” check, and giving more control away to, in order to “partner” with them long-term. This is obviously the case in a bear market, but it’s also true in a bull market because even in bull markets no founder team ever knows when a crisis – personal or systemic – will slap them in the face. A VC with a sizable percentage of your cap table has “skin in the game” to help you through a crisis. A party round investor for which you are one of 40 investments is far more likely to sit out a crisis and play it safe.

That being said, you can still build strong relationships with VCs, and give them meaningful skin in the game, without being foolishly over-dependent on them. It is wise, if you have options, to include on your cap table a sufficient diversity of un-affiliated investors such that if one group becomes unreasonably “uppity” you have other supporters to turn to. Too much optionality turns into a party round, but some optionality is wise and valuable.

Clearly the startups that will have the easiest time in this crisis, however long it lasts, are those with enough cash in the bank to weather the storm. But for those who will need to enter the fundraising market in the next 3-6 months, without a doubt the competitive maximalists who’ve filled their cap tables with lots of small checks, and refused to let anyone participate in governance and build a relationship with the executive team, are going to be in for a rude awakening. They’re going to learn the hard way how “easy come, easy go” applies to early-stage fundraising.

Build meaningful, durable relationships with professional investors with the character and resources that can provide valuable insurance when an unpredictable crisis hits. Just ensure you’re well-advised throughout the process, so the “relationship” develops in a way that is balanced, and your company isn’t over-exposed.

A Convertible Note Template for Startup Seed Rounds

TL;DR: We’ve created a publicly downloadable template for a seed convertible note (with useful footnotes), based on the template we’ve used hundreds of times in seed convertible note deals across the U.S. (outside of California). It can be downloaded here.

Background reading:

I’ve written several posts on structuring seed rounds, and how for seed rounds on the smaller side ($250K-$1MM) convertible notes are by far the dominant instrument that we see across the country. When SAFEs had pre-money valuation caps, they gained quite a bit of traction in Silicon Valley and pockets of other markets, but outside of SV convertible notes were still the dominant convertible instrument. Now that YC has revised the SAFE to have harsher post-money valuation economics (see above linked post), we’re seeing SAFE utilization drop significantly, though it was never close to the “standard” to begin with; at least not outside of California. For most seed companies, convertible notes and equity are the main options. 

For rounds above $1-1.5MM+, equity (particularly seed equity) should be given strong consideration. We are also seeing more founders and investors who really prefer equity opting for seed equity docs for rounds as low as $500K. The point of this post isn’t to get into the nuances of convertibles v. equity. There’s a lot of literature out there on the topic, including here on SHL.

What this post is really about is that many people have written to me regarding the absence of a useable public convertible note template that lawyers and startups can leverage for seed deals; particularly startups outside of SV, which has very different norms and investor expectations from other markets. Our boutique firm, Egan Nelson (E/N), specializes in emerging companies work outside of California: markets like Austin, Seattle, NYC, Boston, etc. We see a lot of seed deals every year across the country. Here is a list of funds our lawyers have worked across from in negotiating financings. Here is my personal bio to confirm I’m not just some random guy with a blog.

Cooley actually has a solid convertible note available on their Cooley GO document generator. I’m a fan of Cooley GO. It has strong content. But as many readers know, there are inherent limitations to these automated doc generator tools; many of which law firms utilize more for marketing reasons (a kind of techie signaling) than actual day-to-day practical value for real clients closing real deals. Your seed docs often set the terms for issuing as much as 10-30% of your company’s capitalization, and the terms of your long-term relationship with your earliest supporters. Take the details seriously, and take advantage of the ability to flexibly modify things when it’s warranted.

The “move fast and mindlessly sign a template” approach has for some time been peddled by pockets of very clever and vocal investors, who know that pushing for speed is the easiest way to take advantage of inexperienced founders who don’t know what questions to ask. But the smartest teams always slow down enough to work with trusted advisors who can ensure the deal that gets signed makes sense for the context, and that the team really knows what they’re getting into. Taking that time can easily pay off 10-20x+ in terms of the improved cap table or governance position you get from a little tweaking. The investor trying to rush your deal isn’t really trying to save you legal fees. They’re trying to save themselves from having to negotiate, or justify the “asks” in their docs.

As a firm focused on smaller ecosystems that typically don’t get nearly as much air time in startup financing discussions as SV, I realized we’re well-positioned to offer non-SV founders a useful template for convertible notes. The fact that, to avoid conflicts of interest, we also don’t represent Tech VCs (trust me, many have asked, but it’s a hard policy) also allows us to speak with a somewhat unique level of impartiality on what companies should be accepting for their seed note deals. There are a lot of players in the startup ecosystem that love to use their microphones to push X or Y (air quotes) “standard” for startup financings, but more often than not their deep ties to certain investors should raise doubts among founders as to biases in their perspective. We’ve drafted this template from the perspective of independent company counsel. 

So here it is: A Convertible Note Template for Seed Rounds, with some useful footnotes for ways to flexibly tweak the note within deal norms. Publicly available for download.

A few additional, important points to keep in mind in using this note:

First, make sure that the lawyer(s) you are working with have deep (senior) experience in this area of law (emerging companies and vc, not just general corporate lawyers), and don’t have conflicts of interest with the people sitting across the table offering you money. When investors “recommend” a specific law firm they are “familiar” with they’re often trying to strip startup teams of crucial strategic advice. See: Checklist for Choosing a Startup Lawyer. Be very careful with firms that push this kind of work to paralegals or juniors, who inevitably work off of an inflexible script and won’t be able to tailor things for the context. You want experienced, trustworthy specialists; not shills or novices.

Second, be mature about maturity. You’re asking people to hand you money in a period of enormous uncertainty and risk, while getting very little protection upfront. As long as maturity is long enough to give you sufficient time to make things happen (2-3 yrs is what we are seeing), you shouldn’t run away from the most basic of accountability measures in your deal. Think about how bad of a signal it sends to investors if a 3 year deadline terrifies you.

Third, do not for a second think that, because you have a template in your hand, it somehow means you no longer need experienced advisors, like lawyers, to close on it. Template contracts don’t remove the need for lawyers any more than GitHub removes the need for developers. The template is a starting point, and the real expertise is in knowing which template to start from, and how to work with it for the unique context and parties involved. Experienced Startup Lawyers are incredibly useful “equalizers” when first-time entrepreneurs are negotiating with experienced money players. Don’t get played.

Fourth, pay very close attention to how the valuation cap works, particularly the denominator used for ultimately calculating the share price. We are seeing more openness among investors to “hardening” the denominator at closing, either with an actual capitalization number, or by clarifying that any changes to the option pool in a Series A won’t be included. These modifications make notes behave more like equity from a dilution standpoint, allowing more clarity around how much of the company is being given to the seed money.

Finally, don’t try to force this template on unwilling investors. It can irritate seasoned investors to no end to hear that they must use X template for a deal because some blog post, lawyer, or accelerator said so. There is no single “standard” for a seed round. There never has been, and never will be, because different companies are raising in different contexts with investors who have different priorities and expectations. We’ve used this form hundreds of times across the country, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other perfectly reasonable ways to do seed deals.

Have a dialogue with your lead money, and use that dialogue to set expectations. See: Negotiation is Relationship Building. If they’re comfortable using this template, great. If they need a little extra language here or there, don’t make a huge fuss about it if your own advisors say it’s OK. And if they prefer another structure, like seed equity or even more robust equity docs, plenty of companies do that for their seed round and it goes perfectly fine, as long as you have experienced people monitoring the details.

If any experienced lawyers out there see areas of improvement for the template, feel free to ping me via e-mail.

Obligatory disclaimer: This template is being provided as an educational resource, and is intended to be utilized by experienced legal counsel with a full understanding of the context in which the template is being used. We (myself or Egan Nelson LLP) are not responsible at all for the consequences of your utilization of this template. Good luck.

Startup Accelerators and Ecosystem Gatekeeping

TL;DR: Startup accelerators face a fundamental challenge to their value proposition: they don’t “own” their networks, and therefore struggle to continue extracting fees for accessing them. Classic disintermediation. Their responses to that challenge take a number of forms, and generally involve either dropping their price or attempts at controlling ecosystem players; the latter of which is misaligned with the interests of entrepreneurs and startups.

Related reading:

As I’ve written before in the above posts, Startup Accelerators became “a thing” in ecosystems because they were a reasonably optimal method for solving the “noise” problem faced both by startups and investors; a problem which became more visible as the cost of starting a company went down. With far more people “starting up,” early-stage investors needed someone to help them filter out duds. The solution, referred generally as “sorting,” is similar to the value prop offered by elite universities to employers needing talented labor, and students needing credible ways to signal their talent.

By creating credible brands (signals) for quality entrepreneurs, accelerators reduced the search costs for early-stage investors who, instead of needing to filter through lots of duds themselves, had a concentrated place to build their pipeline. That value proposition attracted investors, advisors, great employee hires, etc., and over time successful “alumni,” which magnifies the value proposition to entrepreneurs who, in exchange for equity, got a fast-track to building their network and raising capital.

For some time, you had a virtuous cycle with clear “network effects.” Attract great entrepreneurs, which then attracts investors and other key people, which then attracts more great entrepreneurs, and so on and so forth; just like a classic network effect for a software platform. During this period, accelerators can build significant leverage over their ecosystems as gatekeepers to talented entrepreneurs, and use that leverage to push the market in directions the accelerator wants.

The “Network” Can’t Be Controlled

But accelerators face a distinct problem that doesn’t get talked about a lot publicly, but local market players absolutely know is there: they can’t lock in (air quotes) “their” network. It’s not proprietary. The “networks” of startup accelerators are really just compilations of individual peoples’ networks; not at all like a “network” of a tech platform for which the tech “owner” can sustainably charge access fees. Those people in the accelerator’s “network” aren’t employees of the accelerator, nor are they paid out of its returns, and so they aren’t aligned in propping up the network’s “access fee.” Inevitably, people find it worth their while to simply bypass the accelerator and makes themselves accessible to founders directly, after having built their own personal brands with a few iterations with the accelerators’ initial cohorts. If a team needs X, Y, and Z, and I know X, Y, and Z and can help them get access with my own branding/signal, why should they have to pay this 3rd-party a fee to access those people?

So after a few years of an accelerator having filtered and aggregated a network, helping great people find great founders, and great founders find great people, the network takes on a life of its own. Suddenly with a little hustle and networking, it’s not nearly as hard as it was 5 years ago to simply navigate the “network” without ever needing to pay the gatekeeper. I’ve seen this play out in a number of startup ecosystems across the country, where accelerators faced an initial golden age when they were seen as prime “sorters” of an opaque ecosystem willing to pay for the sorting, and then suddenly the quality of entrepreneurs they can get to pay their “fee” starts to take a clear downward turn. Top entrepreneurs are, by definition, fantastic hustlers. They aren’t going to pay you for something once they’ve realized they can do it themselves with a little effort, or that someone else is offering similar “access” at a lower “fee.”

Once top entrepreneurs realize that they can bypass the accelerator and access its “network” directly, and word gets around, the value proposition of the accelerator can begin to unwind. Suddenly the accelerator cohorts start to fill not with the most highly skilled entrepreneurs (those hustle it out on their own now), but with lower quality entrepreneurs less capable of making things happen “in the wild” and therefore more needy of the accelerator’s high-touch, high-priced assistance. As the quality of the accelerator’s average entrepreneur goes down, the leverage over key people on the other side of the “market” – investors, advisors, etc. – goes down, and fewer of them show up to the accelerator; which then reduces the value prop for entrepreneurs, and you get the exact reverse of the original virtuous cycle.

Seeing this dynamic play out, accelerators have three ways of responding, and I’ve seen them in different markets.

Drop the Price

The first is to simply acknowledge that the accelerator cannot maintain the original value proposition they had before the ecosystem/network had matured, and drop their price accordingly. With less significant of a signal, and less leverage over the market, the high 6-8% fee can’t be sustained, so build something leaner that can be offered at a 1-2% level perhaps. I’ve seen these “leaner” accelerators enjoy some success. Some accelerators started out with the expectation that they were going to dominate a startup ecosystem with high “access” fees, and then over time got humbled when the market delivered a reality check.

Employ the Network

Another option is to convert the accelerator into a kind of “startup studio,” where the main pieces of the network are actually employees paid by the accelerator, or at least with deeper economic ties to the accelerators’ performance; reducing their incentive to leak out of the network. The key challenge here is whether the accelerator really has the cachet/leverage, and resources, to employ those people; or whether A-players find it far better to simply stay outside and keep their pipelines more open.

Another way to “employ” certain network players doesn’t require actually employing them, but simply maintaining some economic control over them. For example, a prominent accelerator might use referral relationships with certain law firms as a way to keep those firms from questioning the accelerators’ behavior, even if it’s clearly at times not in the best interest of the startups the firms represent. That strategy is straight out of the playbook of VCs. See: When VCs “own” your startup’s lawyers and Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems. Offering or restricting “access” to potential investments, clients, employers, etc. has always been a currency used by startup power players to keep other market participants loyal and “well-behaved.”

Try to Lock Down the Network

This is where things start to get interesting. So I’m an accelerator enjoying success, but I can clearly see that over time my ability to keep extracting gatekeeping fees over my “network” is weakened by my inability to maintain control over the investors, founders, advisors, etc. within it. Possible solutions:

  • Lock Down Demo Day – Maintain tighter control over who gets access to demo day and, importantly, “discourage” founders from raising financing outside of demo day.
  • Lock Down Financing Structures – Maintain tighter control over how financings within the network occur, by “soft mandating” that they follow templates created and controlled by the accelerator.
  • Lock Down Network Communication with Technology – Create proprietary message boards, mail lists, and other media platforms for communicating within and navigating the network, to “incentivize” networking in ways that give the accelerator visibility and control.

Of course, none of this will ever be communicated openly as mechanisms for the accelerator to maintain power over an ecosystem/network, including founders. They’ll be spun as ways to provide efficiency and value for founders and other people. But as with much spin, there is a point at which it fails to pass the laugh test.

Listen in the market (what gets said privately rarely mirrors what is said publicly), and it becomes clear that the more aggressive accelerators have for some time been building local resistance; irritating investors who resent having a “big brother” dictating how to do biz dev and deals, irritating founders who don’t want to pay a gatekeeping fee for accessing specific ecosystem resources, and irritating other market players who don’t want a rent-seeker standing in-between them and potential business.

When an accelerator “discourages” a startup team from fundraising outside of demo day, it’s going to offer some paternalistic platitude about how having a controlled process helps “protect” the entrepreneurs, but what it’s really about is ensuring the accelerator has (i) leverage over the investor community via ability to deny and control access to its founders, and (ii) leverage over founders by controlling the venue in which they fundraise; which sustains the power of the accelerator to charge high gatekeeping fees.

Once I’ve publicly announced my cohort, the sorting is done and the signal is out. Investors don’t need me (the accelerator) anymore, and in many cases nor do the founders whose main purpose of joining the accelerator was to get “branded” to make getting meetings with investors easier. That threatens the power of the accelerator, which wants to charge not just for sorting/signaling, but for access to a network. “Locking down” outside fundraising, with some clever spin as to why it’s good for startups, is the response.

If an accelerator builds proprietary communication channels for alumni to utilize, maybe that’s to be helpful. Or maybe it’s a way of preventing the network from doing exactly what networks do organically, which is resist gatekeeping and build multiple nodes/channels to prevent a single point of entry through which a rent-seeker can extract access fees. Accelerator’s don’t hold monopolies on brands/signals that startups can leverage to get funding, and therefore other people (like angels, seed funds, and respected founders) within a “network” who can connect founders to money/other resources (offer cheaper “signaling”) are, in a sense, competitors whom the accelerator has a strong incentive to control. Maintaining control / visibility over communication channels is a way for accelerators to prevent leaner competition.

Accelerators are Service Providers, Like Everyone Else

The general conclusion from all of the above should not be that startup accelerators are bad or good; on an individual level many are of course full of great people. Instead, it should be that accelerators are profit-driven service providers and political actors, just like everyone else. They want to charge a higher price, and will do what they can to maintain their power to charge that higher price. Other market players will attempt to build alternatives, and drop that price, and the accelerators will respond by trying to compete with, block, or control those other market players. It’s just like VC, Law, and any other industry that caters to startups.

When transparent meritocracy and markets start to challenge a player’s ability to charge high fees, they often turn to politics; using backdoor relationships to build loyalties and amplify supportive messaging. Accelerators who maintain tight referral and economic relationships with specific funds, firms, and other market players do so in order to ensure there’s a loyal base of people out there toeing the party line, even as opposing voices in the ecosystem start to emerge.

For entrepreneurs, the message is simply to understand where their interests are aligned, and where they’re misaligned, with the interests of accelerators. Branding and signaling are useful. To the extent they are useful to you, use them, at the appropriate price. But by no means allow them to dictate how or when to fundraise, or how to navigate the network. It’s in startups’ interest (and that of ecosystems generally) to stay flexible and keep their options open, even if accelerators would prefer having a tight grip. The golden era of accelerators is almost certainly over, as startup ecosystems and networks have begun to mature, offering multiple accessible paths to networking and investment. But they will still have a place and function for a pocket of the ecosystem that needs them.

To the extent accelerators use politics and leverage to lock down ecosystem resources that founders could otherwise access on their own just fine, or demand that startups and investors do things in a specific way favored by the accelerator, they are no longer transparent market players; they’re rent-seeking gatekeepers. If there’s anyone that startup entrepreneurs love painting a bullseye on, it’s gatekeepers.

After-note: see Why Startup Accelerators Compete with Smart Money for some observations on how early-stage VCs are eroding the value proposition of accelerators further by bundling new roles/services alongside their investments, and moving up-stream.

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.