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 the kool-aid.

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, “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, 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 collectively 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 net outcome is that those powerful players direct discussion away from collective 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 their power and status.

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. Warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric and “friendliness” are often not a reflection of some newly discovered moral high-ground among the 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.

Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems

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

Background Reading:

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

First, in startup dynamics there is a fundamental divide and tension between inexperienced, “one shot” common stockholders and “repeat player” investor preferred stockholders (VCs, seed funds, accelerators) that feeds into all of the most high-stakes decisions around how to build and grow a company. It has nothing to do with good v. bad people. It has to do with core economic incentives.

Common stockholders (founders, early employees) typically have their wealth concentrated in their one company (not diversified), do not have substantial wealth as a backup in the event of failure, do not have the downside protection of a liquidation preference or debt claim on the company, and have almost no experience in the subtle nuances of startup economics and governance. This dramatically influences their perspective on what kind of business to build, how to finance it, whom to hire in doing so, and how much risk to take in order to achieve a successful outcome; including how to define “successful.”

Preferred stockholders / repeat players (investors, accelerators) are the polar opposite of this scenario. No matter how “founder friendly” they are, or at least pretend to be via PR efforts (more on that below), their core economic interests are not aligned with one shot players. They are already wealthy, significantly diversified, have substantial experience with startup economics and governance, and have downside protection that ensures they get paid back first in a downside scenario.  In the case of institutional investors, they also are incentivized to pursue growth and exit strategies that will achieve rare “unicorn” returns, even if those same strategies lead to a large amount of failures; failures which hit common stockholders 100x harder than diversified, down-side protected investors.

And the fact that some of the repeat players are themselves former founders (now wealthy and diversified) is irrelevant to the fundamental economic misalignment; though investors will often use their entrepreneurial histories as smoke and mirrors to distract now first-time founders from that fact. They can probably empathize more with the common’s challenges, and help with execution, but they didn’t become wealthy by ignoring their economic interests. In fact, I would argue from experience that the moves/behavior of entrepreneurs-turned-investors should be scrutinized more, not less, because they’re almost always far smarter “chess players” at the game than the MBA-types are.

Second, apart from the economic misalignment between the common and preferred, there is a widely unequal amount of experience between the two groups. A first-time founder team or set of early employees do not have years of experience seeing the ins and outs of board governance, or how subtle deal terms and decisions play out in terms of economics and power.  The preferred, however, are usually repeat players. They know the game, and how to play it. This means that the set of core advisors that common stockholders hire to leverage their own experience and skillset in “leveling the playing field” is monumentally important; including their ability to trust that those advisors will help ensure that the preferred do not leverage their greater experience and power to muzzle the common’s perspective.

This second point relates to why having company counsel who is not dependent on your VCs / the money is so important; and it also highlights why repeat players go to such enormous efforts to either force or cleverly trick inexperienced teams into hiring lawyers who are captive to the interests of the preferred.  We’ve observed this in pockets of every startup ecosystem we’ve worked in: that aggressive investors work hard to gain influence over the lawyers who represent startups.  The moment we became visible in the market as a growing presence in startup ecosystems, we lost count of how many of the strongest money players reached out to us to “explore” a relationship; even though they already had “relationships” with plenty of firms. It wasn’t that they needed lawyers; it’s their power playbook.

The point of this post is how these above facts – the economic misalignment, and particularly the greater experience – of influential investors (including accelerators) plays out into how they exert power, often covertly, in startup ecosystems; not just with lawyers.

Think of any kind of business that needs to work with startups as clients: obviously lawyers, but also accountants, HR, outsourced CFO, benefits, real estate, even journalists who need access to entrepreneurs in order to write articles. All of those people need strategies for “filtering” startups (finding the more viable ones) and then gaining access to them; and they’re going to look for strategies that are the most efficient and less time consuming.

What many of these service providers come to realize is that an obviously efficient strategy is to work through VCs and other influential investors/accelerators. They’re doing the filtering, and because they’re repeat players, have relationships with lots of companies.  So the service providers reach out to the prominent repeat players (investors, accelerators), who immediately recognize the power that this role as “gatekeepers” and brokers of relationships gives them over the ecosystem.

And when I say “power over the ecosystem,” what I mean is power over what people will say publicly, what they won’t say, and what “support” businesses become successful (or not) via the direction (or restriction) of referral pipelines. It heavily plays out into what gets written and not written on social media and in tech publications, and said at public events; because people are terrified of pissing off someone who will then cut them off from their lifeblood of clients.

“One shot” players are, by virtue of not being repeat players and lacking significant relationships, unable to counterbalance this dynamic.  Put together a system of highly influential and wealthy repeat players and inexperienced, less influential “one shot” players, and you can bet your life that it will inevitably tilt itself toward those who can exert power; with strategies to obscure the tilting from the inexperienced. The ability to offer (and restrict) access to valuable relationships is the leverage that repeat players use to exert power in startup ecosystems and ensure their interests are favored; even when they aren’t formally the “client.”

So let’s tie this all together. Founders and other early startup employees are significantly misaligned from the repeat player investor community in a way that has nothing to do with ethics, but core incentives and risk tolerance; and this is independent of the more obvious misalignment re: each side’s desire for more ownership of the cap table. They’re also totally lacking in experience on how to navigate the complexities of startup growth and governance, and therefore rely heavily on trusted outside advisors to level the playing field. Finally, the most aggressive repeat players will position themselves as gatekeepers to the ecosystem (or at least a valuable portion of it), exerting significant control over the market of advisors available to founders by their ability to offer, or deny, access to startups.

What’s the conclusion here? There are two:

A. What you often see written or said publicly in startup ecosystems is not an accurate representation of how the game is actually played, because very few people are willing to talk openly about it, for fear of being cut off by gatekeepers.  Others will say positive things publicly because of a quid-pro-quo understanding in the background. This significantly increases the importance of off-the-record “blind” diligence to get the real story about a particular repeat player. If you are diligencing an influential investor or an accelerator, it is important that said entity not know whom you are contacting (or at least not everyone) in conducting that diligence.  That is the only way that they cannot retaliate against any particular person who says something negative; and you’re therefore more likely to get an honest answer.

You will absolutely encounter people who will say that the whole idea of “retaliation” is some kind of paranoid fabrication, but remember how the chess game is played: the appearance of “founder friendliness” is often a marketing tool. Of course the smartest users of that tool are going to wave away all this talk of bad actors, doing heavy diligence, and protecting yourself as unnecessary. Come on, they’re good guys. Just trust them, or their tweets. We’re all “aligned” here, right?

When you have an inherent and substantial power advantage, it is an extremely effective strategy to create a non-adversarial, “friendly” PR image of yourself, downplaying that power.  Inexperienced, naive first-time players then buy into this idea that you’re not really about making money, and come to the table with minimal defenses; at which point you can get to work and surround them with relationships you “own.”

The money players with truly nothing to hide won’t be dismissive or defensive at all about the common’s need to conduct blind diligence and ensure the independence of their key relationships. Reactions are often a key “tell.”  If you truly have a great reputation, and you have no intent to use the common’s inexperience and unequal power against them, then what exactly is the problem with respecting their right to be cautious and protect themselves?

There are definitely good people in the market, including those who put integrity and reputation above money, but only idiots navigate a highly unequal and opaque world under the premise that everyone is an angel, and you should “just trust them.” Being a “win-win” person is not in tension with ensuring your backside is covered. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to cleverly disarm you, and is defending an approach that has clearly served them well.

B. To prevent repeat players from dominating the perspective of “one shot” common stockholders both on startup boards of directors, and in ecosystems generally, the “one shot” players must pay extremely close attention to the relationships of their high-stakes key advisors and executive hires, to ensure they can’t be manipulated (with bribes or threats) by the money’s relationship leverage.  No rational human being who cares about being successful bites the hand that most feeds them; no matter how “nice” they are. That is the case with lawyers, with “independent” directors on boards, with other key advisors, and also with high-level executives that you might recruit into your company. Pay attention to loyalties, and diversify the people whose rolodexes you are dependent on.

In the case of lawyers, aggressive repeat players and their shills will often talk about how startup dynamics are “different” and it’s “not a big deal” for company counsel to have dependencies (via engagements and referral relationships) with the preferred stockholders. They even argue that the lawyers’ “familiarity” with the investors will help the common negotiate better and save legal fees. How generous. An honest assessment of the situation is that startups are different, but different in a way that conflicts of interest matter more than usual. Outside of the world of promising startups run by first-time executives negotiating financing/governance with highly experienced investors, you rarely see high-stakes business contexts where there is such a dramatic inequality of experience and power between groups, and such a high level of dependence on counsel (on the part of the one shot common) for high-impact strategic guidance.

Repeat players aren’t reaching across the table and manipulating startup lawyers because it’s “not a big deal.” They’re doing it because the payoff is so uniquely high, and the power inequality (reinforced by the preferred’s inherent dominance over key ecosystem relationships) makes it so easy to do. Couple a basic understanding of human nature/incentives with the fact that the Board’s primary fiduciary duties under Delaware law are to the common stock, and any honest, impartial advisor will acknowledge that experienced company counsel who doesn’t work for the repeat players across the table on other engagements, and who doesn’t rely on them for referrals (in other words, is not conflicted), is one of the clearest ways to (a) ensure the common’s perspective gets a fair voice, and accurate advisory, in key Board decisions, and (b) help the Board do its actual job.

There is a clever narrative pushed around startup ecosystems painting a picture of startup finance and governance as always full of warm, balanced transparency and generosity, with common stockholders and investors holding hands and being “fully aligned” as they build shareholder value together without bias, disagreement, or power plays. But notice how quickly the tone changes from some parts of the investor community the moment you suggest that the common be afforded even minimal defensive protections, like company counsel that investors can’t manipulate. Suddenly you’re being “overly adversarial.” Oh, so are the transparency and generosity, and “kumbaya” sing-alongs, only available if the common keep their necks directly under the boots of the powerful, but oh so benevolent and soft-heeled, money? Funny how that works. Smart common stockholders won’t accept “benevolent dictatorship” as the model for their company’s governance. The way you address power inequality is by actually addressing it; not by taking someone’s BS reassurances that they’ll be “really nice” with how they use it.

You should absolutely want transparency, fairness, and generosity to be the guiding principles of your relationship with your investors – that’s always my advice to founders on Day 1. Also understand that while the common’s perspective deserves to be heard and respected (and not muzzled or infantilized), it is obviously not always right. Balanced governance is good governance; and true “balance” requires real, independent ‘weight’ on both sides. Too many repeat players have manipulated the market into a charade – propped up by pretensions of “friendliness” and “cost saving” – where inexperienced common stockholders become unwittingly dependent on advisors to help them negotiate with investors 100x as experienced as they are, when in fact those advisors are far more motivated to keep the investors happy than their own (on paper) clients.

High-integrity startup ecosystem players should forcefully assert that the “friendly” ethos promoted by VCs and accelerators only has real substance if they’re willing to stay on their side of the table, and not use their structural power advantage to maintain influence over the key people whom founders and employees depend on for high-stakes guidance and decision-making. Call out the hypocrisy of those who put on a marketing-driven veneer of supporting startups and entrepreneurs, while quietly interfering with their right to independent relationships and advisory; including independent company counsel that repeat players can’t “squeeze” with their relationship leverage.

A lot of the most egregious stories of startup flame-outs that you see written about – who grew too fast chasing a unicorn exit, raised more money than a business could sustain, took a high-risk strategy that blew up, or perhaps achieved a large exit while returning peanuts to the early common – are the end-result of a complex game by which repeat players come to exert so much power over how a particular startup scales that the voice of the “one shot” players – the early common stockholders without deep pockets or contacts – gets completely silenced until it’s too late. Gaining control over key company relationships is a significant part of how that game is played. And what’s written about publicly is just the tip of the iceberg.

To put a bow on this post, healthy skepticism over what you see and hear publicly, and good instincts for understanding the importance of incentives and loyalties, are essential for any inexperienced team entering a startup ecosystem. The image of wealthy, powerful people “winning” only by loudly and aggressively pounding the negotiation table is a caricature of how complex business actually works; but it’s a caricature that often dupes inexperienced founders into thinking that everyone else who smiles and seems helpful must be aligned with their interests. Assholes are easy to spot, and the smartest winners are almost never visible assholes. Good people still follow their incentives; and aggressive but smart money players know how to assert their power while preserving a public image of selflessness and generosity. Navigate the market, and recruit your advisors, accordingly.

Startup Employee Offer Letters

TL;DR: A few simple principles can help founders avoid big legal landmines in making offers to their employees.

Background Reading:

Hiring an employee is one of the first areas in which I see poorly advised founders really start messing things up from a legal perspective; exposing themselves to liability and errors that can have very long-lasting effects.

Here are a few simple principles to keep in mind as you hire people and paper their employment.

An Employee Offer Letter is NOT the same thing as an “Employment Agreement.”

In the United States, the default for employer-employee relationships is “at will” employment, which means broadly speaking an employer can fire the employee for any reason, even without warning, apart from a narrow set of discriminatory reasons that violate labor laws. This is very different from other countries, which typically have more robust statutory defaults for employees.

When most people speak of an “employment agreement” they are referring to a negotiated document, usually reserved for high-level executives, that provides more robust protections to the employee/executive; including protections around how that executive can be fired, and the consequences of firing her/him. True employment agreements are quite rare in the very early days of startups.

When a startup hires a typical employee, they provide an Offer Letter that states high-level details like their position, compensation, etc., but also makes it clear that the relationship is at will; in other words, they don’t have the protections a high-level executive’s “employment agreement” would often provide. Offer Letters are not Employment Agreements. Know the difference, and that you should start with the assumption that an offer letter is what you need.

Everyone who works for you is not an Employee. Know the difference between a contractor and employee.

I often see founders casually, without really thinking about it, call everyone who does work for them an “employee.” It seems harmless, but in labor law the word “employee” can have very material implications for what you owe them, how you treat their compensation, how easily you can modify their terms or terminate them, etc. Don’t use that word indiscriminately.

Don’t forget IP / Confidentiality, which is not covered in the offer letter (usually).

The conventional structure of startup employee documentation is (i) a simple offer letter, and (ii) a more robust agreement covering confidentiality, intellectual property ownership, and (unless you’re in California or a few other states) a non-compete. This second document is usually called something like a Proprietary Information and Inventions Agreement (PIIA), Confidentiality and Inventions Agreement, or some variant of that. Missing this document can be a huge problem, and in some states fixing it is not as simple as having an employee sign it later. Don’t forget it.

Unlike most legal issues, local state law tends to govern in employment relationships. Docs vary by state.

Most tech startups are incorporated/organized in Delaware, and if they have a national footprint, a lot of their agreements will be governed by Delaware law. With respect to employees, however, that is rarely the case, unless the employee is actually located in Delaware. In employment documents, the location of your employee will often determine the documentation they have to sign, and that means the documentation can vary significantly by state. Work with your lawyers to ensure you don’t use the wrong forms.

Your offer letter might promise equity. But you still need to issue it, which is more complicated.

If you’re promising options or some other form of equity, the offer letter will usually cover that. But you need to understand that the letter is only promising the equity. To actually grant/issue the equity, more steps need to be taken, including a Board Consent and other processes.

Early-stage founders often get in hot water by signing lots of offer letters thinking that’s all they need to do for employee equity purposes, and then waiting a long time (as the value of their stock continues to go up) to be told by lawyers that the equity was never issued. Then they end up (for tax reasons) having to issue the equity at a much higher price than they would’ve if they had done it sooner, and the employees are understandably angry. Promise, then quickly grant. The offer letter is just the first step.

Startup Equity Compensation for LLCs

Background Reading:

As I’ve written before, with more entrepreneurs realizing that the “standard” (whatever that means) corporate trajectory for startups may not be what’s best for their specific company, we are seeing more tech companies explore the possibility of operating as LLCs (limited liability companies). By all accounts, C-Corps are still the market norm, especially for companies with no near-term plans to achieve profitability (everything is reinvested for growth) and with plans to raise conventional institutional venture capital.

But nevertheless, the “LLC Startup” market is real, and there’s far less info ‘out there’ for entrepreneurs to understand core concepts.  Here we’re going to cover the basics of how LLC startups typically issue equity, and how it differs from what C-Corp startups do.

The primary driver behind why LLC equity comp is very different from C-Corp equity comp is that W-2 employees of an LLC can’t hold equity in that LLC, under IRS rules. For C-Corps, both contractors and employees can hold equity, which simplifies equity compensation. But for LLCs, holding *true* equity requires the LLC to issue you a K-1 on an annual basis (you’re a “partner” for tax purposes), and the Company doesn’t cover employment taxes the way it does for W-2 employees.

Units/Membership Interests and Profits Interests (True Equity)

High-level executives (including founders) in an LLC startup are usually OK with this issue, and will hold direct equity in the LLC. They’ll receive K-1s annually.

That equity usually takes one of two forms: Units (sometimes called membership interests), which are the LLC equivalent of stock. Units can be voted (usually) on Day 1, and they are taxable on receipt if their “fair market value” is not paid for, which is why they’re typically issued only in the very early days of the company, like founder/early employee common stock in C-Corps. They can be expensive to receive if they are very valuable (in the IRS’ judgment) on the issue date.

As the value (for tax purposes) of units increases, companies will switch to Profits Interests, which are kind-of a LLC corollary to options, because (i) they only entitle you to the appreciation in value of your equity after the grant date, and (ii) when issued properly, they are tax-free to receive. When profits interests are granted, the Company has to obtain or decide on a valuation that pegs the “threshold value” of the company on the grant date, and the recipient of the PI is then entitled to the increase in value of the equity above that threshold value.

Returns on both units and profits interests receive capital gains treatment, like stock in a corporation. While units usually have voting rights, profits interests can have voting rights, but companies often times structure them to not vote.

Unit Appreciation Rights (Phantom Equity)

While founders and senior executives of LLCs will often be OK with K-1 status and holding true equity, it can become problematic for a number of reasons (tax oriented, benefits oriented, etc.) to have everyone be a K-1 recipient as the business scales. When LLCs want to issue equity-like compensation to lower-level employees, while continuing to treat them as true W-2s, they will usually switch to Unit Appreciation Rights, which are the LLC equivalent of phantom equity.

UARs don’t vote, and aren’t really equity at all. Instead, they entitle the recipient to a cash payment (like a bonus) upon some future milestone (typically an acquisition/exit) that is pegged to the value of equity. Much like profits interests, on the grant date a valuation is determined, and then as the LLC’s equity appreciates in value after the grant date, the UAR holder’s future bonus increases proportionately. When granted properly, UARs are also (like PIs) tax free on the grant date.

While the upside of UARs is that they significantly simplify tax filings/treatment for recipients (no annual K-1s, can stay W-2), the downside is that returns on the UARs are treated as ordinary income by the IRS; no capital gains treatment.

LLCs require Tax Specialists

The main reason startups choose to be LLCs is taxes: given the nature of their business, they want to avoid the corporate-level tax applied to C-Corps, even if that means deviating from the C-Corp norms of typical venture-backed startups.

But the cost of those tax savings is significant ongoing tax complexity in issuing and managing equity, and making annual tax filings. That requires not just good accountants, but good tax lawyers; who are very different from classic “startup lawyers.” If you’re planning to be an LLC that will use equity as compensation, make sure you’re using lawyers with access to solid tax counsel.

Tax Disclaimer: I’m not your tax lawyer or advisor. I don’t want to be your tax lawyer or advisor. The above is just a summary of what we typically see in the market for LLC startup equity. LLCs are highly flexible, and circumstances vary. Do NOT try to rely on any of the above advice without engaging your own personal tax advisors, including tax lawyers. 

Early Startup Employee Compensation

Background reading:

Given how deeply involved we are with early-stage startups hiring their first key employees, I figured it would be helpful to outline a few key principles to help entrepreneurs navigate the topic.

Make sure they are actually employees, and if they are, at least minimum wage.

States vary in how strict they enforce the line between contractors and employees. California is way harsher than elsewhere in the country.

In general, employees are under your control as to how they work and when they work. Contractors, on the other hand, are required to deliver a service/end-product, but have more control over how it gets done, and they usually are working less than full-time hours and have multiple ‘clients.’ Those are very rough guidelines, and you should work with lawyers to ensure you stay on the right side of your state’s (and federal) specific rules.

The employee v. contractor classification is very important, because contractors can be engaged for free from a cash perspective (equity only). Employees, however, need to be paid at least minimum wage, and may be entitled to benefits. The legal and tax requirements for engaging (and terminating) contractors v. employees are also very different.

Every startup lawyer knows stories of startups that treated someone as a contractor in order to keep costs low, then the relationship went south, and the person ended up filing complaints and getting the startup into hot water. On top of following the rules, your best protection is to be careful with whom you hire, and be respectful/thoughtful if you have to terminate them.

All else being equal, more equity means less cash, and visa versa.

Generally speaking, if someone is getting paid significantly less than what’s “market” for their position, they will expect to receive more equity in order to make up for the difference. Very early employees are generally working at below-market (often substantially below market) cash compensation, and therefore receive much larger portions of equity than someone hired post-Series A or Series B.

And the converse is true as well. If someone, for whatever reason, needs to make $X, even if it’s a serious stretch at the startup’s current budget, then their equity should be proportionately lower. And it should go without saying, all employee equity should have a vesting schedule. 

All of that being said, the early employees will of course expect their compensation to move closer to market as the startup raises funds and hits revenue milestones.

In the very early days, employees are often paid more than founders / senior executives.

The further you move away from the founder team, the greater the dilution of a person’s commitment to the “mission” of the startup; and that means more cash to keep them committed.  For that reason, at pre-seed and seed stage, it is not uncommon for *true* employee hires to actually be earning more, from a cash perspective, than the founder CEO; obviously with substantially lower equity ownership.

After a decent-sized seed round (and certainly Series A), it becomes a lot rarer for the CEO to not be the highest cash earner on the roster.

For more info on what founders are typically able to pay themselves at the various stages, see: Founder Compensation: Cash, Equity, Liquidity.

Don’t over-optimize for market data.

When you reach post-Series A or Series B, it can be helpful when hiring people to obtain hard data on what’s “market” for a certain position, and use that data in negotiations. There are some good services to help with that.

But at very early stages, everything is highly contextual. I’ve seen teams where everyone is making almost nothing. I’ve seen situations where the founder CEO is making nothing, and their lead developer is making six figures. I also see everything in-between. It all depends on the relationships and context. Maybe ask around if you need to, or do some AngelList Jobs perusing, but don’t put too much faith in the value of broad market data for your pre-seed or seed stage startup’s hiring needs.

Employment laws and taxes are not a place to move fast and break things.

Finally, as much as I appreciate keeping things lean, moving fast, and skirting the rules where the costs are low, realize that violating laws around employee compensation and hiring/firing can burn you, badly.

In some contexts, unpaid employee compensation is even recoverable against the Board or executives, outside of the Company. Did you catch that? Let me repeat it for you: failing to pay employees compensation you promise them, or taxes for that compensation, can in some contexts result in personal liability for you, even if the company itself files for bankruptcy.

Take. This. Sh**. Seriously. While I’ve seen more than my fair share of nuclear wars between founders – see: How Founders (Should) Break Up – the deep relationships among founders often allow for more leeway in terms of following/not following the letter of the law. Employees are usually different, and will hesitate significantly less to use every weapon against you if you cross them. Make sure you’re well-advised from the moment you bring on your first *true* hire.