The Weaponization of Diversity

This is an unusually extra lengthy essay, because the issue is so complex, sensitive, and nuanced that it deserves an appropriate level of patience and attention. It includes my deeply honest, personal, and some would say risky perspective on the topic of diversity in high-performance careers, including tech entrepreneurship; and my concern, as a latino, that the decision by some to “weaponize” diversity is backfiring and causing harm to under-represented minority groups. 

I grew up in a very “colorful” part of Northside Houston, with neighbors and schoolmates who were usually a mix of latino (immigrants and 2nd generation), black, asian and white; and a general socioeconomic range hovering between welfare, blue collar, and sort-of-middle class. My parents (Mexican immigrants) started a produce business selling avocados and tomatoes out of a pickup truck, that eventually grew but then unfortunately imploded. By the time I was sending off college applications, my two sisters and I were supported by our single mother who sold perfumes at an indoor flea market. I ended up attending the University of Texas and Harvard Law School, graduating in both cases with various honors. Today, with three healthy kids, happily married over a decade and a successful legal practice/leadership position at an elite boutique law firm, my cozy “1%” life definitely does not suck.

But this isn’t your classic “American Dream” “Rags to Riches” “look at how awesome I am for everything I’ve overcome on my own (hardly)” story. There’s a key twist, and that twist has given me a unique perspective on issues of socioeconomic inequality and diversity. My mother, despite ending up in a struggling, unstable situation, was actually a computer science graduate of the top technology university in Mexico; the Tecnologico de Monterrey. Basically the MIT of Mexico. And her family pedigree includes a nationally celebrated Mexican artist and a biological (but estranged) father considered one of the top Medical doctors and Medical School professors in his field.

How did my mom go from a top-tier student with a strong family background to selling perfumes at a flea market as a single mom hovering preciously close to Medicaid-level poverty? This isn’t my autobiography, so I’ll cut that part of the story short and summarize: mental illness. Many people fail to appreciate how success is just as much about emotional intelligence/stability as it is about intellectual and analytical capacity; and the formula for producing the former is often far more complex and nuanced than what’s necessary for the latter.

I mentioned these details about my mother because they are historical elements that keep me, if I’m honest, from painting for you a perfect “the system is totally fine because I made it” story; the kind of story that is too-often used to ignore real problems in society. My mother’s emphasis on academics and her love of computers – which she made every effort to expose me to, within her limited means – were key strategic assets in my childhood that differentiated me from my peer group, and undoubtedly propelled me forward. The truth is the vast majority of people who give you these “rags to riches” stories can, if they’re sincere enough, come up with their own kinds of privilege (including familial privilege) that they depended on growing up. If anything, simply being born “gifted” (to use a very broad but frequently used term) is itself an unearned privilege reserved for a lucky few who often like to conveniently overlook their luck.

Yes, we were poor latinos living in a low-income area and a broken home, speaking a blend of spanish and english and having our fair share of tamales, frijoles, barbacoa, etc. etc… but as it related to school, my “home culture” was different. I studied. Hard. With a level of discipline that got me labeled as “acting white” (by other latinos) more than enough times. There was even a special term for it: “coconut.” Brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Very very few of my latino friends growing up have ended up as successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, executives, or entrepreneurs, including some who had more money than we did. Many of them didn’t even go to college. Whenever I hear someone bring up statistics about the under-representation of latinos among the top economic strata in the U.S., I think about my childhood experiences. I think about how differently I saw the world from my friends, because of the expectations I had at home; my “coconut” expectations.

I think about how often I heard, and sometimes still hear, underachieving peers lash out at the world for its supposed racism and prejudice against latinos; and yet, with a name like Jose, there was no “hiding” my own ethnicity. If the world I was living in had deep, systemic discrimination against latinos, surely I was an easy target. And yet here I am. Certainly I’ve encountered some bona fide racists, but rarely were they in positions of influence to alter my trajectory. And of course there are stereotypes that I’ve had to overcome. But, again, given the progressiveness and merit-driven nature of the people and institutions of influence I’ve encountered (and thank God for that), the stereotypes eventually gave way to what I could actually deliver.

I’ve learned to not be so offended by weak stereotypes, because given my experiences growing up, I understand full well why they exist. Stereotyping is at some level a normal, even if often unfortunate, function of human behavior. We had plenty of stereotype jokes in our household growing up, particularly about white people. Stereotypes alone do not really make you a racist. They make you human. It’s how strongly you hold onto a stereotype, and your willingness to give individuals the benefit of the doubt, that determines whether or not you deserve the label. By all means push back hard against true racists. But first, don’t jump to unproductive (for you) and incorrect conclusions about how many people out there really are racists; or exaggerate the extent to which your particular minority group’s stereotypes are somehow harder to break than those of the many other ethnic and religious minorities that have faced prejudice throughout history.

But let’s jump back to the unfortunate above-mentioned fact: very few of my latino friends ended up successful. Why? Racism? Systemic discrimination? I’m sorry, but you won’t convince me of that. I will acknowledge that stereotypes are out there, and they do impact latinos at the margins, but my own experiences, observations, and reflections make it impossible for me to accept that the dramatic under-representation of American latinos in high-performance industries today is the result of them being discriminated against. The gap is simply too large, and many of these industries are simply too competitive and lucrative for key players to ignore truly untapped talent being kept on the sidelines.

If you want to argue for strong, systemic discrimination against latinos, you’ll have to explain the very big gaps in outcomes between, say, Cubans and Mexicans. A reflective and honest latino can explain that gap very quickly. Cuba had a “brain drain” thanks to Castro. Mexico did not. Every major country has different strata with their own subcultures and attitudes, including about education, work, family building, and many other life factors. “Mexicans” certainly share a common culture, but a Mexican banker or professor has a very different attitude toward education than a Mexican laborer or restaurant owner. History and geography have caused Cuban immigration to the United States to select more for Cubans with values that help them succeed at higher levels of performance in an education and capitalism driven society, while Mexicans with similar values have disproportionately chosen to “stay home,” with their much more blue collar counterparts (with a far less positive attitude toward academics) leaving to America.

You see this issue pop up between black Americans of recent African descent – like Nigerians and Ghanaians – relative to African-Americans with lengthy American histories, including with slavery and Jim Crow. Nigerian and Ghanaian Americans, and their children, are far more economically successful on average than other black Americans, including by some measures more successful than average white Americans. But just like Cubans and Mexicans, they look exactly the same. Clearly this systemic discrimination narrative is more complex than some make it out to be. Immigration patterns have generated a “brain drain” from various African countries that selects for members of those populations with values that generate more positive outcomes.

Of course, this isn’t to pretend that the selection process of differential migration alone explains the full outcomes of different groups. Confucianism goes a long way in explaining why certain “Asian” cultures are obsessive about academic achievement for their children. China broadly cares a whole lot more about school performance than Mexico does (or anyone else for that matter). Talmudic history similarly explains the strong outcomes of Jews. Explaining Mormons is a little more complicated. But the general message is centuries of distinct history produce distinct cultures with distinct values that generate distinct kinds of performance in distinct environments. How many elite Chinese-American baseball players are you aware of? Culture matters. A lot.

So why is there such a disproportionately small number of American latinos in high-achievement careers? To give a full answer, it would take a day’s worth of conversations, and hours of writing. On a socioeconomic level, latinos in America obviously face barriers like higher amounts of poverty, poor schools, cramped housing, and all the challenges of being in the lower economic brackets typically reserved for recent immigrants. Regardless of what minority group you are talking about, these factors push down long-term performance. Yet the data unavoidably shows that, even when controlling for socioeconomic barriers, certain groups still dramatically outperform others on long-term economic outcomes.

To ignore the reality of cultural values is to cowardly stick your head in the sand, and therefore never fully address the issue. American Latino culture (generally) heavily promotes short-term economic gain over the kind of long-term success requiring what’s often called “delayed gratification.” If you find a decent job right outside of high school (and even during high school) that can afford you a relatively nice car and possibly a modest home, your “network” as a latino is far more likely to celebrate your achievement. If you grind out your high school years acing AP classes, forgoing short-term economic opportunities, in hopes of getting a BA and even a masters degree, you’re more likely to be called a coconut.

American Latino culture (specifically the culture of the strata of latinos who come to America, which is very different from “Latin American” culture generally), for all of the above-covered reasons having to do with history and immigration selection, disproportionately prioritizes blue collar and middle-class success over the long-term delayed training required to reach the upper tiers of high-performance professions. Where are the millions of Mexican parents who demand academic excellence from their kids? Largely in Mexico, where they are successful and have no reason to leave.

High-performance professions, like law, engineering, and medicine, are heavily oriented toward the kinds of skills that depend on long-term, compounding training and achievement. Unlike, say, marketing or sales, where someone with a natural gift could possibly not do that well in K-12 and still quickly absorb necessary skills for high-performance post-school, it is very hard to make up, in a matter of a few months or even years, for extremely weak math and science training if you want to be an engineer or doctor.

Heaven knows many universities try (and bless them for it), but they simply cannot waive a magic wand and erase a poor public education and home environment (culture) that failed to instill academic rigor over the course of over a decade, including during a child’s most formative years. They have made great strides in helping students with weak backgrounds “catch up” for middle class oriented careers, but the gap for top-tier achievement is simply too high. Think of what it takes to be a world class violinist. How many of them started training only when they got to university, or even high school? Virtually none. How a child spends their time heavily influences the performance level they are able to attain as an adult, especially in careers dependent on compounding skillsets with high-performance requirements.

Thus, these career tracks by their nature – a nature that has absolutely nothing to do with racial discrimination, mind you – heavily disfavor anyone who doesn’t show up to college with a relatively solid academic background. That means, disproportionately, American latinos (and also other subcultures, like, say, rural whites in Appalachia). To really address this problem requires a lengthy, candid discussion about childhood, parenting, family structure, and cultural identity. Calling “the system” racist gets you nowhere. Yes, certain groups do better than others in the system, but that’s generally because they better prepare children to meet the logical requirements of the system.

Now speaking even more narrowly for the audience that frequents this blog: why are there so few successful latino tech entrepreneurs? I’ve already explained part of the answer. As much as we celebrate people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard to start tech companies, it’s worth emphasizing that first they still got into Harvard, and second they surely must’ve learned the skills necessary to start tech companies somewhere before getting to Harvard. Tech entrepreneurship is dependent on a compounding skillset that, again, filters out people whose childhoods failed to help them develop that skillset. Zuck and Bill didn’t learn to code during their freshman years.

But let’s put aside the compounding/technical skill issue for a moment, because there’s a more nuanced issue at play here, and it relates to the point I made when discussing my mother’s poor outcome despite her clear academic intelligence: success depends on technical skill but also, particularly in certain environments, on emotional/psychological resilience.

There’s a frequently cited John Adams line that I am going to paraphrase and somewhat modernize: people become farmers, so that their children can become merchants, so that their children can become professionals, so that their children can become artists and entrepreneurs.

What is this line telling us? That there is often a generational progression to career trajectories, and that progression is tied to economic stability, which itself is tied to psychological resilience and willingness to take risk. I can tell you, having worked with and observed hundreds of entrepreneurial ventures, your average tech entrepreneur is not coming from a low-income or even blue collar/middle class background. Zuck and Bill certainly did not.

It often takes a childhood environment that infuses a person with confidence about their family/network’s overall economic stability to enable that person to confidently take the enormous personal risk of becoming an entrepreneur; instead of going into a nicely salaried career. Wealthy kids are far more likely to grow up to become entrepreneurs, because they know that going “bust” doesn’t mean actually going homeless, but instead there’s an enormous set of resources there to serve as a parachute.  Kids with similar technical or “intellectual” ability, but with families living on the precipice of poverty, or at least with very few excess resources to manage a blowup, do not have that luxury.

This is not to say that tech entrepreneurs with wealthy backgrounds are not big risk takers. Most of their equally wealthy friends probably still went into consulting and other salaried jobs. But it is to at least acknowledge that having an affluent background dramatically subsidizes personal risk tolerance.

I do not regret for a second becoming a VC lawyer instead of becoming an entrepreneur. Neither of my parents had any substantial savings. In fact, I support my mother in her retirement, and most of the rest of my family struggles on a daily basis to even stay in the middle class (loosely defined). Unlike Zuck or Bill, failure in my case would’ve, quite literally, risked homelessness. I have met entrepreneurs who really did risk homelessness/poverty in starting their entrepreneurial ventures, but they are a far smaller minority than is suggested from the heroic “risk absolutely everything” stories one often hears in the media.

So I went into a career that made sense for my low-income family background/history. No regrets. I can guarantee you countless high-achieving latinos (and other minorities) make this exact decision on a daily basis. Startup? Sorry, I’ve got parents and other extended family to help out. I’ll take that high-salaried job I busted my tail and sacrificed for. Maybe my kids will have a better parachute.

Many high-achieving under-represented minorities simply do not have the luxury of parents, aunts, uncles, cousins all with stable incomes and savings to provide them a parachute for an entrepreneurial adventure. Now, their kids might (see the John Adams line), but that’s why changing the long-term economic success of any broad group simply cannot be wished into existence. The most challenging forms of success take an entire childhood of compounding learning, and going even further, the very highest risk paths often take generational building of wealth and resilience.

So, first, the compounding technical skill “filter” disproportionately impacts latinos (and similar groups) because cultural, not just socioeconomic, factors lead fewer of them to develop the compounding skills in childhood that make tech entrepreneurship feasible. Second, for the disproportionately small number of them who still end up getting there, they are far less likely than other groups to come from the kinds of stable economic backgrounds that make high-risk paths like entrepreneurship attractive. Now, let’s ask ourselves a hard question. How much of this unfortunate reality can actually be materially impacted by recruiters and investors in any short-term sense?

It takes time for the descendants of low-income immigrants to build the kind of economic stability and resilience that encourages very high-risk, very high-reward paths. Anyone expecting to actually impact long-term collective outcomes needs to face, head on and without unproductive outrage or finger-pointing, the fact that helping people meet the requirements of high-performance takes time. It also takes honesty about the cultural/behavioral values that build up children to face those requirements as adults. The requirements themselves, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, are not going to budge.

We like to think of entrepreneurship, including tech entrepreneurship, as a very democratizing, equalizing playing field where anyone with the right motivation and persistence can succeed; but my honest experience is that today, in fact, it’s the opposite. High-achieving entrepreneurship takes a spectacularly rare and complex combination of analytical and technical skills, communication skills, social skills, and creative judgment about current and changing market conditions, on top of incredible psychological resilience. Rather than an easily accessible field for anyone who wants to play, modern hyper-competitive entrepreneurship represents the apex of human abilities, creativity, and endurance. We should not be surprised that, for most people, the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for reaching that apex start well before adulthood; and include a childhood environment that supports high achievement.

Tying this all together: I want to see more “people of color” in tech entrepreneurship and other high-performance careers just like all other good, honest, progressive people. But I’m afraid that a segment of the community – either well-intentioned or not – has chosen to weaponize the issue of diversity in a way that is not only hostile and disingenuous, but counterproductive to its own cause.

There are historical, cultural, and socioeconomic reasons – all of which have been exhaustively studied – that explain why a disproportionately small number of people in certain ethnic/minority groups are able to achieve the high levels of performance and economic success attained by other groups. The number of high-performing “candidates” of color, in the sense we are discussing, is in fact smaller. Throwing the label “racist” around indiscriminately, and trying to guilt decision makers – like recruiters and investors – into hiring or investing in more of these candidates than realistically exist (today) can backfire. Dramatically. I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen very well-intentioned “diversity” accelerators created with much fan-fare and PR. But because they didn’t actually dig into the deep, complex reasons for the low representation of certain groups in their industry, and instead wanted quick and easy results, what actually ended up happening is that they promoted companies that underperformed and underachieved. The end-result? They very loudly and publicly reinforced the very stereotypes they were trying to break. Even more sadly, already successful/wealthy people, usually white, still get their PR and photo ops from these initiatives, while minorities are, once again, left holding an empty bag. On the most important issues, good intentions are not enough. Instead of stereotypes truly holding us back, we are foolishly incentivizing their amplification.

In the case of many mission-driven “diversity” venture funds, they’ll often amplify the idea that venture capital is racist or systemically discriminatory, but a quick glance at their portfolio makes it clear that they are sourcing and funding various kinds of businesses that do not generate true venture capital returns (but fulfill their mission). That they are choosing to fund other lower-margin, lower-scale kinds of businesses is great, and yet their claims that venture capitalists seeking high-scale, high-margin venture level returns are “racist” are still disingenuous.

The more exposed any position is to the harsh, unforgiving reality of the market, the harder it is to compensate for underperformance. This is why large organizations, like the government (including the military) have historically been the best environments for “affirmative action” type initiatives that acknowledged some preferential treatment of under-represented minorities, but are able to contain and address any performance issues with the “slack” of the large organization. Very high-performance, high-stakes positions, like startup entrepreneurship (and also complex law, by the way) unfortunately don’t have this luxury. If there are nuanced, complex reasons for why a disproportionately small number of latinos meet the requirements of medical schools, I doubt anyone wants to suggest we guilt and shame the schools into graduating more of them anyway.

Tech startups operate in the most performance-driven, cut-throat, “figure it out or die” segment of the economy. Unlike large organizations with many layers of staff and substantial buffer resources for training, bringing on anyone who underperforms risks catastrophic failure for a startup team. The reasons they underperform may be totally unfair: disadvantaged background, low-income, poor education, etc., but, again, customers don’t care. Can an NFL team afford to take into account “fairness” in whom they put on the field? No, and neither can startups. Once we clear out true discrimination, any attempts at increasing representation must involve actually improving the performance of the underrepresented groups.

The world of startups is one of the most culturally progressive environments I have ever encountered in my life. But it is also, by necessity, fiercely (even if imperfectly) meritocratic. This fact makes it quite “colorful” in terms of the full diversity of ethnicities and nationalities one encounters – hardly all white American-born men, but it also means wide performance differentials between groups are going to be unavoidably visible in outcomes.

The great “myth” of the tech sector, or really of the entire high end of the modern economy, isn’t a myth of meritocracy. Competitive markets make it very expensive to hire under-performers, or to discriminate against available talent. We have meritocracy. The myth is that meritocracy (alone) means equal opportunity. To the contrary, hyper-meritocracy puts an enormous premium on having a strong (socioeconomic and cultural) background that prepared you with compounding training, because you need to show up on Day 1 ready to perform. Meritocracy massively privileges having a good childhood, including a home culture that enables, from very early on, high achievement. Appealing to racism and prejudice among the decision-makers in elite institutions (including employers) isn’t necessary at all for explaining the wide disparities we see in our increasingly meritocratic market economy. The problems aren’t post-college, but pre-high school; going as deep as early-childhood development and parenting.

Promoting diversity in tech entrepreneurship and startups is an extremely noble and good goal. I support it. Wholeheartedly. But for the love of God, let’s please be honest, decent, and smart about it. If we’re honest, we’ll first acknowledge all of the nuances and complexities – some of them clearly uncomfortable – about the background sources of the problem. We’ll also acknowledge that extremely competitive industries – like venture capital – are heavily incentivized to look for and exploit “undervalued” talent. Literally hundreds of funds, many of them led by people hardly from the kinds of backwater places simmering with racism, are all competing to the death to find successes. If they still are not substantially moving the needle on finding numerous tech ventures led by teams of underrepresented color capable of generating venture returns, maybe racism isn’t the real problem.

Second, if we’re decent about it, we will not play this unfair game of simply looking at a team or portfolio, finding that there’s no one “of color” on it, and throwing a racist label at someone. We will stop weaponizing diversity. Many recruiters in certain high-performance industries know how much extra effort it can take to find truly high-performing “diverse” candidates. It is not because they do not exist. It is because they, for all of the discussed reasons, are in shorter supply; and because they are in shorter supply, they get taken up by employers with the best brands and compensation packages. When a particular A-level firm – whether it’s a law firm or a venture capital firm – loudly promotes their “diverse” roster, it does not mean every company with less “diverse” rosters is full of racists. It means that in a market increasingly looking for these scarcer candidates, those with the most “pull” (better brand, better pay, lower risk) are able to win, and those with less pull lose. In many cases “inclusiveness” has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Similarly, the weaponization (and in some cases monetization) of diversity heavily incentivizes “tokenism.” As long as I can secure enough people who, from outer appearances, check the “diverse” box, I can move on and totally avoid actually addressing the systemic issues that demonstrably disadvantage certain people over others. For example, many latinos at elite universities are the children of doctors, lawyers, and executives, from stable homes and private prep schools. Are these really the “diverse” candidates we want to pour substantial resources into helping? Does a Jose who summers in the Hamptons and got a BMW for his 16th birthday bring “color” to your workplace in the way diversity initiatives intend? Maybe. But if that’s what we really want, let’s be honest and open about it. Filling your workplace or portfolio with people from objectively affluent and privileged backgrounds, who nevertheless have the right names or skin tones, feels different to some of us than really putting in effort to level the playing field for people facing real structural barriers.

Finally, if we’re smart about diversity in high-performance areas, we’ll acknowledge how important patience is. Instead of pretending that a few well-intentioned initiatives are going to suddenly erase decades and even generations of differences with compounding effects, we’ll start going after long-term policies that will really change the landscape. Policies like:

-equalized public school funding and school choice
-funding for schools to engage with low-income homes and communities on educational culture
-public daycare and pre-K
-criminal justice reform
-public funding for healthcare, including mental healthcare
-social and economic support initiatives

Recklessly and indiscriminately warmongering over diversity is the business world’s equivalent of breaking windows and looting. The anger and frustration over the slow pace of results are understandable and worthy of empathy. And yet angrily pointing fingers at people who are sincerely trying to improve an issue that they really did not cause, and in truth are very limited in their ability to quickly fix, is counterproductive. If we push them to promote candidates who truly are not ready, the resulting underperformance will not only ruin the confidence of people who otherwise might’ve had very positive outcomes in a more appropriate environment, but it will also harden stereotypes that we should instead be, strategically, weakening.

For too long we’ve allowed discussions of diversity in tech and other high-performing professions to be hijacked and unjustifiably dominated by those who would have us be endlessly distracted by searching for racism and systemic discrimination as the supreme, seemingly supernatural explanation for all our challenges; and who at times see a profitable opportunity in that distraction. Their often vitriolic refusals to even engage in substantive discussion about other explanations, and other solutions – including long-term policy solutions – are, unfortunately, a significant reason why our community is stalling in its progress.

I’m thankful every day that the decision-makers I encountered throughout my life didn’t just see “a latino.” They didn’t see a stereotype to be quickly discarded, nor a token to be pushed in directions driven by a political agenda. They saw Jose Ancer, a specific kid with some challenges but also some abilities; and gave me a shot at showing what I could really deliver within the background and life I was actually living. We should want nothing less for every single child that enters the school system, and adult that enters the market. How many individual people are we failing to objectively help, because we are paralyzed by grand theories chasing rushed collective goals that have never been feasible on any short timeline?

Results over misdirected rage. Equal opportunity over unrealistic expectations of quickly equal outcomes. But getting there requires all of us to talk honestly, empathetically, and carefully about the real issues, without demonizing those who sincerely feel like we are spinning our wheels. That’s the only way we will finally get past the anger and frustration that understandably result from misguided quick fixes that ignore the complexity and depth of the challenges.

In my case – I want to see, on top of the public policies that directly address the social and economic challenges of poverty in America, an environment in which every young latino can throw him or herself into whatever subject they want, and make long-term sacrifices to succeed, without facing labels like “coconut” or other counterproductive messaging from other latinos that children from other ethnic backgrounds simply never have to face. We absolutely know how to work hard, but as it relates to high academic and business achievement, we too often celebrate working on the wrong things, and wait too long to correct course. Without a doubt let’s ensure we’re rooting out whatever racism and discrimination that exists. But let’s also not deny the personal responsibility necessary in our own communities to evolve our identities so that no child is ever forced to choose between high achievement and culture.

The evidence is abundantly clear that no amount of public policy or reconciliation over historical injustices will ever replace the profound, long-lasting impact of private household cultural values, including about education and long-term training, on the performance level children are able to reach as adults. Sometimes the very hardest problems are the ones that no one else can fully solve for us. Yet at the same time, there can be hope in realizing that many of the long-term solutions are much more in our control, and we don’t have to wait for outsider heroes to be our saviors. It’s time for the most honest among us to demand that the level of diversity discourse be elevated and civilized; above the yells and sand-pounding of those who continue pretending that the key to increasing true high achievement in our community lies in another inclusiveness seminar, another infantilizing apology from a colleague, or another lecture from self-appointed “experts” on our universal, never-ending victimization.

On a closing note, I was careful to keep this discussion personal, and about my own experiences as a latino. I don’t pretend to speak in any way for other minority groups; and certainly not for the black community, which has faced a very different, and legitimately harsher historical reality in America. I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be a black American, or to fully understand the incredibly justifiable outrage sparked by George Floyd’s murder. This essay was not at all about police brutality, for which there is seemingly limitless evidence, or well-documented racism and discrimination in segments of society outside of tech entrepreneurship and other high-performance career paths. It by no means is an argument that we live in a perfect, fully meritocratic world; but rather a personal observation and reflection on whether we are completely missing the mark on the real reasons – or at a minimum, the most impactful reasons – why certain groups, like American latinos, remain so under-represented in the very high-performance, high-risk world of tech entrepreneurship.

I do hope, however, that some of my thoughts might be helpful for other people of color to assess and chart their own paths on the issue of diversity, and what changes they hope to effect in the market. I hope we will no longer allow legitimate voices and perspectives to be silenced in favor of the same mono-narrative that wastes precious time and fails at delivering durable results. Anger and frustration can be fuel for enormously productive action, but only if we channel them in ways that truly hit the source of a problem; even if that source is more complex and uncomfortable, and less responsive to simplistic outrage and politicization, than we want to admit.

The Most Common Option Grant Mistakes

This is a post I should’ve written years ago because it involves issues our firm sees from startups on a weekly basis. These are the most common mistakes – often very, very expensive mistakes – that we see startups make in granting options to employees, contractors, advisors, etc.

1. Not understanding the (big) difference between promising options and granting options.

With respect to issuing any form of equity for services, there’s usually 2 broad steps: first you promise the equity in an offer letter, consulting agreement, advisor agreement, etc., and then after that agreement has been signed, further steps have to be taken to grant the equity, including with a Board consent.

We constantly see startups pile up offer letters and other documents promising options to people, and waiting months or even years before someone conducting diligence – often in prep for a financing – realizes that none of those options were ever granted. One might think that cleaning this up is simple enough, but it’s often not. For tax purposes, option grants need to be issued with an exercise/strike price equal to their fair market value on the day they are granted (not promised).

If you hire an employee on January 1st 2020 and promise them options, they are expecting to receive an exercise price close to the equity value on the day they signed their offer letter; especially if they’re an early employee and the idea of getting “cheap” equity was part of their reason for joining. Imagine if you sit on that offer letter until June 15, 2021, after which the company has hit multiple milestones and even raised some seed money putting a value on the company 10x of what it was a year and a half ago? When you finally get around to granting those options, the strike price now has to be equal to the higher value, and the employee has lost all of that upside. Think they’re going to be happy?

We’ve seen dozens of companies make this mistake. In the worst scenarios it often leads to a threatened lawsuit, or the need for the company to materially increase the amount of equity the recipient receives in order to make up for the lost value. Other times it just results in some very very disappointed employees, and loss of goodwill.

Promising equity is as simple as signing a napkin with a few sentences. Granting equity requires valuations, consents, and well-structured equity plan documentation managed by lawyers. This is not something to DIY.

2. Getting Board approval but never delivering the (important) grant documentation.

In this instance, the Company did take the main step of properly having grants approved by the Board, but they never finished the job by actually delivering the appropriate grant documentation to the recipients.

The reason this can be a big problem is that the option grant documentation (including the appropriate equity incentive plan) will have a number of important provisions around rights the recipient and/or company have with respect to the grant. For example, it will say what happens in an acquisition, have specifics around how vesting works, or set expectations around the expiration or termination of the option. By failing to actually deliver the grant documentation to the option recipient, the Company opens itself up to arguments that all those provisions are not enforceable; which can mean litigation when the stakes get high.

Offer letters often say nothing about how a vesting schedule, or exercise period, works in the event of an employee’s resignation. Those details are in the (much much longer) grant documentation. By failing to ever deliver that documentation, you open yourself up to claims by employees that their equity continues vesting, or continues being exercisable, regardless of what the documents (that they never received) say, or what you intended for their “deal” to be.

3. Not having a 409A valuation, or having a stale valuation. 

Option grants need to be issued with an exercise price equal to or greater than the fair market value of the equity on the grant date, to comply with IRS rules that ensure no one gets a tax hit on the grant date. The IRS does not accept any equity value the company decides on. It has special requirements, including “safe harbors,” for setting the value. The most common safe harbor used is to get a professional valuation report from a reputable valuation company, like Carta.

Some companies mess up by issuing options at a price that really doesn’t make sense given the state of the business, and they don’t have a valuation report to back it up.

Other companies fail to understand that valuation reports don’t last forever. If you do another financing, you almost always need a new valuation. And if any kind of business milestone is achieved that would realistically change the value of the business – like a substantial increase in revenue – the valuation also needs to be updated. If your valuation is 9 months old, the business has doubled in size since then, and you grant options with that 9-month-old price, you almost certainly have a tax problem, for which the penalties can be substantial. After 12 months, all valuations have to be refreshed.

4. NSOs (or NQSOs) v. ISOs.

There are so many articles already written on this topic that you can find with any online search, so I’m not going to go deep into it. Just understand that employees and independent contractors do not receive the same kind of option grant, for tax reasons. Employees receive ISOs, which are usually more tax favorable. Independent Contractors receive NSOs. The documentation is slightly different.

5. Not tracking vesting schedules and exercise period expiration properly. 

Vesting schedule calculations often aren’t super straightforward. When someone leaves the company and has a portion of vested and a portion of unvested equity, someone needs to verify that the unvested equity is actually being reflected as terminated and removed from the cap table. If the equity plan also has provisions around the expiration of vested equity if it goes unexercised for a period of time post-termination (most plans do), someone needs to track that as well and ensure the cap table stays updated. Something like Carta can help a lot here, but we still regularly see people make mistakes and/or use the wrong numbers.

Companies often forget to remove terminated unvested equity (when someone leaves the company) from a cap table, or to remove a grant that has fully expired. This can create problems long-term if they inadvertently allow the person to later exercise their option (which really should no longer exist), or if they are doing other calculations, or making representations, with an incorrect cap table.

6. Promising a percentage instead of a fixed number of shares.

When companies are discussing an equity grant with an employee or other service provider, they usually speak in terms of percentages, which is good and transparent. Promising someone 100,000 shares can be meaningless if they don’t know what the denominator is. But when they actually move to document the arrangement, they should use a fixed number of shares.

By documenting a % instead of the corresponding fixed number of shares, one of two problems can arise. First, if it’s not made abundantly clear in the same document that the % is calculated as of a specific date, the company opens itself up to claims that the % is indefinite (non-dilutable). Second, if the company makes the mistake of failing to actually grant the option quickly after they’ve promised the % (See #1 above), by the time they get around to granting the option, the cap table may have changed significantly. 2% Pre-Seed is a very different deal from 2% Post-Series A. I’ve seen this mistake get very ugly.

7. Generally sloppy drafting.

“The options will vest over 48 months.”

I can’t tell you how many companies will put a sentence like this into an offer letter or option grant. Can you tell what’s wrong with it?

How will it vest over the 48 months? In equal portions each month, or some other way? When exactly does it start (offer date or employment date)? What is the vesting conditioned on? It doesn’t say anywhere that actually providing services is a requirement. Does it continue vesting even if the person is terminated? What if they leave? What if an acquisition happens?

ECVC lawyers have language banks that they rely on for situations like this to quickly and efficiently capture a concept, but with language that they know works because it’s been used 1,000 times. Nine times out of ten when a company thinks they’re saving money or time by freestyle drafting a vesting schedule themselves, it backfires.

Being well-organized can get you far in terms of avoiding the most expensive legal mistakes commonly made by startups, but given all the corporate, securities, and tax-related nuances around issuing high-valued equity in private companies, there’s always a lot that entrepreneurs don’t know that they don’t know.

The key message here is: don’t think it’s simpler than it really is (it’s not), and work with people who truly know what they’re doing. The easiest and most efficient way to stay safe is to work closely with an experienced paralegal at an ECVC law firm.

Paralegals are a fraction of the rate of the senior lawyer/partner who is likely your main point of contact on legal, but they are (at least at good firms) extremely well trained to monitor and catch these sorts of issues around equity grants, because they help process hundreds/thousands of grants a year. I’ve also too often seen companies work with over-worked solo lawyers (detached from a firm) who have no access to specialized paralegals, and in rushing review/processing they make the same mistakes founders might make. Because paralegals are cheaper, they can take the necessary time and ensure all the boxes get checked.

Legal Office Hours for Remote Startups

TL;DR: I’ve become particularly interested in, and connected to, the distributed/remote startup ecosystem; and decided to throw in a few hours of my time each week to support new teams growing specifically under that model via free virtual office hours. Info on that is near the end of the post.

Over the past several years, I’ve become fascinating with the idea of a startup ecosystem largely detached from geographic constraints, with companies recruiting talent based on fit and merit, regardless of where they live. For years I lived in the Hill Country outside of Austin, barely ever working from the firm’s downtown office because I just didn’t see a need to; and my clients didn’t care. Highly regarded Startup Lawyers don’t really need to spend much time in coffee shops or conventional offices. All they really need is a solid internet connection. Sidenote: I think Elon Musk’s StarLink (high-speed broadband anywhere) could be a game changer.

As my family – particularly my wife, who grew up in SoCal – realized that my growing client base didn’t care at all about my physical location, their willingness to continue putting up with Austin’s mosquitoes and deadly snakes (big problem outside of urban core), humidity, horrible traffic, decidedly limited outdoor beauty (save for a lake) and seemingly endless scorching summers (Mid-May through mid-October really sucks) reached a breaking point. Austin is an amazing and thriving city for many reasons, but it is not for anyone who likes needs the outdoors. No city is for everyone.

Because my wife and I had already decided to homeschool our three young kids, we had almost total freedom to pick a destination; and ultimately we landed on living near the mountains about an hour outside of Denver. Amazing weather and mountain views, literally limitless outdoor recreation, and a short flight or road trip to almost anywhere we needed to go. And yes, still rock solid broadband so I can close deals and work with clients just as easily as I did before. Little did we know that with both “homeschooling” and “remote” work, we’d started riding waves that would suddenly turn into a massive tsunami because of a pandemic.

I bring up this background to highlight how escaping the “tyranny of geography,” and the growing comfort with distributed startup teams, is not just an intellectual curiosity to me; it’s a core part of my life. When we’d announced that we were leaving Austin, there was no shortage of people who thought I was absolutely nuts and lighting a match to my legal career. They didn’t know I’d already been living in “the Texas countryside,” with a thriving ECVC client base and firm, for years. If my clients – all scattered across the U.S. and world – didn’t care that I was living on acreage in the Texas hill country, I knew they wouldn’t care about my living in the mountains of Colorado.

As our own adventures with remote/distributed work have continued, I’ve watched the broader ecosystem of “remote” startups mature as well. The number of companies using a distributed team, with few if any people in the Bay Area, has grown exponentially over the past 5 years or so; and we’re also increasingly seeing institutional investors who are happy to “venture” outside of their local markets in search of high-potential businesses that aren’t on the classic Silicon-Valley style VC circuit. Suddenly the distributed startup ecosystem has moved from a fringe quirk to a desirable asset with distinct competitive advantages.

But there’s one distinct disadvantage of “remote” startups that I keep seeing come up over and over again: they don’t connect as easily with serious lawyers. Most ECVC (emerging companies and venture capital) lawyers are still heavily tied down to local geographies, particularly the Bay Area. Strong teams in non-traditional markets often end up either using nearby lawyers who are totally lacking in the appropriate expertise/specialization, or they just wait until their investors happily “recommend” their favorite $1,000/hr Bay Area lawyer whose firm represents Uber and Apple. People who read SHL regularly know that I’ve discussed ad nauseam the deep problems (conflicts of interest) with using your investors’ pet lawyers; and also how the Bay Area market often promotes norms/practices (“unicorn or bust”) that are a poor fit for “normal” startups.

As I’ve been living through this pandemic and watching the growing zeitgeist around distributed startups, it occurred to me that I’m in a place where I could contribute some of my time to supporting the ecosystem. So I’ve decided to allocate a few hours of my time each week to free virtual “office hours” specifically for distributed teams outside of the Bay Area. We can spend, via a phone call or Zoom, up to an hour talking about any legal/strategic issue on the team’s mind: formation, founder relationships, fundraising and structuring, governance, hiring, etc. No expectation of billing or future engagement. I really just want to get more visibility into how this growing ecosystem is evolving, and how existing market players can help it thrive.

My personal thesis is that America’s size and unique geo/climate diversity is an enormously under-utilized asset in tech. Why should entrepreneurs and employees be forced to live in a handful of narrow, crowded, and increasingly over-priced concrete jungles when there are an endless number of beautiful, affordable, perfectly livable places that need high-potential residents but just don’t have the “tech” base to employ people locally? Because of some nonsense about the importance of “body language” and regular in-person meetings? Please. I think this pandemic is not just helping everyone realize the superficiality in some of their assumptions about remote work, but about a lot of virtual interactions: education, healthcare, and even connecting with the investor community.

A secondary thesis of mine is that the more geographically diversified a startup team’s network becomes, the less exposed they are to local startup power politics. Every geographically constrained ecosystem has organizations that have consolidated a level of influence/control such that it can feel like you need to kiss a brass ring in order to access resources you need. That dynamic is the opposite of what a real ecosystem should be; a decentralized resource where no single player can play gatekeeper and extract more value than their own value-add really merits. Promoting a more distributed startup ecosystem reduces the influence of overly self-interested power players, and enhances the kind of transparent meritocracy that helps teams access the right people with minimal wasted time.

Startup ecosystems are ultimately about relationships and people; not about artificial city or state borders. It’s time we talked more about the American ecosystem, and freed entrepreneurs and talented employees to work and live wherever is best for their companies and families. In the process, we’ll spread economic opportunity further across the country, and reduce many of the ills that have resulted from cramming people into too few of cities with not enough space and resources to make “living” affordable and accessible.

Info on participating in virtual legal office hours for remote/distributed teams:

My bio: here.

E-mail: [email protected]

Criteria (please explain in intro e-mail how you meet the below):

  • HQ is not in the Bay Area
  • You already have, or expect to have, a distributed team. Not a 1 or 2 people that you “let” work remotely, but a full orientation around enabling remote work such that no one outside of whatever you might call “HQ” is disadvantaged in opportunities, because the whole team is included in events/meetings.
  • The market you are going after has a credible shot at producing an at least $50 million (enterprise value) business.

This isn’t any kind of formal program with a hardened schedule, because my own availability varies day to day with deal/client work and firm admin, and I’ll scale my time allocation up or down as the number of teams fluctuates. Looking forward to getting to know new teams that reach out.

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.

Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems

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

Background Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the conclusion here? There are two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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