Moving (Too) Fast and Breaking Startup Cap Tables

Related Posts:

As I’ve written many times before, the “move fast and break things” ethos, which makes absolute sense in a software environment where fixing “bugs” is quite easy and low-stakes, becomes monstrously expensive and reckless when applied to areas where the cost of a mistake is orders of magnitude higher to fix (if it’s fixable at all). Silicon Valley got a very visible and expensive (to investors in terms of capital, and founders in terms of legal errors and terrible legal advice) lesson in this reality a while back with a very well-funded (but ultimately failed) legal startup heavily promoted as enabling (via over-hyped vaporware) startups to “move faster” and save significant costs. That legal startup was, perhaps unsurprisingly, controlled by money players with all kinds of reasons to profit from startups (that they invest in) getting weak legal and negotiation guidance. No one wants an in-experienced founder to move fast and mindlessly do what investors want more than… those investors.

That fundamental point is one that inexperienced founders need to keep their eye on throughout their entire fundraising and growth strategy. Notice how, for example, certain Silicon Valley groups adamantly argue that SV’s exorbitant rents and salaries are nevertheless worth spending capital on, and yet simultaneously they will howl about how essential it is that startups minimize their legal spend (a small fraction of what is spent on rent and salaries) in fundraising, and move as quickly as possible; usually by mindlessly signing some template the investors created? Why? Because they know that the one set of advisors most capable of “equalizing” the playing field between inexperienced startup teams and their far more seasoned investors is experienced, independent counsel. Aggressive (and clever) investors say they want you to adopt their preferred automation tools and templates because they care so much about saving you money, but the real chess strategy is to remove your best advisors from the table so that the money can then, without “friction,” leverage its experience and knowledge advantage.

At some obvious level, technology is an excellent tool for preventing errors, especially at scale when the amount of data and complexity simply overwhelms any kind of skilled labor-driven quality control mechanism. But there is a point at which people who sell the technology can, for obvious financial incentives, over-sell things so much that they encourage buyers to become over-dependent on it, or adopt it too early, under the delusion that it is far more powerful than it really is. This drive to over-sell and over-adopt tech for “moving really fast” is driven by the imbalance in who bears the cost of fixing “broken things.”

Ultimately the technology seller still gets paid, and puts all kinds of impenetrable CYA language in their terms of service to ensure that no one can sue them when users zealously over-rely on their products in ways clearly implied as safe by the tech’s marketing. Founders and companies are the ones who pay the (sometimes permanent) costs of a poorly negotiated deal or contract, or in the case of cap tables incorrect calculations and promises to employees or investors.

In the world of cap tables, automation and tracking tools like Carta (the dominant player, justifiably, by far) are enormously valuable, and doubtlessly worth their cost, in helping the skilled people who manage the cap tables keep numbers “clean.” In the early days of Carta’s growth (once called eShares), there was a general understanding that cap tables rarely “break” before the number of people on the table exceeds maybe 20-30 stakeholders as long as someone skilled at managing cap tables (in excel) is overseeing things. That last part about someone skilled is key.

There are in fact two broad sources of cap table errors:

  • Using Excel for too long, which creates version control problems as the number of stakeholders grows; and
  • Management of cap tables by people who are simply too inexperienced, or moving too quickly, to appreciate nuances and avoid errors.

Technology is the solution to the first one. But today it’s increasingly becoming the cause of the second one. The competitive advantage of technology is speed and efficiency at processing large amounts of formulaic data. But the advantage of highly-trained people is flexibility and ability to safely navigate nuanced contexts that simply don’t fit within the narrow parameters of an algorithm. In the extremely human, and therefore subjective and nuanced, world of forming, recruiting, and funding startups in complex labor and investor markets, pretending that software will do what it simply can’t do –  delusionally over-confident engineers notwithstanding – is a recipe for disaster. The combination of new software and skilled expertise, however, is where the magic happens.

The Carta folks have been at this game long enough to have seen how often over-dependance on automation software, and under-utilization of highly trained and experienced people in managing that software, can magnify cap table problems, because it creates a false sense of security in founders that leads them to continue flying solo for far too long. Sell your cap table software as some kind of auto-pilot, when the actual engineering behind it doesn’t at all replace all the things skilled experts do and know to prevent errors, and you can easily expect ugly crashes.

That’s why Carta very quickly stopped promoting itself as a DIY “manage your cap table by yourself and stop wasting money on experts” tool and evolved to highly integrate outside cap table management expertise, like emerging companies/vc law firms and CFOs; who spend all day dealing with cap table math. They realized that the value proposition of their tool was sufficiently high that they didn’t need to over-sell it as some reckless “you can manage cap tables all by yourself!” nonsense to inexperienced teams who’ve never touched a cap table before. The teams that use Carta effectively and efficiently see it as a tool to be leveraged by and with law firms, because startup teams are rarely connected to anyone who is as experienced and trustworthy (conflicts of interest matter) in managing complex cap table math better than their startup/vc law firm.

But as is often the case, the cap table management software market has its own “race to the bottom” dynamics – but a better name may be the “race to free and DIY.” If I’m a company like Carta, and I know that truthfully very few companies need my tool before maybe a seed or Series A round (excel is perfectly fine, flexible, and simple until then), I’m still extremely worried that someone will use the time period before seed/Series A to get a foothold in the market and then squeeze me out as their users grow. That someone is almost always a “move fast and break things” bottom-feeder that will, once again, over-sell founders on the idea that their magical lower-cost DIY software is so powerful that founders should adopt it from day 1 to save so much money by no longer paying for expertise they don’t need.

Thus Carta has to create a free slimmed down version, and they did. But they’ve stuck to their guns that cap tables are extremely high-stakes, and even the best software is still extremely prone to high-cost errors if utilized solely by inexperienced founders. That’s why Carta Launch has heavy ties to a network of startup-specialized law firms. It’s free as in beer, but honest people know that it still needs to be used responsibly by people who fully understand the specific context in which it’s being used, and how to apply it to that context.

But the bottom-feeders of cap table management are of course showing up, with funding from the same people who were previously happy to impose costs (errors, cleanup) on inexperienced teams as long as their software gets adopted and their influence over the ecosystem therefore grows. The playbook is tired and predictable.

Why are you using that other (widely adopted and respected) technology that still relies (horror of horrors) on skilled humans? It’s 2020, you need :: something something automation, machine learning, AI, etc. etc. :: to stop wasting money and move even faster. Our new lower-cost, whiz-bang-pow software lets you save even more time and manage your cap table on your own, like the bad ass genius that you are.

We know where this is going. Many of us already have our popcorn ready. While before I might run into startups who handled only a formation on their own, and show up with a fairly basic and hard-to-screw-up cap table, I’m increasingly seeing startups who arrive with seed rounds closed on a fully DIY basis, and totally screwed up cap tables involving investors and real money. They also often have given up more dilution than they should’ve, because no independent, skilled expertise was used to help them choose and negotiate what funding structure to use. Clean-up is always 10x of what it costs to have simply done it right, with a thoughtfully chosen (responsible) mix of technology and skilled people, on Day 1.

Technology is wonderful. It makes our lives as startup/vc lawyers so much better, by allowing us to focus on more interesting things than tracking numbers or inputting data. The stale narrative that all VC lawyers are anti-technology really gets old. We were one of the first firms to adopt and promote Carta, along with numerous other legal tech tools. Not a single serious law firm views helping their clients manage cap tables as a significant money driver. But that’s like saying no serious medical practice views X or Y low-$ medical service as a significant money driver. Something can be a small part of a professional’s expertise, and yet still way too contextual, nuanced, and high-stakes to leave to a piece of software pretending to be an auto-pilot.

When the cost of fixing something is low, move as fast as you want and break whatever necessary. But that’s not contracts, and it’s not cap tables. In those areas, technology is a tool to be utilized by still-experienced people who regularly integrate new technology into their workflows, while maintaining skilled oversight over it. Be mindful of software companies, and the clever investors behind them, who are more than happy to encourage you to break your entire company and cap table as long as you utilize their half-baked faux-DIY tool. Their profit is your – often much larger than whatever money you thought you were saving – loss.

Independent Counsel in an Economic Downturn

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

Background reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Startup Legal Fee Cost Containment (Safely)

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

Related reading: Lies About Startup Legal Fees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cost cutting” tips that don’t work

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

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

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

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

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

The Race to the Bottom in Startup Law

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

Background Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

Buy counsel’s favor with referrals.

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

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

Squeeze counsel’s time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Race to the Bottom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Convertible Note Template for Startup Seed Rounds

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

Background reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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