Alignment in Startup Governance: Conflict, Collusion, Corruption

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Anyone looking to build a meaningful business needs to understand the importance of “alignment.” Alignment refers to the fact that building your company is going to involve the participation of numerous categories of people – founders, employees, executives, investors, etc. – all of whom come to the table with different incentives and motivations; and they are hardly going to be naturally in sync with one another. To make them all “play nice” you need to find ways of getting them aligned on a single vision, so you can get their approval and support on key transactions. It’s never as simple as it sounds.

Part of the “tension” in incentives stems from the fact that different people have different characteristics and legitimate needs. For example, most major preferred stockholders (VCs) are going to be affluent individuals with diversified portfolios, and (importantly) downside risk protection in the form of a liquidation preference. This means that, other than the absolute worst scenarios, they get their money back before the common stockholders (founders, employees) get anything. They also tend to be more interested in pursuing larger exits to satisfy their LPs return expectations, even if the paths to those exits take longer and involve more risk. Their already existing wealth means the potential return from this one individual company isn’t “life changing” for them in the way it could be for a founder or early employee. A life changing exit for a founder may be a waste of time for a large VC fund.

Patience is a lot harder when 80-90% of your net worth is sitting in unrealized value on a single company’s cap table. It’s much easier when you’re already in the 0.1%, and you’re just stacking more gold on top of an already healthy balance.

Even within broad categories like “common stockholder” there is very often misalignment of incentives and interests. Earlier common stockholders, like founders, sit in very different positions from later common stockholders, like professional executives. Someone who has been working at a company for 6 yrs and has tens of millions of dollars in fully vested equity value is going to assess the terms of a later-stage financing or acquisition offer very differently from someone who just showed up at Series B, got their stock at a relatively high exercise price, and thus needs the business to appreciate much more in value before they can really get much out of their equity.

Corporate Governance is the professional field of managing the relationships among the various constituents of a corporation and their varied interests. Good governance means achieving good alignment. Bad governance often results from ignoring misalignment, and letting it metastasize into destructive conflict, or other times into collusion or corruption. In Corporate Law, there are legal mechanisms in place to attempt to protect against misalignment getting out of hand in a corporation (including a startup). Members of a Board of Directors, for example, have enforceable fiduciary duties to look out for the interests of all the stockholders on a cap table, not just their own personal interests. If evidence arises that they approved a self-interested transaction at the expense of smaller holders not represented on the Board, those smaller holders can sue.

Conflict

The source of governance conflict that gets the most attention in startups is the tension between founders and venture capitalists, particularly as it relates to power (who ultimately calls the shots) within a company. This power tension is real, but it’s not what I intend to write about here. There are plenty of other posts on this blog about that topic.

Aside from hard power, conflict can arise between founders/common stockholders and investors because of economic misalignment. As mentioned above, given their different positions in terms of affluence, risk-tolerance, and concentration of personal wealth, it’s not uncommon to encounter situations where founders or common stockholders want to pursue path A for a company, while investors are insistent on pursuing path B. In the worst circumstances, this can get into battles over voting power and Board structure. I’ve even seen situations in which investors attempt a “coup” by swiftly removing founders from a Board in order to force through their preferred agenda.

From a preventive standpoint, one of the best ways to avoid this sort of conflict is fairly obvious: ask the hard questions up front and get alignment on vision before anyone writes a check. Founders and investors should be candid with each other about their needs and expectations, and both sides should conduct diligence (reference checks, including blind ones if available) to verify that the answers they’re getting are in sync with past behavior.

Another tool for achieving better economic alignment between founders/common and investors/preferred is allowing the common stock to get liquidity in financings. Years ago the predominant view was that letting founders take money off the table was a bad idea, because everyone wanted them “hungry” to achieve a strong exit. The fear was that by letting them liquidate some wealth, they’d lose motivation and no longer push as hard. While this was a legitimate “alignment” concern, the general wisdom today is (for good reason) that it was actually getting the issue backwards.

More often than not, failing to let founders get some early liquidity is a source of misalignment with investors. Investors want to let the business continue growing and go for a grand slam, but founders (and their families typically) are impatient to finally realize some of the value that they’ve built. It can be very frustrating for a spouse to see a headline that a founder’s company is worth 8-9 figures, and yet they still can’t buy that home they’ve been eyeing and talking about for half a decade. Letting founders liquidate a small portion of their holdings (5-15%) – enough to ease some of their financial pressure but not enough that a later exit is no longer meaningful for them – can go a long way in achieving better alignment between the early common and the investor base. It makes founders more patient and thus better aligned with other stockholders with longer time horizons.

Today, I far more often see VCs and other investors be far smarter about founder and other early common stockholder liquidity. At seed stage it is still considered inappropriate (for good reason typically), and in most cases Series A is too early as well; though we are seeing some founder liquidity as early as higher-value Series As that are oversubscribed. By Series B it is more often than not part of a term sheet discussion.

But be careful. Relevant players should avoid any impropriety indicating that VCs are offering founders liquidity in exchange for better overall deal terms. That’s a fiduciary duty violation, because it benefits individual Board members while harming the cap table overall. For more on these kinds of risks, see the “corruption” part of this post below.

Collusion

Aside from destructive conflict in company governance, another concern is when various constituents on a cap table are able to consolidate their voting power in order to force through initiatives that may be sub-optimal for the cap table as a whole, but benefit the players doing the forcing.

One way in which this happens involves larger cap table players, with an interest in having their preferred deals approved, using quid-pro-quo tactics to convince other cap table holders to accept Deal A over Deal B because Deal A aligns more with the interests of the existing money players. For example, if a Series A lead currently holds a board seat and wants to lead a Series B, that VC has an interest in not only minimizing competition for that deal, but (assuming they don’t already have a hard block from a voting % perspective) also convincing other cap table players to go along with them.

All else being equal, an early seed fund investor should be more aligned with a founder than a Series A lead as to evaluating a Series B deal led by the Series A VC. They want the highest valuation, and the lowest dilution, possible. While the Series A VC is on both sides of the deal, both the seed and founder are only on one (along with the rest of the cap table). This is good from an alignment perspective. But all else isn’t always equal. For example, the seed fund and the Series A VC may have pre-existing relationships. The Series A lead and seed fund may share investment opportunities with each other in the market, and thus have an interest in keeping each other happy in a long-term sense despite their narrow misalignment on a particular company.

All it takes is for the Series A lead to invite the seed investor out to lunch, remind them of their extraneous relationships and interests, and now we have a collusion arrangement in which the seed fund may be motivated to approve a sub-optimal (for the company) Series B arrangement because of secondary benefits promised by the Series A lead on deals outside of this one.

This exact kind of dynamic can happen between VCs and lawyers, by the way. See: How to Avoid “Captive” Company Counsel. Many VCs very deliberately build relationships with influential corporate lawyers in startup ecosystems, because they know very well that a lawyer who depends on a VC for referrals and other work isn’t going to push as hard for his or her client if that client happens to be across the table from said VC. Watch conflicts of interest.

The key preventive tactic here is: pay very close attention to relationships between people on your cap table, on your Board, and among your key advisors and executives. It is too simplistic to look at the %s on your cap table and assume that because no particular holder has a number-based veto majority that you are safe. The most aggressive and smart players are very talented at cap table politics. Diversify this pool of people by ensuring that they are truly independent of one another, preferably even geographically, so that they will be more motivated by the core incentive structure of your own cap table and deals, and not by extraneous factors that muck up incentives.

Corruption

Collusion involves simply coordinating with someone else to achieve a desired goal, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that collusion violates some duty you have to other people. A seed investor who doesn’t sit on your board has no fiduciary duty to you or anyone else on your cap table. So if they collude with your Series A lead to force through some deal that you don’t like, you may not like it, but you don’t really have any statutory legal right – aside from contractual rights you and your lawyers may have negotiated for – to make them do otherwise.

When collusion becomes corruption, however, someone doing the collusion is in fact going against their legal obligations, and trying to hide it. A common kind of governance corruption I’ve encountered is when VCs try to ensure that senior executive hires are people with whom they have long-standing historical relationships, even when other highly qualified candidates are available. Those executives will typically sit as common stockholder Board members, and have duties to pursue the best interests of the Company as executive officers. But because of background dependencies those executives have on specific VCs – those VCs may have gotten them good jobs in the past, and will get them good jobs in the future – they’re going to ensure the VCs always stay happy.

If as a founder you suddenly find out that your VCs know about certain private matters going on in the company that weren’t formally disclosed to them, there’s a very high chance there are background relationships and dependencies you were ignoring. While it’s always great for investors to bring their rolodexes and LinkedIn networks to the table when a portfolio company needs to make key hires, my advice is to generally ensure that there is still an objective process for sourcing high-quality, independent candidates as well.

A more serious form of potential corruption – and an extremely clever one – that I’ve observed in the market in recent years involves VCs and founders. Imagine VC X is a high-profile VC fund that sees lots of high-growth angel investment opportunities. The ability to “trade” access to those opportunities is extremely lucrative currency, and VCs are experts at using that currency to build relationships and influence in the market.

VC X is an investor in Company A. Founder Y is a founder of Company A. Normally, as we’ve seen, the economic misalignment between Founder Y and VC X as it relates to Company A ensures that Founder Y will negotiate for as high of a valuation as possible because she wants to minimize her dilution. This puts Founder Y very much in alignment with other common stockholders on the cap table (employees) because they too want to minimize dilution. But obviously VC X would prefer to get better terms.

What if VC X offers Founder Y “access” to the angel investment opportunities it sees in the market? Suddenly we have an extraneous quid-pro-quo arrangement that mucks up the incentive alignment between Founder Y and other common stockholders. While on this company Founder Y may want to make VC X provide as good of terms as possible for the common stock, Founder Y now wants to keep her relationship warm with VC X outside of the company, because VC X is now a lucrative source of angel deal flow for Founder Y.

See the problem? Founder Y can make money by accepting worse terms for the company and cap table as a whole, because it benefits VC X, who rewards the founder with outside angel investment opportunities. The founder’s alignment, and fiduciary responsibility, to the rest of the common stock has been corrupted by outside quid-pro-quo.

I have seen founders co-investing in the market alongside the VCs who are currently the leads in those founders’ own companies. The VCs are not doing this to just be nice and generous. They’re using their deal visibility as a currency to gain favor with founders, potentially at the expense of the smaller common stockholders whom the founders should be representing from a fiduciary perspective.

This is an extremely hard governance issue to detect because it involves the private behavior of executives and VCs completely outside of the context of an individual company. It is unclear whether default statutory rules would ever require Founder Y and VC X to disclose the outside arrangements they have, given they aren’t true affiliated parties in the classic sense of the word. Frankly, it’s kind of a “cutting edge” problem, because while investors have forever traded deal flow with other investors to build collusive relationships, only recently has this strategy (very cleverly) been extended to founders.

But it’s something everyone, including counsel, should keep their eye on. It may even be worth considering creating new disclosure requirements regarding anyone purporting to represent the common stock on a Board (founders included) and co-investment or investment referral relationships with key preferred stockholders.  We certainly want founders and VCs to be aligned on maximizing the value of a particular company. But this (trading deal flow outside of the company as quid-pro-quo favors) is not that. The losers are the employees and smaller investors whose interests aren’t properly being looked after, because founders as common board members may be favoring particular VCs on the cap table over other outside offers that have better (for the company’s stockholders) terms but don’t come with juicy personal investment opportunities on the side.

It’s somewhat ironic that ten years ago company-side startup lawyers (I don’t represent investors) had to think a lot about overly aggressive “asshole” VCs who mistreated founders, in many cases to the detriment of a company. But today it’s much harder for VCs to play that game because the ecosystem has become so much more competitive and transparent reputationally. Now we instead need to have a conversation about the exact reverse: “founder friendliness” getting so out of hand that it’s now potentially generating fiduciary duty issues and harming smaller cap table holders. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley is, from my observation, where things have flipped the most.

When the stakes and dollar values are very high – and in top-tier startup land they very often are – incentives drive behavior. Understand how the incentives align and misalign among the key constituencies on a cap table, and use that knowledge to achieve outcomes that maximize value not just for particular “insiders,” but for all stockholders who’ve contributed to the company.

Diversity in Startups: Whining, Warring, Winning

Recommended Reading: The Weaponization of Diversity

Almost two years ago I wrote a lengthy personal essay regarding my own story growing up as a low-income child of Mexican immigrants, weaving through the American educational system (UT Austin, Harvard Law), and eventually finding success in startups and venture capital as a managing partner of an elite boutique law firm specialized in that field. In that essay I described the significant cultural divide I observed growing up in the latino community in Houston, between the educational expectations I had at home driven by my elite college educated Mexican mother, and the cultural values of my latino peers; all of whom came from blue collar and laborer backgrounds.

We lived in the same neighborhood and were all lower-income, but our home cultures were starkly different. Many of my latino friends found my study habits extremely peculiar and aberrant from how they felt a latino child “should” grow up. As a result I was often labeled a “coconut” (brown on the outside, ‘white’ on the inside).

In that essay I applied my own childhood observations to research I’ve reviewed regarding the under-representation of certain minorities in various high-performance professions (tech entrepreneurship, elite law, etc.), as well as to my observations as an adult responsible for recruiting lawyers into our firm. My general thesis is that “warmongering” over diversity in these industries has resulted in two very negative dynamics.

First, it leads to the silencing of many people – good, very much not racist, progressive people – who see a clear causal relationship between home culture, including childhood educational values, and under-representation in elite industries dependent on compounding education and training; like tech and law. For fear of being penalized personally and professionally, these people avoid contributing constructively to the discussion, and as a result the general topic of diversity becomes dominated by stale and exhausted narratives suggesting that “racism” and “unconscious bias” are supremely explanatory for disparities. Because these narratives are (flatly) wrong, the results of their non-solutions are disappointing.

Second, aggressive pressure to increase representation in elite industries leads employers, investors, and other decision-makers to make rushed hirings, promotions, and investments in URM (under-represented minority) candidates. Because the market isn’t nearly as irrational, discriminatory, and “racist” as many people make it out to be, a significant portion of those individuals who are elevated by these “affirmative action” initiatives end up very visibly underperforming. That underperformance ends up reinforcing stereotypes (bias) in the minds of observants. In other words, it backfires. Being overly aggressive and simplistic with increasing representation of URMs, when their under-representation is actually reflective of real performance issues in the marketplace, ends up harming those same groups in the long-run by strengthening stereotypes that we should instead be strategically and methodically weakening.

The essay is long for a reason. This is an extremely sensitive and nuanced topic, and to give it its due requires time and depth. For that reason, I respectfully ask that anyone bothered or offended by the above paragraphs please actually read the essay, to understand the real point I am making. It is not victim blaming. It is not pretending socioeconomic inequality isn’t a problem. And it most certainly is not pretending that racism and discrimination do not exist at all in our society. Rather, it is an honest attempt to explain why, all else being equal, focusing on racism and “unconscious bias” as the primary reasons why URMs, like American Latinos, are under-represented in elite industries has been incredibly unproductive, even counterproductive, and it will continue as such until we inject some sincerity and reality into the discussion.

The purpose of this post is to be less theoretical and analytical than the original essay, and more practical. How should founders, CEOs, and Boards of Directors in the startup ecosystem respond to concerns about diversity and the under-representation of certain minority groups? How can they empathetically listen to the variety of voices on this topic, while constructively and safely fulfilling their fiduciary duties to maximize the performance and success of their businesses? To cover this topic, I’m going to touch on three categories of approaches advocated by “diversity activists” in elite industries (including tech startups) – whining, warring, and winning – and why it’s in the interest of both key decision-makers and under-represented minority groups to steer discussion and action toward the latter.

Whining

This post assumes the perspective of my original essay; those claiming that “racism” and “bias” are the main drivers of under-representation of URMs (or at least of American Latinos specifically) in elite industries are flatly, demonstrably, wrong. Of course isolated instances of racism and discrimination can be found in a country of 300 million people, just as they can be found all over the world. These isolated cases are unacceptable, illegal, and deserve to be addressed forcefully.

But pointing to a limited number of isolated anecdotes does not in any way demonstrate that the startup ecosystem as a whole is racist. We are talking about an industry full of thousands of individual companies, and hundreds of venture capital funds, all led by highly educated and progressive people from an enormously diverse set of ethnicities and nationalities. These people are not all racists, and they would be punished financially by market competition if they were neglecting high-performing undervalued talent that competitors could then recruit or invest in.

In fact, the startup ecosystem is one of the most diverse (in terms of skin colors, surnames, ethnicities, etc.) industries you will find in America. Its diversity is part of what drew me to that kind of work in the first place. Not only is the industry incredibly diverse, it is so starved of high-performing talent that it has had to bid average salaries far above other industry norms, and aggressively recruit internationally, in order to fulfill demand; stretching even further the credibility of the suggestion that tech companies would, simply out of irrational prejudice, ignore millions of high-performing candidates available for work.

The industry is, however, fiercely, almost olympically, competitive and meritocratic; by necessity. We are talking about very small entities, with very limited budgets running usually at a perpetual operating loss, in hyper-competitive markets often filled by incumbents 100x in size, and funded by high-risk investors with high-stakes expectations of returns from their own LPs. The room for error in this segment of the economy is smaller, and the cost of underperformance is higher, than anywhere else in the market.

Saying that underperformance is the main reason URMs are under-represented in elite industries, like tech startups, is not a slam dunk argument for silencing debate; much like it isn’t in other policy discourse about race and social justice. In other parts of the economy, like universities and government, there are many activists who will argue that even if URMs underperform, organizations are responsible for elevating them anyway. This is, in essence, the argument for “affirmative action.”

The affirmative action debate in the university context gains its legitimacy from the fact that most universities are non-profit entities with missions that can be tied very closely to broader issues of social justice and fairness. Elite universities also in particular have large endowments, and spend at least 4-years with students – a fair amount of time to “catch up” – before those students enter the marketplace. Thus it takes some rhetorical gymnastics for an elite university with an endowment the size of a small country’s GDP to say that it can’t “afford” to accept and train some number of underperformers in order to pursue some higher-level societal goal.

As we move from large elite universities to large for-profit employers, the argument for “affirmative action” begins to reach stronger resistance, but not so much that there isn’t room for reasonable debate. Once a company has reached a market capitalization of, say, $25 billion, with thousands of employees and layers of staff, the idea that it too “can’t afford” to incur some costs to pursue a broader societal concept of “fairness” is far from obvious. This is why various “diversity initiatives” are not uncommon in large companies. You see them in law as well, with “diversity fellowships” in the AmLaw 100.

Gains have been made in improving the representation of URMs in large, for-profit companies, particularly at entry and mid-level positions. But activists are now starting to turn their attention to the C-suite, noticing that far smaller gains have been made there. And this is where the very real challenges and constraints of startups and much larger companies start to look similar, in terms of their legitimate inability to afford substantial underperformance. Underperformance from a CEO or CFO is catastrophic at a Pfizer or an Apple just as it is at a far smaller startup. Your views about social justice and fairness may have some legitimacy and weight in the non-profit university context, and in some market contexts, but that legitimacy ends when it starts threatening entire companies and industries, on whom millions of peoples’ livelihoods, and the economy at large, depend.

What’s a word used to describe situations when someone makes strong complaints for X or Y, often citing “unfairness,” and yet the justified response is that it simply can’t and won’t be done? Whining. I understand some people may object to my use of this term as being overly dismissive and offensive, but I nevertheless think it accurately captures the tone and language often encountered by key decision-makers in the startup ecosystem when “diversity” is used as a reason to question their judgment.

In this context, of high-stakes startups and venture capital, we aren’t talking about the right to any kind of employment, or the right to use a particular essential facility or public resource. We’re not talking about civil or human rights; the contexts in which morality and fairness really should override all other concerns. Far more often, we see someone already earning a relatively comfortable salary in a white collar job using “diversity” as a reason why they should be earning an even higher salary in a more senior position. Or someone already in the top quartile of education and income nevertheless arguing that they should receive millions of dollars in private funding for their business, because they are “diverse.” In other words, here “diversity” looks far less like a legitimate, authentic moral argument for societal fairness, and more like a rhetorical device for self-promotion and advancement.

I’m sorry, but Cesar Chavez fought for oppressed very low-wage farm workers. His spirit should not be invoked while discussing whether or not a software engineer or lawyer deserves a promotion. Speaking as someone who grew up surrounded by true low-wage laborers, let’s not hijack their challenges and the moral force of their causes for high-class soft-handed gains.

My advice to key decision-makers when they encounter this kind of argument is to focus on specifics and context. Is the argument being made that this particular individual has been judged by different performance standards than those applied to other similarly positioned individuals? That is illegal, and should be addressed immediately. But if that isn’t really the argument – and it often isn’t – but rather someone is trying to claim an entitlement to “affirmative action” treatment from a startup, return to the specific context in which it is being raised.

We are not an elite non-profit university with a billion-dollar endowment and years to help someone catch up on performance. We are not a Fortune 500 company with enormous insulation in the market to absorb the costs of helping someone meet performance standards. We’re a startup trying to survive and fulfill our obligations to our employees and investors to build a successful business in a hyper-competitive market. For that reason, we need performance today, and those who can’t perform today are not the responsibility of startups. In this context, expecting a private business to absorb the cost of fixing enormously complex and nuanced social and historical issues is unreasonable and unsustainable.

Warring

When mere arguments and protestations about “fairness” have not resulted in the action that diversity activists want to see, the most aggressive have turned to weaponizing and politicizing diversity. In other words, they start using economic punishment as a way to force private market actors to improve their “diversity numbers.”

For very large consumer-focused companies, weaponizing diversity can take the form of public shaming and threats of economic boycotts. Activists may put together statistics about “disproportionate representation” at X or Y company, and fund a PR campaign to make those numbers highly visible. Public backlash then results, with consumers withholding their purchasing dollars, and the company responds by increasing their hiring of the appropriate groups. This is effectively politicizing hiring, by making it no longer simply about the productivity of the individual candidate, but about how that candidate’s characteristics feed into statistics that then impact the public image of the company, which then impacts the purchasing of the company’s products and services, and ultimately benefits the bottom line. It can be highly effective in some mass-market contexts.

In more private areas of the economy, this sort of weaponization can take the form of channeling investment dollars or referrals of work depending on a particular company’s “diversity statistics.” For example, very large Fortune 500 companies who have responded to their own weaponized diversity incentives by upping “diverse” hiring in their ranks, can make sending legal work to X or Y law firm dependent on that firm meeting certain diversity statistics for its own roster of lawyers. Activist limited partners of venture capital funds have started this tactic as well, pressing the venture partners that they fund to improve the “diversity” of their portfolio.

This is where benign pushing for diversity now becomes much more aggressive shoving. Do it, or it will cost you money that we control. Is it effective?

As I mentioned in my original essay, no one engaging in a serious discussion about diversity issues argues that high-performing URMs simply do not exist. That would be racist, but no one is saying that. What they say is that for historical, socioeconomic, and (importantly) cultural reasons high-performing URMs are much harder to come by in the market. What happens when you have a scarce resource for which demand is subsidized with economic incentives? Those who can pay top dollar are able to obtain it, and those who can’t don’t.

Already elite companies, capable of paying the highest amounts of compensation, absorb the more limited number of high-performing URMs; high-performers who wouldn’t have had trouble getting work to begin with. These companies are then able to promote how “diverse” and progressive they are, as if their superior cultures are the reason they are so “inclusive.” Weaker and smaller companies (startups?) can’t afford to bid away those in-demand high-performers from the deep-pocketed elite, and so they end up being less “diverse.” Calling one “inclusive” and the other “racist” completely misses the mark of what is actually happening. It’s about money.

It’s unclear that, even at large companies, using sticks and stones for diversity has moved the needle much on the core issue (the supply of high-performing URMs) other than creating a bidding war for the already-existing high-performers in the market; a war which benefits those able to pay the highest comp packages. There is, however, an emerging strategy that both large companies and startups are increasingly adopting in response to aggressive warring over diversity, and it almost certainly wasn’t intended by activists.

Have you noticed how in recent years the startup and tech ecosystem has dramatically increased its involvement in both Africa and Latin America? There are surely a number of reasons for this, but one big reason is companies realized that international hiring is a highly effective way to disarm some of the strongest rhetoric from diversity activists. If you know there are complex social, historical, cultural, etc. reasons why it is not feasible to dramatically increase your domestic (US-side) URM recruiting and investment without running up against very costly performance issues, but you also know that you really aren’t racist and that skin color and ethnicity are not drivers of your decision-making, there is a growing industry more than happy to help you recruit highly qualified talent directly from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, among other countries full of ambitious, driven prospects.

Because American companies can pay so much better than local industry in those countries, they can recruit among the cream from their very large populations. Also, those populations aren’t subject to the historical, cultural, and immigration selection dynamics that are the core backdrop (see my essay) of why American URMs struggle disproportionately with performance in education-driven technical industries. Google and tomorrow’s Googles want diverse high-performing talent, but they are not fools, and will recruit directly in Mexico City or Lagos before diversity warriors force them into hiring US-side underperformers that they can’t even acknowledge as underperformers (and thus in need of extra training or lower-level roles) because someone will accuse them of being racist.

Thus we are seeing tech companies and startups increasing their “diversity” with more international talent. Is this a “win” for diversity? It depends on whom you ask. If the goal was simply to increase the number of latino and black people in tech and startups, then yes it is definitely a win. But if the goal was to increase hiring and investment in American under-represented minorities, then no, much less progress is being made. Such little progress will continue until activists are willing to put down their weapons, and let industry be honest about the real causal relationships behind disparities. Until that happens, no one should blame founders, CEOs, and Boards for taking a logical path, via international hiring, that proves they aren’t racist, while still fulfilling their obligation to recruit high-performing talent that furthers the survival and success of their companies.

International hiring and investment is a very effective near-term tool for improving the diversity of the startup ecosystem, even if it’s not the result that warmongering activists actually wanted to force decision-makers into.

Winning

We are thus faced with the fundamental tension in the diversity debate as applied to startups, and other high-performance, high-stakes industries. Diversity and increasing representation of minorities is a categorically good thing in an abstract sense. You will be hard-pressed to find someone actually say, publicly or privately, that they’d prefer a less diverse startup ecosystem. That would be inane.

But startups operate in the most competitive, high-stakes, low-margin-of-error segment of the modern economy. Arguments and tactics used by diversity activists that have found some success in universities, and even in large companies, face a fundamentally different set of constraints and realities in the startup economy. As I said in my original essay, and I will repeat here, if you want to see more URMs in startups, you need to actually help them win.

Whining and warring will not materially move the needle on diversity in a startup ecosystem that simply cannot safely absorb underperformance in the way that universities and massive companies can. Winning will. Unambiguous, credible, level-playing-field winning. You know who really doesn’t care about representative disparities, and judges a startup’s products and services purely on their objective merits? Their customers. There is no more brutal judge of performance than the open market, and for that reason no one does URMs any favors by acting as if affirmative action special treatment should continue well past the educational system and into the for-profit marketplace. When results, and only results, silence all other factors, help people actually deliver.

The most honest and effective diversity activists in tech and startups do not adopt childish arguments suggesting that hundreds of founders and VCs are “racists.” Nor do they suggest that highly competent and progressive executives are ignoring high-performing talent out of some dramatically oversold idea of “unconscious bias.” Rather, they understand performance gaps are real, and are doing the work of filling those gaps; via additional resources, training, and networks applied to under-represented candidates. This is a perfect corollary to how elite universities who’ve adopted affirmative action policies didn’t do so by simply throwing sub-qualified URM students into their schools and hoping for the best. They thoughtfully implemented extra training and resources to help those students “catch up” to the performance of the rest of their student bodies.

This costs time and money. As I’ve emphasized, elite universities are very large, very rich orgs with plenty of time and money to pursue higher-level societal goals. The vast majority of the players in the startup ecosystem simply do not have the time or resources to play a material role in this process. For completely understandable reasons, they can only afford to recruit and invest in today’s winners, with the ethnic or racial makeup of their teams and portfolios being neither here nor there. That is their mandate. It doesn’t make them racists or jerks. It makes them pragmatic, normal businesspeople with a job to do.

But tomorrow’s winners, including those who are under-represented minorities, are being trained, built, and elevated by honest people who aren’t shying away from uncomfortable realities. They aren’t throwing colleagues and friends under a bus with slanderous labels. They also aren’t pretending that feel-good messaging, “bias workshops,” or public guilting and shaming of decision-makers are the key to success for URMs in a highly competitive market economy. They’re addressing the game actually on the field, and putting in the time and resources to help URMs win it, under the same rules everyone else plays by.

We all want to see a more “diverse” startup ecosystem, in every sense of the word. To get there we need less whining, less warring, and good people willing to put in the work and honesty to ensure there’s far more winning.

A Fix for Post-Money SAFEs: The Math and a Redline

Background reading: Why Startups Shouldn’t Use YC’s Post-Money SAFE

A very quick review of the high-level economic problem with the Post-money SAFE structure that YC promoted a few years ago; and which is only in recent quarters becoming more visible to founders as their seed rounds start to convert:

The stated value proposition of the post-money SAFE, relative to the traditional pre-money SAFE, was that it delivered investors far more clarity over how much of the cap table they were buying. If they put in $1 million on a $10 million post-money SAFE, they were buying 10% of the company today, regardless of what the current cap table looks like. This is actually a good thing. Clarity is great.

The hidden value proposition for investors of the post-money SAFE, and which has cost founders enormously by not understanding its implicationswas an extreme level of anti-dilution protection built into the post-money SAFE. Any SAFEs or notes that you issue after the post-money SAFE round, but before a Series A, do not dilute the investors; they dilute only the common stock (founders and employees). This is the case even if the 2nd or 3rd round of SAFEs is an up-round with a higher valuation cap.

This was and remains crazy, and totally unnecessary in light of the stated purpose of post-money SAFEs; which was for investors to know what they are buying on the day of their closing. When you buy equity you are able to calculate the ownership you are purchasing at closing, but equity rounds virtually never, not even in the most investor-slanted deals, have full anti-dilution protection for post-closing investment. Why should Post-Money SAFEs give investors that? They shouldn’t, and this was an egregious (but in my opinion, deliberately obfuscated) over-step in startup financing template design.

We posted here a very simple redline (in track changes) of what needs to be edited on YC’s post-money SAFE to eliminate the terrible anti-dilution mechanics. Again, it’s worth emphasizing that this redlined safe still gives investors the stated benefit of the post-money structure, which is to know what % of the cap table they are getting as of their closing. What it changes is that it makes post-closing issuances proportionately dilutive to both founders and investors, just as they would (and should) be in any other kind of financing structure.

A colleague of mine also designed a very helpful model (in Google Sheets) breaking down the mathematical (economic) differences between a typical pre-money SAFE, post-money SAFE, and our suggested redlined post-money SAFE. We know engineers in particular love seeing the numbers.

To give a high-level idea of the economic implications, assuming the following:

SAFE Round 1: $5M pre-money cap or $6.5M post-money cap ($1.5M invested)

SAFE Round 2: $10M pre-money cap or $12M post-money cap ($2M invested)

Series A round: $25M pre-money, $31M post-money ($6M new money), 10% post-available pool.

In Series A dollars (company value as of Series A closing), common stockholders lose $912,000 in moving from the traditional pre-money SAFE to YC’s preferred post-money SAFE. Fast-forward to an exit years later, and you’re talking easily millions or even tens of millions of dollars in lost value from simply changing the template.

Again in Series A dollars, common stockholders gain appx. $1.2 million in using the redlined post-money SAFE relative to YC’s post-money SAFE. The addition of just a few extra clarificatory words (which eliminate the hidden anti-dilution protections for investors) shift $1.2 million in Series A value from investors to the common stock; which again could easily be >$10 million by exit. All with just a few tweaks of language.

If this isn’t clear already: the stakes here are extremely high. And anyone suggesting that mindlessly using an investor or accelerator’s preferred templates is “saving” founders money (by reducing legal fees) is either hilariously uninformed, or lying out of their teeth. Tread carefully, and stay well-counseled.

Disclaimer: The model presented above is purely a hypothetical based on general math mechanics of SAFE and Series A rounds. The specific outcome in your company’s case will be dependent on the facts and circumstances, and you should always use experienced, trusted advisors to avoid missteps.  

“No Code” v. “Open Source” Approaches to Early-Stage Startup Law

TL;DR: Fully automated startup financing tools often utilize templates designed by and for investors. They claim to save founders money by reducing legal fees, but founders often end up giving 10-20x+ (relative to fees) away in cap table value as a result of the inflexibility and lack of trusted oversight over the “code.” Using vetted and trusted templates, while still incorporating non-conflicted counsel into the negotiation and review process, provides the best of both worlds: common starting points, with flexibility and trust.

Background reading:

“No Code” is a term I’ve been hearing more often lately. It refers to new tools that allow users to “program” various processes without actually having to code them; effectively modules of tools that are interoperable and allow building semi-customized programs without needing to actually get into coding. Very useful.

While “no code” seems to certainly have a good value proposition for many user contexts, it occurred to me recently that “no code” is good short-hand for the startup financing approach that parts of the investor community, and to some extent the tech automation community, has tried to peddle onto startup ecosystems and founders. By pushing the minimization of “friction” in funding (just sign fully automated templates), with the key “carrot” being the reduction in legal fees, these players want founders to think that it’s in their interests to simply close their financings with a few clicks, instead of leveraging lawyers to actually negotiate and flexibly customize the “code” (language).

The reasons behind why tech automation companies would push this perspective are obvious: they want to make money by selling you automation tools. But the reasons why the investor community is incentivized to also back this approach require a bit more explanation. For one example, see: Why Startups Should Avoid YC’s Post-Money SAFE.  First-time founders are what you would call “one shot” players in the startup ecosystem. They are new, inexperienced, and laser-focused on the single company they are building. Investors, including prominent accelerators, are instead repeat players. They are highly experienced, resource-rich, and stand to benefit significantly if they can sway the norms/”standards” of the market in their favor.

The most prominent, high-brand investors have all kinds of microphones and mechanisms for nudging the market in ways to make themselves more money, especially because the founders usually absorbing the content have little experience and knowledge for assessing substance. One of those ways is to push templates that they (the investors) themselves have drafted, and create an impression that those templates are some kind of standard that everyone should adhere to without any customization.  Of course, they’re far too clever to come out and say overtly that these templates are designed to make investors more money, so instead they’ll latch on to more palatable messaging: these templates will save you legal fees and help you close faster.

To summarize, investors and tech automation companies push the “no code” approach to early-stage funding out of self-interest, but they use the “save you legal fees” marketing message to get founders to buy in. The problem that not enough people talk about is that by taking the “no code” approach, founders become permanently stuck with the pre-packaged and inflexible code (contract language) that these players provide. And as I’ve written extensively on this blog, the code is dirty.

I want to emphasize the word permanently here. Look up what most “no code” tools do. They help you sort contacts, build a spreadsheet, maybe build some low-stakes automation processes. Good stuff, but very different from, say, permanently signing contractual terms for millions of dollars that in the long-run can have billion-dollar economic and power implications. In startup funding, we are talking about executing on issues that are literally 1000x more consequential, and un-modifiable once signed, than all the other areas where “no code” approaches are applied.

Having a trusted advisor (lawyer) make even just a few tweaks to a template document, or flexibly choosing a better-fit template to begin with, can have million/billion-dollar implications for a company. Given the enormous stakes involved – what bank account exit money goes into, and who gets ultimate decision-making power over an enterprise – founders need to think very hard about whether getting boxed into an inflexible automation tool, in order to save at most $5-25k in fees in a seed financing, is actually the smart approach. I see inexperienced founders regularly handing over millions in cap table value to investors, and in some instances unwittingly giving those investors strong “choke point” power over their governance, all because the founders were convinced that lawyers are a boogeyman extracting money to just push paper and hand-waive with no value-add.

Notice here that I’m not advocating for a wholesale reversion to the old-school days of simply letting lawyers take full control of the negotiation process, using whatever forms and standards they want. There is enormous value in having market-respected starting points for negotiation; sets of templates known and understood by investors, and trusted by lawyers who represent companies (and not investors), that can then be flexibly modified to arrive at a final deal that makes sense for a specific context. By having your lawyers (who hopefully aren’t conflicted with the investors they’re negotiating with) draft initial deal docs from a reputable template, the lawyers on the investor side can redline against that familiar starting point, instantly reducing the amount of up-front negotiation by 80% because they aren’t working with language (code) they’ve never seen.

What I’m effectively advocating for here is an “open source” approach to high-stakes early-stage startup law. It allows for some standardization (efficiency), but also flexible customization, to ensure every deal is fair for the parties involved. And importantly, it ensures that the templatization and customization is transparent and “open,” with lawyers from both the investor and startup (company-side) community participating; instead of the one-sided “here are the standards” model that certain VCs have tried to adopt. We can deliver founders and investors substantial efficiencies in fundraising, without using “saving fees” as an excuse for burdening founders with inflexibility and “dirty” code (contracts) that simply aren’t justified.

With this in mind, I’ve published a Seed Round Template Library, with links to templates for convertible notes, pre-money SAFEs, seed equity, and full NVCA docs, along with a few educational articles. By using these starting points, founders can have the efficiencies of working from vetted and trusted language, but without the enormous costs of using fully automated templates designed to favor investors.

Myths and Lies about Seed Equity for Seed Rounds

TL;DR: The release of the Post-Money SAFE structure, which is the worst possible way to raise seed money for most startups, has incentivized seed investors to perpetuate various myths and lies about alternatives (particularly about seed equity), in order to push founders to accept bad economics. Founders need to look past the spin and self-interested advice, to ensure they are assessing all the variables clearly.

The fundraising advice that vocal investors, many with blogs and twitter accounts, give to first-time founders often closely tracks their own incentives and self-interest. For example, a few years ago before the creation of the Post-Money SAFE, many early-stage investors complained that Pre-Money SAFEs had all kinds of problems, and that founders should strongly consider equity for their seed rounds. That was, of course, because Pre-Money SAFEs were very company (founder) friendly from an economic and governance rights standpoint, and those investors got more of the cap table by hardening their positions via an equity round with extra rights.

But now that YC has taken it upon itself to promote the Post-Money SAFE, which has terrible economics for companies/founders and is great for early-stage investors, suddenly the narrative has flipped. Now many of those same investors sing the praises of SAFE rounds, and have spun all kinds of myths and lies about why seed equity is apparently now such a terrible structure. The point of this post is to dispel some of those myths and lies.

Myth / Lie #1In an equity round you have to give investors a board seat.

Simple, you don’t. There’s nothing inherent in doing an equity round that requires giving investors a Board (of Directors) seat, and we’ve seen plenty of equity rounds that don’t. On the flip side, some SAFE and convertible note rounds will involve giving a Board seat to investors. Whether or not giving investors a Board seat in your seed round is appropriate or a good idea is entirely contextual, but there’s no connection to that negotiation point and the general structure of the round.

See also: Pre-Series A Boards.

Myth / Lie #2Equity rounds require you to close all of your investors at once, instead of with “rolling closings.”

Nope. You can do “rolling closings” quite easily in a seed equity round, so there’s no inherent need to have all of the money rounded up at once. Sometimes investors will place a limit of 120-180 days to do those rolling closings, but other times there’s no deadline and it’s open-ended.

Myth / Lie #3: Equity rounds require you to have a lead investor.

It certainly helps to have a lead investor – someone writing a big enough check, and with their own counsel – to do some light review of the equity docs in a seed equity round, but again there’s nothing inherent in the equity structure that requires it. It’s more about the comfort level of the investors. I have seen “party” seed equity rounds where everyone writes a $50K-200K check. It works fine, particularly now that there are relatively well-known seed equity templates out there that can be referenced and recognized among sets of specialized ECVC lawyers.

Myth / Lie #4: Equity rounds take months to close.

I’ve seen seed equity rounds go from term sheet to money in the bank in 2 weeks. Now that’s definitely on the faster end of the norm, and 3-4 weeks is more common. It’s not lightning fast, but neither is it the dragged-out process that some investors suggest it is. The primary drivers of a lengthier timeline are diligence issues (cleanup) and investor negotiations/delays. Nothing inherent in a seed equity round structure requires it to take a long time, given that well-used templates require minimal customization.

Given how high-stakes the terms you’re committing to in any fundraising are, there is some value in slowing down enough to really know what you’re getting into. See: Negotiation is Relationship Building.

Myth / Lie #5Equity rounds require paying $50-100K in legal fees.

It is true that any equity structure is likely to require somewhat higher legal fees than a SAFE or convertible note round, but seed equity, which is a simplified equity structure relative to full NVCA-style docs (which are more commonly used for Series A and later rounds) isn’t nearly as expensive to close on as some investors suggest. On the leanest end I’ve seen seed equity close for about $10-15K in company-side legal fees, and $5K on the investor side, but more realistically you’re going to be closer to $20K company side and $10K investor side, so about $30K total; possibly higher if you use very expensive firms. See: Automated Law v. Solos v. Boutiques v. BigLaw for more on legal fees and firm structures.

A good ballpark of fees spent from beginning to end for a multi-million dollar SAFE or convertible note round is $2.5K-$5K, so let’s say the delta between convertibles and seed equity is ~$25K in legal fees. The question then becomes, are the positives to closing on a seed equity round worth more than $25K? Very often they are. Easily.

Especially if your investors are asking for a Post-Money SAFE, which has extremely expensive (long-term) anti-dilution mechanics built into it if you end up needing (and likely will) more seed money later, the difference in dilution between a seed equity raise and a Post-Money SAFE can often be multiple percentage points on your cap table. If the difference is 1%, $25K implies a $2.5 million company valuation. If it’s 2%, it’s $1.25 million.

I have seen many companies raising at $10 million, $15 million, even higher valuations in their seed rounds, with multiple million in funding, and yet their investors act as if the extra cost of a seed equity round is so burdensome that the founders should just do a Post-Money SAFE; which in the long-run hands multiple percentage points on the cap table to the seed investors. Basically they are telling founders that they should avoid paying the equivalent of 0.25-0.5% of their enterprise value now in cash for a more hardened, company-favorable deal structure, and instead give 1-2% more of the company as equity (with upside) to the seed investors, which in the long run could be worth millions for the highest-growth companies. That is a horrible tradeoff for the founders.

Translation: “Don’t spend $25K in legal fees now. That’s a “waste of money.” Instead stick to our preferred template and give us 6-7 figures worth of extra equity!”

This isn’t to say that equity is always the right answer for a seed raise. Hardly. Sometimes pre-money SAFEs make sense. Sometimes convertible notes do. I’m a fan of modifying a convertible note to have the economics behave more like equity, but with the streamlined structure of a note; the best of both worlds. And sometimes your investors will demand that you give them a full NVCA suite of docs. Context matters, and so do the numbers.

There’s no universal answer to how you should structure your seed round, because every company is different, and different investors and founders have different expectations, priorities, and preferences. However, not falling for the most common myths and lies that investors give to push you in favor of their preferred structure – which usually is whatever makes them more money – will ensure your eyes are wide open, and you can assess the positives and negatives clearly.