Startup Accelerators and Ecosystem Gatekeeping

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

Related reading:

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

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

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

The “Network” Can’t Be Controlled

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

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

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

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

Drop the Price

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

Employ the Network

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

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

Try to Lock Down the Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accelerators are Service Providers, Like Everyone Else

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

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

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

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

Startup Cap Tables

TL;DR: Just use Carta, and spend your time on more important questions. Before your seed round closes, Excel is usually OK too.

Years ago we were one of the first early-adopter firms to promote what was then-called eShares, and now Carta, as an option for reducing costs on 409A valuations and also getting scaled cap tables in order. See: 409A as a Service: Cash Cows Get Slaughtered (from early 2014). Today, Carta is a much bigger company, with far more adoption across the country and world. Brief humblebrag about my track record at early-picking legal(ish) tech winners. Doxly also just got acquired by Litera.

Over time, I’ve seen cap software competitors come and go. Sometimes it’s fun listening to the arguments they make for why you should use their whiz-bang-pow tool over something that’s easily becoming a market standard.  Let’s keep this simple: there are very few pieces of technology that lend themselves to fundamental network effects like cap table software. Cap tables are math. Math, unlike subjective and contextual human-oriented things, scales very well with technology and automation. You want the cap table tool that is most recognizable, and most widely adopted, because every single person on your cap table is going to have to interact with it. That’s A LOT of people who might bug you because some random feature isn’t working, or they simply don’t understand the interface.

Less-known options, no matter how incrementally better they may be at this or that little nuance, are just full of enormous headaches. There are a few candidates, most of them concentrated in Silicon Valley, that have tried to use their connections to some well-known accelerator or law firm to corner a distribution channel, but tech nepotism (which seems to be surprisingly common in Silicon Valley and other tech ecosystems) is a poor substitute for facts. When clients ask us what cap table software they should use, we say Carta, and move on. It’s a tool for tracking routine math at scale; not a financing or M&A deal contract with tons of variables to consider. Not that complicated of a decision, and if founders start to make it complicated, that’s often a red flag.

Start with random B-player cap table tool just because your accelerator’s leadership knows a guy who knows a guy (they’re usually guys) at another cap software company, and there’s a 99% chance someone will eventually make you switch to Carta; which will cost you money and waste time relative to having just made the right decision from the start. Buying the nonsense advice of people who in the background are just referring startups to each other in a self-interested tech bro circle often gets founders into huge problems.

All that being said, I’m not going to lose an opportunity to share some love for our tried-and-true old friend, Excel. Yes, it’s old and isn’t in the cloud, and it doesn’t give you that slick “cutting edge” feel that techies love so much, but where Excel has won, and will continue to win, is its simplicity of use and flexibility when the number of parties involved is fairly small; or when you’ve got some really nuanced situation that requires maximal flexibility to model future scenarios and a universal template isn’t going to work fast enough. There is always a fundamental tension between automation and flexibility, and sometimes flexibility really matters; particularly on high-stakes legal issues.

While Carta has started offering their new pre-seed free tool (in Beta) through law firms (of which we are one) – which I know is in response to other bottom-feeder tools offering free versions – Excel isn’t going anywhere. We will continue to use it for pre-seed companies who don’t need outside valuations, and really just have a handful of people for whom a basic excel model is perfectly fine. Excel goes off the rails at scale. At very early-stage, it works, and keeps things super simple. I don’t expect Carta to fully agree with me here, and the incentives there make that disagreement perfectly reasonable. As a power user unencumbered by economic loyalties, I can talk freely about when tools are useful, and when they’re not.

But once you’re closing a seed round and/or need a valuation, and it’s definitively time to get off the Excel train, Carta is the only realistic option for anyone who knows what they’re talking about; and how the dynamics of cap table software require there to be one dominant player.

This is not a sponsored post or paid advertisement for anything. Don’t hate me if I just disappointed your friends offering that random cap table tool you’ve been shilling for. This market has been won.

Trust, “Friendliness,” and Zero-Sum Startup Games

Background reading: Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems

TL;DR: In many areas of business (and in broader society) rhetoric around “positive sum” thinking and “friendliness” is used to disarm the inexperienced, so that seasoned players can then take advantage. Startups shouldn’t drink the kool-aid.

An underlying theme of much of my writing on SHL is that first-time founders and employees of startups, being completely new to the highly complex “game” of building high-growth companies and raising funding, are heavily exposed to manipulation by sophisticated repeat players who’ve been playing the same game for years or even decades. There are many important tactical topics in that game – around funding, recruiting, sales, exits – all of which merit different conversations, but the point of this post is really a more “meta” issue. I’m going to talk about the perspective that should be brought to the table in navigating this environment.

A concept you often hear in startup ecosystems is the distinction between zero-sum and positive-sum games. The former are where there’s a fixed/scarce resource (like $), and so people behave more competitively/aggressively to get a larger share, and there’s less cooperation between players. In positive-sum games, the thinking goes, acting competitively is destructive and everyone wins by being more cooperative and sharing the larger pie. Sports are the quintessential zero-sum game. Someone wins, and someone loses. Capitalism is, broadly, a positive-sum game because in a business deal, both sides generally make more money than if the deal had never happened.

The reality – and its a reality that clever players try to obscure from the naive – is that business relationships (including startup ecosystems) are full of both positive and zero-sum games, many of which are unavoidably linked. It is, therefore, a false dichotomy. In many cases, there are zero-sum games within positive sum games. In fact, rhetoric about “positive-sum” thinking, friendliness, trust, “win-win” is a common tactic used by powerful players to keep their status from being threatened.

For a better understanding of how this plays out in broader society, I’d recommend reading “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” by Anand Giridharadas, who deep-dives into how, in many cases, very wealthy and powerful people (i) on the one hand, fund politicians/legislation that cut taxes and funding for collectively solving social problems while (ii) simultaneously, spending a smaller portion of the saved money on “philanthropic” or “social enterprise” initiatives aimed at addressing those same social problems, but in a privatized way where they are in more control. The net outcome is that those powerful players direct discussion away from collective solutions that may require addressing some unavoidable zero-sum realities, and instead get society to myopically focus on a narrower segment of purportedly “win-win” options that don’t actually threaten their power and status.

There is much room to debate the degree to which Giridharadas’ perspective is an accurate representation of American philanthropy/social enterprise, but anyone with an ounce of honesty will acknowledge that it is definitely there, and large.  Once you’ve successfully won enough zero-sum games (acquiring wealth and influence), it can be in your self-interest to cleverly get everyone around you to now only think about “positive sum” perspectives, because by staying on only those topics, you’re guaranteed to never lose your status. Warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric and “friendliness” are often not a reflection of some newly discovered moral high-ground among the wealthy, but instead a self-interested strategy for wealth and power preservation.

While the details are clearly different, this dynamic plays out all over startup ecosystems. They are full of influential market actors (accelerators, investors, executives) acting as agents for profit/returns driven principals, and in many cases legally obligated to maximize returns, and yet listen to much of the language they use on blogs, social media, events, etc. and an outsider might think they were all employees of UNICEF. This is especially the case in Silicon Valley, which seems to have gone all “namaste” over the past few years; with SV’s investor microphones full of messages about mindfulness, empathy, “positive sum” thinking, and whatever other type of virtue signaling is in vogue.  Come take our money, or join our accelerator, or both. We’re such nice people, you can just let your guard down as we hold hands and build wealth together.

Scratch the surface of the “kumbaya” narratives, and what becomes clear is that visible “friendliness” has become part of these startup players’ profit-driven marketing strategies. With enough competition, market actors look for ways of differentiating themselves, and “friendliness” (or at least the appearance of it) becomes one variable among many to offer some differentiation; but it doesn’t change any of the fundamentals of the relationship. Just like how “win-win” private social enterprise initiatives can be a clever strategy of the wealthy to distract society away from public initiatives that actually threaten oligarchic power, excessive “friendliness” is often used by startup money players to disarm and manipulate inexperienced companies into taking actions that are sub-optimal, because they lack the perspective and experience to understand the game in full context.

With enough inequality of experience and influence between players (which is absolutely the case between “one shot” entrepreneurs and sophisticated repeat player investors) you can play all kinds of hidden and obscure zero-sum games in the background and – as long you do a good enough job of ensuring no one calls them out in the open – still maintain a public facade of friendliness and selflessness. 

As startup lawyers, the way that we see this game played out is often in the selection of legal counsel and negotiation of financings/corporate governance. In most business contexts, there’s a clear, unambiguous understanding that the relationship between companies and their investors – and between “one shot” common stockholders v. repeat player investors – has numerous areas of unavoidable misalignment and zero-sum dynamics. Every cap table adds up to 100%. Kind of hard to avoid “zero sum” dynamics there. As acknowledgement of all this misalignment, working with counsel (and other advisors) who are experienced but independent from the money is seen, by seasoned players, as a no-brainer.

But then the cotton candy “kumbaya” crowd of the startup world shows up. We’re all “aligned” here. Let’s just use this (air quotes) “standard” document (nevermind that I or another investor created it) and close quickly without negotiation, to “save money.” Go ahead and hire this executive that I (the VC) have known for 10 years, instead of following an objective recruiting process, because we all “trust” each other here. Go ahead and hire this law firm (that also works for us on 10x more deals) because they “know us” well and will help you (again) “save money.” Conflicts of interest? Come on. We’re all “friendly” here. Mindfulness, empathy, something something “positive sum” and save the whales, remember?

Call out the problems in this perspective, even as diplomatically as remotely possible, and some will accuse you of being overly “adversarial.” That’s the same zero-sum v. positive-sum false dichotomy rearing its head in the startup game. Are “adversarial” and “namaste” the only two options here? Of course not. You can be friendly without being a naive “sucker.” Countless successful business people know how to combine a cooperative positive-sum perspective generally with a smart skepticism that ensures they won’t be taken advantage of. That’s the mindset entrepreneurs should adopt in navigating startup ecosystems.

I’ve found myself in numerous discussions with startup ecosystem players where I’m forced to address this false dichotomy head on and, at times, bluntly. I’m known as a pretty friendly, relationship driven guy. But I will be the last person at the table, and on the planet, to accept some “mickey mouse club” bullshit suggesting that startups, accelerators, investors, etc. are all just going to hold hands and sing kumbaya as they build shareholder value together in a positive-sum nirvana. Please. Let’s talk about our business relationships like straight-shooting adults; and not mislead new entrepreneurs and employees with nonsensical platitudes that obscure how the game is really played.

Some of the most aggressive (money driven) startup players are the most aggressive in marketing themselves as “friendly” people. But experienced and honest observers can watch their moves and see what’s really happening. Relationships in startup ecosystems have numerous high-stakes zero-sum games intertwined with positive-sum ones; and the former make caution and trustworthy advisors a necessity. Yes, the broader relationship is win-win. You hand me money or advice/connections, and I hopefully use it to make more money, and we all “win” in the long run. But that doesn’t, in the slightest, mean that within the course of that relationship there aren’t countless areas of financial and power-driven misalignment; and therefore opportunities for seasoned players to take advantage of inexperienced ones, if they’re not well advised.

Be friendly, when it’s reciprocated. Build transparent relationships. There’s no need to be an asshole. Startups are definitely a long-term game where politeness and optimism are assets; and it’s not at all a bad thing that the money has started using “niceness” in order to make more money. But don’t drink anyone’s kool-aid suggesting that everything is smiles and rainbows, so just “trust” them to make high-stakes decisions for you, without independent oversight. Those players are the most dangerous of all.

Negotiation is Relationship Building

TL;DR: Aggressive investors, especially early-stage ones, hate it when you negotiate with them; but they’ll often mask their frustration by accusing you (and your lawyers) of nit-picking and not staying (air quotes) “standard.” It shouldn’t take a ton of explaining as to why that’s the case, but the truth is that there are very few ways to get to know your investors better than through negotiation of a financing or a difficult Board-level issue. People can say any number of nice-sounding things over beers, or in casual conversation, but the truth comes out when you ask someone to commit to it on paper.

As I’ve written in several prior posts, including Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems, the world of startups is quite unique given the high inequality of experience and power between the business parties involved. In most business contexts, you’ve got relatively seasoned executives on both sides negotiating with each other. But in the startup context, you often have highly-networked, experienced, wealthy, and influential investors negotiating with a first-time entrepreneur who is ‘unequal’ in experience to the investor in every category. Obviously, investors enjoy this environment. It gives them a significant amount of control, and offers numerous opportunities to push things in the direction that they prefer… unless of course when annoying negotiations, or experienced outside advisors, get in the way.

But then again, many startup investors are constrained in the ways that they can express frustration when they don’t get what they want. Because many of them have come to rely on public marketing personas – via blogs, social media, etc. – of “friendliness,” if they pound the table and simply tell a founder to shut up and sign the docs, word will get around; hurting their brand and pipeline. It’s too visible, and too easy for the entrepreneur to quickly react to. So they need to be smarter and more subtle about how they can constrain negotiations, and keep the playing field slanted in their favor, but in a way that’s more difficult to detect.

In the early stages of a startup, there are very few advisors that a set of entrepreneurs will encounter with deeper negotiation experience, and ability to level the playing field between startups and their investors, than a seasoned startup lawyer who is independent from the money. They often see dozens of financings a year, across numerous geographies and industries, and have also observed the full playbook of power games that aggressive investors can play on Boards, deals, and cap tables. This makes them important “equalizers” in the founder-VC dynamic, and it’s precisely why you constantly see the investor community engaging in strategies to gain influence over, or otherwise silence, the legal community.

Behind the well-spun rhetoric about “saving” founders legal fees, and helping “streamline” things for startups, is in many cases a strategy by influential investors to remove independent counsel from the negotiation table, because in doing so investors can fully enjoy the advantages of how much more experienced and influential they are than first-time founders & employees. Lawyers heavily dependent on the investor community for referrals have been more than happy to collude with the money in this scheme, at the expense of common stockholders who, as a result, are deprived of real strategic counsel.

Imagine for a second that Apple and Google – two equally powerful companies with equally seasoned executives – are negotiating a high-stakes deal with each other. Now imagine if someone at Google suddenly tried to tell Apple what lawyers they should be using to negotiate the deal. You would immediately expect a response along the lines of, “You must be joking, right?” What if Apple tried to tell Google how much they should spend on their advisors in negotiating/structuring the deal? Again, same reaction, which you would expect in the vast majority of business contexts and industries. Seasoned business executives have a very keen understanding of incentives, and don’t react lightly to someone reaching across the table out of some pretense of being “helpful.”

And yet this sort of behavior is extremely common in startup ecosystems. Why? The stated reason from the investor community – the “spin” if you will – is that they’re looking out for the entrepreneur. Can’t let those loudmouth, over-billing lawyers take advantage of founders, right? It’s much better if investors, surely out of good will and generosity, reach across the table and ensure things are being done “properly.” While in almost any other business context this would be seen as obviously self-interested and patronizing infantilization, the experience and power inequality that is unique to startup ecosystems enables investors to take on a paternalistic “this is how things should work” stance in high-stakes discussions with common stockholders. Few things irritate those investors more than hearing an experienced lawyer respond unapologetically, “here is how things actually work.”

When there’s no one on the other side of the table to push back on behalf of the inexperienced players (the common stock), with credible experience and expertise, the experienced money has an easy time pushing important discussions, negotiations, and many other important company matters in the direction that they want. The following are the most common strategies that aggressive (and smart) startup investors will use to minimize negotiation, and therefore get what they want, while still maintaining an appearance of non-aggression:

A. Get startups to use “captive” lawyers.

I’ve written extensively about this already. See How to avoid “captive” company counsel and When VCs “Own” Your Startup’s Lawyers.  By emphasizing how much money will be “saved” by using “familiar” lawyers, entrepreneurs are often pushed to use lawyers who ultimately are controlled by the money. Those lawyers have every reason to keep their mouth shut in negotiations, because the money has heavy influence over the lawyers’ client pipeline.

B. Shrink the legal budget, to get lawyers to stay quiet. 

Negotiation takes time. Because of their experience, VCs often know how to negotiate deals themselves, without much need for lawyer involvement; certainly term sheets and Board issues. But first-time entrepreneurs and startup employees (common stockholders) are in the opposite situation. They rely heavily on outside advisors to walk them through terms and negotiate, and that requires a budget.

As we’ve said above, aggressive VCs hate negotiation. They know what they want, and they’re accustomed to being able to pressure founders into getting it. Any extra time negotiating (supported by counsel) means shrinking the power inequality between the VC and the entrepreneurs, so a great way to shrink that time is to shrink the budget. To the common stockholders, the extra time may be totally worth it, given how high-stakes and permanent the terms being negotiated are. But by saying something like “this deal shouldn’t cost more than $X” in legal fees, the investor has found an indirect way to get the lawyer to shut up in negotiating against… whom? The investor himself.

Flat fees are also a great tool for VCs to get your lawyers to rush their work. Under a flat fee model, the less your lawyer negotiates/advises you, the more of the fee they pocket while being able to do work for someone else. Less work means more ROI. Watch incentives.

If investors have opinions about how much to spend on legal in negotiating with a third-party, that’s great. Founders can often get good info from other experienced entrepreneurs as well. But the fact that certain investors are dictating to startups how much they should spend in negotiating against them is a sad joke. When a VC with a prominent blog throws into a post that a financing shouldn’t cost more than $X, process the incentives behind the statement. I bet he also has a list of preferred firms who’d be more than happy to “fit” within the budget for you. By convincing founders to view the selection of legal counsel as simply about who can do it faster/cheaper, investors create a race to the bottom where the winner just stays quiet and does what the investor wants. When VCs try to “save” you fees on a financing or serious Board issue, what they’re really doing is saving themselves from having to negotiate.

Investors should acknowledge their conflict of interest, stop treating startup teams like children, and keep their opinions on the legal budget to themselves.

C. Scare founders into rushing negotiations, for fear of losing the deal. 

“Time kills deals.” “Don’t lose momentum.” “Close fast and get back to the business.” Who hasn’t heard this over and over again from the investor community?

Sure, taking too long could kill a deal. But signing a terrible deal, or wedding yourself to bad actors, kills companies, or common stockholders. The number of times I’ve seen a deal actually die because founders chose to slow down enough to understand the structure, and move it to a better place for the common stock, is near zero. Remember the title of this post. Negotiation is relationship building. The point of negotiation isn’t just to get better terms. It’s also to observe the reactions of your potential investors when you ask them for something; because those reactions will tell you far more about whom you’re really working with than blog posts and tweets will. 

When you push back (respectfully), you are signaling not only what you care about, but the level of backbone they can expect from you in the on-going relationship. You’re setting the “terms” not just of a deal, but the dynamics of the relationship itself. Are you easily intimidated? Can you handle a high-pressure discussion? CEOs need to be able to. Your behavior in interacting with your lead investors heavily influences their judgment of how effective you’ll be in other difficult discussions with employees, commercial partners, etc.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen founders rush through deals, only to find that once the ink has dried, the person they are now in a long-term and permanent relationship with is very different from what was portrayed pre-signing.

D. Fabricate “standards” and exert political/social pressure on startups to use them. 

See: The Problem with “Standard” Term Sheets (including YCs). Standards can be great, when drafted and implemented in a way that allows all sides to voice their perspective. They can offer a common starting point for negotiations. The problem with so-called “standards” in startup ecosystems is that, given the above-discussed power inequality, investors are the ones unilaterally setting the standards; and they then use their political influence to spread them across a market, creating social pressure to use them.

One influential investor creates a so-called “standard” document, without input from lawyers who are independent from the investor community, and publishes it on their well-followed blog. Other investors with strong social media followings, liking the “standard” because of how it’s written for them, then start sharing, liking, re-tweeting, blogging, and adopting the “standard” on their deals; emphasizing how much money everyone will “save” from keeping it “standard.” Couple that with the leverage investors have worked to build over startup lawyers, who can be pressured into adopting those “standards,” and then have the investors squeeze the legal budget tight to minimize negotiation, and you can see how groups of coordinated, high-profile investors can indirectly force an ecosystem to use their biased “standards” without negotiation.

Think about all the most well-followed blogs, podcasts, etc. that founders go to for advice on funding. How many of them are not published by investors? What about the most followed twitter profiles? VCs are repeat players. They have the time and resources to build strong networks and distribution platforms for disseminating their preferences in ecosystems, maintaining heavy influence over the microphones and amplifying narratives that suit their interests. You really think they’re all doing it to save founders money? First-time entrepreneurs and early employees, who are heads-down building their companies (not blogging and tweeting about startup fundraising and governance) aren’t coordinated or influential enough to counterbalance the dynamic. And if they even tried to speak out, the investor community has more than enough ways to retaliate and silence them.

This is why the info you hear offline (and privately) in ecosystems is often starkly different from what you hear online.

Then when a first-time entrepreneur – a “one shot” player without much ecosystem leverage – is advised to question the standard, a VC can use the whole investor-dominated ecosystem backdrop to exert pressure. “What? This is “standard.” X, Y, and Z funds all use it. Why are you nit-picking? Time kills deals.”

There’s a very manipulative game in how aggressive investors apply this pressure, often playing on the entrepreneur’s self-image. Founders want to see themselves as bold risk-takers, and there’s often a level of insecurity in interacting with seasoned investors, who might be former (and successful) entrepreneurs themselves. By saying something like “This is nit-picking. Why are you wasting time?” the investor is subtly saying “I thought you were a real entrepreneur. A real entrepreneur would close this deal.” It’s an extremely clever way to use the imbalance in the relationship to get the startup to stay quiet, and hand the investor control; not that distant from the kind of social pressure-driven power games you might encounter in a middle school.

There is a “range” of acceptable negotiation. 

Imagine two lines on a negotiation table, with space in-between them. Move past the farther line, and you are over-negotiating, and really nit-picking over things that are unlikely to matter. If you really feel like the lawyer you are working with is pushing you in this direction, then your failure started in hiring the wrong lawyer. Very young, inexperienced lawyers may try to over-state their skillset, and impress you with endless comments. But experienced Partners with successful practices have neither the time nor the desire to play games with nonsense. You don’t build a strong client base by killing deals. Competition among reputable firms, and reputation among entrepreneurs, are constraints on startup lawyers who might want to run up a bill unnecessarily.

So beyond that farther line, you’re over-negotiating. But before the closer line, you are rushing the deal. You’re naively allowing a highly misaligned (economically) investor to muzzle negotiations and pressure you to just do what they want. And in doing so, you are solidifying relationship dynamics that will inform how that investor treats you going forward; knowing that with a little pressure, or clever rhetoric, they can make you dance. Your company’s lawyers are there to honestly advise the company on important issues of clear misalignment; not to overly ingratiate themselves to the money.

Within those two lines is a range of acceptable negotiation. Understand the incentives of both overly-aggressive lawyers and overly-aggressive investors to move you out of that range; and that highly experienced startup investors are very skilled at masking aggression with false “friendliness” and marketing. In the lawyer context, you should have plenty of time long before the negotiation to have done your diligence and ensured you’re working with a Partner whose judgment you truly respect. In the investor context, you should also have done some diligence on their reputation to better understand how they work.

High-integrity investors who view their investment as the building of a balanced, long-term relationship will respond respectfully to negotiation; and not try to infantilize you by questioning your judgment or that of your counsel. It doesn’t mean they’ll give you everything you want. But they’ll be honest and open about their perspective, and what they’ll be flexible on v. what is a sticking point, and give you an opportunity to do the same. No pressure tactics needed. If they instead respond with frustration over your desire to deviate from what they want, or nonsense about why you’re not sticking to their idea of “standard,” you now have some important data on how they approach things, and how they view the relationship.

When aggressive investors over-emphasize the importance of “minimizing friction” in funding, and not “losing momentum,” they sell it as being about saving you time and money. But behind the spin is the fact that they view your company (and the employees and customers who depend on it) as a number in their portfolio, and would much prefer that you just shut up and make them rich, or die trying. Given you have 100x more skin in this one game than any “unicorn hunter” with a diversified portfolio, you have every reason to push back (again, respectfully) for a deal that works for this company.

No one’s perspective (not an investor, nor a lawyer helping you negotiate with an investor) deserves to be treated like gospel. As a leader, your job is to triangulate advice from many people, all with their own incentives and biases, and make the call based on what you see as the right move for your company’s unique context. Work with experienced advisors whose judgment you trust and can’t be discredited by outsiders trying to use your inexperience against you, and use their insights to work within the range of acceptable negotiation. But also understand that the purpose of negotiation isn’t just about the deal itself. By moving past conversation, into actions and real commitment, it’s a valuable opportunity to have your investors show (not tell) you who they really are.

Why Startups shouldn’t use YC’s Post-Money SAFE

TL;DR: It gives your seed investors a level of extreme anti-dilution protection that is virtually unheard of in startup finance, making it worse than seed equity and conventional convertible notes in terms of economics for most seed stage companies. There are far better, more balanced ways to “clarify” ownership for seed investors without forcing founders and employees to absorb additional dilution risk.

Related Reading: TechCrunch: Why convertible notes are safer than SAFEs. 

A regular underlying theme you’ll read on SHL is that key players in the startup community are incredibly talented at taking a viewpoint that is clearly (to experienced players) investor-biased, but spinning / marketing it as somehow “startup friendly.”  And lawyers captive to the interests of investors are always happy to play along, knowing that inexperienced teams can be easily duped.

One example is how “moving fast” in startup financing negotiations is always a good thing for entrepreneurs. Investors are diversified, wealthy, and 100x as experienced as founders in deal terms and economics, but it’s somehow in the founders’ interest to sign whatever template the investor puts on the table, instead of actually reviewing, negotiating, and processing the long-term implications? Right. Thanks for the awesome insight, champ.

Y Combinator’s move to have its SAFEs convert on a post-money, instead of pre-money, basis is another great example. Their argument is that it helps “clarify” how the SAFEs will convert on the cap table. Clarity is great, right? Who can argue with clarity?

What’s not emphasized prominently enough is that the way they delivered that “clarity” is by implementing anti-dilution protection for SAFE investors (like themselves) that is more aggressive than anything remotely “standard” in the industry; and that wasn’t necessary at all to provide “clarity.” Under YC’s new SAFE, the common stock absorbs all dilution from any subsequent SAFE or convertible note rounds until an equity round, while SAFE holders are fully protected from that dilution. That is crazy. It’s the equivalent of “full ratchet” anti-dilution, which has become almost non-existent in startup finance because of how company unfriendly it is. In fact, it’s worse than full ratchet because in a typical anti-dilution context it only triggers if the valuation is lower. In this case, SAFE holders get fully protected for convertible dilution even if the valuation cap is higher. It’s a cap table grab that in a significant number of contexts won’t be made up for by other more minor changes to the SAFE (around pro-rata rights and option pool treatment) if a company ends up doing multiple convertible rounds.

When you’re raising your initial seed money, you have absolutely no idea what the future might hold. The notion that you can predict at your initial SAFE closing whether you’ll be able to raise an equity round as your next funding (in order to convert your SAFEs), or instead need another convertible round (in which case your SAFE holders are fully protected from dilution), is absurd. Honest advisors and investors will admit it. Given the dynamics of most seed stage startups, YC’s post-money SAFE therefore offers the worst economics (for companies) of all seed funding structures. Founders should instead opt for a structure that doesn’t penalize them, with dilution, for being unable to predict the future.

Yes, YC’s original (pre-money) SAFE has contributed to a problem for many SAFE investors, but that problem is the result of an imbalanced lack of accountability in the original SAFE structure; not a need to re-do conversion economics. As mentioned in the above TechCrunch article, the reason convertible notes are still the dominant convertible seed instrument across the country is that the maturity date in a convertible note serves as a valuable “accountability” mechanism in a seed financing. A 2-3 year maturity gives founders a sense of urgency to get to a conversion event, or at least stay in communication with investors about their financing plans. By eliminating maturity, SAFEs enabled a culture of runaway serial seed financings constantly delaying conversion, creating significant uncertainty for seed investors.

YC now wants to “fix” the problem they themselves enabled, but the “solution” goes too far in the opposite direction by requiring the common stock (founders and early employees) to absorb an inordinate amount of dilution risk. If “clarity” around conversion economics is really the concern of seed investors, there are already several far more balanced options for delivering that clarity:

Seed Equity – Series Seed templates already exist that are dramatically more streamlined than full Series A docs, but solidify ownership for seed investors on Day 1, with normal weighted average (not full ratchet) anti-dilution. 100% clarity on ownership. Closing a seed equity deal is usually a quarter to a third of the cost of a Series A, because the docs are simpler. Seed equity is an under-appreciated way to align the common stock and seed investors in terms of post-funding dilution. Yes, it takes a bit more time than just signing a template SAFE, but it’s an increasingly popular option both among entrepreneurs (because it reduces dilution) and investors (because it provides certainty); and for good reason.

Harden the denominator – Another option I’ve mentioned before in Why Notes and SAFEs are Extra Dilutive is to simply “harden” the denominator (the capitalization) that will be used for conversion on Day 1, while letting the valuation float (typically capped). This ensures everyone (common and investors) are diluted by subsequent investors, just like an equity round, while allowing you to easily model conversion at a valuation cap from Day 1. If the real motivation for the SAFE changes was in fact the ability to more easily model SAFE ownership on the cap table – instead of shifting economics in favor of investors – this (hardening the conversion denominator) would’ve been a far more logical approach than building significant anti-dilution mechanisms into the valuation cap.

Add a Maturity Date – Again, the reason why, outside of Silicon Valley, so many seed investors balk at the SAFE structure altogether is because of the complete lack of accountability mechanisms it contains. No voting rights or board seat. No maturity date. Just hand over your money, and hope for the best. I don’t represent a single tech investor – all companies – and yet I agree that SAFEs created more problems than they solved. Convertible notes with reasonable maturity dates (2-3 years) are a simple way for investors and entrepreneurs to get aligned on seed fundraising plans, and if after an initial seed round the company needs to raise a second seed and extend maturity, it forces a valuable conversation with investors so everyone can get aligned.

Conventional convertible notes – which are far more of an (air quotes) “standard” across the country than any SAFE structure – don’t protect the noteholders from all dilution that happens before an equity round. That leaves flexibility for additional note fundraising (which very often happens, at improved valuations) before maturity, with the noteholders sharing in that dilution. If a client asks me whether they should take a low-interest capped convertible note with a 3-yr maturity v. a capped Post-Money SAFE for their first seed raise, my answer will be the convertible note. Every time, unless they are somehow 100% positive that their next raise is an equity round. The legal fees will be virtually identical.

Before anyone even tries to argue that signing YC’s template is nevertheless worth it because otherwise money is “wasted” on legal fees, let’s be crystal clear: the economics of the post-money SAFE can end up so bad for a startup that a material % of the cap table worth as much as 7-figures can shift over to the seed investors (relative to a different structure) if the company ends up doing additional convertible rounds after its original SAFE; which very often happens. Do the math.

The whole “you should mindlessly sign this template or OMG the legal fees!” argument is just one more example of the sleight-of-hand rhetoric peddled by very clever investors to dupe founders into penny wise, pound foolish decisions that end up lining an investor’s pocket. It can take only a few sentences, or even the deletion of a handful of words, to make the economics of a seed instrument more balanced. Smart entrepreneurs understand that experienced advisors can be extremely valuable (and efficient) “equalizers” in these sorts of negotiations.

When I first reviewed the new post-money SAFE, my reaction was: what on earth is YC doing? I had a similar reaction to YC’s so-called “Standard” Series A Term Sheet, which itself is far more investor friendly than the marketing conveys and should be rejected by entrepreneurs. Ironically, YC’s changes to the SAFE were purportedly driven by the need for “clarity,” and yet their recently released Series A term sheet leaves enormous control points vague and prone to gaming post-term sheet; providing far less clarity than a typical term sheet. The extra “clarity” in the Post-Money SAFE favors investors. The vagueness in the YC Series A term sheet also favors investors. I guess YC’s preference for clarity or vagueness rests on whether it benefits the money. Surprised? Entrepreneurs are going to get hurt by continuing to let investors unilaterally set their own so-called “standards.”

One might argue that YC’s shift (as an accelerator and investor) from overly founder-biased to overly investor-biased docs parallels the natural pricing progression of a company that initially needed to subsidize adoption, but has now achieved market leverage. Low-ball pricing early to get traction (be very founder friendly), but once you’ve got the brand and market dominance, ratchet it up (bring in the hard terms). Tread carefully.  Getting startups hooked on a very friendly instrument, and then switching it out mid-stream with a similarly named version that now favors their investors (without fully explaining the implications), looks potentially like a clever long-term plan for ultimately making the money more money.

YC is more than entitled to significantly change the economics of their own investments. But their clear attempts at universalizing their preferences by suggesting that entrepreneurs everywhere, including in extremely different contexts, adopt their template documents will lead to a lot of damaged startups if honest and independent advisors don’t push back. The old pre-money SAFE was so startup friendly from a control standpoint that many investors (particularly those outside of California) refused to sign one. The new post-money SAFE is at the opposite extreme in terms of economics, and deserves to be treated as a niche security utilized only when more balanced structures won’t work. Thankfully, outside of pockets of Silicon Valley with overly loud microphones, the vast majority of startup ecosystems and investors don’t view SAFEs as the only viable structure for closing a seed round; not even close.

The most important thing any startup team needs to understand for seed fundraising is that a fully “standard” approach does not exist, and will not exist so long as entrepreneurs and investors continue to carry different priorities, and companies continue to operate in different contexts. Certainly a number of prominent investor voices want to suggest that a standard exists, and conveniently, it’s a standard they drafted; but it’s really just one option among many, all of which should be treated as flexibly negotiable for the context.

Another important lesson is that “founder friendliness” (or at least the appearance of it) in startup ecosystems is a business development strategy for investors to get deal flow, and it by no means eliminates the misaligned incentives of investors (including accelerators). At your exit, there are one of two pockets the money can go into: the common stock or the investors. No amount of “friendliness” changes the fact that every cap table adds up to 100%. Treat the fundraising advice of investors – even the really super nice, helpful, “founder friendly,” “give first,” “mission driven,” “we’re not really here for the money” ones – accordingly. The most clever way to win a zero-sum game is to convince the most naive players that it’s not a zero-sum game.

Don’t get me wrong, “friendly” investors are great. I like them way more than the hard-driving vultures of yesteryear. But let’s not drink so much kool-aid that we forget they are, still, investors who are here to make money that could otherwise go to the common stock; not your BFFs, and certainly not philanthropists to your entrepreneurial dreams. Given the significant imbalance of experience between repeat money players and first-time entrepreneurs, the startup world presents endless opportunities for investors (including accelerators) to pretend that their advice is startup-friendly and selfless – and use smoke-and-mirrors marketing to convey as much – while experienced, independent experts can see what is really happening. 

A quick “spin” translation guide for startups navigating seed funding:

“You should close this deal fast, or you might lose momentum.” = “Don’t negotiate or question this template I created. I know what’s good for you.”

“Let’s not ‘waste’ money on lawyers for this ‘standard’ deal.”  = “Don’t spend time and money with independent, highly experienced advisors who can explain all these high-stakes terms and potentially save a large portion of your cap table worth an order of magnitude more than the fees you spend. I’d prefer that money go to me.”

“We’re ‘founder friendly’ investors, and were even entrepreneurs ourselves once.” = “We’ve realized that in a competitive funding market, being ‘nice’ is the best way to get more deal flow. It helps us make more money. Just like Post-Money SAFEs.”

“Let’s use a Post-Money SAFE. It helps ‘clarify’ the cap table for everyone.” = “Let’s use a seed structure that is worse for the common stock economically in the most important way, but at least it’ll make modeling in a spreadsheet easier. Don’t bother exploring alternatives that can also ‘clarify’ the cap table without the terrible economics.”

There are pluses and minuses to each seed financing structure, and the right one depends significantly on context. Work with experienced advisors who understand the ins and outs of all the structures, and how they can be flexibly modified if needed. In the case of startup lawyers specifically, avoid firms that are really shills for your investors, or who take a cookie-cutter approach to startup law and financing, so you can trust that their advice really represents your company’s best interests. That’s the only way you can ensure no one is using your inexperience – or fabricating an exaggerated sense of urgency or standardization – to take advantage of you and your cap table.