Watching Nickels And Dimes On Legal Costs In Start-Ups And Ventures

Venture capitalist Ed Sim had a good post recently that touched on a number of things ranging from principle-centered negotiation to matching the core DNA and chemistry of a team in a venture. He entitled his post, "Nickels and Dimes Don’t Add Up" to reflect his late-in-the-negotiation realization that perhaps the DNA of a prospective executive hire didn’t match up because some of the aspects of the negotiation got extended too long for little reason. Because negotiations for executive employment arrangements can be complicated and involve more layers of legal mechanics stretching into the Board-level, his post triggered some tangential thoughts I had on the costs of legal and bootstrapping these costs from garage-level operations through seed and some cases of Series A financing. I suppose I could have called this post, "Bootstrapping Legal So That Nickels and Dimes Don’t Add Up Too Much".

A core problem with bootstrapping legal costs (and following a variation of a "cash is king" strategy) is that a company may pay for things later by bootstrapping these things now. For example, if a company needs to perfect its intellectual property rights because of poor professional services agreements, this can be a sore spot to have to go back to every customer one has dealt with to perfect the agreements.

But lawyers can cost from $200/hr to $500/hr. To create additional pressure on ventures, post-bubble many legal firms
(not to mention employees and other partners) pushed down their
willingness to take stock options in lieu of portions of cash compensation. Some are willing to push off costs for a few months, but you need an in then.

Let’s face reality then. Not everyone can afford to have lawyers draft every legal document change, even if one tries to make sure that drafting is the last step after negotiating or planning business terms.

If find it useful early on to know what type of company is in the making. This way you can think about how complex the company may be in the reasonable future (e.g., 12 to 18 months). As examples of types of companies and some of the pertinent legal aspects:

  1. Services-only company – may need very basic things like NDAs, professional services agreements, and subcontracting agreements
  2. Software-only company – may need more advanced things like NDAs, MNDAs, licensing,
    maintenance, OEM inbound and/or outbound, distribution and partnership
    agreements
  3. Software and services company – may need all of the above, plus additional
    considerations for when they interrelate surrounding intellectual
    property rights and/or interstate tax, say

I’ve seen the stuff above range from $1,000 to $25,000ish. When one
talks about adding core infrastructure paperwork (e.g., equity, stock
option plan, executive employment docs) costing anywhere from $5,000 to
$25,000ish, and then adding stock purchase or recap docs (post Seed round)
costing anywhere from $25,000 to over $100,000, things add up over time. One really needs to breakdown the timing of company needs (and scope of work) to get narrower ranges on these costs (and thus to bootstrap the org along).

To weigh through some of this entrepreneurial & legal jungle, I find it useful to examine some pertinent operational considerations:

  1. Whether there will be a future for the venture  – Entrepreneurs are pioneering, experimenting, and there is high risk early on. Don’t expend too much on legal until you’ve figured out what you are doing and what works. Somewhat related to this, don’t make core foundation documents or organizational structures too complex and customized unless you really need to.
  2. How far out the next phase of the future is – Try to storyboard out the future of the firm in a rational way. Consider only structuring legal stuff to keep you rolling for 12 to 18 months. Things like getting perfect distribution, licensing, and maintenance agreements may not make sense until you’ve got more traction selling direct. Why? People may not be able to sell accounts for you until you’ve a critical or workable mass of reference accounts. Although one may pay $5K more or even $15K to fix the job in the future on a $10K job, weigh the costs systematically.
  3. What that future could look like – Will there be things like capital raises? On core infrastructure documents (primarily corporate finance documents), I would not mess around here too much. In my opinion, these problems are the most expensive to fix, and it is in part because the problems are more diffused through the legal documents. The key factor that one can control, however, is that looking for iron-clad documentation and customization can cause much $$ pain early on. Maybe some of this can be fixed if the venture makes it to the next round.

Yet another strategy is to look at each of these types of documents above and figure out where they are most likely to break. If you need lawyers to focus on just getting that piece of the document iron-clad, this is another strategy to minimize costs in a somewhat "layered way".

I also find it useful to note, at least based on my experiences, that so long as one is reasonably careful, there’s little that lawyers can’t fix. Delaying costs is a key principle to look at.

Aside from actively managing legal costs and mechanics, I have another good option. Consider having a lawyer in as one of your business partners. They can save you a ton and help put your mind at ease.

Note these are insights on legal topics within start-ups from a
non-lawyer but from a person that has worked with a number of lawyers
in corporate finance and infrastructure, intellectual property, and
employment and human resources within start-ups and growth firms. I have been spanked (lightly) by lawyers for drafting stuff.

Steve Shu

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