Archive for November, 2009

Are you giving equity to your VC to get their advice?

This post comes after a discussion through comments with Fred Destin on one of his recent posts. This is something I’ve been thinking for a long time, and I just thought it may be time for me to put this on paper: Nothing in the way term sheets are crafted creates an incentive for any of both parties to value advice from investors.

Let me just state first that I’m not saying that some VCs or BAs are not adding value to companies they’ve invested in. I know Fred and he’s definitely a nice fellow and very proactive investor, he’s for example participating in a lot of initiatives like Seedcamp. But, my point is that VCs or BAs are best viewed as pure financiers with the incentive structure put in place through current shareholder agreements: Their added value is in putting money in the projects that will be providing the best returns – with or without them on board.

Today, once the money has been committed, there is no incentive for the entrepreneurs to listen to investors’ advice – entrepreneurs are not paying for it. Furthermore, there is no incentive for investors to put extra skin in the game – if they do, other investors will benefit from these freebies on the same terms than they will.

OK, we regularly do see some investors providing extra help. But for me, their incentive belongs to either empathy or reputation management (providing value now to get a discount on future financing rounds with other startups). The carried interest, that is often cited, is not actually a hard incentive. Investors will receive it, whether or not they were really instrumental in the success of the company. Sure, investors have an incentive not to let the company fail, but the way to “fix” a company is certainly something that is not widely shared between entrepreneurs and investors, and I don’t think entrepreneurs see them as advice they have paid for when they issued equities.

So my whole point to entrepreneurs is that they should not expect particular help from VCs or BAs. Sure, they will get some “free” advice, but like everything that is free, you may like it or not, it may even have a lot of value for you, but you can not complain on the quality.

I’m actually thinking that we need alternate incentive structures so that entrepreneurs do pay for advice that have value for the project. There is a problem of assymetry in information products like advice, it is that you don’t know the value until you’ve consumed them, and when you’ve consumed them for free, you have litlle binding to pay their full value. My current thinking is that alternative currencies may be a good way to solve this problem: You can imagine that projects will be able to issue local currencies that will be backed someday by actual shares of the profit. But this is another story, a subject for another post…