As a founder I fought with VC’s over vesting as they brought in a new CEO and walked me out the door. As a board member I negotiated with founding CEO’s over vesting when I thought it was their time to go. At best this is an argument where no one wins, at worst it’s like a nasty divorce.I’ll offer that both entrepreneurs and VC’s have the wrong model for founding CEO equity compensation. The customary vesting model has founders vest their stock over 4-years, and when the founding CEO gets in over their head the VC’s bring in professional management. More often than not the founding CEO leaves the company. The fallacy is believing that a founders value is evenly distributed over four years. We now have three decades of experience that says otherwise.
Preparing For Chaos
Every VC knows that the founding CEO is the individual you throw into the chaotic battle of a startup. Investors are praying they’ve backed a founder who can think creatively and independently, because more often than not, conditions on the ground change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan becomes irrelevant. They’re hoping they funded a CEO who can manage chaos and uncertainty, is biased for action and isn’t waiting around for someone else to tell them what to do. They’re betting that the founding CEO can quickly separate the crucial from the irrelevant, synthesize the output, and use this intelligence to create islands of order in the all-out chaos of a startup. And that they’ll emerge from this fog of war with a scalable business model.
They also know that most founding CEO’s don’t scale past the early stage.
That’s the source of the trouble. Most founding CEO’s don’t know that they’re cannon fodder in the search for a business model.
It’s My Idea and Hard Work
Some founding CEOs believe the value they bring to their startup is their idea and the time and energy they put into their company. In their mind, since they thought of the idea of the company, spec’d the product, found the first customers and worked their tails off, they are entitled to vest all their stock over time and run their company.
Where’s My Liquidity Event
Some VC’s feel that if a startup has grown past the founder’s ability to manage and scale (and hasn’t had a liquidity event,) they should be able to remove the founding CEO and (at best) walk them out the door with only the stock they vested to that day.
It’s About Finding the Business Model
I’ll posit that both views are wrong. Lets start with what the real job of the founding CEO’s job is: to find a repeatable and scalable business model. The goal of your business model can be revenue, or profits, or users, or click-throughs (or even just to get the technology into production) – whatever the founders and their investors have agreed upon.
If you don’t find this business model there is no company.
The odds are if the founder is going to find the first business model it’s going to be in the first few years. Yet the traditional vesting model ignores this. It assumes that founders contributions are linear over 4-years. Not only is this unfair it has the founding CEO focused on the wrong goal – hanging on as long as they can to vest their stock. Why on earth would investors want to have the incentives set up this way? 30 years of accumulated experience says these perverse incentives actually diminishes the value of their investment.
It’s time to rethink how we vest stock for founding CEOs.
The New Deal
The founding CEO vesting model should start with a new deal between VC’s and founders. recognise that a founder’s value is non-linear over 4 years and heavily weighted towards the chaotic first few years. Agree that the founder is being rewarded not just for the idea or technology of the company but rather for finding a way to make money.
Founding CEO’s need to agree that it’s rare that founders are the right people to take a startup through the transition to build and scale it into a company. Instead, it’s likely that after they do the hard work of finding the business model, the company will need to hire their replacement to grow the company to the next level.
The New Founding CEO Vesting Model
Therefore, if the founding CEO gets the company to a repeatable business model they deserve to vest all their stock if they are removed. If they fail to find a business model, by taking investors money they’ve implicitly agreed they can be walked out the door. (But can keep the stock they’ve vested to date.) Specifying what the metrics are for a repeatable business model is what the board and founders should be doing in the first place. This new deal would keep everyone focused on the search for the model.
I’ll suggest that this new deal more accurately reflects the time-weighted contributions that founding CEO’s make and more accurately aligns founders and investors interests.
The job of the startup CEO is to find a repeatable/scalable business model. The contribution of the founding CEO is not linear over 4-years. If the founding CEO gets the company to a repeatable business model they deserve to vest all their stock if they are removed. Accountants shouldn’t be putting together the vesting schedule.
Steve Blank teaches entrepreneurship at U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University and the Columbia University/Berkeley Joint Executive MBA program. He also wrote about building early stage companies in his book, Four Steps to the Epiphany. This post was originally published on his blog, and it is republished here with permission.
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