Category Archives: Startup Strategies

NDA Pitfalls

Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are a critical part of a technology company’s legal arsenal but are often relegated to a standard template without much thought.  Too often, I’ve seen NDAs sent by sophisticated companies that contain a number of pitfalls that often negate some of the protections that NDAs are relied upon for.  While there are numerous pitfalls to be watched for when drafting and reviewing NDAs, I wanted to highlight a few pitfalls that I frequently encounter that are often missed by both disclosing and receiving parties:

1.  Duration

While it may seem obvious it bears repeating: the duration of a NDA matters.  Often the NDAs I receive specify a relatively brief duration: usually between 2 and 5 years.  Problematically, after the time-period expires the protections provided by the NDA lapse and the previously confidential information can be disclosed at will.  While you may not believe that confidential information would be valuable 5 years into the future, this could be a costly assumption – image if the Coca-Cola recipe was treated the same?

NDAs should specify a perpetual duration unless you have a specific reason for limiting the duration.  Regardless, if the NDA duration has a limit you should be very careful to disclose only information that you’re comfortable becoming public information in the future.

2.  Who Can be Disclosed to

I often encounter NDAs that classify the NDA itself as confidential information that can only be disclosed with permission from the other party.  While seemingly innocuous, this treatment of the NDA can become a massive headache when it comes time to sell your company or its technology.  For example, you could be prohibited from disclosing the mere existence of the NDA to the purchaser or its legal counsel.

NDAs should permit disclosure of the NDA itself to your professional service providers, third parties proposing to engage in transactions with your company and their professional service providers.

3.  Scope of Protection

Do not neglect the scope of the NDA’s protection.  Obviously the NDA should protect information physically disclosed or spoken to the other party but there may be certain things disclosed to the other party that don’t fall within the typical scope of “information”.  For example, you may want the NDA to protect things that are visually perceived by the other party when on-site or sounds heard by the other party (this could matter if the sound of a machine could be used to determine a key design feature).

Always consider what you are disclosing under the NDA and be sure that the scope of the NDA’s protection matches the scope of disclosure as well as inadvertent, passive, disclosures that may take place.

Ultimately, the pitfalls with a NDA, as with any legal document, originate from the treatment of the NDA as a standard templated agreement.  The NDA is a powerful document that should be carefully crafted to reflect your particular business needs and to avoid the above pitfalls.

UI/UX Invalidated your Contract

Online contracts are only effective if implemented correctly.   I’ve written on different processes for implementing online contracts, which is often easier to accomplish in the web context.  In the mobile context, implementation is challenging given the need to balance user experience with contract formation.

How you structure contract formation in your mobile application involves negotiation between the UI/UX team and legal counsel and a balancing of user experience against the risks of the contract unenforceability.  With millions of DAU, the risks are enormous.

A recent case illustrates this risk and shows that even sophisticated startups can run the risk of a weaker contract formation process and be burned.  Lyft presented users with this acceptance screen:

LI Image

It includes the typical web approach to contract acceptance, with a check box stating: [I agree] to the Terms of Service (link).  Recently, a NY court determined that this process did not clearly indicate to users that a contract was being agreed to.  The combination of a series of “Next” screens, the small size of the contract formation text (relative to the large, pink “Next” button) and that the contract was presented in the context of an unrelated phone number request all contributed to the court’s conclusion that users were not sufficiently notified of what they were agreeing to and, as a result, did not accept the Lyft Terms of Service.

Luckily for lyft, prior to the lawsuit, a new contract formation process was implemented, one I’ve advocated for myself:

One mobile approach is to present the agreement to the user, require that they scroll through the agreement and, once scrolled through, the user is presented with the following button at the bottom of the page:  [I agree] to the Terms and Conditions.

Take away:

  1.  At a minimum, mobile applications should have prominent language indicating that a contract is being presented to users (ideally as a separate screen labeled “Terms of Service” or similar).
  2. Contract language should be noticeable and not blend into the background as a user registers for the application.  Try to alter the flow of the registration process so the user recognizes that something new is occurring.
  3. Any button on the contract page should state “I agree” or “I accept”, rather than “Next” and this button should not overwhelm the contract link.

In my opinion, the scrolling process described above is one of the better approaches for implementing a contract into a mobile application.  Other approaches are available but your UI/UX team needs to work with legal counsel to ensure that design considerations do not overwhelm contract enforceability.

Avoid Absolute Anti-Dilution Protection

Anti-dilution protections are frequently granted to investors and forgotten by founders until their friendly lawyer brings it up.  In many cases, anti-dilution protections are reasonable but in other cases can impose a substantial burden on the company, even impacting the appeal of the company to future investors.

Generally, anti-dilution protections protect an investor from the dilution of the investor’s interest.  When VC’s speak about anti-dilution they are usually referring to price-based anti-dilution protections, which protect from a decrease in share price in a future financing (known as a “down-round”) by, ultimately, increasing the number of shares issued to previous round investors.  This down-round protection is seen in Series A financings and Brad Feld has a great post covering the details.

What is FAR less common, and almost universally viewed as inappropriate, is an absolute anti-dilution clause.  This type of dilution protection guarantees the investor a certain percentage of the company, usually for a fixed time.  For example:

Startup hereby agrees to issue additional shares of Common Stock (for no additional consideration) to maintain Investor’s ownership interest at 10% of the total capital stock (calculated on a fully-diluted basis, including all options, warrants, convertible securities and other rights to acquire capital stock).

In the above case, the investor maintains a 10% interest in the company without a need to make additional payments.  What if the company sells shares to a new investor?  New shares are issued to the previous investor.  What if the company issues options to employees?  New shares are issued to the previous investor.  The absolute anti-dilution clause is viewed as inappropriate as it protects the investor against ALL dilutive events, including those every investor expects to occur, rather than a limited set of dilutive events, such as a down-round.

The absolute anti-dilution clause also runs the risk of rendering your company less appealing to investors.  An investor may reconsider an investment knowing that they will be immediately diluted by the previous investor’s absolute anti-dilution clause.  This is especially the case if the new investor is increasing the company share price and, in turn, the value of the previous investor’s shares.

I usually encounter these absolute anti-dilution clauses in connection with an accelerator program investment.  In this scenario, clients tend to accept the terms as acceptance to the program is viewed as worth the cost (which is a reasonable position to take).  Nonetheless, it’s important for companies to understand the impact of absolute anti-dilution clauses and to weigh the pros and cons of any investment in light of an absolute anti-dilution clause before proceeding further.

Convertible Note SAFE

Convertible Note and SAFE Overview

Startups commonly raise money through one of two instruments: (1) Convertible Note; or (2) SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity).  While these instruments are common, founders need to understand the basics of each instrument and the points of negotiation available.  This overview is part 1 of a 4 part series that, in future instalments, will cover negotiating each type of instrument and consider an alternative to these instruments.

Why use a Convertible Note or SAFE?

The Convertible Note and SAFE allow a startup to raise money without determining a value for the company.  Many early-stage companies do not or cannot determine a company valuation, especially those companies that are pre-launch, yet need to raise money.  These instruments are used to raise money but kick the question of valuation down the road until a future round values the company, otherwise known as a “priced round”.  Among startups, a priced round typically occurs with a Series-A financing, which involves issuing preferred shares to investors.

It’s important to understand that, under either instrument, equity is not initially issued to investors.  Instead, the instrument converts in the future into equity once the company raises a priced round, thereby establishing a company valuation at which the instrument can be converted.

NOTE – It is possible for startups to raise in priced rounds from day 1, a topic I will discuss in the final part of this series.

What is the difference between a Convertible Note and a SAFE?

A Convertible Note is a debt-equity instrument and, accordingly, charges interest while a SAFE is an equity instrument.  The interest element to the Convertible Note was part of the reason for the shift to SAFEs as this element created, in some situations, unnecessary legal issues.

From a negotiation standpoint, the instruments vary in the different elements commonly subject to negotiation.  A Convertible Note involves, at a minimum, discussions around: cap, discount, interest and maturity date .  Conversely, a SAFE usually involves one point of negotiation: cap.  This single point of negotiation has led to increased use of the SAFE over the Convertible Note.

These instruments also differ in how they convert.  A SAFE only converts upon a preferred share financing round (a priced round), which usually is a Series-A financing.  If a preferred share round does not occur then the SAFE remains unconverted and no shares are issued to the SAFE holder.  Conversely, a Convertible Note converts upon either a priced round (may not be preferred, depends on the note) OR at its maturity date.  As a result, a Convertible Note will always convert while a SAFE may not.

NOTE – there are additional points that can be negotiated on both Convertible Notes and SAFEs, for example, a discount or preemptive rights.

What is a Cap, Discount, Interest and Maturity Date?

Cap:  the maximum value at which the instrument converts into equity.  If the priced round values the company below the cap, the instrument converts at the priced round value (perhaps with a discount) and if the priced round values the company greater than the cap, the instrument converts at the cap value.  For example, if a company raises a priced round valuing the company at $12 million and a SAFE has a $10 million cap, the SAFE converts at a $10 million valuation.  It is possible for Convertible Notes and SAFEs to be issued without a cap, meaning that they convert at the priced round valuation, perhaps with a discount.

Discount:  discount an investor receives on conversion of the instrument, which may only occur upon particular conversion scenarios.

Interest:  Convertible Notes have a debt element and, accordingly, charge interest to the company issuing the note.  Interest is calculated into the total value of the Convertible Note upon conversion.

Maturity Date:  the date on which a Convertible Note must have converted by and, if no conversion has occurred, the note automatically converts on the maturity date.

Overall, Convertible Notes and SAFES are similar in the goal each instrument tries to achieve: raising money without determining a company valuation.  While similar in goal, each document has its own negotiation points, which will be covered in our next blog posts.  Stay tuned!