We discussed, in an early post, some of the importance of alignment to the startup team. As the business progresses, peoples’ interests can become misaligned owing to various factors. For example, liquidation preferences may make investors be very content to sell a company at a much lower price than the initial startup team would. This can be because, as mentioned before, the liquidation preferences at the time of their initial investment set the stage for this situation. This is one of the many emergent properties of the business as it grows. Individuals from the initial startup team may become misaligned. Changes in their personal lives, and other business issues, may make misalignment into an increasingly important factor. In this post I will discuss some of the techniques our team uses to try to help the team continue to grow in the same direction.
Dynamic Ownership Equity
One of these techniques is dynamic ownership equity. As discussed previously, the concept of dynamic ownership equity is very clearly discussed in Noam Wasserman’s The Founder’s Dilemmas. This concept has been very useful for us in our angel investment practice. Dynamic ownership equity means that equity ownership changes as the business reaches different milestones. For example, when the investors have their initial investment returned to them plus a certain margin, the portion of the business they own may change.
Take, for example, a business that has three entities owning it. We will call them entity A, B and C. We will say that entity A had the initial idea for the business and has a 35% ownership equity owing to the “idea premium”. The idea premium is the concept that the person who has the idea may have more ownership equity especially at the beginning of the company. Let’s say entity B has 15% ownership equity and entity C has 50% ownership equity at time 0 or when the business starts. Let’s say entity C is the investor who brings capital to the business, entity A brings the idea and certain technical expertise, and that entity B brings both a managerial style and personal connection network to the business.
The team can and should negotiate out ahead of time different milestones at which ownership equity changes. Over time the idea premium may erode and entity A’s ownership equity, for example, could decrease. The entity C could decrease their ownership equity with time once they have been returned their initial investment. Over time, perhaps, entity B’s managerial skills may be come more important. Multiple milestones can occur, and the milestones we often use are revenue-based. That is, at the final stage of equity balance maturation the final ownership equities for each entity usually come about when the business reaches some certain gross revenue milestone. This is because, we would rather, as investors, have a passive source of income which is 10% of $2 million rather than 80% of a $20 thousand dollar company. We feel dynamic ownership equity gets us there and keeps the team alive as we get there. This concept of a smaller % and yet higher return is easily understood once we run the numbers. There are many different techniques and ideas on how to balance ownership equity. However, the idea that it changes over time as different stages of the business are achieved and that different talents are more important at each stage is clearly useful.
In addition to dynamic ownership equity there are other techniques we utilize to help keep the team growing in the same direction. One of these is regular meetings. Regular meetings with a focused agenda on key metrics to which the team has agreed ahead of time helps keep us growing in the same direction. If we can understand our business in numbers, as mentioned in an earlier blog post, we can really get a feel for our business in different lenses which are objective. People are less likely to get their feelings hurt in this manner. A focus on metrics in which we believe is key.
Making A Business Canvas (And Updating It!)
One of the other things we perform in meetings is recreating our business model canvas and updating it. This gives us a snapshot of our business over time. We then place the metrics on what we feel the key portions of our business are and follow these. Having these updated business model canvas allows us to have a snapshot of our business over time and get a sense for what our revenue streams etc. should look like. As we mentioned in an earlier blog post a formal business plan often does not persist beyond first contact with the real world. That’s why, in many cases, being able to create business model canvas is much more useful.
Direct Conversations…& Avoid Founding With Family(!)
An additional technique we utilize to keep everyone moving in the same direction is having direct conversations. What I mean by this is we really try to focus from the beginning of the company on the idea that there are some things we must discuss for the good of the company even when the issues, or we, are uncomfortable. This is one of the barriers to founding a business with family. Often founding businesses with a family member can put certain constraints on what can and cant be talked about in the business. It is harder to discuss the elephant in the room when family is in the room also. This makes us feel that, in line with Noam Wasserman’s description in The Founder’s Dilemmas, founding a business with family is akin to playing with fire. (For more on that, click here.) If the business does not go well, and keep in mind more than 60% of new business ‘fail’, this may leave family members with a bad taste in their mouths, blame, and much finger pointing at each other.
In conclusion, the team alignment in the new business model is an important key to success. We need to take care to use special techniques to promote team alignment through every stage of the business. Some of these techniques include dynamic ownership equity, updating the business model canvas, focusing on metrics with which everyone has agreed, and the avoidance of founding a company with family. We hope that you may find these techniques useful in your practice and again I recommend, as always, that you read more about the concepts of dynamic ownership equity and some the importance of metrics via online search.