The Fiduciary Duties of Founders
TL;DR Nutshell: The moment someone is added to a startup’s cap table, founders (as majority stockholders, directors, and officers) becomes fiduciaries of that stockholder. This means that, regardless of how much control founders may have over a company, corporate governance law draws a hard line on how that control can be used. Crossing that line can result in a lawsuit.
This is one of those “core concepts” posts that, to lawyers and professional investors, will seem laughably basic; and yet the topic is something that I regularly see first-time founders get very wrong. And like most SHL posts, I’m going to explain things without referencing statutes or complicated terms. Founders need to understand the concept of Fiduciary Duties. The details they can learn from their lawyers or on-the-job.
State Corporate Law
Most Angel/VC-backed startups are Delaware corps. If they are not Delaware corps, they are usually incorporated in their home state and will be required by institutional investors to become Delaware corps if/when they ever are offered a check. Whether you are a Delaware corp or not, your state certainly has corporate governance rules giving founders (as directors and majority stockholders) varying degrees of fiduciary responsibility to minority holders in their company. The concept is the same.
At the most fundamental level, to say that founders have fiduciary duties to their stockholders means that they cannot, without seriously risking a lawsuit, unfairly enrich themselves at the expense of other people on their cap table. They can certainly get rich by making everyone on the cap table rich; by growing the pie. But they can’t, without some kind of very credible case that it is necessary for the well-being of the entire business, improve their part of the pie at the expense of the rest of it.
Hypothetical: Founders X and Y hired Employee A and gave her 5% of the Company that, because of some big contributions she made, was 40% fully vested on the date of issuance (meaning 2% of the Company’s equity, of her holdings, is fully vested). After a few months after the issuance, they have a big dispute and the founders fire Employee A, which they are certainly entitled to do. Under the Stock Issuance Agreement terms, 3% worth of the Company gets returned (because it wasn’t vested yet), and Employee A walks away with the 2% she had vested.
But Founders X and Y are pissed off that Employee A has that 2%. “She doesn’t deserve it. She totally ruined the product” they say. Then the light bulb switches on. “We control the Board and the stockholder vote! We’ll just dilute the hell out of her by issuing ourselves more shares!” they say.
Sorry, dudes. If it was that easy to screw minority stockholders, no one would ever invest in a company.
Delaware and other states have rules around “Interested Party Transactions.” Without getting in the weeds, Interested Party rules boil down to:
- A Board of Directors has a duty (a fiduciary duty) to do what’s best for the company and all of its stockholders taken as a whole, without unfairly enriching its own members.
- Any transaction in which the Board members themselves are specific beneficiaries — meaning they are getting something that others are not — is inherently suspect. It is an “Interested Party Transaction” and is open to claims by minority stockholders (the people who didn’t benefit from the transaction) that it was a fiduciary duty violation.
- In order to “cleanse” (so-to-speak) the transaction and, in some cases, give it a safe harbor protection from lawsuits, extra steps must be followed to ensure the transaction really was fair. Those steps usually are (i) obtaining approval by the disinterested members of the Board (if any) and/or (ii) obtaining approval by the disinterested stockholders of the company. The disinterested people are the ones who aren’t getting the special benefits.
Put the above 3 bullets together, and it’s clear that Founders X and Y (i) are planning an Interested Party Transaction and (ii) without getting a “cleansing” vote of that transaction, are assuming a very serious risk of a lawsuit. If there were 5 people on the Board, and the planned dilutive issuance to X/Y was approved by the rest of the Board, then the risk profile of the transaction would be very different. Similarly, if there are other people on the cap table besides Founders X/Y and Employee A, then if their votes make up a majority of the stock not held by X/Y (the disinterested stockholders) and they approve the dilutive new stock, we’re again in much safer territory.
The key is that, in an interested party transaction, you need to get a majority of the people who aren’t getting the ‘special benefits’ to approve the deal. If you can’t, then you’re asking for pain.
If the entire cap table is X, Y, and A, then X & Y are just asking for trouble and (frankly) deluding themselves by thinking that they can dilute A (without her consent) in a legally air-tight manner. I’ve seen founders throw out a phrase like “let’s just do a recap” (short for recapitalization) as if recaps are a magical get-out-of-fiduciary-duties card. I think that idea was spread by ‘The Social Network,’ but I’m not entirely sure. Recaps are complicated, and you still have to worry about fiduciary duties to get them done properly.
Corporate Governance is Real
The overarching umbrella of the rules, processes, etc. that govern how corporate directors and officers interact with stockholders is called ‘corporate governance.’ Founders sometimes think it’s all silliness reserved for when they go IPO, but it’s not. From Day 1, corporate governance matters. Yes, it becomes more formalized as you grow as a company and the stakes get higher, but it’s the same rules at Seed v. at Series D, just being applied differently. You better believe it matters the moment a VC is on your cap table.
Fiduciary duties do not mean that you always have to do what your minority stockholders want. That would be impossible. It just means that, as a director/officer, you have to do what’s best for the Company (the whole pie), and not just for yourself. If there’s a financing coming up that some of your stockholders don’t like, you should be safe if disinterested parties approve it as something that is the best move for the entire company. I say should, because the rules, the process, and even the language in your board resolutions matter. They can be (and often are) the difference between moving forward knowing that your decisions can’t be challenged v. handing disgruntled stockholders a loaded gun to use against you when you least want them to.
Originally published at Silicon Hills Lawyer.