Jamie is the founding partner of Pillar VC, a Boston-based seed-stage venture capital firm. He has spent the last 22 years investing in early-stage startups.
When we launched in 2016, we took the unusual approach of saying we’d buy common stock in startups. We believed then, and still do, that alignment with founders was more important than covering our downside in investments that didn’t work as planned. Said differently, we wanted to enhance our upside through alignment, rather than maximizing our downside through terms.
The world has changed a lot since that time. While we are actively making investments, and still buying common stock, we know that many entrepreneurs may be trying to raise money now — and it is very hard.
Fred Destin wrote a great piece about the ugly terms that can creep into term sheets during difficult times. If you have a choice between a good term sheet and a bad one, of course, you’ll take the good one. But what if you have no choice? And how can you compare term sheets in the first place?
To this end, we developed the term-sheet grader, a simple way to compare different term sheets or help characterize whether a term sheet is good or evil.
Let me first point out that none of this has anything to do with the valuation of the round (share price), the amount of capital, the likelihood of reaching a closing, the quality of the firm or the trust you have with the individual leading the investment, all absolutely critical pieces of the puzzle. Here, we are just looking at the terms and conditions, the legal structure of the investment.
We’ve listed nine key terms below — five that have to do with economics and four that relate to control and decision-making:
- Each key term can earn +1 for being friendly and -1 for being tough.
- There are a few really friendly terms that have a score of +2 each.
- Likewise, there are a few really tough ones that earn a -2.
- The best a term sheet could score is a +11, the worst is a -11.
- The “Industry Standard” deal scores a 0.
FWIW, the Pillar common stock standard deal earns a +8 (shown below).