Archive: greed

Labor Costs and Service Prices in the US economy: hidden flexibility?

Travelling through the US once again and hearing comments about the recession every day, I was struck by the elasticity of US business once again. As much as the business climate is intoxicating to the point of being hectic in boom times, as seen in 1999/2000 and once again in 2007, in bear times everything gets very gloomy.

I was riding in a cab in Las Vegas headed to CES and for once in the habit of European cab fares I forgot to tip the cab driver. He commented “You Europeans never tip, do you?”. After paying the due tip, I reflected on how dependent employees in all services industries were on tips for their regular income. I also noticed that tipping behavior on the part of Americans differed strongly from what I had experienced just 6 months ago on my last extended trip to California. People now, out of need or out of fashion, were downright stingy. Given that such large portions of the US economy are service based, I could not help but wonder how that had the same effect as a wage cut in many of these industries. At the very least, it shows that employers, who deflect part of the necessity of paying market wages to the culture of tipping and its encouragement in the policies of their businesses, thereby have an instrument to reduce and flexibilize their labor cost. In boom times employees earn more from tips and in bust times they earn less without the employer having to enforce wage cuts. This benefits the employer because he remains at his (low) wage cost basis, keeps his prices stable and lets the customer reduce tips if he feels he needs to. Since tips are part of the price structure of using a service, this means that lower tipping amounts to a deflation of service prices from the point of the customer. Thus, in a way, the business owner is leaving part of the pricing to the customer who can deflate the price he pays at will if his pockets are tied – as is the case in a recession.

Now while this, from a European perspective, could be perceived as an unfair advantage the business owner has in his relation to employees and customers, it could also be described as an “entrepreneurial risk” of the employee. Employees that commit particularly well to the service they are a part of and endear themselves to customers will invariably in good or bad times reap better tips from the customers. An employee who does well will probably convince a business owner to give him the responsibilities (assigned tables, assigned services) that will have the highest likelihood of earning him tips. One can already observe that some businesses compete on a labor market by installing policies that encourage tips.

A hamburger chain called Fat Burger places a small tip box next to a big tip box at the cash register and each time a larger tip is paid into the so called “fat tip box” the cashier yells out “FAT TIP!” and all other employees chime in yelling “FAT TIP!” as well.

As ludicrous as a discussion of the macroeconomic effect of tipping might seem at first glance, the impact on the US economy must be sizable. Considering the service industry is a 10s of billions of dollars segment of the economy and that average tipping is between 10 and 20 % of a purchase, tipping could well amount to several billion dollars in the economy. Adding or subtracting billions of dollars of volume to the price structure of the service industry could in turn have stronger than imagined effects on inflation and deflation, as well as on purchasing power in low income segments of the population.

As I am not an economist, I will leave the discussion at that, but I sure would find it interesting to know if this has ever been explored academically.

Reps and Warranties in Venture Capital Deals

This weekend a friend of mine called me up, as he was completing – as a leading seed investor – the first round (series A) of a company that I have a minority stake in. He told me that the round being negotiated was just short of Signing, as all main deal elements had been agreed with the investor (a large and well-known VC Fund), but there was one last point of contention left, and – big surprise! – that was Reps and Warranties.

That made me think once again about the peculiar habit of venture capitalists to turn Reps and Warranties almost as much a difficult topic as in M&A. If you think about the term “Venture Capital”, the whole concept is that you venture into something and there is no precisely NO guarantee of success.

Of course it makes full sense to commit founders to proper representation of the state the company is in and to also make them liable for the so-called Title Guarantees, in effect making sure that the shares being transferred to the investor are free of third party rights, are indeed constituted legally and are not subject to any limitations. However, I do not understand why these Reps and Warranties so often go to the core of the risks of the business model, thereby in effect giving the venture capital investment more the character of debt financing, disguised in the Reps and Warranties clause.

Why do I say this?

Because if a founder signs up for – say – a 3 Mil. Euro investment and the company fails due to an event that is at the core of the typical risk of the business model, this may create a warranty case that in the worst of all contract agreements may include full damage to be paid by the founder. This then means that the investor may get up to the total sum of that investment in damages from the founder because of an event that constituted the essence of the typical venture risk.

So put very bluntly, by enforcing Reps & Warranties covering business risks, the investor covered his venture risk by making the founder liable for failure of exactly that risk.

We all know that founders who may be otherwise admirable do not like to focus on legal details and may have bad luck in a choice of their attorneys.

That can be a deadly mistake.

When founders find themselves in such a contract situation, it is not just a reflection of poor negotiation skills on the side of the founders, who – one might argue a bit unfairly – therefore would not deserve anything better.

Such contract clauses are also always a case of misguided priorities on the side of the investor.

While as an investor I have full sympathy for contractual rules that prevent an irresponsible founder from walking away, as in the old adage “with my time and your money to waste, we have nothing to lose”.

However, it is equally unfair to put the investor of a venture in a position where his investment becomes more a case of debt with higher returns and higher default risk than of real venture investment. Moreover, discussions and probable litigation about business risk damage retribution by the founder can divert vital energy from surviving the damaging event, since both the founder and the investor will bes spending considerable time hedging their risks or enforcing their rights. THat can ultimately be much more damaging than the damaging event itself.

Here is my advice to founders in any negotiation about Reps and Warranties:

1) Before negotiation of deal terms, identify the natural risk of your business model

2) Prepare to describe and argue to the investor what the typical risk of the venture is and make it clear from the outset that that risk cannot will not be carried by the founder(s).

3) Make the investor acknowledge these risks early in the process of negotiating the terms

4) At term sheet level make sure that the basic principles guiding an equal distribution of reps and warranties rights between founder and investor include the following

a. Liability of founders is limited to willful behavior and gross negligence

b. There must be a cap of a certain percentage of the investment, in my opinion not more than 50% of the investment sum.

c. For all cases of non-willfull behavior the warranty term should be at most 12 months

d. Each founder is only liable for the fraction of the cap that corresponds to his fraction of shares in the entire company, so a co-founder who has 20 % of shares in a company shall only be liable up to 20% of the cap.

e. All shareholder managers with shares smaller than 7% should be exempt from any liability unless there is a specific reason for that.

f. Damages should be paid only to the extent that the Founder / Manager liable had best knowledge of the Warranty issue.

g. Retribution of damage should be limited to the damage that is incurred directly by the damaging event, confirmed by court ruling and could be reasonably expected. There should be no damage retribution for a loss of valuation of the company, which should be explicitly excluded. Valuation loss is usually covered by downround protection clauses.

h. Retribution of damage should be limited to such damages as cannot be corrected or “repaired”.

i. No damage retribution should be given for damages that are incurred due to lack of cooperation on side of the investor. This could include anything ranging from late payment of investment funds, lack of cooperation in litigation cases, failure of the board members dispatched by the investor to agree in litigating to avoid the damage, and so forth.

k. The most important advice that can be given to any founder signing Reps and Warranties is to put a large amount of energy into the due diligence and disclosure process and the documentation of that due diligence and disclosure process. THis is where attention to detail is a very necessary evil. The contract must include a clause that no events or fact about the company that were or could reasonable have been expected to be known to the investor at the time of the investment can lead to a claim of the investor against the founder. Thus claims are excluded if the the facts that led to the damage were known to the investor.

l. Negotiate all these points, then focus on disclosing well all risks that are part of the business model or lie within the company.

Often investors will present the founders with tough Reps and Warranties basically to incentivize them to puta significant amount of energy in thinking through the risks of the company and the development stage the company is at.

However, founders should rate their investors on the basis on their willingness to accept clauses that correspond with or at least resemble what I advise.

Good Luck!

Musings on how to do the VC Round

I promised to blog my reflections on the 18-hour stint – well, here goes:

1) Provided you can choose from equal VC quality, choose a VC with an Office in your country -

2) or calculate three extra weeks on legal hassle because they just won’t understand your legal system (unless, of course, you share legal systems)

3) Be ready to bypass the lawyer of your VC at any moment (incl. @ 03h00 AM – myke sure you have a contact who will comply) – remember there may be a Principal-Agent-Problem between Vc and his Lawyer – the VC wants the deal @ good terms and low cost, but he wants the deal. A Bad Lawyer often raises his profile by being excruciating and blaming a bummed deal on you.

4) Align your Business Angels, if you have any, into your interest. If need be, point out that you can always gang up with the VC. But it is best if you don’t have to go there – that depends on the mentality of your BAs. I’ve seen both.

5) Don’t succomb to the enticements of the new. The nice great VCs who now are a tremendous success may just be your worst nightmare two years down the road, so remember to balance control power in your company. In the best of all worlds, as an entrepreneur, you get to pick who you work with on which issue because you gang up with the Business Angels if the VCs get unreasonable and you gang up with the VCs if the BAs get unprofessional or greedy. Make it clear that, while alle share the risk, you are the entrepreneur who is going to make it happen – or not.

6) Don’t overestimate yourself and consider – in your inner fort – the scenario if the company outgrows you or you get boreed. Few Entrepreneurs are as good in the 0 – 100 employees periods as the are in the 100 – 1000 or beyond periods. That was not an issue in my recent experience, but it is always worth remembering.

7) Don’t bind yourself to milestones. Business Plans are a process, not a bible. Focus on the metrics and never tie your investment capital to that. There is only one 100% sure fact about your business plan: it is not going to happen. The story will always be different, for better or for worse. So while building the structure of the company for the VC phase, make sure you have a tight-knit communication, frequent consultation infrastructure (Board) – share decision responsability. Stop selling your venture the minute the money is in the bank and all covenants are through (that’s why milestones are unwise for a VC too, because then reporting focuses on showing how milestones are met, not on the actual problems and necessary adjustments of and to the business model). Make sure you have VCs you are comfortable sharing your worse problems with.

In this sense, there is no real “stupid money” – you should always keep that communication line open so noone will feel thumped and try to get back at you (of that, the stupidest money sources are always capable). And sometimes even the worst moron will see something that you, in the Hamster wheel, won’t.

That’s a first – discussions welcome.

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