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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Unilateral or Serial Monogamy

Comments (7)

Earlier this week I did a brief post on the “no shop agreement” that is a common feature in a term sheet.  I compared signing a no shop to the construct of serial monogamy in a relationship.  I had a couple of comments (one that was intellectual, one that was a little harsher and painted VCs as “duplicitous.”)  I was mulling over my obviously (in hindsight to me) asymmetric view when Tom Evslin very clearly and coherently articulated why my analogy was really unilateral monogamy (e.g. the VC isn’t signing up for serial monogamy – only the entrepreneur is.)

Tom – and the comments I received – are correct (although I don’t agree with the generalization that “VCs are duplicitous.”)  After reading Tom’s post, I thought about my own behavior (at least my perception of my own behavior) vs. the general case and realized I’ve mixed the two up.  I’ve been on the giving and receiving side of unilateral no shops many times and – when on the receiving side – have usually been sensitive to why the other party wouldn’t sign a reciprocal no shop.  In most cases, I simply don’t put a lot of weight behind the no shop due to the ability to bind it with time (30 – 45 days), plus whenever I’m on the receiving end, I’ve done my best to test commitment before signing up to do the deal. 

In addition to Tom’s post, Rick Segal wrote up his thoughts in a post titled “The Handshake Clause” where he makes the point that his firm doesn’t sign a term sheet until they are committed to doing a deal.  His explanation of how he approaches this is useful, but it is important to acknowledge that there is a wide range of behavior among VCs – the group that doesn’t put a term sheet down until they are committed are at one end of the spectrum; the group that puts down a term sheet to try to lock up a deal while they think about whether or not they want to do it is at the other.  I’d like to think that we are at the “good” end of this spectrum (e.g. we won’t issue a term sheet unless we are ready to do a deal.)  Obviously, your mileage will vary with the VCs you are dealing with – hence the value of doing your own due diligence on your potential future partners.

As I mulled this over, I came up with a couple of examples in the past 10 years where the no shop had any meaningful impact on a deal in which I was involved.  I could come up with an edge case for each situation, but this was a small number vs. the number of deals I’ve been involved in.  In addition, when I thought about the situations where I was a VC and was negatively impacted by not having a no shop (e.g. a company we had agreed with on a term sheet went and did something else) or where I was on the receiving end of a no shop and was negatively impacted by it (e.g. an acquirer tied me up but then ultimately didn’t close on the deal), I actually didn’t feel particularly bad about either of the situations since there was both logic associated with the outcome and grace exhibited by the participants.  Following are two examples:

  1. We signed a term sheet to invest in company X.  We didn’t include a no shop in the term sheet – I don’t think there was a particular reason why.  We were working to close the investment (I think we were 15 days into a 30–ish day process) and had legal docs going back and forth.  One of the founders called us and said that they had just received an offer to be acquired and they wanted to pursue it.  We told them no problem – we’d still be there to do the deal if it didn’t come together.  We were very open with them about the pros and cons of doing the deal from our perspective and – given the economics – encouraged them to pursue it (it was a great deal for them.)  They ended up closing the deal and – as a token – gave us a small amount of equity in the company for our efforts (totally unexpected and unnecessary, but appreciated.)
  2. I was an existing investor in a company that was in the process of closing an outside led round at a significant step up in valuation. The company was under a no shop agreement with the new VC.  Within a week of closing, we received an acquisition overture from one of the strategic investors in the company.  We immediately told the new lead investor about it who graciously agreed to suspend the no shop and wait to see whether we wanted to move forward with the acquisition or the financing.  We negotiated with the acquirer for several weeks, checking regularly with the new potential investor to make sure they were still interested in closing the round if we chose not to pursue the acquisition.  They were incredibly supportive and patient.  The company covered their legal fees up to that point (unprompted – although it was probably in the term sheet that we’d cover them – I can’t recall.)  We ended up moving forward with the acquisition; the new investor was disappointed in the outcome but happy and supportive of what we did.

As I said earlier, these are edge cases – in almost all of my experiences the no shop ended up being irrelevant.  But – as both of these example show – the quality and the character of the people involved made all the difference.  Near the end of his post, Tom makes the point that it’s “good negotiating advice to make sure that every clause which can be mutual is mutual.”  I completely agree.

  • Dave Jilk

    In my experience, far too many VCs *AND* entrepreneurs are duplicitous… but it’s easier to tack this tag on people in a position of power.

    And Brad, just so you have a third party perspective, I’ve never seen you do anything remotely like this (use the unilateral no-shop to some diabolical advantage).

    It is absolutely good negotiating advice to push to make clauses mutual, but to complain that the monogamy is unilateral is to not understand the relative power positions of the two sides. An obsession with symmetry in these deals is just as silly as parents who think that they should always treat their kids the same… life and business aren’t like that.

    Here’s a question for you Brad: have you ever seen a VC no-shop violated? How about enforced? (not acquisitions — I know that those are enforced).

  • http://www.feld.com/blog Brad Feld

    Yes – I’ve seen entrepreneurs unilaterally and unambiguously violate the no shop agreement. While there are usually no legal implications, the dynamics aren’t pretty (this is where my first post on serial monogamy comes into play – the simple analogy of you are about to get married and your fiancee sleeps with someone else.) Personally, this is a no op for me if this happens – I’m outta there. So – there’s rarely a “legal enforcement”, but behaviorally the deal with the first VC often blows up.

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    An obsession with symmetry in these deals is just as silly as parents who think that they should always treat their kids the same… life and business aren't like that.
    While there are usually no legal implications, the dynamics aren't pretty .

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    While there are usually no legal implications, the dynamics aren't pretty (this is where my first post on serial monogamy comes into play – the simple analogy of you are about to get married and your fiancee sleeps with someone else.)

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