The Management Rights Letter
A friend asked me over the weekend “why do VCs ask for a management rights letter when they make an investment?”
A management rights letter is a short agreement between a company and an investor to allow them certain “management rights.” These are typically the ability to attend board meetings, the ability to have access to financial reports on a regular basis, and the ability to advise and consult with the management of the company.
While it is nice to have these “rights”, the need for this letter actually has very little to do with how venture capital firms want to work with a portfolio company.
The existence of these letters has everything to do with where the venture capital firms get their funds from. If a VC firm has pension fund investors who are subject to ERISA regulations (as USV does), then they need to be a “venture capital operating company (VCOC)”. And one of the best ways to make sure you are considered a VCOC is to have management rights letters for all (or most) of your investments.
This post on Startup Lawyer explains it well:
Venture funds request these rights in order to obtain an exemption from regulations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Absent an exemption, if a pension plan subject to ERISA is a limited partner in a venture fund, then all of the venture fund’s assets are subject to regulations that require the venture fund assets to be held in trust, prohibit certain transactions and place fiduciary duties on fund managers. However, a “venture capital operating company” is not deemed to hold ERISA plan assets. To qualify as a VCOC, a venture fund must have at least 50% of its assets invested in venture capital investments. In order to qualify as a venture capital investment, the venture fund must receive certain management rights that give the fund the right to participate substantially in, or substantially influence the conduct of, the management of the portfolio company. In addition to obtaining management rights, the fund is also required to actually exercise its management rights with respect to one or more of its portfolio companies every year.http://www.startupcompanylawyer.com/2007/12/03/what-is-a-management-rights-letter/
So as annoying as these letters are, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to negotiate away these agreements as the venture capital firm that is asking for it really does need these rights in order to be in business with their limited partners.