This hasn’t happened to me, but I keep hearing stories about situations like the following: 1) startup raises a seed financing round while working on a preliminary idea, 2) founders later “pivot” into a new idea that looks more promising and/or gains traction, 3) founders decide to raise a new round of financing, 4) founders argue that the new idea is so different from the original one that it should be part of a new company, and that the original seed investors shouldn’t own any part of it.
At Founder Collective, we think of ourselves as investing primarily in people, and only secondarily in ideas or products. I have to admit that until I heard about these situations happening, I hadn’t even conceived of the possibility of “pivots into new corporate structures”. In retrospect, I suppose it was inevitable given the founder-friendly market and the rapidly evolving venture environment.
As a legal matter, assuming the founders worked on the idea on the original company’s time and/or money, the seed investors probably have a strong claim. Founders and employees normally sign “invention assignment” agreements that would make the new ideas and products property of the original company (again, these aren’t situations I’m personally involved in so I am just speculating on the specifics). The reality is that most professional seed investors aren’t going to sue founders and will likely instead try to work out some compromise.
This is not to suggest, by the way, that founders are indentured servants to investors. It is perfectly fine, if an idea isn’t working out, to wind down the company, return the remaining capital, and go off and work on new ideas. If one of those new ideas shows promise, the founders are then (legally and morally) free to form a new corporate entity and raise new financing from whomever they choose. From news reports, it sounds like this is what the Odeo team did before they pivoted to Twitter. It’s the conventional and, in my view, correct way to handle these situations.
Here’s what really worries me. If it becomes a norm for founders to jettison seed investors when their company’s focus changes, seed investors who invest “primarily in people” will stop doing so. I think that would be a real shame: we’d lose an important source of capital and a lot of innovative startups wouldn’t get funded.