Sep 18 2008

Entrepreneur’s Perspective on Non-Competes

Entrepreneur’s Perspective on Non-Competes

(Note: I just found this post in the “drafts” folder and realize I never put it up! It was written months ago, although I just updated it a bit.)

Bijan Sabet kicked off the discussion about non-competes by asserting that they are a barrier to innovation and that they are unenforceable in California anyway, so why bother?

Fred continued the discussion and made some good assertions about the value of non-competes, summarizing his points as:

Non-competes are very much in the interests of our portfolio companies. But the non-competes need to be tightly defined and the term of the non-compete needs to be paid for by the portfolio company if the employee was forced out of the company. The non-competes should certainly apply to all senior management team members and all key employees (like star engineers and such). It takes a lot of work to build a company. You should not risk all that knowledge and talent being able to walk out the door and set up shop across the street.

Brad and Jason/Ask the VC are generally on board with Fred’s view.

We’ve had non-competes since the beginning at Return Path.  I am generally in agreement with Fred’s parameters, but to spell out ours:

1. Our non-competes are very narrowly defined.  I had a very bad taste in my mouth when AOL acquired my former company, MovieFone, back in 1999 and stuck a 3-year non-compete in front of me that would have prohibited me from working anywhere else in the Internet.  I think the language was something like “can’t work in any business that competes with AOL or AOL’s partners in the businesses they are in today or may enter in the future.”  It was just silly.  Our non-competes apply very narrowly to existing direct competitors of the part of Return Path in which the given employee works.

2. We do not pay for non-competes.  Because our non-competes are very narrowly defined, we don’t expect to pay for someone to sit on the sidelines.  If people leave, or even if people are fired, they have 99.99% of the companies in the world as potential employers. 

3. We are willing to excuse people from non-competes if they are laid off.  Fair is fair.  However, we still expect our confidentiality and non-solicit agreements to remain in full force.

4. Everyone signs the same non-compete.  100% of the people, 100% of the time.  Same language.  No exceptions.  Again, this comes back to how narrowly defined the non-compete is.  It shouldn’t just be limited to senior executives.  Obviously you have to respect local laws of places like California or   Europ which have different views of non-competes.  If these cause in equalities in your employee base by geography, we make an effort to “re-equalize” in other ways.

5. We enforce non-competes in all situations.  I don’t believe in selective enforcement.  That sends the wrong message to employees.  We have had a couple instances where junior people have left and brazenly gone to a competitor.  While we have never blocked someone from starting a new job, we would if there wasn’t another resolution.  Fortunately, in those cases for us, we have contacted the employee and the hiring company and been able to work out a deal — the employee went to work in a non-competitive part of the new company, we struck a commercial relationship between us and the hiring company, etc.

6. We try to play by the rules when hiring people who have non-competes.  I think consistency is important here show to employees.  If we expect people to respect our non-compete, we should respect other companies’ non-competes.  This doesn’t mean we don’t try hard to lure competitors’ people to us when the situation warrants — it just means that if a non-compete is relevant and in effect, we will either make a deal with the other company, or in special circumstances, we will pay the employee to sit on the sidelines and ride out the non-compete.  This is a tricky process, but we’ve had it work before, and we’d do it again for the right person.

Our people and intellectual capital are a huge source of competitive advantage.  They are also the product of massive investment that we make in developing our people.  A good, narrow, non-compete is important for the company and can be done in ways that are fair to employees who are the beneficiaries of the training and development as well as their employment.  I think that’s part of the social contract of a great workplace.  Non-competes don’t stifle innovation — they protect investments that lead to innovation.  I suppose the same argument could be made of patents, some of which make more sense than others, but that’s the subject of another rant sometime.

But at the end of the day, it’s up to us to retain our people by providing a great place to work and advance careers so this whole thing is a non-issue!