The Common Paper blog

What is an LOI?

An LOI, or Letter of Intent, is a document that describes a plan to work together in the future. LOIs are intended to be informal and non-binding, which is different from traditional contracts.

LOIs are used in lots of different industries and situations, including acquisitions, venture capital investments, job offers, and even buying a house. Startups most commonly use LOIs to secure non-binding commitments from prospective customers, often as proof of market validation to share with potential investors. 

To help B2B startups validate their market and gain early traction with customers and investors, we created an LOI for commercial technology transactions.

Template LOI

We created a sample LOI that is available for free under the Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 license.

Compared to a traditional sales contract, the LOI is shorter, more informal, and doesn’t cover as many details of the relationship between vendor and customer. Usually, the goal after signing an LOI is to move to a full-fledged contract like the Cloud Service Agreement or Professional Services Agreement

The most important difference, however, is about legal enforceability. Put another way, while these other contracts are binding, the LOI is not. 

Is an LOI legally binding?

The name of an agreement, whether it’s a Letter of Intent, Cloud Service Agreement, Service Level Agreement, etc, does not determine if it’s legally binding. That depends on the content of the document and the circumstances under which it is entered. The details can be very important, and there’s even been a case where a court ruled that a 👍 emoji was an enforceable contract

In most commercial contexts, LOIs are intended to be non-binding. This means that signing the document has no legal impact on rights, obligations, or liabilities. 

The Common Paper LOI is non-binding except for a binding confidentiality obligation. Vendors and customers often share sensitive information in the course of evaluating a potential relationship, and that information stays protected regardless of whether the deal ultimately moves forward.

When do startups use LOIs?

Startups almost always prefer to sign an actual sales contract rather than an LOI. Sales contracts represent revenue, and there’s nothing quite like paying customers to validate product-market fit. However, LOIs can be useful as evidence of traction for investors before it’s possible to get a signed sales contract.

If there is a mismatch between your funding requirements and your target customers’ procurement timeline, an LOI can help bridge the gap. Let’s say that you have a prospect that will take more than a year to evaluate your product and negotiate a contract, but you need to raise a round of funding within 3 months. 

While you won’t be able to get to a signed sales contract, you may be able to get them to sign an LOI. The prospect has no legal obligation to move forward after the LOI, so investors don’t give it as much weight as a signed sales contract. However, it can be a valuable proofpoint that the purchase is being seriously considered.

LOI vs. Design Partner Agreement

A Design Partner Agreement is another option for formalizing a relationship before you’re ready for an actual sales contract. A design partnership typically takes place before the product is launched, while you’re working closely with a handful of prospects to iterate based on their feedback. The agreement outlines commitments from both sides about how they will work together.

The most notable difference from an LOI is that a Design Partner Agreement is binding. Note that binding does not necessarily mean that the parties are locked into doing business together long-term. Rather, binding in this context means that it’s an actual contract with legal force and obligations, even though either party can end the relationship at will.

The Design Partner Agreement is shorter and lighter weight than a full sales contract like the CSA, but it covers important things like clarifying that the vendor owns the IP for the product, which is not handled under an LOI.

There are increasing levels of formality going from LOI to Design Partner Agreement to CSA

Letter of IntentDesign Partner AgreementCloud Service Agreement
Informal intention to work togetherLightweight contract for early stage product developmentFull sales contract to cover the vendor/customer relationship
Quickest to review and signShows some commitment, but not as much as CSAUltimate goal for revenue and evidence of traction
Non-binding except for confidentialityBinding, covers IP ownership while being lighter weight than traditional sales contractBinding and covers all traditional legal aspects of relationship

Whether you sign an LOI or Design Partner Agreement, the goal is eventually to transition to a more traditional vendor-customer relationship along with a contract like the Cloud Service Agreement. To customize, propose, and sign your LOI for free, try Common Paper today.