Venture capital funds routinely negotiate for a right of redemption – the right to require the company to buy out their shares after a certain period of time if an exit has not occurred – as a key element of their exit strategy. But according to a recent case in Delaware, the VCs and the company‘s board members could be Delaware Court of Chanceryliable to common stockholders if they cause the company to engage in transactions to generate funds for redemption to the detriment of the common stockholders.

Frederick Hsu Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corporation, et. al. involves a $150 million investment by venture capital firm Oak Hill Capital Partners in a holding company formed to own Oversee.net. The investment terms included a right in favor of Oak Hill to demand redemption of its shares for its $150 million investment amount beginning five years after the closing. The following year, the terms of the redemption feature were made more favorable to Oak Hill by imposing on the company a contractual obligation to “take all reasonable actions (as determined by the [company’s] Board of Directors in good faith and consistent with its fiduciary duties)” to raise capital if the funds legally available are insufficient to satisfy the company’s redemption obligation in full.

Not long after its initial investment, Oak Hill bought out one of the company’s founders and gained control over a majority of the company’s voting power and the board. The complaint alleged that, two years later, Oak Hill concluded that exercising its redemption right was the most effective way to achieve the return of its capital, that the company lacked the cash to redeem any shares and that the company should change its business plan from pursuing growth to accumulating cash in order to maximize redemptions. The company then stopped making acquisitions, sold off most of its profitable business lines, changed the management team and approved bonuses that would be payable if the company redeemed at least $75 million of preferred stock. The board subsequently approved and the company executed two redemptions in the aggregate amount of $85 million and paid related bonuses in the amount of approximately $2.4 million. Essentially, the complaint alleged that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by prioritizing the interests of the preferred stockholders over those of the common.

In cases involving directors’ fiduciary duties, courts will generally follow the business judgment rule and give deference to, and not second-guess, directors’ decisions. In cases where the board is not constituted with a majority of disinterested directors or otherwise does not act through a special committee of disinterested directors, however, directors’ actions are examined not by the business judgment rule but by the entire fairness standard, effectively shifting the burden to the defendants to establish both that the process and price were fair. In ODN Holding, none of the directors was deemed to be disinterested, so the focus of the case was on whether or not the process undertaken by the board was fair.

Under Delaware law, board members generally have a legal duty to advance the best interests of the corporation, meaning that they must seek to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders. But in a world of many types of stock and stockholders — record and beneficial holders, long-term holders, short term traders, activists – the question is: which stockholders? In his opinion in ODN Holding, Vice Chancellor Laster stated that a board’s obligation to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of stockholders runs generally to the common stockholders as the residual claimants, which he said was justified because a corporation has a perpetual life and the common stockholders’ investment is locked in.

In ODN Holding, abandoning a growth strategy and selling off businesses was essentially a zero sum game: the cash generated by the sale of businesses benefited the preferred stockholders because it funded redemptions, but it hurt the common because it left the company without any means to sustain itself. The board chose to benefit the preferred at the expense of the common. But it could have chosen to keep the company intact, redeem preferred shares incrementally over the long run and thus leave open the possibility of creating residual value for the common. That strategy would have been unappealing to the preferred, who clearly wanted their capital returned sooner rather than later.

The court was careful to draw a distinction between preferred stockholders and lender/creditors. Unlike creditors, preferred stockholders have no legal right to fixed payments of interest and no maturity date with the prospect of capital repayment and remedies for default. The court went on to state that a redemption right, even one that has ripened, does not convert a preferred holder into a creditor, and doesn’t give the holder an absolute right to force the corporation to redeem its shares no matter what. That’s because redemption rights are subject to statutory, common law and contractual limitations. As a stockholder in a Delaware corporation, Oak Hill’s rights were subject to the requirements of Section 160 of the Delaware General Corporations Law. As a matter of common law, redemptions cannot be made when the corporation is, or would be rendered, insolvent. By contract, under the terms of the preferred stock itself, redemptions could only be made out of “funds legally available,” and the board only had an obligation to generate funds for redemptions through “reasonable actions” as determined by the board in good faith and consistent with its fiduciary duties.

The opinion states that a board does not owe fiduciary duties to preferred stockholders when considering whether or not to take corporate action that might trigger or circumvent the preferred stockholders’ contractual rights, i.e., redemption rights. Preferred stockholders are owed fiduciary duties only when they do not invoke their special contractual rights and instead rely only on rights shared equally with the common stock.

It should be noted that Oak Hill’s preferred stock did not carry a cumulative dividend, a common feature of preferred stock which would have otherwise steadily increased the amount of the liquidation preference. Had Oak Hill’s preferred stock included cumulative dividends, the board might have stronger grounds to conclude that there was no realistic scenario for the company ever to generate proceeds sufficient to satisfy the preferred’s liquidation preference (as supplemented by the cumulative dividends) and then to have any value left over for the common, in which case the board would have been justified in liquidating the company with all proceeds going to the preferred.

It also bears emphasizing that ODN Holding was decided on a motion to dismiss, a pleading-stage decision, in which the plaintiff is given the benefit of the doubt. The court left open the possibility that the trial court could find that, even without the obligation to pay cumulative dividends, the directors could have reasonably concluded that the company’s value as a going concern would never exceed Oak Hill’s $150 million liquidation preference and so selling substantially all the assets with all proceeds going to the preferred and nothing left for the common was defensible because the common was effectively worthless. But that issue would have to be determined at trial, not on a motion to dismiss.

Key Take-Aways: Companies should tread very carefully in embarking on a series of transactions to generate funds for redemption when the board is not constituted with a majority of disinterested directors. Directors must treat preferred stockholders, even those with ripened redemption rights, differently than creditors, whose contractual rights have far less legal restrictions and whose rights need not be balanced against those of the common stockholders. Where a board contemplates a course of action to benefit the preferred, they must be prepared to prove that doing so was value maximizing because the preferred holders’ liquidation preference exceeded the company’s value as a going concern, effectively rendering the common stock worthless. And finally, from the investors’ perspective, negotiating for and securing cumulative dividends would help bolster that last argument.

exitEvery founder of a growth startup dreams of a big, successful exit — a sale of the company for millions of dollars. But that dream could be shattered if the investors are able to cause the company to be sold prematurely with proceeds only equal to or barely exceeding the investors’ liquidation preferences, leaving little or nothing for the founders. Such a proposed deal will almost always be opposed by the founders, believing that the company could achieve a much higher valuation if it remained independent for a bit longer. Whether or not such a deal gets consummated over the objections of the founders depends on state law provisions and negotiated contractual terms that combined will determine the one factor that ultimately matters: control over the deal process.

Background: Liquidation Preference and Investment Horizon

In a typical round of venture funding, the investors receive a liquidation preference, i.e., the right to receive first dollars (after creditors are paid) up to an agreed amount in any sale of the company. In a company’s first institutional funding round (typically designated as Series A), a liquidation preference of 1X plus annual dividends of 8% is “market”, i.e., the investors get an amount off the top equal to the amount they invested plus accumulated dividends before the common shareholders receive anything. Later rounds (Series B, Series C, etc.) may have liquidation preferences of higher multiples of dollars invested, e.g., 1.5X, 2X, etc. A more investor friendly variation is what’s called participating preferred, in which the investors, after receiving their liquidation preference, then share pro rata in the remaining proceeds with the common shareholders, often up to some maximum amount.

So if a VC is not sanguine about a portfolio company’s long term prospects, he may be happy to sell the company for an amount equal to his liquidation preference, particularly at a point several years into the investment. In this regard, the time horizons of founders and institutional investors are inherently in conflict. A venture fund’s limited partnership agreement will typically limit the fund’s life tomoney vs. time ten years, with the initial three years designated for sourcing investments and the remaining seven for exits. With certain exceptions, a fund manager is required to distribute any profits to the fund’s limited partners by the expiration of that ten-year period, which is why a VC’s investment horizon in any given portfolio company is typically three to seven years. Consequently, a VC will often favor a quick exit because it offers a higher risk-adjusted return, and eliminates further risk to their investment. In other words, the VC might believe there’s some likelihood the company’s valuation may increase, but why risk it if he’s entitled to his liquidation preference, particularly if the wind-down of his fund is imminent? Free of such timing constraints, a founder on the other hand would almost always prefer to buy more time, particularly when the company’s projections show an upward trajectory. The founder’s problem, though, is that acquirors will generally value a company based primarily upon historical data, and will either ignore or heavily discount projected metrics.

State Law

So in a sale of the company proposed by the investors and opposed by the founders, who determines whether the deal gets consummated? The starting point is state law. The corporate statute of the state of the company’s incorporation will dictate the minimum vote threshold needed from shareholders. Some state statutes are more protective of common shareholders (founders almost always hold common shares) by requiring approval of the common holders voting separately as a class, essentially a group veto, and/or may require a supermajority vote, which gives the common the ability to block a deal if they collectively own enough shares to prevent the majority from meeting the vote threshold. States that are less protective of common shareholders will require only approval of a simple majority of holders of all shares outstanding, without requiring a separate class vote. That’s the Delaware model. New York voting rightscorporations organized before 1998 must secure a two-thirds majority of all holders unless their charter provides for a simple majority (simple majority for post-1998 corporations), and a separate class vote is required to approve a merger if the shareholders receive stock of the acquiror or another entity containing attributes not included in the target’s charter for which the target’s shareholders would have been required to approve in a separate class vote under New York law.

Another source of state law that impacts control over the deal process is case law regarding a director’s fiduciary duty. Before a proposed acquisition even gets to a shareholder vote, it must be approved first by a majority of the target company’s board, whose actions must be consistent with the directors’ fiduciary obligations. These include primarily the duty of care (generally, the obligation to be informed and diligent) and the duty of loyalty (essentially, the obligation to put the interests of the company and the shareholders above a director’s personal interests and not have any conflicts). Shareholders have a right to sue directors for breaches of fiduciary duty, and common shareholders will have a stronger or weaker case in attacking approval of the sale of a company as a violation of fiduciary duty depending on how favorable a particular state’s fiduciary duty case law is to the common holders. Delaware fiduciary duty case law is regarded as board friendly.

Contractual Terms

Some of the most important terms negotiated by VCs in a venture investment are the ones impacting control, both at the board level and the shareholder level. As mentioned above, a sale of the company must first be approved by a majority of the directors. The allocation of board seats is determined by negotiation during each round of funding. Although a fair outcome would be for investors to receive board representation in proportion to their share ownership (e.g., two of five seats when owning 40% of the outstanding shares), the investors will often negotiate for and receive disproportionate representation on the board and sometimes even a majority. A typical board composition arrangement might be a five-person board consisting of two directors designated by the investors, two directors selected by the common shareholders and one independent industry expert mutually selected by the common holders and the investors. But if the industry expert is someone with whom the investors have a preexisting relationship, human nature is such that he will view the investors as a source of future opportunities and tend to side with them, thus giving the investors an effective majority.

Other key control rights negotiated for by VCs are so-called protective provisions, which give the investors a veto over major decisions, including a sale of the company. Here, the battle is over what transactions or decisions make the list, and what vote threshold is required within the class of preferred. But a veto is only a right to block, not a right to approve. It doesn’t give the preferred the right to compel the company to consummate a deal opposed by the requisite holders. That’s where drag-along rights come into play.

Drag-along rights give investors the power to require other holders to vote in drag alongfavor of a deal the investors are proposing, sometimes conditioned on board approval. If a sufficient number of shares are so encumbered, the investors can ensure that holders of a requisite percentage of the outstanding shares or close enough to it vote to approve a deal favored by the investors.

So Who Controls the Deal Process?

Putting it all together, investors are more likely to control the deal process if all or at least some of the following are true: the company is incorporated in a state that does not require a class vote of the common to approve a sale of the company, the state has fiduciary duty case law favorable to directors, the investors have an actual or effective majority of the board and the investors control the cap table either outright or through a combination of ownership and drag along rights. In limited cases, the common shareholders will nevertheless be able to negotiate for a share of the proceeds in sub-liquidation preference deals, getting the preferred to relinquish some of the amount they’re otherwise contractually entitled to. Such an outcome is more likely to occur where the investors are able to approve a deal at the board level, but the common shareholders have one or more of the other factors in their favor, such as ownership of enough shares to block the vote or the benefit of common shareholder favorable fiduciary duty state case law. Or sometimes, the VCs just want to sweeten the pot to create the appearance of fairness to preserve a good reputation. But the VCs will rarely just give anything anyway; they’ll likely condition any common shareholder liquidation preference carveout on the recipients signing a release.

Snap IPOThe just completed IPO of Snap Inc. has received enormous buzz and plenty of press coverage, mostly about its eye-popping valuation and offering proceeds, the big winners among the founders and early investors and the millennials who bought shares. But not nearly as much attention has been given to Snap’s tri-class capital structure and the nature of the shares that were actually issued in the IPO: the shares of Class A Common Stock sold in the IPO are non-voting. By its own admission, Snap may have pulled off the first ever IPO of non-voting stock.

Snap’s capital now consists of the non-voting Class A shares held by public investors, Class B shares snapIPO2with one vote per share held by early round investors, employees and directors and Class C shares with ten votes per share held by the founders. As a result of the Class C common stock that they hold, co-founders Evan Spiegel and Robert Murphy will be able to exercise voting rights with respect to an aggregate of 215,887,848 shares, representing approximately 88.5% of the voting power immediately following the offering. Consequently, Spiegel and Murphy, and potentially either one of them alone (see below), have the ability to control the outcome of all matters submitted to stockholders for approval, including election, removal, and replacement of directors and any merger or sale of all or substantially all of the assets.

Multiple class structures are not unusual, and several high profile companies went public with them in recent years. What’s unusual here is that whereas the shares sold in those other multiple class structure IPOs had at least some voting rights (typically, one vote per share vs. 10 for the founder class), Snap’s public offering shares have no voting rights. Technically, Delaware law would permit holders of Snap’s Class A non-voting stock nevertheless to vote with one vote per share on any proposal to amend the certificate of incorporation in any way that would adversely affect the holders of the Class A. For example, if a proposed amendment provided for the Class A to rank junior to the Class B and Class C with respect to dividends or acquisition proceeds, a Class A vote would be required and the holders of a majority of Class A shares could defeat that amendment. Such a proposal would be extremely rare, however, and the Class A holders would have no say in the much more typical matters of board elections and any proposed sale of the company.

Multiple share classes are especially useful to public technology companies because they give them the freedom to innovate without the constraints of “short termism” and also serve as a deterrence to takeover bids because of activists’ inability to manipulate the voting machinery for election of directors.

Snap’s Class A common stock will be its only class registered under Section 12 of the Securities Exchange Act, and because the Class A is non-voting, Snap will not be required to file proxy statements except for a rare case where a vote of the Class A common stock is required (see above). Nevertheless, Snap indicated in its S-1 that it will provide Class A holders any information that it provides voluntarily to Class B and Class C holders.

What makes Snap’s structure even more unusual is survivability and portability.  According to Snap’s S-1, If Spiegel’s or Murphy’s employment is terminated (which, because of their control, could only happen if they turn on each other), they will continue to have the ability to exercise the same significant voting power and continue to control the outcome of all matters submitted to stockholders for approval. A founder’s Class C shares will automatically convert into Class B shares, on a one-for-one basis, nine months following such founder’s zuckerbergdeath or on the date on which the number of outstanding Class C shares held by such holder represents less than 30% of the Class C (or 32,383,178 shares) held by such holder at the time of the IPO. Facebook, on the other hand, amended its certificate of incorporation so that Mark Zuckerberg’s majority voting control is good only while he is an executive at the company.

Snap’s capital structure has drawn some criticism. In a New York Times piece, Cal Berkley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon referred to Snap’s IPO as “the most stockholder-unfriendly governance in an initial public offering, ever.” In the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, Rob Kalb and Rob Yates of Institutional Stockholder Services cited a 2016 ISS study that showed that controlled companies had weaker governance standards and tended to underperform “with respect to total stockholder returns, revenue growth, return on equity, and dividend payout ratios.” And the Council of Institutional Investors sent a letter to Snap’s co-founders objecting to the capital structure and urging them to adopt a single class structure. While acknowledging that similar emerging companies with dynamic leadership and promising products have successfully raised capital despite having dual class structures, Snap’s structure is unusual in that the investors would have no voting rights and dual class company performance has been mixed at best.

When Google, Facebook and Under Armour went public, they each did so with a dual-class share structure that at least afforded public stockholders one vote per share. Nevertheless, each company subsequently requested stockholder approval for the issuance of a third class of non-voting shares. In each case, the purpose of creating a new non-voting class was to maintain founder voting control while simultaneously providing insider liquidity.

Despite the overall positive outcomes achieved by Google and Facebook for their stockholders, going public as a controlled company with an unequal-voting-rights structure is no guaranty for financial success. Groupon, Zynga and GoPro each went public with a dual-class structure, received poor ISS corporate governance scores indicating the highest levels of governance risk, and the share price of all three dropped precipitously since their respective IPOs.

Adding salt to the corporate governance wound, Snap is taking advantage of emerging growth company status under the JOBS Act, meaning that it is not required to comply with the auditor attestation requirements under Sarbanes-Oxley and the reduced executive compensation disclosure requirements and may delay adoption of new public-company accounting principles.

In the final analysis, investors will need to decide which Mark the Snap founders better resemble, Facebook’s Zuckerberg or Zynga’s Pincus. And looking beyond Snap, it remains to be seen whether other emerging companies adopt the Snap IPO playbook by launching IPOs with multiple-class structures that preserve founder control and give public stockholders little or no governance voice.

Earlier this year, Union Square Ventures Managing Partner Fred Wilson famously referred to corporate VCs as “The Devil”, when he asserted that companies should not be investing in other companies, that they should be buying other companies but not taking minority positions in them, that the “access” rationale for corporate venture is a reason why entrepreneurs should not want them in the room and that startups who take investment from them are “doing business with the devil”.  Ouch!  So why the hostility?

Corporate venture capital refers to venture style investments in emerging companies made by venture capital divisions of large companies, as distinguished from venture investments made by the more google Vtraditional investment funds that most people associate with venture capital. I’ve been seeing corporate VC term sheets with greater regularity lately, so I decided to blog about some of its characteristics, advantages and disadvantages relative to institutional venture capital.

Indeed, corporate VC appears to be on the rise. According to the National Venture Capital Association, corporate venture deployed over $7.5 billion in 905 deals to startups in 2015, a fifteen year high and representing 13% of all venture capital dollars invested for the year but 21% of all deals consummated.  From 2011 to 2015, the number of corporate VC divisions in the United States rose nearly 50% from 1,068 to 1,501   And according to CB Insights, the average corporate VC deal size has consistently been larger than the average institutional VC deal size over the last 14 quarters ended June 2016, with corporate VC deal sizes averaging above $20 million over the previous five quarters.

intel capitalBig technology and healthcare companies have long made venture style investments in startups. Google Ventures, Intel Capital, Dell Ventures and Cisco Investments are veteran corporate VCs that immediately come to mind. But it’s the relatively recent cisco investmentsarrival of new corporate investors that have driven the growth in corporate VC, in sectors ranging from transportation (e.g., GM’s $500 million investment in Lyft) to financial services to convenience stores.

Corporate VC programs have dramatically different overall objectives than institutional VC funds. Primary among these objectives is bolstering internal research and development activities and gaining access to new technologies that complement the corporation’s product development efforts. Venture investments are also a way for corporations to gain intelligence on disruptive products and salesforce vtechnologies that could pose a competitive threat.  A minority investment could also be the first step toward an eventual acquisition of the portfolio company.  More limited objectives might include establishing an OEM partner, a channel for additional company product sales or even a product integration that might drive sales for the investing company.  And yes, there’s also the objective of financial returns.

If a company is considering launching a venture capital program, it’s important to choose a structure that will align with its investment objectives. Corporate VC programs can either be structured internally, where a company invests from its own balance sheet, or externally.  Generally speaking, internal divisions are more comcast venturesappropriate for strategic investments intended to support a corporate sponsor’s core business.  One downside of internal structures is that they tend to be more bureaucratic and slower in decision making. Another is that the financial capacity to invest is basically a function of the corporate sponsor’s financial health, which could fluctuate over time.

External structures are more nimble in making decisions and generally have greater flexibility to make investments that may be disruptive to the investing company’s core business. Since investments are made microsoft venturesoff the corporate sponsor’s balance sheet, external structures allow companies to pursue riskier and more disruptive R&D. They also tend to attract more experienced investment managers and so are often better able to achieve both strategic as well as financial objectives.

In terms of exit strategy, corporate VCs seek a wider range of possible outcomes from an investment. Maximizing proceeds is typically not the exit strategy.  A corporate VC may just as likely view as a successful outcome the portfolio company becoming an acquisition target, an OEM partner, a channel for GE Venturesadditional company product sales or even a product integration that would drive sales for the investing company.  VC funds, on the other hand, seek one type of exit: a multiple return on their investment dollars from either an acquisition or a sale of shares following an IPO.

Advantages

As I mentioned above, investments by a corporate VC are funded by the corporation’s own balance sheet, and are thus not subject to the ongoing pressure from limited partners and the ten year time restrictions of a typical VC fund’s limited partnership agreement. The result is that corporate VCs are generally more patient and have longer time horizons than VC funds.

Corporate VCs generally negotiate for less control over their portfolio companies than do VC funds. This is largely because when the investor company is deemed to have the power to influence the operating or financial decisions of the company its investing in, the investor company is required to account for its investment under the equity method of accounting, under which the investor recognizes its share of the profits and losses of the investee. If the investor has 20% or more of the voting stock of the investee, the investor is presumed to have control.  Consequently, corporate VCs generally avoid taking 20% or more of a portfolio company’s voting shares.  The need to avoid indicia of control is also why corporate VCs often decline board representation.

Another advantage is that, as I mentioned above, an investment from a corporate VC may be the first step toward being acquired by that corporation, thus giving the portfolio company and its founders a clear exit pathway without having to go through a prolonged investment banking process. It can also create instant credibility in the industry, which can then be leveraged to attract talent and customers.  Finally, it can provide channel access, product integration and other benefits to help accelerate market penetration.

Disadvantages

Investment from a corporate VC may have certain disadvantages, however. First, a corporate VC’s strategic objectives may conflict with a portfolio company’s financial goals, which for example may motivate the corporate VC to block a proposed acquisition or subsequent investment if the transaction does not align with the strategic goals of the corporate VC’s parent. Second, corporate VCs often negotiate for a right of first refusal or option to acquire the company which would limit the company’s options going forward and have a chilling effect on other potential acquirers.  Third, it could antagonize potential customers or business partners who view themselves as competitors of the corporate VC. Fourth, corporate VC divisions often receive an annual allocation of dollars to invest, as opposed to an aggregate commitment of dollars that a fund receives to invest during the fund’s investment period, which means that the availability of follow-on funding may be tied to the financial capacity and whims of the parent company. And finally, a strategic may set the valuation higher than what the market will bear, which could make it difficult for the company to secure co-investors, which in turn could leave the company under-funded and, as mentioned just above, could leave the company vulnerable if the corporate VC parent isn’t able or interested in making follow-on investments.

Final Thought

So back to Fred Wilson’s choice words for corporate VCs.  Perhaps the root of the antagonism is the tendency for corporate VCs to drive up valuations, which makes deals more expensive for institutional funds and may crowd them out of certain deals entirely.  Wilson sort of implied as much when he stated in the same interview that a startup would only do a deal with a corporate VC if it couldn’t secure funding elsewhere or if the corporate VC was paying a higher price than he would pay.

Seed stage investment deals, i.e., those in a range of approximately $100,000 on the low end and around $1.3 million on the high end, are structured either as straight equity or as convertible loans. If straight equity, the company typically issues to the investor shares of preferred stock usually designated as Series Seed which includes a package of enhanced rights but usually stripped down from seed investingthose typically associated with Series A shares.  Alternatively, the investor could invest in the form of a loan that converts into the security issued in the next equity round, usually at some discount to the next round’s price.

This post will focus on convertible note deal term trends based on the 2016 Venture Capital Report recently released by the helpful folks at Wilmer Hale. The convertible note data in the Report was compiled from over 100 deals handled by the firm from 2013 through 2015 for companies and investors in the U.S.

Conversion Discount

Seed investors often negotiate for a discount from the price per share in the next equity round to reward the seed investor for investing at an earlier, riskier stage. discount89% of convertible loan deals covered by the Report in 2015 had discounts, a significant increase from the 66% that had them in 2013.  Sometimes parties negotiate for an ascending discount in which the discount increases as the period between seed and next round increases.  The Report doesn’t provide any information on time periods between seed and next round, or on the percentage of deals that had a sliding discount.  The range of discounts was between 10% and 50%, with 74% of discounted deals having a discount of 20% or less and 26% having discounts of more than 20%.

Conversion Caps

A major advantage of convertible loans is that they allow the parties to defer negotiation of probably the most difficult business issue until the next round: valuation. But that advantage also poses a risk to the seed investor, namely that at the time of conversion at the next round the company’s pre-money valuation will be much higher and thus much more expensive for the seed round investor. caps A discount offers protection against valuation inflation, but only relative to what the next round investors are paying.  An added measure of protection is a cap on the next round valuation applicable to the seed investor’s conversion rate.  For example, imagine a $1 million convertible loan with no discount, no cap, and the company subsequently raises $5 million in a Series A round at a pre-money valuation of $20 million with a per share price of $1.  The note would convert into one million shares ($1 million loan (leaving aside interest for simplicity) divided by $1/share).  But if the note had a $5 million cap, the shares would convert at the rate of, not $1 per share, but $0.50 per share, so that the seed investor would receive two million shares ($1,000,000/$0.50) rather than one million.  I’ve previously blogged here about why valuation caps are loved by angels, tolerated by VCs and hated by entrepreneurs.

Although still popular, valuation caps seem to be trending down somewhat. The Report indicates that only 55% of convertible loan deals contained caps in 2015, nearly a 20% drop from the 74% that featured them the year before.

Conversion on Maturity

The truth about seed round convertible promissory notes is that they are promises that no one intends to be kept. At least the repayment part.  They are intended to be converted into equity.  But what happens if a qualified next round doesn’t occur prior to the maturity date of the note?  Very often, the note will provide that the outstanding principal and interest will convert on a given date, either automatically or at the option of the holder, at a set price or a price determined by a formula or procedure.  According to the Report, 60% of deals in 2015 had some kind of conversion at maturity.  Of those, 89% were at the investor’s option (up from 80% in 2013) and 11% were mandatory (down from 20% in 2013).  In addition, 32% of the 2015 deals that converted upon maturity convert into common stock, substantially unchanged from 2013 but a dramatic decline from the 54% of the conversion-at-maturity deals in 2015 that convert into common.  68% of the 2015 convert-at-maturity deals convert into preferred, also substantially unchanged from 2013, but a sharp increase from the 46% of the 2014 deals that convert into preferred.

Sale of the Company

Upon a sale of the company prior to maturity and prior to a next-round conversion, the outstanding principal and interest may convert into common or preferred stock, either automatically or at the option of the debt holder. In 2015, 74% of the convertible deals covered in the Report had some kind of conversion on a sale of the company, up from 66% in 2014.  Of those, the conversion-on-sale feature was overwhelmingly at the option of the holder (91%, up from 86% in 2014; 9% were mandatory).  Of these deals, they were pretty evenly split in 2015 between those converting into common and those converting into preferred.  In 2014, on the other hand, the conversion-on-sale provisions tended to favor conversions into common (60%) rather than preferred (40%).

Conversion Premiums on Sale of the Company

Seed investors sometimes negotiate for the right to be paid a multiple of principal and interest upon a sale of the company, similar to a liquidation preference associated with preferred stock. Roughly one half of the deals in the Report had company sale premiums.  The premiums ranged from 1.5x (i.e., 1.5 times the outstanding principal and interest) on the low end to 4x on the upper end, an increase from the upper range of 3x in 2014, although the median multiple was steady throughout 2013-2015 at 2x.

Secured Notes

Convertible note investors sometimes negotiate for the note to be secured by some or all of the company’s assets. If the note is not repaid or converted at maturity, the investor could look to the pledged assets to satisfy the loan.  Investors in 2015 were not as successful as they were in 2013 in getting their notes secured.  Only 15% of the convertible notes covered by the Report in 2015 were secured (85% unsecured), down from 25% in 2013 (75% unsecured in 2013).

Conclusion

The foregoing data on conversion discounts, caps, conversion at maturity, sale-of-company conversions and premiums and security suggests that the convertible note deal term pendulum may have started to swing back in favor of investors in 2015. Deal terms in the categories of conversion discounts, conversion at maturity, sale-of-company conversions and sale-of-company premiums were more favorable to investors in 2015.  Terms were more favorable to companies in 2015 with respect to caps and note security.  Given recent developments regarding cooling valuations and a stalled technology IPO market, it will be interesting to see whether the pendulum for convertible deal terms will move more significantly in favor of investors in 2016.

 

Lane Becker, Former CEO of Get Satisfaction
Lane Becker, Former CEO of Get Satisfaction

The Founder of a $50 Million Startup Just Sold His Company — And He Didn’t Make a Dime”.  Such was the provocative headline of the Business Insider article last year reporting the sad tale of young entrepreneur Lane Becker and how he and his management team received none of the acquisition proceeds on the sale of Get Satisfaction, the company Becker founded.  Becker’s fate was not anomalous, and happens when the cumulative liquidation preference amount payable to investors exceeds the value of the company itself.  In this blog post, I’ll briefly explain the liquidation preference overhang phenomenon and discuss how to keep founders and key employees incentivized with a carveout arrangement.

Liquidation preference is a key term negotiated in venture and even seed stage investments. It’s the amount of money the preferred stockholders are contractually entitled to receive off the top on a sale of the company before the common stockholders receive anything.  The common stockholders receive only the balance after the liquidation preference is paid, and if the liquidation preference has a participating feature, the preferred stockholders also participate pro rata in that balance on an as-converted basis.

I have previously blogged here and here about how entrepreneurs often are too fixated on valuation and tend to overlook at their peril the impact that liquidation preference can have on the value of the entrepreneurs’ equity stake. A rich valuation could be completely undercut by a heavy liquidation preference stack.  For example, suppose an investor is proposing to invest $20 million at a pre-money valuation of $60 million for Series B preferred stock constituting 25% of the total equity on an as converted fully-diluted basis and includes a 2x liquidation preference.  The founder is giddy about the $60 million pre-money valuation and takes the deal.  The company had previously raised $10 million in a Series A round where the Series A had a 1x liquidation preference.  Two years after the Series B, the company is sputtering, challenged by competitors and investors and management alike believe the company may only be valued at $40 million, $10 million below the cumulative liquidation preference of $50 million (2 x $20,000,000 (Series B) + 1 x $10,000,000 (Series A)).  Founders’ and management’s common shares are essentially worthless and, consequently, they have little or no incentive to work hard and help the company succeed.

Prior to being acquired, Get Satisfaction was reported to have raised $10 million in a Series B round at a pre-money valuation of $50 million, bringing the total amount raised to $21 million. The purchase price of the acquisition was not disclosed, but it must have been less than $21 million for management to have been washed out (assuming a 1x liquidation preference).

In Lane Becker’s case, he had been terminated as CEO a few years prior to the acquisition of Get Satisfaction, which could happen when founders negotiate away control of their company. But what happens in the more typical scenario when founders are still the CEO or otherwise are employed by and managing the company at a time when the liquidation overhang looms, i.e., when the aggregate liquidation preference amounts exceed the company’s valuation?  What incentive does the common stock holding management team have to stick it out?  Cash compensation will rarely get management satisfaction (pun intended), either because startups seldom have the cash to do so or because cash compensation was never a motivating factor for key employees to begin with.  By joining a startup, talented employees typically sacrifice higher cash compensation they could earn with more established companies in favor of the upside potential that comes with equity they receive in the startup.  Hence, the drill would be to come up with a mechanism that simulates the upside potential of equity without that upside being negated by the liquidation preference overhang.

That mechanism is a bonus or carve-out plan that provides for a payout to carveouteligible employees upon a sale of the company or other liquidity events identified in the plan. A typical plan sets aside a pool of money whose amount is determined based upon a certain percentage of acquisition proceeds.  A well drafted plan would address certain issues related to calculating the proceeds upon which the payout is determined, such as assumption of debt by the purchaser, deferred payments, earnouts and contingent payments.  The relevant percentage may also be on a sliding scale, e.g., 3% on the first $100 million, 5% on the next $50 million and 7% on amounts exceeding $150 million.

Inasmuch as these plans are intended to provide value to common stockholders when the common is worthless, plans could (or should) consider the value of the common (i.e., when the purchase price exceeds the liquidation preference amount) as an offset to payouts and also set a ceiling on payouts. The plan could be structured either as a quasi-contractual commitment by the company in the form of a benefit plan or as a special class of common stock that would be issued to founders and key employees that would be pari passu with the preferred but have a separately calculated payout formula upon the sale of the company.

Buried in the recently enacted Highway Bill, officially the Fixing America’s Fast ActSurface Transportation Act or FAST Act, is a new exemption for the resale of securities.  The new resale exemption appears in the form of a new Section 4(a)(7) of the Securities Act of 1933 and essentially codifies the so-exit strategy 2called 4(a)(1-1/2) exemption.  New Section 4(a)(7) will provide securityholders seeking to resell their securities without registration greater certainty and another viable alternative exit pathway, particularly from privately held companies.   Inasmuch as no Securities and Exchange Commission rulemaking is required, the new exemption is effective right now.

Background

The requirement that each sale of securities be either registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission or satisfy an exemption from registration applies as well to any resale of securities by security holders. Rule 144 is a common exemption for the resale of restricted securities (and of any securities by holders who are affiliates of the issuer, i.e., control securities).  Another exemption used by reselling shareholders is the so-called 4(a)(1-1/2) exemption, an unofficial, unwritten exemption conceived by securities lawyers which over time has become accepted practice.  It’s called the 4(a)(1-1/2) exemption because it contains elements of both Section 4(a)(1) of the Securities Act, which exempts from registration transactions by any person other than an issuer, underwriter or dealer, and Section 4(a)(2) of the Securities Act, which exempts transactions by an issuer not involving any public offering.

The New Section 4(a)(7) Resale Exemption

New Section 4(a)(7) essentially codifies “Section 4(a)(1-1/2)” by exempting from the registration requirements of Section 5 of the Securities Act resales of restricted securities that satisfy the following requirements:

  • securities sold only to accredited investors
  • no general solicitation
  • if the issuer is not a reporting company, the seller and prospective buyer are able to obtain from the issuer certain reasonably current information about the issuer, including the number of shares outstanding, information about the officers and directors, any persons registered as a broker, dealer or agent that will receive any commission for the transaction; recent balance sheet and profit and loss statements; and if the seller is a control person of the issuer, a statement regarding the nature of the affiliation and a certification by the seller that it has no reasonable grounds to believe that the issuer is in violation of the securities laws
  • seller is not a direct or indirect subsidiary of the issuer
  • neither the seller nor any person being paid in connection with the sale is a bad actor, as described in Regulation D
  • the issuer is not a blank check, blind pool or shell company; and
  • the class of securities has been outstanding for at least 90 days prior to the transaction.

New Section 4(a)(7) will provide greater legal certainty to shareholders seeking to resell shares than currently provided in the so-called Section 4(a)(1-1/2) exemption, which was never formally legislated or codified through SEC rulemaking.

New Section 4(a)(7) will also present a viable alternative to Rule 144, the traditional safe harbor for the resale of restricted and control securities, in relation to which Section 4(a)(7) has both advantages and disadvantages.

As to the advantages, sellers under Section 4(a)(7) may sell an unlimited number of shares, unlike affiliates in Rule 144 transactions who are capped in any rolling three month period to the greater of one percent of the outstanding shares or the average weekly trading volume over the preceding four week period. Section 4(a)(7) sellers need not satisfy any holding period, unlike Rule 144 sellers who must hold the shares for either six months in the case of reporting issuers or one year in the case of non-reporting issuers.  A Section 4(a)(7) exemption need not be reported in an SEC filing, unlike Rule 144 sales by affiliates.  Finally, the FAST Act made explicitly clear that shares sold in a Section 4(a)(7) transaction are deemed “covered securities” for purposes of the National Securities Markets Improvement Act of 1996, meaning that state regulation is preempted and these transactions are not subject to state review.

On the other hand, there are certain disadvantages relative to Rule 144. Shares sold in a Section 4(a)(7) transaction are deemed to be restricted securities in the hands of the purchaser, who would then need to find his own exemption on a subsequent resale, as opposed to shares sold under Rule 144 which become unrestricted.  Furthermore, Section 4(a)(7) shares may only be sold to accredited investors, whereas shares sold under Rule 144 may be sold to anyone.

Finally, it will be interesting to see what practices emerge with respect to the information that must be obtained from a non-reporting issuer, including whether issuers will insist on signed confidentiality agreements as a condition to disclosing the required information.