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.

It’s never easy to take an entire business day out of the office, but the annual Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit is well worth it.  The 2014 edition, dubbed “Beyond the Horizon”, was no exception.  One thing that struck me about this year’s summit was that, unlike previous years, none of the entrepreneur speakers were Cornell alums, demonstrating that the summit has evolved from a Cornell entrepreneurship event to a Cornell event about entrepreneurship.  As to the speakers, here are some of the more memorable and meaningful takeaways for me.

Skybox CEO Tom Ingersoll
How did a startup succeed in creating a real-time Google-Earth?  Skybox Imaging CEO Tom Ingersoll asked the audience, “Have you looked at your house on Google Earth? Disappointed it was two years old?” Because satellites are so expensive to build and launch, most of the pictures that we see are of poor quality and years out of date. Until now. Skybox knew that real-time satellite imaging would require dozens of satellites, a prohibitively expensive endeavor with the cost of a single satellite being around $850 million.  So Skybox needed to find a way to build satellites for a fraction of that, and created a lightweight, nimble satellite in-house for about $10 million.  Ingersoll insisted that the key to Skybox’s success is in execution, and evoked the line mostly attributed to Thomas Edison (also a favorite of Steve Jobs):  “Vision without execution is hallucination”.  Ingersoll said that another key to Skybox’s success is that it has had a patient board of directors, which enabled Skybox to say “no” to Google twice, before finally agreeing to be acquired earlier this year.

If a company offered its employees unlimited vacation time, would anyone show up to work?  Return Path CEO Matt Blumberg revealed that when his company instituted that policy it experienced no higher vacation rates.   The author of “Start-Up CEO” said that his employees are encouraged to take as much time off as they can while maintaining high performance and achieving milestones.  “We don’t count the hours they work, so why should we count the hours they don’t?”

Sols CEO Kegan Schouwenburg

“We went from the cobbler to standardized mass manufacturing and now today we are going to change all that with digital manufacturing”, announced Kegan Schouwenburg, CEO of Sols Systems.  Sols captures a 3-D model of a patient’s foot, makes therapeutic adjustments in a web-based app and manufactures a final product with a 3-D printer.  Schouwenburg also demonstrated the direct to consumer version of the service where a customer can scan his or her own foot with a smartphone and order a custom fit insert.  “One super cool thing about digital manufacturing: no waste”, Schouwenburg said.

Despite recent mega-exits like WhatsApp, Tumblr and Waze, billion-dollar exits are rare, so much so that they’ve been designated the name of a mythical creature, a unicorn.  Every VC chases them.  “Birthing a unicorn is hard”, proclaimed CB Insights CEO Anand Sanwal.  Sanwal’s data shows that only one percent of exits are unicorns, while 72% are below $200 million.  Sanwal said that we may not be in a bubble yet, but valuations are “frothy”.  Although billion dollar valuations require lots of capital raising, some of the recent unicorns raised money late at higher valuations, or never, including Shutterstock and former Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit presenter Wayfair, and Anand said that “these are the companies we should celebrate”.

In what may seem like a blink of an iPad, New York has emerged over the last few years as the number two leading technology hub in America, behind, of course, Silicon Valley.  No small accomplishment, considering that five years ago New York was a mere afterthought among tech entrepreneurs and VCs and a distant third after Boston.  But in every major indicator of entrepreneurial activity – startup formation, capital raising, job creation, supporting infrastructure – New York has become a technology force, a place where tech entrepreneurs want to be and VCs look to invest. According to a report published by the Center for an Urban Future, since 2006 over 1,000 tech startups have been organized in New York.  Approximately half of those have received VC or angel funding; 80 have raised at least $10 million.  Of the six leading technology regions in the United States, only New York enjoyed an increase in the number of VC deals since 2007, according to the report’s analysis of data contained in the MoneyTree report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association.

These numbers are impressive, but the intense demand for admission into New York accelerator programs suggests the data may actually understate the phenomenon.  TechStars received 1,600 applications for its March 2012 accelerator program, according to TechStars’ Managing Director David Tisch.  Before 2009, there were no accelerator programs in New York.  In terms of job creation, the Center for an Urban Future’s review of New York State Department of Labor data shows that the number of information technology jobs in the City increased from 33,000 in 2003 to 52,900 in 2012—an impressive 60% increase.  And the enthusiasm for New York is not limited to small tech startups, but is shared as well by some of the largest and fastest growing non-New York based technology companies which have established a significant presence here, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo.

 

Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit, New York City, October 2012

New York Venture Capital Association Ingenuity 2012 Conference, New York City, November 2012

 

Bolstering the transformation of New York City into a technology powerhouse will be the development of the Cornell-Technion engineering campus on Roosevelt Island, which is projected to produce 600 spinouts over the next three decades.  Cornell’s choice to partner with Israel’s Technion is no accident, given the Technion’s history of commercialization of discoveries through technology startups.

New York has always been known as an entrepreneurial city, but it had fallen behind several others in terms of innovation and technology.  Until now.  With the recent wave of tech start-ups, innovation has again become hip in New York.