On June 8, 2017, the House of Representatives passed the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017 on a vote of 233-186. Congress loves acronyms, and here “CHOICE” stands for Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Financial Choice ActEntrepreneurs. Although the thrust of the bill is focused on repeal or modification of significant portions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 and addresses a number of other financial regulations, it also includes a broad range of important provisions aimed at facilitating capital formation, including:

  • Exemption of private company mergers and acquisitions intermediaries from the broker-dealer registration requirements of the Exchange Act;
  • Expansion of the private resale exemption contained in Section 4(a)(7), which codified the so-called “Section 4(a)(1½)” exemption for resales of restricted securities by persons other than the issuer, by eliminating information requirements and permitting general solicitation, so long as sales are made through a platform available only to accredited investors;
  • Exemption from the auditor attestation requirement under Section 404(b) of Sarbanes-Oxley of companies with average annual gross revenues of less than $50 million;
  • Creation of SEC-registered venture exchanges, a new class of stock exchanges that can provide enhanced liquidity and capital access to smaller issuers;
  • Exemption of small offerings that meet the following requirements: (i) investor has a pre-existing relationship with an officer, director or shareholder with 10 percent or more of the shares of the issuer; (ii) issuer reasonably believes there are no more than 35 purchasers of securities from the issuer that are sold during the 12-month period preceding the transaction; and (iii) aggregate amount of all securities sold by the issuer does not exceed $500,000 over a 12-month period;
  • Exemption from the prohibition in Regulation D against general solicitation for pitch-type events organized by angel groups, venture forums, venture capital associations and trade associations;
  • Streamlining of Form D filing requirements and procedures with the filing of a single notice of sales and prohibiting the SEC from requiring any additional materials;
  • Exemption from the Investment Company Act for any VC fund with no more than $50 million in aggregate capital contributions and uncalled committed capital and having not more than 500 investors;
  • Exempting Title III crowdfunding shareholders from the shareholder number trigger for Exchange Act registration;
  • Amendment of Section 3(b)(2) of the Securities Act (the statutory basis for Regulation A+) to raise the amount of securities that may be offered and sold within a 12-month period from $50 million to $75 million; and
  • Allowing all issuers, not just emerging growth companies, to submit confidential registration statements to the SEC for nonpublic review before an IPO, provided that the registration statement and all amendments are publicly filed not later than 15 days before the first road show.

In the coming weeks, I intend to blog in greater detail about a few of these reform efforts, including the proposed broker-dealer exemption for M&A intermediaries, venture exchanges and crowdfunding fixes.

NYSEThe fate of the Financial CHOICE Act is unclear. A variety of interest groups have expressed strong opposition to the bill, and it appears unlikely the Senate will pass it in its current form. My hunch is that the more controversial aspects of the bill relate to the Dodd-Frank repeal and other financial services reforms. I also believe that there is greater potential for general consensus building around capital markets reform, as was demonstrated in connection with the passage of the JOBS Act five years ago, so that any final version that ultimately gets passed will hopefully include much if not all of the reforms summarized above.

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.

On March 22, the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities, and Investment of the Financial Services Committee conducted a hearing entitled “The JOBS Act at Five: Examining Its Impact and Ensuring the Competitiveness of the U.S. Capital Markets”, focusing on the impact of JOBS Act at 5the JOBS Act on the U.S. capital markets and its effect on capital formation, job creation and economic growth. The archived webcast of the hearing can be found here. Most people won’t have the patience to sit through two hours and 44 minutes of testimony (although the running national debt scoreboard on the right side of the home page showing in real time the national debt increasing by $100,000 every three seconds, and by $1 million every 30 seconds, etc., is eyepopping). At the risk of being accused of having too much time on my hands, but as an act of community service, I watched the hearing (or at least most of it) and will offer some takeaways.

Raymond Keating, Chief Economist of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, testified about some disturbing trends in angel and VC investment. The value and number of angel deals is down from pre-recession levels.  VC investment showed the most life but a decline in raymond keating2016 is troubling. So what’s going on?  Keating believes it’s about reduced levels of entrepreneurship stemming in large part from regulatory burdens that limit entrepreneurs’ access to capital and investors’ freedom to make investments in entrepreneurial ventures. He also testified on the need for further reform, particularly in Regulation Crowdfunding under Title III which allows companies for the first time to raise capital from anyone, not just accredited investors, without filing a registration statement with the SEC, and identified the following reform targets:

  • Issuer Cap. Currently, issuers are capped at $1 million during any rolling twelve-month period. There’s been a push to increase that cap, perhaps to $5 million.
  • Investor Cap. Currently, investors with annual income or net worth of less than $100,000 are limited during a 12-month period to the greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of annual income or net worth, and if both annual income and net worth exceed $100,000, then the limit is 10% of the lesser of income or net worth. The proposal here would be to change the application of the cap from the lower of annual income or net worth to the higher of annual income or net worth.
  • Funding Portal Liability. Currently, funding portals can be held liable for material misstatements and omissions by issuers. That poses tremendous and arguably unfair risk to funding portals and may deter funding portals from getting in the business in the first place. The proposal here would be that a funding portal should not be held liable for material misstatements and omissions by an issuer, unless the portal itself is guilty of fraud or negligence. Such a safe harbor for online platforms would be similar to the protection that traditional broker dealers have enjoyed for decades. A funding platform is just a technology-enabled way for entrepreneurs to connect with investors, and they don’t have the domain expertise of issuers and can’t verify the accuracy of all statements made by issuers.  Part of the role of the crowd in crowdfunding is to scrutinize an issuer, a role that should remain with the investors, not with the platform.
  • Syndicated Investments. Many accredited investor crowdfunding platforms like AngeList and OurCrowd operate on an investment fund model, whereby they recruit investors to invest in a special purpose vehicle whose only purpose is to invest in the operating company. Essentially, a lead investor validates a company’s valuation, strategy and investment worthiness. Traditionally, angel investors have operated in groups and often follow a lead investor, a model which puts all investors on a level playing field.
  • $25 Million Asset Registration Trigger.  Under current rules, any Regulation CF funded company that crosses a $25 million asset threshold would be required to register under the Securities Exchange Act and become an SEC reporting company. Seems inconsistent with the spirit of Regulation Crowdfunding, which for the first time allows companies to offer securities to the public without registering with the SEC.

As to the continuing challenge for companies to go and remain public, Thomas Quaadman, Vice President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, testified that the public markets are in worse shape today than they were five years ago and that we have fewer than half the public companies quaadmantoday than we had in 1996, a number that has decreased in 19 of the last 20 years. Mr. Quaadman blamed this in part on an antiquated disclosure regime that is increasingly used to embarrass companies rather than provide decision useful information to investors. In order to rebalance the system and reverse the negative trend, he suggested a numbere of reform measures the SEC and Congress should undertake. The disclosure effectiveness proposal should be a top priority for the SEC to bring the disclosure regime into the 21st century. We need proxy advisory firm reform that brings transparency, accountability and oversight to proxy advisory firms. Also, there should be recognition that capital formation and corporate governance are inextricably linked and there should be reform of the shareholder proposal process under Rule 14a-8.

2016 turned out to be a terrible year for IPOs, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate proceeds.

According to Renaissance Capital’s U.S. IPO Market 2016 Annual Review, only 105 companies went public on U.S. exchanges in 2016, raising only $19 billion in aggregate proceeds. The deal count of 105 IPOs was downrenaissance 38% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2009.  The $19 billion in aggregate proceeds was down 37% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2003.  In fact, if you remove the financial recession years of 2008 and 2009, the 105 IPOs in 2016 were also the lowest since 2003.  And the drop in deal activity was indiscriminate; both VC- and PE-backed IPOs were at their lowest levels by deal count and proceeds raised since 2009.

The temptation would be to blame the weak IPO market on political election 2016uncertainty, with Brexit and the U.S. election being the biggest culprits. But then how to explain the broader U.S. capital markets, which were hot in 2016. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 20,000 at year end, and the S&P 500 Index was up 9.5% for the year.  One would expect that the market for IPOs would be pretty strong, as bullish markets normally encourage companies to go public.  To be fair, much of the market gains took place in the latter half of the fourth quarter.  But market weakness doesn’t explain the two-year drought in IPOs for technology companies, considered the mainstay of the IPO market.

Another common theory is that over-regulation, particularly Sarbanes Oxley, has made it much more expensive to go and remain public, thus discouraging many growth companies from doing so. The 2012 JOBS Act tried to remedy this by creating an IPO on-ramp for emerging growth companies, allowing for confidential registration statement filings with the SEC, “testing-the-waters” and scaled disclosure.  The immediate results were encouraging: a dramatic increase in IPO deals and aggregate proceeds in 2014.  Yet IPOs plummeted in 2015 and even further in 2016.

Renaissance Capital’s report points the finger squarely at the public-private valuation disconnect. The tech startup space in 2015 was a mystifying series of mega rounds, sky-high valuations, unicorns and unicornbubble fears. But another trend has been IPOs being priced below the company’s most recent private funding round.  In its pre-IPO round, Square Inc. was valued at approximately $6 billion, but IPO’d at just over half that valuation and then plunged further post-IPO.  Etsy Inc. and Box Inc. both reported $5 billion plus private valuations, only to plunge in the days leading up to their IPOs.  Many, including Benchmark Capital’s Bill Gurley, have blamed the late-stage bidding frenzy on institutional public investors such as mutual funds rushing into late-stage private investing.  Another major contributing factor in the escalation of late stage valuations is the trend toward generous downside protections being given to investors in exchange for lofty valuations, such as IPO ratchets and M&A senior participating liquidation preferences.  The former is simply antidilution protection that entitles the investor to receive extra shares on conversion in the IPO if the IPO price is below either the price paid by the late-stage investor or some premium above that price.  The latter means that, in an acquisition, the investor gets first dollars out ahead of earlier series of preferred and then participates with the common pro rata on an as converted basis.

Renaissance maintains that VC-backed tech companies with lofty late round private valuations chose in 2016 to avoid inevitably lower public-market valuations and had the luxury of remaining private due to ample available cash in the private markets. Mergers and acquisitions offered alternate pathways for other tech companies, such as TransFirst, BlueCoat and Optiv, all of which had previously filed S-1s for IPOs.

Although the private-public valuation disconnect was a major impediment to IPOs in 2015 and 2016, Renaissance believes this phenomenon is close to correcting itself and is optimistic about 2017. Many growth companies have seen their valuations flat or down in new funding rounds to levels that will be more palatable to public investors.  Also, the election results will likely bring a dramatic change in fiscal, regulatory, energy and healthcare policies, all of which should be stimulative to equity markets, new company formation and, ultimately, IPOs.

Another reason for tech IPO optimism for 2017 is Snap, Inc.’s highly anticipated IPO in the first half of 2017. It filed confidentially under the snapJOBS Act, and has begun testing the waters with investors.  The Snap IPO is rumored to raise $4 billion at a valuation of over $25 billion. Another one is Spotify, which raised $1 billion in convertible debt in March 2016 which signals a likely imminent IPO. These two IPOs might raise more capital than all VC-backed tech IPOs in the last two years combined.

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.

The cost of launching an Internet-based startup has fallen dramatically over the last 15 years. This democratization of internet-based entrepreneurship resulted primarily from two innovations: open source software and cloud computing. During the dot-com era, Internet-based startups had to build serversinfrastructure by acquiring expensive servers and software licenses and hiring IT support staff. So the first outside round of investment in an Internet-based startup was typically a Series A round of $3 million or more from one or more VCs. With the emergence of open-source software, however, startups for the most part were no longer forced to acquire software packages bundled with hardware. Another issue, though, was that startups had to acquire and maintain bandwidth to accommodate peak loads, resulting in expensive underutilization. But this all changed with the advent of cloud computing, which enabled entrepreneurs to launch an Internet startup with minimal upfront IT costs and to pay only for used bandwidth. In real dollars, the cost of starting up has declined from a few million dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars.

With the precipitous drop in the cost of launching an Internet-based startup came a significant rise in interest in seed investing by angels and early stage VCs. But the typical Series A document package (amended and restated certificate of incorporation, stock purchase agreement, voting agreement, cloudinvestor rights agreement, right of first refusal and co-sale agreement) is complex, time consuming and expensive to negotiate, and contains several economic, management and exit provisions that don’t become relevant until much later (e.g., if and when the company goes public). This level of complexity can be justified when a company is raising several million dollars, but not so for a seed round of a few hundred thousand.

The resulting pressure for deal document simplification has resulted over the last several years in innovative seed investment deal documents. Seed rounds are either structured as a simplified version of a priced Series A preferred stock or as debt that converts into the security issued in a next round of equity, typically at a discount. This Part I of a two part blog series on seed round investing will focus on priced equity structures; Part II will address convertible debt.

There are currently two alternative open sourced sets of equity seed round deal documents to choose from, each with the common goals of term simplification, cost reduction, transaction time compression and document standardization. Both feature terms similar to those found in a typical Series A deal, but stripped down from the robust set of economic, voting and exit rights usually contained in a Series A. The two deal document products are:

Series AA: Created by Cooley cooleyfor accelerator Techstarstechstarsfenwick
Series Seed: Created by Fenwick & West

The main terms of Series AA and Series Seed are as follows:

1X Non-Participating Preferred: Both Series Seed and Series AA feature 1X non-participating preferred stock, meaning on a sale of the company the investor must choose between his liquidation preference of 1X (i.e., one times his investment amount) or the proceeds he would receive on an as converted basis, but not both. In other words, the investor calculates which would yield the bigger payout and choose that one. On the other hand, participating preferred would give the investor two bites of the apple: first his liquidation preference, and then his share of remaining proceeds as a common shareholder on an as converted basis.

Antidilution Protection: Series Seed provides no antidilution protection. Series AA, however, has broad based weighted average antidilution protection. Most notably, antidilution protects the investor from the economic dilution resulting from down rounds. Weighted average is the type of protection that is more fair in that it factors in the dilutive effect of the actual down round (i.e., the conversion price doesn’t adjust all the way down to the lower down round price but rather takes into consideration the number of additional shares issued at the lower price relative to the number of shares outstanding), and broad based requires inclusion in the number of shares outstanding all outstanding options and options reserved for issuance (as opposed to narrow based which would not include options).

Board Composition: Both Series AA and Series Seed provide for boards consisting of 2 common and one preferred, except that Series AA conditions the preferred board member on the Series AA shares constituting at least 5% of the outstanding equity on a fully diluted basis.

Protective Provisions: These are veto rights in favor of the preferred. Series AA gives vetos over only changes to the Series AA. Series Seed includes vetos over changes in the Series AA, but also includes vetos over mergers, increasing or decreasing authorized shares of any class or series, authorizing any new class or series senior to or on a parity with any series of preferred, stock redemption, dividends, number of directors and liquidation/dissolution.

Right of First Offer on New Financings: Both Series Seed and Series AA give investors the right to purchase their pro rata share of new issuances.

Right of First Refusal: Series Seed gives investors a right of first refusal on shares held by key holders. Series AA does not.

Drag Along Rights: Series Seed gives Series Seed holders and founders the right to require common holders to include their shares or vote for any transaction approved by the board, by a majority of the common and by a majority of the Series Seed. No drag along in the Series AA.

So what standard Series A terms are missing from Series Seed and Series AA? Missing are dividend preference (not a big deal here inasmuch as the overwhelming majority of startups will not pay out dividends), registration rights and tag-along rights (also not a big deal inasmuch as founders rarely have an opportunity to sell their shares).

Overall, Series Seed and Series AA are worthy efforts to simplify terms and reduce transaction costs. There will certainly be situations, however, where investors will resist the weaker investor protections such as the absence of participating preferred and anti-dilution protection and stripped down protective provisions. Any effort to negotiate some terms back in will undercut the objective of diversification and simplicity.

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.

In my last post, I blogged about online funding platforms. In that post, I described the typical model of indirect investing through a special purpose vehicle (“SPV”) with the platform sponsor taking a carried interest in the SPV’s profits from the portfolio company and no ourcrowdtransaction fee, as a means of avoiding broker-dealer regulation. I also discussed the concept of a pre-screened password protected member-only website as a means of establishing a preexisting fundablerelationship with prospective investors and thus avoiding the use of any act of “general solicitation,” which would otherwise violate the rules of the registration exemption under Rule 506(b).

SEC logoIn a no-action letter dated August 6, 2015 entitled Citizen VC, Inc., the SEC has provided important guidance on the procedures needed for an online funding platform to establish the kind of preexisting relationship needed to avoid being deemed to be engaged in general solicitation. As an aside, the concern over general solicitation and preexisting relationships is relevant to offerings under new Rule 506(b), but not under Rule 506(c).   Despite the creation in 2013 of an exemption under new Rule 506(c) pursuant to the JOBS Act for general solicitation offerings in which sales are made only to accredited investors, most online funding platforms continue to prefer to conduct portfolio company offerings indirectly through SPVs under Rule 506(b), despite the prohibition on general solicitation, primarily because of the additional requirement under Rule 506(c) that issuers use reasonable methods to verify accredited investor status.

In its request for a no-action letter, Citizen VC described itself as an citizen vconline venture capital firm that facilitates indirect investment in portfolio companies (through SPVs) by pre-qualified, accredited and sophisticated “members” in its site. It asserted to have qualification procedures intended to establish substantive relationships with, and to confirm the suitability of, prospective investors that visit the website. Anyone wishing to investigate the password protected sections of the site accessible only to members must first register and be accepted for membership. To apply for membership, prospective investors are required to complete an “accredited investor” questionnaire, followed by a relationship building process in which Citizen VC collects information to evaluate the prospective investor’s sophistication, financial circumstances and ability to understand the nature and risks related to an investment. It does so by contacting the prospective investor by phone to discuss the prospective investor’s investing experience and sophistication, investment goals and strategies, financial suitability, risk awareness, and other topics designed to assist Citizen VC in understanding the investor’s sophistication, utilizing third party credit reporting services to gather additional financial information and credit history information and other methods to foster online and offline interactions with the prospective investor. In the request letter, Citizen VC asserted that the relationship establishment period is not limited by a specific time period, but rather is a process based on specific written policies and procedures created to ensure that the offering is suitable for each prospective investor.

Citizen VC stated in its request letter that prospective investors only become “members” and are given access to offering information in the password protected section of the site after Citizen VC is satisfied that the prospective investor has sufficient knowledge and experience and that it has taken reasonable steps necessary to create a substantive relationship with the prospective investor. Once a sufficient number of qualified members have expressed interest in a particular portfolio company, those members are provided subscription materials for investment in the SPV formed by Citizen VC to aggregate such members’ investments, the sale of interests of such SPV is consummated and the SPV then invests the funds, and becomes a shareholder of, the portfolio company.

In its request letter, after providing the foregoing background, Citizen VC asked the SEC staff to opine that the policies and procedures described in the letter are sufficient to create a substantive, pre-existing relationship with prospective investors such that the offering and sale on the site of interests in an SPV that will invest in a particular portfolio company will not constitute general solicitation.

sec no-actionIn its no-action letter, the SEC staff concluded that Citizen VC’s procedures were sufficient to establish a preexisting relationship and do not constitute general solicitation. It stated that the quality of the relationship between an issuer and an investor is the most important factor in determining whether a “substantive” relationship exists and noted Citizen VC’s representation that its policies and procedures are designed to evaluate the prospective investor’s sophistication, financial circumstances and ability to understand the nature and risks of the securities to be offered. The staff went on to say that there is no specific duration of time or particular short form accreditation questionnaire that can be relied upon solely to create such a relationship, and that whether an issuer has sufficient information to evaluate a prospective offeree’s financial circumstances and sophistication will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. The staff also based its conclusion on Citizen VC’s representation that an investment opportunity is only presented after the prospective investor becomes a “member” in the site.

An argument could be made that SPV-based online funding platforms represent the future of VC investing. The Citizen VC no-action letter provides valuable guidance relating to the establishment of the kind of substantive relationship with prospective investors needed to enable the online funding platform to conduct Rule 506(b) offerings without being deemed to engage in general solicitation.

The market for venture backed IPOs in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2015 was box IPOthe weakest in two years, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate proceeds, according to pre-IPO institutional research firm Renaissance Capital, as well as a separate exit poll report by Thomson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association. There were only 17 IPOs of venture-backed companies, compared with 30 in Q4 of 2014 and 40 in Q1 2014.  Venture backed IPOs raised only $76 million in average proceeds in Q1 2015, compared with $147 million and $80 million in Q4 and Q1 of 2014, respectively.

So what’s the reason for the overall weakness in venture backed IPOs?  According to Emily Chasan of the Wall Street Journal, venture backed companies are resisting going public because they’re receiving better offers in the form of late-stage private equity funding.  She cites a survey performed by BDO USA in which over half of the investment bankers surveyed attributed the IPO decline to widespread availability of private funding for companies at attractive valuations.  Basically, all the funding but without the hassle of being public.  This would be especially true of venture backed technology companies.  The $1.2 billion that technology companies raised in first quarter IPOs pales in comparison to the estimated $10 billion raised in private equity rounds during the same period of last year.

Another contributing factor may be a section of the JOBS Act that allows companies to stay private longer.  Title V of the JOBS Act passed in 2012 generally increases from 500 to 2,000 the threshold number of shareholders of a class of equity securities that triggers registration and reporting requirements under Section 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 for companies with more than $10 million in assets.  This generally allows companies with fewer than 2,000 shareholders to choose to stay private longer, enabling them to defer the cost, public scrutiny and increased liability of being publicly-traded and increasing their ability to time their initial public offerings based on market conditions.

Deliberately postponing an IPO until some point down the road could be risky.  IPO markets have short windows which often close quickly and are unpredictable.  A company opting for late-stage private equity funding and deferring an IPO may find the IPO market closed later on when the company is otherwise ready.

Another explanation for the relative weakness in small company IPOs is a series of reforms by the SEC generally referred to as decimalization. The regulatory efforts by the SEC to modernize the securities trading system beginning in 1997 may have had the unintended consequence of removing the financial incentive for underwriters, analysts, market makers and others to transact in and provide support services for issuers of small company stocks.  This is a theory long asserted by leading capital markets reform advocate David Weild.  My previous blog about decimalization and David’s theory could be found here.

It remains to be seen whether the weakness in venture-backed IPOs will have any short or long term impact on VC fund investments in startups and emerging companies.  Investors need to be confident that there’s a strong likelihood they’ll be able to exit their investments successfully.  The traditional VC exit strategy consists of either an IPO or an acquisition.  Making matters worse for VCs is that total exits for venture-backed companies, including mergers and acquisitions, in North America also dropped in the first quarter to 181 deals totaling $4.91 billion from 255 deals totaling $14.07 billion in value in the first quarter of last year, a 65% decline, according to PitchBook Data Inc..