In Part I of this two part series on model structures for seed rounds, I explained how the dramatic decline in the cost of launching an internet-based startup over the last 15 years primarily due to the disruptive effects of open source software and cloud computing has led to a surge in seed stage investing by angels and early stage VCs. In Part I, I addressed seed rounds structured as equity, the two most common forms of which involve the issuance of modified versions of preferred stock designated as Series AA or Series Seed.
As I explained in Part I of this Series, the more complex, time consuming and expensive to negotiate deal documentation associated with Series A and later rounds can be justified when a company is raising several millions of dollars, but makes little sense for a seed round of a few hundred thousand dollars. The resulting pressure for deal document simplification has resulted over the last several years in innovative seed investment deal documents. This Part II of the Series will address seed round structures fashioned as convertible notes or alternative instruments that functionally resemble convertible notes.
Convertible Notes advance the objective of deal document simplification and cost effectiveness even more than Series Seed and Series AA structures because they allow parties to defer negotiation of the thorniest issues to a next significant equity round.
Technically, convertible notes provide for payment of principal and interest on a maturity date of typically one to two years, but in reality these notes are not expected to be repaid. Instead, the principal and interest is intended to get converted into the security issued in a next equity round meeting some minimum dollar amount, albeit typically at a discount to the next round’s pricing in an effort to reward the seed investors for the additional risk they’re assuming by investing at a more vulnerable juncture for the company. In recent years, it has also become common for the valuation at which the seed investment is converted to be capped, in which case the conversion price would be the lower of the discounted rate or the price based on the capped valuation. Less sophisticated angels will focus on the interest rate and try to negotiate that higher; those more experienced in startup investing will understand that the conversion terms will have a far more significant impact on the value of their investment and thus focus on discount and cap.
Another way the practical reality departs from the technical is that if a qualified funding has not occurred and the note is not converted prior to maturity, the note is rarely paid at that point. Instead, a difficult conversation takes place between the company and the seed investor in which the company seeks to extend the maturity date. The price for any such extension is usually in the form of more generous conversion terms for the investor.
Simple Agreement for Future Equity or “SAFE”
In 2013, the legendary accelerator Y Combinator introduced an alternative to the convertible note which it called a Simple Agreement for Future Equity or “SAFE”. Although it looks like a convertible note in that it converts the investment amount into the next round’s security and typically features discounts and caps, it is not a promissory note for the simple reason that, unlike a note, there is no basic promise to repay the invested amount. Essentially, a SAFE is a contract that provides for the type and amount of shares that will be issued in a qualified next round, if there is such a round, along with an option to receive either common stock or a return of the invested amount if the company is acquired prior to a qualified round.
The absence of a payment on maturity date feature is a major advantage to companies and a serious drawback for seed investors relative to convertible notes in that it removes an important source of leverage that the investor would otherwise have as a convertible noteholder if the company has been unable to raise a qualified next round before maturity. If that were to happen in the context of a convertible note, the note holder could demand payment and force the company into dissolution or bankruptcy. That leverage would allow the investor to negotiate for an increase in the conversion discount or decrease in the cap.
The lack of a maturity date means that the SAFE is really only appropriate for a technology based startup that could scale quickly and achieve rapid growth. Conversely, a non-technology based startup could theoretically prosper and enrich its shareholders without the SAFE holder receiving anything for a long time, if ever. In other words, a company may be able to grow organically without the need to do another significant raise, and may even be able to dividend out cash to its stockholders (not shared by the SAFE holders because they’re not yet stockholders), and the SAFE holders would not receive anything until the company gets acquired, if ever.
Keep it Simple Security or KISS
The Keep it Simple Security or KISS was created by another accelerator, 500 Startups, in 2014, in reaction to resistance to SAFEs because of their lack of investor protections. KISSes more closely resemble traditional convertible notes, i.e., promise to pay on a maturity date, etc., and contain certain other important investor protections such as an option at maturity to convert into a newly created Series Seed (see my discussion of Series Seed in Part I of this two-part series), information rights and the right to participate in future funding rounds. But inasmuch as the impetus for convertible note alternatives was a desire for simplification, cost effectiveness and time saving, it’s unclear whether the KISS, which actually contains a few more deal points to negotiate than convertible notes, will gain significant traction among seed stage companies and investors.