Sunday, August 26, 2012

Seed Financing: Equity or Debt?

Many early-stage companies that have succeeded in finding one or more interested seed investors are faced with a pleasant dilemma: should they document the initial investment as a bridge financing (or sale of convertible debt) or as an equity financing (or sale of shares in the company)? Let’s discuss some important factors to consider in making this decision. For more information about promissory notes, read my post dedicated to this topic.

Cost and Timing. The cost of documenting a middle-of-the-road bridge financing is generally going to be significantly lower than the cost of documenting a middle-of-the road equity financing.

The reason is that bridge financings, as the name suggests, are designed to tide a company over until it raises an equity round, and therefore, it leaves much of the negotiation and documentation of material terms to be done at the time of such equity round.

A very simple note financing (for $10,000 to $50,000) might entail just one document – a promissory note. On the other hand, in a preferred stock equity financing, at the very least an amended and restated certificate of incorporation is required, as well as a stock purchase agreement, and usually a shareholders agreement (or some combination of investors rights agreement, right of first refusal and co-sale agreement, and voting agreement).

A financing that requires less negotiation and fewer documents, can be completed on a shorter timeline. Therefore, on average, a bridge financing allows a company to take in money faster than an equity financing.

Control. Depending on the investor and the amount of the investment, a company may have to give up a measure of control when taking in capital. Control comes in several forms: control by equity holders and control at the board of directors level. A venture capitalist purchasing a significant stake in a company will usually require both, a board seat and special protective provisions that give him veto power as a shareholder over important company decisions. Even if special protective provisions are not negotiated, by law shareholders must approve certain decisions, which adds an administrative burden on the company.

A bridge financing for a small investment amount will generally allow a company to keep the most control. The founders will continue to control the entire board of directors, without having to add the bridge investor to the board. In addition, because a promissory note does not constitute a direct equity ownership and the holders of a promissory note do not become shareholders until the note converts, a company does not have to submit matters which require shareholder approval to the note holders.

Note, however, that a more sophisticated bridge financing, might include negative covenants, which would specify company acts or decisions which expressly require approval of the bridge investors irrespective of the fact that they are not shareholders. Bridge financings with a lower investment amount (< $100,000) will usually not include negative covenants.

Dilution. Before the first outside investment, founders amongst themselves own 100% of the company. With investment comes dilution—by issuing shares to the investors the founders’ share in the company decreases.

In the best-case scenario, using promissory notes will result in less dilution to the founders long-term than selling equity. In the worst, it will be the same. The determining factor, of course, is the company valuation. External factors like market conditions aside, and speaking for companies in the first several years from their formation, the later that a company is valued, the higher generally its valuation will be. In an equity financing, investors purchase shares based on a company’s valuation at the time of their investment. If the company isn’t very far along, doesn’t yet have a product, or has a product in beta and has not demonstrated traction, chances are its valuation will be low ($1,000,000 to $2,000,000) and even a small investment will significantly dilute the founders.

On the other hand, bridge investors are not purchasing shares at the time of their investment, and the number of shares that their investment will convert into will be determined based on the formula specified in the note. If a company can negotiate for the note principal and interest to convert into shares of the company’s preferred stock at a discount (of 15%-30%) of the price for such stock in the company’s next equity round, that will result in the least dilution for the company.

Many investors, however, will ask to cap the maximum valuation at which their notes will convert. In other words, even if a company’s first preferred stock financing is at a valuation of $10,000,000, if the bridge investors negotiated a valuation cap of $5,000,000 in their notes, their notes will convert into the number of shares equal to the (a) principal and accrued interest on the note, divided by (b) a price per share determined as (i) $5,000,000, divided by (ii) all of the shares of the Company outstanding at the time of the conversion.

The conversion cap has become an industry standard for even the smallest bridge financings. However, in my experience, the conversion cap does not generally reflect a company’s valuation at the time of the financing, but rather a valuation that’s somewhere midway between the valuation today and the expected valuation at the next equity financing. Therefore, even a promissory note with cap is frequently less dilutive than a priced seed equity round.

Is it any wonder that given how all these factors play out, convertible notes have become the standard investment tool for low-value seed-stage investments?!

White Summers  Inna Efimchik, a Partner at White Summers Caffee & James LLP, specializes in assisting emerging technology companies in Silicon Valley and beyond, providing incorporation, financing, and licensing services as well as general corporate counseling.

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