As Jason and I continue to wind our way through a typical VC term sheet, we thought we’d tackle the infamous “drag-along agreement.” This is one of those terms that has recently increased in importance to VCs due to the all the financing and exit dynamics that occurred during the downturn of 2001 – 2003. A typical drag-along agreement is short and sweet and looks as follows:
“Drag-Along Agreement: The [holders of the Common Stock] or [Founders] and Series A Preferred shall enter into a drag-along agreement whereby if a majority of the holders of Series A Preferred agree to a sale or liquidation of the Company, the holders of the remaining Series A Preferred and Common Stock shall consent to and raise no objections to such sale.”
As transactions started occurring that were at or below the preferred liquidation preferences, entrepreneurs and founders – not surprisingly – started to resist doing these transactions since they often weren’t getting anything in the deal. While there are several mechanisms to address sharing consideration below the liquidation preferences (e.g. the “carve out” – which we’ll talk more extensively about some other time), the fundamental issue is that if a transaction occurs below the liquidation preferences, it’s likely that some or all of the VCs are losing money on the transaction. The VC point of view on this varies widely (and is often dependent on the situation) – some VCs can deal with this and are happy to provide some consideration to management to get a deal done; others are stubborn in their view that since they lost money, management shouldn’t receive anything.
However, in all of these situations, the VCs would much rather control their ability to compel other shareholders to support the transaction being considered. As more of these situations appeared, the major holders of common stock (even when they were in the minority of ownership) began refusing to vote for the proposed transaction unless the holders of preferred waived part of their liquidation preferences in favor of the common. Needless to say, this “hold out technique” did not go over well in the venture community and, as a result, the drag-along became more prevalent.
I’ve heard founders and early shareholders say a variety of things with regard to a drag-along, but the most inane is “it’s not fair – I want to be able to vote my stock however I want to.” Remember that this term is one of a basket of terms that are part of an overall negotiation associated with injecting money into your company. There are tradeoffs in any negotiation and nothing is standard – so “fair” is an irrelevant concept – if you don’t like the terms, don’t do the deal.
If you are faced with a drag-along, your ownership position will determine whether or not this is a relevant issue for you. An M&A transaction does not require unanimous consent of shareholders (these rules vary by jurisdiction, although the two most common situations are either majority of each class (California) or majority of all shares on an as converted basis (Delaware)), although most acquirers will want 85% to 90% of shareholders to consent to a transaction. So – if you own 1% of a company, while the VCs would like you to sign up to a drag-along, it doesn’t matter that much (unless there are 30 of you that own 1%.) Again – make sure you know what you are fighting for in the negotiation – don’t put disproportionate energy against terms that don’t matter.
When a company is faced with a drag along in a VC financing proposal, the most common compromise position is to try to get the drag along to pertain to following the majority of the common stock, not the preferred. This way – if you own common – you are only dragged along when a majority of the common consents to the transaction. This is a graceful position for a very small investor to take (e.g. I’ll play ball if a majority of the common plays ball) and one that I’ve always been willing to take when I’ve owned common in a company (e.g. I’m not going to stand in the way of something a majority of folks that have rights equal to me want to do.) Of course, preferred investors can always convert some of their holding to common to generate a majority, but this also results in a benefit to the common as it lowers the overall liquidation preference.