Term Sheet: Dividends

As our term sheet series unfolds (almost as exciting as 24, eh? – if you’ve been reading the last few days I bet you figured out that I recently had a 7 hour plane ride with a laptop battery that was in pretty good shape) we now shift gears from nuclear meltdown situations (also known as “things that matter a lot”) to economic terms that can matter, but aren’t as important (e.g. “why doesn’t Kim have a job at CTU anymore?”)

Dividends are up first. While private equity guys love dividends (e.g. I guarantee you that when Bain Capital buys the NHL and renames it the “BHL”, the deal will have dividends in it), many venture capitalists – especially early stage ones – don’t really care about dividends (although some do – especially those that come from a pure financial focus and have never had a 50x+ return on anything). Typical dividend language in a term sheet follows:

Dividends: The holders of the Series A Preferred shall be entitled to receive [non-]cumulative dividends in preference to any dividend on the Common Stock at the rate of [8%] of the Original Purchase Price per annum[, when and as declared by the Board of Directors]. The holders of Series A Preferred also shall be entitled to participate pro rata in any dividends paid on the Common Stock on an as-if-converted basis.”

For early stage investments, dividends generally do not provide “venture returns” – they are simply modest juice in a deal. Let’s do some simple math. Assume a typical dividend of 10% (dividends will range from 5% to 15% depending on how aggressive your investor is – we picked 10% to make the math easy). Now – assume that you are an early stage VC (painful and yucky – we understand – just try for a few minutes). Success is not a 10% return – success is a 10x return. Now, assume that you (as the VC) have negotiated hard and gotten a 10% cumulative (you get the dividend every year, not only when they are declared), automatic (they don’t have to be declared, they happen automatically), annual dividend. Again – to keep the math simple – let’s assume the dividend does not compound – so every year you simply get 10% of your investment as a dividend. In this case, it will take you 100 years to get your 10x return. Since a typical venture deal lasts 5 to 7 years (and you’ll be dead in 100 years anyway), you’ll never see the 10x return from the dividend.

Now – assume a home run deal – assume a 50x return on a $10m investment in five years. Even with a 10% cumulative annual dividend, this only increases the investor return from $500m to $505m (the annual dividend is $1m (10% of $10m) times 5 years).

So – while the juice from the dividend is nice, it doesn’t really move the meter in the success case – especially since venture funds are typically 10 years long – meaning as a VC you’ll only get 1x your money in a dividend if you invest on day 1 of a fund and hold the investment for 10 years. (NB to budding early stage VCs – don’t raise your fund on the basis of your future dividend stream from your investments).

This also assumes the company can actually pay out the dividend – often the dividends can be paid in either stock or cash – usually at the option of the company. Obviously, the dividend could drive additional dilution if it is paid out in stock, so this is the one case where it is important not to get head faked by the investor (e.g. the dividend simply becomes another form of anti-dilution protection – although in this case one that is automatic and simply linked to the passage of time).

Of course – we’re being optimistic about the return scenarios. In downside cases, the juice can matter, especially as the invested capital increases. For example, take a $40m investment with a 10% annual cumulative dividend in a company that was sold at the end of the fifth year to another company for $80m. In this case, assume that there was a straight liquidation preference (e.g. no participating preferred) and the investor got 40% of the company for her investment (or a $100m post money valuation). Since the sale price was below the investment post money valuation (e.g. a loser, but not a disaster), the investor will exercise the liquidation preference and take the $40m plus the dividend ($4m per year for 5 years – or $20m). In this case, the difference between the return in a no dividend scenario ($40m) and a dividend scenario ($60m) is material.

Mathematically, the larger the investment amount and the lower the expected exit multiple, the more the dividend matters. This is why you see dividends in private equity and buyout deals, where big money is involved (typically greater than $50m) and the expectation for return multiples on invested capital are lower.

Automatic dividends have some nasty side effects, especially if the company runs into trouble, as they typically should be included in the solvency analysis and – if you aren’t paying attention – an automatic cumulative dividend can put you unknowingly into the zone of insolvency (a bad place – definitely one of Dante’s levels – but that’s for another post).

Cumulative dividends can also annoying and often an accounting nightmare, especially when they are optionally in stock, cash, or a conversion adjustment, but that’s why the accountants get paid the big bucks at the end of the year to put together the audited balance sheet.

That said, the non-cumulative when declared by the board dividend is benign, rarely declared, and an artifact of the past, so we typically leave it in term sheets just to give the lawyers something to do.