Brad Feld

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Term Sheet: Pay-to-Play

Mar 22, 2005
Category Term Sheet

There’s nothing like a solid week of vacation with no phone, email, or blogs to get the writing juices rolling again. Of course, now that I’m through my email, I only have 8200 blog posts to read to catch up – thank god for jet lag – wait, what am I saying?

In our term sheet series, Jason Mendelson and I have been focusing first on “the terms that really matter.” We are down to the last one – the pay-to-play provision. At the turn of the century, a pay-to-play provision was rarely seen. After the bubble burst in 2001, it became ubiquitous. Interesting, this is a term that most companies and their investors can agree on if they approach it from the right perspective.

In a pay-to-play provision, an investor must keep “paying” (participating pro ratably in future financings) in order to keep “playing”(not have his preferred stock converted to common stock) in the company. Sample language follows:

Pay-to-Play: In the event of a Qualified Financing (as defined below), shares of Series A Preferred held by any Investor which is offered the right to participate but does not participate fully in such financing by purchasing at least its pro rata portion as calculated above under “Right of First Refusal” below will be converted into Common Stock.

[(Version 2, which is not quite as aggressive): If any holder of Series A Preferred Stock fails to participate in the next Qualified Financing, (as defined below), on a pro rata basis (according to its total equity ownership immediately before such financing) of their Series A Preferred investment, then such holder will have the Series A Preferred Stock it owns converted into Common Stock of the Company. If such holder participates in the next Qualified Financing but not to the full extent of its pro rata share, then only a percentage of its Series A Preferred Stock will be converted into Common Stock (under the same terms as in the preceding sentence), with such percentage being equal to the percent of its pro rata contribution that it failed to contribute.]

A Qualified Financing is the next round of financing after the Series A financing by the Company that is approved by the Board of Directors who determine in good faith that such portion must be purchased pro rata among the stockholders of the Company subject to this provision. Such determination will be made regardless of whether the price is higher or lower than any series of Preferred Stock.

When determining the number of shares held by an Investor or whether this “Pay-to-Play” provision has been satisfied, all shares held by or purchased in the Qualified Financing by affiliated investment funds shall be aggregated. An Investor shall be entitled to assign its rights to participate in this financing and future financings to its affiliated funds and to investors in the Investor and/or its affiliated funds, including funds which are not current stockholders of the Company.”

We believe this is good for the company and its investors as it causes the investors “stand up” and agree to support the company during its lifecycle at the time of the investment. If they do not, the stock they have is converted from preferred to common and they lose the rights associated with the preferred stock. When our co-investors push back on this term, we ask: “Why? Are you not going to fund the company in the future if other investors agree to?” Remember, this is not a lifetime guarantee of investment, rather if other prior investors decide to invest in future rounds in the company, there will be a strong incentive for all of the prior investors to invest or subject themselves to total or partial conversion of their holdings to common stock. A pay-to-play term insures that all the investors agree in advance to the “rules of engagement” concerning participating in future financings.

The pay-to-play provision impacts the economics of the deal by reducing liquidation preferences for the non-participating investors. It also impacts the control of the deal, as it reshuffles the future preferred shareholder base by insuring only the committed investors continue to have preferred stock (and the corresponding rights).

When companies are doing well, the pay-to-play provision is often waived, as a new investor wants to take a large part of the new round. This is a good problem for a company to have, as it typically means there is an up-round financing, existing investors can help drive company-friendly terms in the new round, and the investor syndicate increases in strength by virtue of new capital (and – presumably – another helpful co-investor) in the deal.