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Ari Newman is an entrepreneur, mentor, investor, and a friend. He works at Techstars where his responsibility is to ensure that the connections between alumni, mentors, and staff are as robust as they can be – helping entrepreneurs “do more faster” day in and day out. His most recent company, Filtrbox, participated in the inaugural Techstars class (Techstars Boulder 2007) and was a win for all parties involved; Filtrbox was acquired in 2010 by Jive Software (NASDAQ: JIVE).
I’ve worked closely with Ari for a while and love his candor. He talks, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, with recent first hand experience. Following is his advice to early stage entrepreneurs for creating structure in their company.
Here’s the punchline: if you run your company as if you have closed a VC equity financing round even though you actually closed a convertible debt round, you’ll be in much better shape when it comes time to raise your Series A financing. Specifically, I am talking about putting a board in place, running formal board meetings, and making sure you have people at the table who act as the voice of reason and sanity. One of the key benefits of doing this early on is that when it comes time to raise that next round, the people you’ll need the most help from are already involved and engaged.
Convertible debt financings have become an increasingly attractive approach for seed rounds because it delays the valuation discussion, costs less from a legal standpoint, and is an easier financial instrument to “keep raising more small amounts of money” on. There are two different cases, with shades of grey in between: (1) there are only a few investors or (2) it’s a “party” round, with $1M+ raised and many investors. This second kind of seed financing can be a double-edged sword for the entrepreneur and company if not very carefully managed. This post is not about the economic implications of debt rounds versus priced rounds – there has already been plenty written about that including this great one from Mark Suster. Rather, this post is a call to action for entrepreneurs who have successfully raised a debt round and must now turn their idea into a serious business.
So why would you treat your debt investors (somewhat) like equity investors? This may seem counterintuitive, even even a pain in the ass. So, I’ll explain my reasoning through the story of ASC, a fictitious company that has a combination of characteristics I’ve seen across a number of early stage companies.
Acme SaaS Corp (ASC) was started by two entrepreneurs; they have a big vision and if they can execute on it, the business will be a clear home-run. One of them used to be a lead developer at [insert hot consumer tech company here]. They need to raise money before building anything substantial after determining that they needed a little dough to follow the Lean Startup methodology.
They decide to go out and raise money on a convertible note – several angel investors have signaled interest in participating in the note and they don’t feel ready to pitch VCs yet. Fundraising goes better than expected and they quickly find themselves with a $750k round consisting of several VCs and a bunch of angels. The investors, founders, and “community” are all super excited about ASC. They close on the $750k, hire a buddy or two, buy some Macs, and get to work.
ASC starts building product, but as they get into the thick of it, the team realizes executing on their vision is going to be extremely hard. Things start to get a little fuzzy in terms of priorities, but not to fret, the new office is coming along really well with all of the hiring! For the first the months, the team meets often and strategizes on what they want to build while some code gets written. Early customer development talks are going great which keeps the team really excited. Three months in, the burn is now at $70k/month.
Two more months go by and the team is continuing to iterate, but every two-week sprint results in some re-factoring and re-thinking. No updates, screen comps, or metrics have been publicly shared yet. It’s too early for that shit. Heads down on product, they say. Every now and then, investors are told things are going great and the founders are really excited about what they are doing. Soundbites from potential customers are encouraging. Eventually early product demos start happening but they’re rough and the product looks very alpha. At month six, one of the early hires leaves, a developer who turns out wasn’t a good fit. There is $350k left in the bank.
Seven months in, there is a beta product. It’s better than before, but not by miles. The people on the sales side don’t feel they can charge for it yet because who’s going to take out their wallet for something that isn’t perfect. A bunch of potential customers are kicking the tires on the product but it seems that every engaged beta customer needs something slightly different or feels as if the product is not ready to be truly used in production. “This is all a part of the normal product and customer development process,” the CEO tells the team. The burn is now at $90k/month as they had to hire a “customer delight” person to handle the beta process. The team thinks their investors still love them and that they are still a hot company. The first material update goes out to the investors, with lots of positive quotes from VPs at potential customers, and they all indicate future product acceptance if a bunch of other stuff gets in place. Investors are dismayed that there are no real customers yet. There is no discussion of burn, runway, and more financing yet. The team wants to make a little more progress first.
A month later, another email update goes out to the investors – the team has decided to pivot based on feedback and they are super excited about the new direction and once they have the product updated to capture the new, bigger opportunity, it’s going be great. Oh, and the email says the founders will be in touch to discuss another round of funding since there are only 2 months of runway left.
Sound familiar? I could continue but the odds are that this story isn’t going to end well. The company flames out and the team gets aquihired. The investors get nothing.
While you may think ASC is an extreme case, it happens all the time. I’ve observed too many companies that have some or all of these elements in their story. I’m not saying, under any circumstance, that the debt round was the catalyst or sole reason for the company’s missteps but there are a number of times in this story where good company hygiene, good governance, and a properly utilized board would have helped to positively affect the outcome. Following are a few ways that a board would have helped out.
Easy Debt Round Lasting A Year – Even if the raise wasn’t that easy, the company was able to raise enough to buy a year or more of runway. In startup time, that feels like forever. It’s enough time to hang yourself if you are not careful. Had the company created a board and run it properly, they would have ratified a budget, reviewed compensation plans, and agreed on spending levels during early product development. The year would have been a full year, not just 7-9 months.
Real Product and Market Focus – This company lost 3-6 months of execution because they got lost building towards a high level vision. That high level vision was a beast to tackle, and being younger founders, they they didn’t realize they were in over their heads. With advisors or a board, the founders could have opened the kimono and asked for guidance. There are about a dozen corrective actions, best practices, or methodologies that could have been applied during this critical time. It’s up to the team to be able to execute them, but they had their heads in the clouds for too long and no one else at the table with them.
Don’t Pivot in a Vacuum – Had ASC properly used its board, advisors, and investors, it would have brought the pivot strategy to the table early on. A discussion around overall business viability, time to market, and capital impact would have ensued. A review of the cash position, burn rate, and execution plan would have revealed there was not enough cash on hand to nail the pivot while leaving 3-6 months of time in market before raising again. The plan would have to get way tighter, way faster. They didn’t keep the investors up-to-date, then pivoted without engaging or validating whether there was going to be follow-on support. They took a right turn into a brick wall. Investors do not own the company or its strategy. I often say “it’s your company” when I’m bluntly asked what direction a company should take, especially if I’m wearing my investor hat. While that is true, if you rely on outside capital to reach escape velocity, keep the cockpit talking to the engine room.
Use The Smart Money or Lose It – Almost every investor I know makes investments because they want the return, but they also believe they can be helpful to the company in some way. When teams don’t communicate and engage with their investors, the void is often filled with skepticism, doubt, and (often false) assumptions about the business or the team. You borrowed money (or sold a portion of your company) from these folks – they want you to be successful. Leverage them for the better of the company, whether that means using their wisdom or their rolodex. They also can create major signaling problems for your next round if you allow the radio-silence void to be filled with doubt and distrust. Who would blindly give ASC another big check after what occurred above?
Company Hygiene Matters – One of the responsibility of a Board of Directors is to regularly discuss financials, burn rate, and cash management. Had ASC created a board, the company would have potentially managed their cash more conservatively and had the wherewithal to initiate the shift of the company sooner, whether it be through M&A talks, raising more capital, or making the pivot earlier.
I bet that some of you reading this post are entrepreneurs who are in this situation. I beg of you, treat your debt holders like equity holders, and utilize their expertise to help further your business. One easy way to do so is to act as if they are board members. In the super hard, fuzzy, pivot-happy early days of a company, a little structure, accountability, and organizational discipline can be all the difference between running headlong into a brick wall or creating a meaningful, well-operated company.
Follow Ari on Twitter at @arinewman or ask him about the power of the Techstars network at email@example.com.
Some of my favorite VC posts are ones that say what the VC posts that say what the VC thinks about how it all works. And – importantly – how it impacts the entrepreneur, his choices, and the dynamics between the entrepreneur and the VC.
Fred Wilson does this regularly. For example, see his post today on Valuation vs. Ownership.
My partner Jason Mendelson does the same. See his recent post The “VC Bargain”. Of course, Jason and I aspired to do the ultimate version of this in our book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist.
You don’t have to agree with them. That’s what the comments are for. But they each say what is on their mind, why, how they think about it, and what the implications are for them.
If you want another example, take a look at my partner Seth’s post from last year titled I’m getting sick of the bullshit. And then reflect on the post from the anonymous entrepreneur that I highlighted yesterday titled My Startup has 30 Days to Live.
This shit is really hard and really complicated. It’s easy to have a surface view of it, to romanticize it, or to fall in love with the idea of it. Don’t. Do it because you love it. And find partners who want to go on the journey with you.
Every year in December and January I go through the same cycle for all the boards I’m on. It’s the annual bonus, next year bonus plan, option grant refresh cycle. For many management teams, especially in rapidly growing, or mature companies, it’s an important part of their existence as culturally we’ve oriented compensation, bonuses, and future compensation around an annual cycle.
I embrace this – my goal is to help these entrepreneurs and management teams win. I know compensation is an important part of the feedback / reward loop. While I’ve occasionally had conflict over compensation, and I’ve had a few CEOs I work with tell me they feel like it’s an uncomfortable discussion, my own perception of my behavior is that I’m a softy. If things are going well, I am supportive of anything that’s reasonable. And, having thousands of data points over the past 17 years, I’ve got a good calibration on reasonable.
One thing, however, has always baffled me. I’ve never really understood why the majority of stock option refresh grants are stacked grants mid-way through the granting process.
Let me give an example. Assume you hire someone and grant them 10,000 options with monthly vesting of four years with a one year cliff. That means that after one year, they get 25% of their options and then start vesting the remaining options monthly at a rate of 1/48 (208.3 options / month, or 2,500 / year.) On day 1 of year 3, the person has vested 50% of their options, or 5,000 of them and still has 5,000 left to vest. This person is doing great so management puts them in the annual option refresh cycle. Now, the company has increased in value, as has the option strike price, so the refresh grant is determined to be 25% of the original grant – or 2,500 options vesting monthly over four years, or 625 options per year.
Now, in year 3 the employee in question vests a total of 3,125 options, in year 4 they vest a total of 3,125 options, in year 5 they now vest 625 options, and in year 6 they vest 625 options. This makes no sense to me. You just changed their first four year vesting package from 10,000 options to 11,250 options (2,812.5 options per year) and then left them with 625 in years 5 and 6. This is a bonus in years 3 and 4 and a refresh in years 5 and 6.
Instead, why not grant them the new 2,500 options that vest in two years – 50% in year 5 and 50% in year 6. So now, they once again have 2,500 options per year for years 1 to 4 and 1,250 options vesting in years 5 and 6. This is a refresh in years 5 and 6.
The key difference is you are separating the “refresh grant” from a bonus, or retrading, of the hire grant. Now, I’m totally supportive of giving people bonus grants – if someone is doing an awesome job and they deserve more options in year 3 and year 4, do that. But that’s separate from a refresh, especially if your goal is to make sure there is always plenty of future options vesting.
The reason companies do the refresh in year 3 instead of year 5 is that – assuming success – the strike price of the option in year 3 will be lower. So the “value” of the option theoretically is higher if you grant it earlier since you get to lock in a lower strike price, especially against the uncertainty of where the strike price will be in two years. So that’s perfectly rational, but the idea of stacking the refresh grant on the old grant is not.
I’m not pushing to implement this in 2013 since I’m at the tail end of the refresh cycle with many of the companies I’m an investor in and just recently realized why the way refresh grants historically have been done didn’t make sense to me. And it shouldn’t make sense to the management team either – their goal and my goal is aligned – get plenty of future option value locked via vesting as a reward and retention tool.
I’m open to hearing why this doesn’t make sense. I just read it again and realize it’s confusing, as is almost every conversation I have with a management team around what, how, and why they are refreshing options. So – tell me what you do – and why – as I try to make this explanation / approach simpler.