Six weeks ago I wrote a post titled The Silliness Of Recapping Seed Rounds. I described a situation that occurred in one of our FG Angels investments that I thought was short sighted on the part of the VC involved and the CEO of the company. I characterized the situation as “silly” and specifically didn’t call out the people as my goal was to be instructive around the startup landscape, not to complain (we are big boys and will deal with whatever) or to try to generate a different outcome. I accepted what happened, wrote my post, and moved on.
Over the next few days I had a few emails and phone calls with the VC and the CEO. I was told that my post generated some attacks, both professional and personal, and plenty of thought and reflection on the situation.
I was willing to engage (even though I said I was done in my post) due to my “fuck me once” rule. If you aren’t aware of it, I wrote a chapter about it in Do More Faster (although Wiley made me call it the “screw me once rule.”) While the exchanges had a little emotion in them, they were generally calm and rational.
At some point, I was asked directly by the CEO what I would have done in the situation. My answer was simple – I would have given the early seed investors some percentage of the company as part of the financing. Given the amount raised, the new financing, and the cap, I would have asked the seed investors to waive the terms and instead accept a smaller percentage of the company than they would have otherwise gotten. Instead of pricing the new round at $100,000 pre-money (effectively wiping out the several million dollars of seed money already raised and spent), I would have set a higher pre-money but sized it to be reasonable given all the other dynamics.
When asked what the range I would give to the seed investors post financing, I said 10% – 15%. I didn’t do spreadsheet math to get there – I just figured that the economics of the round ended up with the seed round getting about 33% (the max I think most seed rounds should end up getting) and then take meaningful dilution from there.
The CEO committed to doing something here, which I told him I respected. Yesterday, I got the docs giving the seed investors, which included the FG Angels group, 12% of the post money cap table.
I’m glad the CEO and the VC investors did the right thing. I also appreciate it as it sets an important tone in the seed stage ecosystem. And, most of all, I’m happy to give them all another chance in my book.
Here’s the scenario. A company raises $2m of seed money from angels in a convertible note with a $6m cap. Assuming equity is raised at or above that cap, the total dilution, before the new money, is 33% (equivalent to an equity financing of $2m at a $6m post money valuation.
The company spends the $2m building and launching their first product. The first release is underwhelming, but they iterate aggressively, with feedback and support from some of their angel investors. The product gets a lot better. They go out to raise a Series A, but there are no takers. The feedback is “come back when you’ve made more progress with customers.” They are running out of money.
One of their angel investors, who happens to be a VC firm, decides to invest another $500,000 in the company. But instead of adding it on to the note or doing an equity round with a price, which could still be an early stage price but below the cap, they make the argument that since the company couldn’t raise a round, the company is worthless.
So they recapitalize the company. The term sheet converts all the convertible debt into a post-money valuation of $100k, essentially making the convertible debt worthless. The new money comes in at a pre-money valuation of $100k, but includes a complete refresh of founder equity to 40% of the company. So the new investment gets 60%, the founders get 39.9%, and the $2m of seed money gets 0.1%.
As part of this, all of the seed investors get a chance to participate in the round prorata to preserve their ownership percentage. But this equity round is going to be controlled completely by the VC who just did the recap.
Yup – this just happened to us in an FG Angels deal. It blew my mind. We signed the paperwork, wrote our investment off, and walked away. We have no interest in re-investing alongside a VC firm that doesn’t respect a $2m investment by seed / angel investors. While we understand the pressure the founder was likely under, we don’t accept the notion of the bribe where the founders get 39.9% and the investors, who put up $2m in a convertible note, get 0.1%.
Sure – it happens. It usually happens in a later round, when the company is in fact worth much less than the liquidation preference overhang and insiders use a pay-to-play and a low valuation to reset the preferences and the cap table. The founders usually get wiped out completely, but existing management usually ends up with new options for between 10% and 20% of the company. It’s not pretty, but it happens.
But in this cycle, I hadn’t seen it in a seed round.
When I made 40 seed investments between 1994 and 1996, I had a philosophy that I’d double down on a seed investment. If I put $25k into a company, it made progress, but couldn’t get to the next level where it could raise a round, I’d offer up another $25k at the same price. If I was leading a gang of friends (that’s what I called it before the word syndicate started to be used), and that gang had put in $200k alongside my $25k, I’d encourage my gang to do the same, and they often did. In some cases this turned into nothing, but in a few cases it had magnificent outcomes for me and my gang, along with the entrepreneurs. And, everyone, in either case, felt good about how things played out.
We are big boys and are fine walking away from investments that aren’t working. But it galls us when we make bad people decisions, which happens sometimes, but not that often anymore. In this case, we misread the respect – or lack thereof – that a co-investor and an entrepreneur would have for the other seed investors and the seed capital that helped them get a product built and into customer hands.
While I wish them well as a company, the individuals are no longer part of our gang. And the VC is a firm we have no interest in ever working with again. The entrepreneur and the VC may not care at all, and that’s fine with us, but we’ll remember the behavior for a long time.
In a single turn game, this might be rational behavior. But in a multi-turn game that lasts for a very long time, across multiple contexts, this is a bad strategy. And developing a reputation for recapping seed rounds is, in my book, silly.