A few weeks ago I noticed my post How Can This Be A Billion Dollar Company? getting a surprising number of new Twitter shares. Since I wrote it in the summer of 2014, it must have been picked up somewhere and hit a new chord. I wish I had titled it what was in my mind when I wrote it, which was “How Can This Be A Billion Dollar Company and other bullshit VCs ask early stage companies” – that would have been more fun to see in my Twitter feed.
I took the weekend off, spent time with friends, had an awesome Valentine’s dinner with Amy, and read Barry Eisler’s newest book The God’s Eye View (excellent – five stars – I love everything Barry Eisler.)
While going through my daily reading this morning, I came across a bunch of posts talking about how the sky was falling, Silicon Valley was in turmoil, financing was drying up everywhere, and all the unicorns were doomed.
In the midst of all the very predictable noise, much of it not really saying anything particularly insightful, were three posts by friends that I thought were extremely useful and very relevant. I encourage you to read each of them slowly and think about both what the writer is saying and what it means for you and your company.
Let’s start with Mark Solon’s Some Gray Haired Insights For New Investors. Buried deep within in a nice reminder of one of my fundamental beliefs.
“I remember a series of conversations I had with Brad Feld in 2008 about his perspective on investing through various parts of economic cycles. Brad was (and is) resolute in his belief that creating outsized returns in the venture industry demands ignoring the macro environment as it relates to investment pace.”
Mark says plenty of other things, along with walking us through some dynamics in 2008 around the macro, startups, and the global thermonuclear financial freakout that was occurring.
Ok – let’s move on to Mark Suster’s What Most People Don’t Understand About How Startup Companies are Valued. Mark also has a nice call out to me that helps explain why he writes posts list this one.
“When I started blogging it was because I was inspired by Brad Feld. When I was an entrepreneur there was no public information about how term sheets worked or how investors thought. Brad was openly writing about this and it felt like he was giving the VC playbook away for free! I always wanted to work with Brad for this reason so I started blogging because I figured if transparency worked for Brad I would try the same approach. Nearly EVERY smart VC I know has been talking privately for the past two years about how ridiculous valuations in private markets have gotten and how a reckoning was coming. Most prefer not to say this publicly for two reasons: 1) they have an entire portfolio of startups, many of whom are raising capital and 2) they prefer not to be attacked publicly or seem “anti entrepreneur.” But I promise you they’ve been saying it privately. So my talking up over the years is more trying to shine transparency on what we’re already saying in private rooms.”
Mark is on a monstrously awesome blogging roll right now. This post, along with the last N that he has written, have been outstanding. While I don’t agree with everything Mark says, it’s super important context for what is going on.
And then Alex Iskold, who runs Techstars New York, reminds us why this is a particularly good time to create a startup.
When you are done reading those three posts (and – if you haven’t – go read them – seriously – it’s worth the time) you should sit quietly for five minutes. Take a very deep breath. Figure out what you can actually impact today, and then go do it. And shut out all the rest of the noise.
The other day, Mark Suster wrote a critically important post titled One Simple Paragraph Every Entrepreneur Should Add to Their Convertible Notes. Go read it – I’ll wait. Or, if you just want the paragraph, it’s:
“If this note converts at a price higher than the cap that you have been given you agree that in the conversion of the note into equity you agree to allow your stock to be converted such that you will receive no more than a 1x non-participating liquidation preference plus any agreed interest.”
I also have seen the problem Mark is describing. As an angel investor, I have never asked for a liquidation preference on conversion that is greater than the dollars I’ve invested. But, I’ve seen some angels ask for it (or even demand it), especially when there is ambiguity around this and the round happens much higher than the cap. The entity getting screwed on this term are the founders, who now have a greater liquidation preference hanging over their heads than the dollars invested by the angels. Mark has a superb example of how this works on his blog.
We’ve been regularly running into another problem with doing a financing after companies have raised convertible notes. Most notes are ambiguous as to whether they convert on a pre-money or a post-money basis. This can be especially confusing, and ambiguous, when there are multiple price caps. There are also some law firms whose standard documents are purposefully ambiguous to give the entrepreneur theoretical negotiating flexibility in the first priced round.
If the entrepreneur knows this and is using it proactively so they get a higher post-money valuation, that’s fair game. But if they don’t know this, and they are negotiating terms with a VC who is expecting the notes to convert in the pre-money, it can create a mess after the terms are agreed to somewhere between the term sheet stage and the final definitives. This mess is especially yucky if the lawyers don’t focus on the final cap table and the capitalization opinion until the last few days of the process. And, it gets even messier when some of the angels start suggesting that the ambiguity should work a certain way and the entrepreneur feels boxed in by the demands of his convertible note angels on one side and priced round VC on the other.
The simple solution is to define this clearly up front. For example, in the Mattermark investment from last year, I said “We are game to do $5m of $6.5m at $18.5m pre ($25m post).” When I made the offer, I did not know how the notes worked, what the cap was, or what the expectation of the angels were. But when Danielle Morrill and I agree on the terms, it was unambiguous that I expected the notes to convert in the pre-money.
In contrast, in the Glowforge deal, which Dan Shapiro talks about in his fun post Glowforge Completed its Series A with an Investor we Never Met, I was less crisp. I knew that Dan’s notes were uncapped with a discount and I knew his lawyer well, so I didn’t define the post-money in this case. Since the notes were uncapped, I expected them to convert into the pre-money. But I didn’t specify it. The notes were ambiguous and we focused on this at the end of the process after docs had gone out to the angel investors. Rather than fight about this, I accepted this as a miss on my part and let the post-money float up a little as a result. The total amount of the notes was relatively small so it didn’t have a huge impact on the economics of the investment but we could have avoided the ambiguity by dealing it with more clearly up front.
Recognize that this is simply a negotiation. In Mattermark’s case where there were a lot of notes stacked up, I cared a lot about the post-money. In Glowforge’s case where the note amount was modest, I didn’t care very much. And, while I care a lot about my entry point as an early stage investor, I’ve learned not to optimize for a small amount in the context of a pricing negotiation.
I think we are just starting to see the complexity, side effects, and unintended consequences created by the massive proliferation of convertible notes over the past few years. I’m pretty mellow about them as I’ve accepted that they are part of the funding landscape, in contrast to a number of angels and VCs who feel strongly one way or the other. As derivative note vehicles have appeared, such as SAFE, that try to create synthetic equity out of a note structure, we’ll see another wave of unintended consequences in the next few years. As someone who failed fast at creating a standardized set of seed documents in 2010, I’ve accepted that dealing with the complexity and side affects of all of the different documents is just part of the process.
Fundamentally, it’s up to the entrepreneur to be informed about what is going on. I hope Mark’s blog post, and this one, are additive to the overall base of entrepreneurial knowledge. And, if Jason and I ever write a third edition of Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist our chapter on convertible notes might now be two chapters.