409A as a Service: Cash Cows Get Slaughtered

Background: 409A is a set of tax rules passed, in part, to stop companies from avoiding taxes through issuing underpriced (cheap) equity as compensation.  While well-intentioned, it spawned a cottage industry of third-party valuation firms/i-bankers who charge companies, including startups, thousands (sometimes tens-of-thousands) of dollars to get ’409A valuations’ for their stock to avoid tax penalties in setting their stock’s Fair Market Value.

Anyone who deals with 409A valuations on a regular basis knows that they are the quintessential ‘cash cow’ for valuation firms and small i-bankers; evidenced by the number of those firms that are constantly inviting lawyers and influential tech players out to lunch in order to get referrals (btw, sorry guys, I’m blogging right now). And if they’ve dug a little deeper, they’ve found that, particularly at the early stage, these valuations are generated in an almost entirely automated fashion. Hence, cash cows: premium price, lots of hand-waiving to make them seem difficult to produce, but ultimately with a low marginal cost.

The Necessary Evil

In practice, startups have been advised by lawyers and their advisors to avoid a 409A valuation until a Series A. Pre-Series A there’s usually not much on the balance sheet and no arms-length price on the Company’s equity to generate a meaningful valuation, so startups just wing it.  Post Series A, however, the vast majority of startups pony up $3-10k to get their valuation, and it has to be refreshed (i) every 12 months, (ii) if there’s a material change in the startup’s financials, or (iii) if a new equity round is done; otherwise it goes ‘stale’ and no longer provides a safe harbor on FMV.

That can get expensive quickly, though any serious company looking to get acquired by a large company or eventually go public knows that the consequences of not doing this can be substantially more expensive.

409A-as-a-Service: The Slaughtering

Finally, eShares (the paperless stock certificate and capitalization tracking company) has pulled off something brilliant: 409A as a Service. Priced as a continuous service (which makes total sense given the on-going need for re-doing a valuation) and supported by a well-known valuation firm (Preferred Return) startups get continuous 409A valuation services at a monthly fee: $159/mo for a post-Series A startup – higher for later stage.

Doing the math, that’s $1,908/yr: easily a 40-50% discount on even the most ‘sweetheart’ deals offered by local valuation firms for post-Series A startups. If you need a refresh within a year, you’re in 90%+ discount territory. Add in the fact that (i) it’s done paperlessly via the web, and (ii) the valuation gets continuously updated for major changes in capitalization or financials (no huge cost to avoid going stale), and we have ourselves a game-changer.

The pricing for Series B, Series C+ valuations is even more competitive relative to market rates for 409A services.  It’s also a brilliant feature for eShares because of how it ties in directly with their existing capitalization tracking platform.

Something tells me that this slaughtered cash cow is going to net eShares and Preferred Return a lot of steak dinners in the future.  The cottage i-bankers who’ve built practices off of milking 409A as much as possible? Not so much. The better i-bankers of course do higher-value things that justify their costs, so they have nothing to worry about. Yes, there are serious parallels to startup law here.

Nutshell:  Startups historically had to pay $3-10k for a valuation after closing a Series A in order to protect themselves from 409A issues, and they had to keep re-paying it on an on-going basis to keep it from going stale.  eShares has changed all of that by offering 409A valuations as a continuous service (as they should be) and pricing them in a manner that aligns more closely with what it costs to produce them.  Cash cows, particularly when visible to techies who like to disrupt things, eventually get slaughtered.

p.s. Like all of the other tools I recommend to startups for saving their capital, I have no financial interest in eShares.

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