Should Texas Founders Use SAFEs in Seed Rounds?

Nutshell: Because of the golden rule (whoever has the gold…), probably not – at least not for now.

Background Reading:

For some time now, there have been people in the general startup ecosystem who have dreamt that, some day, investment (or at least early-stage investment) in startups will become so standardized and high velocity that there will be no negotiation on anything but the core economic terms. Fill in a few numbers, click a few buttons, and boom – you’ve closed the round.  No questions about the rest of the language in the document. For the .1% of startups with so much pull that they really can dictate terms to investors (YC startups included), this is in fact the case.  But then there’s the other 99.9%, much of which lies outside of Silicon Valley.

Much has been written about how SAFEs were an ‘upgrade’ on the convertible note structure, and in many ways they are.  But anyone who works in technology knows that there’s a lot more to achieving mass adoption than being technically superior, including the “stickiness” of the current market leader (switching costs) and whether the marginal improvements on features make those costs a non-issue. And any good lawyer knows that when a client asks you whether she should use X or Y, she’s not paying you for theory. You dropped that sh** on your way out of law school.

This isn’t California

From the perspective of Texas founders and startups, which are the focus of SHL, the reality is that going with a SAFE investment structure is very rarely worth the cost of educating/convincing Texas angel investors on why they shouldn’t worry and just sign the dotted line. The entire point of the convertible note structure, which by far dominates Texas seed rounds, is to keep friction/negotiation to a minimum.  Yes, there are many reasons why equity is technically superior, but that’s not the point.  You agree on the core terms (preferably via a term sheet), draft a note, they quickly review it to make sure it looks kosher, and you close.  You worry about the rest later, when you’ve built more momentum.  Professional angels know what convertible notes are, and how they should look. They also know how to tweak them.  In Texas, many of them still do not know what a SAFE is. 

And, in truth, many Texas angels and seed VCs who do in fact know what a SAFE is simply aren’t willing to sign one. The core benefit of SAFEs to startups is that they don’t mature, and hence founders without cash can’t be forced to pay them back or liquidate.  To many California investors, this isn’t a big deal, because they’ve always viewed maturity as a gun with no bullets.  But Texas investors don’t see it that way.  Many find comfort in knowing that, before their equity position is solidified, they have a sharp object to point at founders in case things go haywire. I’ve seen a few TX founders who rounded up one or two seasoned angels willing to sign SAFEs, only to have to re-do their seed docs when #3 or #4 showed up and required a convertible note to close. It’s not worth the hassle, unless you have your entire seed round fully subscribed and OK with SAFEs

Just Tweak Your Notes

The smarter route to dealing with the TX funding environment is to simply build mechanics into your notes that give a lot of the same benefits as SAFEs. A summary:

  • Use a very low interest rate, like 1-2%. – TX angels tend to favor higher interest rates (seeing 4-8%) than west and east coast seed investors. But if you can get a very low rate, it’s more like a SAFE.
  • Use a very long maturity period, like 36 months. – 18-24 months seems to have become more acceptable in TX, which is usually more than enough time to close an equity round, or at least get enough traction that your debt-holders will keep the weapons in their pockets.  But if you can get 36 months, go for it.
  • Have the Notes automatically convert at maturity –  This gets you as close to a SAFE as possible, and we’ve seen many angels accept it. If you run out of time and hit maturity, either the angels extend, or the Notes convert, often into common stock at either a pre-determined valuation (like the valuation cap, or a discount on the cap), or at a valuation determined at the conversion time.

How successful you’ll be at getting the above is just a matter of bargaining power and the composition of your investor base. Austin investors, who think more (but not completely) like California investors, tend to be more OK with these kinds of terms.  In Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio, you’ll likely get a bit more pushback.  But that pushback will almost certainly be less than what you’d get from handing someone a SAFE.

Closing Summary: There isn’t, and likely will never be, a national standard for seed investment documentation.  Every ecosystem has its nuances, and working with people who know those nuances will save you a lot of headaches. In Texas, the convertible note, however suboptimal, reigns supreme. Respect that reality, and work within it to get what you want.

What a Valuation Cap Isn’t

Background Reading

In a nutshell, a “valuation cap” is a limit on the valuation that a convertible note will convert at upon a “qualified financing.” Seems simple enough, but there are a few serious misconceptions about valuation caps that I feel someone should clear the air on.  Here’s what a valuation cap isn’t. 

1.  A Valuation Cap is Not a Valuation

Sort of.  In the strictest technical sense, a valuation cap is not a valuation.  It relates to future valuations.  It also doesn’t (generally) require a re-valuation of the FMV of your company’s equity for stock grant purposes.  And if a Series A ends up happening at a valuation below the cap, it’s not exactly considered a “down round.”

But in practice, investors and founders often treat caps like valuations.  When you come across an AngelList profile saying a startup is raising $500K at a $4M ‘valuation’, the majority of the time they mean they are issuing convertible notes with a $4M cap.  This “sort of but not really a valuation” aspect of capped notes is seen by some as the best of both worlds: you get to price a round without all the costs of negotiating  a full set of equity docs.  Others see it as having removed the main benefit of issuing notes (instead of equity) in the first place: deferring a valuation discussion to a future date.  Both sides have good points.

2. A Valuation Cap does not guarantee investors a minimum % of the Company

This is the issue that really needs the most clearing up.  I’ve seen angels make the claim that a valuation cap guarantees an angel a specific % of the Company post-Series A. This is just not true.  In a theoretical sense, a valuation cap guarantees a minimum pre-Series A % of the Company, but the note-holder never actually owns that % because the Series A money comes in alongside the conversion.

Take the example in Joe’s post:

  • $5M cap, $200K in notes (assume no interest for simplicity), $2M in new money at Series A at a $10M pre-money valuation.

I’ve seen investors do the following math:

  • % Ownership Post-A = Investment / (Cap + Investment)
  • So: $200K / ($5M + $200K) = ~3.8%
  • Therefore, they say, the note-holder should own 3.8% of the Company after the Series A.

The problem, of course, is that the new $2M from the Series A is nowhere in this equation.  That 3.8% is a percentage of the Company without the new Series A money coming in.

When you do the math correctly for the full Series A (see Joe’s post), the noteholder’s % comes out to 3.22% of the Post-A company. That’s the number the investor(s) will see on the cap table after conversion. And it could be higher or lower depending on the economics of the Series A.

This kind of confusion shouldn’t happen if you’re working with seasoned angels who’ve done several investments that have gone on to raise a Series A.  But if you’re not (often the case in Texas), make sure they understand the math of their own investment so there aren’t squeals when conversion time comes around.

Founder Convertible Notes – Put Your Money on the Cap Table

It’s quite the norm for a startup to run on its own founders’ sweat equity and personal funds (bootstrapping) until the Company is able to raise outside capital.  A very important question that isn’t asked often enough is, “how do I paper the money I’m putting in?” Does it just go in and disappear? Does it pay for my stock?  While there are + and -s to different approaches, the answer that I almost always arrive at is: treat yourself like an investor.  In other words, paper your bootstrapping in a way so that it goes (eventually) on the cap table.  You benefit economically, and investors actually like to see evidence that you put more skin in the game than just your time.

  • Don’t use it to buy Common Stock – Your Common Stock should almost always be issued at par value ($0.0001 per share or some similar number in your Certificate of Incorporation) at the very beginning of the Company. This is proper because the Company is worth very little from a “fair market value” perspective, and issuing it at a higher price sets a FMV precedent that ends up hurting later employees because they then have to pay that higher price too.
  • Don’t buy Preferred Stock – Unless you’re a seasoned entrepreneur, the documentation and terms are too complicated for you to handle at the very early stages, and you’re not experienced enough to set a valuation. You’ll likely end up setting a bad precedent that will come back to bite you if you bring on real investors.
  • Don’t treat it as a loan – How do you think it looks to an investor if you’re asking them to actually invest (not loan) their money and risk losing it all, but you’re only willing to loan your personal funds? Bad.
  • Answer: Founder Convertible Notes – Issue yourselves convertible notes. Pre-financing, they are effectively a debt claim on your own company.  But upon raising the threshold amount that you set in the notes, they’ll convert into Series A Preferred Stock. This means (1) you now have a liquidation preference that will ensure you at least get that money back on an exit alongside future investors (unlike your Common Stock, which will likely sit beneath them), and (2) you get to vote those shares alongside future Series A investors.  Papering this is also a lot easier than buying preferred stock, and you don’t have to set a valuation.

Background Reading

Issues to Consider

  • Interest rate on the notes: 4-8% is fair
  • Discount on conversion: 20% is fair
  • Qualified financing threshold – $500K-$1M is fair
  • Cap on Conversion Valuation – Probably not a good idea for a founder note.
  • Maturity – Give yourself enough time to raise funding. 18-24 months is fair.
  • What happens at maturity? – Realize that at maturity, the notes will become “due.” This means the person holding the note can, if they want to, demand repayment (they could just extend otherwise) and cause all kinds of problems if they don’t get repaid.  If it’s just one founder or a couple of people you trust, this likely won’t be a problem. Make sure the maturity period is long enough, and be aware of the risk.  A lawyer could draft in extra protections to kick in at maturity, but that customization will cost money.

Good Forms to Use

  • Techstars has a great free set of Convertible Note docs to use here under “Debt Financing Structure. For founder notes, you don’t need the term sheet. While these aren’t rocket science, it’s still best to hire a lawyer if you want to completely avoid mistakes. But if it’s just one founder, or a small group of founders with no legal budget, they could probably handle this on a DIY basis if they read carefully.
  • Note that the Company’s Board of Directors should formally consent to the note financing. If you have a lawyer, ask for a simple board consent.  The reality is, however, because only the founders are involved, you can just ratify later when you’ve hired decent counsel.