The Best Seed Round Structure Is the One that Closes

NutshellPeople with strong opinions can argue endlessly about whether founders should be structuring their seed rounds as convertible notes/SAFEs or equity. The problem is that the optimal structure for any type of financing is highly contextual, so anyone offering absolutes on the subject should just “Put that Coffee Down” in the Glengarry sense, before they hurt someone.  The X round that closes is better than the Y round that doesn’t.

Complete standardization of startup financing structures has been a pipe dream for over a decade. Every once in a while someone will produce a new type of security, or flavor of an existing security, and proclaim its superiority. The problem, of course, is very much like the problem faced by any product whose founders hopelessly believe that it will achieve market dominance on technical superiority alone: distribution channels, inertia, and human idiosyncrasies.  In the end, a financing is the act of convincing someone, somewhere, to give you money in exchange for certain rights that they value enough to close the deal.  Values are pesky, subjective things that don’t do well with uniformity.

Outside of Silicon Valley and a very small number of other markets, the people writing the early checks are usually not all rich techies in jeans and t-shirts debating the latest startup/angel investing trends on twitter. Even in Austin they aren’t. They’re successful individuals with their own backgrounds, culture, and values, and very often won’t give a rat’s ass about a blog post saying they should suddenly stop using X security and use Y instead.

So let’s start with the core principle of this post: The Best Seed Round Structure Is the One that Closes. That means priority #1, 2, and 3 for a group of founders is to get the money in the bank. Only from there can you work backward into what seed structure is optimal.

SAFEs are better than Notes? Many non-SV investors don’t care.

This was the same reasoning in a prior post of mine: Should Texas Founders Use SAFEs? To summarize my answer: unless a TX founder is absolutely certain that every investor they want in the round will be comfortable with a SAFE, it’s usually not worth the hassle, and they can get 99% of the same deal by just tweaking a convertible note. Yes, a SAFE is technically better for the Company than a convertible note, and YC has done a great thing by pushing their use. But the differences are (frankly) immaterial if they pose any risk of slowing down or disrupting your seed raise. Here’s what a conversation will often sound like between a founder (not in SV or NYC) and their angel investor:

Angel: Why do we need to use this SAFE thing instead of a familiar convertible note? I read the main parts and seems pretty similar.

Founder: Well, it doesn’t have a maturity date, in case we don’t hit our QF threshold.

Angel: So you’re that worried about failing to hit your milestones and hitting maturity?

:: long pause::

Put. That Coffee. Down.

Debt v. Equity? Do you really have a choice?

There are so many blog posts outlining the pluses and minuses of convertible notes/SAFEs v. equity that I’m going to stay extremely high-level here. The core fact to drive home on the subject is that the two structures are optimized for very different things, and that’s why people debate them so much. Your opinion depends on which thing you value, and that will depend on context.

Convertible Notes/SAFEs are built for maximal speed and flexibility/control up-front. Cost: Dilution, Uncertainty. You defer virtually all real negotiations to the future, save for 2-3 numbers, and note holders often have minimal rights. You can also change your valuation quickly over time, at minimal upfront cost, as milestones are hit. The price for that speed is you’ll usually end up with more dilution (because notes have a kind of anti-dilution built into them) and possibly more liquidation preference. See: The Problem in Everyone’s Capped Convertible Notes You’ll also pay a harsher penalty if your valuation goes south before a set of Notes/SAFEs convert than if you’d done equity from the start.

Equity rounds are built for providing certainty on rights and dilution. Cost: Legal Fees, Control, Complexity. An equity round is more inflexible, and slower than debt/SAFEs, but the key benefit is that at closing, you know exactly what rights/ownership everyone got for the money.  Those rights are generally much more extensive than what note/SAFEholders get. If the business goes south, or the fundraising environment worsens significantly, you’ll pay a lower penalty than if you’d done a note/SAFE. But for that certainty, you’ll pay 10x+ the legal fees of a note round (if you do a full VC-style equity round), and have 10x the documentation. That’s why you rarely see a full equity round smaller than $1MM.

Raising only $250K at X valuation and planning to raise another $500-750K at a higher valuation soon, before your A round, because you’re super optimistic about the next 6-12 months? Note/SAFE probably. Raising a full $1.5MM round all at once that will last you 12-18 months, with a true lead? Probably equity.

Seed Equity is a nice middle ground, but if your investors won’t do it, it’s just theoretical. Series Seed, Series AA, Plain Preferred, etc. Seed Equity docs are highly simplified versions of the full VC-style equity docs used in a Series A. They are still about 2-3x the cost of a convertible note round to close in terms of legal fees, but dramatically faster and cheaper than a full equity set. They are a valuable middle ground for greater certainty, but minimal complexity and cost.

But after pondering the nice theoretical benefits of seed equity, we’re back to reality: will your seed investors actually close a seed equity deal? I can’t tell you the answer without asking them, but I can tell you that I know a lot of seed investors in TX and other parts of the country, including professional institutionals, who would never sign seed equity docs.

There is an obvious tradeoff in the convertible note/SAFE structure that has become culturally acceptable for both sides of the deal. Founders get more control and speed up-front, and investors get more downside protection and reassurance that in the future they will get strong investor rights negotiated by a strong lead.

With seed equity, investors are (like with Notes) being asked to put in their money quickly with minimal fuss, but without the downside protection of a note/SAFE, and with significantly simpler investor rights. Many seed investors see that as an imbalanced tradeoff. Whether or not they are right isn’t a question that lends itself to a single answer. It’s subjective, which means the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules.  Can they beef up those protections in the next large round? Sure, but many don’t see it that way, and good luck ‘enlightening’ them when every delay brings more reasons for why the round may never close.

I think seed equity is great, and am happy to see founders use it as an alternative to Notes or SAFEs for their seed raise. But that doesn’t change the fact that for every 10-15 seed deals I see, maybe 1 is true, simplified seed equity. And those usually look far more like Friends and Family rounds – where the investors are so friendly that they don’t care about the structure – instead of a true seed with professional seed money.

When it comes down to getting non-SV seed money in the bank, most founders only really have 2 choices for their seed structure: convertible notes or a full equity round. If you’re lucky enough to get a SAFE or seed equity, fantastic. Go for it. But don’t let the advice of people outside of your market, with minimal knowledge of your own investor base, cloud your judgment with theories. When a team debates what type of product to build, the starting point isn’t which one is technically superior, but which one their specific users will actually pay for. Seed round structuring (like coffee) is for closers.

Should Non-SV 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 founders and startups outside of California, 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 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/CO/GA and similar market 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%. – Many local 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.