Milestone-Based Valuation Caps for SAFEs and Convertible Notes

TL;DR: When it’s difficult to get aligned with investors on the appropriate valuation cap in your Convertible Note or SAFE, having a tiered milestone-based valuation cap can be a reasonable compromise. If you hit the milestone, you get the better (for the company) deal. If you don’t, investors get the better deal. But avoiding ambiguity in the language is key.

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Equity rounds, including simplified/leaner seed equity, have always been preferred by founders for whom “certainty” over their cap table is a key priority. Equity allows you to lock in a valuation and certain level of dilution, which is often an optimal strategy in boom times when valuations are very juicy; though of course over-optimizing for valuation alone, to the exclusion of other factors (like liquidation preferences, governance power, investor value-add, etc.) is never a good idea.

But as of right now (December 2022), we are definitely not in boom times. The startup ecosystem has seen a dramatic contraction in financing activity, and uncertainty over valuations has taken over; with investors demanding that they move lower, and entrepreneurs struggling to accept the new reality.

Convertible securities (Notes and SAFEs) have always had the benefit of being more “flexible” and simple than equity. They have their downsides for sure, but in many contexts when speed-to-closing is important, and fully “hardening” a valuation is not possible, they make a lot of sense. But in times of maximal uncertainty, like now, even agreeing on an appropriate valuation cap can be tough. You believe you deserve more, but the investors, often citing all the apocalyptic data, say you’re being unrealistic.

A milestone-based valuation cap can be a good way of getting alignment on a valuation cap, especially if you’re highly confident in your ability to hit that milestone, but you have no credible way of getting an investor today to share your confidence. Investors tend to like valuation caps because they are asymmetrically investor-friendly – if the company performs well, the cap limits the valuation, but in a bad scenario, investors get downside protection (lower valuation at conversion). A milestone-based cap is a way of making the cap’s “flexibility” a bit more symmetrical, with upside for the company if it outperforms.

A milestone valuation cap would say something like (paraphrasing): “If the Company achieves X milestone by Y date, the Valuation Cap will be A. If it does not, the Valuation Cap will be B.”

Simple enough, but as always the devil is in the details. When using a milestone valuation cap, you want to minimize ambiguity and the possibility of disagreement in the future as to whether the milestone was in fact achieved.

Bad milestone language: “The Company successfully launches an alpha product to market.”

What do you mean by “successful”? In whose opinion? By what date? What constitutes a “launch”?

Better milestone language: “The Company’s product/service achieves at least 10,000 daily active users by [Month + Year], with such metric to be calculated and reported in good faith using a consistent methodology determined by the Board of Directors in its reasonable discretion.”

Not 100% air-tight – it can often be unproductive to over-engineer the language, and too much distrust between investors and management as to calculating the milestone is a bad sign – but still far clearer and less subject to disagreement than the first one.

If you find yourself cycling in discussions with investors over what the “right” valuation is for your seed round, consider committing to a milestone-based structure as a way of (i) getting alignment as to what “success” looks like post-close, and (ii) bridging the “confidence gap” between the founding team and the money.