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.

Related Reading:

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.

Startup Governance Choke Points: Protective Provisions

Related Reading:

As I’ve written many times before, one variable that makes the world of startup governance very different from other areas of corporate law is the substantial imbalance of experience and knowledge between the business parties involved. On one side you often have seasoned VCs who’ve been in the game for decades. On the other you often have an inexperienced entrepreneur for whom all of the complex terms in the docs are completely new. This imbalance leaves open numerous opportunities for leveraging founders’ inexperience to gain an advantage in negotiations either in deals or on complex board matters.

This can make the role that corporate lawyers play in VC<>founder dynamics quite pivotal. Whereas seasoned executives at mature companies usually rely on legal counsel for executing specific directives, but not for material strategic guidance, in the startup world good VC lawyers serve as strategic  “equalizers” at the negotiation table. This is why guarding against any conflicts of interest between your lead lawyers and your VCs is so important (see above-linked post). If your lawyers’ job is to help you guard against unreasonable demands or expectations from your counterparties, you don’t want those counterparties to have leverage over those lawyers. No one bites a hand that feeds them. VCs know this, and deliberately feed (engage and send referrals to) *lots* of lawyers in the ecosystem.

Because of this imbalance of experience, and even the tendency for some VC lawyers to not fully educate founders on the material nuances of deal terms and governance issues, I regularly encounter founding teams with overlooked “choke points” in their companies’ deal and governance docs. By choke points I mean areas where, if there were a material disagreement between the common stock and investors, the latter could push a button that really puts the common in a bind. It’s not unusual to find founders who simplistically think something like, “well the VCs don’t have a Board majority, so they can’t really block anything.” Trust me, it’s never so simple.

The hidden VC “block” on future fundraising. 

One of the most common hidden “choke points” I see in startup governance is overly broad protective provisions. These are located in the company’s Certificate of Incorporation (charter), and basically are a list of things that the company cannot do without the approval of a majority or supermajority of either the preferred stock broadly, or a specific subset of preferred stock. Given that the preferred stock almost always means the investors, these are effectively hard blocks (veto rights) over very material actions of the company. No matter what your cap table or Board composition looks like, these protective provisions mandate that you get the consent of your VCs for whatever is on that list.

Fair enough, you might say. The investors should have a list of certain things that require their approval, right? Of course. Balanced governance is good governance. But good, balanced governance terms should protect against the possibility of misalignment of incentives, and even conflicts of interest, in governance decisions for the company. In other words, they should prevent situations where someone can take an action, or block an action, purely out of self-interested motivations, while harming the cap table overall.

Very often so-called “standard” (there are all kinds of biases in what ends up being called standard) VC deal terms will give VCs protective provision veto rights over these sorts of actions:

  • creating any new series of preferred stock
  • making any change to the size of the Board of Directors
  • issuing any kind of debt or debt-like instrument.

The end-result of these protective provision is that, at the end of the day, you need your VC’s permission to raise any new money, because you can’t raise money without taking at least some of the above actions.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in: regardless of what your Board or cap table composition looks like – even if a VC is a minority holder, and the preferred don’t have a majority on the Board – the kinds of protective provisions that many VC lawyers call (air quotes) “standard” allow your VC(s) to completely block your ability to raise any new financing, no matter what the terms for that financing are. A “choke point” indeed.

Why is this a problem? Well, to begin with it’s a serious problem that I encounter so many founding teams that aren’t even aware that their governance docs have this kind of choke point, because nobody told them. A fair deal negotiation should require clear understanding on both sides. But more broadly, the problem is that VCs can have all kinds of self-interested reasons for influencing what kind of funding strategy a startup will take. They may want to block a lead from competing with them, for example. Or they may want to ensure that the follow-on funding is led by a syndicate that is “friendly” (to them) as opposed to one whose vision may align more with the goals of the common stock.

I have encountered startup teams several times who think they are in control of their company’s fundraising strategy, again because they simplistically looked at just their cap table and board composition, only to have a VC inform them that, in fact, the VC is in control because of an obscure protective provision that the founders never even read.

Preventing / Negotiating this Choke Point

The simplest way to prevent your VCs from having this chokehold on your fundraising strategy is to delete the protective provision(s) entirely. That may work, but often it doesn’t. Again, balanced governance is good governance. It’s reasonable for VCs to expect some protections in ensuring the company isn’t willy-nilly fundraising with terms that are problematic. I agree with that. But as I said above, it’s also unreasonable for the VCs to expect a hard block on any fundraising whatsoever, regardless of terms.

A more balanced way of “massaging” these protective provisions is putting conditions or boundaries around when the veto right is actually effective. For example, you might say that the veto right is not enforceable (the VCs can’t block a deal) if:

  • the new financing is an up-round, or X% higher in share price than the previous raise;
  • is a minimum of $X in funding;
  • maintains a Board with specific VC representation;
  • doesn’t involve payment to a founder, to ensure they are objective.

There are all kinds of conditions you could add to provide that only “good” (higher valuation, legitimate amount of money, balanced Board representation, etc.) financings can get past a VC block. Putting this kind of list in a term sheet can be an excellent conversation starter with a VC as to what they see as the long-term fundraising strategy, and where their own red lines are. It allows you to candidly ask your VC, “OK, if the deal checks all of these boxes, why exactly do you still need a veto right over it?”

But if your VC simply responds with a “this won’t work, we need a hard veto on fundraising” position on the negotiation – at a minimum you now have valuable data as to this VC’s worldview on governance and power dynamics in their portfolio. See Negotiation is Relationship Building. Regardless of where deal terms end up, forcing a discussion about them, and requiring the other side to articulate their position clearly, still serves a valuable purpose. Sometimes you don’t have the leverage to achieve better balance in your deal terms, but it’s always a positive to at least have your eyes wide open.

Putting substantive deal terms aside, I enjoy helping founding teams understand that many of the most (air quotes) “founder friendly” investors in the market are still far from charitable actors, and can be quite clever and subtle in their methods for maintaining power, despite the “friendly” public persona. See: Trust, “Friendliness” and Zero-Sum Startup Games. Note: this is not a moral judgment, but just an acknowledgement of reality. You and I aren’t Mother Teresa either. Navigate the market with the clear-eyed understanding that everyone is following their incentives, and protect your company accordingly.

A less balanced, but still improved, configuration of these protective provisions is to create an exception if a VC Board member approves the deal. You might (understandably) think: how is this better, if the VC Board member can just refuse to approve? Without getting too in the weeds, Board members have fiduciary duties to the cap table overall, whereas non-controlling stockholders generally do not. So at least theoretically, you could call out, and even sue, a Board member if it’s blatantly obvious that they are blocking a particular deal for reasons that are more about their own interests than the company’s.

I say theoretically, because the smartest and most aggressive investors, if they really want to play games with pushing your fundraising strategy in their preferred direction (and away from the preferences of the common), will be quite creative in developing plausible deniability for their behavior: they blocked the deal because that other lead wasn’t “value add” enough, they don’t believe now is the right time to raise because of market conditions, they’re concerned about X or Y thing that at least gives them an argument that they are still looking out for the company. So don’t get too excited about these fiduciary-related exceptions to protective provisions. They’re not nearly as helpful as the better strategy of putting concrete bypasses to a protective provision veto.

To be very clear, I still see quite a few founding teams who are fully informed about these issues, have a candid conversation with their VCs about it, and still ultimately put in some kind of hard VC-driven block on fundraising. I of course also see plenty of teams who, as soon as we bring this topic up to them, dig their heels squarely in the sand and completely refuse to do a deal unless the VC vetoes are removed/modified. It depends on context, leverage, values, trust, etc. But in all cases it is a net positive for the inexperienced founding team to know what they are signing.

Startup governance and power dynamics are much more nuanced than just what your Board and cap table look like, or the usual 2-3 high-level terms that founders read in a term sheet, thinking everything else is just “boilerplate.” Ensure you’re surrounded by objective, experienced advisors who can help you understand those nuances, so the deal you think you’re signing is in fact the one on the table.

A Fix for Post-Money SAFEs: The Math and a Redline

TL;DR: The default language of a Post-Money SAFE has the worst possible economics for founders in the vast majority of seed round contexts, because any future convertible rounds (that aren’t equity) force dilution entirely on the common stock (seed investors aren’t diluted at all – YC benefits significantly from this language in its own investments). A very small tweak to the language can save founders/common stockholders millions of dollars, and make the Post-Money SAFE fairer to the cap table.

Background reading: Why Startups Shouldn’t Use YC’s Post-Money SAFE

Note: If you’d like to discuss this template or SAFEs generally, try Office Hours.

First, a very quick review of the high-level economic problem with the Post-money SAFE structure that YC promoted a few years ago; and which is only in recent quarters becoming more visible to founders as their seed rounds start to convert:

The stated value proposition of the post-money SAFE, relative to the traditional pre-money SAFE, was that it delivered investors far more clarity over how much of the cap table they were buying. If they put in $1 million on a $10 million post-money SAFE, they were buying 10% of the company today, regardless of what the current cap table looks like. This is actually a good thing. Clarity is great.

The hidden value proposition for investors of the post-money SAFE, and which has cost founders enormously by not understanding its implicationswas an extreme level of anti-dilution protection built into the post-money SAFE. Any SAFEs or notes that you issue after the post-money SAFE round, but before a Series A, do not dilute the investors; they dilute only the common stock (founders and employees). This is the case even if the 2nd or 3rd round of SAFEs is an up-round with a higher valuation cap.

This was and remains crazy, and totally unnecessary in light of the stated purpose of post-money SAFEs; which was for investors to know what they are buying on the day of their closing. When you buy equity you are able to calculate the ownership you are purchasing at closing, but equity rounds virtually never, not even in the most investor-slanted deals, have full anti-dilution protection for post-closing investment. Why should Post-Money SAFEs give investors that? They shouldn’t, and this was an egregious (but in my opinion, deliberately obfuscated) over-step in startup financing template design.

We posted here a very simple redline (in track changes) of what needs to be edited on YC’s post-money SAFE to eliminate the terrible anti-dilution mechanics. Again, it’s worth emphasizing that this redlined safe still gives investors the stated benefit of the post-money structure, which is to know what % of the cap table they are getting as of their closing. What it changes is that it makes post-closing issuances proportionately dilutive to both founders and investors, just as they would (and should) be in any other kind of financing structure.

There are numerous different ways someone could draft a “fix” to this problem. I’m just posting a simple public redline so founders, lawyers, and investors understand the problem, and can either go with this solution, or craft a variant that works for their context.

A colleague of mine also designed a very helpful model (in Google Sheets) breaking down the mathematical (economic) differences between a typical pre-money SAFE, post-money SAFE, and our suggested redlined post-money SAFE. We know engineers in particular love seeing the numbers.

To give a high-level idea of the economic implications, assuming the following:

SAFE Round 1: $5M pre-money cap or $6.5M post-money cap ($1.5M invested)

SAFE Round 2: $10M pre-money cap or $12M post-money cap ($2M invested)

Series A round: $25M pre-money, $31M post-money ($6M new money), 10% post-available pool.

In Series A dollars (company value as of Series A closing), common stockholders lose $912,000 in moving from the traditional pre-money SAFE to YC’s preferred post-money SAFE. Fast-forward to an exit years later, and you’re talking easily millions or even tens of millions of dollars in lost value from simply changing the template.

Again in Series A dollars, common stockholders gain appx. $1.2 million in using the redlined post-money SAFE relative to YC’s post-money SAFE. The addition of just a few extra clarificatory words (which eliminate the hidden anti-dilution protections for investors) shift $1.2 million in Series A value from investors to the common stock; which again could easily be >$10 million by exit. All with just a few tweaks of language.

If this isn’t clear already: the stakes here are extremely high. And anyone suggesting that mindlessly using an investor or accelerator’s preferred templates is “saving” founders money (by reducing legal fees) is either hilariously uninformed, or lying out of their teeth. Tread carefully, and stay well-counseled.

Disclaimer: The model presented above is purely a hypothetical based on general math mechanics of SAFE and Series A rounds. The specific outcome in your company’s case will be dependent on the facts and circumstances, and you should always use experienced, trusted advisors to avoid missteps.  

“No Code” v. “Open Source” Approaches to Early-Stage Startup Law

TL;DR: Fully automated startup financing tools often utilize templates designed by and for investors. They claim to save founders money by reducing legal fees, but founders often end up giving 10-20x+ (relative to fees) away in cap table value as a result of the inflexibility and lack of trusted oversight over the “code.” Using vetted and trusted templates, while still incorporating non-conflicted counsel into the negotiation and review process, provides the best of both worlds: common starting points, with flexibility and trust.

Background reading:

“No Code” is a term I’ve been hearing more often lately. It refers to new tools that allow users to “program” various processes without actually having to code them; effectively modules of tools that are interoperable and allow building semi-customized programs without needing to actually get into coding. Very useful.

While “no code” seems to certainly have a good value proposition for many user contexts, it occurred to me recently that “no code” is good short-hand for the startup financing approach that parts of the investor community, and to some extent the tech automation community, has tried to peddle onto startup ecosystems and founders. By pushing the minimization of “friction” in funding (just sign fully automated templates), with the key “carrot” being the reduction in legal fees, these players want founders to think that it’s in their interests to simply close their financings with a few clicks, instead of leveraging lawyers to actually negotiate and flexibly customize the “code” (language).

The reasons behind why tech automation companies would push this perspective are obvious: they want to make money by selling you automation tools. But the reasons why the investor community is incentivized to also back this approach require a bit more explanation. For one example, see: Why Startups Should Avoid YC’s Post-Money SAFE.  First-time founders are what you would call “one shot” players in the startup ecosystem. They are new, inexperienced, and laser-focused on the single company they are building. Investors, including prominent accelerators, are instead repeat players. They are highly experienced, resource-rich, and stand to benefit significantly if they can sway the norms/”standards” of the market in their favor.

The most prominent, high-brand investors have all kinds of microphones and mechanisms for nudging the market in ways to make themselves more money, especially because the founders usually absorbing the content have little experience and knowledge for assessing substance. One of those ways is to push templates that they (the investors) themselves have drafted, and create an impression that those templates are some kind of standard that everyone should adhere to without any customization.  Of course, they’re far too clever to come out and say overtly that these templates are designed to make investors more money, so instead they’ll latch on to more palatable messaging: these templates will save you legal fees and help you close faster.

To summarize, investors and tech automation companies push the “no code” approach to early-stage funding out of self-interest, but they use the “save you legal fees” marketing message to get founders to buy in. The problem that not enough people talk about is that by taking the “no code” approach, founders become permanently stuck with the pre-packaged and inflexible code (contract language) that these players provide. And as I’ve written extensively on this blog, the code is dirty.

I want to emphasize the word permanently here. Look up what most “no code” tools do. They help you sort contacts, build a spreadsheet, maybe build some low-stakes automation processes. Good stuff, but very different from, say, permanently signing contractual terms for millions of dollars that in the long-run can have billion-dollar economic and power implications. In startup funding, we are talking about executing on issues that are literally 1000x more consequential, and un-modifiable once signed, than all the other areas where “no code” approaches are applied.

Having a trusted advisor (lawyer) make even just a few tweaks to a template document, or flexibly choosing a better-fit template to begin with, can have million/billion-dollar implications for a company. Given the enormous stakes involved – what bank account exit money goes into, and who gets ultimate decision-making power over an enterprise – founders need to think very hard about whether getting boxed into an inflexible automation tool, in order to save at most $5-25k in fees in a seed financing, is actually the smart approach. I see inexperienced founders regularly handing over millions in cap table value to investors, and in some instances unwittingly giving those investors strong “choke point” power over their governance, all because the founders were convinced that lawyers are a boogeyman extracting money to just push paper and hand-waive with no value-add.

Notice here that I’m not advocating for a wholesale reversion to the old-school days of simply letting lawyers take full control of the negotiation process, using whatever forms and standards they want. There is enormous value in having market-respected starting points for negotiation; sets of templates known and understood by investors, and trusted by lawyers who represent companies (and not investors), that can then be flexibly modified to arrive at a final deal that makes sense for a specific context. By having your lawyers (who hopefully aren’t conflicted with the investors they’re negotiating with) draft initial deal docs from a reputable template, the lawyers on the investor side can redline against that familiar starting point, instantly reducing the amount of up-front negotiation by 80% because they aren’t working with language (code) they’ve never seen.

What I’m effectively advocating for here is an “open source” approach to high-stakes early-stage startup law. It allows for some standardization (efficiency), but also flexible customization, to ensure every deal is fair for the parties involved. And importantly, it ensures that the templatization and customization is transparent and “open,” with lawyers from both the investor and startup (company-side) community participating; instead of the one-sided “here are the standards” model that certain VCs have tried to adopt. We can deliver founders and investors substantial efficiencies in fundraising, without using “saving fees” as an excuse for burdening founders with inflexibility and “dirty” code (contracts) that simply aren’t justified.

With this in mind, I’ve published a Seed Round Template Library, with links to templates for convertible notes, pre-money SAFEs, seed equity, and full NVCA docs, along with a few educational articles. By using these starting points, founders can have the efficiencies of working from vetted and trusted language, but without the enormous costs of using fully automated templates designed to favor investors.

A Friends & Family (F&F) SAFE Template

TL;DR: An uncapped, discounted SAFE with a special (not conventional) “Super MFN” provision that allows your F&F investors to get a discounted (from your seed round) valuation cap is the best and fairest structure for most friends and family rounds, but none of the public SAFE templates provide for this concept. Uncapped SAFEs are typically designed to provide a discount only on a future equity round (not future convertible round), which means the discount won’t apply if the round after your F&F is another convertible round. Use an F&F SAFE instead to ensure your F&F investors get a fair deal, but you avoid the downsides of setting a valuation too early.

Note: If you’d like to discuss this template or F&F Financings generally, try Office Hours.

Background reading:

For true seed rounds, convertible notes and SAFEs (preferably pre-money, and not post-money, SAFEs) are both viable options, along with equity.

However, for friends and family (F&F) rounds – the first and usually “friendliest” money in the door – there are very good reasons to utilize a SAFE. First, your friends and family are unlikely to be insistent on significant investor protections (like debt treatment), and so they are likely to accept whatever reasonable instrument you ask them to sign. Second, because your F&F round occurs very early in the company’s history, it may be outstanding and unconverted for a long time; which makes having a maturity date of a convertible note more risky.

The problem is that all the SAFE templates currently out there aren’t really well-structured for an F&F round.

Valuation Cap SAFEs – In the case of SAFEs with valuation caps (the most common), an F&F round often occurs so early in the company’s life that setting a valuation is fraught with excessive risk. If you set it too high, you can create unrealistic expectations, and your first true professional round (seed) may end up being a “down round.” If you set it too low (often the case), it can “anchor” the valuation that your seed investors are willing to pay; they’ll question why they should pay X multiples of what your F&F got. We generally recommend that companies avoid valuation caps in their F&F rounds. Whatever you end up picking will just be a random guess anyway. Wait to set any valuations until serious investors are at the table, so they can provide a realistic market check.

Uncapped, Discount SAFEs – Conventional uncapped “discount only” SAFEs are often also a poor fit for an F&F round, because the discount applies only to a future equity round. In the vast majority of cases, your first serious financing after an F&F round will itself be a convertible round (note or SAFE), and so the conventional discount in this SAFE won’t apply. Your F&F may end up getting only a 20% discount on your Series A price, which is quite disproportionate if they invested years before the closing of your Series A round.

MFN SAFEs – The only other public template alternative is a conventional “MFN” (most favored nation) SAFE. This effectively gives your F&F the right to get the same deal that your seed investors get. But is that really fair? If your friends and family invested a year before your seed round investors, before you hit significant milestones, shouldn’t they get a better economic deal than your seed?

Better: an F&F SAFE – For this reason, we’ve found a modified SAFE to be the most logical structure. We’ve taken a conventional SAFE, and added an extra concept to ensure that an MFN provision gives your F&F a discount on the valuation cap that your seed investors get. So, for example, if your seed investors invest in a convertible note with a $10 million valuation cap, this “super MFN” provision will amend the F&F SAFEs to provide an $8 million cap (assuming a 20% discount is provided for). Thus with this structure your F&F get the best deal on the cap table, but you avoid all the downsides of setting a valuation cap too early in the company’s history.

Important note: the F&F SAFE Template can also be an excellent way for founders to paper their own cash investments in their companies. In all cases, consult with counsel before relying on any public template, including this one.

The F&F SAFE Template can be downloaded here.