Confronting a Down Round

Guest post by Dror Futter – McCarter & English LLP

The last few years have witnessed Unicorns become common and down rounds become scarce. Now the venture market is returning to a more normal state, which means more down rounds and fewer Unicorns.

If your venture is confronting a down round, you should not wear it as a badge of shame. In normal times, few ventures make an uninterrupted march up and to the right on the valuation curve. More importantly, if you are doing a down round, it still means you were able to raise capital. Although a down round will dilute your economics, no venture has ever died from excess dilution, the same cannot be said for lack of funds.

What is a “Down Round”

Simply stated, a “down round” is a round in which the pre-money valuation of a company is below the post-money valuation of its last round. As result, shares in the company purchased in a down round will be less expensive than those bought in the last round. Down rounds are never fun. To existing shareholders, it means the value of their investment has dropped and they will absorb additional dilution to raise the same amount of money. To venture investors, who report their illiquid holdings to their limited partners based on “mark-to-market” principles, it almost inevitably means a write-down of the carrying value of the investment. As a result, reported fund returns drop.

Down rounds are most common when a new investor enters the scene or most existing investors are not funding their pro rata. In addition to a lower valuation, funding terms of a down round are usually more investor friendly. Often shares sold in a down round will have a senior liquidation preference (i.e. they will sit above prior classes of shares in terms of priority for getting a return at exit), a participating preferred return (i.e. investor gets its investment back and sometimes a multiple of its investment back and then participates with common), dividends that are accruing and at a higher rate, and class-specific veto rights on multiple corporate decisions.

Why Do Down Rounds Occur?

There are several reasons why your company may be subject to a down round, including:

  • Your company failed to reach the financial and operational goals it set for itself the last time it raised money;
  • You did a particularly good job of selling your company at the last round and received financing at a favorable valuation. The down round may just be reversion to a more conservative valuation; or
  • Overall valuations have dropped in your sector or market-wide.

A down round, therefore, is not always a sign of a struggling company. However, even if your down round result from broad market forces, you will subject to the valuation drop, and likely many of the same unfavorable deal terms, as a struggling company.

What Can You Do to Prepare?

There are a few things a company can do that will help its down round proceed more smoothly.

1. Review the Corporate Charter and financing documents from prior rounds. Make sure you understand the rights of existing shareholders in a down round and have identified any relevant supermajority voting requirements and pay-to-play obligations. Also, identify all pre-emptive rights that existing shareholders have and the timetables they have to exercise. Down rounds are often Eleventh Hour fire drills and you do not want to be stymied by a multi-day notice period for pre-emptive rights.

2. If your shareholders have anti-dilution rights, make sure you have assembled a spreadsheet that will allow you to determine the impact of financings at various price points on the existing cap table. This will be essential information for the new investors as they determine the new pre-money valuation of the company. In some cases, new investors may require existing investors to waive their anti-dilution right as a condition of funding.

3. Down rounds are risky events for a company’s Board of Directors. This is especially true for a Board that does not have independent directors to provide an unbiased view on the fairness of the reduced share price in a down round. Shareholders who do not participate in the new financing and are significantly diluted may bring an action against the Board. To reduce this risk, the Board should shop financings to multiple investors and should document these efforts in writing. Also, the Board should conduct market research to fully understand market terms. If possible, the Board should seek to obtain the approval of non-participating shareholders and at a minimum, such shareholder should routinely be updated on attempts to find financing and findings on current market terms. The Board should also consider doing a “Rights Offering” where each existing shareholder is offered the opportunity to purchase its pro-rata piece the financing at the down round price, even those shareholders who do not have the benefit of a contractual pre-emptive right. Finally, a down round is a good time to make sure that D&O insurance is in place and includes adequate coverage.

4. Develop a communications plan for employees. Despite your best efforts, this is the type of information that often can get out there. Decide how you will position the down round to your employees. Since the dilution of a down round will also impact their options, consider whether some star performers should get option refreshes (i.e. a supplemental option grant to reduce the economic impact of the dilution).

One Final Word

Success lifts many boats. As a result, when a company is doing well and experiencing a string of “up rounds,” it is easy to gloss over different interests among shareholders and directors. A down round can create two or more classes of investors with very different economics. In the wake of a down round, it is important to be sensitive to this change, factor it into decision making, and develop a communications plan that addresses the potentially divergent interests of these shareholders.


Dror Futter, Partner- McCarter & English LLP

Dror Futter is a partner of the firm who brings more than 20 years of high tech and intellectual property legal and business experience to McCarter and its clients. Dror joined the firm as part of McCarter’s combination with SorinRand. Prior to joining SorinRand in February 2013, Dror was General Counsel to Vidyo, Inc., one of the nation’s top 50 venture-backed companies, where, among other things, he negotiated and documented sales agreements for both direct and indirect channels, purchase agreements, software licenses, service agreements, and strategic agreements in the US, Asia and Europe.

Biography

McCarter & English LLP

McCarter & English, LLP is a firm of approximately 400 lawyers with offices in Boston, Hartford, Stamford, New York, Newark, East Brunswick, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Washington, DC. In continuous business for more than 170 years, we are among the oldest and largest law firms in America.

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