Term Sheets: Important Negotiating Issues

It is customary to begin the negotiation of a venture investment with the circulation of a document known as a term sheet, a summary of the terms the proposer (the issuer, the investor, or an intermediary) is prepared to accept. The term sheet is analogous to a letter of intent, a nonbinding outline of the principal points which the Stock Purchase Agreement and related agreements will cover in detail. The advantage of the abbreviated term sheet format is, first, that it expedites the process. Experienced counsel immediately know generally what is meant when the term sheet specifies “one demand registration at the issuer‘s expense, unlimited piggybacks at the issuer‘s expense, weighted average antidilution,” it saves time not to have to spell out the long-form edition of those references.

Important Negotiating Issues

Entrepreneurs who are in the process of effecting a venture capital financing for their start-up or emerging companies will negotiate with one or more venture capital firms on a number of fundamental and important issues. These issues are generally initially set forth in a “Term Sheet” which will serve as the basic framework for the investment. It is important that the company anticipate these issues and that the Term Sheet reflect the parties’ understanding with respect to them.

The following are some of the more important issues that arise:

  • The Valuation of the Company. While valuation is often viewed as the most important issue by the company, it needs to be considered in light of other issues, including vesting of founder shares, follow-on investment capabilities by the venture investors, and terms of the security issued to the investors. Significant financial and legal due diligence will occur and entrepreneurs should ensure that their companies’ financial projections are reasonable and that important assumptions are explained. Venture investors will consider stock options and stock needed to be issued to future employees in determining a value per share. This is often referred to as determining valuation on a “fully diluted” basis.
  • The Amount and Timing of the Investment. Venture investors in early stage companies often wish to stage their investment, with an obligation to make installment contributions only if certain pre-designated milestones are met.
  • The Form of the Investment by the Venture Investors. Venture investors often prefer to invest in convertible preferred stock, giving them a preference over common shareholders in dividends and upon liquidation of the company, but with the upside potential of being able to convert into the common stock of the company. There are strong tax considerations in favor of employee-shareholders for use of convertible preferred stock, allowing the employees to obtain options in the company at a much reduced price to that paid by the venture investors (a pricing of employee stock options at 1/10th of the price for preferred stock is common among Silicon Valley companies). Often times, venture investors will seek to establish interim opportunities to realize a return on this investment such as by incorporating a current dividend yield or redemption feature in the security. [Redemption rights allow Investors to force the Company to redeem their shares at cost (and sometimes investors may also request a small guaranteed rate of return, in the form of a dividend). In practice, redemptionrights are not often used; however, they do provide a form of exit and some possible leverage over the Company. While it is possible that the right to receive dividends on redemption could give rise to a Code Section 305 “deemed dividend” problem, many tax practitioners take the view that if the liquidation preference provisions in the Charter are drafted to provide that, on conversion, the holder receives the greater of its liquidation preference or its as-converted amount (as provided in the Model Certificate of Incorporation), then there is no Section 305 issue.]
  • The Number of Directors the Venture Investors Can Elect. The venture investors will often want the right to appoint a designated number of directors to the company’s Board. This will be important to the venture investors for at least two reasons: (1) they will be better able to monitor their investment and have a say in running of the business and (2) this will be helpful for characterization of venture capital fund investors as “venture capital operating companies” for purposes of the ERISA plan asset regulations. Companies often resist giving venture investors control of, or a blocking position on, a company’s Board. A frequent compromise is to allow outside directors, acceptable to the company and venture investors, to hold the balance of power. Occasionally, Board visitation rights in lieu of a Board seat is granted.
  • Vesting of the Founders’ Stock. Venture investors will often insist that all or a portion of the stock owned or to be owned by the founders and key employees vest (i.e., become “earned”) only in stages after continued employment with the company. The amount deemed already vested and the period over which the remaining shares will vest is often one of the most sensitive and difficult negotiating issues. Vesting of founder stock is less of an issue in later stage companies. Another issue with the founders can arise if the VC insist that the founders lock-up the issuer‘s representatives and warranties. Founders’ representations are controversial and may elicit significant resistance as they are found in a minority of venture deals. They are more likely to appear if Founders are receiving liquidity from the transaction, or if there is heightened concern over intellectual property (e.g., the Company is a spin-out from an academic institution or the Founder was formerly with another company whose business could be deemed competitive with the Company), or in international deals. [Founders’ representations are even less common in subsequent rounds, where risk is viewed as significantly diminished and fairly shared by the investors, rather than being disproportionately borne by the Founders.
  • Additional Management Members. The investors will occasionally insist that additional or substitute management employees be hired following their investment. A crucial issue in this regard will be the extent to which the stock or options issued to the additional management will dilute the holdings of the founders and the investors.
  • The Protection of Conversion Rights of the Investors from Future Company Stock Issuances. The venture investors will insist on at least a weighted average anti-dilution protection, such that if the company were to issue stock in the future based on a valuation of the company less than the valuation represented by their investment, the venture investors’ conversion price would be lowered. The company will want to avoid the more severe “ratchet” anti-dilution clause and to specifically exempt from the anti-dilution protection shares or options that are issued to officers and key employees. It is also sometimes desirable from the company’s perspective to modify the anti-dilution protection by providing that only those investors who invest in a subsequent dilutive round of financing can take advantage of an adjustment downward of their conversion price, a so-called “pay to play” provision. If the formula states that if the number of shares in the formula is “broadest” based, this helps the common shareholder. [If the punishment for failure to participate is losing some but not all rights of the Preferred (e.g., anything other than a forced conversion to common), the Certificate of Incorporation will need to have so-called “blank check preferred” provisions at least to the extent necessary to enable the Board to issue a “shadow” class of preferred with diminished rights in the event an investor fails to participate. Because these provisions flow through the charter, an alternative Model Certificate of Incorporation with “pay-to-play lite” provisions (e.g., shadow Preferred) has been posted. As a drafting matter, it is far easier to simply have (some or all of) the preferred convert to common.]
  • Pre-emptive Rights of the Investors to Purchase any Future Stock Issuances on a Priority Basis. The company will want this pre-emptive right to terminate on a public offering and will want the right to exclude employee stock issuances and issuances in connection with acquisitions, employee stock issues, and securities issuances to lenders and equipment lessors.
  • Employment Agreements With Key Founders. Management should anticipate that venture investors will typically not want employment agreements. If they are negotiated, the key issues often are: (1) compensation and benefits; (2) duties of the employee and under what circumstances those duties can be changed; (3) the circumstances under which the employee can be fired; (4) severance payments on termination; (5) the rights of the company to repurchase stock of the terminated employee and at what price; (6) term of employment; and (7) restrictions on post-employment activities and competition.
  • The Proprietary Rights of the Company. If the company has a key product, the investors will want some comfort as to the ownership by the company of the proprietary rights to the product and the company’s ability to protect those rights. Furthermore, the investors will want some comfort that any employees who have left other companies are not bringing confidential or proprietary information of their former employer to the new company. If the product of the company was invented by a particular individual, appropriate assignments to the company will often be required. Investors may require that all employees sign a standard form Confidentiality and Inventions Assignment Agreement.
  • Founders Non-Competes. The investors want to make sure the founders and key employees sign non-competes.
  • Exit Strategy for the Investors. The venture investors will be interested in how they will be able to realize on the value of their investment. In this regard, they will insist on registration rights (both demand and piggyback); rights to participate in any sale of stock by the founders (co-sale rights); and possibly a right to force the company to redeem their stock under certain conditions. The company will need to consider and negotiate these rights to assure that they will not adversely affect any future rounds of financing.
  • Lock-Up Rights. Increasingly, venture investors are insisting on a lock-up period at the term sheet stage where the investors have a period of time (usually 30-60 days) where they have the exclusive right, but not the obligation, to make the investment. The lock-up period allows the investors to complete due diligence without fear that other investors will pre-empt their opportunity to invest in the company. The company will be naturally reluctant to agree to such an exclusivity period, as it will hamper its ability to get needed financing if the parties cannot reach agreement on a definitive deal.

Form of Term Sheet.

They are intended to set forth the basic terms of a venture investor’s prospective investment in the company. There are varying philosophies on the use and extent of Term Sheets. One approach is to have an abbreviated short form Term Sheet where only the most important points in the deal are covered. In that way, it is argued, the principals can focus on the major issues and not be hampered by argument over side points. Another approach to Term Sheets is the long form all-encompassing approach, where virtually all issues that need to be negotiated are raised so that the drafting and negotiating of the definitive documents can be quick and easy. The drawback of the short form approach is that it will leave many issues to be resolved at the definitive document stage and, if they are not resolved, the parties will have spent extra time and legal expense that could have been avoided if the long form approach had been taken. The advantage of the short form approach is that it will generally be easier and faster to reach a “handshake” deal. The disadvantage of the long form approach from the venture investors’ perspective is that it may tend to scare away unsophisticated companies.

Lagniappe Terms:

The Charter: (Certificate of Incorporation) is a public document, filed with the Secretary of State of the state in which the company is incorporated, that establishes all of the rights, preferences, privileges and restrictions of the Preferred Stock.

Accrued and unpaid dividends are payable on conversion as well as upon a liquidation event in some cases. Most typically, however, dividends are not paid if the preferred is converted.

PIK” (payment-in-kind) dividends: another alternative to give the Company the option to pay accrued and unpaid dividends in cash or in common shares valued at fair market value.

“Opt Out”: For corporations incorporated in California, one cannot “opt out” of the statutory requirement of a separate class vote by Common Stockholders to authorize shares of Common Stock. The purpose of this provision is to “opt out” of DGL 242(b)(2).

Preferred Stock: Note that as a matter of background law, Section 242(b)(2) of the Delaware General CorporationLaw provides that if any proposed charter amendment would adversely alter the rights, preferences and powers of one series of Preferred Stock, but not similarly adversely alter the entire class of all Preferred Stock, then the holders of that series are entitled to a separate series vote on the amendment.

The per share test: ensures that the investor achieves a significant return on investment before the Company can go public. Also consider allowing a non-QPO to become a QPO if an adjustment is made to the Conversion Price for the benefit of the investor, so that the investor does not have the power to block a public offering.

Blank Check Preferred: If the punishment for failure to participate is losing some but not all rights of the Preferred (e.g., anything other than a forced conversion to common), the Certificate of Incorporation will need to have so-called “blank check preferred” provisions at least to the extent necessary to enable the Board to issue a “shadow” class of preferred with diminished rights in the event an investor fails to participate. Because these provisions flow through the charter, an alternative Model Certificate of Incorporation with “pay-to-play lite” provisions (e.g., shadow Preferred) has been posted. As a drafting matter, it is far easier to simply have (some or all of) the preferred convert to common.

Redemption rights: allow Investors to force the Company to redeem their shares at cost (and sometimes investors may also request a small guaranteed rate of return, in the form of a dividend). In practice, redemption rights are not often used; however, they do provide a form of exit and some possible leverage over the Company. While it is possible that the right to receive dividends on redemption could give rise to a Code Section 305 “deemed dividend” problem, many tax practitioners take the view that if the liquidation preference provisions in the Charter are drafted to provide that, on conversion, the holder receives the greater of its liquidation preference or its as-converted amount (as provided in the Model Certificate of Incorporation), then there is no Section 305 issue.

Founders’ representations are controversial and may elicit significant resistance as they are found in a minority of venture deals. They are more likely to appear if Founders are receiving liquidity from the transaction, or if there is heightened concern over intellectual property (e.g., the Company is a spin-out from an academic institution or the Founder was formerly with another company whose business could be deemed competitive with the Company), or in international deals. Founders’ representations are even less common in subsequent rounds, where risk is viewed as significantly diminished and fairly shared by the investors, rather than being disproportionately borne by the Founders. Note that Founders/management sometimes also seek limited registration rights.

Registration: The Company will want the percentage to be high enough so that a significant portion of the investor base is behind the demand. Companies will typically resist allowing a single investor to cause a registration. Experienced investors will want to ensure that less experienced investors do not have the right to cause a demand registration. In some cases, different series of Preferred Stock may request the right for that series to initiate a certain number of demand registrations. Companies will typically resist this due to the cost and diversion of management resources when multiple constituencies have this right.

Break Up Fee: It is unusual to provide for such “break-up” fees in connection with a venture capital financing, but might be something to consider where there is a substantial possibility the Company may be sold prior to consummation of the financing (e.g., a later stage deal).

The Prime Unicorn Index Announces Quarterly Reconstitution

The Prime Unicorn Index, the first index to track the share price performance of privately-funded U.S. companies, today announces its quarterly reconstitution. The index, which gives equal-weighting to its constituents, has added nine companies that qualify as Unicorns or Approaching Unicorns to its previous list of 85 privately funded companies.

The companies added to the index include AvidXchange Inc., Proterra Inc., WellTok Inc., Health Catalyst Inc., Flatiron Health Inc., Urban Compass Inc., Pindrop Security Inc., Bolt Threads Inc. and Discord Inc. The reconstitution was effective at market close on Jan. 17, 2018.

With investor appetite for companies that have not yet made their shares available via IPO soaring, companies that have surpassed $1 billion valuations are given Unicorn status, while companies that have achieved $500 million valuations are classified as Approaching Unicorns in the Prime Unicorn Index. Reconstitution of the index relies heavily on Lagniappe Labs’ proprietary research and difficult-to-source, objective data to determine true valuations of privately-funded companies in a measurable and verifiable way.

“The Prime Unicorn Index serves to benchmark the performance of private companies in line with how the S&P 500 Index tracks publicly traded companies,” noted Barrett. “We are excited to be the primary resource for investors and help them better understand how to assign the true valuation of private companies as they look to go public.”

The new constituents join the index’s well-known companies, including Uber, WeWork and AirBnB. The newly added components are market leaders in technology, software and healthcare and all have excellent investor bases.  

“Taken as a whole the Prime Unicorn Index achieved a positive return of 9.3% in 2017 and provides a unique way for institutional investors to access the private markets, whether they want to go long or short,” added Barrett.

For more information, please visit PrimeUnicornIndex.com.

About The Prime Unicorn Index

The Prime Unicorn Index is an equally-weighted price return index that measures the share price performance of U.S. private companies valued at $500 million or more. The Index was launched by Lagniappe Labs and Level ETF Ventures. The index uses Lagniappe Labs’ proprietary research and difficult-to-source, objective data to determine true valuations for privately-funded companies in a measurable and verifiable way.

About Lagniappe Labs

Lagniappe Labs uses state, federal and difficult-to-acquire corporate filings in a fully configurable platform that allows users to analyze the value of privately held companies. The technology provides tools and data to build financial models on specific sectors, people, industries, investors and more. Lagniappe Labs federates disparate sources of information to drive objective analysis on private company investments.

Lagniappe Labs replaces subjective and error-prone ‘wiki’ data with actual corporate documents and data so investors and potential investors in privately held companies have true and accurate information to drive decision making.

After a Down Round: Alternatives for Employee Incentive Plans

*Excerpted from VC Experts Encyclopedia of Private Equity & Venture Capital


Employee Incentive Plans for Privately-Held Companies

Despite the recent improvement in capital markets activity, many small, privately-held technology companies continue to face reduced valuations and highly dilutive financings, frequently referred to as “down rounds.” These financings can create difficulties for retention of management and other key employees who were attracted to the company in large part for the potential upside of the option or stock ownership program. When down rounds are implemented, the investors can acquire a significant percentage of the company at valuations that are lower than the valuations used for prior financing rounds. Lower valuations mean lower preferred stock values for the preferred stock issued in the down round, and as preferred stock values drop significantly, common stock values also drop, including the value of common stock options held by employees.

Consequently, reduced valuations and “down round” financings frequently cause two results: (i) substantial dilution of the common stock ownership of the company and (ii) the devaluation of the common stock, particularly in view of the increased aggregate liquidation preference of the preferred stock that comes before the common stock. The result is a company with an increasingly larger percentage being held by the holders of the preferred stock and with common stock that can be relatively worthless and unlikely to see any proceeds in the event of an acquisition in the foreseeable future.

In the face of substantial dilution of the common stock and significant devaluation in equity value, companies are faced with the difficulty of retaining key personnel and offering meaningful equity incentives. Potential solutions can be very simple (issuing additional options to counteract dilution) or quite complex (issuing a new class of stock with rights tailored to balance the concerns of both investors and employees). Intermediate solutions range from effecting a recapitalization that will result in an increase in the value of the common stock to implementing a cash bonus plan for employees that is to be paid in the event of an acquisition. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and each may be appropriate depending on the circumstances of a particular company, but the more complex alternatives can offer companies greater flexibility to satisfy the competing demands of employees and investors. This article briefly reviews three of the solutions that can be implemented-the use of additional optionsrecapitalizationsand retention plans (cash and equity based).

Granting Additional Options

The simplest solution to address the dilution of common stock is to issue additional employee stock options. For example, assume that, prior to a down round, a company had 9,000,000 shares of common and preferred stockoutstanding and the employees held options to purchase an additional 1,000,000 shares. Also assume that, in the down round, the company issued additional preferred stock that is convertible into 10,000,000 shares of common stock. On a fully-diluted basis (i.e., taking into account all options and the conversion of all preferred stock), the employees have seen the value of their options reduced from 10% of the company to 5%, or by 50%. In this case, the company might issue the employees additional options to increase their ownership percentage. It would require additional options to purchase in excess of 1,000,000 shares to return the employees to a 10% ownership position, although a smaller amount would still reduce the impact of the down round and might be enough to help entice the employees to stay.

If the common stock retains significant value, the grant of additional options can be an effective solution. It is also relatively straightforward to implement; at most, stockholder approval may be required for an increase in the optionpool. In many cases, however, the aggregate liquidation preference of the preferred stock is unlikely to leave anything for the common holders following an acquisition, particularly in the short term. In that event, the dilution of the common stock becomes less relevant – 5% of nothing is the same as 10% of nothing. Companies with this kind of common stock devaluation will need to consider more intricate solutions.

Recapitalizations

If the common stock has been effectively reduced to minimal value by the down round, a company could increase the common stock value through a recapitalization. A recapitalization can be implemented through a decrease in the liquidation preferences of the preferred stock or a conversion of some preferred stock into common stock, thereby increasing the share of the proceeds that is distributed to the common stock upon a sale of the company. This solution is conceptually straightforward and certainly effective in increasing the value of the common stock. In most cases with privately-held venture capital backed companies, however, the holders of the preferred stock are the investors who typically fund and implement the down rounds and in nearly all cases the preferred stockholders have a veto right over any recapitalization. Accordingly, implementing a recapitalization would require the consent of the affected preferred stockholders, which may be difficult to obtain, particularly because the preferred stockholders may not like the permanency of this approach. In addition, a recapitalization can be quite complicated in practice, raising significant legal, tax and accounting issues.

Retention Plans

Another approach is the implementation of a retention plan. Such plans can take a number of forms and can use cash or a new class of equity with rights designed to satisfy the interests of both the investors and employees. These solutions are more complicated, but also more flexible.

Cash Bonus Plan

In a cash bonus plan, the company guarantees a certain amount of money to employees in the event of an acquisition. This amount can equal a fixed sum or a percentage of the net sale proceeds, to be allocated among the employees at the time of the sale, or it can be a fixed amount per employee, determined in advance. Allocations can be based on a wide variety of parameters, enabling a high degree of flexibility. Often these plans have a limited duration (such as 12 to 24 months, or until the company raises a specified amount of additional equity).

A cash bonus plan is easy to understand, provides the employees with cash to pay any taxes that may be due and can be flexible if the allocations are not determined in advance. However, there are a number of hurdles. Many acquisitions are structured as stock-for-stock exchanges (i.e., the acquiring company issues stock as payment for the stock of the target company) because such exchanges may be eligible for tax-free treatment. A cash bonus plan may interfere with the tax-free treatment and, thus, may reduce the value of the company in the sale or may be a barrier to the transaction altogether.

A cash bonus plan can also be problematic in that it requires cash from a potential acquirer in the event there isn’t sufficient cash on hand in the target company. A mandatory cash commitment from an acquiror may also make the company less attractive as a target. Typically, a cash bonus plan can be adopted (and amended and terminated prior to an acquisition) by the board of directors, although a cash bonus plan creates an interest that may in effect be senior to the preferred stock, which requires consideration as to whether the consent of the preferred holders is required.

New Class of Equity

A stock bonus or option plan utilizing a new class of equity, although more complicated, shares many of the benefits of the cash bonus plan, but avoids some of the major disadvantages. A newly created class of equity, such as senior common stock or an employee series of preferred stock, permits the use of various combinations of rights. The new class of equity can be entitled to a fixed dollar amount, a portion of the purchase price or both. These rights can be in preference to, participating with or subordinate to any preferred holders, and the shares may be convertible into ordinary common stock at the option of the holders or upon the occurrence of certain events. Referring to our earlier example, the company might return the employees to their pre-down round position by issuing them senior common stock entitled to 10% of the consideration (up to a certain amount) in any sale of the company. Although a return of the employees to their pre-down round position may not be acceptable to the preferred stockholders and may not be necessary to keep the employees incentivized, the new class of equity can be tailored to fit whatever balance is acceptable to the investors.

This type of approach has several advantages. First, unlike a simple issuance of additional options, it gives real value to employees that were affected by a devaluation of their common stock. Second, unlike a cash bonus plan, it does not require an acquiror to put up cash when they purchase the company and the acquirer is less likely to discount the purchase price. Third, unlike a cash bonus plan, it will not affect the tax-free nature of many stock-for-stock acquisitions. Finally, it provides certainty to the participants, who know exactly what they will be entitled to receive upon a sale of the company.

The main disadvantage of creating a new class of equity, at least from the employees’ standpoint, is that the employee will either have to pay fair market value for the stock when it is issued or recognize a tax liability upon such issuance, when they may not have the cash with which to pay the taxes. This disadvantage can be partially ameliorated by the use of options for the new class of equity, rather than issuing the new equity up front, which at least allows the employee to control the timing of the tax liability by deciding when to exercise. Moreover, for many employees an option may qualify as an incentive stock option under federal tax law, thus allowing the employee to defer taxation until the sale of the underlying stock. A new class of equity will also be somewhat more difficult for most employees to understand, at least when compared to traditional common stock options.

In addition, a new class of equity adds complexity from the company’s perspective. It may raise securities and accounting issues, and shareholder approval of an amendment to the company’s charter will be required. At a minimum, it will require more elaborate documentation than some of the simpler alternatives, such as a cash bonus plan, and thus it will likely be more expensive to implement at a time when the company may be particularly sensitive to preserving its cash. A new class of equity may also result in future complications such as separate class votes or effective veto rights in certain circumstances. As with the other solutions that address the devaluation problem, there may be resistance from the existing preferred holders, whose share of the consideration upon a sale of the company would thereby be reduced.

These complexities are surmountable and companies may find that they are more than balanced by the advantages that a new class of equity provides over other solutions in addressing issues of reduced common stock valuations and dilution.

What Will VC’s Want For A Security: Common Stock? Preferred Stock? Debt? Warrants?

Written by: Joseph W. Bartlett/VC Experts Founder

As one programs any financing, as in corporate finance generally, the objective is to make 2 + 2 = 5; that is to obtain added value for the issuer. In the course of a financing, the insiders are attempting to raise the maximum amount of money for the minimum amount of equity (“equity” meaning claims on the residual values of the firm after its creditors have been satisfied). A corporation will issue at least one class of common stock because it must; many firms stop there; they pursue the simplest capital structure possible in accordance with the KISS principle (“Keep it Simple, Stupid”). However, in so doing, the corporation may close down its chances to pursue the added-value equation (2 + 2 = 5) because that equation involves matching a custom-tailored security to the taste of a given investor. The top line of the term sheet will ordinarily specify the security the VCs opt to own; the following discussion takes up the most common possibilities.

Different investors have differing appetites for various combinations of risk and reward. If a given investor has a special liking for upside potential leavened with some downside protection, the investor may “pay up” for a convertible debt instrument. An investor indifferent to current returns prefers common stock. The tax law drives some preferences, since corporate investors must pay tax at full rates on interest but almost no tax on dividends. On the other hand, the issuer of the security can deduct interest payments for tax purposes–interest is paid in pre-tax dollars–but not dividends. The sum of varying preferences, according to the plan, should be such that the issuer will get more for less–more money for less equity–by playing to the varying tastes of the investing population, and, in the process, putting together specially crafted instruments, custom made as it were. A potential investor interested in “locking in” a return will want a fixed rate on debt securities instead of a variable rate; the ultimate “lock-in” occurs in a zero coupon bond, which pays, albeit not until maturity, not only interest at a fixed rate but interest on interest at a fixed rate.

As the practice of tailoring or “hybridizing” securities has become more familiar and frequent, the traditional categories can become homogenized. Preferred stock may come to look very much like common stock and debt resembles equity. In fact, the draftsmen of the Revised Model Business Corporation Act no longer distinguish between common and preferred stock. Moreover, it may be advantageous (again with a view to making 2 + 2 = 5) to work with units or bundles of securities, meaning that an investor will be offered a group of securities, one share of preferred, one debenture, one share of common, and a warrant, all in one package.

Indeed, creativity by sponsors has spawned a variety of novel “securities,” equity and debt, which have played a role in venture capital, the underlying notion being to maximize values by crafting instruments to fit the tastes of each buyer and to capture current fashions in the market. The use of “junk” or “fluffy debt has been the focus of popular attention of late; however, junk bonds debt securities which are less than investment grade and, therefore, unrated are only one species of the complex phyla of hybrid securities invented by imaginative planners. Thus, a given issuer‘s financial structure can perhaps be best envisioned by thinking in terms of layers of securities. The top layer is the most senior: usually secured debt, “true” debt in the sense that the holder is opting for security of investment and “buying” that security by accepting a conservative rate of return, a fixed interest rate, or a variable rate tied to an objective index. The bottom layer is the most junior: common stock (and if the common stock is divided into different series, the most junior series); on occasion, this level is referred to as the “high-speed equity.” The risk of a total wipeout is the greatest, but, because of the effects of leverage, so is the reward. In between are hybrids, layers of securities with differing positions, meaning differing claims on Newco‘s current cash flows and the proceeds of a sale or liquidation of the entire enterprise.

The variables open to the planners include the following:

  • a security can be denominated either debt or equity with different tax consequences to both the issuer and the holders;
  • a security may be senior, or subordinated, or both, as in senior to one level and subordinate to another (the term “subordinated” opens, in and of itself, a variety of possibilities);
  • a security may be convertible into another at a fixed or variable rate of exchange (and convertible over again, as in debt convertible into preferred stock, in turn convertible into common);
  • an equity security may contemplate some form of fixed recoupment of principal, perhaps expressed in terms of a redemption right;

Redemption can be at the option of the issuer, the holder, or both; and the issuer‘s obligations to make periodic payments with respect to a debt security can range from the simple to the exotic–monthly interest payments at a fixed rate to so-called PIK payments (payment in kind, meaning in stock versus cash) tied to the performance of a particular business segment (as in “alphabet stock”). The utility of this structure is that it gives Newco time to fulfill the promises in its pitch book.

All that said, in today’s universe, the market standard is common stock to the founder founders, plus the friends and family. The next round, with the exception noted, is convertible preferred stock. The jump balls are participating versus non-participating, cumulative dividends, etc. But the security is convertible preferred, even in the angel round, which used to be common. The exception is a convertible note in the bridge round, next round pricing. See the Buzz article, The Next Round Pricing Strategy.

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The Business Plan And Private Placement Memo

Since a private placement memorandum, usually abbreviated as the PPM, is the norm in most deals, the founder should familiarize himself with the standards for memorandum preparation, keeping in mind that, like any legal document, there are various audiences. The audience composed of potential plaintiffs (and, theoretically at least, the SEC enforcement staff) will read the document against the requirements contained in the cases imposing liability. The audience composed of investors will read the document for its substantive content: “What are the terms of the deal?” To professional investors interested enough to become potential buyers, the private placement memorandum is a handy collection of only some of the information they are interested in, plus a lot of surplus verbiage (the empty language about suitability standards, for example). To the issuer, it is a sales document, putting the best face possible on the company and its prospects. To the managers, the memorandum is a summary of the business plan. Indeed, it may incorporate the business plan as an exhibit or be “wrapped around” the plan itself—a memorialization of how the business is to be conducted.

The first page of the PPM, the cover page, contains some of the information one might see on the front of a statutory prospectus: name of the issuer, summary description of the securities to be sold, whether the issue is primary (proceeds to the issuer) and/or secondary (proceeds to selling shareholders), the price per share, the gross and net proceeds (minus selling commissions and expenses), and a risk factor or two (that is, the offering is “highly speculative” and the securities will not be liquid). Some would argue a date is important, because, legally, the document speaks as of a certain date. However, if the memo becomes substantively stale between the offer and the closing, it is critical that the issuer update and circulate it; omission of material information as of the closing is not excusable on the theory that the memo displays an earlier date. Moreover, a dated memorandum will appear just that—dated—if a few months elapse and the issue is still unsold. A related issue is whether to specify a minimum amount of proceeds that must be subscribed if the offering is to go forward. If the financing is subject to a “minimum,” a reference belongs on the cover page. It makes common sense that there be a critical mass in most placements; however, a stated requirement that X dollars be raised or all subscriptions returned inhibits an early-closing strategy—the ability to “close,” if only in escrow—with the most eager of the issuer‘s potential investors. Such “closings ” may not be substantively meaningful; the deal may be that the “closing” will be revisited if more money is not raised. However, a first closing can have a salubrious shock effect on the overall financing; it can bring to a halt ongoing (sometimes interminable) negotiations on the terms of the deal and create a bandwagon effect.

The cover page should be notated, a handwritten number inscribed to help record the destination of each private placement memorandum. It is also customary to reflect self-serving, exculpatory language (of varying effectiveness in protecting the issuer), that is:

1. The offer is only an offer in jurisdictions where it can be legally made and then only to persons meeting suitability standards imposed by state and federal law. (The offer is, in fact, an “offer” whenever and to whomsoever a court designates.)

2. The memorandum is not to be reproduced (about the same effectiveness as stamping Department of Defense papers “Eyes Only,” a legend understood in bureaucratese to mean, “may be important … make several copies”).

3. No person is authorized to give out any information other than that contained in the memo. (Since the frequent practice is for selling agents to expand liberally on the memo’s contents, it would be extraordinary if extraneous statements by an authorized agent of the issuer were not allowed in evidence against the issuer, unless perhaps they are expressly inconsistent with the language of the memo.)

4. The private placement memorandum contains summaries of important documents (a statement of the obvious), and the summaries are “qualified by reference” to the full documentation. (A materially inaccurate summary is unlikely to be excused simply because investors were cautioned to read the entire instrument.)

5. Each investor is urged to consult his own attorney and accountant. (No one knows what this means; if the legally expertised portions of the private placement memorandum are otherwise actionably false, it would take an unusually forgiving judge to decide the plaintiff should have obeyed the command and hired personal counsel.)

6. The offering has not been registered under the ’33 Act and the SEC has not approved it.

The foregoing is not meant as an exercise in fine legal writing and the avoidance of excess verbiage. Certain legends are mandatory as a matter of good lawyering—a summary of the “risk factors”; a statement that investors may ask questions and review answers and obtain additional information (an imperative of Reg. D); and, of course, the language required by various state securities administrators. A recitation tipping investors that they will be required in the subscription documents to make representations about their wealth and experience is generally desirable, particularly in light of cases finding against plaintiffs who falsified their representation. However, in my opinion, a cover page loaded with superfluous exculpations may cheapen a venture financing, signaling to readers that the deal is borderline, in a league with “double write-off” offerings in the real estate and tax-shelter areas.

A well-written private placement memorandum will follow the cover page with a summary of the offering. This section corresponds to a term sheet, except that the language is usually spelled out, not abbreviated. The important points are covered briefly: a description of the terms of the offering, the company’s business, risk factors, additional terms (i.e., anti-dilution protection, registration rights, control features), expenses of the transaction and summary financial information. The purpose of the summary is to make the offering easy to read and understand. As stated, suppliers of capital are inundated with business plans and private placement memoranda; the sales-conscious issuer must get all the salient facts in as conspicuous a position as possible if he hopes to have them noticed.

At this juncture, it is customary to reproduce investor suitability standards, identifying and flagging the principal requirements for a Reg. D offering, that is, the definition of “accredited investor.”

Issuers should approach offerings that have stated maximums and minimums with caution. The SEC has made its position clear. If the issuer elects to increase or decrease the size of the offering above the stated maximum/minimum, each of the investors who have signed subscription agreements must consent to the change in writing. It is not open to the issuer to send out a notice to the effect that “We are raising or lowering the minimum and, if we do not hear from you, we assume you consent.” The issuer must obtain the affirmative consent of each investor, which may be a bit difficult if the investor is, at that point, somewhere in Katmandu.

Investors should be aware that issuers sometimes do not want the investors to know certain information. For example, some issuers elect to code the numbers on the private placement memorandum so that no investor knows he is receiving, say, number 140; he is, instead, receiving “14-G.”

Finally, the current trend is to prepare both a full placement memo as well as a brief summary, such as the so-called “elevator pitch”, a concise summary that can be read while riding in an elevator. Venture capitalists are chronically short on time and a 40-page document is likely to be left unread if this is the only pitch material available.

Are You Savvy on Restricted Stock Units?

Written by: Joseph W. Bartlett, Co-Chair of VC Experts

A structure is creeping into the process of rewarding and motivating managements of public and private companies with equity awards. [1]

Although the subject of discussion in this article is not new, nonetheless my experience is that a significant percentage of the parties involved in the capital markets … particularly the private capital markets where emerging growth companies are organized to travel the Conveyor Belt, [2] from the embryo to the IPO … are unfamiliar with restricted stock units (“RSUs”).

The grant of a restricted stock unit (“RSU”) by a corporation to an employee gives the employee the right to receive a share of the corporation‘s stock, or if the RSU agreement so provides, its cash value equivalent, upon satisfaction of one or more specified vesting conditions.

The vesting conditions may be either time-based (completion of a specified period of employment following the date of grant) or performance based (achievement of performance goals over a specified measurement period), or both.

To the extent the RSUs granted to the employee become vested, the employee will receive either the number of shares that have vested, or if the RSU agreement so provides, a cash amount equal to the shares’ fair market value.

In the usual case, the RSU’s are “settled” by the delivery of the shares or payment of the cash amount at the time the RSUs vest. However, an RSU agreement can, and often does, provide for the payment or delivery of shares to be deferred until the occurrence of some later specified date or event; but if payment is to be delayed beyond March 15 of the year following vesting, then the payment-triggering event must be one permitted under Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code.

Under Section 409A rules, the payment event could be termination of employment, or it could be the occurrence of a change in control , as defined for Section 409A purposes [3], which would be a typical private company exit event when cash can be realized to enable the employee to sell enough shares to pay the tax … and keep the rest. An IPO, another typical exit event, would not be a 409A-permissible payment event for an already vested RSU. But an RSU agreement could provide for the RSUs to both become vested and payable upon the first to occur of an IPO, a change in control (including one not meeting the Section 409A definition), termination of employment, or at some specified date corresponding to the investors’ expected exit and realization date, e.g., the 7th anniversary of the date of grant.

For federal income tax purposes, an employee is not taxed with respect to a grant of RSUs either at the time of grant or at the time of vesting. He is subject to tax only upon his receipt of the shares or their cash equivalent at the time the RSUs are settled. At that time, he is taxed, at ordinary income rates, on the then fair market value of the shares he receives, or the amount of the cash he receives.

In a number of respects, RSUs compare favorably with other forms of equity grants, as a medium for delivering incentive compensation to a private company’s employees.

    • A grant of RSUs delivers full share value to the employee. It provides him not only with upside potential but also downside protection. He can realize value from the grant even if the date of grant value of the RSUs should later decline. In contrast, with an option grant the employee will realize value only if and to the extent that the shares covered by the option increase in value after the grant date.

 

    • A grant of restricted shares also delivers full share value to the employee, and in addition, provides the employee with an opportunity for capital gains treatment on eventual sale of the shares. In contrast, when RSUs are settled, the then value of the shares is subject to tax at ordinary income rates. But as indicated above, RSUs are not taxed at the time of grant, nor at the time of vesting if settlement of the RSUs does not occur until a later date. As a result, it should be possible in most cases to structure an RSU grant so as to delay settlement, and thus, taxation, until a realization event occurs. This may not be the case with a restricted stock grant. The employee would have to pay tax, at ordinary income rates, on the value of his restricted shares either at the time of grant if he makes a Code section 83(b) election, or at the time the shares vest if he doesn’t make the election. He may therefore be subject to tax, at ordinary income rates, with respect to a substantial portion of the ultimate value of his restricted shares well before an exit event occurs permitting a sale of the shares.

 

  • Like an RSU grant, an employee is not taxed with respect to a stock option at the time of grant or at the time of vesting. He is subject to tax at the time he exercises the option, if it is a nonqualified stock option (“NQSO”), or if it is an incentive stock option (“ISO”), at the time he sells the shares acquired on exercise of the option. [4] In either case, the grant of a stock option, whether an NQSO or an ISO, would permit tax to be delayed until the occurrence of a realization event, since a stock option grant can permit the option to be exercised at any time during its term after it becomes vested. Although in the case of an NQSO, tax would be at ordinary income rates, as is so with an RSU, in the case of an ISO, the increase in value of the shares from date of grant to date of sale could qualify for tax at capital gains rates, subject to certain limits and conditions. However, there are several negatives to be considered in connection with a stock option grant.

(i) Valuation Issues. Tax law requirements [5] mandate that the exercise price of a stock option not be less than the fair market value of the underlying shares at date of grant. Failure to comply with this requirement could result in significant adverse tax consequences for the employee under Section 409A. Share valuations for a private company are an inherently uncertain matter. To minimize the exposure to adverse treatment under Section 409A, the exercise price for the option usually would be established based on an independent third party valuation.

(ii) Dilution. Because an option delivers value to the employee only to the extent that the fair market value of the shares at the time of exercise exceeds the option exercise price, it would be necessary for an option grant to cover a greater number of shares than a grant of RSUs or restricted stock, in order to deliver an equivalent economic value to the employee. As a result, an option grant would mean more dilution for the investors as compared with an economically equivalent grant of RSUs or restricted stock.

(iii) Limits on Capital Gain treatment for ISOs. Capital gain treatment for an ISO is available only if the shares acquired on exercise are held for at least 1 year following the date of exercise of the option, and 2 years following the date of grant of the option. In the usual case, an employee holding an option on shares of a private company would not want to exercise his option until there is an IPO or other realization event, and will want to sell the shares he acquires on exercise of the option as soon as practicable after that event occurs, in order to (a) fund his payment of the exercise price for the shares, and (b) avoid loss of value in the shares in a highly volatile market that could bring a significant drop in share price prior to the end of the ISO-required holding periods. If the employee does sell the shares before the end of the ISO required holding periods, the increase in value of the shares since date of grant will be taxed at ordinary income rates, instead of capital gain rates. [6]

All things considered, for many private companies the grant of RSUs may be the best vehicle for delivering incentive compensation to the company’s executives, despite the fact that the values so delivered will be subject to tax at ordinary income rates.

After all, the objective is to give an incentive to the executives which pays them for navigating the company’s trip from “the embryo to the IPO” or to a trade sale. And, if the tax is at ordinary income rates the answer is ‘so what?’… as long as the executives receive and are able to sell enough shares to make a big difference in the executive’s life.


[1] See, Perkins, “Equity Compensation Alphabet Soup- ISO, NSO, RSA, RSU and More,” Contributing Author, the Venture Alley at DLA Piper, LLP, Buzz, on VC Experts (www.vcexperts.com)

[2] Bartlett, “From the Embryo to the IPO, Courtesy of the Conveyor Belt (Plus a Tax-Efficient Alternative to the Carried Interest), ” The Journal of Private Equity Winter 2011, Copyright (c) 2011, Institutional Investor, Inc.

[3] The definition would include the acquisition by a third party of more than 50% of the total fair market value or voting power of the company’s shares, or more than 40% of the total gross fair market value of the company’s assets.

[4] However, the “spread” at the time of exercise of an ISO might be subject to the alternative minimum tax (“AMT”) in the year of exercise.

[5] Code section 409A and the regulations issued thereunder in the case of a nonqualified stock option, and Code section 422(b)(4) in the case of an incentive stock option (“ISO”).

[6] Other limits on capital gains treatment for ISOs: (i) ISO treatment is available only for shares with a total grant date value of up to $100,000, in respect of all of the employee’s ISOs that first become exercisable in any calendar year; and (ii) ISO treatment is available for an option only if exercised by the employee during employment or by the end of the 3rd month following termination of employment. If an exit event has not occurred before the end of the 3 month post-termination exercise period and the employee wants to wait until an exit event does occur to exercise his option, doing so will result in loss of ISO status for his option and taxation at ordinary income rates, instead of capital gain rates, for the “spread” when he does exercise the option.