Carolyn Elefant, writing in Above the Law, takes to task those solo lawyers who, to use her phrase, “play the solo card” by using their firm’s smallness as an excuse for sub-standard service. I don’t know enough to weigh in on the specific case that triggered her piece, a solo attorney who tried to excuse a late filing by citing Microsoft Word technical issues. There certainly have been large firms that have tried to make excuses as a result of their network crashing or the like. However, I completely agree with Elefant’s overarching point that small firms should not assume that their clients and others will accept second-class service just because of the size of the firm.
In early 2015, I wrote about SAFE instruments, which I then had heard about but not yet seen in my practice, with a gently mocking but grudgingly intrigued tone, which likely resulted from the trend having originated on the West Coast. (As a native New Yorker, I have been trained to roll my eyes at each new development from California and then promptly forget about that when I incorporate it into my life.) With over three years of experience with SAFEs in my practice, I thought it appropriate to update my post, less the cynicism, since they have become pretty common and accepted in the world of early stage corporate finance.
A SAFE instrument (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) is an alternative to convertible notes for startups seeking bridge financing to keep the lights on until they can raise substantial funds in a true equity round. Y Combinator offers open source SAFE equity forms with some background information. With a convertible note, the seed investor acts temporarily as a lender, with the note being converted to equity if and when the company completes a qualifying equity financing. With SAFE equity, the investor simply receives the right to receive preferred equity when the qualified financing is completed, without the need to temporarily treat it as a loan. There is no interest, maturity date, repayment terms or any other provisions that you’d associate with a debt instrument.
SAFE promoters correctly point out that these seed investors are not ultimately seeking a debt-like steady return on their investment. As early-stage equity investors, they have more of a high risk/high reward orientation. Convertible notes are usually not repaid in cash. The more likely scenarios are that (1) they are converted into equity, or (2) the company fails to complete a financing and realistically is not able to pay back the note. In the first scenario, the accrued interest adds to the amount of shares issued upon conversion, giving the investors a windfall that they would not have expected by making a simple equity investment. With SAFEs, the investment is treated like an equity instrument, which reflects the intent of both parties.
The SAFE folks also tout the relative simplicity of the SAFE documentation. There is only one five-page document to be executed, and there aren’t a lot of moving parts requiring much customization. Essentially, the parties need to only agree on whether there is a cap on the valuation of the later financing for purposes of determining the number of shares to be issued to the investor, and whether the investor receives a discount on the conversion price when the later financing is completed. In fairness, convertible notes are themselves fairly simple and are used because they are themselves much simpler than VC equity documents, but SAFE equity appropriately combines simplicity with avoiding introducing debt concepts where not intended.
Finally, the absence of a maturity date with SAFEs takes the time pressure off of the company to complete the equity offering within a particular timeline, though investors may prefer having such a deadline in place to incentivize a quick completion of an offering.
Jason Zweig, writing in the Wall Street Journal, discusses efforts to make securities disclosure more understandable to the typical investor. He quotes the Nobel-laureate behavioral economist Richard Thaler as saying that “nobody reads” the dense disclosure mandated by the SEC. This is clearly a bit of hyperbole, but I think we can all agree that a majority of investors don’t read a prospectus cover to cover before making their investment decision. The question is what to do about it.
When I am assisting a client on a matter, and the help of a legal specialist is needed (tax, above all else, but many other areas as well), the client will often be reluctant to loop in the other attorneys and will urge me to handle it. While I’d like to think that this is a reflection of the client’s respect for my abilities, I’m sure it’s in part based on a fear that bringing on another attorney will drive up legal costs. I don’t think this is necessarily the case, and in any event, scrimping on getting the right advice can create substantive issues that cost far more in the long run.
The SEC has greatly expanded the number of public companies that can take advantage of the “scaled disclosure” provisions of Regulation S-K. Under these rules, smaller reporting companies have less onerous requirements that apply to their periodic filings. For example, smaller reporting companies do not need to include the lengthy Compensation Discussion and Analysis disclosure that larger companies do. Following the SEC’s recent action, the definition of “smaller reporting company” includes registrants with a public float of less than $250 million (up from $75 million), as well as registrants with annual revenues of less than $100 million for the previous year and either no public float or a public float of less than $700 million (previously, less than $50 million of annual revenues with no public float).