In a recent transaction that I worked on – obviously, I can’t give too much detail to protect client confidentiality – I noticed a weird dynamic. In a typical negotiation, when the lawyers from each side are speaking without the principals present, there is some degree of emotional detachment from the ultimate outcome, even though each attorney knows his or her role is to represent the client’s interest. Lawyers will say, for example, that it’s not worth continuing to argue about a particular bone of contention because it is a “business issue” that needs to be worked out by the principals. However, in this transaction, the other attorney, though he was unfailingly polite and even-keeled, would make fairly routine requests from our side seem thoroughly unreasonable, putting me on the defensive.
As a general matter, the complexity of the documentation used for private company capital raising transactions is correlated with the amount raised. If a company is raising, say, $5 million or more from an institutional investor like a venture capital fund, the deal documents will often be based on the model legal documents prepared by the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA). While the standardization, easy availability and wide acceptance of these forms have been helpful in reducing legal costs and negotiation time, they are still over 100 pages spread over several agreements with many negotiable provisions. But in the context of the amount being raised, the associated costs are relatively small.
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.