If your venture is confronting a down round, you should not wear it as a badge of shame. Even 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, other 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?
- 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. In fact, in the current environment, I suspect down rounds will be the norm rather than the exception for most companies funding rounds. This will be due in large part to very high pre-Covid19 valuations and the unprecedented demand destruction in many industries caused by social distancing measures.
What Can You Do to Prepare?
There are a few things a company can do that will help its down round proceed more smoothly.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 and investor-friendly terms for new investors 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, to the extent possible, 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 shareholders 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 of the financing at the down round price, even those shareholders who do not have the benefit of a contractual pre-emptive right. Finally, when considering a down round, it is a good time to make sure that D&O insurance is in place and includes adequate coverage.
- 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).
Additional Points to Keep in Mind
- Not all down rounds are created equal. Just like with up rounds, valuation is an important factor but not the only factor to be considered. In the current environment, many companies are not going to have multiple funding options. If you are fortunate enough to have choices, the highest valuation may not be the best choice. The investors may have chosen to protect their investment through enhanced senior liquidation preferences, accruing dividends, and other investor-friendly terms that may significantly impact return prospects for existing investors and founders.
- 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 strategy that addresses the potentially divergent interests of these shareholders.
Dror Futter is a partner in the Rimon, PC law firm. Dror’s practice focuses on representing startup companies in their financing and merger and acquisition transactions and their intellectual property, IT and internet agreements. He also advises companies with respect to Initial Coin Offerings and other blockchain legal issues. Dror was the co-founding chair of the PLI VC Law program and hosted their first blockchain legal program. He is a frequent speaker and writer on blockchain legal topics. He is a member of the model forms drafting group of the National Venture Capital Association, the legal advisory board of the Angel Capital Association and the legal working groups of the Wall Street Blockchain Alliance and the Digital Chamber of Commerce. Dror can be reached at email@example.com