Convertible debt is commonly used in seed stage transactions, and for anything but friends and family, or a true 90 day or less bridge, I cannot understand why anyone would use these to fund a company, regardless of whether you’re an investor or founder – it’s equally bad for both.

Fallacies about convertible debt - peter adams

There are a lot of otherwise smart people out there who continue to support fallacies about the

 benefits of convertible notes.  I’ll walk you through the claims and show you how they are not only wrong, but are the exact opposite of many people’s beliefs.

 

Fallacy #1:  Convertible Notes are Cheaper than Preferred Equity Deals.

This belief comes from a shallow idea of the cost of a note.  While it’s true that the legal costs for doing a note are $2500-$5000 in many markets and the cost for doing a preferred equity round can be as much as $10,000 to $20,000, there are other costs to consider.

If the note is for two years, for $1 million at 8% interest, then the entrepreneur is going to have to pay $166,400 in interest.  Some will argue that this is rarely paid in cash, but it is still a huge amount of dilution for the company and represents a real cost to them.  So, when does it make sense to “save” $15,000 when it costs $166,400 to do so?

The other part of the fallacy of this thinking is that the note cost is the only legal cost.  In fact, the entire premise of the note is that it will convert into equity when the company has a priced round, usually of $1 million or more.  At that time, the company will still have to pay the $10,000-$20,000 PLUS the original $2500-$5000 that they paid for the note originally, That’s right – the founder is really going to have to pay for both, resulting in 25% HIGHER legal costs than just doing an equity round in the first place.

 

Fallacy #2: Convertible Notes are Easier than Preferred Equity

It’s true that a note is only a few pages and very few terms to negotiate and Preferred Equity requires changes to multiple documents; the term sheet, subscription agreement, changes to the articles of incorporation, etc., but in the long run, convertible notes can end up being much more complicated and require a lot of legal time to figure out the ambiguous outcomes.

 

Let me start by saying that “simple” does not mean “best”.  Leaving major terms and issues undecided and unaddressed helps neither the founder nor the investor.  I recently had a portfolio company that almost went out of business for no other reason than that they had used convertible notes injudiciously and they found themselves in default on multiple notes simultaneously.

 

Let’s just consider a simple case of convertible debt vs. preferred equity in two rounds.  Let’s ask ourselves, how many shares does each round of investors get and how many does the founder get?  (Note that this conversation doesn’t occur until conversion, so many founders, attorneys and investors don’t think about these until it’s too late.)

How Many Shares do the founders have after these three rounds?

How many shares do Round 1 investors have?

How many shares do Round 2 Investors have?

How many shares do Round 3 Investors have?

 

Convertible Note

10 million shares authorized and 1 million shares issued to founders at start.

Preferred Equity

10 million shares authorized and 1 million shares issued to founders at start.

Round 1:  $1 million convertible note, 8% interest, 20% discount, $4 million valuation cap.

Round 2: $2 million convertible note, 8% interest, 20% discount, $6 million valuation cap.

Series A Conversion with Priced Round: $5 million Preferred Equity with $10 million pre-money valuation

Round 1: $1 million preferred equity with $4 million pre-money valuation.

Round 2: $2 million preferred equity with $6 million pre-money valuation

Round 3: $5 million Preferred Equity with $10 million pre-money valuation

Round 1: Founders 1 million/ Investors 0

Round 2: Founders 1 million/ Round 1 Investors 0, Round 2 Investors 0

Round 3:  Founders 1 million shares

Round 1 Note holders convert at the better of 20% discount from the priced round or the valuation cap.  Since 20% discount from $10 million would be $8 million, they will take the valuation cap at $4 mil