Venture capital term sheets are not legally binding (except certain subclauses like confidentiality and no-shop provisions). That said, there is a well-established norm that VC’s don’t back out of signed term sheets unless they discover something really, really bad – fraud, criminal backgrounds of founders etc. The best VC in the world, Sequoia Capital, whose companies account for an astounding 10% of NASDAQ’s market cap, has (according to trustworthy sources) only backed out on one term sheet in the last 10 years.
Yesterday, one of the 40 or so startups I’ve invested in (either personally or through Founder Collective) had a well-known VC back out of a term sheet for no particular reason besides that they decided they no longer liked the business concept. It’s the first time I’ve seen this happen in my career.
In later stage private equity (leveraged buyouts and such) it is a common trick to “backload diligence” – you give the company a quick, high-valuation term sheet, which then locks the company in (the no-shop clause prohibits them from talking to other investors for 30 days or more). Then the firm does their diligence, finds things to complain about and negotiates the price down or walks away. If they walk away, the company is often considered “damaged goods” by other investors who wonder what the investor discovered in diligence. This gives the investor a ton of negotiating leverage. In later stage private equity, this nasty tactic can work repeatedly since the companies they are buying (e.g. a midwestern auto parts manufacturer) are generally not part of a tight knit community where investment firms depend heavily on their reputation.
I learned the basics of VC when I apprenticed under Jeremy Levine and Rob Stavis at Bessemer. It was at Bessemer that I learned you never back out on a term sheet except in cases of fraud etc. I never saw them back out on one nor have I heard of them doing so. In fact, I remember one case where Rob signed a term sheet and while the final deal documents were being prepared (which usually takes about a month), the company underperformed expectations. The CEO asked Rob if he was going to try to renegotiate the valuation down. Rob said, “Well, if you performed better than expected I don’t think you would try to renegotiate the valuation up, so why should I renegotiate when you performed worse than expected.” That’s how high quality investors behave.
Besides simply acting ethically, firms like Sequoia and Bessemer are acting in their own interest: the early-stage tech community is very small and your reputation is everything. Word travels fast when firms trick entrepreneurs. What happened yesterday was not only evil but will also come back to haunt the firm that did it.