Converts versus equity deals

2010-08-31

There has been a debate going on the past few days over whether seed deals should be funded using equity or convertible notes (converts). Paul Graham kicked it off by noting that all the financings in the recent YC batch were converts. Prominent investors including Mark Suster and Seth Levine weighed in (I highly recommend reading their posts). While this debate might sound technical, at its core it is really about a difference in seed investing philosophy.

I am a proponent of convertibles, but only with a cap (I’ve written about the problems of convertibles without caps before and never invest in them).  I believe that pretty much every other seed investor who advocates converts also assumes they have a cap.  So any discussion of convertibles without caps seems to me a red herring.

There are two kind of rights that investors get when they put money in company.  The first are economic rights: basically that they make money when the investment is successful.  The second are control rights: board seats, the ability to block financings and acquisitions, the ability to change management, etc.  Converts give investors economics rights with basically zero control rights (legally it is just a loan with some special conversion provisions). Equity financings normally give investors explicit rights (most equity terms sheets specify board seats, specific blocking conditions, etc) in addition to standard shareholder rights under whatever state the company incorporated in (usually CA or Delaware).

To the extent that I know anything about seed investing, I learned it from Ron Conway.  I remember one deal he showed me where the entire deal was done on a one page fax (not the term sheet – the entire deal).  Having learned about venture investing as a junior employee at a VC firm I was shocked. I asked him “what if X or Y happens and the entrepreneur screws you.”  Ron said something like “then I lose my money and never do business with that person again.”  It turned out he did very well on that company and has funded that entrepreneur repeatedly with great success.

You can hire lawyers to try to cover every situation where founders or follow on investors try to screw you. But the reality is that if the founders want to screw you, you made a bet on bad people and will probably lose your money. You think legal documents will protect you? Imagine investors getting into a lawsuit with a two person early-stage team, or trying to fire and swap out the founders – the very thing they bet on.  And follow on investors (normally VCs) have a variety of ways to screw seed investors if they want to, whether the seed deal was a convert of equity.  So as a seed investor all you can really do is get economic rights and then make sure you pick good founders and VCs.

Seed investing is a people business.  Good entrepreneurs understand this.  Ron was an investor in my last two companies and never had any control rights but had massive sway because he worked so hard to help us and gave such sage advice.  And most importantly, he carried great moral authority. We always knew he was speaking from deep experience and looking out for the company’s best interests – sometimes against his own economic interests.

Like it or not, the seed investment world runs on trust and reputation – not legal documents.

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