Did you know that in its early days, Twitter started using convertible notes to secure funding? The platform is just beginning to generate buzz, but it's still unproven and lacking the massive user base it boasts today. Investors see potential but are hesitant to commit fully due to the high risk and uncertainty of the platform's future value. Enter convertible notes. Twitter utilized this financial instrument to attract early investors, allowing them to bypass the contentious process of valuation. Today, Twitter is a multibillion-dollar company, and those early investors have seen significant returns on their initial investments.
Such stories underscore the power and potential of convertible notes for startups. As an entrepreneur, understanding convertible notes can be a game-changer in securing the funds you need to grow your venture.
What is a Convertible Note?
A convertible note is essentially a form of short-term debt that converts into equity. In simple terms, an investor lends money to your startup with the understanding that the loan will convert into shares in the company at a later date, typically during a future funding round. The primary objective is to delay setting a valuation for your company until it's more established and its value easier to determine.
Convertible Notes in the History of Business
The history of convertible notes is intertwined with the evolution of business itself. Originally, these instruments were not designed for startups but were tools employed by established corporations.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, convertible notes became popular as a way for companies to raise capital while offering an enticing opportunity for potential investors. Companies such as railroads and industrial firms would issue convertible notes to finance their ambitious expansion plans. These notes were appealing to investors because they offered the safety of a bond with the potential upside of stock ownership if the company performed well.
It wasn't until the late 20th century that the use of convertible notes shifted toward the startup scene. This evolution was sparked by a combination of factors. The 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion in technology startups that required capital to develop their ideas but didn't have enough established business metrics to set a fair valuation. The traditional way of investing in these early-stage ventures—straight equity financing—imposed an often contentious process of setting a value on something unproven.
Convertible notes offered a solution to this issue. They allowed startups to receive the necessary early funding without needing to establish a firm valuation. This meant entrepreneurs could focus on building their businesses rather than getting mired in valuation discussions.
Thus, from the old-world industry to the dawn of the tech startup, convertible notes have served as a practical and flexible financing tool. Their popularity today speaks to their ability to adapt to the changing landscape of business finance and their unique utility in the face of new challenges.
Significance of Convertible Notes in a Business
Convertible notes have come to play a critical role in the startup ecosystem, serving as a funding compass for many young companies. This financial instrument is not just a tool for raising capital but a strategic lever for business development and growth.
1. Quick and Easy Financing
The process of setting a valuation for early-stage startups can be time-consuming and contentious. Convertible notes sidestep this hurdle, allowing you to obtain funding more swiftly than traditional equity financing. The faster you secure funding, the sooner you can focus on growing your business.
2. Reduced Ownership Dilution
With a convertible note, you're initially taking on debt, not giving away immediate ownership of your company. This allows you to retain a greater portion of your company's equity in the short term. When the note converts to equity, it's often at a point when your company's valuation has increased, meaning you're surrendering less ownership than you would have initially.
3. Early Financing for Future Success
Convertible notes provide a lifeline for startups in their infancy when risks are high, and traditional funding might be hard to secure. This early-stage financing can fuel your business growth and put your company in a position to attract more substantial investments in the future.
4. Investor Attraction
Convertible notes offer a level of security and potential upside that can make your startup attractive to investors. The debt nature of a convertible note provides a form of protection for investors, as they have a higher claim on assets than equity holders in case of liquidation. Simultaneously, the potential to convert the note to equity offers investors the opportunity to share in your company's success.
Structure of Convertible Notes
The structure of a convertible note may seem intricate at first glance, but it is essentially a roadmap that sets the stage for an investor's journey from lender to shareholder. This transformative journey, guided by the terms of the note, has specific milestones, each vital to the final conversion into equity.
This is the actual sum of money the investor lends to your startup. The principal forms the basis upon which other terms of the note, like interest and conversion equity, are calculated.
While the convertible note is a debt instrument, it doesn't operate like a traditional loan. The interest on a convertible note accrues over time but is not paid out in cash. Instead, the accrued interest is added to the principal amount, increasing the total sum that will eventually convert into equity.
This is the 'due date' of the convertible note. If your startup hasn't raised a funding round by the maturity date, the investor can ask for repayment. However, more often than not, the maturity date serves as a point of negotiation, where the note may be extended, or terms renegotiated to convert the note into equity.
The conversion trigger is the event that catalyzes the conversion of the note into equity. Typically, this trigger is a subsequent fundraising round—known as a qualified financing round. Once this occurs, the note converts into shares of your company.
As a reward for their early investment and the associated risk, convertible note holders are often given a discount on the price per share when the note converts. This discount rate ensures that they receive more shares for their money compared to new investors in the subsequent funding round.
Cap on Conversion
The cap is essentially a promise that no matter how high your company's valuation goes at the time of the conversion, the note will convert as if the valuation were at a predetermined capped amount. This protects early investors from being overly diluted if the company's valuation skyrockets.
Understanding these structural elements of convertible notes can provide you with a more nuanced approach to using this form of financing. It allows you to negotiate terms more effectively and align the interests of your startup with those of your investors.
Advantages of Convertible Notes for Investors
For investors, the realm of startup financing can be a thrilling ride. Early-stage investments offer the tantalizing promise of high returns if the startup achieves success. Convertible notes, as a funding tool, bring unique advantages that make this ride potentially more profitable and somewhat less risky for investors.
1. Potential for Significant Returns
Convertible notes grant investors the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of potentially high-growth startups. If the startup succeeds and its valuation soars by the time of the conversion, investors can see significant returns on their initial investment.
2. Conversion Discount
The discount rate is a cornerstone benefit for convertible note holders. It allows investors to convert their debt into equity at a rate lower than the next round of investors, rewarding them for their early investment and the associated risk.
3. Protection in Case of Liquidation
In the unfortunate event that your startup fails and liquidates, convertible note holders, as debt holders, are positioned higher in the pecking order than equity holders. This means they have a better chance of recouping a portion of their investment.
4. Cap on Conversion
The valuation cap protects early investors from excessive dilution if your startup's valuation skyrockets. It ensures that they get a larger percentage of the company, commensurate with the risk they took by investing early.
5. Deferred Valuation
One of the greatest risks for early-stage investors is the difficulty of accurately verifying an unproven startup. Convertible notes defer the valuation process until a later date when more information is available, thereby reducing the risk of overpaying for equity.
6. Interest Accrual
Although the interest on a convertible note is not paid out, it accrues over time, increasing the total amount that will convert into equity, hence potentially leading to a larger equity stake.
Realizing these unique advantages convertible notes offer helps investors make more informed decisions about financing startups. Meanwhile, For you, as a founder, knowing these advantages can help you attract and negotiate with investors more effectively.
Potential Drawbacks and Risks
While convertible notes offer numerous advantages, they also come with certain drawbacks and risks. As with any financial instrument, it's essential to weigh these potential downsides to make an informed decision.
For founders, one significant risk of convertible notes is the potential for over-dilution. This can occur if a large amount of debt converts into equity, especially when valuation caps and discount rates are factored in. While these features are beneficial for investors, they can significantly dilute your ownership.
Although the expectation is that convertible notes will convert into equity, there is also a chance they might not, leaving you with debt that needs to be repaid. This could be a financial strain, particularly if your startup hasn't yet achieved profitability.
Unlike equity investors who often bring valuable advice and connections to your startup, convertible note holders are lenders until the note converts. This can mean less strategic input and mentorship in the early stages of your business.
When a conversion event occurs, the calculation of how much equity each note converts into can be complicated. It might also lead to conflicts with new investors who might want to minimize dilution by maximizing the pre-money valuation.
Similarly, investors face the risk of losing their investment if the startup fails. Although convertible note holders have a higher claim on assets than equity holders in the event of liquidation, in many cases, there may not be enough assets left to fully repay the debt.
Furthermore, for investors, there's a risk that if the startup doesn't raise another funding round, the note may not convert and might need to be repaid as debt, which is not the outcome most investors in startups are looking for.
Alternatives to Convertible Notes
While convertible notes have become a popular method for early-stage startup financing, they are not the only option available. There are other financial instruments that you, as a founder, can consider when looking to fund your venture:
1. Equity Financing
This is the most straightforward way of raising capital, where investors exchange capital for shares in the company. Equity financing involves setting a valuation for your startup upfront. While this eliminates the debt element that comes with convertible notes, it also requires early-stage companies to establish a firm valuation, which can be a complex and contentious process.
2. Convertible Equity
Similar to convertible notes, convertible equity is a type of financing where an investor's investment eventually converts into equity. However, unlike convertible notes, convertible equity does not involve debt. It does not accrue interest, and there is no maturity date, which reduces some of the risks associated with convertible notes.
3. SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity)
Introduced by Y Combinator, a SAFE is a contract that allows investors to put money into a company in exchange for equity at a later date. Like convertible equity, SAFEs are not debt instruments and do not accrue interest or have a maturity date. They can be simpler and quicker to execute than convertible notes.
With the rise of crowdfunding platforms, startups can now raise small amounts of money from a large number of individuals. This method democratizes startup financing, allowing anyone to become an investor. The Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act has opened up crowdfunding to equity investments, enabling startups to exchange equity for capital from a crowd of investors.
5. Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)
While typically used as an employee incentive, RSUs can also be used in some crowdfunding contexts. RSUs are company shares that are promised to be granted at a future date or upon reaching a specific goal. If your startup has a high growth trajectory, issuing RSUs can be a compelling option for crowdfunding. Potential investors are given the opportunity to become shareholders in the future, aligning their interests with the success of your business.
Convertible notes are a versatile and popular financing tool in the startup world. However, they're not the only option available for securing critical early-stage funding. Depending on the specifics of your business and your strategic needs, other financing methods such as RSUs may be worth considering.
RSUs, while traditionally used for employee compensation, can also serve as a compelling crowdfunding alternative. They carry the promise of future ownership and align investors' interests with the company's success. Additionally, they eliminate some of the complexities and potential conflicts associated with convertible notes, such as debt obligations, interest accrual, and dilution calculations.
Whether you're considering convertible notes, RSUs, or another financing method, the key is to choose a strategy that best supports your startup's growth trajectory, aligns with your investors' interests, and sustains the long-term vision of your company.
For more info on how RSUs can serve as alternatives to traditional crowdfunding, book a demo with Upstock today.