How to Negotiate a Term Sheet with a VC (Updated)
This is another in a series of postings that relate to Fred’s and Brad’s various postings about venture capital funding. (Please note I have added an 11th item in response to a comment by Jack Sinclair, Return Path’s VP of Finance and my partner in crime on all transactions for the past five years.)
I think the most important part of the venture financing process is negotiating the term sheet. Although they’re only 2-3 pages long, term sheets contain summaries of all the critical aspects of a financing, and once they’re signed, the remainder of the financing process is significantly more “automatic.” Based on the financings I’ve seen and worked on – both as a VC and as an entrepreneur – my Top 10 (now 11) biggest takeaways for entrepreneurs are as follows (not in any particular order):
1. Get a good lawyer. I mean a really good one. Not just one who you are comfortable with and who is productive and doesn’t charge you too much (as Brad says, your wife’s brother’s friend’s neighbor), but one who knows venture financings like the back of his or her hand. They’re out there, many of them have worked on both sides of these transactions – for VCs and for entrepreneurs, and they can save your ass. No matter how many deals you’ve worked on, your lawyer has worked on more of them. Return Path’s lawyer, David Albin from Finn Dixon & Herling, is great if you need one.
2. Focus on terms that matter, otherwise known as Pick your battles. A typical VC term sheet will have at least 20 terms spelled out in it. There are only a few that really matter in the end, although you should at least make sure your lawyer is comfortable that the others are reasonable and somewhat standard. Spend time on valuation, the type of security, the option pool, Board composition, and your own compensation and rights.
2a (new). Sacrifice valuation for a clean security. Everyone always thinks that price/valuation is the most important thing to maximize in a deal. However, the structure of the security can be much more important in the long run. Whether the VCs buy 33% of your company or 30% of your company is much less important than having a capital structure that’s easy for an outsider to understand and want to join (e.g., investment banker or later-stage VC).
3. Always have a BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement – a fancy way of saying Plan B). This is probably the most important piece of advice I can offer, and it extends to any negotiation, not just term sheets. If you have two or three VCs who are interested in funding you, I can guarantee you will end up with better terms from the highest quality investor in the group if you play the negotiation well. If you have one term sheet, you have zero leverage in your negotiation. Yes, you will spend 2-3x the amount of time on the process, but it’s well worth it.
4. Be prepared to pay up for high quality investors. There is a world of difference between good VCs and bad VCs (both the individual partners and the firms) that will ultimately have a lot to do with how successful your company can become. The quality of your VC isn’t more important than the quality of your product or your team, but it’s right up there. But – and this is an important but – you should expect to “pay” for quality in the form of slightly weaker terms (whether valuation or type of security). This is where having a BATNA really comes in handy.
5. Ask for references. Don’t be shy – prospective VCs are checking up on you…you have every right to do the same with them. Ask them for references of CEOs they’ve worked with. Ask them for a CEO they’ve had to fire as a reference. The good ones will give you the full roster of everyone they’ve ever funded and tell you to call anyone. The bad ones will give you two names and ask for time to prep them ahead of time.
6. Don’t let the VC get away with negotiating a point by saying “we always do it this way.” That’s just not true. VCs may have a preferred way of doing deals or handling a specific term, but every deal they’ve ever done is different, and they know it. If there’s a compelling reason for them to insist on a particular term, you have the right to hear it (if it’s important to you).
7. If you have multiple investors in the syndicate, insist on a single investor counsel and a lead investor. This is essential to (a) protect your sanity, and (b) prevent you from paying zillions of dollars in legal fees. You have to make the VCs stick to it, though – they can’t come back and re-trade the deal after it’s been negotiated. This is also helpful in getting a syndicate cooperating with each other and aligning the members’ interests, particularly if it has investors who have participated in different rounds of the company’s financing. Do expect to play moderator constantly throughout the process, however, to ensure that it goes smoothly.
8. Try do deal in advance with follow-on financings. When an investor doesn’t participate in a follow-on financing, it creates a total nightmare for you. Other investors will want to punish their wayward colleague and can create massive collateral damage in the process to common shareholders and management. Just as VCs will insist on something called “pre-emptive rights” (the right to invest in future financings if they want), you and your lawyer should insist on some protection in the event that one of your investors abandons you when you are raising more capital.
9. Handle the term sheet negotiation carefully. Whether it’s an initial round or a follow-on round, how you handle yourself in this negotiation sets the tone for the next stage of your relationship with the VC. The financing is the line of demarcation between you and the VC courting each other, and the VC joining your board and effectively becoming your boss.
10. Finally don’t forget to say thank you at the end of the process. Whether you send a formal email, a handwritten note, or a token gift, be sure to thank your VCs after a financing. They’re putting their butt on the line for your company, they’re investing in YOU, and they’re making it possible for you to pursue your dream. That deserves a thoughtful thanks in my book.
Sorry for the long posting. The next one or ones in this series will be on valuation, preferences, and “Venture Capital deal algebra.”