Sellout: Why Control is Key in the Sale of VC-Backed Companies
April 18, 2017
Every founder of a growth startup dreams of a big, successful exit — a sale of the company for millions of dollars. But that dream could be shattered if the investors are able to cause the company to be sold prematurely with proceeds only equal to or barely exceeding the investors’ liquidation preferences, leaving little or nothing for the founders. Such a proposed deal will almost always be opposed by the founders, believing that the company could achieve a much higher valuation if it remained independent for a bit longer. Whether or not such a deal gets consummated over the objections of the founders depends on state law provisions and negotiated contractual terms that combined will determine the one factor that ultimately matters: control over the deal process.
Background: Liquidation Preference and Investment Horizon
In a typical round of venture funding, the investors receive a liquidation preference, i.e., the right to receive first dollars (after creditors are paid) up to an agreed amount in any sale of the company. In a company’s first institutional funding round (typically designated as Series A), a liquidation preference of 1X plus annual dividends of 8% is “market”, i.e., the investors get an amount off the top equal to the amount they invested plus accumulated dividends before the common shareholders receive anything. Later rounds (Series B, Series C, etc.) may have liquidation preferences of higher multiples of dollars invested, e.g., 1.5X, 2X, etc. A more investor friendly variation is what’s called participating preferred, in which the investors, after receiving their liquidation preference, then share pro rata in the remaining proceeds with the common shareholders, often up to some maximum amount.
So if a VC is not sanguine about a portfolio company’s long term prospects, he may be happy to sell the company for an amount equal to his liquidation preference, particularly at a point several years into the investment. In this regard, the time horizons of founders and institutional investors are inherently in conflict. A venture fund’s limited partnership agreement will typically limit the fund’s life to ten years, with the initial three years designated for sourcing investments and the remaining seven for exits. With certain exceptions, a fund manager is required to distribute any profits to the fund’s limited partners by the expiration of that ten-year period, which is why a VC’s investment horizon in any given portfolio company is typically three to seven years. Consequently, a VC will often favor a quick exit because it offers a higher risk-adjusted return, and eliminates further risk to their investment. In other words, the VC might believe there’s some likelihood the company’s valuation may increase, but why risk it if he’s entitled to his liquidation preference, particularly if the wind-down of his fund is imminent? Free of such timing constraints, a founder on the other hand would almost always prefer to buy more time, particularly when the company’s projections show an upward trajectory. The founder’s problem, though, is that acquirors will generally value a company based primarily upon historical data, and will either ignore or heavily discount projected metrics.
So in a sale of the company proposed by the investors and opposed by the founders, who determines whether the deal gets consummated? The starting point is state law. The corporate statute of the state of the company’s incorporation will dictate the minimum vote threshold needed from shareholders. Some state statutes are more protective of common shareholders (founders almost always hold common shares) by requiring approval of the common holders voting separately as a class, essentially a group veto, and/or may require a supermajority vote, which gives the common the ability to block a deal if they collectively own enough shares to prevent the majority from meeting the vote threshold. States that are less protective of common shareholders will require only approval of a simple majority of holders of all shares outstanding, without requiring a separate class vote. That’s the Delaware model. New York corporations organized before 1998 must secure a two-thirds majority of all holders unless their charter provides for a simple majority (simple majority for post-1998 corporations), and a separate class vote is required to approve a merger if the shareholders receive stock of the acquiror or another entity containing attributes not included in the target’s charter for which the target’s shareholders would have been required to approve in a separate class vote under New York law.
Another source of state law that impacts control over the deal process is case law regarding a director’s fiduciary duty. Before a proposed acquisition even gets to a shareholder vote, it must be approved first by a majority of the target company’s board, whose actions must be consistent with the directors’ fiduciary obligations. These include primarily the duty of care (generally, the obligation to be informed and diligent) and the duty of loyalty (essentially, the obligation to put the interests of the company and the shareholders above a director’s personal interests and not have any conflicts). Shareholders have a right to sue directors for breaches of fiduciary duty, and common shareholders will have a stronger or weaker case in attacking approval of the sale of a company as a violation of fiduciary duty depending on how favorable a particular state’s fiduciary duty case law is to the common holders. Delaware fiduciary duty case law is regarded as board friendly.
Some of the most important terms negotiated by VCs in a venture investment are the ones impacting control, both at the board level and the shareholder level. As mentioned above, a sale of the company must first be approved by a majority of the directors. The allocation of board seats is determined by negotiation during each round of funding. Although a fair outcome would be for investors to receive board representation in proportion to their share ownership (e.g., two of five seats when owning 40% of the outstanding shares), the investors will often negotiate for and receive disproportionate representation on the board and sometimes even a majority. A typical board composition arrangement might be a five-person board consisting of two directors designated by the investors, two directors selected by the common shareholders and one independent industry expert mutually selected by the common holders and the investors. But if the industry expert is someone with whom the investors have a preexisting relationship, human nature is such that he will view the investors as a source of future opportunities and tend to side with them, thus giving the investors an effective majority.
Other key control rights negotiated for by VCs are so-called protective provisions, which give the investors a veto over major decisions, including a sale of the company. Here, the battle is over what transactions or decisions make the list, and what vote threshold is required within the class of preferred. But a veto is only a right to block, not a right to approve. It doesn’t give the preferred the right to compel the company to consummate a deal opposed by the requisite holders. That’s where drag-along rights come into play.
Drag-along rights give investors the power to require other holders to vote in favor of a deal the investors are proposing, sometimes conditioned on board approval. If a sufficient number of shares are so encumbered, the investors can ensure that holders of a requisite percentage of the outstanding shares or close enough to it vote to approve a deal favored by the investors.
So Who Controls the Deal Process?
Putting it all together, investors are more likely to control the deal process if all or at least some of the following are true: the company is incorporated in a state that does not require a class vote of the common to approve a sale of the company, the state has fiduciary duty case law favorable to directors, the investors have an actual or effective majority of the board and the investors control the cap table either outright or through a combination of ownership and drag along rights. In limited cases, the common shareholders will nevertheless be able to negotiate for a share of the proceeds in sub-liquidation preference deals, getting the preferred to relinquish some of the amount they’re otherwise contractually entitled to. Such an outcome is more likely to occur where the investors are able to approve a deal at the board level, but the common shareholders have one or more of the other factors in their favor, such as ownership of enough shares to block the vote or the benefit of common shareholder favorable fiduciary duty state case law. Or sometimes, the VCs just want to sweeten the pot to create the appearance of fairness to preserve a good reputation. But the VCs will rarely just give anything anyway; they’ll likely condition any common shareholder liquidation preference carveout on the recipients signing a release.