First time founders are typically the most likely to object to dilution when fundraising. They tend to overvalue their companies early, thus creating problems for fundraising later. They do this to avoid dilution, which on the surface seems like a good idea, but can prove deadly to your start up when you get to the A round.
Dilution Is Your Friend
The adage, you can have 100% of nothing, or 50% of something is very true here. Keep in mind that while each round of funding does lower your overall stake in the business, it should increase the value of the company such that the increased pro rata value of your stake grows with each round of funding. This means that an increase in overall value should normally offset the loss of additional equity paid out. So take a deep breath, and, look at the overall economics of the deal.
When properly executed in a funding transaction, dilution should increase the dollar value of founder holdings even though your overall share of the company is less.
Overvaluation Can Kill
When you first get started, figuring out how to value your company is really, really hard. Discounted cash flow models and complex valuations (e.g. monte carlo forecast simulations) are utterly, utterly useless. The fact is, your start up is worth only the value of your future work, and since no one can tell the future, you might as well stop trying.
Despite this stark truth, many entrepreneurs put high values on their companies when they first get started. As a general rule, any company that says they are worth more than $3mm from the get-go, is pretty much overvalued. Unless you have magic beans and geese that lay golden eggs, your day-zero company is not worth more than a couple million.
So, if you raise money from family and friends at a valuation of $4mm, you lose face when six months later a pro VC funds you at $3mm and you have to explain the dilution and write-down to the people you love. Have fun with that.
How to Avoid Overvaluation
Fortunately, there are two cool methods to avoid the overvaluation trap: SAFE notes and convertible debt. Let’s start with the latter.
Convertible notes are simple debts, convertible into shares of the company at a future date. If you take early funding with a convertible note, your investor becomes your bond holder and doesn’t have to know what you’re worth today. Since the note is convertible, it will become equity in the future and typically does so at a discount due to the increased risk the investor took when giving you the note. In this way you don’t have to worry about valuation until the professional money comes in, and they expect this kind of note will be on your balance sheet already.
The SAFE note was developed by Y Combinator to avoid putting debt on a new company, or to even permit funding an idea before it becomes a company. It works like a synthetic convertible note, except it is just a promise to pay equity in the future for the same discount to the valuation for funds given to develop the idea or company. It isn’t debt, just a promise to provide shares like convertible debt in the future.
Given these options, it is far better to use them for early pre-seed funding than run the risk of over valuation or over dilution.
When to Avoid Dilution – TNSTAAFL
If you need funding, then you’re going to get diluted. TNSTAAFL is economist jargon for, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, which definitely holds true here. However, there are some alternative funding sources you can still tap, albeit not free, but typically superior to dilution if you can pull one of them off:
- Get your customers to prepay for services. You can do this by being honest with them about needing development money and how they can get a deal if they provide it: maybe giving them the finished service for free for a period of similar value. This not only helps you avoid dilution, but can also get you test-beds for product, as well as your first customers. This is often done on Kickstarter also, where you can get money in exchange for product betas. Just don’t become the Coolest Cooler, ever.
- Look for grant money. This is rare, but most commonly found when your idea benefits the US military in some way. They give out a ton of grant money to develop start-up companies that solve their problems. And they have a lot of problems outside of how to more efficiently kill the enemy, like how to provide emergency relief services, quickly and safely refuel aircraft, feed a million people, etc.
- SBA loan. The US government may actually give you a loan to start your company. Depending on the type of company you found and your creditworthiness, this may range from a small amount to some pretty large loans. It is worth looking into. Check out their website to learn more.
However, the easiest way to avoid dilution is by learning to be what I call “ramen lean”. This means that you live so frugally, you basically can’t afford to eat more than ramen (not suggested by any doctor or myself, but it is a good metaphor here). If a start-up can reduce expenditure, every dollar they save is dollar of dilution avoided.
How to Manage Abusive VC Sharks
Sometimes, a VC will pressure you to do a deal that stinks, destroys the economics of your company, and/or is just too greedy. If you find yourself in front of a tough-talking VC who asks for more than her/his fair share, then you need to walk. Don’t talk yourself into a bad deal. Money is commodity, find the right flavor for you. Just be sure when you do walk that the greedy person isn’t you.
Walking away from a deal when you don’t feel good about it, is the best thing you can do when someone is ripping you off. Trust your instincts. It is empowering to turn your back on an offer and walk away. Sometimes, albeit rarely, the VC will come back with better terms, but be careful here too. People tend to be on their best behavior when dating, and you don’t see their true colors until after you marry. So if you see red flags while dating a VC, just move on to the next funding source and don’t waste time.
You can’t manage an abusive VC, but you can leave the room.
This can be avoided if you’re willing to do diligence on funding sources before you approach them. For example, email or talk to the companies in a VC’s portfolio and find out about how the VC is as investors. Did they do what they said they would do? Find out if they even are looking for investments in your sector. Focus on finding good-neighbor funding sources that add value by helping your company to grow in verticals where the angel/VC has both capital and subject expertise.
The 18 Month Rule
Regardless of the amount raised, it is almost a joke among VCs that your funding will last no more than 18 months. As well as you can plan how each penny will be spent, the best laid plans tend to meet reality. Things will be good for 10-12 months, then you’ll realize you’re burning money too fast and the next round is taking too long to raise. So, you’ll start to economize, pinching pennies and perhaps laying off the least productive workers so that you can keep your company alive. This is due to how humans manage according to expectations.
Now that you know this behavioral bias going into a funding round, you need to be cognitive of this bias, adapt your expectations accordingly, and then consciously manage your money more frugally over the full term of the funding round. For example, don’t wait until your funding is almost gone before making hard HR decisions. Let employees go sooner rather than later if they don’t contribute sufficiently or are a bad cultural fit. The best time to act miserly, is as soon as you get funded. Doing so leaves some of your powder dry for when you’ll need additional marketing dollars a year down the road, and would love to have them while fundraising. You’ll have a better product in the future, and will wish you had more money to market that when you’re fundraising and need to show traction. Don’t blow it all now.
Overall, don’t let fundraising intimidate you and be sensible about your choices with equity. A good VC partner like Sputnik ATX (honk, honk) will help you fundraise also. Now, go find that awesome angel or VC, and get started with your plans to change the world.