Category Archives: Boards

Carve Outs for Management in an Acquisition

Carve outs for management is a tool that is often overlooked by boards in angel-backed companies. It is a tool that can be a critical in making an acquisition occur, but is difficult to get right. First of all, both management and the board are often too close and emotionally involved to make a clear decision.

For those that aren’t familiar with the concept of a carve out, it is a payment to management, from the proceeds of a transaction, that is paid out before investors are paid the amount they would otherwise be due from the sale of the company.

Having served on more than my share of boards, and often on the comp committee, I am often asked about the following situation, which is typical of one where a carve out occurs:

  • A company has taken quite a bit of investment, usually from institutions and angels.
  • The deal that was struck has a liquidation preference (if you don’t know what this means, you should educate yourself). Good terms for companies meeting their goals are 1x participating preferred (sometimes capped); bad terms are 2x to 3x and usually granted when a company is in trouble and needs to raise money.
  • Acquisition seems like the best alternative, but the offers are for less than the liquidation preference (or not much more than the preference).

In this case, the common stock and options are essentially worthless. The founders, employees, and others who bet on the upside find themselves in the position of having worked for little-to-no upside (or in the case of board members or consultants who took options – nothing!).

What is the board to do?

Here is my perspective from serving on dozens of boards and many comp committees:

  • It was management’s sweat that got the company to exit. This needs to be rewarded.
  • On the other hand, the board needs to recognize that management did not deliver the value that was promised when the money was taken. (Nor did the board.) It is not fair to give management a great return, while investors lose money.
  • The board should try, as a first priority, to ensure that management gets a good deal from the acquiring company. This is good for the acquirer and allows more of the proceeds to go to investors.
  • One often hears that management is unwilling to allow a deal to proceed if they don’t make enough money. And therefore they would rather the company stay in operation, even if it means a greatly reduced valuation. If the original deal terms don’t either carry enough voting shares, or the rights to force the sale, then the investors might be screwed. This is why alignment with the entrepreneur and deal terms can matter.
  • Finding a fair solution is often difficult. Hiring an experienced person/consultant might be a good idea, if the board and management are willing to follow their dispassionate advice.
  • If a carve out is necessary, I believe that it should be graduated (like a graduated income tax). In that way, as the investors do better, management increasingly does better. This aligns incentives. For example, if the liquidation preference is $10M and the acquisition will be in the range of $5-15M, the carve out might look like this:
    • 5% of proceeds for the first $5M (which is $250k at $5M)
    • Between 5-10M, $250k plus 7.5% of the amount over $5M, which is $375k at 10M
    • $875k plus 10% (plus the value of their stock, which is now in the money) for any amount over $10M
  • This seems to give both aligned incentives and balance the reward for management with the need to get investors their money back.

Of course, all of this looks much better when the company sells for a lot more than was invested!

Success! What happens now?

I am often asked: “my company has achieved its initial goal of getting to $1M in revenue and being cash flow positive. What now?”

In order to grow to be a $10M revenue company, we need to scale up sales and marketing, add new product lines, etc. We therefore need to raise $5M in the business and will need to raise if from institutional investors. When I project forward my cap table, I realize that I would be much better selling on the promise of where we are, if we can sell for a reasonable amount. The alternative: spending the next six months talking to investors instead of growing my business.

So what is a “reasonable amount?” Most businesses in this state (if they have been reasonably capital efficient) will have raised about $1M or so and have a post-money valuation of less than $5M. Therefore, even at a sale price of $5M, the investors could make 2x, if there is a 1x liquidation preference, and the entrepreneur will make $3M. The investors would get a 3x return if the company sold for $10M (if there is a 1x liquidation preference). At a sale of $20M, the return is spectacular.

But how does this happen?

One major problem is that is it exceedingly difficult to sell small companies to large acquirers. When I was at Microsoft and Bill still approved all acquisitions, regardless of size, he once chastised me for doing a $3M acquisition of a UW spinout tech company. “It’s just as much work as a larger one and your time is too valuable. Do bigger deals.” That was true then and even more true now with increased government regulations and widespread use of open-source software in the products that small companies sell (which causes enhanced scrutiny of the code base for any infractions).

But even more importantly, small companies that are angel-backed and therefore “capital efficient” (meaning run very cheaply!), don’t tend to build the same infrastructure that a company with more capital would build. This is what makes them such attractive angel deals. But it is also one of the root causes of what makes them difficult to acquire.

The typical first-time successful startup CEO will build a great product, get their initial customers on board, and build marketing and sales to sell that product. This is very different than marketing and selling a company.

Selling a company to a large acquirer necessitates several other factors:

  • A vision about the company’s importance to the acquirer that clearly shows where the initial product leads;
  • A coherent and believable business plan that clearly shows the impact of the acquisition on the acquirer, as well as the costs;
  • Clean legal and financial docs, prepared by experienced and believable people, so that the acquirer won’t have to spend six months in due diligence;
  • Well-documented IP and code, that allows for rapid due diligence;
  • A well-honed understanding for the acquisition process, its key touch points, timing, and sensitivities.

Generally, these things can be provided by the company management team, board, or paid advisors. But in small, thinly capitalized companies, they are missing more often than they are present.

Therefore, selling a small, but valuable, angel-backed company seems akin to selling a beautiful home by placing a “for sale by owner” sign in the yard and hoping people will decided to call and make an attractive offer.

Investor Relations for Private Companies

One of the questions I am asked by first-time startup CEOs: what is an appropriate level of communication with my investors?

This is both a difficult and profound question. It is simple to say that more is better than less. It is also simple to say that any good investor would rather have you spend your time executing your plan than spend your time chatting with investors.

So.. my simple rule of thumb is that you should treat your investors (and the money that they have invested in your company) with respect. And you should recognize that their support, encouragement, and trust that came with that money are incredibly valuable commodities that will continue to pay dividends over time. Let me give rules of thumb for great investor relations by private companies and some issues that need to be considered.

Ten Simple rules for great IR for private companies:

  1. Get the bad news out fast and first. Even if the news in embarrassing (like we are running out of cash sooner than we anticipated, or our customers found a flaw in our product), share it first and fast. Be very candid about the failings as well as the successes.
  2. Don’t bury bad news at the end of a report.
  3. Don’t wait to issue the report until you have good news to share.
  4. Don’t forget to share your passion for your business – that’s generally what made your investors invest!
  5. But don’t allow your passion to obscure the operational facts, like the numbers are not what we anticipated.
  6. Communicate frequently, but not too frequently. These communications should never be less than once a quarter. But remember that your investors are not your employees, so you don’t need to send daily/weekly updates with operational trivia. This just defeats the purpose of making sure that your investors know the state of the business by burying them in the minutia.
  7. Communications can written or in person or a combination. Face-to-face quarterly meetings are a great idea for a company that is growing and needs support and help from its investors. They are especially good for a company that needs to show its product. But they take some time to prepare.
  8. Communications can be short, but never skipped. For example, a simple note to all of your investors that “we have had to revamp our product plans and details will follow within 30 days” is an OK message. As is, “we have received an acquisition offer, but the terms require us to keep the details confidential, so we will let you know as soon as the deal is consummated.” Don’t surprise them!
  9. Your investors are smart, so treat them accordingly. Be very realistic and forthright about the impact of any misses/changes. Early stage investors know the risks. Tell them if the board insisted you take a salary cut or that you have had to lay off key people. These things happen. Sometimes the impact will be that their investment will never realize the potential you had hoped for, but that you will work for the best possible outcome.
  10. And, lastly, NEVER have the communication of the change of your company status come via a package of documents from your lawyers! Even in the case of good news (which is rare), you owe it to your investors to be the one who communicates FIRST. Even if it’s an email (or cover letter in the legal package) that says, “we have had to do X, because of Y, and the result is that your shares have to be changed in the following way. You will be receiving a package by FedEx to implement that change. I will be holding an emergency investor meeting tomorrow at 9am to explain these changes. Those who can’t be there can phone in.”

Even with these simple rules in hand, there are a number of issues that you need to consider.

  • Can I share proprietary information with my investors? This is a tough question. Seek counsel from your lawyer. In general, most startups do share proprietary information, but make sure your investors know it is proprietary. Make sure that they know they can’t redistribute or share it further. Only give info in writing that is less sensitive.
  • Know your investors. Ask them if they have investments in competitive companies. If they do, it doesn’t disqualify them from investing in your company, but make sure that they know they can’t share the info you give them.

Simply put.. if you treat your investors well, they will be there to support you when you need them. Not just in this company but in future ones.

Setting Goals – metrics can drive behavior

A number of years, I joined the board of the Humane Society for Seattle and King County (www.seattlehumane.org), a local non-profit that runs an animal shelter, adoption facility, and does veterinary services for the animals in our care. For those that believe in animal welfare as I do, you will easily understand how an organization of this type can attract experience and well meaning board members.

Shortly after joining the board, I began to try to study and make sense of our metrics – especially euthanasia numbers. I well understood that not every animal was “adoptable,” some were too sick to be saved or had behavioral problems that made them unsafe to be in a house with either other pets or small children. But the numbers just didn’t make sense to me. So, along with the support of other board members, I began to ask for more details on the metrics, drilling to the next level of numbers. What emerged was a picture of management controls and lack of consistent strategy that meshed with the desires of the board. As a result, the board changed management first on an interim and then permanent basis. And, we established a goal that “no adoptable animal in our care would ever run out of time or space.”

Over the course of a few months, we focused on a metric that matched that goal (it’s called the Asilomar Live Save Rate) and have been successful in maintaining that metric at a level that qualifies us as a so-called “no kill” shelter for several years since. And then we were able to go to important, but secondary, metrics (e.g length of stay until adoption) that improved our operations and the care we gave our animal guests. I am proud of these accomplishments, but it has caused me to reflect on the importance of goals, strategy, and leadership in a more general sense.

In both the non-profit and start-up worlds (some claim many of my startups are non-profits! J), understanding your goals is a critical element in success. Goals must be meaningful to the organization and actionable. And have corresponding metrics that match those goals.

This seems simple, but in several of my companies, this has proved exceeding difficult. Many metrics follow results by too wide a gap to be actionable. In many cases, revenue is such a metric. But in almost every case, there are a handful of “value drivers,” those metrics that truly derive the value and health of the business. For example, in a telecoms consumer services business (like one a ran earlier in my career), the key value drivers were, (1) cost of customer acquisition; (2) average revenue per customer; and (3) churn. For each business type, these will be different.

The power of setting a good goal, understanding your value drivers/metrics, and having a strategy to maximize those value drivers and fulfill the goal is the path to success.

Startup Company Boards

Startup companies need good boards. But they often don’t have them.

There are many reasons. First, there really aren’t that many experienced people willing to serve on a startup company boards. And those that are experienced, skilled, and bring a lot of value, generally want to be compensated, which startups can’t really afford.

VCs will serve on boards, but generally when their fund owns 15% or more of the company, so their compensation comes from the fund and the upside from a huge amount of stock.

In contrast, individual angel investors usually only own a very small (<2%) of a company and there is no ready mechanism for their co-investors to compensation.

So.. what makes a good board member? Many startup CEOs believe that the most important factor in choosing a board member is industry experience. I disagree. Industry experience is valuable on an advisory board, but needs to be resident in the company. Some degree of industry experience is, of course, beneficial. But, the following experience is more important on a board:

  • Experience on other boards for high-growth companies;
  • Having been through financings of various sorts;
  • Experience in acquisitions and IPOs to understand the inflection points and needed metrics;
  • A good rolodex relevant to the company;
  • Good chemistry with the CEO and other board members; and
  • A willingness to be direct and outspoken about the company, even if that position is unpopular with management and the board.

To get good board members, a startup company must be willing to compensate board members (as they do management). I’ve spoken with a number of angels and angel groups around the US and found that board stock compensation seems to vary widely. On the West Coast (primarily the Bay Area) and Boston, compensation seems to follow the VC model – no additional compensation is required. However, in much of the rest of the country, options are generally routinely given.

I’d recommend the following package for a pre-A round company: 1% of fully diluted stock, vesting over no more than 2 years. Shorter vesting is generally a very good idea for board members in order to make sure that board members don’t try to act to save their board position rather than do what is right for the company. Of course, if the company is already financed and has suffered the dilution to do so, then the percentage would be less.

I believe that the Angel Capital Association, the Kauffman Foundation, and/or a university business school should conduct a survey on this.