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Insights — Exbo Group

Convertible Notes: A Strategic Tool for Startup Financing

Convertible Notes
Minute read

Among the myriad tools available, convertible notes stand out as a versatile and popular choice. We’ll explore the intricacies of convertible notes, shedding light on what they are, when they are used, who might utilize them, and why they are an essential tool for many startups.

What is a Convertible Note?

A convertible note is a form of short-term debt that later converts into equity under predefined conditions, typically when a future round of financing takes place. Entrepreneurs issue these notes to early-stage investors in exchange for capital, with the expectation that the debt will convert into equity once the business achieves certain milestones or raises additional funds.

Very often, these notes can incentivize investors to provide capital in the early stages of a company’s journey. Two favorable ways to encourage early investment are by offering either a conversion discount or a valuation cap. A conversion discount offers a certain percentage off the price of equity during a future funding round, whereas a valuation cap is an agreed-upon limit at which the initial capital automatically converts to equity.

This flexibility means that startups don’t need to set a valuation until later, mitigating the complexities and uncertainties that can come with early-stage valuation.

What are the Key Terms in Convertible Notes?

  1. Principal Amount: The amount of money lent to the company by the investor.
  2. Interest Rate: The rate at which interest accrues on the principal amount. It's usually lower than standard loan rates and can be either simple or compounded.
  3. Maturity Date: The date by which the loan must either be repaid by the company or converted into equity. If the loan is not repaid or converted by this date, it may accrue penalties or default.
  4. Conversion Discount: A discount applied to the price per share when the note converts into equity, usually to reward early investors for the risk they're taking. For example, if the discount is 20%, when the note converts, the investor gets shares at a price 20% lower than the price per share in the next equity financing round.
  5. Valuation Cap: A maximum valuation at which the convertible note will convert into equity, regardless of the valuation of the next equity financing round. This protects the investor from excessive dilution. If the valuation of the company exceeds the cap in the next equity round, the conversion happens based on the lower cap valuation.
  6. Conversion Trigger: Typically tied to an equity financing round, this specifies the conditions under which the note will convert into equity. Common triggers include a qualified financing round (i.e., raising a certain amount of money in a subsequent equity round) or a specific event (i.e., an acquisition).
  7. Equity Type: The type of equity the note will convert into, such as preferred stock or common stock.
  8. Conversion Rights: These detail how the note converts into equity, including any adjustments or additional terms.
  9. Events of Default: Conditions under which the company would be considered in default on the note, which might include failure to pay interest, bankruptcy, or breach of certain agreements.
  10. Governing Law and Jurisdiction: Specifies the laws that will govern the note and where any disputes will be resolved.

What’s an Example of a Convertible Note?

Let's say a startup, XYZ Inc., issues a convertible note to an investor, Barbara, for $100,000 with a conversion discount of 20% and a valuation cap of $1 million. The note accrues interest at a rate of 5% annually and has a maturity date of 18 months.

Now, let's assume that after 12 months, XYZ Inc. raises a Series A round of financing at a pre-money valuation of $2 million, and Barbara decides to convert her note into equity at this point.

To calculate how many shares Barbara will receive upon conversion, we need to consider both the conversion discount and the valuation cap, and then calculate the effective price per share for Barbara.

  1. Conversion Discount: Barbara will receive a discount of 20% on the price per share in the Series A round.
  2. Valuation Cap: Since the valuation cap is $1 million, if the pre-money valuation in the Series A round exceeds $1 million, Barbara’s conversion will be based on the valuation cap.

Let's do the math:

  1. Price per Share in Series A Round: $2,000,000 / Total number of shares post-money = Price per Share. Imagine after the Series A round, the total number of shares post-money is 1,000,000. So, Price per Share = $2,000,000 / 1,000,000 = $2 per share.
  2. Effective Price per Share for Barbara: With a 20% discount, Barbara’s effective price per share = $2 * (1 - 20%) = $1.60 per share.
  3. Number of Shares for Alice: Amount of investment / Effective price per share = Number of shares. $100,000 / $1.60 = 62,500 shares.

So, Barbara would receive 62,500 shares of XYZ Inc.'s preferred stock upon conversion of her convertible note into equity.

When Are Convertible Notes Useful?

Convertible notes are most beneficial during the seed and early stages of a startup's lifecycle.

They’re used when more traditional valuation methods may be challenging or impractical—for example, when neither investors nor founders are certain about the startup's future valuation or when negotiations over equity ownership could impede fundraising.

Convertible notes offer a quick and efficient means of raising capital. They allow startups to access funding without extensive due diligence and valuation; this expediency is invaluable in evolving industries where speed to market is a factor in success.

Who Uses Convertible Notes?

Both entrepreneurs and investors who seek balance between risk and reward in early-stage investments could capitalize on convertible notes. 

For entrepreneurs, the option of convertible notes can secure initial capital without having to negotiate equity stakes or valuation. This allows founders to focus on the important work of developing their businesses and concepts before getting involved in valuation discussions.

On the investors’ side, convertible notes promise hope of high returns through equity conversion. They also provide protection in the form of debt repayment should the startup fail to meet its milestones or raise additional funds. This risk-reward profile attracts angel investors, seed funds, and other early-stage investors looking to support promising startups while minimizing risk.

What are the Benefits of Convertible Notes?

Convertible notes offer several other advantages for both entrepreneurs and investors beyond this flexibility and efficiency. 

For entrepreneurs, these benefits include:

1. Temporary Preservation of Ownership

By delaying equity dilution until later, founders retain a greater share of ownership in their startups, allowing them to stay in control when it comes to strategic decisions and direction.

2. Simplicity and Speed

Compared to equity financing rounds, convertible notes involve fewer legal and administrative hurdles, so startups can raise capital fast and focus on execution.

3. Alignment of Interests 

Convertible notes align the interests of founders and investors by linking the conversion of debt to the startup's future success, fostering collaboration.

For investors, the benefits of convertible notes include:

1. Potential for Upside

Since convertible notes offer investors the opportunity to convert their debt into equity at a predetermined conversion discount or valuation cap, significant returns are possible if the startup succeeds.

2. Downside Protection

In the event that the startup fails to achieve its milestones or raise additional funds, investors are entitled to repayment of their principal investment plus interest.

3. Flexibility in Portfolio Management

Convertible notes allow investors to diversify investment across multiple startups without committing to long-term equity positions, minimizing risk while maximizing potential returns.

Final Thoughts

Convertible notes are a powerful tool for startups and investors alike, offering flexibility, efficiency, and alignment of interests in the early stages of a startup's journey. By enabling entrepreneurs to raise capital quickly without an immediate need for valuation negotiations, and by providing investors with both the potential for high returns and downside protection, convertible notes fuel innovation and drive growth in the startup ecosystem. 

If you have questions about how your startup could benefit from convertible notes, please reach out.