A convertible note is a form of short-term debt that converts into equity, typically in conjunction with a future financing round; it is often used by early-stage startups when raising capital.
Pros of Convertible Notes:
- Speed and Simplicity: Convertible notes can be quicker and simpler to execute than a traditional equity round, which requires valuation negotiations and more complex legal processes.
- Deferred Valuation: They allow a startup to defer valuation until a later financing round, which can be beneficial when it’s difficult to value a company in its early stages.
- Lower Legal Costs: The documentation for convertible notes is usually standardized, which can lead to lower legal fees compared to equity rounds.
- Less Dilution Initially: Founders may experience less dilution in the short term compared to issuing equity since the equity price is often higher at the time of conversion.
- Attractive to Investors: Convertible notes can be attractive to early-stage investors because they typically include terms like a valuation cap and/or discount rate that can provide a favorable price per share at conversion.
- Interest: Although typically not the main focus, convertible notes do accrue interest, which can provide a small additional return to the investor if the note is repaid rather than converted.
Cons of Convertible Notes:
- Debt Obligation: Convertible notes are a form of debt, and if they don’t convert, the company has to repay them, which can be a financial burden.
- Short-Term Maturity: If a qualifying financing event doesn’t occur before the maturity date, the startup might have to repay the note, potentially before it has the means to do so.
- Interest Burden: Although interest is a minor element, it does increase the amount that will be converted into equity, leading to more dilution than initially anticipated.
- Potential for More Dilution Later: The conversion of the note to equity can result in significant dilution for the founders once a priced round sets the valuation, especially if the company has raised a lot of capital through convertible notes.
- Complexity at Conversion: The conversion of the notes can be complex, especially if there are multiple notes with different terms, caps, and discounts.
- Incentive to Delay Valuation: There may be an incentive for founders to delay a priced round to defer the dilution effect of the convertible note, which might not be in the best interest of the company’s growth.
- Valuation Cap and Discount Rate Negotiations: While simpler than valuing a company, negotiating caps and discounts can be difficult, and overly generous terms can lead to future issues with dilution and investor relations.
Convertible notes are a tool with unique advantages for both startups and investors, particularly in the early stages when the company’s valuation is hardest to determine. They need to be structured carefully, with a clear understanding of the potential future impact on the company’s capital structure.