When sourcing capital for a new business venture, entrepreneurs utilize one of two basic structures: debt or equity. Debt is a capital source with a finite life and clearly defined return profile known at the initial investment. With debt financing, a company is required to pay interest throughout the term of the loan with principal repaid at maturity. Conversely, equity investors are issued shares representing ownership in an enterprise. While equity does not require repayment over a defined time period, an entrepreneur’s stake in his or her company is diluted through the issuance of equity to outside investors.
Given the dynamics of early-stage companies, venture capital investors use a hybrid funding mechanism, convertible debt. Convertible debt, in the context of a venture capital financing, is a funding structure that combines the benefits of debt and equity into a single capital source. Convertible debt, usually in the form of a convertible note, is essentially a loan which converts into equity at a later date.
A convertible note is a short-term loan with maturities ranging from 12 to 36 months. Instead of paying interest in the form of cash, which would deplete valuable resources of a young company, interest accrues until maturity or conversion. A conversion of the loan (plus accrued interest) into equity is triggered by a subsequent priced equity financing round, typically known as a Series A financing. To compensate convertible note holders for the additional risk assumed with investing at an early stage, most convertible notes feature a conversion price below that of the subsequent financing round through the use of a valuation cap or a discount on the purchase price. Importantly, a valuation cap and a discount are mutually exclusive conversion features thus cannot be applied simultaneously. The note holder will ultimately utilize the conversion feature resulting in the most advantageous purchase price.
There is no assurance that a purchaser of a convertible note will realize a return on its investment or that it will not lose its entire investment. Additionally, purchasers will not become equity holders unless there is a future fundraising event, an IPO, or sale of the Company none of which can be guaranteed.
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