Show Me The Money – The Question Early Stage Fund Seekers Are Afraid to Ask

“Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.” Quote from Henry A. Rosso – fund raising master

Over a long Holiday weekend, I had the chance to read through and comment on a handful of pitch decks. It may have been my good mood, but I really think the quality of these decks is getting better especially as it relates to early stage fundraisers including most of the basic components of a solid deck. There are plenty of guides out there to show what the contents of a deck should be – – in fact we have a good one at our Withum website if you just go to withum.com and search for “pitch deck.” So as Mona Lisa Vito from My Cousin Vinny would say, “So, what’s the problem?”

Despite the better quality, I was amazed to see that except for one deck, there was reluctance for these companies to address the “proverbial elephant in the room” – – namely stating how much money they are looking for and how they are going to use it. It appears to be like the fear of asking someone out on that first date.

So for our fundraising friends out there, here are five simple Dos and Don’ts when it comes to covering the “ask” in pitches:

  1. Do tell investors how much money you are looking for. Be clear about how much and how you are willing to layer rounds in, say as you achieve certain milestones.
  2. Do support this amount with summary (and detail if requested) calculations including a reasonable reconciliation to your basic cash flow. Provide a summary phrase that is descriptive of each major goal. A phrase like “develop a mobile app” is more helpful than “ramp up operations.”
  3. Do indicate to investors your flexibility as to form of investment. If you are comfortable with convertible notes, or SAFE documents or prefer a straight common stock investment, help guide a potential investor.
  4. Don’t show funds will be used to settle old debts or for significant owner salaries. Paying off old problems like existing debt or back pay does not move a business forward. Setting aside an amount for some minimum salary / payment to owners for their survival is not fatal but it probably helps if this can be avoided.
  5. Don’t imply this amount of funds is all you will need unless your projections clearly indicate this to be the case. Nobody likes the gift that keeps on giving. It is a frustration for investors and it is better to state upfront where you expect to be once the money is spent and how you will be positioned for the next stage of your growth.

The punchline here is not to forget the punchline. Just think about telling a long story and leaving that all important ending out. Listeners will look at you quizzically – – they expect – – in fact they demand you bring the story to a close. It is the same with your pitch deck. Potential investors want to know the punchline – – what do you need and how are you going to use it? Teach them the joy of giving.

Seller’s Due Diligence – An Emerging Tool in the Sales Process

“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity” – Dalai Lama

I hope this quote doesn’t set too serious a tone for this blog, but much like the probable impact of the most recent election, change is in the air. Over the past couple of years, we have seen a concept emerge which, as one of my favorite clients would say, is “counter-intuitive.” That concept is referred to as seller due diligence (also at times referred to as a Quality of Earnings report) and it is increasing in popularity in mid -market M&A transactions. In the past, we were often approached by investment bankers or companies considering a sale to perform either an audit or a review. But more and more, that request is being modified to incorporate a seller’s due diligence report. But what is it and how does it work? First a little primer.

Accountants are guided by professional standards as to how and what they can say in a report. When it comes to financial statements, the most common accountants’ reports are called audits or reviews. Now the accountants out there will beat me up a bit for my layman’s description, but a review says nothing has come to the accountant’s attention that leads them to believe the financials are not fairly stated. This is often referred to as “negative assurance.” (We are accountants and not literary geniuses.) In an audit, which is more expensive and requires a lot more work, the accountant states in their opinion the financial statements are fairly stated. So in both cases, the focus is basically on the fair statement of the financials and those horribly worded phrases called footnotes. It is more that the numbers appear OK versus what do they really say.

In a due diligence report, there is more color as to the why. For example, an audit or review will show that margins this year may be lower than last year but there is no explanation as to why. A due diligence report would cover this as well as trends, details on balance sheet components and other analysis of the business. So right now, you might have two questions:

  1. Why not get a due diligence report vs. an audit or review?
  2. Why show a potential buyer your weaknesses by providing such a report? Keep in mind, this type of report highlights both the good and the bad.

To answer the first question, the audit and review both provide some assurance that the numbers are fairly stated. There is no such assurance (even limited as in the case of a review) in a report on due diligence. More and more, we are being asked to do both a review and a sellers’ due diligence report.

As to the second point, most transaction professionals will properly advise their clients that big checks are not written by buyers without a due diligence report, so why not make it easier for a potential buyer to understand the inner workings of a target. Being prepared on your own terms for this process is becoming a “best practice” for companies seeking substantial investment or a full exit.

So if you are contemplating this type of transaction, consider a seller due diligence report. I just completed a deal and am convinced its use helped to both identify a serious buyer more quickly and significantly expedite the whole transaction process.

Equity Plans Part II – Are We There Yet?

Most of you will recognize this oft repeated question which parents have heard for years. Popularized in the movie and television show by the same name as well as the movie Shrek, it is the question that sends a chill down any parent’s spine; especially when asked by a 5-year old on a long road trip. So why do I use it here especially considering Part I of this blog cited “the time has come” from Dr. Seuss? Well as they say, timing is everything and so it is with Equity Plans as well. So let me explain.

Very few people would ask someone to marry them after just one or two dates, even if they believe that person may be the “love of their life.” Yet I deal with loads of startups where the second conversation an owner has with a key potential hire turns to sharing ownership. Worse yet, without thinking through what they are offering, many offer too much equity only to find they lack enough for others (fast forward to “The Producers” by Mel Brooks – “what percent of Springtime for Hitler do they own?”) or worse yet; that key hire does not work out.

So I spend a great deal of time fixing these issues and there is nothing enjoyable about it. Legal agreements are usually incomplete; the process turns into a he said he said deal and then there are tax consequences to muscle through. It always comes down to having a well-documented equity plan and in all cases, the company “wasn’t there yet.”

So what do I advise? Very simply, have a plan. (You can look at my blog of December 19, 2013 Equity Sharing 101 for Startups for more guidance.) Of course a good attorney is the key here and while many of the documents are somewhat “boilerplate,” you must have a handle on the key provisions. So two quick cases.

In the first, a CTO was brought into a startup, and within a month, the CEO thought enough of him to offer him 10% of the Company in “Founders’ Shares” (no vesting). The CTO was focused more on coding than job satisfaction and within a year, realized he did not want to be there anymore. Fortunately, the CTO was so focused on getting out he never considered the potential value of what he had, and he basically gave back the shares and moved on. No agreements were in place; that CEO just lucked out.

In the second case, it was a similar fact pattern except the key person granted equity had been there a bit longer and felt he had substantially contributed to the Company in the five years he was there. This was another case of an early grant of equity and no provisions for separation. There was a falling out and a “settlement” is still in process. The CEO is spending a great deal of emotional time addressing this not to mention legal and consulting bills. It is not a pretty sight.

So please consider a bit of a delay to provide time for thought to make sure “you are there” before you enter an equity plan. But once you decide, move quickly and purposefully in concluding your plan and getting it all signed and delivered.

Equity Plans Part I – The Sooner the Better

“The time has come, the time is now . . . ” quote from the book “Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!” by Dr. Seuss

Hopefully many of you remember this fabled line and for me, it is what comes to mind when I think of the right time to finalize most equity plans. (I am using equity plans to cover anything which resembles ownership – from stockholder agreements to shadow equity plans.) Sooner is almost always better as delays always seem to have unwanted complications. To confuse matters further, my next blog is Equity Plans Part II – Are We There Yet? So before you conclude I have probably gone off the deep end (a concept constantly reinforced by my family) let me begin with a true story.

In the early 90s, leveraged buyouts (or LBOs as they were known) were the rage and I participated in my fair share. I was called in to help one group of four very qualified managers who were buying a half dozen plants from their parent company. The four covered different disciplines and were great at what they did – – they were just lacking in the skill set needed to buy and set up a separate company / operation. So we focused on the deal for about three straight weeks; long days with hard tasks and two days before closing, the five of us went to lunch. I brought up the subject of equity plans and shareholder agreements among the four. The CEO let me know that considering what was pending, bringing this up at that time was the “dumbest thing he ever heard.” I backed off but shortly after the close, I persisted and we finalized the equity plans. Six months later the CEO called with the heartbreaking news that one of the four had passed unexpectedly. While distraught over the loss, he came to appreciate the fact that all settlements related to ownership had been concluded during a less emotional time and he came to appreciate that fact.

Here is another situation which highlights why it is best to conclude on any equity plans as early as possible. Going through a transaction is stressful, and I have had a handful of situations where trying to finalize an equity type bonus when a sale was pending almost cratered a deal. Owners see the chance at monetizing their lives’ work becoming a reality while key employees believe they were responsible for creating that value and should be rewarded. Incentive and reward plans go from a thank you with benefits to a hard fought negotiated settlement and at times, transactions suffer. All of this stress can be avoided by addressing this issue earlier in the process when a sale is hypothetical and parties are more prone to have a logical view of how an equity plan should work.

So the punchline is that when you have concluded on the sharing portion of any equity plan, be it shares in the company, options, stock appreciation rights, etc., then the time is right to finalize the plan and complete the documents to avoid the hardships and risks that delay can bring. If you are an owner thinking of this issue, the time is now to address it.

It Does Not Say That; Does It?

It Does Not Say That; Does It?

“The devil is in the details.” – quote with various attributions

As I reflect on what has been keeping me so busy these last few weeks, I realize that there are three problem situations that have their roots in owners not fully understanding (or reading) certain underlying documents. Now I know everyone is busy and all of us have been guilty of asking a more knowledgeable advisor, “What does the document say?” Fortunately, in most cases, we get a complete picture but in many cases, there are some final changes added that the owner may not see (there is something called “deal fatigue”) so they do not do a final read. So let me highlight my three recent situations.

In the first, I was asked to review an equity option plan and stockholder’s agreement for a prospect that was a growing company. As one of my hot buttons is any provision which requires the Company to provide liquidity to the option holder, I asked if there was such a provision and the CEO was adamant that he would never provide for it but there it was in the agreement. It clearly stated- – if an option holder exercises and leaves for any reason, the Company has to buy back the underlying shares at the then fair market value in cash within 90 days.

In the second, a buyout agreement between two shareholders of a very profitable and growing prospect required the surviving shareholder to buy out the deceased shareholder’s interest at full fair market value. What made this standard provision very unusual was that it stated any shortfall between fair value and any life insurance proceeds would be covered by a full recourse note with short payment terms. In a call with one owner and the current corporate attorney regarding this agreement, that current attorney was incredulous and used some choice “legal terms” to describe his reaction.

Finally, using a combination of informal legal advice and documents obtained off the internet, two shareholders in a startup filed incorrect 83B elections in addition to creating some major tax problems with the timing and incorrect data on various formation documents. The situation as described to us was fine; unfortunately, the underlying documents bore no resemblance to what was intended.

We were able to find solutions to each of these situations, but that is not always the case. So some simple advice to all entrepreneurs. Documents, especially those related to ownership, should never be signed without a reading and thorough understanding of what they say. There are no stupid questions in this area; and ignorance can really cost you. And if legal counsel tells you when to sign something; sign it then and not later. Many documents are time sensitive and while it might seem like a small issue, if it is ever challenged, you will find that what is documented is what is considered done and the devil will be in those details. Please do not let them come back to haunt you.

Change of Control – Revisited

Cardinal Ximinez: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise, surprise and fear, fear and surprise. Our *two* weapons are fear and surprise, and ruthless efficiency. Our *three* weapons are fear and surprise and ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical dedication to the pope.” – Monty Python “The Spanish Inquisition”

I have seen my fair share of situations where change in control provisions in agreements resulted in unintended consequences. Until recently, I thought their sole purpose was as the name implies and as Curly said in “City Slickers,” “One thing; just one thing.” But maybe as the Cardinal suggests, there is more than one thing. Let’s look a bit more closely.

Every smart business owner knows his most valuable assets walk out the door at the end of each day. Most owners like to retain key employees and enter into employment agreements that among other things, provide for incentives (many of which vest over a period of time) that are protected, should the owner or owners no longer be around. This standard solution is known in plain English as a “change in control” provision. What this normally provides for is the acceleration of any vesting or even liquidity provisions of any incentive provisions for the key employee in the event the current owner no longer has more than 50% (usually) of voting control in the company. Everything seems fair so far; what is the problem?

In case one, I was asked to consult with a company that had a key employee that was promised an incentive payment in the event of a change in control. That provision was triggered when the Company was sold to a “strategic” but the Company took the position that they had accepted a lower sales price in return for the key employee being offered a position with the acquirer, thus they did not owe the incentive. While both sides believed their case had merit, the ambiguity created years of turmoil until we helped to resolve it.

In the second situation, an acquirer had issued an LOI for the purchase of one of my clients. During due diligence, they realized that the resulting change of control provisions would substantially “enrich the lives” of all the key management members, and they were sufficiently concerned with their motivation after the deal that they almost walked away. Fortunately, a solution was crafted which all found acceptable.

So just when I thought the key provision in an employment agreement with an incentive was a change in control, I have come to realize that it should be accompanied by a well-defined “continued employment” provision so both the team member and the company do not suffer unintended consequences when there is a change in control. Negotiating them at the start when both sides are not under the pressure of an impending transaction is also very helpful. I am starting to see these provisions in some recent transactions and strongly encourage their use. As the Cardinal said, the two key provisions are…

Kids in the business- Can it work?

“Kids suck” quote from James Beaudette – my very close friend

Jim and I have been friends for over 30 years. We first got to know each other when we began coaching our sons in soccer and our relationship has grown since then. We each had three children and many conversations would inevitably turn to something one of our children had done, which we would both find hard to fathom. The conversation would usually end with Jim stating his conclusion which we both share.

After 40+ years of consulting with family businesses, I could tell you stories about children in my clients’ businesses that would make your head spin. Some had unbelievable success; some abject failure; some were responsible young adults and others entitled brats, I have seen it all. I would almost be embarrassed to tell you how many times I had to lean in to a parent or parents and confide what Jim had taught me long ago.

But out of these experiences came some valuable advice on how to handle kids in the business. Now some of this will sound like motherhood and apple pie, but I have found that it does work. So here are three pointers.

The first is, family is family and business is business. I watched a young son take a $20 million business to over $1 billion in 20 years. Two young brothers who had worked part time in a business stepped up when their father passed away and turned it into one of the leaders in their industry. I also watched two brothers who were in dispute over leadership resolve their differences by craftily splitting the business resulting in two household name consumer products companies. The common theme here is while they shared that important bond of family, they never let family issues blur what they had to do for the business. It was appropriately striking this balance that resulted in each of their successes.

The next is when kids are in the business, be honest with yourself and your children. This is most important when you face major milestones and one that comes to mind is succession planning. I have done more than one succession plan where the end result of my work was that the oldest sibling did not become the heir apparent. They all ended with both successful transitions and with all talking to one another at Thanksgiving. I would love to take credit but it was the direct result of honest dialogue about the objectivity of the process and the importance of keeping the business sustainable. I have also walked away from assignments where the parents wanted me to “anoint” a family member as the next leader. To quote “In Living Color“, “Homey don’t play that.”

Finally, know the difference between being a mentor and being a parent. This is perhaps the toughest task of all. Too many parents make decisions as a supervisor (in one case to support the project a daughter was proposing that had little merit) with their parent hat on versus their mentor cap. This can enable bad behavior, lead to the ill-fated “bosses kid” syndrome and doom your child to failure. So while I am sure that on occasion you will reach Jim’s conclusion about your kids, try to be disciplined and follow some simple rules and you will find kids in the business can work and your family business will beat the odds of next generation success.