As the saying goes, where you stand on an issue often rests on where you sit. Translated into startup law and finance, your views on how to approach fundraising are often heavily influenced by where your company and your investors are located. As a startup lawyer at Egan Nelson LLP (E/N), a leading boutique firm focused on tech markets outside of Silicon Valley — like Austin, Seattle, NYC, Denver, etc. — that’s the perspective I bring to this post.
At a very high level, the three most common financing structures for startup seed rounds across the country are (i) equity, (ii) convertible notes and (iii) SAFEs. Others have come and gone, but never really achieved much traction. As to which one is appropriate for your company’s early funding, there’s no universal answer. It depends heavily on the context; not just of what the company’s own priorities and leverage are, but also the expectations and norms of the investors you plan to approach. Maintaining flexibility, and not getting bogged down by a rigid one-approach-fits-all mindset is important in that regard.
Here’s the TL;DR: When a client comes to me suggesting they might do a SAFE round, my first piece of advice is that a convertible note with a long maturity (three years) and low interest rate (like 2 percent or 3 percent) will give them functionally the same thing — while minimizing friction with more traditional investors.
Why? Read on for more details.
Convertible notes for smaller seed rounds
Convertible securities (convertible notes and SAFEs) are often favored, particularly for smaller rounds (less than $2 million), for their simplicity and speed to close. They defer a lot of the heavier terms and negotiation to a later date. The dominant convertible security (when equity is not being issued) across the country for seed funding is a convertible note, which is basically a debt instrument that is intended to convert into equity in the future when you close a larger round (usually a Series A). The note’s conversion economics are more favorable than what Series A investors pay, due to the greater risk the seed investors took on.