The Convertible Note Discount and Price Cap

By Seed Rounds

If you follow this blog, you know that I think convertible debt is a good structure for a startup’s angel round. The main feature of the convertible note is that the debt investment made by the angel investor will typically later convert into equity. For this article, let’s assume this equity is the Series A Preferred Stock purchased by a venture capital fund.

Convertible Note Discount

As a sweetener to the angel investor (i.e., compensate the angel for the early risk), the convertible promissory note will have an automatic conversion discount feature by which the angel investor will exchange the convertible debt for shares of the Series A Preferred Stock at a discount to the price per share paid by the venture capital fund at a Qualified Financing.

For example, if a venture capital fund purchases Series A Preferred Stock at $1.00 per share, the discount may allow the angel investor to purchase the same Series A Preferred Stock at $0.75 per share. (For more background, check out this post for an example of how convertible debt and the conversion discount works.)

Incentive Misalignment

Convertible notes have drawbacks — they aren’t perfect. The main drawback is the quirk that the lower your pre-money at Series A, the more equity your angel investor gets.

EXAMPLE 1: If a VC invests $2,000,000 at a $5,000,000 pre-money valuation and an angel investor has a $100,000 convertible note with a 25% discount, the angel investor will own 1.9% of the startup immediately after the Series A round.

EXAMPLE 2: But if the VC invested at a $15,000,000 pre-money, the same angel investor would own 0.78% of the startup right after the Series A.

Because of this quirk, an angel investor may not have much incentive to help increase your pre-money valuation before a Series A…regardless of the conversion discount. Meanwhile, you and your co-founders are doing everything possible to increase the startup’s valuation.

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Convertible Note Price Cap

To provide upside protection, angel investors like to put a “price cap” on the convertible note discount. This price cap is expressed in terms of a pre-money valuation and effectively acts as a share price ceiling. Thus, an automatic conversion discount with a price cap might read something like this:

“The conversion discount shall be the lower of (i) a 25% discount to the Series A Preferred Stock share price, or (ii) the price per share if the Series A premoney valuation was set at $[6,000,000].”

Using the hypothetical in Example 2 above, an angel investor using this $6,000,000 pre money price cap would receive 1.45% instead of 0.78% as of right after the Series A.

Price Caps as a Weapon

The original idea was that price caps would provide upside protection for an angel investor. But occassionally I’ll see an angel throw in a really low price cap (<$400k) in the automatic conversion section. How many Qualified Financings are going to take place lower than $400k (and make the conversion discount percentage even a legit term)? Lowball price caps are essentially a “#$!@ you” to the startup.


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