I posted a couple of weeks ago on convertible notes and how I thought Angels were better off using them (Angel Valuations in Seed Rounds). I’ve realized that there were some inherent assumptions in that posting that I want to clarify. I’m prompted by a talk I saw yesterday where an experienced angel was discussing some bad outcomes he had had with bridge loans.
So I want to clarify. My posting was advocating the use of convertible notes in early stage deals, i.e. where the angel group (or individual angel) is providing seed funds or bridging to a first venture round. In those cases, I definitely think the convertible loan route is usually the way to go. There may be specialized exceptions, but that is a general rule.
The bad loans I was hearing about were much later stage loans. In one case, the loan was to a struggling company that already had taken in three rounds of money (i.e. had almost exhausted a Series C). They were running out of cash, and went to angels for a bridge. Presumably, their earlier investors were tapped out or disenchanted, but either way, the earlier investments were completely exposed. This is a “distressed company” bridge loan. Sometimes it is called a “pier” loan, i.e. a bridge to an uncertain destination.
I frankly believe this is an area where angels simply should not fly. Almost by definition, if the company can interest a Series D investor, there will be a major devaluation coming, and when that happens everybody is going to get a haircut. That kind of situation will even tend to select for a VC who is “bottom feeding”, and they are even more likely to not respect shallow-pocketed angels, even if the angel money is the most recent money in the deal.
It is a given that a seed-stage startup is distressed --- they have little beside an idea and sweat equity. But there is little to lose --- the valuation is hypothetical and somewhat arbitrary at first. The seed investors are in the same boat as the entrepreneurs, when facing the first institutional investors in a Series A. The Series A money doesn’t want to disincentivize the entrepreneurs, and the seed angels can shelter somewhat under that umbrella.
But later stage deals are cases where valuations have already been made, money invested, and positions have to be defended. These are circumstances where angels are ill-equipped to fight. This kind of defensive battle favors deep pockets and additional firepower. Most angels or angel groups are not good at deals that require repeated reinvestment. VCs know this and the knives will come out.
So I believe that in most seed and early stage deals, angels are well-advised to use a time-limited, escalating-return, convertible note instrument in their investing. And I further believe that angels should avoid getting involved in later stage bridge or “pier” loans in companies that have already been valued and are now likely to be revalued. In that case, I think angels should try to make any investment as a piggy-back on the new VC money, if they can get it, and not get out in front of that VC money. They will get run over.