Some Thoughts On Convertible Debt

Seth Levine has a long and thoughtful post on convertible debt vs equity. If you are an entrepreneur or active in the angel/seed sector, you should read it. He wrote it in response to Paul Graham's tweet that said:

Convertible notes have won. Every investment so far in this YC batch (and there have been a lot) has been done on a convertible note.

I am sure that Paul was talking about angel/seed rounds and was not suggesting that convertible debt has "won" as the preferred financing structure in the venture capital business. But since our firm does participate in select angel/seed rounds, this was interesting to me.

I have been doing venture capital for 25 years now and have also done many angel investments personally along with my wife. We have never done a convertible debt round. That run may soon come to an end if Paul is right. Maybe I will have to join the convertible debt parade.

But I don't like convertible debt for a host of reasons.

It used to be that convertible debt was a lot easier and cheaper to do legally. But with non-negotiated "light series A docs" from most top venture law firms out there, you can do a Series A Preferred for less than $5000. And these light Series A documents focus on economics not control and governance, just like converts do. So to me that is not a valid argument for doing convertible debt anymore.

It still is true that negotiating valuation can be very tricky in an angel round and it may be better to defer that negotiation until the next round. That is what convertible debt does. But I am a sophisticated investor. I do this for a living. I can negotiate a fair price with an entrepreneur in five minutes and have done that for a seed/angel round many times. So I don't think that argument applies to an investment I am making either.

Fans of convertible debt argue that debt with a valuation cap is no different than a priced equity round. That is true if the valuation cap is the same as the valuation that the investors would pay if it was equity. But if that is the case, then the entrepreneur is getting screwed. He or she is agreeing to either take the valuation that would have been offered, or something lower if the next round is lower. That is not a good deal for the entrepreneur.

In truth. there are many convertible debt deals getting done right now with very high valuation caps and some with no valuation caps. In that instance, we are simply seeing the impact of limited supply vs excess demand come into play in the angle/seed market and we need to call this what it is – a price increase.

And that is what I think Paul is actually seeing. He has done such a good job with Y Combinator and his leadership and vision has inspired a wave of seed and angel investment in web services that is unprecedented. That wave is creating price expansion. It is a seller's market and will be for some time to come. And then things will settle down. And when they do, I think we will see the angel/seed market return to a more normal place. A place where priced equity deals between entrepreneurs and sophisticated investors is the norm.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. It could be wishful thinking so that I don't have to eat my words and do a convert. That may well happen. Maybe very soon. Maybe my next deal. But I won't be happy about it.