Using Debt Like Growth Equity
From his newsletter this morning:
Indebted: Last week we noted that Wal-Mart subsidiary Jet.com had acquired ModCloth, an online retailer of vintage women’s apparel. No financial terms were disclosed, but this didn’t feel like a success for either ModCloth or the venture capitalists who had invested over $70 million into the business since its founding 15 years earlier. Here’s what happened, per sources familiar with the situation:
- In 2013 ModCloth went out in search of Series C funding, but the process was felled by a back-to-back pair of lousy quarters. So instead it accepted $20 million in unsecured bank debt.
- ModCloth effectively treated the debt like growth equity, rather than recognizing the time bomb it could become.
- When the debt first came due in April 2015, existing ModCloth investors pumped in new equity to, in part, kick repayment down the road for two years. This came amid four to five straight quarters of profitability, and just after the company brought in a former Urban Outfitters executive as CEO.
- Once the income statement returned to the red, ModCloth again tried raising equity ― but prospective investors cited the debt overhang as their reason for passing on a company whose unit economics were otherwise fundable. Insiders could have stepped up but didn’t.
- Jet.com heard of ModCloth’s debt coming due debt month, and pounced. We’ve been unable to learn the exact amount it paid, except that the amount left over for VCs after repaying the debt (and accounting for receivables) won’t be nearly enough to make them whole.
- 2 takeaways: (1) Debt is not inherently troublesome for startups, particularly if it’s supplementing equity as opposed to substituting for equity. But startups must recognize that not all cash is created equal. (2) ModCloth was founded in Pittsburgh, but later moved its HQ to San Francisco. It’s impossible to know if things would have worked out differently had the company remained in the Steel City, but some of its quirky retail culture did seem to get commingled with the “grow grow” tech etho
I have lived this story several times in my career and we are seeing this play out again in the market.
It is tempting to use debt instead of equity to finance a high growth company, particularly when you cannot get equity investors to value your company “fairly.” When a company has achieved “escape velocity” and is growing quickly, lenders look at it and say “there is enterprise/takeout value here and we are senior to the equity so the risk to us is pretty low.” And so they will underwrite a loan to the company even though the market hasn’t made up its mind on how to properly value the equity. So the temptation all around the table is to take the debt and kick the can down the road on the equity in the view that more time, more growth, more market validation will fix things.
This can work out well. Our portfolio company Foursquare is an example of where this did work out well. A debt deal in the middle of a business model pivot gave that company the time to re-engineer its business model and validate it. And time also allowed the company to come to terms with how the equity markets would value it and its new business model. Foursquare went on to raise another round of equity capital and refinance its debt and is in a great place now.
But, as the Modcloth story points out, debt can also work against you. If you can’t execute well post raising debt and get to another equity round or some other transaction (an attractive exit being the other obvious option), then you can have your debt called from under you and lose the control over the timing and terms of your exit. I lived through this story with a company I backed in 1999 and which was sold a few years ago in a transaction that was very good for the lenders and good for the management and very bad for the early equity investors.
Dan’s point that substituting debt for growth equity is a risky bet is spot on. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. But it should be done with care and with eyes wide open.