Respecting The Pro-Rata Right

When early stage investors make an equity (angel, seed, Srs A, Srs B) investment, they typically negotiate for something called a pro-rata right which gives them the right to maintain their ownership in the company by investing in future rounds on the same terms as new investors.

I have written about the pro-rata right a bunch here at AVC. I think it is one of the most important things that early stage investors get from their investments. Obviously the ownership an investor gets is the most important thing, but the ability to maintain it by making additional investments is also very valuable and can be the source of out-performance of an early stage portfolio (against whatever benchmark one might be using).

At USV, we value the pro-rata right and exercise it very frequently. We often will make five, six, or seven investments in a company between when we make our initial investment and when we make our final investment. We even have a follow-on fund called the Opportunity Fund, that allows us to take our pro-rata in companies that continue to raise privately and delay going public. Our Opportunity Fund will also make some investments in companies that aren’t currently in our portfolio. But a large part of our Opportunity Fund thesis is about maintaining ownership via our pro-rata rights.

In the last ten or so years, companies, lawyers, boards, management teams, founders, and in particular late stage investors have been disrespecting the pro-rata right by asking early stage VCs to cut back or waive their pro-rata rights in later stage financings. This can happen as early as Series B (and happens to angel and seed investors in Series A rounds), but it is even more common in the later stage rounds like Series C and beyond.

I think this is bad behavior as it disrepects the early and critical capital that angels, seed investors, and early stage VCs put into the business to allow it to get to where it is. If the company agrees to a pro-rata right in an early round, it really ought to commit to live up to that bargain. But increasingly nobody does that and it is a black mark on the sector in my view. We make commitments knowing that we don’t plan on living up to them. It is very unfortunate.

The reason this happens is that allocations get tight in later stage rounds, particularly where the company is doing well and everyone wants to get into the round. The new investors, including the investor that is leading the round, will almost always have a minimum amount of ownership they want to get to in the round and the math tends to work out that the only way to get there is to cut back the early investor’s pro-rata rights.

Sometimes the way the gap is filled is by creating secondary for founders, early employees, and early investors. That can work and is sometimes good for everyone involved. That “trick” has been the saving grace on this issue over the last few years.

But I believe we are at a crossroads on this issue and I am wondering if early stage investors need to put more teeth into our pro-rata rights to insure they are honored. What if a company that was unable to offer a full pro-rata right to an early stage investor in a later round was forced to go back and change the price of an earlier round to make it up to the early stage investor? Or what if an early stage investor got warrants at the new round price to make up for an inability to honor the pro-rata right?

These are just two suggestions I came up with in a few seconds of thinking about it. But I would really like to force early stage companies, their lawyers, and their boards to think clearly and carefully about the pro-rata right when granting it. The current practice seems like “we can give this because we always get away with not honoring it down the road” and frankly that sucks.