When fundraising gets tougher for startups, the existing investors (insiders) will often provide a bridge loan to the company to extend the runway for getting another round done. There is more of this sort of thing happening in today’s fundraising market and I thought I’d share some of the things I have learned about setting up bridge loans.
First, bridge loans are a bridge to something else. Most commonly they are a bridge to a round of financing with new investors (outsiders). They can also be a bridge to the sale of the company. Occasionally, but not often, they can be a bridge to getting cash flow positive. If none of those things is going to happen in a relatively short period of time, then it is a bridge to nowhere and you really want to avoid that. A bridge to another bridge is never a good thing and should be avoided at all costs.
An alternative to a bridge is an “insider round” where the existing investors provide sufficient capital to fund the business for eighteen to twenty-four months. That is a real round of financing and it is not a bridge. While that can sometimes be the right answer for a startup, I strongly prefer bringing new investors/new capital into a company in every financing round. New investors strengthen the investor syndicate which makes the company more resilient. New investors bring new ideas, new experiences, and new sources of funding to the business. New investors in every round are a very good thing and I like to try for that whenever possible.
So let’s say your company really wants to bring new investors into the business with another round, but it is taking longer. But you and your investors are confident that the new round will happen. Then a bridge is a good idea.
Here is how I like to structure a bridge:
- All material existing investors should participate, ideally “pro-rata”, meaning the investors participate based on their respective ownership interests. When you have an existing investor that owns a large percentage of the business and they won’t or can’t participate, you have a problem. You can get a bridge done in these circumstances but it will be painful because nobody likes to “carry” a large existing investor who can’t support the business.
- The ideal structure is a convertible note, with nominal interest, and a discount upon conversion into the next round of financing.
- I like the discounts to be based on the amount of time the bridge note is outstanding. This creates an incentive to get the round done quickly, which is what everyone wants in this situation. It is also easier to explain the discount to the new investors in the next round when the discount is small if the bridge has not been outstanding for long. And it is understandable if the discount is larger when the bridge has been outstanding for a longer time period.
- I like to start with a 5% discount and cap the discount at 25%. The ideal discount is between 10% and 20% and so the time frame for the various discounts should be set with that in mind.
- A very important consideration in structuring a bridge loan is what happens if the company is sold when the note is outstanding. If the bridge documents do not specify anything in this situation, the noteholders will only get their money back, plus interest, in a sale. That is not really appropriate given that they are providing the capital to get the company to a sale, and so I like a premium to be paid in the event of a sale. I like somewhere between 2x and 3x depending on the circumstances.
When it is time for a bridge, the lead investor, which is typically the investor with the largest capital invested and largest ownership, should “step up”, suggest terms, and work with the investor syndicate to come together and provide a bridge loan. That kind of leadership is very important when fundraising gets harder. The startups that have strong leads will do a lot better in tough times and this is a really good example of why that is.