Term Sheet: Redemption Rights

If you are avid followers of the TV series 24 (as Jason and I are), you’ll recognize that the next item in our term sheet seriesRedemption at Option of Investors – has similar characteristics to the regular exchange Jack has with CTU:

 CTU Director (any of them – Driscoll, Tony, Ryan, George, Michelle): “Jack – stand down – don’t go in there without backup.”

Jack: (Gruffly, in a hoarse voice) “I gotta go in – there’s no time to wait – if I don’t go, the world will end and my (current babe, hostage, daughter, partner) will die.”

CTU Director: (Mildly panicked) “Jack – wait – it’s too dangerous – I command you – wait.”

Jack: (Insolently) “I gotta go.” (Jack hangs up the phone).

Cut to clock ticking and commercial or teaser for scenes from next week.

Think of the discussion around redemption rights as this scene – utterly predictable and ultimately benign. Jack always goes in. Jack always stops the bad stuff – for the time being. Jack (or the bad guys) always creates a new problem. The CTU director always forgets that Jack disobeyed a direct order shortly after Jack is successful with his latest task.

You are Jack. Your investor is the CTU director. If you ask your CTU director “have you ever actually ever triggered redemption rights?” you will normally get some nervous fidgeting (“wait – it’s too dangerous”), a sheepish “no” followed by a confident “but we have to have them or we won’t do the deal!” (“I command you – wait.”)

Redemption rights usually look something like:

“Redemption at Option of Investors: At the election of the holders of at least majority of the Series A Preferred, the Company shall redeem the outstanding Series A Preferred in three annual installments beginning on the [fifth] anniversary of the Closing. Such redemptions shall be at a purchase price equal to the Original Purchase Price plus declared and unpaid dividends.”

There is some rationale for redemption rights. First, there is the “fear” (on the VCs part) that a company will become successful enough to be an on-going business, but not quite successful enough to go public or be acquired. In this case, redemption rights were invented to allow the investor a guaranteed exit path. However, any company that is around for a while as a going concern that is not an attractive IPO or acquisition candidate will not generally have the cash to pay out redemption rights.

The second reason for redemption rights pertains to the life span of venture funds. The average venture fund has a 10 years life span to conduct its business. If a VC makes an investment in year 5 of the fund, it might be important for that fund manager to secure redemption rights in order to have a liquidity path before his fund must wind down. As with the previous case, whether or not the company has the ability to pay is another matter.

Often, companies will claim that redemption rights create a liability on their balance sheet and can make certain business optics more difficult. In the past few years, accountants have begun to argue more strongly that redeemable preferred stock is a liability on the balance sheet, not an equity feature. Unless the redeemable preferred stock is mandatorily redeemable, this is not the case and most experienced accountants will be able to recognize the difference.

There is one form of redemption that we have seen in the past few years and we view as overreaching – the adverse change redemption. We recommend you never agree to the following which has recently crept into terms sheets.

“Adverse Change Redemption: Should the Company experience a material adverse change to its prospects, business or financial position, the holders of at least majority of the Series A Preferred shall have the option to commit the Company to immediately redeem the outstanding Series A Preferred. Such redemption shall be at a purchase price equal to the Original Purchase Price plus declared and unpaid dividends.”

This is just too vague, too punitive, and shifts an inappropriate amount of control to the investors based on an arbitrary judgment. If this term is being proposed and you are getting pushback on eliminating it, make sure you are speaking to a professional investor and not a loan shark.

In our experience – just like Jack’s behavior – redemption rights are well understood by the market and should not create a problem, except in a theoretical argument between lawyers or accountants.