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While lots of VCs posture during term sheet negotiations by saying “that is non-negotiable”, terms rarely are (as you’ve likely inferred from previous posts on term sheets be me and Jason.) Occasionally, a term will actually be non-negotiable. In all the VC deals we’ve ever seen, the preferred has the right – at any time – to convert its stake into common. Following is the standard language:
“Conversion: The holders of the Series A Preferred shall have the right to convert the Series A Preferred, at any time, into shares of Common Stock. The initial conversion rate shall be 1:1, subject to adjustment as provided below.”
This allows the buyer of preferred to convert to common should he determine on a liquidation that he is better off getting paid on a pro rata common basis rather than accepting the liquidation preference and participating amount. It can also be used in certain extreme circumstances whereby the preferred wants to control a vote of the common on a certain issue. Do note, however, that once converted, there is no provision for “re-converting” back to preferred.
A more interesting term is the automatic conversion, especially since it has several components that are negotiable.
“Automatic Conversion: All of the Series A Preferred shall be automatically converted into Common Stock, at the then applicable conversion price, upon the closing of a firmly underwritten public offering of shares of Common Stock of the Company at a per share price not less than [three] times the Original Purchase Price (as adjusted for stock splits, dividends and the like) per share and for a total offering of not less than [$15] million (before deduction of underwriters commissions and expenses) (a “Qualified IPO”). All, or a portion of, each share of the Series A Preferred shall be automatically converted into Common Stock, at the then applicable conversion price in the event that the holders of at least a majority of the outstanding Series A Preferred consent to such conversion.”
In an IPO of a venture-backed company, the investment bankers will want to see everyone convert into common stock at the time of the IPO (it is extremely rare for a venture backed company to go public with multiple classes of stock – it happens – but it’s rare). The thresholds of the automatic conversion are critical to negotiate – as the entrepreneur; you want them lower to insure more flexibility while your investors will want them higher to give them more control over the timing and terms of an IPO.
Regardless of the actual thresholds, one thing of crucial importance is to never allow investors to negotiate different automatic conversion terms for different series of preferred stock. There are many horror stories of companies on the brink of going public and having one class of preferred stockholders that have a threshold above what the proposed offering would consummate and therefore these stockholders have an effective veto right on the offering. We strongly recommend that – at each financing – you equalize the automatic conversion threshold among all series of stock.