Preferred Stock and Risk Apportionment

May 27th, 2008

I wrote a post on Gigaom over the weekend that covers the basics of a VC investment term sheet. A couple of the comments wondered whether preferred stock screws the founding team by definition. Another comment there answered the direct point pretty well (preferred stock is just part of the process). Fred Wilson’s post from this morning covers the philosophical angle as well and is worth reading as a complement to the mechanics I spelled out.

To paraphrase him- and dig under the surface of his comments a tiny bit- a VC’s job is to take risks, and so is a founder’s. The founder takes a chance with his idea and livelihood. The VCs risk someone else’s money- and in the process her own livelihood as well, because if none of her investments pan out she is going to be looking for a new line of work.

The VC may also be very active in a business, but not on a day-to-day basis. Ultimately, a VC’s job is to give an entrepreneur some tools to build a company, but the VC has only so much control over how (and how well) the tools get used.

Preferred stock helps line up the relative risks given all of these factors. As a friend of mine put it even more simply, preferred stock offers a mechanism to ensure that if things go poorly, morale runs low and everyone starts to wonder when to throw in the towel, the people actually running the company on a day-to-day basis will feel more pain than the investors.

Sometimes this is enough glue to keep the whole thing together and sometimes it isn’t. I have seen cases where a company has failed and investors have given up some of their liquidation preference so that founders can get *some* cash back. I have also seen preferred stock terms used to enrich investors at founders’ expense. There is no magic about any of it. Cheating and fairness are a function of the people involved; preferred stock is merely the framework on which the VC investment process is built.

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