In Venture Capital Deals, Not Every Founder Will Be a Zuckerberg; dream can be dashed as the venture capitalists make millions in a sale, leaving the founders with nothing

APRIL 30, 2013, 4:52 PM

In Venture Capital Deals, Not Every Founder Will Be a Zuckerberg

By STEVEN M. DAVIDOFF

It’s the dream of entrepreneurs to sell their company for millions of dollars. But the dirty secret of venture capital is that the dream can be dashed as the venture capitalists make millions in a sale, leaving the founders with nothing. A recent Delaware court case arising from the 2011 sale of Bloodhound Technologies illustrates how this happens.

Bloodhound was founded in the mid-1990s by Joseph A. Carsanaro to create fraud-monitoring software for health care claims. After several years of going it alone with a handful of colleagues, Mr. Carsanaro was able to raise Bloodhound’s first venture capital round for $1.9 million in 1999, followed by a second $3.1 million round in 2000. When the Internet bubble burst, the company underwent rocky times. It was then that the venture capitalists seized control. Mr. Carsanaro was pushed out as chief executive. By 2000, he was gone from the company, as were four other members of his founding team.

For the next decade, Bloodhound recovered and slowly grew, raising seven more rounds of financing. In April 2011, the company was sold for $82.5 million. It was a time for Mr. Carsanaro and his founding team to celebrate their millionaire status. But venture capital investments are structured to ensure that the venture capitalists are paid before founders and employees. When venture capitalists invest, they typically demand preferred shares that accrue a yearly dividend of about 8 percent. The dividend goes unpaid until the company is sold. In a sale, the original amount and the interest all come due. It must be paid out before the common shares, which are typically held by the founders and other employees.The requirement that the venture capitalist be paid first, and with interest, can sometimes hit founders and employees in a brutal manner, as Mr. Carsanaro and his colleagues discovered.

The venture capitalists took almost all of the sale price. Bloodhound also paid a $15 million bonus to its current management team. The five founders of Bloodhound were paid in total less than $36,000. One received all of $99.

There is not much information on payouts to founders and employees when a company backed by venture capital is sold. But from the few studies on the subject, it appears that the situation involving Bloodhound is all too common.

The most recent study, by Profs. Brian J. Broughman and Jesse M. Fried, found that among a sample of venture capital deals, the common investors in roughly half the cases were entitled to nothing when the company was sold, even when the sale was for tens of millions. And in all but one instance, the majority of the sale proceeds went to the venture capitalists and other holders of preferred shares.

An unpublished study by Shikhar Ghosh at the Harvard Business School found that three out of four companies backed by venture capital did not return the investment. Again, it is in these cases where the founders and employees typically are entitled to receive no payment.

For those entrepreneurs who think they will be the next Mark Zuckerberg and ride their company to riches, think again. A number of studies have found that most chief executives of companies that take venture capital investments end up being replaced.

These are the successful businesses. The rule of thumb among venture capitalists is that some 20 percent to 30 percent of companies fail, returning nothing to any investor, including the venture capitalists.

The Bloodhound case is a reminder that the founders of start-ups backed by venture capital often end up nothing like Mr. Zuckerberg. Instead, they find themselves thrown out and without significant profits even if their company is sold.

Venture capitalists will argue that this is the price to pay to get their money and services. Cash is king, and in order to survive, venture capitalists will demand a high price and return.

Yet entrepreneurs can protect themselves. Professors Broughman and Fried found in their study that founders who negotiated greater control rights ended up receiving on average $3.7 million more. They did this even when the common shareholders were not entitled to a dime. By negotiating board seats or other representation, the founders were able to ensure that a sale happened only with their approval and a demand for some payment in return.

In other words, the rights negotiated by entrepreneurs when taking venture capital money really matter. Many entrepreneurs are so excited to get money that they don’t push for such rights or just don’t know to ask. Yet those who negotiate to keep a say in their company have a future, while those who don’t are more likely to be tossed aside. And it can be that this happens even in lucrative situations. Remember that Mr. Zuckerberg would have been forced by his venture capital investors to sell Facebook had he not kept control.

In the case of Bloodhound, its founders were pushed out of the company about eight years before the sale. During that time, they lacked control or ability to stop the venture capitalists from financing the company on the venture capitalists’ terms. The only substantial communication the founders had after they left was when they found out that the company had been sold for a huge price and that they would receive almost nothing.

The five founders sued in Delaware court, claiming that Bloodhound’s board and the venture capitalists had structured later rounds to favor themselves and dilute the payout of the founders. In a motion, the defendants countered that they acted fairly and that the plaintiffs’ claims were untimely because they were brought years later.

J. Travis Laster, vice chancellor of the Delaware Chancery Court, found that the claims that the venture capitalist had favored themselves to the detriment of the founders could be a viable claim claim if the facts they stated were true.

If Bloodhound’s founders are successful in their lawsuit, the case could change practices. It might require boards that take venture capital money to consider the founders and their interests before taking the next round. This could force boards to lean against diluting the payout of the founders and employees to avoid litigation.

Yet even if Bloodhound’s founders prevail, other entrepreneurs will sometimes find that their company is sold with nothing going to them. The sad reality is that there are times when the price demanded by the venture capitalists for the company to survive means that the founders will lose. Let’s face it, sometimes the company survives only because of that money and the skill and effort that the venture capitalists put in. This may have been the case in Bloodhound.

But the Bloodhound case publicizes this practice and will perhaps push boards to think harder before the founders are discarded. This may foster caution among venture capitalists, but the only thing that will truly save entrepreneurs is negotiating harder in the beginning. They may otherwise find themselves like the Bloodhound founders, left with nothing.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: