The SEC once wanted to prohibit the Simple Agreement for Future Equity, or SAFE, in Reg CF offerings. After a minor uproar the SEC changed its mind, and SAFEs are now used frequently. I think prohibiting SAFEs would be a mistake. Nevertheless, funding portals, issuers, and investors should think twice about using (or buying) a SAFE in a given offering.
Some have argued that SAFEs are too complicated for Reg CF investors. That’s both patronizing and wrong, in my opinion. Between a SAFE on one hand and common stock on the other, the common stock really is the more difficult concept. As long as you tell investors what they’re getting – especially that SAFEs have no “due date” – I think you’re fine.
The reason to think twice is not that SAFEs are complicated but that a SAFE might not be the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t use a hammer to shovel snow, and you shouldn’t use a SAFE in circumstances for which it wasn’t designed.
The SAFE was designed as the first stop on the Silicon Valley assembly line. First comes the SAFE, then the Series A, then the Series B, and eventually the IPO or other exit. Like other parts on the assembly line, the SAFE was designed to minimize friction and increase volume. And it works great for that purpose.
But the Silicon Valley ecosystem is very unusual, not representative of the broader private capital market. These are a few of its critical features:
- Silicon Valley is an old boys’ network in the sense that it operates largely on trust, not legal documents. Investors don’t sue founders or other investors for fear of being frozen out of future deals, and founders don’t sue anybody for fear their next startup won’t get funded. Theranos and the lawsuits it spawned were the exceptions that prove the rule.
- The Silicon Valley ecosystem focuses on only one kind of company: the kind that will grow very quickly, gobbling up capital, then be sold.
- Those adding the SAFE at the front end of the assembly line know the people adding the Series A and Series B toward the back end of the assembly line — in fact, they might be the same people. And using standardized documents like those offered by the National Venture Capital Association ensures most deals will look the same. Thus, while SAFE investors in Silicon Valley don’t know exactly what they’ll end up with, they have a good idea.
The point is that SAFEs don’t exist in a vacuum. They were created to serve a particular purpose in a particular ecosystem. To name just a couple obvious examples, a company that won’t need to raise more money or a company that plans to stay private indefinitely probably wouldn’t be good candidates for a SAFE. If it’s snowing outside, don’t reach for the hammer.
If you do use a SAFE, which one? The Y Combinator forms are the most common starting points, but in a Reg CF offering, you should make at least three changes:
- The Y Combinator form provides for conversion of the SAFE only upon a later sale of preferred stock. That makes sense in the Silicon Valley ecosystem because of course the next stop on the assembly line will involve preferred stock. Outside Silicon Valley, the next step could be common stock.
- The Y Combinator form provides for conversion of the SAFE no matter how little capital is raised, as long as it’s priced. That makes sense because on the Silicon Valley assembly line of course the next step will involve a substantial amount of capital from sophisticated investors. Outside Silicon Valley you should provide that conversion requires a substantial capital raise to make it more likely that the raise reflects the arm’s-length value of the company.
- The Y Combinator form includes a handful of representations by the issuer and two or three by the investor. That makes sense because nobody is relying on representations in Silicon Valley and nobody sues anyone anyway. In Reg CF, the issuer is already making lots of representations —Form C is really a long list of representations — so you don’t need any issuer representations in the SAFE. And dealing with potentially thousands of strangers, the issuer needs all the representations from investors typical in a Subscription Agreement.
The founder of a Reg CF funding portal might have come from the Silicon Valley ecosystem. In fact, her company might have been funded by SAFEs. Still, she should understand where SAFEs are appropriate and where they are not and make sure investors understand as well.