Q: What is the best path to take if a VC which has invested in my company closes down, but we have not exited and are still operating profitably ? What happens to the LLC entity that was formed at the time of investment? Do we ask the VC for our shares back or buy them back at a discount?
A (Brad): First, you need to understand what actually happened to your VC firm. There are lots of specific points in time to consider. Let’s start with two magic milestones – year 5 and year 10.
1. The VC is outside their five year investment period. Most VC funds have a five year investment period. This is the time frame in which they can make investments in new companies (those that they haven’t already invested in.) However, most funds last 10+ years and can be extended for many more years. In this case, even if a fund is outside of its investment period, it can still make follow on investments in your company.
2. The VC is outside their ten year fund period. As mentioned above, most funds last for 10 years. However, they often have two, one-year automatic extensions, resulting in a 12 year life. Beyond 12 years, the fund can continue to be extended to operate with approval from the fund’s investors (the LPs). Many funds end up operating for 15 – 20 years.
Now, in each of these cases, you’ll have two situations – the VC firm has raised a new fund or it’s hasn’t. If it has, then the firm itself is still “in business” even if the fund that has invested in your company is getting older. If the firm has raised a new fund in either case, then you have nothing to worry about. However, if the firm hasn’t raised a new fund by year ten, it’s like to be considered a zombie firm.
Now, these zombie firms may still be operating, managing their existing investments, but not making new ones. As time passes, and a firm clearly is not going to raise another fund, most of the partners move on to other things. And this can go on for a long time as long as there is at least one partner from the VC firm still engaged in managing it.
Ultimately, we come back to your question. What if the firm actually shuts down, either because the LPs won’t continue to support additional extensions, or the remaining partner doesn’t feel like continuing to manage things. There are a few different options.
1. Distribution of shares to a liquidating trust: In this case, the equity in your company held by the VC fund now belongs to a completely passive entity that is simply going to exist until the shares become liquid, either through a sale or an IPO.
2. Distribution of the shares to the LPs: Similar to #1, but you now pick up a whole bunch of new shareholders in your company, who were there LPs of the VC fund. No one really likes this option – LPs don’t want private company shares, the companies don’t want all the new shareholders, and the VCs likely have no upside after the distribution.
3. Managed liquidity of each company: In this case, the VC will sell off each company in whatever manner he can at the point of time, either via a secondary sale to another investor, or a sale of the shares back to the company. By this point, VC funds typically have two kinds of companies in them – ones that are worth something and ones that are worth nothing. The graceful VC knows the difference and behaves appropriately. The non-graceful VC tried to squeeze blood out of rocks.
Regardless of the situation or outcome, there isn’t a simple, straightforward one. This is compounded by the complexity of VC / LP relationships, private company dynamics, and the optimism of many investors that “something good will come in the future”, more formally known as “maintaining option value.”
(Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur for over 20 years and is currently a managing director at Foundry Group.)
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