For most entrepreneurs, dilution is an ugly word. Being diluted, after all, is about giving someone else a piece of your business. All other things being equal, that’s not a good thing. That said, for entrepreneurs that need third party risk capital to fund their business dilution is inevitable. And (the silver lining in the dilution cloud) not always as bad as it might seem.
Entrepreneurs facing dilutive events typically have two concerns, both related to a reduction in relative ownership of the business: loss of management control and a diminished share of the “upside” if the business succeeds. Let’s look at control issues first.
Fear of losing management control to investors is something that keeps a lot of entrepreneurs up at night. Too often, though, the fear assumes that there is some magic number – usually 50% ownership – around which control pivots. Alas, it is not anything like that simple. The (possibly disturbing) fact is, an owner of the smallest fraction of a company’s equity (indeed, a creditor without any equity stake at all, though that is a matter for another blog) can have de facto control of a company’s management. And, indeed, venture capital investors with minority ownership positions almost always have substantial management control, as for example rights to prohibit strategic transactions (e.g. sale or merger of the business), limit future sales of equity, etc. well beyond those rights they would enjoy from a simple “who has the most shares” analysis. The devil, in terms of management control, is in the fine print of the deal terms, not the gross percentage of equity owned. The take home here is that control in venture backed startups is more a function of the (hopefully thoughtfully negotiated) finer points of the deal terms than simply a function of who has the bigger/majority equity interest.
As for dilution reducing an entrepreneur’s share of the upside, by definition, an equity investment involves some grant of interest in future profits and/or exit value to the investor. (For purposes of this blog, we’ll assume that the investor’s stake is commensurate with its ownership stake, though it need not be: while an investor’s ownership stake is less likely to diverge significantly from the investor’s ownership share than its control rights, such discrepancies are not uncommon, if not usually as significant.)
Now it is fair enough to say that giving a third party any stake in the ultimate equity value created by the business necessarily dilutes the interests of the prior stakeholders. But the story is more complex than that. Taking on a new investor is a priori (if not always a posteriori) a classic win-win proposition. More specifically, the investor is investing because he believes that the investment will grow in value, while the entrepreneur is accepting the investment ( and dilution) because she believes that the value of her diluted share of the post-investment equity in the business will exceed the value of her (undiluted) pre-investment equity. Unless both parties anticipate a wealth enhancing proposition, there won’t be a deal.
The win-win story is most easily understood in the context of an “up” round: that is, where the new investor pays a higher price than the prior investors. So, for example, an entrepreneur who owns say 50% of a business where the previous investor paid $1.00 per share is demonstrably wealthier if she takes on an additional investor at $2.00 per share even if doing so dilutes her ownership down to 25%. In fact, her wealth (even if not her liquidity) has been doubled (she now owns the same number of shares, each of which is worth twice what it was before the investment).
The $1.00/$2.00 example above does not mean that an entrepreneur should always accept dilution if doing so would increase her wealth. It may be that while the $2.00 offer doubles her wealth, the ownership stake she is selling is worth more than $2.00 to some other investor. What the example does illustrate, though, is that a dilutive event can also be a wealth enhancing event. Indeed, even in a down round scenario (say the price goes from $1.00 to $0.50 per share) the entrepreneur should only accept the dilutive event if she feels that her diluted ownership stake after the investment will be worth at least as much as her undiluted stake if she forgoes the investment.