Reviewing the SAFE Investment Instrument

Made available by Y Combinator in 2013, the SAFE investment instrument was intended to improve on the highly popular convertible note used by startups during the seed stage or as a short-term bridge between equity funding rounds.  SAFE stands for “simple agreement for future equity” and it is still most popular in California.  However, over the years since it’s release it has started to show up in other parts of the country.

The purpose of this article is to review the elements that make up a SAFE investment, compare them to a convertible note and generally help both entrepreneurs and investors decide which is more appropriate for their situation.

For those not already highly familiar with convertible notes, see my article title “Convertible Note Basics” for a primer.

Before jumping into the review and comparison, I’ll say that I generally like SAFE and would not have a problem investing using it, either as an investor or recommending it to a startup I advise.  I can’t necessarily say that I prefer it over a convertible note.  Instead, I see both as viable investment instruments for seed stage investing, each with their own pros and cons.

I’m not quite sure I like the name because all seed stage investing is highly risky but hopefully accredited investors already know that.  Coming up with an acronym for SIMPLE might have been more appropriate but I’m at least happy to see another viable seed stage investment instrument in the market.

Summary

SAFE is a short, 5-page investment document that is intended to be simple to understand and convenient to administer.  It’s not a debt instrument but rather investments via SAFE show up on the company’s capitalization table (cap table) like other convertible securities (ie – warrants, options).  SAFE provides investors the opportunity to convert their investment to equity at a point in the future when a Preferred round equity funding is raised.

SAFE has many similar features to the well-established convertible notes, such as provisions for early exit (change of control), economic benefits such as the Discount and protection features such as the Valuation Caps.  But one thing SAFE doesn’t have is a maturity date (remember, it’s not a debt instrument), so there is a possibility that it never converts to equity and there’s nothing in the terms that call for the investment to be repaid to the investor.

The following table compares the basic features of SAFE to a “typical” convertible note.

Comparing SAFE to a Convertible Note

Now let’s step through the various terms and features one at a time to understand how startups versus investors might evaluate the difference between SAFE and a “typical” convertible note.

Convertible Security

Both instruments are considered convertible securities and the intention of both parties (startup and investor) is for the investmet to later convert to a Preferred class of equity

Discount

Both instruments allow for a discount to be applied to the future valuation that is associated with the equity round of funding that causes the SAFE/note to convert.  This is one of the key economic benefits to investors.

Note that SAFE templates are available both with and without a discount.  I can’t think of a scenario that would justify removing the discount feature but, nonetheless, it’s one of YC’s published options.

Valuation Cap

Both instruments offer the investor the better of the discounted valuation (using the stated discount) or a pre-negotiated valuation cap, whichever is more favorable at the time of conversion.  (See my related article titled “Justifying the Cap Amount in Your Convertible Note“)

Note that SAFE templates are available both with and without a valuation cap.  No big surprise here because there are times when startups remove the valuation cap feature from a convertible note – usually the most exciting startups that have a lot of interest from investors.

Early Exit Payback

Both offer payout mechanisms to investors if a change of control event (ie – acquisition) happens before a natural conversion to equity.

Note that the SAFE documents are written to give the investor a choice of a 1X payout or conversion to equity using the valuation cap amount to determine equity % and then they can participate in the acquisition along with other equity holders.  For some reason, most convertible note templates offer a straight 2X payout option and some also offer the equity conversion option if there’s a change of control.

Company Type

Often times, startups incorporate as a limited liability company (LLC) rather than as a C-corporation.  I won’t entertain that debate in this article but since a convertible note is a debt instrument, it is usually fine for an LLC to use.  However, SAFE appears to require C-corp status since the value of the SAFE investment is reflected on the capitalization table like warrants or stock options.  I’m guessing this could affect 40% or more of startups.

Having said this, you will notice in the Comments section below this article that some people have suggested a SAFE can, in fact, be used by an LLC.  If this is important to you, check with your accountant and attorney.

Qualifying Transaction

Both instruments call for a conversion to equity when a future Preferred equity round of financing is closed.  However, convertible notes stipulate a minimum amount of money to be raised in the future equity round before being considered a “qualifying transaction” that triggers conversion.  SAFE investments, on the other hand, convert with any amount raised in a Preferred equity round.

Investors will enjoy the SAFE’s removal of the qualifying transaction term because it is something that otherwise could possibly get in the way of converting their investment to equity.  

Term (Maturity Date)

Convertible notes have them but SAFEs don’t and that’s because a SAFE is not considered a debt instrument.

Investors will not enjoy this aspect of the SAFE because it’s the term (maturity date) feature in convertible notes that forces at least some conversation if there’s no natural conversion to equity over time.  Reaching the maturity date on a convertible note also often triggers rights to equity conversion (using a formula that involves the valuation cap).  A startup that uses a SAFE and then evolves into a profitable lifestyle business without ever having to sell Preferred equity could leave their investors in limbo forever.

Interest Rate

Convertible notes have them since they are debt instruments but SAFEs don’t.

Seed stage investors rarely negotiate the proposed interest rate on convertible notes.  But if you tried to set it extremely low (ie – 1%), they would almost certainly push back because they know from history that 6-8% accrued interest over 18+ months actually adds a meaningful amount to the equity conversion formula.

How to Choose?

In California and other mature startup markets, both instruments are probably familiar to most investors.  However, if you are trying to raise money in a city where SAFEs are not understood or used often, you don’t want to be the evangelist.  Go with the “low friction” approach by using the instrument that’s most commonly used and best understood by seed-stage investors.

From the Startup’s Perspective

  • SAFE Advantages:  The lack of a Term (maturity date) gives lots of flexibility.  The lack of an Interest Rate saves you a little equity dilution in the future when the SAFE converts.
  • SAFE Disadvantages:  You will need to be incorporated as a C-corp.
  • C-Note Advantages:  LLC’s can use it.
  • C-Note Disadvantages:  If you reach the Maturity Date, you’ll either need to request an extension from your investors or somehow close out the Note (payout of principal + interest or convert to equity anyway).  The interest that accrues until an equity conversion means slightly more dilution for you and other shareholders.

From the Investor’s Perspective

  • SAFE Advantages:  The option to convert to equity if the startup gets acquired (change of control) before a natural conversion (although some C-notes also have this feature).  No Qualifying Transaction hurdle to get in the way of an equity conversion.
  • SAFE Disadvantages:  No Term (maturity date) means no forcing function based on time elapsed.  No interest accrual.
  • C-Note Advantages:  Has a stated Term (maturity) date that helps force some discussion/action in the future.  Offers interest accrual to enhance the potential investment returns.  Most offer a 2X return of principal if there’s an early acquisition.
  • C-Note Disadvantages:  If the Qualifying Transaction term is set too high, the startup could raise a smaller equity round of financing and the Note doesn’t automatically convert to equity.

There are a couple of other miscellaneous points worth mentioning about SAFE:

  • Like with any fundraising negotiation, the definition of a “good deal” is represented by a mix of BOTH price (valuation cap) and terms.  For more on this, see my related article titled “Tell Me Your Price and I’ll Tell You My Terms“.
  • If the startup does well and never needs to raise money via the sale of Preferred shares, they could start issuing dividend payments to Common shareholders and SAFE investors wouldn’t be entitled to participate in those payments.
  • Following a conversion to equity, certain rights granted to SAFE investors are based on their original investment amount.  This solves what’s sometimes referred to as the “liquidation preference overhang” exposure with most convertible notes.  SAFE solves this via a separate series of future preferred stock, commonly called “shadow” or “sub-series” preferred.  This certainly seems fair and isn’t something most convertible notes take into account.  But it also complicates things with different classes of preferred shares at such an early stage of the company’s lifecycle and seems like it would drive up the legal costs for the future equity round.

The Wilson Sonsini lawyer that created the SAFE instrument, Carolynn Levy, was interviewed roughly a year after the SAFE was introduced to assess the feedback from both startups and investors.  You can read the interview here.

If you haven’t yet determined the exact amount of money to raise, check out this blog article appropriately titled How Much Should You Raise?.

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Author: Gordon Daugherty

Over the past 15 years Gordon has seen nearly 1,000 startup pitches, advised more than 200 entrepreneurs and been involved with raising over $45M in growth and venture capital. Throughout his 28 year career in high tech, serving twice as President and three times as CMO, Gordon has both an IPO and a $200M acquisition exit under his belt. Now his emphasis is purely focused on helping startups and early stage tech companies. Through his Shockwave Innovations advisory practice and as Managing Director for Austin’s Capital Factory startup accelerator, Gordon is an active angel investor, VC and startup advisor.

33 thoughts on “Reviewing the SAFE Investment Instrument”

  1. Thanks Gordon for your analysis.
    The intent of a convertible note is not to be repaid but to convert to equity. But a convertible noteholder still has the (illusory) comfort that he must be reckoned with if the Company has not raised a “qualifying” preferred round and cannot pay the loan on the maturity date. The SAFE is a form of nonvoting convertible equity. A SAFEholder has no rights until a preferred round or exit. I am not sure that investors outside the Y Combinator world will be comfortable with that.
    One technical note: the SAFE document should more clearly address the possibility of the Company distributing dividends to its common stockholders prior to an Equity Financing or Liquidity Event. (Say the Company never needs additional funds, or it raises funds via debt or issuing common stock.) The SAFEholders will never participate in those dividends. (Arguably, the second sentence of Section 1(c) (Dissoluiton Event) could be interpreted to address this possibility — but a dividend is not a Dissolution Event. And it doesn’t reach the right result: the dividend should trigger a right to convert or get repaid.)

    1. Thanks for the comments Saul. It will be interesting to see how investors influence changes to the standard SAFE docs, just like what happened with C-notes over time. The lack of a time-based trigger is one I plan to keep an eye on. I wonder if there would be legal or accounting problems including a term that says if the SAFE goes unconverted for 24 months (or whatever period) it automatically converts using the cap amount as the valuation. Also thanks for your mention of the exposure with dividend payouts not triggering a conversion and potentially leaving the SAFE investor on the sidelines while payouts are occurring for others.

  2. Hello,

    Would it be possible for an LLC to use a SAFE document if it plans on converting to an LLC at the time of the first round of financing?

    1. Great question, and I’m only fairly certain about my answer. SAFE appears to require incorporation (S-corp, C-corp) since the value of the SAFE investment is reflected on the capitalization table like warrants or stock options. But if this is important, you should check with your attorney to confirm. And if you do, please come back and add another comment so we can all have the benefit of the answer.

      1. According to my attorney, a SAFE-like document cant be used, but it needs to be modified slightly. We are also warranting that we will Inc. at the time of the initial round.

      2. LLCs can use SAFEs, just like they can use convertible debt. BTW – Be careful with S corps so you do not below the second class of stock rules. Also, some accountants have told me they record SAFEs as debt on the financials, not equity

  3. Hi Gordon, great post. For purposes of adding to the discussion, I think that an LLC can probably use a SAFE. As the comment above suggests, the trick is to make sure that the equity capital structure outlined in the LLC agreement matches the equity contemplated in the SAFE Agreement.

    We routinely draft equity compensation plans for LLC clients and do convertible note and warrants for LLCs (in addition for options). So, a properly drafted LLC Operating Agreement can accommodate convertible equity or the SAFE concept. There are some unique features to the taxation of LLCs and the general operation of LLCs can affect these things.

    Generally speaking, start up companies can maximize their ability to take advantage of more informal management structures and loss pass-through by using the LLC form prior to taking on an institutional round. At the point that the investor takes institutional VC funds, they will likely be requested to do a merger into a new Delaware C-Corporation or use a statutory conversion into that entity. Therefore, for any company using the LLC strategy prior to the institutional round, it is important that the company adopt equity and convertible equity structures that are easily changed into corresponding corporate capital structures prior to or upon the closing of that institutional round.

  4. Does the use of a SAFE create the need for Derivative Accounting? It seems that it would given the uncertainty of the eventual outcome of the payout, if any. If it does require Derivative Accounting, it would increase the cost of the audit and even perhaps require the employment of an expert consultant to provide the Derivative Accounting presentation.

  5. Hi Gordon and thanks a lot for your article, still actual and useful.
    Can any of you comment on how to book a SAFE contribution in the BS? There is a lot on the web for Convertible Note but not for SAFE.
    Not being a debt instrument I guess it still needs to be detected within the equity (as option), correct?
    Any advise would be appreciated.
    Thanks, Maurizio

    1. Great question. I’m not an accountant but assume they show up on the balance sheet since they are a convertible security – just like a Warrant (long-term liability). Let’s see if an accountant will reply with an answer.

  6. When raising money via SAFEs, with Friends and Family for instance, are there any rules/regulations on when the received funds can be used? Its my understanding that when raising money via standard convertible notes (debt) the company cannot touch any of the funds received until the total amount the company was trying to raise has been reached. Is this the case?

    1. Check with your attorney but I’m reasonably certain you can start using the funds as soon as each investor writes their check. In fact, convertible notes are sometimes referred to as “high resolution” financing since the terms can be changed with each investor. I don’t know why a SAFE would be different. I can’t recommend that you spend to your full fundraising goal until that amount is in the bank, but as checks get deposited I’m almost positive you can start using those funds.

  7. Hello Thanks for the article, why is it that you say “Interestingly, the sale of Common stock to raise money doesn’t naturally trigger conversion for SAFE investors. “

    1. You might want to get an opinion from your attorney but the SAFE template says the conversion is triggered by an Equity Financing event and, more specifically, one that issues “Standard Preferred Stock” to new purchasers. Therefore, to my way of thinking the sale of Common stock to investors wouldn’t trigger a natural conversion.

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