This post originally appeared on Global Banking & Finance Review in January 2021.
Imagine an exciting space dominated by two major companies, each growing and developing at about the same pace. To get ahead, they keep raising more money, but interest rates are low and the global stock of wealth is at an all-time high, so there is unlimited money to raise. Soon enough, their employees are dealing with substantial dilution because each round of equity wipes out the growth in valuation between rounds. Both companies become unicorns and announce their IPOs, but employees are hardly seeing the payoff.
This is happening right now in SaaS, meal delivery, ridesharing, and dozens of other spaces that you and your employees might not even realize.
What if it didn’t have to be like this? What if one company could get ahead without diluting their employees’ shares?
This is why most companies raise debt — and it’s only a matter of time until venture-backed companies do, too.
Why Dilution is Bad for Your Company
When the venture industry was small and companies like Google and Amazon went public after raising less than $50M, dilution was minuscule and thus not often a top concern for executives. The world has changed, with some companies raising billions before ever going public, but mindsets haven’t caught up.
The impact dilution can have on employee morale and retention can be substantial. When employees are first hired, they’re often excited to receive shares as part of their employment. But after repeated dilution, they’ll be asking HR, “Why aren’t my shares worth as much as they used to be? When will I get more?” Some companies start giving out bonuses and extra shares to placate everyone, but this can only go on for so long. Giving out more shares to combat dilution leads to more issues; those shares have to come from somewhere. Usually, these shares come from the founders, who eventually give up so many that they might only own 1% of their own company. That’s a major blow to those who worked so hard to get the company off the ground.
For employees, dilution means they may leave the company if they decide their shares are worth too little, especially if the competition can offer them a better deal. And if employees determine that this problem is industry-wide, they might leave the space entirely.
The downside to tech becoming mainstream is that dilution has become unsustainable to employees and founders alike.
The Solution: Raise Debt
Companies are generally funded in one of two ways: equity financing or debt financing. Equity requires giving up a share of the company in exchange for capital. The biggest benefit is that this money doesn’t have to be repaid. Debt, on the other hand, does have to be repaid with interest. But while debt comes with a repayment obligation, it doesn’t come with dilution. Once the debt is repaid, the lender has no further involvement in your business. You aren’t selling a part of your business to get funding.
Understanding your capitalization options can be essential to getting ahead of the competition. When your competitors are raising equity to finance their business, they’re giving employees one less reason to stick around. If you raised debt instead, you could still offer employees valuable shares while receiving much-needed financing. You could also stand out from the pack by creating a candidate-friendly brand around prudent wealth creation. Once you start using debt intelligently, your access to credit capital expands, giving you a permanent head start over the competition.
Why don’t more companies raise debt?
Outside of tech, most companies do. It’s normal to raise debt once a company has a working concept. But the tech space hasn’t always looked the way it does today. Early on, it was so inexpensive to start technology companies that raising debt wasn’t necessary; equity financing was minuscule compared to the ultimate market value of these companies at liquidity events. Over the years, it’s become ingrained in tech culture to pursue equity funding, with such a heavy focus on raising the next round that many founders forget you even can raise debt.
But times have changed, and financing will, too. We saw this shift before with Mike Milken, who was a major player in the development of the high-yield bond market. In the early 1970’s, Milken noticed that risky turnaround businesses could be financed with “junk bonds” — bonds with higher interest rates than those offered to more creditworthy borrowers. He famously calculated that despite their higher default rates, the higher interest rates on these bonds produced sufficient compensation for the higher risk. This opened up financial capital to a group of companies previously financed only by equity and created a market that today is worth more than $2T.
From the emergence of the high-yield bond market, we know how powerful access to debt financing can be. It gave rise to legendary investors and operators from Carl Icahn to T. Boone Pickens as well as iconic companies from Time Warner to Hilton Hotels and Safeway. For companies who have a kernel of a working business model, the benefits of debt financing are massive. Eventually, tech will go the way of all other industries, leaning on debt as a major source of financing.
Debt financing is one of the best alternatives to taking on equity, especially when trying to mitigate dilution. If you want to attract and retain top talent, then ensuring you don’t dilute their shares will go a long way.
The transition to debt financing is coming. Soon, it’ll be common practice across the entire tech space. If you start using debt intelligently now, you’ll have a competitive advantage. You’ll be able to get one step ahead of the competition with access to capital that others refuse to utilize. This not only benefits your employees today, but also your entire organization in the long run.
Thinking about debt financing? Sign up for a free account on Hum’s Intelligent Capital Market, and learn what kind of financing your company might be qualified for today.