The funding environment for emerging companies has fundamentally shifted in 2022 for both venture capital and IPOs, particularly after a banner year in 2021. Whether these headwinds suggest significant economic changes or a return to previous valuation levels, companies need to be realistic about adapting their business processes to ensure they have sufficient cash runway to succeed through the next 2-3 years.
This article provides a comprehensive set of tactics that can be used to extend cash runway, both on the revenue/funding and cost side. It also addresses areas of liability for companies and their directors that can emerge as companies change business behaviors during periods of reduced liquidity.
Cash runway refers to the number of months a company can continue operations before it runs out of money. The runway can be extended by increasing revenue or raising capital, but in a down economy, people have less disposable income and corporations are more conservative with their funds. Therefore companies should instead focus on cutting operating costs to ensure their cash can sustain over longer periods.
As a starting point, companies can evaluate their business models to determine expected cash runway based on factors such as how valuations are currently being determined, total cash available, burn rate, and revenue projections. This will help guide the actions to pursue by answering questions such as:
Even if companies expect to have sufficient cash runway to make it through a potential economic downturn, tactics such as reducing or minimizing growth in headcount, advertising spend, etc. can be implemented as part of a holistic strategy to stay lean while focusing on the fundamentals of business model/product-market fit.
Even though traditional venture capital and IPO financing options have become more difficult to achieve with desired valuations, companies still have various other options to increase funding and extend runway. Our colleagues provided an excellent analysis of many of these options, which are highlighted in the discussion below.
The goal is to survive now, excel later; and companies should be open to lower valuations in the short term. This can create flexibility to circle back with investors who may have been open to an earlier round but not at the specific terms at that time. Of course, to have a more productive discussion, it will be helpful to explain to these investors how the business model has been adapted for the current environment in order to demonstrate that the new valuation is tied to clear milestones and future success.
Strategic investors and other corporate investors can also be helpful, acting as untapped resources or collaborators to help drive forward milestone achievements. Companies should understand how their business model fits with the investor’s customer base, and use the relationship to improve their overall position with investors and customers to increase both funding and revenue to extend runway.1
If the next step for a company is to IPO, consider crossover or other hybrid investors, understanding that much of the cash deployment in 2022 is slowing down.
If a company has previously received venture funding, venture debt can be a useful tool to bridge forward to future funding or milestones. Venture debt is essentially a loan designed for early stage, high growth startups who have already secured venture financing. It is effective for targeting growth over profitability, and should be used in a deliberate manner to achieve specific goals. The typical 3-5 year timeline for venture debt can fit well with the goal of extending cash runway beyond a currently expected downturn.
Where companies have revenue streams from customers — especially consistent, recurring revenue — this can be used in various ways to increase short-term funds, such as through receivables financing or cash up front on long-term contracts. However, companies should take such actions with the understanding that future investors may perceive the business model differently when the recurring revenue is being used for these purposes rather than typical investment in growth.
Receivable/revenue-based financing allows for borrowing against the asset value represented by revenue streams and takes multiple forms, including invoice discounting and factoring. When evaluating these options, companies should make sure that the terms of the deal make sense with runway extension goals and consider how consistent current revenue streams are expected to be over the deal term. In addition, companies should be aware of how customers may perceive the idea of their invoices being used for financing and be prepared for any negative consequences from such perceptions.
Revenue-based financing is a relatively new financing model, so companies should be more proactive in structuring deals. These financings can be particularly useful for Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and other recurring revenue companies because they can “securitize the revenue being generated by a company and then lend capital against that theoretical security."2
Cash up front on multi-year contracts improves the company’s cash position, and can help expand the base where customers have sufficient capital to deliver up front with more favorable pricing. As a practical matter, these arrangements may result in more resources devoted to servicing customers and reduce the stability represented by recurring revenue, and so should be implemented in a manner that remains aligned with overall goal of improving product-market fit over the course of the extended runway.
A shared earning agreement is an agreement between investors and founders that entitles investors to future earnings of the company, and often allow investors to capture a share of founders’ earnings. These may be well suited for relatively early stage companies that plan to focus on profitability rather than growth, due to the nature of prioritizing growth in the latter.
U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and grants can be helpful, particularly in the short term. SBA loans generally have favorable financing terms, and together with grants can help companies direct resources to specific business goals including capital expenditures that may be needed to reach the next milestone. Similarly, tax credits, including R&D tax credits, should be considered whenever applicable as an easy way to offset the costs.
Customers can be a lifeline for companies during an economic downturn, with the prioritization of current customers one way companies can maintain control over their cash flow. Regular checks of Accounts Receivable will ensure that customers are making their payments promptly according to their contracts. While this can be time-consuming and repetitive, automating Accounts Receivable can streamline tasks such as approving invoices and receiving payments from customers to create a quicker process. Maintenance of Accounts Receivable provides a consistent flow of cash, which in turn extends runway.
To increase immediate cash flow companies should consider requiring longer contracts to be paid in full upon delivery, allowing the company to collect cash up front and add certainty to revenue over time. This may be hard to come by as customers are also affected by the economic downturn, but incentivizing payments by offering discounts can offset reluctance. Customers are often concerned with locking in a company’s services or product and saving on cost, with discounts serving as an easy solution. While they can create a steady cash flow, it may not be sustainable for longer cash runways. Despite their attractive value, companies should use care when offering discounts for early payments. Discounts result in lower payments than initially agreed upon, so companies should consider how long of a runway they require and whether the discounted price can sustain a runway of such length.
One area where companies can strategize and cut costs is vendor payments. By delaying payments to vendors, companies can temporarily preserve cash balance and extend cash runway. Companies must review their vendor agreements to evaluate the potential practical and legal ramifications of this strategy. If the vendor agreements contain incentives for early payments or penalties for late payments, then such strategy should not be employed. Rather, companies can try to negotiate with vendors for an updated, extended repayment schedule that permits the company to hold on to their cash for longer. Alternatively, companies can negotiate with vendors for delayed payments without penalty. Often vendors would prefer to compromise rather than lose out on customers, especially in a down economy.
Lastly, companies can seek out vendors who are willing to accept products and services as the form of payment as opposed to cash. Because the calculation for cash runway only takes into account actual cash that companies have on hand, products and services they provide do not factor into the calculation. As such, companies can exchange products and services for the products and services that their vendors provide, thereby reserving their cash and extending their cash runway.
In exercising the various strategies above, it is important to be mindful of your existing bank covenants if your company has a lending facility in place. There are often covenants restricting the amount of debt a borrower can carry, requiring the maintenance of a certain level of cash flow, and cross default provisions automatically defaulting a borrower if it defaults under separate agreements with third parties. Understanding your bank covenants and default provisions will help you to stay out of default with your lender and avoid an early call on your loan and resulting drain on you cash position.
As discussed extensively in our first article Employment Dos and Don’ts When Implementing Workforce Reductions, the possibility of an economic downturn not only will have an impact on your customer base, but your workforce as well. Employees desire stability, and the below options can help keep your employees engaged.
Employees might come to expect cash bonuses and pay raises throughout their tenure with an employer; in a more difficult economic period this may further strain a business’s cash flow. One alternative to such cash-based payments is the granting of equity, such as options or restricted stock. This type of compensation affords employees the prospect of long-term appreciation in value and promotes talent retention, while preserving capital in the immediate term. Further, to the employee holding equity is to have “skin in the game” – the employee now has an ownership stake in the company and their work takes on increasing importance to the success of the company.
To be sure, the company’s management and principal owners should consider how much control they are ceding to these new minority equity holders. The company must also ensure such equity issuances comply with securities laws – including by structuring the offering to fit within an exemption from registration of the offering. Additionally, if a downturn in the company’s business results in a drop in the value of the equity being offered, the company should consider conducting a new 409A valuation. Doing so may set a lower exercise price for existing options, thus reducing the eventual cost to employees to exercise their options and furnishing additional, material compensation to employees without further burdening cash flow.
Paying the salaries of employees can be a major burden on a business’s cash flow, and yet one should be wary of resorting to laying off employees to conserve cash flow in a downturn. On the other hand, if a business were to miss a payroll its officers and directors could face personal liability for unpaid wages. One means of reducing a business’s wage commitments while retaining (and paying) existing employees is to transition certain employees to part-time status. In addition to producing immediate cash flow benefits, this strategy enables a business to retain key talent and avoid the cost of replacing the employees in the future. However, this transition to part-time employees comes with important considerations.
Part-time employees are often eligible for overtime pay and must receive the higher of the federal or state minimum hourly wage. And if transitioned employees are subject to restrictive covenants, such as a non-competition agreement, they might argue their change in status should release them from such restrictions. Particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, courts have shown reluctance to enforce non-competes in the context of similar changes in work status when the provision is unreasonable or enforcement is against the public interest.
There may be circumstances where insolvency is the only plausible result. A corporation has fiduciary duties to stockholders when solvent, but when a corporation becomes insolvent it additionally owes such duties to creditors. When insolvent, a corporation’s fiduciary duties do not shift from stockholders to creditors, but expand to encompass all of the corporation’s residual claimants, which include creditors. Courts define “insolvency” as the point at which a corporation is unable to pay its debts as they become due in the ordinary course of business, but the “zone of insolvency” occurs some time before then. There is no clear line delineating when a solvent company enters the zone of insolvency, but fiduciaries should assume they are in this zone if (1) the corporation’s liabilities exceed its assets, (2) the corporation is unable to pay its debts as they become due, or (3) the corporation faces an unreasonable risk of insolvency.
Multiple courts have held that upon reaching the “zone of insolvency,” a corporation has fiduciary duties to creditors. However, in 2007 the Delaware Supreme Court held that there is no change in fiduciary duties for a corporation upon transitioning from “solvent” to the “zone of insolvency.” Under this precedent, creditors do not have standing to pursue derivative breach of fiduciary duty claims against the corporation until it is actually insolvent. Once the corporation is insolvent, however, creditors can bring claims such as for fraudulent transfers of assets and for failure to pursue valid claims, including those against a corporation’s own directors and officers. To be sure, the Delaware Court of Chancery clarified that a corporation’s directors cannot be held liable for “continuing to operate [an] insolvent entity in the good faith belief that they may achieve profitability, even if their decisions ultimately lead to greater losses for creditors,” along with other caveats to the general fiduciary duty rule. Still, in light of the ambiguity in case law on the subject, a corporation ought to proceed carefully and understand its potential duties when approaching and reaching insolvency.
1 Diamond, Brandee and Lehot, Louis, Is it Time to Consider Alternative Financing Strategies?, Foley & Lardner LLP (July 18, 2022)
2 Rush, Thomas, Revenue-based financing: The next step for private equity and early-stage investment, TechCrunch (January 6, 2021)