Liquidation preference: Where did the 20 million from „Chasing Unicorns“ go?

Liquidation preference

In the light of the fresh start-up comedy Chasing Unicorns, the question arises: what does liquidation preference mean?

Let’s explain.

Liquidation preference refers to the right of an investor to recoup the money invested in the startup over other shareholders, mainly founders and employee shareholders but in some cases, preference will be given to some investors over others as well.

Essentially, liquidation preference determines the order of payments in case of a sale, liquidation or transfer of all assets of a company. The sale, liquidation or transfer of all assets of the company is referred to in the agreements as a liquidity event.

Why is liquidation preference necessary?

 

Liquidation preference is a form of protection for the investor. In the absence of a liquidation preference, the proceeds of a liquidity event will be divided pro rata – proportionally to the shareholdings in the company. Normally, the investor’s shareholding in the company is rather modest, so in case of a proportional distribution, the investor may end up receiving less than the investment amount initially invested in the company and thus losing money. In case of liquidation preference, this can be avoided.

How does liquidation preference work?

 

Liquidation preference is stipulated in the shareholders’ agreement and in the articles of association. Liquidation preference is determined primarily through a multiplier and helps calculate the amount to be repaid to the investor in preference to the other shareholders.

The most common and founder-friendly multiplier is 1x – in this case, the investor is repaid the investment amount and the proceeds exceeding the investment amount are to be distributed according to the agreement. However, it is not always possible to reach such a founder-friendly agreement and multipliers greater than one are not uncommon.

In case of liquidation preference, it is possible that the investor reaps all the rewards and the founders will only have the process to enjoy but no monetary gains. Let’s look at the following example:

The investor invested 5 million euros in the company and received 10% of the shareholding. The other 90% belongs to the founders and the proceeds of the liquidation event were 20 million euros.

In case of no liquidation preference, the investor will receive 10% of the proceeds – that is 2 million euros – and the founders will receive 18 million euros. The investor, you can imagine, is not very happy in this scenario.

In case the liquidation preference was set at 1x, the investor would have received 5 million euros and the founders 15 million euros. The investor would be satisfied in this case and the founders would be content as well.

However, if the liquidation preference was set at 4x, the investor would receive all the 20 million euros and the founders will be left empty-handed. The investor would have made a nice profit on its investment and the founders only have their contract-negotiation skills, or the lack thereof, to blame.

Thus, in the end, it is important for both, the founder and the investor, to understand how liquidation preference works and the possible outcomes thereof.