Venture Leasing - A Smarter Way To Build Enterprise Value

By George Parker

In 2003, venture capitalists and investors dispensed over $18 billion to promising young U.S. companies, according to VentureOne and Ernst & Young Quarterly Venture Capital Report. Less documented and reported is venture leasing’s activity and volume. This form of equipment financing contributes greatly to the growth of U.S. start-ups. Yearly, specialty leasing companies pour hundreds of millions of dollars into start-ups, permitting savvy entrepreneurs to achieve the biggest 'bang for their buck' in financing growth. What is venture leasing and how do sophisticated entrepreneurs maximize enterprise value with this type of financing? Why is venture leasing a cheaper and smarter way to finance needed equipment when compared to venture capital? For answers, one must look closely at this relatively new and expanding form of equipment financing specifically designed for rapidly growing venture capital-backed start-ups.

The term venture leasing describes the leasing of equipment to pre-profit, start-ups funded by venture capital investors. These companies usually have negative cash flow and rely on additional equity rounds to fulfill their business plans. Venture leasing allows growing start-ups to acquire needed operating equipment while conserving expensive venture development capital. Equipment financed by venture leases usually includes essentials such as computers, laboratory equipment, test equipment, furniture, manufacturing and production equipment, and other equipment to automate the office.

Using Venture Leasing Is Smart

Venture leasing enjoys many advantages over traditional venture capital and bank financing. Financing new ventures can be a high risk business. Venture capitalists generally demand sizeable equity stakes in the companies they finance to compensate for this risk. They typically seek investment returns of at least 35% - 50% on their unsecured, non-amortizing equity investments. An IPO or other sale of their equity position within three to six years of investing offers them the best avenue to capture this return. Many venture capitalists require board representation, specific exit time frames and/or investor rights to force a 'liquidity' event. In comparison, venture leasing has none of these drawbacks. Venture lessors typically seek an annual return in the 14% - 20% range. These transactions usually amortize monthly in two to four years and are secured by the underlying assets. Although the risk to the venture lessor is also high, this risk is mitigated by requiring collateral and structuring a transaction that amortizes. By using venture leasing and venture capital together, the savvy entrepreneur lowers the venture's overall capital cost, builds enterprise value faster and preserves ownership.

Venture leasing is also very flexible. By structuring a fair market value purchase or renewal option at the end of the lease, the start-up can slash monthly payments. Lower payments result in higher earnings and cash flow. Since a fair market value option is not an obligation, the lessee has a high degree of flexibility and control. The resulting reduction in payments and shift of lease expense beyond the expiry of the transaction can deliver a higher enterprise value to the savvy entrepreneur during the initial term of the lease. The higher enterprise value results from the start-up’s ability to achieve higher earnings, upon which most valuations are based.

Customers benefit more from venture leasing as compared to traditional bank financing in two ways. First, venture leases are usually only secured by the underlying equipment. Additionally, there are usually no restrictive financial covenants. Most banks, if they lend to early stage companies, require blanket liens on all of the companies' assets. In some cases, they also require guarantees of the start-ups’ principals. More and more, sophisticated entrepreneurs recognize the stifling effects of these limitations and their impact on growth. When start-ups need additional financing and a sole lender has encumbered all company assets or required guarantees, these young companies become less attractive to other financing sources. Correcting this situation can sap the entrepreneurs’ time and energy.

How Venture Leasing Works

Generally, a major round of equity capital raised from credible investors or venture capitalists makes venture leasing viable for the early stage company. Lessors structure most transactions as master lease lines, permitting the lessee to draw down on the lines as needed throughout the year. Lease lines usually range in size from as little as $ 200,000 to well over $ 5,000,000, depending on the lessee's need and credit strength. Terms are typically between twenty four to forty eight months, payable monthly in advance. The lessee's credit strength, the quality and useful life of the underlying equipment, and the lessor’s anticipated ability to re-market the equipment during the lease often dictate the initial lease term. Although no lessor enters a leasing arrangement expecting to re-market the equipment prior to lease expiry, should the lessee’s business fail, the lessor must pursue this avenue of recovery to salvage the transaction. Most venture leases give lessees flexible end-of-lease options. These options generally include the ability to buy the equipment, to renew the lease at fair market value or to return the equipment to the lessor. Many lessors limit the fair market value, which also benefits the lessee. Most leases require the lessee to shoulder the important equipment obligations such as maintenance, insurance and paying required equipment taxes.

Venture lessors target lessee prospects that have good promise and that are likely to fulfill their leases. Since most start-ups rely on future equity rounds to execute their business plans, lessors devote significant attention to credit review and due diligence - evaluating the caliber of the investor group, the efficacy of the business plan and management's background. A superior management team has usually demonstrated prior successes in the field in which the new venture is active. Additionally, management’s expertise in the key business functions -- sales, marketing, R&D, production, engineering, finance --- is essential. Although there are many professional venture capitalists financing new ventures, there can be a significant difference in their abilities, staying power and resources. The better venture capitalists achieve excellent results and have direct experience with the type of companies being financed. The best VCs have developed industry specialization and many have in-house specialists with direct operating experience within the industries covered. Also important to the venture lessor are the amount of capital VCs provide the start-up and the amount allocated to future funding rounds.

After determining that the management team and venture capital investors are qualified, venture lessors evaluate the start-up’s business model and the market potential. Since most venture lessors are not technology specialists – able to assess products, technology, patents, business processes and the like - they rely greatly on the thorough due diligence of experienced venture capitalists. But the experienced venture lessor does undertake an independent evaluation of the business plan and conducts careful due diligence to understand its content. Here, the lessor generally attempts to understand and concur with the business model. Questions to be answered include: Is the business model sensible? How large is the market for the prospect's services or products? Are the income projections realistic? Is pricing of the product or service sensible? How much cash is on hand and how long will it last according to the projections? When is the next equity round needed? Are the key people needed execute the business plan in place? These and similar questions help determine whether the business model is reasonable.

Satisfied that the business model is sound, the venture lessor’s greatest concern is whether the start-up has sufficient liquidity or cash on hand to support a significant portion of the lease term. If the venture fails to raise additional capital or runs out of cash, the lessor is not likely to collect further lease payments. To mitigate this risk, most experienced venture lessors pursue start-ups with at least nine months of cash or sufficient liquid assets to service a substantial portion of their leases.

Getting the Best Deal

What determines venture lease pricing and how does a prospective lessee get the best deal? First, make sure you are comfortable with the leasing company. This relationship is usually more important than transaction pricing. With the rapid rise in venture leasing over the past decade, a handful of national leasing companies now specialize in venture leases. A good venture lessor has a lot of expertise in this market, is accustom to working with start-ups, and is prepared to help in difficult cash flow situations should the start-up stray from plan. Also, the best venture lessors deliver other value-added services - such as assisting in equipment acquisitions at better prices, trading out existing equipment, finding additional venture capital sources, working capital lines, factoring, temporary CFOs, and introductions to potential strategic partners.

Once the start-up finds a capable venture lessor, negotiating a fair and competitive lease is the next order of business. A number of factors determine venture lease pricing and terms. Important factors include: 1) the perceived credit strength of the lessee, 2) equipment quality, 3) market rates, and 4) competitive factors within the venture leasing market. Since the lease can be structured with several options, many of which influence the ultimate lease cost, start-ups should compare competing lease proposals. Lessors typically structured leases to yield 14% - 20%. By developing end-of-lease options to better accommodate lessees' needs, lessors can shift some of this pricing to the lease’s back end in the form of a fair market value or fixed purchase or renewal option. It is not uncommon to see a three year lease structured to yield 9% - 11% annually during the initial lease term. Thereafter, the lessee can choose to return the equipment, purchase the equipment for 10% - 15% of equipment cost or to renew the lease for an additional year. If the lease is renewed, the lessor recovers an additional 10% - 15% of equipment cost. If the equipment is returned to the lessor, the start-up reduces its cost and limits the amount paid under the lease. The lessor will then remarket the equipment to achieve its 14% - 20% yield target.

Another way that leasing companies can justify slashing lease payments is to incorporate warrants to purchase stock into the transaction. Warrants give the lessor the right to buy an agreed upon quantity of ownership shares at a share price predetermined by the parties. Under a venture lease with warrant pricing, the lessor typically prices that lease several percentage points below a similar lease without warrants. The number of warrants the start-up proffers is arrived at by dividing a portion of the lease line - usually 3% to 15% of the line - by the warrant strike price. The strike price is typically the share price of the most recently completed equity round. Including a warrant option often encourages venture lessors to enter transactions with companies that are very early in development or where the equipment to be leased is of questionable quality or re-marketability.

Building a young company into an industry leader is in many ways similar to building a state-of-the art airplane or bridge. You need the right people, partners, ideas, materials and tools. Venture leasing is a useful tool for the savvy entrepreneur. When used properly, this financing tool can help early stage companies accelerate growth, squeeze the most out of their venture capital and increase enterprise value between equity rounds. Why not preserve ownership for those really doing the heavy lifting?

George Parker is a Director and Executive Vice President of Leasing Technologies International, Inc. (“LTI”). One of the co-founders of LTI, Mr. Parker has been involved in secured lending and equipment financing for over twenty years. Mr. Parker is an industry leader, frequent panelist and author of several articles pertaining to equipment financing.

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