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An entrepreneur who invests time and energy raising the funds necessary to launch a startup, usually from family and friends (love money), will necessarily want their startup to grow exponentially. Achieving exponential growth requires always more capital, and so the entrepreneur will need to find additional sources of financing. One of these could be venture capital financing. For an entrepreneur, going this route may seem daunting, but if well prepared, it can also be a very wise choice. Here are the steps to take in order to succeed in a round of venture capital financing and get the most leverage out of this type of financing. What is venture capital? Venture capital is a non-guaranteed equity investment, made with an investment horizon of typically five to ten years, with a view to realizing an exponential gain and participating in the strategic decisions of the startup in which the capital is invested. Investors who provide venture capital do not undertake to play a passive role—quite the opposite! Entrepreneurs who opt for such financing must be prepared to exchange ideas with investors and justify certain decisions they intend to make as managers. On the flip side, they’ll also benefit from their investors’ advice and networks. Application for financial assistance Once you’ve grasped how venture capital works and resolved to resort to it, you’re ready to launch a round of financing with one or more potential investors. Our advice: don’t wait until you really need the funds to take this step. As soon as your startup takes off, get into networking mode! Meet with dozens of investors and present your vision, team and business plan. Investors will be more interested in your vision, talent and the growth potential of your business than in its current results, and they will probably be as much interested in these aspects as they are in your business plan. And if things don’t immediately go your way, don’t give up! Often all it takes is for one investor to bet on you for others to follow. Letter of intent If the ?nancing round is well received, investors will con?rm their interest by submitting a letter of intent. A letter of intent states an investor’s intention to invest under certain conditions, but it doesn’t constitute a binding undertaking. It will set out the terms and conditions of the proposed investment (form of investment, subscription price, etc.) which, while not binding on the investor, are nonetheless binding on the company once it has accepted them. Once an entrepreneur has accepted a letter of intent, it may be very dif?cult to get the investor to waive the rights granted in their favor by the letter. Due diligence Once the letter of intent is agreed to, the investor will conduct a due diligence review on the company. A due diligence investigation allows an investor to better assess the legal, ?nancial and other risks associated with a startup and validate certain statements or assumptions stated in the company’s business plan. In a due diligence review, the following will usually be scrutinized, among others : Accounting and corporate records Material contracts Intellectual property (patents, trademarks, etc.) Disputes involving the company Environmental aspects Negotiation of final agreements Generally speaking, in venture capital ?nancing, two main acts key documents will con?rm the terms of the agreement between the company and the investor: a subscription agreement and a shareholders’ agreement. A subscription agreement is a document similar to a share purchase agreement, except that it isn’t concluded with a shareholder but with the company itself. It speci?es the form of the subscription (common shares, preferred shares, subscription rights, etc.) and contains numerous representations and warranties on the part of the company for the bene?t of the investor, as well as an undertaking to indemnify the investor should one of the representations or warranties prove to be false and cause a loss for the investor to suffer prejudice. A shareholders’ agreement is a document signed by all the shareholders of a company and the company itself. Typically, such an agreement determines who will sit on the board of directors and how it will operate. It contains a number of clauses that govern the issuance and transfer of the company’s shares and grants the investor a right of oversigh —and often even veto power—over certain decisions. Closing Once the ?nal agreements are negotiated, closing can take place. At the closing, the parties will sign all relevant documents agreements and certi?cates, including the subscription agreement and shareholders’ agreement, and deliver the documents required to meet all conditions. The parties will also sign the subscription agreement and shareholders’ agreement. The company’s lawyers will provide a legal notice opinion to con?rm to the investors that the securities subscribed to are validly issued, that the company has the legal capacity to enter into all the agreements prepared by the investor’s legal counsel, that the agreements have been duly approved, and that the signatory has the authority to sign the agreements and bind the company. A forewarned entrepreneur is forearmed! You now understand that for an entrepreneur, the secret of a successful ?nancing round lies in being properly prepared, being realistic about investors’ expectations and requirements, and having a large dose of con?dence in the business. If you’ve started to solicit ?nancing from potential investors or are planning to do so soon, there’s still time to get legal advice to avoid unpleasant surprises at a critical moment.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, governments and agencies are implementing an increasing number of measures of all kinds. The state of emergency is giving rise to a multitude of legal concerns, in particular contractual ones. The temporary closure of many businesses, public places and borders and the resulting economic uncertainty is leading businesses to question their contractual obligations, which may have become difficult to meet. In such a context, can debtors fail to meet their obligations without being held liable? The answer to this question can be found either in the text of the contract binding the parties or in the Civil Code of Québec (hereinafter “C.C.Q.”). Many contracts do in fact provide for exemption mechanisms. They set out which of the parties will bear the risks associated with events beyond their control. In the absence of contractual provisions to that effect, the rules set out in the C.C.Q. apply. The Civil Code of Québec and superior force Article 1693 C.C.Q. provides that the debtor of an obligation is released from said obligation when it cannot be performed by reason of superior force. However, the burden of proof of superior force is on the debtor. In Quebec law, superior force is defined as an unforeseeable and irresistible event that is external to the party subject to the obligation. It makes the performance of an obligation impossible1. Thus, in certain circumstances, natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, floods and others, or human acts, such as a state of emergency declared by a government, illness or death, may be considered superior force. Determining whether an event in a particular context constitutes superior force must be done by taking into account all relevant factors. For an event to qualify as superior force, it must meet the following three conditions or criteria. It must be: Unforeseeable Irresistible Exterior An event is unforeseeable when the parties to a contract, acting as reasonably prudent and diligent persons, could not foresee it at the time that the contract was concluded. There is no need for the event to be a new phenomenon. For example, ice storms in Quebec are not unusual. In 1998, however, the ice storm led to an unforeseeable situation. The magnitude of the 1998 ice storm was such that it was sometimes described as superior force. An event is irresistible when (i) any person placed in the same circumstances cannot reasonably avoid it and (ii) it makes the performance of an obligation impossible. Thus, if the performance of an obligation remains possible, but is simply more difficult, more perilous or more expensive, the event having caused the complication cannot be considered superior force. For an event to be considered exterior, the debtor must have no control over it and must not be responsible for causing it. The debtor must even be able to demonstrate that it has taken all reasonable steps to mitigate its consequences. On the basis of these criteria, the current state of emergency in Quebec may be deemed to be a situation of superior force for some debtors. The analysis must be made on a case-by-case basis and consider the specific obligations of each debtor. For example, the production stoppage ordered by the Government of Quebec, imposing the suspension of workplace activities other than priority activities as of March 25, 2020, makes it absolutely impossible for certain businesses to perform the obligations covered by this decree. For others, the state of emergency may have financial consequences, but these do not make their obligations impossible to perform. While the ongoing crisis can be considered an unforeseeable event for the purposes of a contract concluded years ago, this can hardly be the case for a contract concluded in the last few days, when the disease was already endemic or the pandemic had been announced by the health authorities. In the event of superior force, a debtor is released from the obligation(s) affected by the superior force2. Depending on the importance of these obligations, the release may, in certain cases, lead either to the termination of the contract in its entirety, or to the suspension of the performance of certain obligations. Thus, suspension should only occur when the obligations are to be performed successively and the impossibility of performance is only temporary. A debtor who is released from an obligation by reason of superior force may not demand consideration from the other contracting party3. Superior force cannot be used as a means of exemption for a debtor who is subject, under the terms of the contract, to an obligation qualified as an obligation “of warranty4”. The debtor must then perform the obligation and assume all risks related to the occurrence of an unforeseeable and irresistible event over which it has no control. A debtor faced with the current difficulties arising from the global COVID-19 pandemic must, in all cases, take steps to minimize the damage. For example, it must try to find new suppliers or subcontractors before claiming that it is unable to fulfil its obligations. Contracts may provide for different conditions Parties to a contract may include provisions in the contract governing the consequences of uncontrollable situations, such as superior force, and thus deviate from what is provided for in the C.C.Q. In practice, many contracts contain a broader or more restrictive definition of events that may constitute superior force. For example, strikes and fires will generally not be considered cases of superior force within the meaning of the C.C.Q., but may be under the terms of a contractual provision. Likewise, a party may, at the time that a contract is concluded, undertake to fulfil its obligations even if it is subject to a situation of superior force. In so doing, it waives the right to invoke such grounds for exemption in advance. The parties may also provide for steps to be taken in order to benefit from a contractual provision governing superior force, such as the sending of a notice within a stipulated time limit. The usual provision dealing with superior force requires the party invoking it to send a notice to the other party justifying its use of the provision. Failure to send such notice within the prescribed time limit may result in the affected party being barred from availing itself of the superior force provision. It is therefore particularly important for a party to pay close attention to the formalities and other requirements set out in the contract when invoking such a provision. A contract may additionally contain a provision that determines what effects the occurrence of an event considered as superior force will have. For example, the parties may agree that superior force will result in the termination, suspension or modification of an obligation, such as the proportional adjustment of a minimum volume to be delivered. Finally, the parties to a contract may set out the consequences of unforeseen and external situations that do not, strictly speaking, make the performance of an obligation impossible. For instance, the parties may anticipate the risk of an unexpected increase in the cost of an input by means of a hardship clause. A matter of sound foresight, such a clause may have significant consequences in the current situation, even if it does not specifically address superior force. Conclusion A superior force situation and the exercise of the rights that may result from it must be analyzed with the following in mind: A case-by-case analysis is required for each situation. Other legal concepts may apply depending on the circumstances, such as the duty of good faith of the parties to a contract, the duty to minimize damage, and the duty to demonstrate the absence of an alternative. Business risks or reputation risks may apply to both the party wishing to invoke superior force and the party against whom it is invoked. A review of the terms and conditions of the parties’ insurance policies, which may provide compensation for financial losses, may also be appropriate. Article 1470 C.C.Q. Article 1693 C.C.Q. Article 1694 C.C.Q. This is opposed to obligations qualified as “of result” or “of means,” for which the debtor may be released by reason of superior force.
Because of the demographic context, the rate of business transfers has been rising steadily in Quebec over the past few years. Whether unexpectedly or as part of a succession plan, certain key employees can show the potential and ambition to take over from the current owner. In this issue of Lavery Business, we look at a number of aspects that are of particular importance when a business is being transferred to its employees or managers. DUE DILIGENCE REVIEW AND REPRESENTATIONS Whether the company is selling its share capital or its assets, a due diligence review gives the buyer a detailed picture of the company’s situation1. In the case of a sale to key employees, this process is usually simplified since the buyers already have in-depth knowledge of their employer’s operations and business prospects, so that many of the legitimate concerns of a buyer less familiar with the company will probably not arise. Because of this in-depth knowledge, the seller may be tempted to reduce the number and the scope of its representations in the purchase agreement. The seller’s representations generally cover a multitude of facets of the business, including its financial and fiscal position, environmental obligations, the condition of its assets, labour relations, any ongoing or potential litigation, and any unfavourable changes that may have taken place. They are a way of transferring risk from the buyer to the seller: if a representation proves false or erroneous after the sale is closed, the buyer will have recourses. In this way, any gaps in the information usually available to a buyer are partially offset by the seller’s representations. In the case of a sale to employees, the seller can claim that the greater availability of information to the buyers justifies significantly reducing the number, scope and temporal extent of the seller’s representations. FINANCING Transferring a business to employees often poses a particular challenge in terms of financing. In a sale to a third party, the seller normally requires the potential buyer to demonstrate the capacity to pay. The potential buyer must have access to sufficient cash or financing, which a group of employees usually does not have. The seller’s participation in the financing may then become a key piece making it possible to put the deal financing together. This participation typically takes the form of a balance of sale payable after the closing according to terms and conditions agreed on by the parties. While balances of sale are certainly used in other contexts as well, sales to employees almost always involve a balance of sale. The balance of sale generally has two objectives: to complete the financing arrangement and to place funds out of the seller’s reach—funds that the buyers could claim if they had a complaint against the seller after the closing. The importance of this second objective must not be underestimated. In fact, buyers who pay the entire sale price at the closing frequently require some of the money to be placed in escrow for a given length of time, precisely to this end. If there is a balance of sale after the closing, the prudent seller will seek to protect his debt through various mechanisms, discussed below. PROTECTING THE BALANCE OF SALE A seller wishing to protect his debt will often seek to include monitoring and control mechanisms in the purchase agreement; for example, he may require regular financial statements enabling him to monitor any changes in the company’s financial position. Furthermore, the requirement to maintain certain financial ratios may enable the seller to demand reimbursement of the balance of sale should the company’s financial position deteriorate. However, the financial institutions participating in the deal financing and in the company’s activities are liable to impose restrictions in this regard. Another measure designed to protect the seller’s debt is to require the seller’s consent for certain decisions that could have a negative impact on the company’s financial position. This enables the seller to exercise some control over the cash available and thus ensure that the buyers have the money to pay the balance of sale. If the buyers make such a decision without the seller’s consent, this generally constitutes a breach of contract leading to loss of the benefit of term. In other words, the entire balance of sale would become due and payable as of such breach. To ensure payment of the balance of sale, the seller may require that certain assets of the company be charged with a hypothec. The financial institutions participating in the deal financing and in the company’s activities would then require prior hypothecs in order to ensure reimbursement of their debts; nevertheless, the seller would hold a real security giving him priority over unsecured creditors. There are other ways of protecting the balance of sale, a detailed analysis of which is beyond the scope of this short article. Suffice it to say that they generally include a guarantee provided by the buyers’ shareholders or legal entities related to the buyers; life insurance on the buyers or their officers; if the seller retains shares in the company operating the business until complete and final payment of the consideration, inclusion of the seller’s right to veto certain decisions in a shareholder agreement; and the seller’s subscription for shares conferring effective control. Use of any of these mechanisms depends on several factors, in particular each party’s negotiating power, the size of the balance of sale, and to what extent the parties desire real transfer of control of the company as of the closing date. CONCLUSION One objective in any purchase transaction is to achieve a balance between the interests of the seller, who wishes to limit his liability and protect his debt, and those of the buyer, who wants protection regarding the representations and warranties made by the seller and also wants to manage his cash without too much interference from the seller. Although there are certain unique aspects to the sale of a business to employees, these same objectives apply. 1 See Issue 24 (March 2015) of Lavery BUSINESS, in which Me Valérie Boucher and Me Catherine Méthot discuss the main steps in the sale of a business.