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Debt Covenants Explained: A Guide for Startups

Debt Covenants Explained: A Guide for Startups

A covenant, by definition, is a type of agreement often found in contracts that obligates one or more parties to either engage or abstain from some specific action. Covenants are unconditional promises that, when breached, entitle the other contracting party to damages, remediation, or termination of the contract.

If you’ve ever signed a contract of any kind you are likely already familiar with the idea that covenants are usually "baked into the agreement." A contract stipulates a lot of details, including what the signatory is committing to do and not do — often using words such as “agree” or “promise.” Most commonly, businesses encounter covenants when borrowing money, in agreements detailing what's being promised in exchange for a loan.

These promises, known as loan or debt covenants, can be as simple as, “I agree to be profitable,” meaning you have to be positive net income; or covenants can be very specific like, “I promise to maintain a minimum of $100,000 cash on hand at all times.”

Before you sign any loan contract, get familiar with the types of debt covenants you might encounter and what you should look out for in startup financing agreements.

what is a debt covenant

What is a debt covenant?

Debt covenants, also referred to as financial covenants, banking covenants, or loan covenants, are conditions set forth within financial contracts (such as loans and bonds) in which the borrower is either obligated or forbidden to undertake a specific action.

Lenders typically use debt covenants as a means of ensuring that a borrower maintains their business in a way that will make the loan payment most likely. It’s a way that lenders can micromanage borrowers to attempt to mitigate risk — a form of “guard rails” that lenders can set up to ensure a business is staying well within a margin of error in its operations.

Types of debt covenants: positive and negative

Types of Debt Covenants

Debt covenants are categorized as either positive or negative.

Positive covenants

A positive covenant is an obligation to do something — “you shall.”

Negative covenants

A negative covenant is a promise not to do something — “you shall not.”

Be cautious of restrictive debt covenants

Negative covenants are referred to as restrictive covenants because they limit what actions you can take, and that can create new challenges if you're running a startup. We're guessing you did not need another one of those!

Debt covenants are inherently risky for borrowers, and even more so if the covenants are restrictive. It can be easy to accidentally run afoul of overly restrictive covenants, and even those that are easy to meet may be artificially constraining in a way that limit your ability to take creative or bold action.

How do debt covenants work

How do debt covenants work?

A debt covenant lays out the conditions the borrower must fulfill or the actions they must avoid to maintain in good standing with the lender.

Covenants run the gamut from the basics of business operations, such as maintaining the business and running it in a legal manner, to more specific and complex requirements. Many covenants are financial, like specifying the need to maintain a certain growth rate, a minimum amount of runway, or a minimum amount of cash on hand.

If a business runs into unexpected churn, spends money in the wrong place, or is struggling to collect payments from customers, the business could temporarily breach a covenant with a lender. Even if they barely breach a financial covenant, they’ll be in violation.

At that point, they’ll usually get anywhere from seven through 30 (or maybe as many as 45) days to resolve the problem. After that, it’s up to the lender to decide how they will handle the situation to recoup their costs and get their principle back.

Debt covenant violations

Various penalties may result when a borrower violates a debt covenant. Resolution of the penalty often depends on the lender and the borrower's relationship with the lender:

  • In the best case scenario, the lender and borrower sit down together as partners to try to understand the problem and figure out how to solve it.

  • If the lender isn’t so accommodating, they may declare default on the loan, apply penalties, or call the loan — that is, demand that it be paid in full right away.

why avoid debt covenants

Why startups may want to avoid debt covenants

Debt covenants can be overly restrictive, and in that case there’s a real possibility that a borrower will breach one unintentionally. Startup leaders should think really hard about what it would take to breach one of the covenants in a contract they’re about to sign.

If violating a debt covenant seems well within what's plausible, be wary!

In a worst case scenario, you could make a single misstep that breaches a debt covenant, and if you can't pony up the full loan amount, you might lose control of your business entirely.

Even if a business is not in real danger of breaching a covenant, the conservative boundaries imposed by restrictive covenants can easily box-in founders, forcing startups to operate in ways that hinder their growth.

Just like equity dilution, it all comes down to who's in control.

You, the founder, know where the guard rails should be. You may be comfortable operating in the safe zone 80-90% of the time, but a lender will typically require you to be more conservative.

It’s also worth pointing out that some financial covenants can be a pain to calculate and report correctly. Get ready to put in extra overtime here.

The lending agreement itself will typically provide specific formulas for calculating the required metrics and any limits imposed by each covenant, but there is no rule that requires these formulas to conform to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

Debt covenants, while they may seem reasonable and harmless at first, may end up being more restrictive than they look. So, always scrutinize the covenants in a loan agreement before signing, and consider talking to experienced entrepreneurs in your peer network too.

Startup business loans without debt covenants

Startup loans without debt covenants

At Lighter Capital, we seek to enable our borrowers to exercise their business sense with the least interference from us. In pursuit of that goal, we don’t use debt covenants on most of our loans; instead, we rely on general operating requirements in the loan contract to ensure borrowers keep the business running.

This is primarily because of the data we use that informs all of our decision-making regarding business loans — before we fund startups, we have a very good understanding of where they are in their life cycles and where we can expect them to go.

We also gather ongoing monthly data to monitor company performance. We’re data-driven, so we can assess quite accurately a given SaaS company’s health. Additionally, since we’ve worked with more than 400 tech companies providing more than 900 rounds of financing, we have the benefit of experience and a strong sense for technology businesses that are likely to succeed.

The only time we insert debt covenants into our contracts is when we decide to lend to a company we wouldn’t normally approve.

For example, we generally lend to subscription-based businesses, so if we decide to lend to a non-subscription-based tech business, we will be more cautious and may include a debt covenant of some kind, such as the requirement that they grow at least 1% annualized at all times.

For a business that typically experiences big swings in cash-on-hand, we might have a minimum cash covenant to make sure there’s enough in the bank to make payroll each month.

As founder-friendly lenders, we approach debt covenants with care. That is to say, we try to be as minimally restrictive as possible with what our covenants require. And we are apt to work with companies that breach a covenant to see how we can repair the damage amicably.

If used responsibly, debt covenants should lay out clear, minimally-restrictive boundaries that establish a sense of security for both lenders and borrowers.

The guide to debt financing for startups

Learn more about debt financing for startups

The Startup Funding Playbook: A Practical Guide to Raising Capital for Sustainable Growth is one of our most popular founder resources! Get the guide that can help you make smarter fundraising choices for your startup.

Learn the ins and outs of startup debt financing so you can avoid tricky terms and conditions that might hold your business back. See how to compare different types of startup loans, then work through specific financing examples to understand the real costs with this comprehensive playbook.

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