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Earnout provisions and performance metrics in acquisitions of development-stage companies : challenges and opportunities

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Title: Earnout provisions and performance metrics in acquisitions of development-stage companies : challenges and opportunities
Author(s): Tapper, Aleksis
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Law
Degree program: Master's Programme i Law
Specialisation: Study programme in Law, Helsinki
Language: English
Acceptance year: 2018
Earnouts are used as a risk-allocation mechanism in M&A transactions, whereby a certain amount of the purchase price is deferred and calculated based on the performance of the target company over a specified time period following the closing of the acquisition. Earnouts are normally utilized in situations where the seller’s and buyer’s disagreement and expectations of the true value of the target company are not aligned and too far from each other in order to be resolved through typical post-closing purchase price adjustments. Additionally, earnouts are an attractive solution for incentivizing the management that will continue to run the target company after the closing or are of significant value in the post-closing integration of the target company into the business operations of the buyer. The core focus of my research is to examine earnout mechanisms and their applicability to acquisitions of early stage companies. This implies that the contractual nature of the earnout mechanism has to be tailored according to the stage and nature of the target company. The performance of target companies of this nature should not always be measured or tracked in financial numbers, but instead in tailored operative and non-financial achievements. The fundamental methodology in my research is law in context and the analysis of a new phenomenon within contract law, as well as the contractual relationship between a buyer and a seller of a target company. My research revolves around a new mechanism of M&A contracting and analyses how this mechanism should be structured and understood, in order to guarantee the ideal use thereof. The goal with my research is to describe, analyze and interpret earnouts, and examine the development and applicability thereof in the field of M&A contracting of early stage companies. The research therefore involves a broad examination of the legal subjects, by using evidence and sources from other social sciences, and from all other relevant disciplines that support the aim of understanding the process as well as the elements of earnouts contracting in practice. The technical approach of contracting earnout provisions is of great importance and requires a thorough analysis of each provision used therein. The provisions used for earnouts will and should vary widely, depending on the concerns and contingencies of each transaction in question, and typically involves provisions relating to: the length (in time) of the earnout, the size and structure of the earnout, performance metrics that the earnout is tied to, the operational entity or object that is to be measured, as well as the governance of the target company post-closing. Early stage companies do by definition not have a long operating history or sufficient data of their financial performance, and the value of the company’s key resources are therefore not adequately reflected in a codified form, such as financial statements. The value of an early stage company at closing is typically tied to circumstances relating to potential growth options, market shares and exit opportunities, rather than financial information or assets in place. The information at hand, provided by the target company, tends to be more difficult to verify, and therefore inflates with future projections. In opposite to established companies with operating history and clear financial projections based on future performance, the performance of early stage companies should often typically be tied to other parameters than financial metrics. This implies that the earnouts used for start-ups and the measurement of their performance should be benchmarked to non-financial or other operative metrics. Non-financial metrics applicable for early stage companies might include, but are not limited to: regulatory approvals, licenses and operative permits, SaaS-metrics, as well as milestones related to research and development. The operative uncertainty of early stage companies tends to be fragmented and cannot be identified and measured in one single metric. The contracting parties might find balance and benefit from using multiple metrics for measuring either one or multiple types of performance metrics relevant to the operations of the target company. Earnouts can and should be divided (where possible) into smaller thresholds or measured in percentages of the maximal possible earnout amount.

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