A term sheet is a relatively short document that an investor prepares for presentation to the company in which the investor states the investment that he is willing to make in the company. This document is usually 5-8 pages in length.
“The term sheet reflects an agreed-on valuation, and sets out the amount of the investment that is to be made, as well as the ownership claims the investor receives in exchange for the investment. In addition, the term sheet may identify some of the options, rights, and responsibilities of each party.” (Entrepreneurial Finance, 2nd Edition, Smith & Smith, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004)
While the term sheet is important, and what it contains requires a great deal of study and consideration, perhaps the most important aspect of a term sheet is that it is the first real, dependable indication that the investor is actually interested in investing. Until the preparation and presentation of a term sheet, the investor has likely indicated one, or all of the following, to the entrepreneur when probed about the investor’s willingness to invest:
All of these appear to be positive, and the first-time entrepreneur is likely to interpret them as such. At the same time, they don’t really say anything, and may really mean, “It’s in the stack with all the other business plans that I haven’t had time to get to.” In other words, talk is cheap, but you need a term sheet to know that the investor is serious. [Note: I hate the word, “interest,” in entrepreneurial settings. When an entrepreneur tells me that a customer or investor is “interested,” I get very nervous. “Interest” doesn’t mean anything in this context. Has the customer issued a purchase order? Has the investor given you a term sheet? Those are meaningful. Interest is not.]
Let’s take a look how an investment opportunity may proceed through an investor’s process of making deals. The numbers in brackets are my estimates of how many businesses, out of 100, make it to each succeeding step. By the way, as a practical matter, it is not at unusual for this process to take 8-10 months for the successful firm.
1. Receive & screen business plan 
2. Review business plan 
3. Bring in management team to present 
4. Due diligence 
5. Evaluation of opportunity 
6. Internal partners meeting 
7. Term sheet 
8. In-depth due diligence 
9. Legal documentation 
10. Funding 
We’ll save the dynamics of this flow and what you can do to improve your chance of making it through all of these steps for a future column. The key thing here for the entrepreneur to appreciate is that the term sheet step is the first one in which the investment firm has decided that it has an intent to invest, if the terms of the deal can be agreed upon.
The first-time entrepreneur may think that the transaction to be completed between the company and investor is a simple exchange of cash for some number of shares of stock in the company. A deal, though, is much more complicated and complex than that. A term sheet is likely to address at least the following:
We will look at some of the key provisions in a future column. The key thing here is that the scale and scope of these transactions is very broad and many considerations come into play.
The term sheet is intended to reflect the desires and concerns of the participating parties in a way that is mutually agreed upon. Assuming that it is successfully negotiated, it is then turned over to the attorneys to craft the legal documents. The eight-page term sheet is then converted to 300 or more pages of legalese in at least four legal documents [Warning: I am not an attorney]:
Next week we will look at the deal from the perspectives of the entrepreneur and the investor and see how a term sheet addresses their concerns and desires.
Frank Demmler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Adjunct Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University. (http://web.gsia.cmu.edu/display_faculty.aspx?id=168)