Equity Management

Which SAFE Is Right for You: A Guide to Selecting the Right Agreement for Startups and Investors

In the vibrant landscape of startup financing, the Simple Agreement for Future Equity (SAFE) has become a cornerstone for early-stage companies seeking investment without the immediate need for equity dilution or debt. Understanding the nuances of various SAFE agreements is crucial for both startups and investors, as the choice can significantly impact the future relationship and financial outcome. This article aims to guide you through the selection process, ensuring that the SAFE chosen aligns perfectly with both parties' strategic goals and expectations.

Overview of SAFE Agreements

Introduced by Y Combinator in 2013, SAFE agreements were designed to simplify the investment process in startups. A SAFE is not a debt instrument but an agreement that provides the investor the right to future equity in the company. 

Key components include valuation caps and discount rates, designed to protect investors while providing startups with the flexibility and funding they need to grow. SAFEs play a pivotal role in the startup ecosystem by facilitating quick and efficient investments.

Different Types of SAFE Agreements

SAFE agreements come in various forms, each tailored to different scenarios, let’s learn about each one of them. 

Valuation Cap Only SAFE

Description: This type of SAFE includes a valuation cap, which is the maximum valuation at which the investor's funds can convert into equity. The valuation cap is designed to protect the investor by ensuring that they receive a fair share of the company relative to their early investment if the company's valuation increases significantly by the time of a conversion event.


  • Provides early investors with a potentially larger equity stake if the startup's valuation increases significantly.
  • Offers investors a measure of protection against overvaluation in future funding rounds.


  • Might result in significant dilution for founders if the startup's valuation grows beyond expectations.
  • Can be less attractive to startups that are confident in their rapid valuation growth.

Discount Only SAFE

Description: A Discount Only SAFE grants investors a discount on the price per share at the time of conversion, without a valuation cap. This arrangement rewards investors for their early support with the opportunity to convert their investment into equity at a lower price than later-stage investors.


  • Encourages early investment by offering a clear financial incentive.
  • Simplifies negotiations by focusing on the discount rather than projecting future valuations.


  • The benefit to investors is directly tied to the startup's ability to raise future funds at a higher valuation, which can be uncertain.
  • May result in less favorable terms for investors if the startup’s valuation increases modestly.

Valuation Cap and Discount SAFE

Description: Combining the features of both the Valuation Cap Only and Discount Only SAFEs, this variant offers investors a discount on the conversion price and includes a valuation cap. It represents a balanced approach, providing protections and benefits for both investors and startups.


  • Offers dual benefits to investors: protection via the cap and potential for additional gains via the discount.
  • Can be more appealing to both parties by balancing the interests of startups with the protections for investors.


  • Complexity in terms can lead to more extensive negotiations.
  • Startups need to carefully manage dilution and valuation expectations.

MFN (Most Favored Nation) Only SAFE

Description: The MFN Only SAFE doesn't specify a valuation cap or discount rate. Instead, it includes a clause that ensures the investor receives the same terms as any future SAFE the company issues that might have more favorable terms.


  • Provides a form of future-proofing for investors, ensuring they are not disadvantaged by subsequent, more favorable agreements.
  • Simplifies the initial agreement by focusing on fair treatment rather than specific financial metrics.


  • The value to the investor is contingent upon the company issuing another SAFE with different terms.
  • May lead to future administrative and legal complexities as new SAFEs are issued.

Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, influenced by the startup's valuation trajectory and the investor's risk tolerance.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a SAFE

When navigating the decision of which Simple Agreement for Future Equity (SAFE) to choose, startups and investors must weigh a multitude of factors. This decision will significantly impact the financial future of both parties. Here are key considerations to guide this critical choice:

Current Stage of the Startup and Its Funding Needs

  • Early Stage vs. Growth Stage: Early-stage startups might prioritize SAFEs that offer more flexibility and less immediate dilution, such as those with a Most Favored Nation (MFN) clause or a discount. Growth-stage companies might lean towards valuation cap SAFEs to provide clearer future equity expectations to investors.
  • Immediate Funding Needs: The urgency and size of the funding requirement can influence the choice of SAFE. A larger, immediate need might necessitate terms more favorable to investors to attract the necessary capital.

Projected Growth and Valuation Milestones

  • Growth Trajectory: A startup with a high growth trajectory might opt for a SAFE with a valuation cap to protect early investors and incentivize them with the promise of substantial equity. Conversely, a more modest growth outlook could favor a discount-only SAFE, reducing the risk of excessive dilution for founders.
  • Valuation Expectations: Startups expecting significant increases in valuation might prefer SAFEs that limit dilution (e.g., MFN or discount-only SAFEs), while those uncertain about future valuations might select a cap and discount SAFE for more balanced terms.

Strategic Goals of Both the Startup and the Investor

  • Long-term Partnership vs. Quick Exit: The strategic goals and exit strategies of both parties play a crucial role. A SAFE that aligns with the long-term vision and provides mutually beneficial terms can foster a stronger partnership.
  • Risk Tolerance: The risk appetite of both the startup and the investor will affect SAFE selection. More risk-averse investors might prefer a valuation cap to ensure a minimum equity percentage, while risk-tolerant founders may choose a discount-only SAFE to retain more control and equity.

Legal and Financial Implications

  • Dilution Impact: Understanding the potential dilution effect of each SAFE type on founder equity is crucial. Founders must balance attracting investment with retaining control of their company.
  • Tax Considerations: The legal and tax implications of different SAFE agreements can vary, affecting both startups and investors. It's advisable to consult with legal and financial professionals to understand these nuances fully.

Market Conditions and Industry Trends

  • Investor Sentiment: In a market where investors are cautious, terms that are more investor-friendly (such as a valuation cap) might be necessary to secure funding.
  • Industry Benchmarks: Different sectors might have prevailing norms regarding SAFE agreements. Knowing these can guide startups and investors towards the most suitable type of SAFE.

For Startups: How to Decide Which SAFE Is Right for You

Startups should consider:

  • Long-term Financial Strategy: How does each SAFE type fit into your financial roadmap?
  • Investor Relations: What are your potential investors' preferences?
  • Legal and Financial Advice: Consulting with professionals can provide clarity and direction.
  • Negotiating terms that reflect your startup's unique position and future prospects is essential.

For Investors: How to Evaluate Which SAFE Makes Sense for Your Investment

Investors should assess:

  • Risk Tolerance and Investment Strategy: Matching SAFE terms with investment philosophy.
  • Due Diligence: Understanding the startup's business model, market potential, and growth trajectory.
  • Legal Implications: The long-term impact of the SAFE agreement on potential returns.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

When it comes to navigating the world of Simple Agreements for Future Equity (SAFEs), both startups and investors can encounter several common pitfalls. Understanding these challenges and knowing how to avoid them is crucial for ensuring a smooth and mutually beneficial relationship. Here’s a deeper look into these pitfalls and strategies to sidestep them:

Overlooking the Fine Print

Pitfall: Failing to thoroughly understand the terms and conditions of a SAFE can lead to unexpected outcomes, such as significant dilution for founders or less favorable terms for investors than anticipated.

Avoidance Strategy: Both parties should meticulously review the SAFE agreement, preferably with legal counsel. Understanding every clause, especially those regarding conversion triggers and valuation caps, is essential.

Misjudging the Startup's Valuation

Pitfall: Startups might set an unrealistic valuation cap, either too high to attract investors or too low, resulting in excessive dilution during future financing rounds.

Avoidance Strategy: Conduct thorough market research and comparative analysis to set a realistic valuation cap. Engaging with financial advisors to evaluate the startup's worth accurately can also help.

Ignoring Long-Term Implications

Pitfall: Short-term needs might overshadow the long-term implications of a SAFE, such as future fundraising difficulties or investor relations issues.

Avoidance Strategy: Consider the long-term trajectory of the company and how a SAFE fits into future funding rounds and growth plans. Open discussions with potential investors about long-term goals and expectations can align interests.

Lack of Flexibility

Pitfall: Being too rigid about the terms of a SAFE can lead to missed opportunities for both startups and investors. For startups, it might mean turning away potential investment; for investors, it could mean missing out on a promising company.

Avoidance Strategy: Maintain a flexible approach to negotiation. Be open to revising terms such as valuation caps, discount rates, or adding an MFN clause to accommodate the interests and concerns of both parties.

Neglecting Communication

Pitfall: Poor communication between startups and investors regarding the expectations and implications of a SAFE can lead to misunderstandings and strained relationships.

Avoidance Strategy: Establish clear and ongoing communication channels. Regular updates and transparent discussions about the company's performance, funding rounds, and strategic decisions help maintain trust and alignment.

Disregarding Future Fundraising

Pitfall: Not considering how a SAFE will affect or be perceived in future fundraising efforts can complicate additional rounds of financing, affecting both valuation and the ability to attract new investors.

Avoidance Strategy: Strategically plan how a SAFE agreement fits into the broader fundraising strategy. Anticipate questions future investors might have about existing SAFEs and prepare clear, confident answers.

Overusing SAFEs

Pitfall: Relying too heavily on SAFEs for funding without considering other forms of investment can limit a startup’s financial strategy and appeal to a diverse investor base.

Avoidance Strategy: Use SAFEs as part of a diversified funding strategy. Consider mixing in other investment forms, such as traditional equity financing or convertible notes, to balance the startup’s capital structure.


Selecting the right SAFE agreement is a critical decision that requires careful consideration, strategic foresight, and professional advice. By understanding the different types of SAFEs and aligning them with your goals, startups and investors can forge partnerships that are not only financially rewarding but also strategically aligned with their long-term vision.

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