PART II - EXAMPLES - CLAWBACKS FOR STARTUP STOCK - CAN I KEEP WHAT I THINK I OWN?

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

These are some examples of claw-backs that limit the value of a startup equity grant. For more on the issue, please see CLAWBACKS FOR STARTUP STOCK - CAN I KEEP WHAT I THINK I OWN? These are a few of many types of ways these can be implemented by startups to reserve the right to take back vested shares or options.

Equity Incentive Plan I

Here's an example from an Equity Incentive Plan. The company reserves the right to include clawbacks for vested shares upon an individual's termination of employment:

Repurchase Right. The Company (and other designated Persons) may repurchase any or all of the shares of Stock granted to a Participant pursuant to an Award or acquired by the Participant pursuant to the exercise of a Stock Option upon such Participant’s termination of employment with, or Service to, the Company for any reason to the extent such a right is provided in an Award Agreement or other applicable agreement between the Company and the Participant.

Such terms could be included in any agreement with the individual, such as a Stock Option Grant Notice, a Stock Option Agreement, a Stock Option Exercise Agreement, a Termination and Release or Severance Agreement, a Restricted Stock Agreement, an RSU Agreement, an Employment or IP Agreement, or a Stockholders' Agreement.

Equity Incentive Plan II

Here’s another example from an Equity Incentive Plan. The company reserves the right to implement a policy in the future to clawback vested or unvested shares, and you’re agreeing that such a change will apply retroactively to your shares.

Clawback Policy.  The Awards granted under this Plan are subject to the terms of the Corporation’s recoupment, clawback or similar policy as it may be in effect from time to time, as well as any similar provisions of applicable law, any of which could in certain circumstances require repayment or forfeiture of Awards or any shares of Common Stock or other cash or property received with respect to the Awards (including any value received from a disposition of the shares acquired upon payment of the Awards).

Stock Option Agreement

Here’s an example from a Stock Option Agreement. The company reserves the right to change its bylaws in the future to clawback vested or unvested shares, and you’re agreeing that such a change will apply retroactively to your shares.

Right of Repurchase. To the extent provided in the Company’s bylaws in effect at such time the Company elects to exercise its right, the Company will have the right to repurchase all or any part of the shares of Common Stock you acquire pursuant to the exercise of your option.

These two terms allowing retroactive changes push the limits of Delaware law on company repurchase rights. However, I advise my clients to negotiate these out of their documents before joining a company to avoid litigation at a later date.

Restricted Stock Unit Grant Notice

Here's an example from a Restricted Stock Unit Grant Notice. In order to vest RSUs, the time-based vesting requirement (the "Time Condition") must be met, and the Company must have an IPO or a Change of Control (the "Performance Vesting") prior to the 7 year expiration period of the RSU.  This is a normal structure for a startup RSU grant due to tax planning. However, in this case, if the IPO or Change of Control does not occur within 3 years of the individual's last date of employment, the RSUs are cancelled and never vest:

Vesting Conditions. Any Restricted Stock Units that have satisfied the Time Condition as of such date shall remain subject to the Performance Vesting set forth in Section 2(b) above, but shall expire and be of no further force or effect on the first to occur of (a) three years after date on which the Grantee’s Service Relationship with the Company terminates, or (b) the Expiration Date.

Employment and Confidentiality Agreement

Here’s an example from an Employment and Confidentiality Agreement. The company reserves the right to terminate vested options in the event of a breach of the agreement:

Breach of Confidentiality Agreement. If the Optionee breaches the provisions of the Confidentiality Agreement, then any outstanding Options held by such Optionee at the actual time of such termination shall thereupon expire, terminate and be cancelled in respect of all vested and unvested Option Shares.

Breach of Non-Competition and Non-Solicitation Covenant. If the Optionee breaches the Non-Competition and Non-Solicitation Agreement, then any outstanding Options held by such Optionee at the actual time of such termination shall thereupon expire, terminate and be cancelled in respect of all vested or unvested Option Shares.

While these two examples apply to restrictions on exercising options, similar terms may also apply to repurchase or forfeiture of vested shares for violations of confidentiality agreements, non-competes or non-solicits, even after termination of employment.

Wrapping Up

These are only a few examples of how clawbacks might appear in a startup equity offer. For more information on evaluating the terms of a startup equity grant, please see THE GOLD STANDARD OF STARTUP EQUITY - A GUIDE FOR EMPLOYEES. For more information on how clawbacks limit the value of startup equity, please see CLAWBACKS FOR STARTUP STOCK - CAN I KEEP WHAT I THINK I OWN?

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.


 

Startup Offer Negotiation: The $1 Million Problem of Early Expiration Stock Options

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

The startup scene is debating this question: Should employees have a full 10 years to exercise vested options or should their rights to exercise vested options expire early if they leave the company before an IPO or acquisition?

The standard in the past has been that employee stock options must be exercised by the earlier of 10 years after the date of grant or 3 months after the last date of employment. If a vested stock option is not exercised by the end of this 3 month early expiration period, it expires and the individual forfeits all rights to the equity they earned. In some cases, the period is even shorter such as expiration 1 month after the last day of employment or even expiration on the last day of employment.

This post addresses how an early expiration period for stock options can make it impossible for employees to take advantage of the value of vested equity and the considers the benefits of negotiating for a full 10 year exercise period for startup stock options. I advise my clients who are evaluating their equity offers to address this question before accepting: “Can I realistically exercise my stock options if the company is a success?” If the option grant has a very high exercise price or could potentially lead to a huge tax bill at exercise, it is not realistic to expect to easily exercise and take advantage of that value. 

Early Expiration v. Full 10-Year Exercise Period

If an employee leaves a startup - either by choice or by involuntary termination of employment - and has to exercise stock options within an early expiration period, he or she has these choices:

  1. Pay the exercise price and tax bill with savings or a loan;

  2. Find liquidity for some of the shares on the secondary market (which is complicated, not widely accessible and sometimes prohibited by the company or by law) to pay for the cost of the exercise price and tax bill; or

  3. Walk away and lose the vested value.

Some companies are adopting this solution and granting stock options with a full 10 year exercise period without the early expiration. Ten years from the date of grant is usually the maximum exercise period, as the legal landscape for stock options makes anything beyond a 10 year exercise period quite impractical in most cases. This enables employees to wait for an IPO or acquisition to pay their exercise price and taxes triggered by exercise. It is based on the desire to design a compensation structure that makes sense for the recipients.

Other companies that originally had a short end of employment early expiration period are extending that period. One example of this is Pinterest which extended the term in some cases to 7 years from the date of grant after their valuations and transfer restrictions made the early termination period burdensome for option holders.

You can see a chart of companies reported to have adopted an extended exercise period or changed from the short early expiration period to longer periods.

The “$1 Million Problem” of Early Expiration Stock Options for Startup Optionholders

Early expiration of stock options can be a $1 million problem for employees at successful companies because the tax bill due at exercise is based on the value of the shares at exercise. Either ordinary income or alternative minimum taxable income may be recognized at exercise equal to the difference between the exercise price and the value of the shares at the time of exercise. The value of the shares is usually called fair market value or FMV or 409A valuation. It is generally set by an outside valuation firm hired by the company. The company may try to set it as low as possible to minimize this problem for employees, but IRS rules generally require that the FMV increases in some relationship to increasing investor valuations and business successes.

The more successful the company has been between option grant and option exercise, the higher the tax bill will be. For a wildly successful company, the calculation might look like this:

Here’s an example:

Exercise Price = $50,000

FMV at Exercise = $4 million

Gain (either Ordinary Income or AMT Income) Recognized at Exercise = $3,950,000

Hypothetical tax rate = 25%

Taxes Due for Exercise = $1,027,000

Total Exercise Price + Tax Cost to Exercise = $1,077,000

For a reality check here, please remember that the FMV at exercise is not a guaranteed value. Therefore, if the option holder in this example who makes the investment of $50,000 plus the tax payment of $1,027,000 might never realize the $4 million in value or even reclaim the $1,077,000 exercise price and taxes paid. In fact, the shares may never become liquid and could become a total loss. For someone who goes into debt to exercise and pay the taxes, that might mean bankruptcy. So, even if they can come up with $1 million to solve the early expiration problem at exercise, they may have wished they had not if the company value later declines.

Investor-types frame this as a simple investment choice - the option holder needs to decide whether or not to bet on the company by the deadline. But many people simply do not have access to funds to cover these amounts. It’s not a realistic choice. The very success of the company they helped create makes it impossible to exercise the stock options they earned.

Although these numbers may seem impossibly large, I regularly see this problem at this $1 million + magnitude for individual option holders. The common demographic for the problem is very early employee-level hires of startups that grew to billion-dollar valuations.

Why Now? Later IPOs, Higher Valuations, More Transfer Restrictions

Early expiration of stock options is a hot issue right now because successful startups are staying private longer and staying private after valuations have grown much higher than in the past. These successful but still private companies have also been enforcing extreme transfer restrictions.  These longer timelines from founding to IPO, higher valuations between founding and IPO, and transfer restrictions are causing the early expiration of stock options to affect more employees.

  1. Later IPOs = More Likely Early Expiration Applies Before Liquidity. The typical tenure of a startup employee is 3-4 years. As companies stay private longer, employees are more likely to leave a company after their shares have vested but before an IPO. If they have to exercise within the early expiration period but before an IPO, they must pay taxes before they have liquidity for their shares to pay the tax bills.

  2. Higher Valuations = Higher Grant Prices. Exercise prices for stock option grants must be set at the fair market value (“FMV” or “409A Value”) of common stock on the date of grant. If individuals join companies after they have had some successes in raising funds and in their businesses, the FMV at grant will be higher. Therefore, departing employees are more likely to have hefty exercise prices to pay within that early expiration period. With delayed IPOs they are unlikely to have access to liquidity opportunities to raise funds to cover those exercise prices.

  3. Higher Valuations = Higher Tax Bills Due for Exercise. Total tax bills at exercise are more likely to be high as the company valuations are high because taxable income (either ordinary income or alternative minimum taxable income) is generally equal to FMV at Exercise - Exercise Price. With delayed IPOs they are unlikely to have access to liquidity opportunities to raise funds to cover those tax bills.

  4. Extreme Transfer Restrictions = No Liquidity Prior to IPO or Acquisition. In the past, private company stock could be transferred to any accredited investor so long as the seller first offered to sell the shares to the company. (This is known as a right of first refusal or ROFR. The market for pre-IPO stock is known as the secondary market.) Some companies are prohibiting such secondary market transfers and similar structures such as forward sales or loans that had historically allowed employees of hot companies to get liquidity for the shares to pay for exercise costs and tax bills at exercise. Some companies add these transfer restrictions after issuing the shares and even push the limits of the law by claiming that they can enforce new restrictions retroactively.

Full 10 Year Term Solution

The law does not require an early expiration period for stock options. In fact, they can be granted so that they do not expire until 10 years from the date of grant regardless of the end date of employment. An exercise more than 90 days after termination of employment changes tax treatment for options originally granted as Incentive Stock Options, most employees would prefer to have the choice between exercising within 90 days of termination of employment and waiting to exercise.

For startups who have chosen a full 10 year term in place of early expiration, it may be because their recruits or the company founders may have faced the problem of early expiration at prior companies and become disillusioned with stock options as a benefit. Or their recruits may have read about the issue and asked for it as part of their negotiation. Or their founders may have designed their equity plan to be as favorable to employees as possible as a matter of principle or as a recruiting tool.

Creative Modifications to the 10-Year Term Solution

Companies may prefer early expiration of stock options because terminated stock options reduce dilution for other stockholders. Or they may prefer that their employees are bound to the company by the “golden handcuffs” of early expiration stock options as a retention tool.

For companies that are concerned about excessive dilution, it might make sense to eliminate early expiration only if the company’s value has increased since grant. In other words, employees have a full 10 year term only if the FMV of the common stock on the date of their departure is greater than the exercise price of the stock option. This targets the solution (tax deferral) to the problem (owing tax at exercise before liquidity). If the FMV at exercise is equal to the exercise price, then there is no taxable income to report at exercise. Therefore, an extended exercise period is not necessary to defer taxes until liquidity. This solution does not address the problem of high exercise prices; companies with high exercise prices due to high valuations may want to use RSUs instead of stock options to solve the exercise price problem.

Attorney Augie Rakow, a partner at Orrick who advises startups and investors, has advised clients to find a middle ground by extending exercise periods only for longer-term contributors. This addresses the company concern about retention while solving the early expiration problem for longer-term employees. For example, option agreements might allow for three years to exercise options after departure only if an employee has been with the company for three years. He notes that "it's a good solution for companies that want to let long-term contributors participate in the value they help create, without incentivizing employees to leave prematurely."

Negotiation Tips: Can I Realistically Exercise the Stock Options if the Company is a Success?

Due to the prevalence of early expiration stock options at startups, this becomes an essential question in evaluating an equity offer: “Can I realistically earn the value of vested equity if the company is a success?” If the option grant has a very high exercise price or could potentially lead to a huge tax bill at exercise, it may not be feasible to exercise during an early termination period at the end of employment, making the value of vested equity impossible to capture. Clients have negotiated the removal of early expiration or other creative structures to solve this problem if it arises in their offer evaluation and negotiation.

For other must-know concepts about startup equity offers, please see Startup Equity Standards: A Guide for Employees. For more information on “the dreaded” repurchase rights for vested shares, another way startup employees are not able to take advantage of the value of their vested equity, please see this post Clawbacks for Startup Equity: Can I Keep What I Think I Own?

Thank You

Thank you to JD McCullough for providing research assistance for this post. He is a health tech entrepreneur, interested in connecting and improving businesses, products, and people.

Thank you to attorney Augie Rakow, a partner at Orrick who advises startups and investors, for sharing his creative solution to this problem. 

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

How VC's Vet Founders - Who Did They Fire?

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

Another reason to play nice, from Don Rainey of Grotech Ventures via Dan Primack's Term Sheet:

[A]lleged sexual harassers are legally enabled to job-hop without new employers learning about their pasts .... I [asked Don Rainey of Grotech Ventures] how VCs can adequately vet founders or senior portfolio execs. ‘I try to find people who were fired by the person we’re looking at, because people who have been fired have a certain zest for telling you things that might not otherwise show up.’ -Don Rainey of Grotech Ventures
— Dan Primack's Term Sheet

Clawbacks for Startup Stock - Can I Keep What I think I Own?

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

Updated February 23, 2017. Originally published on Jul 19, 2014. Thank you for your enthusiastic feedback on this post. As of February 23, 2017, over 30,000 people have viewed it.  I hope you’ll read it, use it and share it.

Everyone loves a gold rush story about startup hires making millions on startup equity. But not all startup equity is created equal. If a startup adds repurchase rights for vested shares (one example of a "clawback") to its agreements, individuals may lose the value of their vested equity because a company can force them to sell their shares back to the company in certain situations, such as if they leave their jobs or are fired prior to IPO or acquisition. Other examples of clawbacks are forfeiture (rather than repurchase) of vested shares at termination or for violation of IP agreements or non-competes.

Image from Babak Nivi of Venture Hacks, who warns startup founders and hires to “run screaming from” startup offers with clawbacks or repurchase rights for vested shares: “Founders and employees should not agree to this provision under any circumstances. Read your option plan carefully.”

Image from Babak Nivi of Venture Hacks, who warns startup founders and hires to “run screaming from” startup offers with clawbacks or repurchase rights for vested shares: “Founders and employees should not agree to this provision under any circumstances. Read your option plan carefully.”

How Clawbacks Limit Startup Equity Value

In a true startup equity plan, executives and employees earn shares, which they continue to own when they leave the company. There are special rules about vesting and requirements for exercising options, but once the shares are earned (and options exercised), these stockholders have true ownership rights.

But for startups with clawback rights, individuals earn shares they don’t really own. In the case of repurchase rights for vested shares, the company can purchase the shares upon certain events, most commonly after the individual leaves or is terminated by the company. If the individual is still at the company at the time of an IPO or acquisition, they get the full value of the shares. If not, the company can buy back the shares at a discounted price, called the “fair market value” of the common stock (“FMV”) on the date of termination of employment or other triggering event.

Most hires do not know about these clawbacks when they negotiate an offer, join a company or exercise their stock options. This means they are earning equity and purchasing shares but do not have a true sense of its value or their ownership rights (or lack thereof).

Clawbacks are “Horrible” for Employees -  Sam Altman of Y Combinator

In some cases a stockholder would be happy to sell their shares back to the company. But repurchase rights are not designed with the individual’s interests in mind. They allow the company to buy the shares back against the stockholder’s will and at a discounted price per share known as the “fair market value” or “FMV” of the common stock. As Y Combinator’s Sam Altman wrote, “It’s fine if the company wants to offer to repurchase the shares, but it’s horrible for the company to be able to demand this.”

The FMV paid by the company for the shares is not the true value for two reasons. First, the true value of common stock is close to the preferred stock price per share (the price that is paid by investors for stock and which is used to define the valuation of the startup), but the buyback FMV is far lower than this valuation. Second, the real value of owning startup stock comes at the exit event - IPO or acquisition. This early buyback prevents the stockholder realizing that growth or “pop” in value.

Real Life Example - Skype Shares Worth $0 in $8.5 Billion Acquisition by Microsoft

In 2011, when Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion (that’s a B), some former employees and executives were outraged when they found that their equity was worth $0 because of a clawback in their equity documents. Their shock followed a period of disbelief, during which they insisted that they owned the shares. They couldn’t lose something they owned, right?

One former employee who received $0 in the acquisition said that while the fine print of the legal documents did set forth this company right, he was not aware of it when he joined. “I would have never gone to work there had I known,” he told Bloomberg. According to Bloomberg, “The only mention that the company had the right to buy if he left in less than five years came in a single sentence toward the end of the document that referred him to yet another document, which he never bothered to read.”

Both Skype and the investors who implemented the clawbacks, Silver Lake Partners, were called out in the press as “evil,” the startup community’s indignation did not change the legal status of the employees and executives who were cut out of millions of dollars of value in the deal.

Hypothetical Example #1 - Company Does NOT Have Repurchase Rights for Vested Shares - Share Value: $1.7 Million

Here’s an example of how an individual would earn the value of startup stock without repurchase rights or clawbacks. In the case of an early hire of Ruckus Wireless, Inc., the value would have grown as shown below.

This is an example of a hypothetical early hire of Ruckus Wireless, which went public in 2012. It assumes that the company did not restrict executive or employee equity with repurchase rights or other clawbacks for vested shares. This person would have had the right to hold the shares until IPO and earn $1.7 million.

This is an example of a hypothetical early hire of Ruckus Wireless, which went public in 2012. It assumes that the company did not restrict executive or employee equity with repurchase rights or other clawbacks for vested shares. This person would have had the right to hold the shares until IPO and earn $1.7 million. If you want to see the working calculations, see this Google Sheet.

These calculations were estimated from company public filings with the State of California, the State of Delaware, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. For more on these calculations, see The One Percent: How 1% of Ruckus Wireless at Series A Became $1.7 million at IPO.

Hypothetical Example #2 - Company Has Clawbacks for Vested Shares - Share Value: $68,916

If the company had the right to repurchase the shares at FMV at the individual’s departure, and they left after four years of service when the shares were fully vested, the forced buyout price would have been $68,916 (estimated). This would have caused the stockholder to forfeit $1,635,054 in value.

In this hypothetical, the individual would have lost $1,635,054 in value if the shares were repurchased at their termination. If you want to see the working calculations, see this Google Sheet.

No Surprises - Identifying Clawbacks During Negotiation

As you can see, clawbacks dramatically affect the value of startup stock. For some clients, this term is a deal breaker when they are negotiating a startup offer. For others, it makes cash compensation more important in their negotiation. Either way, it’s essential to know about this term when evaluating and negotiating an offer, or in considering the value of equity after joining a startup.

Unfortunately this term is not likely to be spelled out in an offer letter. It can appear in any number of documents such as stock option agreements, stockholders agreements, bylaws, IP agreements or non-compete agreements. These are not usually offered to a recruit before they sign the offer letter and joining the company. But they can be requested and reviewed during the negotiation stage to discover and renegotiate clawbacks and other red-flag terms.

My clients who are negotiating offers ask the company for form versions of all relevant documents before agreeing to an equity package. I read the documents, identify red-flags like clawbacks, and propose more favorable terms within market standards. In most cases, clients negotiate the terms on their own behalf. I am available behind the scenes during their negotiation and to review the final versions of the documents. If you would like professional guidance on your startup equity, please see this FAQ or contact me at (650) 326-3412 or info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

Thank you to Dianne Walker of Stock Option Counsel for edits to this post. 

The C-Level View - Fine Print Issues in Startup Executive Equity Grants

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individual founders and executives on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

For executives trading significant cash compensation for startup equity, the fine print of the equity documents can significantly change the risk/reward profile of the deal. Be on the lookout for value-limiting terms in the Equity Grant Agreements, the Stock Plan and the Certificate of Incorporation.

Equity Grant Agreements

The Equity Grant Agreements and Stock Plan are usually not provided to the executive with the Offer Letter, as the official equity grant is not made until after hire. However, these agreements contain important details about the grant, so it makes sense to review them before agreeing to the number of shares or signing the Offer Letter.

For example, the Equity Grant Agreements may give the company the right to forcibly repurchase shares from the executive after termination of employment, even if they are vested shares of restricted stock or vested shares issued upon exercise of options. This dramatically limits the value of the equity, as the most significant increase in value of startups has historically been at the time of an exit event.

They may also require the executive to agree to future retroactive changes to the terms of the equity. For example, they may include the executive’s agreement to be bound to repurchase rights that might appear in future changes to the bylaws or the executive’s agreement to sign onto exercise agreements or stockholder agreements in the future which may have onerous terms.

If the Equity Grant Agreements have repurchase or other forfeiture rights for vested shares, it makes sense to negotiate these out of the deal or provide for alternative compensation to make up for the potential loss in value. If the Equity Grant Agreements have commitments to be bound by unknown future terms, it makes sense to remove these commitments and have all relevant terms provided up front.

The Stock Plan

The Stock Plan (otherwise known as an Equity Incentive Plan) can have some of the same red flags addressed above under Equity Grant Agreements. They may also have other onerous terms especially relating to treatment of executive shares in a change of control. The company may reserve the right to terminate, for no consideration, all unvested options at change of control. This could be a significant cancellation of value and could seriously decrease the executive’s leverage in negotiation of post-acquisition employment terms.  Also, if an executive has negotiated for favorable double trigger vesting acceleration upon change of control rights, this term could invalidate that benefit, as cancelled unvested options would not be available for acceleration in the event of a post-acquisition termination.

If the Stock Plan has this or other onerous terms, it makes sense to negotiate for modifications in the Equity Grant Agreements or for a grant made outside the Stock Plan with terms crafted for the individual executive. If the Stock Plan has a company right to cancel unvested options at change of control, it makes sense to address this directly in the language of the executive’s vesting acceleration upon change of control term so that the cancellation cannot occur without a corresponding acceleration of vesting.

Certificate of Incorporation

The Certificate of Incorporation will outline some key economic rights of investors, including their liquidation preferences. Executives joining established startups can be misled by their percentage ownership if the investors have significant liquidation preferences, either because of significant fundraising or onerous investor terms. For example, in a company with $300 million investment with standard start up investor rights of 1X non-participating liquidation preference, any acquisition below $300 million valuation would provide $0 to common stockholders. Or, in a company with $50 million investment and outsized investor rights of 3X participating liquidation preference, the investors would take the first $150 million in acquisition proceeds and participate with common stockholders in the distribution of the remaining proceeds.  

If investor liquidation preferences are high, it makes sense for an executive to negotiate for significantly more shares to balance the risk or negotiate for a management retention bonus to be earned upon acquisition to make up for the loss in equity value due to these preferences.

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individual founders and executives on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

 

The Not So Old Girls' Club: Who You Need to Succeed

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

Working with a great network can make career success much easier (and perhaps simply possible) to achieve.

When women talk about advancing their careers, they often talk about their lack of an “old boys’ club” to move them forward. In particular, women in the tech industry are uniquely aware of their need for a network because of their minority status. Without a built-in network, smart women in tech are thoughtfully constructing their own.

Mentors Far and Wide

The first step in building a network is recognizing that it takes a community to build a career and then committing to not go it alone. After they make this commitment, networkers find that informal mentors start to appear from far and wide to guide their paths.

According to Patricia K. Gillette, Esq., a partner in the employment law group at Orrick in San Francisco, “A mentor is someone, and I think it’s a variety of people in your life, who are going to help you navigate certain aspects of your life, whether it's your personal life, whether it's your work life, whether it's how you exercise, whether it's what you do for fun.”

Mentors are people you feel comfortable with. As Pat notes, “They're people who know you and are going to respond to you in a caring way and thoughtful way.

Diversity is important to get great perspectives. “They do not have to look like you,” Pat says. “They do not have to be the same gender or race. They don't have to be you.”

There will be many mentors in a well-connected life, but mentors are only one piece of the network necessary for advancing a career.

Sponsors within Your Organization

A sponsor is necessary in order to advance in an organization. A sponsor is someone in a very high position of leadership who advocates on one’s behalf within the organization.

A sponsor is going to “advocate for ways for you to increase your power within the organization either on the work side or on the leadership side on the economic side on the business building side,” Pat says. “You have to find a sponsor and you have to make sure you click with that sponsor and that that sponsor is willing to advocate for you. That's the way you advance within firms.”

A sponsor is completely different from a mentor. According to Pat, a sponsor is not someone to ask, “‘Where shall I stand in court? Shall I file this brief early?’ That's not what this person is.” In fact, Pat says, “a sponsor is someone who you may not like so much. A sponsor is somebody who is going to take you and say, 'The next thing you should do within the organization if you want to assume a position of power is X. And I'm going to talk to my friends within the organization to say that they ought to consider you.' That's very different from a mentor.”

What a sponsor offers is not based on altruism. To have this relationship, “you not only have to be ready, willing and able to ask, but you also have to be willing to offer something in return,” Pat says. “Usually what you offer in return is support for that person, either by being exactly as you said you were going to be - meaning you're really highly qualified and anxious and willing to accept positions of power within the organization. And also by making sure that you support that person in whatever causes he or she may have.”

See Pat’s presentation, Elimination of Bias - Women in the Law: Flying the Coop on the Wings of Economic & Institution Power, available from Lexvid: Continuing Professional Education.

Professionals

Finally, professionals provide services to help guide a career and financial path.

For example, financial planner Meg Bartelt, CFP®, MSFP, Founder and President, Flow Financial Planning, LLC, works with women in the tech industry. She knows that good financial planning isn’t enough if a woman’s career is flagging, which it often can in an industry notoriously unwelcoming to women. Part of her role is to help her clients connect to a larger network of professionals who can help them advance their careers, which in turn benefits their finances and helps them build wealth and financial strength. She started the list below based on her experiences of professionals who have helped her clients, and the list is growing as other women are adding ideas based on their own experiences.

A great network of professionals might include:

  • Recruiters and hiring managers for networking and job placement

  • Financial planners for managing wealth, making important financial decisions, and considering career moves from a financial perspective

  • Attorneys for negotiation of employment contracts, stock compensation, and intellectual property matters

  • Accountants for tax planning and estate planning

  • Career and leadership coaches for individual contributors who want to move to the management level or move from there to C-level roles, or to help with participation in and running meetings, finding places to speak and be on panels or interact with senior colleagues and peers

  • Public speaking coach for women wishing to improve their personal brand by speaking at conferences or even presentations in the office

  • Negotiation coach for women wishing to advocate on their own behalf more effectively, be that when negotiating a compensation package for a new job, or for advancement in a current job and

  • Professionals on the person side of life, such as healthcare professionals, who in turn can improve effectiveness at work.  

Opportunities for the Future

The essence of the “old boys’ club” is that their networks are built-in and are established without having to learn to create them. They meet the right contacts in their personal networks and activities. This list of network roles is meant to be a starting point for women to start to think about who is out there that would make up a community for a successful career.

As women learn the necessity of community in building a career, they may start to overcome their aversion to seeking out a network and becoming successful. Since everyone needs this, it's not wrong or overly ambitious to pursue it. As Pat notes, "[W]e see ambition as being a dirty word. There's some of us who say, 'I don't want to be ambitious, I don't want to look like I'm trying to go for everything, I don't want to look like I'm trying to get everything for myself.' That's okay, because it's not for yourself. Ultimately it's for the team, it's for your family, for your personal satisfaction."

Adding to the List

Please contact me with any suggestions of other roles that might be added to the list or descriptions of how these types of people can be helpful. I would be happy to add them to the list!

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

Stock Option Counsel's Mary Russell in New York Times on Liquidity for Private Stock

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

For start-up employees, the more explicit language around stock prohibitions can create downsides, said Mary Russell, a lawyer based in Palo Alto, Calif., who works with start-up workers to evaluate their equity compensation. When employees leave start-ups, they often have the opportunity to buy stock that has been set aside for them at a low price. But if their start-ups have been successful, they also need money to pay taxes that will be levied on the increased value of the stock.

Ms. Russell said it is not unusual for a client to say their private company stock is worth $3 million, but that they need to come up with $1 million to pay for the shares and cover the tax bill. “In the past, the solution has been to find a third-party buyer and sell enough of the stock to cover all of those costs,” Ms. Russell said.

The use of more explicit language to cover what is and is not allowed could eliminate the option of raising cash from a third party, Ms. Russell said.

She added that employees rarely read their paperwork carefully. “In some cases a company is simply clarifying its terms, but some are making a black-and-white shift to more restrictive terms,” she said.
— Katie Benner, Airbnb and Others Set Terms for Employees to Cash Out, New York Times
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Advice for startup employees in bill gurley's "on the road to recap"

Startup employees have been curious lately about how economics at their companies and in the broader VC world are affecting the value of their shares.  Benchmark partner Bill Gurley has published a popular post on the wider topic, and he includes some advice specific to employees at unicorn startups. I won't bother with a summary here, as a read of the full article is necessary for a comprehensive view of his advice. So I'll simply suggest Bill Gurley's On the Road to Recap: Why the Unicorn Financing Market Just Became Dangerous...For All Involved.

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

 

Quora: Formula for Option Grant Size at a Startup?

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

QUORA QUESTION: Is there a generic formula I can apply to determine fair pre-IPO stock option grants based on the company's size and # of fully diluted shares?

I am a tech worker who has spent all of my career with post-IPO companies and am negotiating an offer with a well-established startup of approximately 250 employees. I am not taking on a senior role.

This is a simplified version of part of the process I follow with my Stock Option Counsel clients who are evaluating private company equity offers. It works best with a mid-stage startup which has had a recent funding round from a well-known VC (a.k.a. someone whose investment decision you would trust).

Recent VC Company Valuation / Fully Diluted Shares = Current "Value" per Share

Current Value per Share - Exercise Price per Option = Intrinsic Value per Option

Intrinsic Value per Option * Number of Options = Intrinsic Value of Equity Offer

Intrinsic Value of Equity Offer / Number of Years of Vesting = Annual Value of Equity Offer

Annual Value of Equity Offer + Value of Benefits + Salary + Bonus/Commission = Total Annual Compensation

Use Total Annual Compensation to evaluate the offer or compare to market opportunities.

Certain legal terms may change the risk and, therefore, the appropriate number of shares. For more on ownership limitations, see Ownership - Can the Company Take Back My Vested Shares? For more on how companies decide the right offer for startup employees, see Bull’s Eye: Negotiating the Right Job Offer.

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Quora Question: Why do companies use equity compensation?

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Quora Question: Why are companies more willing to pay you with stock options and other benefits rather than straight up cash/salary increase?

Mary Russell: Thanks for asking me to answer this. Public companies emphasize equity because it matches pay with overall company performance. If the stockholders are doing well, employee stockholders do well. 

Silicon Valley-type private companies emphasize equity because -- historically, anyway -- they were strapped for cash. They can offer employees options to purchase common stock at a discount from the price investors are paying for preferred stock. So employees receive a discount on an unusual investment in exchange for lower salaries. 

But in today's marketplace for talent at these private companies, employees are negotiating for higher cash salaries than in the past. I see two reasons for this. First, private companies are having a much easier time raising cash than in years past because of the wider world of investor economics. When equity is expensive, cash becomes cheap. So these companies can and do offer higher salaries. Second, private companies are having to compete with hugely successful local public companies who are aggressively recruiting and retaining talent with impressive cash and equity offers.

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

 

Is the battle for talent delaying unicorn ipos?

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Frederic Kerrest, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Okta lists recruitment as one of a few factors that influenced their choice to delay their IPO. 

There’s a few reasons specifically that we thought about when we went through the calculation [of taking another private financing rather than having an IPO]. Five or ten years ago, companies like us would have gone public at this point instead of doing this financing round, because it’s about the same amount of money you would raise in a typical IPO.

First of all, it’s interesting for potential employees who want to come join the company. The opportunity to join a pre-IPO company is something that’s interesting to them, even if it’s just 6 or 9 months before.
— Frederic Kerrest, Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder, Okta
Do you think it’s harder to hire certain folks if you were public as opposed to being pre-public?
— Dan Primack, Fortune
I think it’s a slightly different kind of person who wants to join a pre-public versus a ... public company. They have different profiles, they’re looking for different things. They’re looking for different things in terms of the company, in terms of the job, in terms of other things.
— Frederic Kerrest, Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder, Okta

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Eliminate Negotiation in Startup Compensation???

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Ellen Pao, the interim CEO of Reddit, has seen women struggle with salary negotiations. So she’s eliminating money talk from the company’s hiring process.

In her first interview since losing the landmark Silicon Valley trial, Pao told The Wall Street Journal that she has eliminated salary negotiations from the hiring process at Reddit, where she currently serves as interim CEO.
— Mashable http://mashable.com/2015/04/06/ellen-pao-reddit-salary/
Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate. So as part of our recruiting process, we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.
— Ellen Pao, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal
I appreciate ... that it actually puts a substantial burden on Reddit to pay what they think someone is worth, not what they think they can get away with. This is not an easy way out for them - far from it.
— Gayle Laakmann McDowell @gayle via @quora http://qr.ae/LNR0U

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Reddit to Share Stock with Users

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

What’s new and interesting is that the round was led by an individual — Y Combinator president Sam Altman — and that he, along with the other investors, plans to allocate 10 percent of the equity they are buying to Reddit users.

How exactly that’s going to be managed hasn’t yet been figured out (or, more importantly, approved by bankers and lawyers), but Altman said Reddit may dole out shares using a distributed accounting system, a la the bitcoin block chain.
— @LizGannes, Reddit @ http://on.recode.net/1pndO1M

Stock Option Counsel - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity offer evaluation and negotiation, stock option exercise and tax choices, and sales of startup stock.  Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.