Winter 2019 Newsletter - Stock Option Counsel® - Startup Offer Letter? The Equity Issues Hidden Between the Lines

Hello Startup Community!

If you have an Offer Letter from a startup, you may notice that it’s light on information about stock options or other equity. See this new post on the Stock Option Counsel Blog to learn the key issues hidden between the lines. It covers:

Grant Timing. The exercise price is not negotiable, but you will want to follow up after your start date to be sure that the board grants the options promptly. Delays are common and can increase the exercise price dramatically and reduce the value of your stock options.

Protection for Unvested Shares. The standard vesting schedule will not protect unvested shares in an acquisition. Consider negotiating for double trigger acceleration upon change of control.

Clawbacks and Other Red Flags. The equity incentive plan and stock option agreement are usually not provided with the Offer Letter. However, it makes sense to request and review those documents before signing the Offer Letter to identify clawbacks for vested shares or any other red flag terms

Tax Structure. The right tax structure will balance your interests in total value, low tax rates, tax deferral, limited tax risks and investment deferral. 

You can see the full post on the Stock Option Counsel Blog, along with other great information on startup equity negotiations. Happy reading. 

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals. Thank you for your enthusiasm for my practice and for the Stock Option Counsel Blog! I will continue to send quarterly updates on important topics in the market for startup equity for individual founders, executives and employees. Please keep in touch. 

Best,

Mary

Mary Russell | Attorney and Founder
Stock Option Counsel, P.C. | Legal Services for Individuals

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Have an Offer Letter from a Startup? The Equity Issues are Between the Lines

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Offer Letter.png

If you have an Offer Letter from a startup, you may notice that it’s light on information about stock options. You may see a few sentences noting that (1) the company will recommend to the board that the grant be made at the first market value on the date of grant; (2) the option will vest monthly over four years with a one-year cliff; and (3) the option will be governed by the company’s equity incentive plan and your stock option agreement. It sounds simple. But the key issues are hidden between the lines.

CHANGE OF CONTROL PROTECTION FOR UNVESTED SHARES

A standard vesting schedule does not provide protection for unvested shares in the event the company is acquired. If you are joining in a senior position or as an early stage employee, consider negotiating for a double trigger acceleration upon change of control to protect the right to earn unvested shares. The most robust double trigger language would provide that 100% of unvested shares will accelerate if you are terminated or constructively terminated as part of or at any time following a change of control. See this blog post for more information on change of control terms for startup equity offers.

CLAWBACKS OR OTHER RED FLAGS

The equity incentive plan and stock option agreement are usually not provided with the Offer Letter unless requested, as the official equity grant is not made until after the start date. 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 incentive plan and stock option agreement may give the company the right to forcibly repurchase shares from the employee after termination of employment, even if they are vested shares of restricted stock or vested shares issued upon exercise of options. See this post for some examples of how those clawbacks may be drafted. Clawbacks dramatically limit the value of the equity, as the most significant increase in the value of startups has historically been at the time of an exit event. If this term, or any other red flag term, appears in the form documents, it makes sense to negotiate these out of the deal or provide for alternative compensation to make up for the potential loss in value before signing the Offer Letter.

TAX STRUCTURE

The Offer Letter may not include the terms of the tax structure, but if you have any leverage on those terms the Offer Letter negotiation is the time to address them. The right tax structure will balance your interests in total value, low tax rates, tax deferral, limited tax risks and investment deferral. This balance is different at each company stage. For example, at the earliest stage startups you may be able to meet all those goals with the purchase of Restricted Stock for a de minimis purchase price. At mid-stage startups you might prefer to have Incentive Stock Options with an extended post-termination exercise period to defer the investment until a liquidity event. At late-stage startups you might prefer Restricted Stock Units for a full value grant. See this blog post on Examples of Good Startup Equity Design by Company Stage.

GRANT TIMING

The company will set the exercise price at the fair market value ("FMV") on the date the board grants the options to you. This price is not negotiable, but to protect your interests you want to follow up after your start date to be sure that the board makes the grant of the options soon after your start date. If they delay granting you the options until after a financing or other important event, the FMV and the exercise price will go up. This would reduce the value of your stock options by the increase in value of the company’s common stock during that time.

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Fall 2018 Newsletter - Stock Option Counsel®

Hello Startup Community!

Here's the big news in the world of startup equity.

Leaked Compensation Data for Startup Executives from Andreessen Horowitz.Business Insider has published a database of startup executive compensation data leaked from Andreessen Horowitz. It was sourced from executive search firms and is searchable by fundraising stage. This data may be valuable to startup executives negotiating their compensation and interesting to anyone curious to know how much executives in the startup world earn in cash and equity.

How to Use the Data. The data reveals that the level defined for a role can dramatically affect the compensation offer. For example, the difference between the compensation for a CMO and a VP of Marketing at a Series A company would be significant in both cash and equity. In counseling individuals on their compensation negotiations, I see the most significant increases in cash and equity from successful re-leveling arguments.  Read more on my blog about how to use leveling to negotiate the right startup offer or contact me for information on my services.

Pay Gap for Startup Equity. I was recently interviewed by Bloomberg for an article on the gender pay gap for startup equity. They featured a study by Carta which found that women "make up 35 percent of equity-holding employees, but hold only 20 percent of the employee equity," and, further, that women make up "13 percent of founders but hold 6 percent of founder equity." I noted that one reason for the gap may be a lack of willingness to push for information necessary to evaluate a startup equity offer: "Equity is information asymmetry squared. You have to have the confidence to put the responsibility on the company to give you enough information."

Closing the Information Gap. It's up to individuals to educate themselves on equity and negotiate for the right number of shares to balance the risk of joining a startup. The purpose of my practice is to be available to those who need guidance in this process. See my website for more information.

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals. Thank you for your enthusiasm for my practice and for the Stock Option Counsel Blog! I will continue to send quarterly updates on important topics in the market for startup equity for individual founders, executives and employees. Please keep in touch. 

Best,

Mary

Mary Russell | Attorney and Founder
Stock Option Counsel, P.C. | Legal Services for Individuals
(650) 326-3412 | mary@stockoptioncounsel.com

VIDEO Startup Stock Options: Exercise Price Basics

Negotiating your startup stock option offer? Use this video to understand the exercise price. 
 

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Incentive Stock Options and the Alternative Minimum Tax - Changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

The final Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 will reduce Alternative Minimum Tax ("AMT") bills for many who exercise Incentive Stock Options ("ISOs") in two ways - one direct and one indirect.

First, the bill increased exemption amounts and phase-out thresholds for the AMT as follows:

Tax Bill - Alternative Minimum Tax Changes for Individuals.PNG

The increased AMT exemption decreases the likelihood of triggering AMT at exercise of ISOs. For those ISO exercises that do trigger AMT, the increased AMT phase-out threshold may reduce the amount of AMT due. The result of these changes is a maximum savings of $18,000 for an individual exercising ISOs.

Second, the bill reduced or repealed several triggers of the prior AMT, such as state and local tax deductions. This reduces the number of taxpayers who will need to use their AMT exemption amount for non-ISO AMT items. According to Joe Rosenberg of the Tax Policy Center, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, only about 200,000 returns will be subject to AMT in 2018 down from approximately five million in 2017. So starting in 2018 most taxpayers will not have “used up” the AMT exemption amount on non-ISO related items and therefore will be able to use the entire AMT exemption amount to offset gains at exercise of options. In addition, these new thresholds may trigger the release of AMT credit carryovers. 

These changes are somewhat anticlimactic after legislators almost repealed the entire Alternative Minimum Tax, which would have made all ISO exercises tax-free. But they may result in savings of up to approximately $18,000 in AMT for a ISO exercise.
— Mary Russell, Attorney Counsel to Individuals at Stock Option Counsel

What does this mean for existing ISO grants?

These changes are somewhat anticlimactic after legislators almost repealed the entire Alternative Minimum Tax, which would have made all ISO exercises tax-free. But they may result in savings of up to approximately $18,000 in AMT for a ISO exercise. So it makes sense to work with your tax advisor and/or financial planner to decide if/when to exercise to take advantage of the benefits of the new rules. Here are some choices on ISO exercise:

1. Early exercise some ISOs prior to vesting (if allowed under grant documents);

This is a tax planning maneuver to start your capital gains holding period and avoid paying taxes at exercise. (If you have ISOs you are considering for early exercise, you might prefer to have them converted into NSOs before early exercising. See more on this issue here.)

2. Exercise some ISOs after vesting and prior to liquidity; or

Precisely planning your ISO exercises can allow you to take advantage of the ISO benefits, which will be more favorable under the revised AMT limits. Work with your accountant or financial advisor to determine precisely how many ISOs can be exercised per year to fall within the AMT exemption amount for your phase-out threshold status.

3. Wait to exercise all ISOs until the shares will be sold to pay the taxes due at liquidity and the exercise price.

This is likely to have the highest tax rates but the lowest investment risk. However, if the ISOs expire early at employment termination, leaving your job may make this impossible. More on this issue here.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR NEGOTIATING A NEW STOCK OPTION OFFER?

ISOs are more favorable than NSOs (unless you are early exercising while the exercise price is equal to the FMV). The revised AMT limits make their benefits even more appealing. So, if you are negotiating a stock option offer, make sure the grant will qualify as ISOs up to the limits under the law.

I would be happy to hear from you if you are navigating an existing option grant or negotiating a new offer. For more information, please see this FAQ or contact me at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Watching the Tax Bill - Fall 2017 Newsletter - Stock Option Counsel, P.C.

This is our Fall 2017 Newsletter. Sign up for our mailing list to receive these quarterly updates!

Please note: This is an update on the bill as it was in process. Please see our later posts for the final outcomes on these points!

Hello Startup Community!

The Senate and House have each passed tax reform bills that include provisions related to startup equity. When they pass a final bill, I will send an update on how it affects individuals in the startup community. As of today:

Final Deal Before Christmas? Congress is working to reconcile the Senate and House versions before Christmas. The Wall Street Journal reported today that House and Senate Republicans have agreed on the final version and expect to vote next week.

Tax-Deferral for Stock Option Exercise? Both the Senate and House versions include a tax-deferral opportunity for certain startup employees who exercise stock options or settle RSUs before they have liquidity for the shares. However, the rules are quite restrictive and not well-aligned with the current practices of most startups, so this is not likely to be a benefit for most startup employees who have outstanding stock options. 

Eliminate AMT? The House bill would eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax for individuals. If this is part of the final bill, it would allow for tax-free exercise of Incentive Stock Options. The House bill also modifies the timing for use of existing AMT tax credits.

Restrictions on Sale of Stock? The Senate's bill also included a first-in, first-out rule for stock sales. This would affect startup stockholders who participate in secondary sales or tender offers and those who sell stock after an IPO. It could limit their planning opportunities for tax-deferral and Qualified Small Business Stock exclusions.

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals

Thank you for your enthusiasm for my practice and the Stock Option Counsel Blog. I will continue to send quarterly updates on important topics in the market for startup equity for individual founders, executives and employees. Please keep in touch.

Best,

Mary

Mary Russell | Attorney and Founder
Stock Option Counsel, P.C. | Legal Services for Individuals

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Source: https://mailchi.mp/stockoptioncounsel/fall...

Welcome East Bay BioNetwork!

This is a "handout" for an event on October 12, 2017 for the East Bay BioNetwork. 

I’m Mary Russell and the founder of Stock Option Counsel, P.C. – Legal Services for Individuals. I serve as attorney counsel to individuals on their personal interests in startup equity including job offers, equity grants and employment agreements, founder interests at incorporation, financings, and exits, and executive compensation design.

Evaluating Startup Equity Offers

I regularly counsel individuals who are evaluating equity offers from venture capital backed startups. In our conversation today, we will discuss key factors in these evaluations. You can use this blog post to follow along and use the links below for further information. 

1.     How can I evaluate the number of shares in a startup equity offer? 

Early Stage (Seed): Percentage Ownership + Relative Ownership

Mid-Stage: Percentage Ownership + Recent Investor Value/Share + Leveling

Late-Stage (Unicorn): Recent Investor Value/Share + Public Company Comps

2.     What equity documentation requires review?

Equity Incentive Plan

Forms of Stock Option Grant Notice, Stock Option Agreement and Exercise Notice

Any other documents referenced therein

3.     What happens to my shares when I leave the company?

Assuming you own vested shares (i.e. you have exercised your stock options) or have time-vested RSUs:

Standard: You have the right to hold your shares or RSU rights until company acquisition or IPO

Value-Limiting: Company can force repurchase or forfeiture at termination (aka clawbacks)  

4.     What happens to the unvested equity at company acquisition? 

Best: Single Trigger Acceleration

Good: Double Trigger Acceleration

Neutral: Continued vesting of value of unvested equity if you stay in service after closing

Worst: Cancellation of unvested equity for no consideration even if you stay in service after closing

5.     Is this a favorable design for tax rates and tax and investment timing?

Early Stage: Restricted Stock or Early Exercise Stock Options

Mid-Stage: Stock Options with Extended Exercise Period

Late Stage: Restricted Stock Units

Market Research on Certification Program

We are developing a Stock Option Counsel – Approved – Startup Employee Equity certification program for companies to certify to their hires and employees that their equity terms meet our standards. We hope it will increase efficiency in the job search process and enthusiasm for startup equity. Let’s discuss!

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

The Good Stuff - Continuation Plans - How To Avoid the Juno Drivers' Fate of Cancelled RSUs in a $200 Million Acquisition

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Josh Brustein @joshuabrustein of Bloomberg reported this week on the rescission of potentially valuable RSUs in Juno's $200 acquisition by Gett. He reported that Juno promised 50% of founders shares to drivers, but that it appears that the maximum portion of the acquisition price they could have received was 1.5%

This highlights a type of startup equity plan - a Cancellation Plan - that can dramatically limit the value of employee equity grants.

Some startup stock plans allow companies to cancel unvested equity in an acquisition. We'll call these Cancellation Plans. 

The standard for startup stock plans has been that unvested employee equity must be continued or substituted in an acquisition rather than cancelled without payment. We'll call these Continuation Plans. This means they must be replaced with either cash or equity awards with the same value as the deal consideration for the shares being cancelled. If they are not replaced for the deal value, their vesting will be immediately accelerated at the acquisition and paid the entire deal price for the vested and unvested shares. The replacement still must be earned over the original vesting schedule, so there's no guarantee of earning the unvested shares without also having single or double acceleration upon change of control protections.  However, this traditional requirement offered protection of value for employees. Those who stay at the acquiring company under a Continuation Plan will continue to earn the deal consideration for their shares in some other form. 

The Cancellation Plans that allow cancellation of in-the-money unvested equity without payment are grabbing value from employee shares. Unvested equity - RSUs, options, etc. - can be cancelled and replaced with $0. For example, if an employee's total number of RSUs were worth $200,000 at the acquisition price, and only 50% had vested at the acquisition, the employee would be paid $100,000 and the remaining $100,000 in value of RSUs would be cancelled without payment, continuation or substitution even if the employee stays as an employee after the acquisition.

In a Continuation Plan, an employee would receive the $100,000 deal consideration for the vested shares and a substitution or continuation award in exchange for the $100,000 in unvested value. That might be in the form of cash to vest over time, continuing awards in the acquired company if it survives the merger, or substitute value of the acquiring company's equity, such as RSUs worth $100,000 in value of the acquiring company. Any such replacements would continue to vest over the original remaining vesting schedule.

There is a fantastic example of this from today's news. Juno, a ride-sharing app which promised 50% of its founders shares to drivers in the form of RSUs, was acquired by Gett for $200 million. As part of the acquisition, Juno reportedly rescinded the all the RSUs it had awarded and promised to drivers. The merger terms were not made public, but it appears that Juno had a Cancellation Plan allowing the company the right - which they exercised - to cancel unvested RSUs. All RSUs would have been unvested as the drivers reportedly had to work for 30 months to time-vest any of their RSUs and less than a year had passed between the grants and the acquisition. 

The drivers instead received a one-time payment, which appears to be dramatically lower than the RSUs would have been valued in the acquisition. It was reported that the maximum portion of the acquisition price they could have received was 1.5%. It's not entirely clear that this is the case, as drivers report that they were never notified of their percentage ownership in the company at the time of the acquisition. But if the paltry payouts - one example was $250 to a driver - were actually at the deal consideration for the deal, it would mean that the original awards were such a low percentage of the company that they would have crossed into absurdity. Therefore, it safe to assume that Juno had a Cancellation Plan and it used it to cut its drivers out of a $200 million acquisition, less than a year after promising its drivers 50% of the company's equity. Ouch. 

So if you're negotiating a startup equity offer, ask for the good stuff - a Continuation Plan.

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

 

Will this Seed Stage Company Become a Unicorn?

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.

Wondering if your seed stage startup will become a unicorn? Here's a great illustration of your chances from Dustin Moskovitz's presentation, Why to Start a Startup from Y Combinator's Startup School

Startup Value

Stock Option Counsel, P.C. - Legal Services for Individuals.  Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on equity grants, executive compensation design, employment agreements and acquisition terms. She also counsels founders on their personal interests  at incorporation, financings and exit events. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or by email.