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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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, 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.

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

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.

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!

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.

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

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.

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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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.

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, 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.

 

Is the battle for talent delaying unicorn ipos?

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.

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, 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.

Reddit to Share Stock with Users

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.

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, 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.