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.

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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.