Startup Negotiations: How Preferred Stock Makes Employee Stock Less Valuable

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 counsel 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.

If you have a job offer from a startup with an option to purchase shares representing 1% of the company, you may want to consider the Preferred Stock "Liquidation Preference" to see if your 1% would really be 1% if the company is acquired. If the Liquidation Preference is high, you might want to negotiate for more shares to make up for the loss in value you can expect when the company is acquired.

Common Stock v. Preferred Stock

As a startup employee, you'll be getting Common Stock (as options, RSUs or restricted stock). When venture capitalists invest in startups, they receive Preferred Stock. Preferred Stock comes with the right to preferential treatment in merger payouts, voting rights, and dividends. If the company / founders have caved and given venture capitalists a lot of preferred rights - like a 3X Liquidation Preference or Participating Preferred Stock , those rights will dramatically reduce your payouts in an acquisition.

Liquidation Preference & How It Makes Employee Stock Less Valuable

One Preferred Stock right is a "Liquidation Preference." Without a Liquidation Preference, each stockholder – preferred or common – would receive a percentage of the acquisition price equal to the stockholder's percentage ownership in the company. If the company were acquired for $15 million, and an employee owned 1% of the company, the employee would be paid out $150,000.

With a Liquidation Preference, preferred stockholders are guaranteed to be paid a set dollar amount of the acquisition price, even if that guaranteed payout is greater than their percentage ownership in the company.

Here’s an example of the difference. An investor buys 5 million shares of Preferred Stock for $1 per share for a total of $5 million. After the financing, there are 20 million shares of common stock and 5 million shares of Preferred Stock outstanding. The company is then acquired for $15 million.                                                                                                                           

Without a Liquidation Preference, each stockholder (common or preferred) would receive $0.60 per share. That’s $15 million / 25 million shares. A hypothetical employee who held 1% of the company or 250000 shares) would receive $150,000 (that’s 1% of $15 million).

If the preferred stockholders had a 1X Liquidation Preference and Non-Participating Preferred Stock, they would receive 1X their investment ($5 million) before any Common Stock is paid in an acquisition. They would receive the first $5 million of the acquisition price, and the remaining $10 million would be divided among the 20 million shares of common stock outstanding ($10 million / 20 million shares of common stock). Each common stockholder would be paid $0.50 per share, and hypothetical employee who held 1% of the company would receive $125,000.

Ugly, Non-Standard Rights That Diminish Employee Stock Value

The standard Liquidation Preference is 1X. This makes sense, as the investors expect to receive their investment dollars back before employees and founders are rewarded for creating value. But some company founders give preferred stockholders multiple Liquidation Preferences or Participation Rights that cut more dramatically into employee stock payouts in an acquisition.

If preferred stockholders had a 3X Liquidation Preference, they would be paid 3X their original investment before common stock was paid out. In this example, preferred would be paid 3X their $5 million investment for a total of $15 million, and the common stockholders would receive $0. ($15 million acquisition price – $15 million Liquidation Preference = $0 paid to common stockholders)

Preferred stock may also have "Participation Rights," which would change our first example above to give preferred stockholders an even larger portion of the acquisition price.

Without Participation Rights, Preferred Stockholders must choose to either receive their Liquidation Preference or participate in the division of the full acquisition price among the all stockholders. In the first example above, the preferred stockholders held 20% of the company and had a $5 million Liquidation Preference. When the company was acquired for $15 million, the preferred stockholders had the choice to receive their $5 million liquidation preference or to participate in an equal distribution of the proceeds to all stockholders. The equal distribution would have given them $3 million (20% of $15 million acquisition price), so they chose to take their $5 million liquidation preference, and the remaining $10 million was divided among 20 million shares of common stock.

If the Preferred Stock also had Participation Rights, (which is called Participating Preferred Stock), they would receive their Liquidation Preference and participate in the distribution of the remaining proceeds.

In our example with a 1X Liquidation Preference but adding a Participation Right, the Participating Preferred Stock would receive their $5 million Liquidation Preference AND a portion of the remaining $10 million of the acquisition price equal to their % ownership in the company.

$5 million Liquidation Preference + ((5 million shares / 25 million shares outstanding) * $10 million) = $7 million

Common stockholders would receive (20 million shares common stock / 25 million shares outstanding) * $10 million = $8 million.

Our hypothetical employee who held 1% of the company would receive $100,000 (.01 * $10 million) or 0.67% of the acquisition price.

Employee Focus – Calculating Your Payout

If you are an employee of a startup, you can use Liquidation Preference as shorthand for the minimum price the company would have to be acquired for before any employees would be paid out. 

If the acquisition price is less than the Liquidation Preference, common stockholders will get $0 in the acquisition.

If you want to go further and understand what you would be paid out if the acquisition price is more than the Liquidation Preference, consider these three scenarios:

If the preferred stockholders have Participating Preferred Stock, Your Payout = (Acquisition Price – Liquidation Preference) * Your % of All Outstanding Stock

If the preferred stockholders have Non-Participating Preferred Stock, you will receive the lower of:

Your Payout = (Acquisition Price – Liquidation Preference) * Your % of Common Stock OR

Your Payout = Acquisition Price * Your % Ownership

Employee Focus – What to Ask the Company

These calculations are complicated, so if you are evaluating a job offer you might want to stay out of these details leave it up to the company to tell you how the Liquidation Preference would affect you in an acquisition. Use these questions to understand how the Liquidation Preference would reduce the value of your common stock in an acquisition. Simply ask the CFO these questions:

1. What is the total Liquidation Preference? Do the investors have Participation Rights?

2. If the company were purchased today at the most recent VC valuation, what would my shares be worth?

3. If the company were purchased today at 2X the most recent VC valuation, what would my shares be worth? 

3. If the company were purchased today at 10X the most recent VC valuation, what would my shares be worth?

This will give you a good feel for how heavy the VC Liquidation Preferences are and how they would weigh down the growth in value of the common stock.

Founder Focus – Negotiating Your Acquisition Payout

If you are a founder and are negotiating with an acquiror, consider renegotiating your investors’ Liquidation Preference payout. Everything is negotiable in an acquisition, including the division of the acquisition price among founders, investors and employees. Do not get pushed around by your investors here, as their rights in the documents do not have to determine their payout.

If your investors are pushing to receive the full Liquidation Preference and leaving you and/or your employees with a small cut of the payout, address this with your investment bankers. They may be able to help you play your acquiror against the investors so that you are not cut out of the wealth of the deal, as most acquirors want the founders and employees to receive enough of the acquisition price to inspire them to stay with the company after 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 counsel 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.

Thanks to investment banker Michael Barker for his comments on founder merger negotiations. Michael is a Managing Director at Shea & Company, LLC,  a technology-focused investment bank and leading strategic advisor to the software industry.