Negotiating the Right Job Offer – Long Form Q&A Between Stock Option Counsel and BINC Search

Thanks for reading our shorter blog post: Bull's Eye - Negotiating the Right Job Offer. This is the full Q&A between Mary Russell and Boris Epstein. It’s long, but it’s full of lots of insights on how to negotiate the right compensation offer from a company.

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.

Boris Epstein is the founder of BINC Search, a next-generation recruiting startup that helps Silicon Valley companies hire technical talent at the scale they need.

Mary Russell, Attorney @ Stock Option Counsel: Welcome, Boris. I’ve always enjoyed our discussions on compensation negotiations because you seem to believe that a candidate and a company can discover a “right offer.” Employees who come to me for Stock Option Counsel want to get to that “right offer” for salary and equity, and I’m happy you’ve joined us to share your perspective on how to get there.

Boris Epstein, Founder @ BINC Search: Thank you. I think there is a right offer in a compensation negotiation, and companies and candidates arrive there by identifying four data points:

1.     The candidate’s Past Comp

2.     The Peer Comp of the candidate’s level within the company

3.     The candidate’s Desired Comp and

4.     The Market Comp or competitive scenarios in the market

The epicenter of all the different data points would be what they would arrive at to get a right offer. So if all four numbers align, it’s really easy. If the four numbers are divergent in some way, then someone’s going to have to make tradeoffs and concessions. If the person’s making $100,000 but then they want $200,000, and market’s $150,000, someone’s going to have to make a tradeoff somewhere to arrive at the right package.


Stock Option Counsel: Let’s talk about each of those numbers.

BINC Search: For Past Comp, the company will look at the person’s situation to figure out what the offer would realistically have to be in order for it to be correct or acceptable. For Peer Comp, usually a company will look at internal equity, the peer class that the person would fall within at the company. Desired Comp would be what the person wants. Regardless of all the other indicators – it’s the “this is what I want” number. Market Comp would be the company’s understanding of what’s “market” for this type of individual and this person’s competitive scenarios or other offers.

Stock Option Counsel: Thanks. I think that gives candidates some information to broaden their sell and build their negotiation beyond a single data point. I’ve seen candidates who fear that their weakest points – their Past Comp as current salary or their Market Comp as lack of other offers – will define their final offer. But this conversation is a great reminder that there are many relevant numbers and many ways candidates can sell themselves. Let’s go on into the details of how the company finds the right offer.

Past Comp

Stock Option Counsel: On Past Comp, candidates often want to stick to the rule of, “Don’t reveal your current salary.” How can a candidate communicate Past Comp without starting out at a disadvantage?

BINC Search: I think a candidate should be stating their Past Comp up front when asked. This would be at the beginning of a process, if and when asked by the company. And then if and when asked by the company they should be divulging their either desired range or at least expectations for comp up front as well. And then it doesn’t need to be discussed until both parties know they want to work together.  So I don’t agree with that rule of thumb about not divulging comp up front.

Stock Option Counsel: So how does Past Comp go into the company’s calculation? Are they just going to say, “Oh, you’re making that. So we’ll pay you a little bit more than that”?

BINC Search: Sometimes, yes. It’s a data point, that’s an important kind of measurement of you – you who are asking to be priced – was previously priced. That’s exactly what your Past Comp is. It’s a data point that tells a company how you were previously priced. That then becomes an indicator for how to determine your next package.

My recommendation to candidates is to be open and transparent with regards to comp. I’ve had debates with candidates about this and the common reason to not share comp is because that might hurt their ability to derive an offer. Whereas a company would typically look at someone who did not want to divulge comp as a candidate hiding something. So that that then surfaces as a different red flag that then becomes another topic of discussion – “What’s the person hiding? And why doesn’t the person want to share. Everyone else shares. What should I now be concerned about that I wasn’t previously concerned about?”

Stock Option Counsel: Is it really seen that negatively?

BINC Search: I’ve seen companies not extend offers to candidates who didn’t want to disclose comp.

Stock Option Counsel: So assuming the person is going to disclose it and fears it will lower their final offer from the company, what’s the way to make the case for why that data point is no longer the key relevant data point?

BINC Search: I think the means by which it is shared is the exact way to do it. Let’s say you worked at a company for ten years and you got an initial offer for $100,000 and then you didn’t get a raise for ten years. So then the company says your potential future employer says, “Hey, what’s your Past Comp?” And you say, “Well, it was $100,000. But I should let you know that I was offered this salary ten years ago and I haven’t gotten a raise in ten years. My understanding would be that market has shifted a little bit in the last ten years and that part of this process is to kind of figure out to what degree that has actually happened. So I’d just like you to know that wherever you’re taking these notes, that this was an offer that was given to me ten years ago. And now we can use it for whatever purpose you guys want to use it for.”

Stock Option Counsel: Can you think of any other ways to build the case that the Past Comp should not determine the right offer for the new position? 

BINC Search: Whatever color you could add to the picture I think would be a helpful addition. That’s what the company’s looking for when they ask for Past Comp. They’re looking for some sort of data point to help them get to a decision. They’re not trying to screw you. They’re not trying to make a case to like drill you down or whatever. They’re trying to figure out the right offer so it’s helping them for a candidate to add color to it. Sometimes people add color like, “My current salary was $100,000, but I was given that a year and a half ago. I’m up for review in six months. I’m anticipating a raise to $110,000 – my manager promised me I swear – so I’m at $100,000 now but I’ll probably be at $110,000 in six months. Take that for whatever you want to take it for. That’s my comp history.”

Stock Option Counsel: That sounds really useful in using spin to avoid being tied to an otherwise disadvantageous Past Comp number. From a Stock Option Counsel perspective, I would see a candidate’s spin of Past Comp should include their valuation of their equity stake in their current company, the value of upcoming vesting they would be sacrificing to take the position and even the value of upcoming increases in equity grants or liquidity opportunities.

Peer Comp

Stock Option Counsel: Do you have any thoughts on Peer Comp, as in what is the best way to position oneself in that regard during the interview process? 

BINC Search: For Peer Comp, companies internally are going to say, “Ok, this person who I just interviewed is going to fit in at this level, and the other people within our org that are paid at this level are making about this much. So therefore, this is about the range within which this person should be paid here.”

A candidate should be making sure that they’re being connected to the right peer class.  They do this by just asking for some perspective around where they’re being considered, like where they’re fitting within the organization and what the expectations are for that level of a person. If I’m a fresh college grad and I ask that question and the company is comparing me to people with ten years of experience, that’s good because if I do well I’m going to get paid like people with ten years of experience. But if not then I may be put into an inaccurate peer class. That’s an extreme example, but making sure you’re being compared to the right peer class is a data point.

Stock Option Counsel: I know people are very concerned when they come into a company that they’re being considered for a position that’s appropriate for them and where they want to be. What do you advise people when they’re concerned that they’re not being considered in the right peer class? Once that emerges, is it too late, or can they make the case later and say, “Hey, let’s reconsider where I would fit in here.”

BINC Search: You can, to whatever degree it’s reasonable to do that. Information is going to drive that, so whatever information the company has to help the candidate understand why and where they’re fitting in is going to be one side, and the other side is going to be whatever information the candidate has that can help the company understand kind of where and why they should be there. So that’ll just be kind of the natural progression of the conversation.

Stock Option Counsel: Where and why would it be reasonable to go back and do a better job of selling oneself?

BINC Search: Well, the company may say, “Well, we’ve interviewed you, and we think you’d be a great fit on this team and on this level.” And the person will say, “Oh, that’s really nice. One thing that I wanted to bring up is that I heard about this team and this opportunity and I thought that might be a good place for me to fit potentially. That seems interesting.” So that would be the way a natural dialogue might go. Depending on what side and to what openness the company might say, “That’s good that you think that, but this is where we think you should be and why.” And the candidate will say either, “I’m open to both,” or they’ll say, “It’s nice that you think that, but this is where I want to be.” And there will be a discussion around it.

Stock Option Counsel: Do you have any advice for people on how to talk themselves up in an appropriate way and in a true way? This would be necessary to align themselves with the right peer group in the company and get themselves put in the right place for who they are and what they offer. I think that the worst thing would be to take an offer where you’re not valued and then just be stuck there for a while and then leave.

BINC Search: Yah, but then think about the other worst case of being leveled too high. And then having an inappropriate amount of expectation put on you that you’re not ready for. And you got that because you negotiated really well and sold yourself high, but now you’re in this job that you can’t do essentially. Right? So that’s the other side of the coin for like negotiating too high or for or asking for too big of a job.

I’d argue that the right resolution is to fight for clarity and understanding of roles and levels and opportunities and just be pretty true about where you can fit and add the most value. And try to be as eloquent and clear about that as you can be. So I’ve seen both sides, people who are under-leveled and then have to be popped up quicker and then people over-leveled and then it being a negative experience for both sides.

Stock Option Counsel: If someone’s selling themselves into a higher spot and the company settles on a lower spot, is it fair for the company to say, “We’ll reevaluate in six months or a year”? 

BINC Search: That’s a reasonable concession that could be made. Like, “Hey, I understand that you want to be at this level. Our evaluation has not helped us believe that you’re there right now. But I appreciate your confidence. Why don’t we start you here, and in six months we can reevaluate you and if what you say is correct, then we should all have no problem helping you get to that level.”

Stock Option Counsel: Excellent. We’ll talk more later about how to approach those raise or promotion conversations. 

Desired Comp

Stock Option Counsel: Can you give some examples of professional ways to communicate Desired Comp?

BINC Search: Usually it’s in the form of a conversation. Like the company will say, “Hey, what are you making right now?” And the person will say, “I’m making this.” And then the company will say, “What do you want to be making in your next job?” And the person will say, “This is what I want to be making.” And then if there’s alignment from an expectations perspective, then everyone thanks each other and moves on to the next topic.

That’s the way it should go. I don’t know how it always goes. Some companies never ask, and then sometimes it works out at the end and sometimes they get surprised and then that’s not a good thing. Sometimes candidates offer the information if the company doesn’t ask. And the company will thank them for it and then move on. Sometimes candidates will share this information or it will be discussed and then the company will decide to not move forward based on a misalignment. I guess those are a few scenarios that could take place.

Stock Option Counsel: You’ve mentioned that it’s difficult when a candidate doesn’t know what their Desired Comp is – when they’re at the end of the road and still don’t know what it is that they want. And Desired Comp is a big part of my Stock Option Counsel practice as a thoughtful, high-level understanding of the company’s equity helps candidates identify what equity offer they want to see. What do you suggest to help people identify that Desired Comp number?

BINC Search: There’s two points where Desired Comp is important. Up front in the beginning of a process you want to at least have an idea. It’s difficult for a candidate to know exactly what they want up front. Because their market experience is going to influence what they should want. So be up front before a candidate goes through an interview process if they’re making $100,000, it’s difficult to say I want $115,000. Some say, “This is what I want.” But then that’s immaterial because when they go through an interview process market is going to influence that potentially.

Whereas at the end after they’ve done a reasonable amount of due diligence on the opportunities they are considering, they should be able to start putting price tags on different opportunities should they work out. That’s the natural exercise that candidates should be going through. “Okay, this is starting to get close to home, what would they need to offer for me to accept? What would this package need to look like? What would it realistically take for me to leave my job?” It’s when things start to get realistic that they should start to be narrowing down to a Desired Comp.

Stock Option Counsel: So would you say that Desired Comp question would be “What does it take for you to leave your current job?”

BINC Search: Everyone has a “what’s this worth to me” scenario. They just need to understand kind of what it is. So Desired Comp is like, “What it would take for someone to not do something and in exchange for doing something?” So if someone’s making $100,000 a year now at a crappy job, and then they interview with a really good job, then the theory should say that for an equal amount of money they would rather be doing a better job than a worse job. That’s like a simple stupid way to come up with a Desired Comp.

Stock Option Counsel: Stupid is good. Go on.

BINC Search: If they’re at a job that they absolutely love and they’re making $100,000, and they interview with a job that is slightly less desirable, that slightly less desirable job would probably have to pay them. Let’s say the slightly undesirable job said, “We’ll pay you $200,000 a year.” Then the candidate says “Wow, okay, I’ll be doing something I like less, but I’ll be getting paid more. Therefore, that equation makes sense for me and my lifestyle. It’s now worth it for me to move forward.” So both are extreme situations, so in this instance in the case of coming up with a Desired Comp, it’s “What’s it worth to me to do this job?” And that’s as kind of pure and simple as a candidate should think about it given whatever circumstances exist in the world.

Stock Option Counsel: Do you have any examples of people who make that decision and are happy with it in that analysis? Or people you’ve seen overvaluing the salary or comp and not thinking enough about the position? Or people who were eventually unhappy because they were thinking too much about the position and not enough about the comp?

BINC Search: I generally recommend that people separate the money from the job when they’re going through their consideration process. Offers and comp packages confuse interest in job. So I always recommend that a candidate evaluate the job first, figure out the job they actually want, stack rank their options, and then start including comp into the equation. If they get the best job at the best comp, it becomes a no brainer. If they get the best job at a reduced comp, they have to make a tradeoff. But at least it’s clear. It’s like a separate kind of line item that they could evaluate.

You also asked about times when candidates have made mistakes. This is where market and transparency and chatter becomes a thing because the candidate feels they did a great job in-- let’s say-- negotiating an offer and then they hear that someone who seems to be a peer or close to their regard is getting something more than they are getting. There is that kind of look over the fence sort of a thing that goes down. They ask, “Hey, how did you get that? Why didn’t I get that?” I try to recommend that candidates don’t go down that route once it’s past decision point. If it’s past decision point, it’s difficult for a candidate to do much about it. It really just causes angst. But it’s a hyper-transparent market. So you do the best you can given the information you have and you should be at peace with your decisions until the next time.

Stock Option Counsel: I agree on separating the desire for the compensation from the desire for the job so that the compensation issue gets the full attention it requires. That’s especially important with equity compensation. There’s quite a lot of risk in accepting private company equity, and my Stock Option Counsel clients who take the time to thoughtfully evaluate their equity comp offer can find out: “Is this number of options or shares enough to inspire me to feel really, really good about taking those risks? If not, what would they have to offer to get me to that good feeling?” It’s a lot easier to negotiate from a position of confidence about what you desire and why.

Market Comp

Stock Option Counsel: How do you suggest candidates avoid being in the position where they’re looking over the fence and seeing that their neighbors are earning more than they are?

BINC Search: Well, you can’t avoid it. At the pace that this market is moving, there are always going to be better options, there are always going to be new options that surface that didn’t exist two days ago when you had to make a decision. It’s just generally going to happen. That’s why time of employment has started to go down. It used to be five years, then it was three years, now we see companies being open to hiring someone on a full time basis knowing that in a year or a year and a half they’ll reevaluate their options. That’s just what’s happening with the market. So companies make decisions based on the information they have, and so do candidates. There’s nothing you can do to not go through that experience.

Stock Option Counsel: Do you have a feeling on how quickly that shift in time of employment has happened?

BINC Search: Seven to ten years ago, five years used to be good tenure at a company. Then five to seven years ago, three to five years was a reasonable length of time. Now I think two to three years would be considered – not reasonably long term – but the reasonable expectation by which a candidate makes their employment decisions. While companies would love for their employees to retire with them and be with them in ten years, I think a lot of companies have a hard time knowing where they will be in five years or ten years or whatever time frame it is they want their employees to be with them. So I think everyone is in constant reevaluation. Everyone – companies and candidates – are in a perpetual evaluation of their situation mode, which generally makes for a great dynamic market in my opinion. It puts everybody in a place of accountability. Employers for their ability to employ and retain, and employees for their ability to perform and deliver, which is I think correct.

Stock Option Counsel: Interesting. Time of employment is also very relevant to equity compensation. If candidates are accepting four-year vesting terms in their stock options or are receiving stock options with high exercise prices, they need to be aware that they may not be vesting the full grant before departure and that if they leave the company they may have to come up with the cash to cover the exercise price and tax bill.

Going back to the question of Market Comp, do you have any thoughts on the best way to approach a current employer to reevaluate comp or talk about a raise?

BINC Search: Reevaluation of package? I think that the truth is that anytime there’s new data to be presented is a reasonable time and opportunity to have a conversation around comp. So the way this tends to infuse itself in the world most commonly is a candidate gets employed by company with the belief that he’s going to be there for three years. And then six months into it someone happens to call him and offer him a job for double the price. And then the person all of a sudden is victim to this huge offer and now wants to “do right” by this situation they’re in. So this person goes to their boss and says, “Hey, I didn’t mean to do this, but I have an offer for twice my salary now because this happened. So I just wanted to tell you.” So then the current employer says, “Oh, let us see if there’s something we can do to help.” And then there goes the counteroffer situation. That’s natural and what happens pretty regularly in today’s market. So anytime a new data point surfaces that would be worth reopening a comp conversation would be when it should happen. 

Stock Option Counsel: The classic relationship wisdom is that you’re bound to be stuck in a bad relationship if you don’t have the courage to say along the way, “Hey, you know this or that isn’t working for me.” Do you think that those people who fail to keep bringing the data points forward to their employer end up angry and frustrated with their low comp?

BINC Search: Yah, there are people who don’t feel comfortable sharing this information and then kind of perpetuate the misery that they’re in or perpetuate the unhappiness that they are in. Yah, there are definitely people who are in that boat.

Stock Option Counsel: Do you want to talk more about that?

BINC Search: No, I honestly don’t really. People should do whatever they feel is right to do. For some people it’s worth it for them to keep their mediocre job with mediocre comp because that’s what’s fitting for their lifestyle. And then other people feel the need to go maximize their opportunity. I think it all evens out in the end. I don’t think people must go and chase top comp. I don’t think people must always be benchmarked to top of market.

Stock Option Counsel: How do employees make the case for what is Market Comp for their contribution? Generally, how do you describe Market Comp to your candidates?

BINC Search: This is a tough one. Market is when you usually derive competitive situations. That would be like a “market rate.”

If you go interview with five companies and all five companies extend you an offer for $150,000, it could be argued that your market value is priced somewhere around $150,000. If you’re making $100,000 now and all five companies offer you $250,000, regardless of what you’re Past Comp is, your market value is about $250,000. So whatever you’re able to kind of able to get from the market is about what market rate is for you. 

Stock Option Counsel: Do you want to flush out what a market is?

BINC Search: Literally a market is like, picture an old world market where you walk from stall to stall and every stall is selling something. So if you have a product, and the product is a Snickers bar. And you walk around to 20 different stalls and say, “How much would you pay for this, how much would you pay for this?” And everybody says, “I’ll pay you a dollar.” Then that Snickers bar is worth a dollar. That’s “market” for that Snickers bar.

If you walk around to 20 different companies and ask every company, “How much would you pay me to work here?” And every company says $150,000, your market is $150,000. You may not like it, but that’s what market is for that person.

Stock Option Counsel: Of course that wouldn’t be realistic, as $150,000 is not going to come from every company. So how does it work in the real world now where there’s a lot of variation. 

BINC Search: I don’t think there’s as much variation as people perceive there to be. I think the variation comes from the mis-bucketing of market points. So seed funded startups tend to pay pretty consistently. A-round funded startups tend to pay pretty consistently. And down the line to B-round funded startups, etc. So depending on the size and maturity of a company, there tends to be a reasonable amount of consistency with those types of companies. So if you interview with ten big companies you’re going to find there to be some reasonable level of consistency with that bucket of companies. There could be companies that are out of market for what a big company pays this type of individual. But there is a market for a type of person within a type of company.

Stock Option Counsel: I’ve heard employers argue that there is no such thing as market or that this is too subjective of a number to discuss. Can you talk about how the employees can identify what those points are? How do they know they have it right?

BINC Search: How do they know what market is? The only way to know is to actually go to the market and try to derive that information. They either have to collect that by going out and getting offers themselves or they have to collect data from their friends who got offers. But they should take that with a grain of salt because they are not their friends. That is a way to do it. Some people will go look at comp calculators online. I advise against using that as fact, but it is a data point. I don’t use any of them or endorse any of them. It’s not something that I would use to help determine any of this. But a candidate can to get some kind of idea of what some type of job is paying.

If a candidate interviews in the dark, then they don’t know what the market is. They wouldn’t know what it is. They may ask the recruiter what market is. They may ask another professional, like yourself, what market is. Getting some sort of sense of market is the only way they can get that data.

Stock Option Counsel: That’s great. What are you thoughts on equity comp and market? When you have a candidate who is interviewing and comparing equity comp, what kind of thoughts do you share with them on what’s appropriate for which stage of company? What do you say when someone asks you, “Is this right, is this fair, is this market for equity comp at this stage of company?”

BINC Search: In the position that we’re in, we have the luxury of being pretty connected to market. So we can give a candidate a pretty good idea of how on target – low on target or high something is in comparison to their position in the type of company. Same would go true for equity. We can recognize that and then advise accordingly.

How would a candidate figure that out? They would have go to through the same exercise. They have to use their Past Comp, if they have historically received certain sized grants or option packages from different companies, then that should be an indicator. They should be educated by the company around how the company benchmarks their level internally for that piece of the comp package for the Peer Comp. And then they should do their market homework.

Stock Option Counsel: I think Market Comp and comparing offers is where Stock Option Counsel and thoughtful attention to equity are essential. One percent of a Series A company and ten percent of a Series A company could be of equal value – “Market Comp.” I advise clients to take the time to evaluate and compare the equity offers and really own this process, because the companies are not able to make these evaluations for them any more than they can choose the right job for a candidate.

Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share?

BINC Search: I don’t know if I offered enough magic bullets. I don’t know if the goal of this is to have a magic bullet or to just perpetuate the conversation.

 Stock Option Counsel: I think the goal is just to talk about things that are true. There’s much fear in compensation negotiations and people seem to feel they’re working against a secret formula or system that’s being used against them. It’s good to hear some truths about that system from someone who deals with this every day and say, “This is how to approach it and stand on the ground to be true and honest and effective.”

 For more on each data point, 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.

 Boris Epstein is the founder of BINC Search, a next-generation recruiting startup that helps Silicon Valley companies hire technical talent at the scale they need.