Clawbacks for Startup Stock - Can I Keep What I think I Own?

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

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.

Attorney Mary Russell counsels individuals on startup equity, including founders on their personal interests and executives and key contributors on offer negotiation, compensation design and acquisition terms. Please see this FAQ about her services or contact her at (650) 326-3412 or at info@stockoptioncounsel.com.

Thank you to Dianne Walker of Stock Option Counsel for edits to this post.