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 $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.

 

Negotiation Rhythms #3: Sales & Threats

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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Mary Russell counsels individual employees and founders to negotiate, maximize and monetize their stock options and other startup stock. She is an attorney and the founder of Stock Option Counsel. You are welcome to contact Stock Option Counsel at info@stockoptioncounsel or (650) 326-3412.

There are two ways to increase or decrease another party’s limit in a negotiation – sales and threats.[1] The picture above takes some of the mystery out of the salesman and the thug -- they're both just working as negotiators to change the perception of the current offer in comparison to the other party's BATNA – Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement.

Selling improves the perception of the quality of the present offer so that the outside alternatives are unattractive by comparison. Threats decrease the attractiveness of outside offers or the possibility of making no deal and sticking with the status quo.

Threats

An ongoing employment lawsuit over no-hire agreements among Silicon Valley companies featuring Steve Jobs provides a strangely relevant example of the power of threats. 

Edward Colligan, former CEO of Palm, has said in a statement that Jobs was concerned about Palm’s hiring of Apple employees and that Jobs “proposed an arrangement between Palm and Apple“ [2] to prohibit either party from recruiting the others' employees.

That would have been a simple offer of an agreement (however illegal that arrangement might have been) if Colligan had access to the undisturbed alternative of not participating and keeping the status quo.

But Colligan has said that Jobs’ next negotiation move was to make the alternative of nonparticipation very unappealing with the threat of patent lawsuits that would cost Palm and Apple a great deal of money. Jobs followed this threat with a reminder of just how unpleasant such litigation would be for Palm, considering the fact that Apple had vast resources to endlessly pursue the lawsuits: "I’m sure you realize the asymmetry in the financial resources of our respective companies …."[2]

Even though most of us don’t use threats in a negotiation, it’s part of the logic of negotiation rhythms. 

Selling

Selling is the more common (and generally legal) way to address the fact that the other party has choices outside the present negotiation. As we discussed in the prior posts, a party's price or terms limits are defined by his or her best alternative outside of making an agreement in the present negotiation. Selling moves the limit when it can make the present offer more appealing than what had been perceived as an outside alternative.

Many people resist “selling themselves” in a salary negotiation because they are embarrassed to discuss their “value.” The logic of BATNA and negotiations provides some relief from this embarrassment, for it reframes “selling” from bluffing and puffing to describing and distinguishing one’s past experience and intended role in the organization.

Since the employer’s limit is not defined by an individual’s value, but by the employee’s differentiation from the field of candidates, the task of negotiating becomes more fact-based and less fear-driven. This logic encourages progress from the attitude of “Oh, they see who I am and hate me,” toward the sales approach of “Oh, it seems they need more information about what I offer in terms of my past experience and my role going forward.”

As an employee’s offer of services becomes distinguishable from the employer’s alternatives, the employer’s perception of the BATNA will change.

Consider an employer who believes there’s an equal candidate available for $120,000 and is entertaining another’s proposal to perform the role for $140,000. Without “selling” the offer of one’s services, the employer has no information with which to make a distinction between the two alternatives. The process of selling oneself to the employer is not to prove one’s inner worthiness at $140,000, but to show and tell that the employer is choosing between two distinguishable candidates. 

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(For those still interested in threats, distinguishing one’s skills is a form of a threat when it comes to negotiating with a current employer. Every element of the description one’s current performance and ongoing role is a threat of what the employer would have to work without or try to replace.)

What an employer would have once considered a better alternative – such as another equal offer for $120,000 – loses its appeal in light of the truth (sales pitch) of the $140,000 offer. If they are no longer equal in the mind of the employer, he or she must consciously decide if the other candidate at the lower price is still a better alternative. While there is no guarantee that the employer will prefer to pay more, the process of selling pushes the employer to the choice based on the true distinctions in the qualities of the candidates.

 

[1] Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Gerald B. Wetlaufer, The Rhetorics of Negotiation (posted to SSRI).

[2] http://vrge.co/USNorq

 

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.