Stock Option Counsel's Mary Russell in New York Times on Liquidity for Private Stock

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 start-up employees, the more explicit language around stock prohibitions can create downsides, said Mary Russell, a lawyer based in Palo Alto, Calif., who works with start-up workers to evaluate their equity compensation. When employees leave start-ups, they often have the opportunity to buy stock that has been set aside for them at a low price. But if their start-ups have been successful, they also need money to pay taxes that will be levied on the increased value of the stock.

Ms. Russell said it is not unusual for a client to say their private company stock is worth $3 million, but that they need to come up with $1 million to pay for the shares and cover the tax bill. “In the past, the solution has been to find a third-party buyer and sell enough of the stock to cover all of those costs,” Ms. Russell said.

The use of more explicit language to cover what is and is not allowed could eliminate the option of raising cash from a third party, Ms. Russell said.

She added that employees rarely read their paperwork carefully. “In some cases a company is simply clarifying its terms, but some are making a black-and-white shift to more restrictive terms,” she said.
— Katie Benner, Airbnb and Others Set Terms for Employees to Cash Out, New York Times
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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.

Would a sale of private company /startup common stock by a former employee trigger a change in 409A / fair market value?

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.

Short answer:

Not in all cases. It comes down to logic. How significant is the market for this company's stock? Is it enough to really show there is a market? Or that there is a clear value? Probably not, unless it is a company-sponsored sale or a Facebook-type frenzy. But companies do use this as an excuse to prohibit secondary sales or drag their feet on allowing their employees to do them.

Lawyer answer:

Based on the tax code rules, the Board needs to change the fair market value price at which they grant options / employee stock any time a major change has occurred that either reduces risk or materially changes company forecasts. Is a secondary sale of private company stock a material change that would have to be seen by the Board as a sign that the risk of investment in common stock has changed?

There are arguments on both sides of this question.

One one side, the secondary sale of shares of common stock shows that common stock is "liquid," or convertible into cash. The lack of liquidity is a big factor in the riskiness of stock and in the logic of discounting common stock value compared to preferred stock value, so liquidity for common stock would raise the "market" price of common stock. Also, the investor who invested has clearly signaled that he/she thinks the stock is less risky than the prior 409A valuation if he/she pays more than that valuation.

However, there are good arguments on the other side as well. The basic argument is that a one-off sale of common stock does not a market make. When you look at the FMV of publicly traded stock, it is based on many sales and the presumption that anyone who holds common stock can trade at any time. Small sales of private company common stock do not mean that any shareholder could find a buyer or that any shareholder could sell at that price. Another argument is that a single buyer or even group of buyers who do not have access to inside company information do not have enough information to know if the stock is more or less risky than the Board has determined it to be in setting the FMV. So one buyer or small group of buyers acting with limited information would not be the appropriate group to define the risk of the stock and, therefore, its fair market value.

Many thanks to Aranca for the following additions to this analysis:

In addition to 2 key points (# of sale points for the price paid, and profile of buyer + seller) that have been mentioned for assessing reasonability of price paid as reflection of FMV, I would like to add 2 more angles that would need to be evaluated while making the determination:

How many different buyers participated at the price that has been paid for the security: If there have been lets say a couple of parties that have transacted, the applicability for the price paid to be considered as reflection of FMV would be weak. However, if there are several buyers who bought from the seller, the applicability of price paid as a FMV can be high.

What has been the valuation range (if any) / bid-ask spread offered by buyers: If the available buyers give a valuation range which is wide and significantly different from the transacted price, then again the applicability of price paid as reflection of FMV becomes questionable. However, if there are sizable number of buyers providing a tight valuation range, then the applicability of price paid as an FMV can be a good indicator.

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.

Many thanks for the contributions of Dylan Gittleman, Vice-President, ARANCA US and Manpreet Singh, ASA, Manager, Valuation Services, ARANCA US. Aranca is a leading provider of 409A valuation services.