VIDEO Startup Stock Options: Exercise Price Basics

Negotiating your startup stock option offer? Use this video to understand the exercise price. 
 

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Is the battle for talent delaying unicorn ipos?

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.

Frederic Kerrest, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Okta lists recruitment as one of a few factors that influenced their choice to delay their IPO. 

There’s a few reasons specifically that we thought about when we went through the calculation [of taking another private financing rather than having an IPO]. Five or ten years ago, companies like us would have gone public at this point instead of doing this financing round, because it’s about the same amount of money you would raise in a typical IPO.

First of all, it’s interesting for potential employees who want to come join the company. The opportunity to join a pre-IPO company is something that’s interesting to them, even if it’s just 6 or 9 months before.
— Frederic Kerrest, Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder, Okta
Do you think it’s harder to hire certain folks if you were public as opposed to being pre-public?
— Dan Primack, Fortune
I think it’s a slightly different kind of person who wants to join a pre-public versus a ... public company. They have different profiles, they’re looking for different things. They’re looking for different things in terms of the company, in terms of the job, in terms of other things.
— Frederic Kerrest, Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder, Okta

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.

Reddit to Share Stock with Users

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.

What’s new and interesting is that the round was led by an individual — Y Combinator president Sam Altman — and that he, along with the other investors, plans to allocate 10 percent of the equity they are buying to Reddit users.

How exactly that’s going to be managed hasn’t yet been figured out (or, more importantly, approved by bankers and lawyers), but Altman said Reddit may dole out shares using a distributed accounting system, a la the bitcoin block chain.
— @LizGannes, Reddit @ http://on.recode.net/1pndO1M

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.

In the News: Startup Employees in the Dark on Equity

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.

Mary Russell, an attorney who founded Stock Option Counsel to help employees evaluate their equity compensation, says the first step is for employees to make sure any equity is theirs to keep. Some companies have repurchase rights in their equity agreements that give them a right to buy back shares and options from any employee who leaves; and some give founders or investors broad latitude to change the terms.

“If the company can take back employee shares it dramatically limits the value of those shares,” says Ms. Russell. “It’s the sort of thing an employee needs to know about when they go into a job.” She says it’s as simple as asking whether the company can take back vested shares.
— Katie Benner, The Information

See Katie Benner's full article, Startup Employees in the Dark on Equity. The Information is a subscription publication for professionals who need the inside scoop on technology news and trends. 

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.

Repurchase Rights are "Horrible" for Employees

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.

As an aside, some companies now write in a repurchase right on vested shares at the current common price when an employee leaves. 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.
— Sam Altman, YC

What can you do about it? Ask before you join:

Can the company take back my vested shares?
— Mary Russell, Stock Option Counsel

For more from Sam Altman, see his post, Employee Equity. For more on questions to ask to make sure you have true startup equity, see our post, Startup Equity Standards - A Guide for Employees.

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.

The Gold Standard of Startup Equity - A Guide for Employees

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.

Learn the three standards that define Startup Equity and three questions to ask to know if you have the real thing. 

1. Ownership - “Can the company take back my vested shares?”

2. Risk/Reward - “What information can you provide to help me evaluate the offer?”

3. Tax Benefits - “Is this equity designed for capital gains tax rates and tax deferral?”

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.

Links - Best web content on startup employee 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.

Here's links to the best web content on startup employee stock:

1.  Risk/Reward

Calculating percentage ownership and understanding fully diluted capital, #1-2 of The 14 Crucial Questions About Stock Options, Andy Rachleff, the Wealthfront Blog

How to value an offer, Right to Value How-To, Stock Option Counsel Blog

How to use the company's VC valuation to evaluate your equity offer, Video, Stock Option Counsel Blog

How to calculate the future value of your equity by estimating dilution and valuation, John Greathouse's Blog

How to ask about valuation, #11-13 of The 14 Crucial Questions About Stock Options, Andy Rachleff, the Wealthfront Blog

How preferred stock rights make common stock less valuable, Stock Option Counsel Blog

Knowing your market rate with regards to startup equity, #3-4 of The 14 Crucial Questions About Stock Options, Andy Rachleff, the Wealthfront Blog

How to know how much is enough equity for a pre-Series A startup, Stock Option Counsel Blog

Four factors of how startups decide your salary and equity Mary Russell & Boris Esptein on the Stock Option Counsel Blog

Four factors of how startup decide your equity offer VIDEO Mary Russell & Boris Esptein on the Stock Option Counsel Blog

Negotiating Compensation An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups

2. Vesting

Acceleration upon change of control, Gil Silberman on Quora

When acceleration upon change of control does not make sense, Gil Silberman on Quora

What is vesting; what is acceleration upon change of control? #5 & #8 of 14 Crucial Questions about Stock Options, Andy Rachleff, Wealthfront Blog

Does my vesting make sense? Stock Option Counsel Blog

3. Ownership

Can the company take back my vested shares if I leave?, #6 of The 14 Crucial Questions About Stock Options, Andy Rachleff, the Wealthfront Blog

How Skype's repurchase rights gave certain employees $0 of $8.5 billion acquisition payouts, Felix Salmon on Reuters Blog

4. Tax Benefits

Three Ways to Avoid Tax Problems When You Exercise Options, Bob Guenley, Wealthfront Blog

Ensuring company compliance with tax rules - and your tax rights - when negotiating an offer, #9-10 of 14 Crucial Questions About Stock Options, Andy Rachleff on the Wealthfront Blog

Incentive stock options, Michael Gray, CPA

Non-qualified employee stock options Michael Gray, CPA

5. Overview

The 14 Crucial Questions About Stock Options, Andy Rachleff, the Wealthfront Blog

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.

Risk/Reward of Startup Employee 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.

Startup employee equity should reward the risk you take in joining the company. Here's some ways to understand equity value so you can decide if your equity meets this standard.

 For more information on joining an early stage startup before there is a VC valuation, see Joining An Early Stage Startup? Negotiate Your Salary and Equity with Stock Option Counsel Tips.

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.