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.

The Good Stuff - Continuation Plans - How To Avoid the Juno Drivers' Fate of Cancelled RSUs in a $200 Million Acquisition

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.

Josh Brustein @joshuabrustein of Bloomberg reported this week on the rescission of potentially valuable RSUs in Juno's $200 acquisition by Gett. He reported that Juno promised 50% of founders shares to drivers, but that it appears that the maximum portion of the acquisition price they could have received was 1.5%

This highlights a type of startup equity plan - a Cancellation Plan - that can dramatically limit the value of employee equity grants.

Some startup stock plans allow companies to cancel unvested equity in an acquisition. We'll call these Cancellation Plans. 

The standard for startup stock plans has been that unvested employee equity must be continued or substituted in an acquisition rather than cancelled without payment. We'll call these Continuation Plans. This means they must be replaced with either cash or equity awards with the same value as the deal consideration for the shares being cancelled. If they are not replaced for the deal value, their vesting will be immediately accelerated at the acquisition and paid the entire deal price for the vested and unvested shares. The replacement still must be earned over the original vesting schedule, so there's no guarantee of earning the unvested shares without also having single or double acceleration upon change of control protections.  However, this traditional requirement offered protection of value for employees. Those who stay at the acquiring company under a Continuation Plan will continue to earn the deal consideration for their shares in some other form. 

The Cancellation Plans that allow cancellation of in-the-money unvested equity without payment are grabbing value from employee shares. Unvested equity - RSUs, options, etc. - can be cancelled and replaced with $0. For example, if an employee's total number of RSUs were worth $200,000 at the acquisition price, and only 50% had vested at the acquisition, the employee would be paid $100,000 and the remaining $100,000 in value of RSUs would be cancelled without payment, continuation or substitution even if the employee stays as an employee after the acquisition.

In a Continuation Plan, an employee would receive the $100,000 deal consideration for the vested shares and a substitution or continuation award in exchange for the $100,000 in unvested value. That might be in the form of cash to vest over time, continuing awards in the acquired company if it survives the merger, or substitute value of the acquiring company's equity, such as RSUs worth $100,000 in value of the acquiring company. Any such replacements would continue to vest over the original remaining vesting schedule.

There is a fantastic example of this from today's news. Juno, a ride-sharing app which promised 50% of its founders shares to drivers in the form of RSUs, was acquired by Gett for $200 million. As part of the acquisition, Juno reportedly rescinded the all the RSUs it had awarded and promised to drivers. The merger terms were not made public, but it appears that Juno had a Cancellation Plan allowing the company the right - which they exercised - to cancel unvested RSUs. All RSUs would have been unvested as the drivers reportedly had to work for 30 months to time-vest any of their RSUs and less than a year had passed between the grants and the acquisition. 

The drivers instead received a one-time payment, which appears to be dramatically lower than the RSUs would have been valued in the acquisition. It was reported that the maximum portion of the acquisition price they could have received was 1.5%. It's not entirely clear that this is the case, as drivers report that they were never notified of their percentage ownership in the company at the time of the acquisition. But if the paltry payouts - one example was $250 to a driver - were actually at the deal consideration for the deal, it would mean that the original awards were such a low percentage of the company that they would have crossed into absurdity. Therefore, it safe to assume that Juno had a Cancellation Plan and it used it to cut its drivers out of a $200 million acquisition, less than a year after promising its drivers 50% of the company's equity. Ouch. 

So if you're negotiating a startup equity offer, ask for the good stuff - a Continuation Plan.

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.

 

Will this Seed Stage Company Become a Unicorn?

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.

Wondering if your seed stage startup will become a unicorn? Here's a great illustration of your chances from Dustin Moskovitz's presentation, Why to Start a Startup from Y Combinator's Startup School

Startup 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.

Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 2 - The Full 10-Year Term Solution

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 startup scene is debating this question: Should employees have a full 10 years from the date of grant to exercise vested options or should their rights to exercise expire early if they leave the company before an IPO or acquisition?

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. See Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 1 - The $1 Million Problem for more information on the issue and Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 3 - Examples of Good Startup Equity Design by Company Stage

FULL 10-YEAR TERM SOLUTION

Some companies are saving their optionees from the $1 million problem of early expiration stock options by granting stock options that have a full 10 year term and do not expire early at termination. The law does not require an early expiration period for stock options. Ten years from date of grant is usually the maximum exercise period, as the legal landscape for stock options makes anything beyond a 10 year exercise period impractical in most cases. The 10 year exercise window (without an early exercise period) enables employees to wait for a liquidity event (IPO or acquisition) to pay their exercise price and the associated taxes. This extended structure is designed to compensate employees in a way that makes sense for them. 

Startups who choose a full 10-year term in place of early expiration may do so because their recruits or founders have faced the problem of early expiration at prior companies and become disillusioned with stock options as a benefit. Or their recruits may have read about the issue and asked for it as part of their negotiation. Or their founders may have designed their equity plan to be as favorable to employees as possible as a matter of principle or as a recruiting tool.

Other companies are extending their early expiration period for existing stock options.  One example of this is Pinterest, which extended the term in some cases to 7 years from the date of grant.  This move was in response to their valuation and extreme transfer restrictions that made the early expiration period burdensome for option holders.

An exercise more than 90 days after the last date of employment changes tax treatment for options originally granted as Incentive Stock Options (ISOs).  Such an exercise will be treated as the exercise of a Non-Qualified Stock Option (NQSO) instead. Most employees would prefer to have the choice that an extended exercise period allows, the choice between exercising within 90 days of termination of employment for ISO treatment or waiting to exercise and being subject to NQSO treatment.

You can see a list of companies that have adopted an extended option exercise period or changed from the short early expiration period to longer periods.

CREATIVE MODIFICATIONS TO THE FULL 10-YEAR TERM SOLUTION

Companies may prefer early expiration of stock options because terminated stock options reduce dilution for other stockholders. Or they may prefer that their employees are bound to the company by the “golden handcuffs” of early expiration stock options as a retention tool.

For companies that are concerned about excessive dilution, it might make sense to eliminate early expiration only if the company’s value has increased since grant. In other words, employees have a full 10-year term only if the FMV of the common stock on the date of their departure is greater than the exercise price of the stock option. This targets the solution (tax deferral) to the problem (owing tax at exercise before liquidity). If the FMV at exercise is equal to the exercise price, then there is no taxable income to report at exercise. Therefore, an extended exercise period is not necessary to defer taxes until liquidity. This solution does not address the problem of high exercise prices; companies with high exercise prices due to high valuations may want to use RSUs instead of stock options to solve the exercise price problem.

Attorney Augie Rakow, a partner at Orrick who advises startups and investors, has another creative modification to the full 10-year term solution. He has advised clients to find a middle ground by extending exercise periods only for longer-term contributors. This addresses the company concern about retention while solving the early expiration problem for longer-term employees. For example, option agreements might allow three years to exercise after departure only if an employee has been with the company for three years. He notes that "it's a good solution for companies that want to let long-term contributors participate in the value they help create, without incentivizing employees to leave prematurely."

CAN I REALISTICALLY EXERCISE THE STOCK OPTIONS IF THE COMPANY IS A SUCCESS?

Due to the prevalence of early expiration stock options at startups, this becomes an essential question in evaluating an equity offer: “Can I realistically earn the value of vested equity if the company is a success?” If the option grant has a very high exercise price or could potentially lead to a huge tax bill at exercise, it may not be feasible to exercise during an early expiration period at the end of employment, making the value of vested equity impossible to capture. Clients have negotiated the removal of early expiration or other creative structures to solve this problem if it arises in the employment offer.

I hope this post has illuminated the usefulness of a full 10-year term as a solution to the problem of early expiration of startup stock options. For other alternatives to structuring startup equity, see Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 3 - Examples of Good Startup Equity Design by Company Stage.  See also Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 1 - A $1 Million Problem for more information on the issue.

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

Thank you to JD McCullough for editing this post. He is a health tech entrepreneur, interested in connecting and improving businesses, products, and people.

Thank you to attorney Augie Rakow, a partner at Orrick who advises startups and investors, for sharing his creative solution to this problem

Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 1 - A $1 Million Problem

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 startup scene is debating this question: Should employees have a full 10 years from the date of grant to exercise vested options or should their rights to exercise expire early if they leave the company before an IPO or acquisition?

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series. See Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 2 - The Full 10-Year Term Solution and Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 3 - Examples of Good Startup Equity Design by Company Stage

EARLY EXPIRATION PERIOD

The standard in the past has been that startup stock options are designed with this early expiration period. They must be exercised by whichever comes first:

1. 10 years after the date of grant or

2. 3 months after the last date of employment.  (We’ll call this an “early expiration period.")

If a stock option is not exercised by this deadline, it expires and the individual forfeits all rights to the equity they earned. In some cases, this period is shorter, such as expiration 1 month after or even the day of last employment.

If an employee leaves a startup - by choice or involuntary termination of employment - and has to exercise stock options within an early expiration period, he or she has the following choice:

1. Pay the exercise price and tax bill with savings or a loan;

2. Find liquidity for some of the shares on the secondary market (which is complicated, not widely accessible, and sometimes prohibited by company or law) to pay for the cost of the exercise price and tax bill; or

3. Walk away and lose the vested value.

A $1 MILLION PROBLEM

This can be a $1 million problem for employees at successful companies because the tax bill due at exercise is based on the value of the shares at exercise. Either ordinary income or alternative minimum taxable (AMT) income may be recognized at exercise. This income will equal the difference between the option exercise price and the value of the shares at the time of exercise. The value of the shares is usually called fair market value (FMV) or 409A valuation.  These values are generally set by an outside firm hired by the company. The company may try to set these valuations as low as possible to minimize this problem for employees, but IRS rules generally require that the FMV increases with investor valuations and business successes.

The more successful the company has been between option grant and option exercise, the higher the tax bill will be. For a wildly successful company, the calculation might look like this:

Here’s an example:

Exercise Price = $50,000

FMV at Exercise = $4 million

Gain (either Ordinary Income or AMT Income) Recognized at Exercise = $3,950,000

Hypothetical tax rate = 25%

Taxes Due for Exercise = $1,027,000

Total Exercise Price + Tax Cost to Exercise = $1,077,000

REMEMBER: FMV at exercise is not cash in hand without a liquidity event. Therefore, if the option holder in this example makes the investment of $50,000 plus the tax payment of $1,027,000, they might never realize the $4 million in stock option value they earned, or even reclaim the $1,077,000 exercise price + tax. The shares may never become liquid and could be a total loss. For someone who goes into debt to exercise and pay taxes, that might mean bankruptcy. So, even if they can come up with $1 million to solve the early expiration problem at exercise, they may have wished they had not if the company value later declines.

Investor-types frame this as a simple investment choice - the option holder needs to decide whether or not to bet on the company by the deadline. But many people simply do not have access to funds to cover these amounts. It’s not a realistic choice. The very success of the company they helped create makes it impossible to exercise the stock options they earned.

Although these numbers may seem impossibly large, I regularly see this problem at the $1 million + magnitude for individual option holders. The common demographic for the problem is very early hires of startups that grew to billion-dollar valuations.

WHY NOW? LATER IPOS, HIGHER VALUATIONS, MORE TRANSFER RESTRICTIONS

Early expiration of stock options is a hot issue right now because successful startups are staying private longer and staying private after unprecedented valuations. These successful but still private companies have also been enforcing extreme transfer restrictions.  These longer timelines from founding to IPO, higher valuations between founding and IPO, and transfer restrictions are causing the early expiration of stock options to affect more employees.

1. Later IPOs = more likely early expiration applies before liquidity. The typical tenure of a startup employee is 3-4 years. As companies stay private longer, employees are more likely to leave a company after their shares have vested but before an IPO. If they have to exercise within the early expiration period but before an IPO, they must pay taxes before they have liquidity to pay the taxes.

2. Higher valuations = higher grant prices. Exercise prices for stock option grants must be set at the fair market value (“FMV” or “409A Value”) of common stock on the date of grant. If an individual joins a company that has had some success in raising funds and in business, the FMV at grant will be higher. Therefore, departing employees are more likely to have hefty exercise prices to pay within an early expiration period. With delayed IPOs they are unlikely to have access to liquidity opportunities to cover exercise prices.

3. Higher valuations = higher tax due at exercise. Total tax bills at exercise are more likely to be high as the company valuations are high because taxable income (either ordinary income or alternative minimum taxable income) is generally equal to FMV at Exercise - Exercise Price. With delayed IPOs, employees are unlikely to have access to liquidity opportunities to cover tax bills.

4. Extreme transfer restrictions = no liquidity prior to IPO or acquisition. In the past, private company stock could be transferred to any accredited investor so long as the seller first offered to sell the shares to the company. (This is known as a right of first refusal or ROFR. The market for pre-IPO stock is known as the secondary market.) Some companies are prohibiting such secondary market transfers and similar structures such as forward sales or loans that had historically allowed employees of hot companies to get liquidity for the shares to pay for exercise costs and tax bills at exercise. Some companies add these transfer restrictions after issuing the shares and even push the limits of the law by claiming that they can enforce new restrictions retroactively.

I hope this post has illuminated the problem of an early expiration period for startup stock options. For more on a solution to the problem, see Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 2 - The Full 10-Year Term Solution. See also Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 3 - Examples of Good Startup Equity Design by Company Stage

Thank You

Thank you to JD McCullough for providing research assistance for this post. He is a health tech entrepreneur, interested in connecting and improving businesses, products, and people.

Thank you to attorney Augie Rakow, a partner at Orrick who advises startups and investors, for sharing his creative solution to this problem in Early Expiration of Startup Stock Options - Part 2 - The Full 10-Year Term Solution.

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.

How VC's Vet Founders - Who Did They Fire?

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.

Another reason to play nice, from Don Rainey of Grotech Ventures via Dan Primack's Term Sheet:

[A]lleged sexual harassers are legally enabled to job-hop without new employers learning about their pasts .... I [asked Don Rainey of Grotech Ventures] how VCs can adequately vet founders or senior portfolio execs. ‘I try to find people who were fired by the person we’re looking at, because people who have been fired have a certain zest for telling you things that might not otherwise show up.’ -Don Rainey of Grotech Ventures
— Dan Primack's Term Sheet

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. 

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.

 

The Not So Old Girls' Club: Who You Need to Succeed

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.

Working with a great network can make career success much easier (and perhaps simply possible) to achieve.

When women talk about advancing their careers, they often talk about their lack of an “old boys’ club” to move them forward. In particular, women in the tech industry are uniquely aware of their need for a network because of their minority status. Without a built-in network, smart women in tech are thoughtfully constructing their own.

Mentors Far and Wide

The first step in building a network is recognizing that it takes a community to build a career and then committing to not go it alone. After they make this commitment, networkers find that informal mentors start to appear from far and wide to guide their paths.

According to Patricia K. Gillette, Esq., a partner in the employment law group at Orrick in San Francisco, “A mentor is someone, and I think it’s a variety of people in your life, who are going to help you navigate certain aspects of your life, whether it's your personal life, whether it's your work life, whether it's how you exercise, whether it's what you do for fun.”

Mentors are people you feel comfortable with. As Pat notes, “They're people who know you and are going to respond to you in a caring way and thoughtful way.

Diversity is important to get great perspectives. “They do not have to look like you,” Pat says. “They do not have to be the same gender or race. They don't have to be you.”

There will be many mentors in a well-connected life, but mentors are only one piece of the network necessary for advancing a career.

Sponsors within Your Organization

A sponsor is necessary in order to advance in an organization. A sponsor is someone in a very high position of leadership who advocates on one’s behalf within the organization.

A sponsor is going to “advocate for ways for you to increase your power within the organization either on the work side or on the leadership side on the economic side on the business building side,” Pat says. “You have to find a sponsor and you have to make sure you click with that sponsor and that that sponsor is willing to advocate for you. That's the way you advance within firms.”

A sponsor is completely different from a mentor. According to Pat, a sponsor is not someone to ask, “‘Where shall I stand in court? Shall I file this brief early?’ That's not what this person is.” In fact, Pat says, “a sponsor is someone who you may not like so much. A sponsor is somebody who is going to take you and say, 'The next thing you should do within the organization if you want to assume a position of power is X. And I'm going to talk to my friends within the organization to say that they ought to consider you.' That's very different from a mentor.”

What a sponsor offers is not based on altruism. To have this relationship, “you not only have to be ready, willing and able to ask, but you also have to be willing to offer something in return,” Pat says. “Usually what you offer in return is support for that person, either by being exactly as you said you were going to be - meaning you're really highly qualified and anxious and willing to accept positions of power within the organization. And also by making sure that you support that person in whatever causes he or she may have.”

See Pat’s presentation, Elimination of Bias - Women in the Law: Flying the Coop on the Wings of Economic & Institution Power, available from Lexvid: Continuing Professional Education.

Professionals

Finally, professionals provide services to help guide a career and financial path.

For example, financial planner Meg Bartelt, CFP®, MSFP, Founder and President, Flow Financial Planning, LLC, works with women in the tech industry. She knows that good financial planning isn’t enough if a woman’s career is flagging, which it often can in an industry notoriously unwelcoming to women. Part of her role is to help her clients connect to a larger network of professionals who can help them advance their careers, which in turn benefits their finances and helps them build wealth and financial strength. She started the list below based on her experiences of professionals who have helped her clients, and the list is growing as other women are adding ideas based on their own experiences.

A great network of professionals might include:

  • Recruiters and hiring managers for networking and job placement

  • Financial planners for managing wealth, making important financial decisions, and considering career moves from a financial perspective

  • Attorneys for negotiation of employment contracts, stock compensation, and intellectual property matters

  • Accountants for tax planning and estate planning

  • Career and leadership coaches for individual contributors who want to move to the management level or move from there to C-level roles, or to help with participation in and running meetings, finding places to speak and be on panels or interact with senior colleagues and peers

  • Public speaking coach for women wishing to improve their personal brand by speaking at conferences or even presentations in the office

  • Negotiation coach for women wishing to advocate on their own behalf more effectively, be that when negotiating a compensation package for a new job, or for advancement in a current job and

  • Professionals on the person side of life, such as healthcare professionals, who in turn can improve effectiveness at work.  

Opportunities for the Future

The essence of the “old boys’ club” is that their networks are built-in and are established without having to learn to create them. They meet the right contacts in their personal networks and activities. This list of network roles is meant to be a starting point for women to start to think about who is out there that would make up a community for a successful career.

As women learn the necessity of community in building a career, they may start to overcome their aversion to seeking out a network and becoming successful. Since everyone needs this, it's not wrong or overly ambitious to pursue it. As Pat notes, "[W]e see ambition as being a dirty word. There's some of us who say, 'I don't want to be ambitious, I don't want to look like I'm trying to go for everything, I don't want to look like I'm trying to get everything for myself.' That's okay, because it's not for yourself. Ultimately it's for the team, it's for your family, for your personal satisfaction."

Adding to the List

Please contact me with any suggestions of other roles that might be added to the list or descriptions of how these types of people can be helpful. I would be happy to add them to the list!

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.

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.

Advice for startup employees in bill gurley's "on the road to recap"

Startup employees have been curious lately about how economics at their companies and in the broader VC world are affecting the value of their shares.  Benchmark partner Bill Gurley has published a popular post on the wider topic, and he includes some advice specific to employees at unicorn startups. I won't bother with a summary here, as a read of the full article is necessary for a comprehensive view of his advice. So I'll simply suggest Bill Gurley's On the Road to Recap: Why the Unicorn Financing Market Just Became Dangerous...For All Involved.

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.