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.

Best of Blogs: How to Value and Negotiate Startup Stock Options

NOTE: Updated February 23, 2016.

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.

We have suggested the following free resources to Stock Option Counsel clients to help them master this area and gain confidence in negotiating their stock options and other employee stock. We hope you find this list helpful and invite you to contact us to find out how Stock Option Counsel can help you evaluate and maximize your startup stock compensation. Contact>

1.  Leo Polovet's' Analyzing AngelList Job Postings, Part 1: Basic StatsPart 2: Salary and Equity Benchmarks

2. Venture Hacks' I have a job offer at a startup, am I getting a good deal?

3. Andy Payne's Startup Equity for Employees 

4. Mary Russell's Startup Equity Standards: A Guide for Employees

5. Wealthfront's Startup Salary and Equity Compensation Calculator (This is very general but people find it helpful.) And Wealthfront's The Right Way to Grant Equity to Your Employees.

6. Patrick McKenzie of Kalzumeus Software's Salary Negotiation: Make More Money, Be More Valued

7. Piaw Na's Negotiating Compensation, from An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups

8. mystockoptions.com's How does a private company decide on the size of a stock grant? (You may have to create a login)  

9. Michelle Wetzler's How I Negotiated My Startup Compensation

10. Mary Russell's Video Negotiate the Right Startup Stock Option Offer, based on Mary Russell and Boris Epstein's Bull's Eye: Negotiate the Right Job Offer

11. Mary Russell's Joining An Early Stage Startup? Negotiate Your Salary and Equity with Stock Option Counsel Tips

12. Robby Grossman's Negotiating Your Startup Job Offer

13. John Greathouse's What The Heck Are My Startup Stock Options Worth?! Seven Questions You Should Ask Before Joining A Startup

14. David Weekly's  An Introduction to Stock & Options for the Tech Entrepreneur or Startup Employee

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.

Negotiation Sales and Threats.jpg

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. 

Sales.jpg

(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.

Negotiation Rhythms #2: Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement

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.

We know we want to push beyond our limits to capture as much value as possible in a negotiation. But how do we define those limits? It takes a five-word phrase to bring this concept into focus: Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement (“BATNA”).

The BATNA for a car buyer might be the same car at a nearby dealership for $20,000. The BATNA for a home seller might be an offer from another party for $1 million. The BATNA for a child trading baseball cards might be to hold onto his favorite cards and enjoy looking at them rather than to trade them away.

 

BATNA Slide.jpg

Any agreement below (or, for a maximum limit, above) a BATNA would leave the negotiator worse off than in the absence of that particular agreement. Said another way, the negotiator would be better off with some other option – their BATNA – than accepting an agreement on those terms.

 

BATNAexamples.jpg

To properly identify a BATNA, we must do a lot of calculating, daydreaming, and going out in the world to test alternatives. But this creative process is necessary. When we believe that the only alternative is the one at hand, our negotiation position is dangerously weak. It is also dangerously ineffective because it leads to an arrangement that does not, in fact, make the negotiator better off than without it. And any deal that is not in both parties’ best interests is unstable and likely to collapse after it is made.

Countless factors go into naming and ranking one’s alternatives to arrive at a BATNA, and even then it is impossible to do so clearly as those factors cannot all be outlined in numerical format. A better offer might be less certain of being completed, so it might be more advantageous to make an agreement on less favorable terms today. For example, the other job offer might not be certain even though it appears it would be more advantageous if it were finalized. This is the old saying that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, and this can be dangerous for those who optimistically negotiate as if their imaginary alternatives are already in the hand. In the other extreme, this is very limiting for those who are very fearful of uncertainty, as they will accept disadvantageous terms for the simple purpose of having certain terms when a bit of risk in pursuit of a better alternative could have led to greater results.

Timing is important in other ways as well, as a negotiator with more time to come to an agreement will have more chances to find alternatives to the agreement at hand. "Wait and see" becomes a BATNA in itself. The opposite of this would be a party who must have resolution today, which would, of course, limit the alternatives.

Beyond hard limits on time, some people do not enjoy the back and forth process of negotiating. They might prefer to take this deal, and even to accept much less of the middle than is possible to capture, than to continue to seek alternatives or negotiate deals. For these people, the process itself inhibits the growth of BATNAs.

We’ll see in the next post – Negotiation Rhythms #3: Sales & Threats – how brainstorming or eliminating BATNAs changes the ZOPA and improves or weakens our force in negotiation.

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

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.

We’ve all heard plenty of advice about negotiating.

The business world directs us to stay rationally focused, rely on exhaustive preparation, think through alternatives, spend less time talking and more time listening and asking questions, and let the other side make the first offer.[1]

The psych world counsels us to listen first, sit down, find common ground, move in, keep cool, be brief, forget neutrality, avoid empty threats, and don’t yield.[2]

These tips don’t have much meaning without knowing the underlying principles of negotiations, and studying tips alone is about as meaningful as learning dance steps without ever hearing the music.

The following three-part series presents the rhythm of negotiations as described in the Harvard Negotiation Project’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.[3] It should be useful for those first learning to hear this rhythm and for those who have been dancing since the bazaars of their youth who may need to go back to basics to learn some tricky new steps.

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.

Read on!

#1: Zone of Possible Agreement

#2: Best Alternatives to Negotiated Agreement

#3: Sales & Threats

[1] Take It Or Leave It: The Only Guide to Negotiating You Will Ever Need http://www.inc.com/magazine/20030801/negotiation.html via @Inc

[2] The Art of Negotiation | Psychology Today http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200701/the-art-negotiation

[3] Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

 

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.