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 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.

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.

March 14 Event: Bill of Rights Discussion

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.

Thanks to the 300 people who joined Chris Zaharias, @SearchQuant, and Mary Russell, Attorney Counsel to Individuals @StockOptionCnsl, for this event in Palo Alto on March 14, 2014! 

We had a great discussion of how to define and improve startup equity. For Mary Russell's current suggestions on the topic, please see Startup Equity Standards: A Guide for Employees.

Here's what we discussed at the event:

Right to Know. Company information on capitalization and valuation, being necessary to the employee’s negotiation of a fair compensation package, shall be provided to the employee with his or her equity offer and after each dilution and valuation event.

Right to Value. The right of the employee to earn the full value of his or her grant shall not be limited by unreasonable vesting terms.

Right to Hold Earned Equity. The right of the employee to hold vested equity up to an acquisition or public offering shall not be violated, and no forfeiture, repurchase or other provisions shall allow the company to seize vested equity of current or former employees.

Right to Tax Benefits. The employee shall enjoy the right to all tax benefits available from state and federal governments, and shall not be subjected to tax penalties due to company negligence, at grant, at vesting or settlement and at company acquisition or sale of stock.

Right to Ask. The right to evaluate equity shall not be violated by company limits on access to information or legal counsel.

Chris Zaharias, SearchQuant LLC

Chris is a startup veteran and advocate for startup employee equity rights. chris@searchquant.net (415) 832-0089.

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.

VIDEO Startup Stock Options: Startup Valuation

Stock Option Counsel for individual employees and founders in all matters relating to startup stock options or other employee stock. This video describes startup valuation for employees in a thoughtful, accessible way. 

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.

Skype Repurchase Rights = Vampire Capitalism

I agree that it is unethical as it goes against the expectation of employees as to how their contributions are valued. If they don't know about it before they choose the company, they are making a choice without an essential term of the deal.

And it goes against the most idealistic ethic of Silicon Valley – that capitalism should be used by groups to organize and cultivate their own creative efforts rather than as a tool of vampires.

But it is not illegal. And I've seen worse in my Stock Option Counsel practice (twice this month alone). Congratulations on paying attention.

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