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.

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

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.

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.

Read More

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.