Negotiating Equity @ a Startup – 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 counsel 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.

Negotiating an offer from a startup? Here's some tips. For more information on how Stock Option Counsel serves employees who are negotiating their offers, contact us or see our intro video here> . 

1. Know How Much Equity You Want

For employees early in their careers, the only negotiable terms for equity are the number of shares of stock and, possibly, the vesting schedule. The company will already have defined the form in which you will earn those shares, such as stock options, restricted stock units or restricted stock.

Your task in negotiating equity is to know how many shares would make the offer appealing to you or better than your other offers. If you don’t know what you want for equity, the company will be happy to tell you that you don’t want much.

Your desired number of shares should be the result of thoughtful consideration of the equity offer. There is no simple way to evaluate equity, but understanding the concepts and playing with the numbers should give you the power to decide how many shares you want.

One way to compare offers and evaluate equity is to find the current VC valuation of the preferred shares in the company. If a VC has recently paid $10 per share for the company’s stock, and you have been offered 10,000 shares, you can use $100,000 to compare to other offers. If another company has offered you 20,000 shares, and a VC has recently paid $5 for their shares, you could use those numbers to compare the offers.  For more info on finding VC valuations, see: Startup Valuation Basics or contact Stock Option Counsel. For more on early stage startups that do not have VC valuations, see this post. 

Remember that the purpose of this exercise is not to have a precise dollar value for the offer, but to answer these questions: How does this offer compare to other offers or my current position? What salary and number of shares at this company would make this a stable, sustainable relationship for me? In other words, will this keep me happy here for some time? If not, it is in nobody’s best interest to come to a deal on that package.

For more information on negotiating equity, see our video: Negotiate the Right Stock Option Offer or our blog with Boris Epstein of BINC Search: Negotiate the Right Job Offer.

2. Look for Tricky Legal Terms That Limit Your Shares' Value

There are some key legal terms that can diminish the value of your equity grant. Pay careful attention to these, as some are harsh enough that it makes sense to walk away from an equity offer.  

If you receive your specific equity grant documents before you are hired, such as the Equity Incentive Plan or Stock Option Plan, you can ask an attorney to read them.

If you don’t have the documents, you will have to wait until after you are hired to study the terms. But you can ask some general questions during the negotiation to flush out the tricky terms. For example, will the company have any repurchase rights or forfeiture rights for vested shares? Does the equity plan limit the kinds of exit events in which I can participate? What happens to my equity if I leave the company?

3.     Evaluate the Equity’s Potential

Evaluate the company to know how many shares would make the equity offer worth your time. You can start by asking the company some basic questions on their expectations for future growth and the exit timeline.

The higher your rank in the company and the stronger your emphasis on these matters, the more likely you are to speak to the CEO, CFO or someone else at the company who can answer these questions. If you want more resources to help you think like a startup investor, there are great online resources on valuation, dilution and exits for startups.

But don’t place too much weight on the company’s predictions of the equity’s potential value, especially if those values are based on an early-stage company’s Discounted Cash Flows (DCF). Even the experts know that the only thing early stage startups know about financial projections is that they are wrong.

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 counsel 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.