We’ve covered a lot of ground in this series, but there is always more when it comes to equity compensation. Sharing ownership can be messy and participating in a liquidity event can be even messier. Companies, majority shareholders, and minority shareholders have defined tools to help avoid some of this messiness. Three of the most important provisions to consider in a startup equity plan are 1) Rights of first refusal, 2) Tag along rights and 3) Drag along rights. Often these are defined in your lawyer’s boilerplate document and never addressed during the design and approval phases of your plan.
1) Rights of First Refusal:
These are designed to protect the company from unwanted shareholders. They can be the bane of, or boon to, employees and other equity plan participants. The most basic form allows the company to buy shares from a potential seller for the same terms and conditions offered by a third party prospective purchaser. If someone wants to cash out, finds someone willing to buy their shares, and is not otherwise prohibited from selling their shares, they must first offer the shares to the company for purchase. If the company decides not to buy, the third-party can become a shareholder.
Rights of first refusal can be designed to allow the company to buy back shares at the most recent valuation price instead of the price offered by the third-party. This can ensure that the company is not “held over a barrel” by a seller who has found someone who passionately wants to become and owner and is willing to pay top dollar. This can be upsetting to a seller who has not read their agreement. This is especially true when the “investor value” far exceeds the value the company currently deems reasonable pursuant to a valid valuation.
Very few companies WANT a shareholder they do not know or with whom they are not on friendly terms. Most companies will exercise their right. But, what if they can’t? Not every company has the cash to buy back shares on a whim. Savvy equity holders can use this to their advantage by timing their potential sale to occur when the company is cash poor. It is critical that a company consider every possibility before simply signing off on a basic equity compensation plan.
2) Tag Along Rights
These are designed to protect minority shareholders. Imagine a majority shareholder decides to sell their shares. Imagine also that you are employee #5 and have purchased and held your shares for a while. When the majority shareholder sells, a tag along right ensures that the minority shareholder(s) can sell an equal percentage of their shares at the same price. If you are the minority shareholder, this can be huge. It helps ensure that the control and value of the company isn’t sold out from underneath you, especially if the purchaser is someone with whom you may disagree.
3) Drag Along Rights
These are designed to give additional power to majority shareholders. In many cases, a potential acquirer will balk at having to negotiate individual terms with minority shareholders. A well-designed, “drag along right” allows the majority shareholder to require minority shareholders (often equity compensation plan participants) to sell a pro rata portion of their shares to the acquirer for the same price, terms, and conditions as agreed to by the majority shareholder. This can be especially powerful if someone is looking to acquire 100% of a company. Negotiating with only the majority holder while guaranteeing the participation of every shareholder can smooth the process considerably. It also gives the majority shareholder significantly more negotiating power.
Lacking control of future transactions makes everyone a bit uneasy. Everyone should know whether they can leave the party, join the party or be forced to shut down the party. Building your equity compensation program to reflect your potential future transactions is a way to ensure all parties are treated in a way that can be both expected and relatively conflict-free. Most companies and plan participants do not pay attention to these details until the conflict has already started.