Startup Equity: Three Crucial Variables (Part 9 of an n part series)

stickman startup three crucial thingsStartup equity has approximately a gazillion moving parts. But three of these variables are far more important than all of the others. These three components are what make your plan uniquely yours. They are the things that require real thought. They are also the elements that are most commonly viewed as “plug-and-play” in the world of startups.

  1. Vesting Schedule

Stock options are grants with four-year vesting schedules. Everyone knows this. RSUs have a three-year schedule. Everyone knows this as well. However, while these are the most common vesting schedules, they are not as “standard” or as scientific as you may think.

The truth about vesting is a bit more complex. Vesting should align with Continue reading

Evolving Equity Like It’s a Flying Machine

untitled3Other professionals in HR, compensation and investing frequently ask why I am so passionate about changing the way companies use equity compensation. They point out that the majority of companies follow the same path and many companies (as well as many individuals) have been very successful with the current paradigm (see below for a quick summary). Why mess with something that seems to work at least some of the time?

I ask you to consider the Continue reading

How do Googlers manage their RSUs?

Question (Orig. on Quora):

Since RSUs makeup for major chunk of their future savings, do Googlers feel insecure about stocks dropping significantly ? For example, LinkedIn stocks lost their worth significantly overnight. Do Googlers sell immediately or reinvest into other venues or just hold onto them ?

Answer (by Dan Walter):

I think if “Googlers” as a group did mainly the same thing, the would be deemed far less intelligent than expected.

Doing the “right thing” with RSUs depends on many factors. Some of these are personal, some are market driven, some are income and tax driven and still others are driven by psychology.

Here is what the smart people do.

1) Long before their RSUs vest they take advantage of the financial education and planning opportunities offered by the company or recommended agents.

2) As their RSUs vest that look at the current market conditions, the plan put together with their financial advisor and any indicators of how things may change.

3) They also look at their current cash position, their current concentration of Google stock, and related industry stock as part of their portfolio.

4) They look at what other vesting events may be occurring in the near term future.

5) They look at any potential cash payments they may be receiving soon.

6) After all of that they make a determination to keep or sell the share delivered after vesting. This decision will be different for different people and will be different for different vesting dates.

They key to equity compensation is being well educated about your awards and the choices surrounding them.

In my more than two decades of working on these programs I have found that perhaps a single digit percentage of ALL equity holders truly utilize these awards well. It should be noted that this single digit percentage is across all companies. This means that, at many companies, the percentage is below the fraction of 1% and at others it is quite high. This is mainly due to the amount of time, effort, passion and money the company spends on educating people. BUT, individuals can get much of this information on their own, even if their company is relatively silent.

LinkedIn, Microsoft and “Stock-based Compensation”

I just had someone send me an article titled “REASON BEHIND THE MICROSOFT-LINKEDIN DEAL”. The premise behind that article is that stock-based compensation (the accounting term for this piece of the compensation pie) was a major driver behind LinkedIn’s decision to be acquired by Microsoft. LinkedIn did use stock-based compensation more heavily than many companies, but that alone would not be a good reason to desire an acquisition at a value significantly less than the 52 week high. Stock-based compensation includes virtually any type of pay where the individual gets ownership in the company at some discount to the value and it is eventually owned in full by them. In order for stock-based compensation to factor into the decision at all, there would need to be Continue reading

A Chrome Panda Predicts Demise of Stock Options

6a0134836082f8970c01b7c8585e9e970b-200wiOn May 7, 2016, it was reported that a giant chrome panda predicted the imminent crippling of stock options in the Silicon Valley. Dropbox has been a star of the unicorn sector. But, in October of 2015 and again in April of 2016, their value was written down by major mutual funds, including Fidelity. With their unicorn value and subsequent write down, they have become a high tech “canary in the coal mine” for employee stock options.

Just last month Dropbox moved into new digs in San Francisco. In their lobby, they installed a giant chrome panda (their mascot) that is meant to welcome guests with an iconic Bay Area flair of irreverence. The bad news is Continue reading

Could the stock options or RSUs you receive from a “unicorn” startup be diluted?

Question (Orig. on Quora):

Of course the rsu’s can be worth nothing if the company implodes, but other than the company simply failing, is it possible for my stock to become worthless?

Answer (by Dan Walter):

Sure. Imagine the company goes through a down round financing. Imagine the new investors put a structure in place that ensures they receive their full value if the company is sold below a given price. If the company is eventually sold below this price then all of the value of the company would be paid to the latest investors and nothing to the holders of employee equity.

This is just a super simple hypothetical but I can bet that some people on Quora have real horror stories about similar transactions.

“Employee-Friendly” Equity Compensation

6a0134836082f8970c01b7c82ab74a970b-200wiIn this sixth installment of my “Stock Options on the Precipice” series (other articles: 1, 2,3, 4, 5), I will cover some common concerns employees have about equity compensation. The term “employee-friendly” equity compensation has become popular over the past couple of years. What does this mean and do the people using the term actually understand the purposes and technical issues surrounding equity compensation? More importantly, is there equity compensation that isn’t employee-friendly? Lastly, what should you be doing about it?

Part of the inspiration for Continue reading

What are current (2016) best practices for employee stock option programs for US pre-IPO startups?

Question: (org. on Quora)

Answer (by Dan Walter)

Hi Alex.  Thanks for the A2a.  And thanks to Shriram Bhashyam for also recommending me.
The first thing to clarify is the difference between “best practices” and most common practices. In the realm of equity compensation the most common practices are seldom the best. I will try and cover a bit of both.
“Early Stage” has also become a term of art in many cases. In this case I will write from the perspective of a company who may have up to a medium sized B Round. Your company may certainly fall into a different category.
Lastly, before I get into details, please realize that essential ANY equity compensation data is wrong at some fundamental level. Since you are unlikely to know how another company has designed their plan, what their investors expectations are, what the releasing timeline and potential value at the time of liquidity and whether the liquidity event is focused on IPO or acquisition (*and a series of other potential factors), you may be comparing apples to hotdogs, or plastic cups. (A list of the 11 reasons your equity compensation data is wrong)
The most common practices in the Silicon Valley (another assumption I am making, since these rules may not apply to you if you are located elsewhere) have been generally boxed in by VCs over the past couple of decades. The VC sway on startups is so strong that many companies (and many VCs) don’t realize that there may be other ways.  In summary:

Continue reading

If a start-up terminated an employee, is it required to allow them to exercise the relative portion of their stock option grant that is yet vested?

Question: (org. on Quora)

Answer (by Dan Walter)

This is a fairly common question. The short answer is no. But, it depends.
The first thing you should turn to is your grant agreement.  This will explain things like vesting schedules (generally when you can beging exercising stock options, or when you gain access to the stock or cash underlying things like. RSUs.  The vesting schedules may also require that a change in control or IPO take place before any vesting is finalized.
Your agreement is also the most common place to see the details on post-termination grace periods.  This is what may allow you to exercise any vested amounts after you  leave. The rules for these are usually different depending on the type of termination.  Example:  Death or Permanent Disability may give you 6 months or a year, termination without cause may give you 30 days or three months, but being fired or “terminated for cause” often results in an immediate forfeiture of anything vested.  Anything unvested usually is cancelled the date of termination, regardless of the reason.
If your vesting schedule allows exercises and your termination grace period allows exercises, they may still be additional restrictions that would keep you from exercising.  Some of these may be defined in your agreement.  Others may be found in the plan document.
You need to ask the company to put in writing their reasons for not allowing you to exercise.  And you need to do this quickly.  If there is a grace period you don;t want to mess around with the grant after that expires.  If the company is on the edge of a transaction like an acquisition, you don;t want to have to learn a new set of people and rules.

Equity Compensation Triage Assessment (Stock Options on Precipice Part 2)

6a0134836082f8970c01b7c8140d49970b-200wiThe first article in this “Stock Options on the Precipice” series covered some of the main issues that are currently impacting employee stock options (check it out here). This article will discuss some of the paths you might take if you are having stock option concerns. For many executives, human resources and compensation professionals, this may be the first time to experience the trials and tribulations of stock options. For others, the questions below and the assessment process may be a new way of addressing this issue.

Luckily, Continue reading