Posts from employee equity

Announcing MBA Mondays Live

I promised to do this a while back but I've been slow in making it happen. MBA Mondays Live is finally happening.

The first class will be on Monday April 16th in the USV Event Space from 6pm to 7pm. The topic will be Employee Equity.

This will be a lecture class. I will be using the whiteboard to lay out the basics of employee equity; how to issue it, how to structure it, and how to figure out how much to give.

There are no prerequisites but I would very much like this class to be limited to founders, co-founders, and/or the finance team in their organization. The class is limited to 75 people because that's the max size of the USV event space. There is a $25 charge to attend this class. Proceeds are being given to The Academy For Software Engineering.

We will livestream this class and archive it. There will be no charge to watch this class live or via the archive. I don't yet have the details of the livestream and archive but I will post the details before the date of the class.

I plan to teach MBA Mondays Live every few months, always on a Monday, always in the USV event space, and always on a topic that I have already blogged about on MBA Mondays.

Tickets to the April 16th class are being sold on Skillshare. You can get them here.

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Employee Equity: Dilution

Last week I kicked off my MBA Mondays series on Employee Equity. Today I am going to talk about one of the most important things you need to understand about employee equity; it is likely to be diluted over time.

When you start a company, you and your founders own 100% of the company. That is usually in the form of founders stock. If you never raise any outside capital and you never give any stock away to employees or others, then you can keep all of that equity for yourself. It happens a lot in small businesses. But in high growth tech companies like the kind I work with, it is very rare to see the founders keep 100% of the business.

The typical dilution path for founders and other holders of employee equity goes like this:

1) Founders start company and own 100% of the business in founders stock

2) Founders issue 5-10% of the company to the early employees they hire. This can be done in options but is often done in the form of restricted stock. Sometimes they even use "founders stock" for these hires. Let's use 7.5% for our rolling dilution calculation. At this point the founders own 92.5% of the company and the employees own 7.5%.

3) A seed/angel round is done. These early investors acquire 5-20% of the business in return for supplying seed capital. Let' use 10% for our rolling dilution calcuation. Now the founders own 83.25% of the company (92.5% times 90%), the employees own 6.75% (7.5% times 90%), and the investors own 10%.

4) A venture round is done. The VCs negotiate for 20% of the company and require an option pool of 10% after the investment be established and put into the "pre money valuation". That means the dilution from the option pool is taken before the VC investment. There are two diluting events going on here. Let's walk through them both.

When the 10% option pool is set up, everyone is diluted 12.5% because the option pool has to be 10% after the investment so it is 12.5% before the investment. So the founders now own 72.8% (83.25% times 87.5%), the seed investors own 8.75% (10% times 87.5%), and the employees now own 18.4% (6.8% times 87.5% plus 12.5%).

When the VC investment closes, everyone is diluted 20%. So the founders now own 58.3% (72.8% times 80%), the seed investors own 7% (8.75% times 80%), the VCs own 20%, and the employees own 14.7% (18.4% times 80%). Of that 14.7%, the new pool represents 10%.

5) Another venture round is done with an option pool refresh to keep the option pool at 10%. See the spreadsheet below to see how the dilution works in this round (and all previous rounds). By the time that the second VC round is done, the founders have been diluted from 100% to 42.1%, the early employees have been diluted from 7.5% to 3.4%, and the seed investors have been diluted from 10% to 5.1%.

Dilution sheet

I've uploaded this spreadsheet to google docs so all of you can look at it and play with it. If anyone finds any errors in it, please let me know and I'll fix them.

This rolling dilution calculation is just an example. If you have diluted more than that, don't get upset. Most founders end up with less than 42% after rounds of financing and employee grants. The point of this exercise is not to lock down onto some magic formula. Every company will be different. It is simply to lay out how dilution works for everyone in the cap table.

Here is the bottom line. If you are the first shareholder, you will take the most dilution. The earlier you join and invest in the company, the more you will be diluted. Dilution is a fact of life as a shareholder in a startup. Even after the company becomes profitable and there is no more financing related dilution, you will get diluted by ongoing option pool refreshes and M&A activity.

When you are issued employee equity, be prepared for dilution. It is not a bad thing. It is a normal part of the value creation exercise that a startup is. But you need to understand it and be comfortable with it. I hope this post has helped with that.

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Employee Equity

One of the topics I get asked about most on MBA Mondays is "options." But options are only one form of employee equity. I am going to do a series of posts on this topic over the next month of MBA Mondays. I will start by laying out the logic for employee equity, going over some target ownership levels, and describing the various securities you can use to issue employee equity.

One of the defining characteristics of startup culture is employee ownership. Many large companies provide employee ownership so this is not unique to startup culture. But when you join a startup, you have the expectation of getting some ownership in the company and if the company is successful and is sold or taken public, that you will share in the gains that result.

Employee ownership is such an important part of startup culture. It reinforces that everyone is on the team, everyone is sharing in the gains, and everyone is a shareholder. I can't think of a company that has come to pitch us that has not had an employee equity plan. And I can't think of a term sheet that we have issued that didn't have a specific provision for employee equity. It is simply a fundamental part of the startup game.

While employee equity is "standard" in the startup business, the levels of employee ownership vary quite a bit from company to company. There are a variety of reasons. Geography matters. Employee ownership levels are higher in well developed startup cultures like the bay area, boston, and NYC. They are lower in less developed startup communities. Engineering heavy startups will tend to have higher levels of employee ownership than services and media companies. I am not suggesting that is right or fair, but it is what I have seen. And if the founders are the top managers in a company, the level of "non founder employee ownership" will be lower. If the founders are largely gone from a company, the levels of "non founder employee ownership" will be higher.

If the founders are the top managers in the company, then the typical "non founder employee ownership" will tend to be between 10% and 20%. If the founders have largely left the company, then "non founder employee ownership" will be closer to 20% and could be a bit higher. I like the 20% number as a target if for no other reason than it maps well to the VC business. The people providing the "sweat equity" typcally get 20% of the gains in our business (at USV we get 20%) and they should get at least that in the companies we back. I say "at least" because the founders are often still providing "sweat equity" and they can own much more than 20%.

There are four primary ways to issue employee equity in startups:

– Founder stock. This is the stock that founders issue to themselves when they form the company. It can also include stock issued to early team members. Founder stock has special vesting provisions among the founders so that one or more of them doesn't leave early and keep all of their stock. Those vesting provisions are extended to the investors once capital is invested in the business. Founder stock will typically be common stock and it will be owned by the founders subject to vesting provisions.

– Restricted stock. This is common stock that is issued to either early employees or top executives that are hired into the company fairly early in a company's life. Restricted stock will have vesting provisions that are identical to standard employee option plans (typcially four years but sometimes three years). The difference between restricted stock and options is that the employee owns the shares from the day of issuance and can get capital gains treatment on the sale of the stock if it is held for one year or more. But issuing restricted stock to an employee triggers immediate taxable income to the recipient so it can be very expensive to the recipient and therefore it is only done very early when the stock is not worth much or when a senior executive is hired who can handle the tax issues.

– Options. This is by far the most common form of employee equity issued in startup companies. The stock option is a right issued to an employee to purchase common stock at some point in the future at a set price. The "set price" is called the "strike price." I am going to do at least one and probably several ful MBA Mondays posts on options so I am not going to say much more now.

– Restricted Stock Units. Knows as RSUs, these securities are relatively new in the startup business. They were created to fix issues with options and restricted stock and have characteristics of both. A RSU is a promise to issue common stock once the vesting provisions have been satisfied. The vesting provisions can include a liquidity event. So when you are getting an RSU, you are getting something that feels like an option but there is no strike price. When you get the shares, you will own them outright. But you might not get them for a while.

I will end this post by imploring all of you entrepreneurs to hire an experienced startup lawyer. Employee equity issues are tricky. You can and will make a bunch of expensive mistakes with employee equity unless you have the right counsel. There are plenty of law firms and lawyers who specialize in startups and you should have one of them at your side when you are setting up your company and throughout its life. That is true for a lot of reasons, but employee equity is one of the most important ones.

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