Early Hires: Options or Stock?

Nutshell:  While the conventional equity path of a startup is to issue (i) common stock to founders and (ii) options to employees, early hires concerned about taxes will often insist on receiving stock as well. Voting power, along with other political factors, present a few tradeoffs for founders to consider in that scenario.

Vocabulary:

  • Option Pool” – a portion of the company’s capitalization set aside (after founder stock is issued) for equity issuances to employees, consultants, advisors, etc., and subject to a special “plan” designed to comply with complex tax rules.  Even though it’s referred to as an “option” pool, properly designed equity plans will allow for direct stock issuances under the pool as well; not just options.
  • ISO – Incentive Stock Option – a tax-favored type of option issuable only to employees, if certain requirements are met. The main benefit is that upon exercise, the difference between the exercise price and the fair market value on the stock at the time of exercise is not taxed as ordinary income. However, it is subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which can hit certain people depending on their tax situation.
  • Restricted Stock” – For purposes of a private startup, just another way of saying Common Stock. The same security that founders get, except for non-founder employees it’s usually issued from the “pool” (under the Plan) using different form documents.
  • Early Exercise Options” – Conventional options issued to employees are not exercisable until they vest; meaning until the recipient has worked long enough to “earn” the right to exercise them.  Early exercise options have modified vesting/exercise provisions so that they can be exercised from Day 1 – with the underlying shares becoming subject to the vesting schedule.  From the Company’s perspective, early exercise options are very similar to restricted stock issuances. The only real difference is that the recipient has the option to exercise and receive the Stock on Day 1, or sit on it and exercise later.

Convention.

The conventional path of a Company’s equity issuances goes something like this:

  • Founders receive direct issuances of Common Stock (not options)
  • Non-Founder employees receive ISOs (options)
  • Consultants, advisors, etc. receive NSOs (options)
  • Investors receive Preferred Stock, or SAFEs/Convertible Notes that convert into Preferred Stock

Backround:  

  •  The value of restricted stock is taxable as ordinary income on the date of issuance, unless its fair market value (FMV) is paid in cash.
  • Options, both ISOs and NSOs, however, are generally not taxable on the date of grant, as long as their exercise price is equal to the FMV.
  • So, you would normally expect employees to prefer receiving options over stock. No tax > Tax. And this is the case when the stock’s FMV is relatively high. That’s why later hires (usually after a Series A) almost always receive options, without question.
  • Stock gets to vote on stockholder approvals. Options do not (until they’re exercised for stock).

The Issues: Early employees want to minimize tax. Companies want to avoid giving away voting rights/complicating stockholder votes too early.

  • However, in the very early days of a startup’s life, avoiding tax on restricted stock is easy because of how low the FMV of the stock is (fractions of a penny): write a check for a few dollars (the full FMV), or just pay the tax on the few dollars of ordinary income.  You therefore get the “no tax on grant” benefit of options, without worrying about paying tax later on an exercise date.  Receiving stock also gets the clock running on long-term capital gains treatment.
  • Therefore, very early hires, when they do their homework, tend to insist on receiving restricted stock (or early exercise options) over conventional options. Better to deal with tax when the stock is worth (at least to the IRS) virtually nothing, instead of years later upon exercising the option when the tax bill could be much greater (ordinary income for NSOs, or AMT (for some people) for ISOs).
    • Sidenote: Conventional equity plans also have a 90-day post-termination exercise period, meaning, when an employees leaves a company (voluntarily or involuntarily) they have to exercise their options within 90 days, or they then get terminated – even if vested. Paying the exercise price isn’t an issue for an early hire in that scenario, because it’s very low (the fractions of a penny FMV), but if the AMT comes into play it can hit them with a tax bill.  This doesn’t come up in a Restricted Stock scenario.
  • The tradeoff from the Company’s perspective is that, just like founders, those hires that receive restricted stock will have full voting rights (including seeing whatever is submitted for stockholder votes) for all of their stock on Day 1, before they’ve vested in anything.  When only one or two people are in question, this may not be a big deal. It can be a way of making early employees feel like a part of the core team, because their equity is being treated just like founders.  When there are more than a handful of hires, however, it can get unwieldy fast. The number of people to consult for stockholder votes can go from 2-3 to 10, 15, 20. If there are consultants and advisors in the picture, they may start to ask why they aren’t getting the same tax benefits as early hires. And then at some point you have to draw a line and start granting options. Is the first optionee not as special as the restricted stock people? Politics. 

Generally speaking, the decision to give restricted stock v. options to very early hires is a practical/political one.  While the tax-favored nature of ISOs means that most early employees won’t see much of a tax difference between receiving ISOs v. restricted stock, the prospect of an AMT hit in the ISO scenario does make restricted stock, on net, better for recipients.  That needs to be balanced, on the company’s side, against the early voting power/information rights given away when an employee receives stock instead of options, and how it will play out with all of the company’s other hires.  

My general advice to founders is to be aware of the tradeoffs, and to consciously treat the early voting power and tax benefits associated with restricted stock as currency not to be wasted.  If there’s a very early superstar that you deliberately want to single out as a key player, use the currency.  If not, then make the decision based on all the other factors. Company culture will likely factor greatly into the calculus.  Many, many founders prefer to avoid the politics/complications and simply draw a line at the founder (stock)/non-founder (option) division.  Others are more selective. There’s no magic formula.

A few separate issues worth addressing:

  • The 90-day post-termination exercise period (after which unexercised options, vested or not, are terminated) often gets criticized as being unfair to employees, and there’s some justification for that criticism. The view is that the employee shouldn’t be forced to “use it or lose it” if they did their time (their option vested) and are now moving on to a new company.
    • The actual 90-day number comes from tax rules requiring that ISOs be exercisable only within 90 days of termination.  If an option is exercisable after that, it automatically becomes an NSO for tax purposes. But there’s nothing in the tax rules requiring that the option be terminated at 90 days. That’s largely meant (i) as a deterrent (frankly) to people quitting, and (ii) a way to clean up the cap table for people who didn’t want to pay their exercise price, allowing that portion of the pool to then be re-used for new hires.
    • While the 90-day period is still convention, key executives/hires will often either negotiate for an extended exercise period for their own grants, or the Company will as a gesture of good will, decide on its own to selectively extend the period when someone leaves on good terms.

Obligatory Disclaimer: This post contains a lot of fundamentals and generalizations on tax rules, but it’s obviously not intended to be an exhaustive statement of those rules. Circumstances vary, and you should absolutely not rely on this post without consulting your own attorney and/or tax advisors.  If you do, don’t blame me when it blows up in your face.  You’ve been warned.


Also published on Medium.