In the old days, when software companies sold software rather than traditional services enhanced by software, it was common to get to profitability around the B round and then never take any more investment after that. Google took $25-35M and then nothing until IPO, running the company from 2001-2004 off cashflow. Microsoft took nothing except a small mezzanine round (to align incentives with the I-bankers) right before IPO. Github took a $50M Series A on a valuation of $500M; VCs owned 10% of the company, and the 3 founders + employees split the remaining 90% of its $7.5B acquisition. Indeed took a Series A and is profitable. Atlassian took a $60M Series A 8 years after starting the company, when it was already profitable. PlentyOfFish, HotOrNot, Reddit, Wufoo all raised either nothing or just angel money before being acquired.
When you're capital efficient, you get to keep the majority of any sale price.
The current crop of unicorns like Uber, Lyft, WeWork, Postmates, DoorDash, Instacart, AirBnB, and Stripe have all taken massive amounts of capital though, sometimes in the multi billions of dollars. That has to be returned to the investors before the common shares (founders & employees) make anything. If they hit on hard times before a liquidity event, there's a good chance that the common will be wiped out, and investors effectively own the company. Why shouldn't they, when they put up all the money that the company's been burning?
WeWork's problem was that while they valuation was $47B, they also had $47B committed in long term leases (essentially debt). Uber & Lyft, are in war and their scale hasn't helped the economics as much since neither can get a monopoly on demand or the supply side of the market. Postmates, Doordash, Instacart, all likely operate with large gross volumes but low transaction sizes and low margins which can be challenging.
Airbnb has now more cash the bank than they have ever raised ($3.5B) and it's growing . I suspect Stripe's financials are strong as well.
Free cash flow, and the ability to use or invest it well, eventually lead to a great business. Raising a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean that you are burning a lot of it, and the economics of the business matters.
It's also likely Airbnb will do a direct listing since they don't actually need the cash. Which is also potentially better for employees than traditional IPOs.
Disclaimer: I used to work at Airbnb, but this is all public information or speculation on my part.
We are at the inflection point where they are all about to crash and burn. Good riddance.
"We're not $boring_business, we're $boring_business_but_internet" (or, today, it'd be boring but mobile)
This cycle, investors realized that OK, maybe we have to see revenues to believe it's a real business.
But, if you look at things like WeWork, sure, there's revenue, but there's never even been the hope of eventual profit. The business model fundamentally destroys value.
In the late 90s we had a lot of companies that took a lot of money, and the founders and employees got nothing out of them other than painful experiences. When you look at one of the successful "fat" startups (PayPal), Max Levchin's take ($34M) of the $1.6B acquisition was on the same order as the Wufoo founder's take of their $35M acquisition, or the Viaweb founders take of their $49M acquisition. Even Amazon - probably the most successful "fat" startup in history - languished below its dot-com peak until AWS came out in 2007.
Margins matter. Capital efficiency matters. If you want to actually make money, you should make lots of profits on small amounts of invested capital, not lose lots of money on large amounts of invested capital.
Uber and Lyft have it tough in that regard. At the end of the day they've got product market fit in a profitable industry. I mean the very worst case is they become more efficient cab companies, and cab companies have been making money for a very long time.
Their prices are artificially low due to competition, and they are in sort of a prisoner's dilemma. eventually one of them will go broke and the other will raise prices, or something will change about the market (such as driverless cars coming). But if one of them passes up raising and losing money they lose.
Their financial struggles are due to them pricing well below what taxi cabs do. But if Uber priced the same as cabs they'd still be an infinitely better service and make lots of money, once Lyft isn't there undercutting.
It reminds me a lot of airlines. They were all hemorrhaging money similarly, even for a decade or two after deregulation, until they consolidated down into a few and raised prices.
As employees get more educated around stock options I’m certain their risk profile will change and founders will find it harder to rally a tribe around airy promises of a future exit.
This means you're pretty much forced to either take SoftBank's money, or compete against someone else with SoftBank's money. They don't care much who takes their money, because either way they have the most funded pony in the race.
They raised another $250M in 2015. Still a lot less funding than they ultimately sold for, but the common pool certainly wasn't 90% of the value at their exit.
Because there is another group that's putting up all the work. In startups, that work is generally more intense and risk laden, which is why employees are offered shares as part of compensation. Otherwise, why would they be offering shares? Both groups deserve protection.
The SEC was created so that people couldn't swindle each other in a legal manner. It works to some degree for investors who are, by the definition of these types of investors, rich ($1mm in assets or $200k/income). But it clearly isn't working for the people doing the work.
So our system protects the rich, but not the people who apply a trade. If you think that's ok, fine. But I find it terribly unfair.
Joint stock companies exist as a result of legislation, the separation of capital and management requires courts for mediation. I can't see why someone wouldn't support changing it to be more equitable to all involved, especially if it is done based on merit (where labor and capital are both weighed as equal inputs at the time of distribution of large liquidity events)
Generally speaking, the big money goes to the people who risk, not the people who work. If it didn't work that way, who would finance a risky project?
Investors may or may not get paid sometime in the future, while employees get paid today, whether what they do works out or not.
Employment is more than just the paycheck. It's security. It's a career trajectory. Otherwise, why do consultants get paid more than employees?
You can see it that employees take no risk. That's fine. But then I wonder why start ups tout the stocks they give? And why is it acceptable to tout something that they know has no value?
The SEC has a function. To avoid dishonest actions that would otherwise be legal under standard criminal law from eroding trust in security markets. The employee of the article we are discussing here received 1% for losing out on opportunities of growth in a larger company. Obviously he was worth something to the company, and more than they were willing to pay him in cash. He was betting on the future value of the offerings he was receiving. By being able to trust that, start ups could/would/should obtain labor at discounted rates. This is good for the market. Trust in securities.
You can call him naive. But I will remind you that in the late 19th and early 20th century the stock market was not well capitalized. People presumed they were getting screwed. And anybody who placed trust in the system was called naive. "they shouldn't trust" is an easy argument. It's the old 'it's just the way it is' argument.
It's arguable, but I'd say creating trust within the exchange of securities via systems like the SEC was a great advance in the allocation of resources. It's why we have well capitalized markets. Without trust, friction comes along.
That is why I feel what was described in the article is deeply unfair and given that the entire structure of joint stock companies is a legislative creation, surely it could be changed.
So basically, your view that "the big money goes to the people who risk" seems idiosyncratic and reflexive rather than based on any substantial analysis of the article or the situation.
I'm hardly advocating for any revolutionary ideas. Overall, having read The Wealth of Nations, I'm a big supporter of Adam Smith's ideas. Which is why I can see how the system can be structured differently within the capitalist context.
Not at all like the risk of putting in a big chunk of your own money. When you lose it, it's gone. Too bad, so sad.
Employees have the lowest risk position. They get first claim on the money owed for their paychecks and there are many legal protections for that. The investor is frequently last in line, and gets nothing if the company bankrupts.
> described in the article is deeply unfair
My reading of it was slightly different than yours. If the company hadn't gotten the overhang investment, they would have gone bankrupt and the employee would have lost their job sooner. If the overhang wasn't offered, the investors would not have invested. There was no path for the employee to cash in the stock - unless the value of the company was larger than $100m. But it wasn't.
I have no problem with employment where money is exchanged for time. But that wasn't the case.
The employee got paid for time in the form of money and stock. You are conveniently ignoring this part.
If the stock is worthless, why offer it? The answer to me is obvious, they are being deceitful.
As stated, the SECs' mission is so that people who deal with securities don't engage in deceitful behavior, since deceitful behavior removes trust from market participants which creates friction and increases costs and decreases participation.
The argument that people's rewards, one who put in $50 in cash and another who accepted an offer that resulted in a decreased earnings of say $50 avg should be treated differently is anti-meritocratic. Both risked $50. If the employee wasn't accepting a decreased earnings potential, why offer the stock? You can't have it both ways.
Just as the company would have failed if the investors didn't invest, it would have also failed if the employees left when they saw trouble. Many extensively won't because they have shares. That's why the shares are offered in the first place. To motivate the employee. But it turns out many times those offerings are done in a deceitful manner; the people offering stocks to employees many times know those stocks are extremely unlikely to be worth anything, yet they make a concerted effort to make it appear as if those stocks are worth something.
Investors are protected from deceitful security offerings. Surely you think that's a good thing? Why not apply to all parties?
Literally all I'm arguing for is a more honest (and therefore meritocratic) code in our system when handling the exchange of time for securities, especially in the face of a large liquidity event.
It wasn't worthless when it was offered, the overhang deals did not come until much later, and it did not become worthless until the company sale price was agreed upon. The stock would still have been worth something if the sale price was higher than the overhang.
Getting stock does not mean it can be diluted by further stock issuances. There is no deceit there.
> Literally all I'm arguing for is a more honest (and therefore meritocratic)
Honesty has nothing to do with meritocratic. For example, the person next to you on an airplane surely paid a different price. It's neither dishonest nor meritocratic. It is what both parties agreed upon. Each person has a different level of risk tolerance and desire for money.
Everybody in a startup gets a different deal based on their ability to negotiate, what they want, their risk tolerance, and the desire of the company to get them on board.
The employee was offered 1% of the company.
Reasonable, everyday people will understand that to be 1% of all money that comes in on a sale after paying legal fees and bond holders.
The rest of the convoluted mess, while legal and negotiated and something I understand, is done in a way that is taking advantage of the information and power asymmetry of the two market participants. Just as stock swindles happened in the late 1800s.
Honest markets do create more meritocratic markets, as market participants can engage without the friction of complete distrust. Courts and systems to create trust are essential. If you don't understand that concept, then we likely won't ever agree, I think it's a pretty basic concept in capitalism and economics. It's like people who don't believe in supply and demand, if you can't agree on something so basic, then all subsequent points will be going off a different basis.
As stated in my earlier reply, look at the stock market and how it was for investors in the 18th century when there were little to no rules protecting investors and therefore there was massive friction from dishonest market participants.
Your argument can be boiled down to 'caveat emptor'. Which is an argument that lacks intellectual cohesiveness when you are simultaneously supporting the legal structure that removed such a situation from the average investor and which has allowed our markets to develop and become fully capitalized as market participation soars when honest behavior is enforced.
It amazes me that someone can honestly argue against providing time investors with the same protection as fiat investors.
No, they weren't. They were offered stock. Stock can always be diluted by future stock issues.
> Reasonable, everyday people will understand that to be 1% of all money that comes in on a sale after paying legal fees and bond holders.
People who accept stock options and don't bother to learn about them have only themselves to blame. The information isn't hard to come by, it's all over the internet.
> It amazes me that someone can honestly argue against providing time investors with the same protection as fiat investors.
They do have the same legal and system protections. They got what they agreed to.
> Courts and systems to create trust are essential.
What you're discounting, however, is the role of risk. Risk is always there. The larger the risk, the more potential returns there are. If you try to legally define the risk and legally force two disparate risks to be the same, the result will be all kinds of market distortions.
You argue that the risk of the employee and the investor are the same. They are not, or they would be priced the same. Is it really right to interfere in the negotiations other people are freely making?
But like we make laws controlling how real estate loans work to protect people from shysters, we should probably have a lot more required documentation for companies that offer stock in pre-ipo companies.
If this was market based, you'd be right. But if it is legislative based, then this is the definition of circular logic. Given that the structure of preferential stock is legislative based, it is circular reasoning.
I count risk based on what percentage of a person's net worth and potential earnings are tied up in the securities.
That renders a different perspective of risk than just raw numbers which is what you seem to be going off of.
Your argument can be boiled down to 'caveat emptor'. Which is an argument that lacks intellectual cohesiveness when you are simultaneously supporting the legal structure that removed such a situation from the average investor.
Not exactly. The courts are there to enforce the contracts, and protect against fraud. They are not there to protect people from making ignorant decisions and failing to do things like read the contracts they sign. They are not there to remove risk.
Some people say that free markets don't work unless there is perfect information on both sides. This is incorrect. Imperfect information is called risk and is always priced in. The overhang in stocks comes about because investing in the company is perceived as extremely risky.
Again, I can't really talk about economics and capitalism with someone who believes what you wrote.
Either we agree that honest markets are more meritocratic (in which case you are admitting to being wrong) or we can't really go any further.
As a practical matter, it was, since it wasn't liquid and had no security against changes which would eliminate it's theoretical value before it became liquid.
It could have become worth something with the right set of future conditions, but those obviously did not materialize.
The lack of liquidity is a factor in the price.
It might additionally be getting common stock, under the same terms of other common shareholders, which is to say, behind the preferred shareholders, who are behind the bond holders.
Person A, investor puts in $100k
Person B, employee gets paid $100k
Person A lost $100k
Person B gained $100k
This is why person A gets the lion's share of the rewards if the company succeed. Person B risked nothing. Person A risked $100k.
The typical retort from Person B is they could have gone to a different company so their risk was to work for this particular company. For example they could have gone to a FAANG company and made a high salary but instead went to some startup at a lower salary on the risk that it would succeed. From one POV that is a risk but it's not your money until it's in your hands. Future money is similar to saying well "if I won the lottery tomorrow". Until you do actually win that money it doesn't really count. You can use that line of reasoning in negotiations (you want me to join your startup but I have an offer from a FANNG company, sweeten the deal if you want me). But after that you didn't actually take a risk relevant to the company. Instead you made a choice to be paid X amount for your labor.
Note: I've never been on the investing side, only the employee side, but for some reason I've never felt ripped off since I knew I was taking no risk.
Person A converted their 100k into 1 year of time.
Person B converted their 1 year of time into 100k of money.
They both put in 100k of something, B put in 100k worth of time, A put in 100k worth of money. If we assume a fair market rate for the conversion, then essentially this is a perfect exchange, and they both traded their different investments for exactly what they were worth. That is, the money invested, got back EXACTLY the amount of time it purchased, and the time invested got back EXACTLY the amount of money it purchased.
Person A and B are trading things of equal value. This means they invested equally, and hence should split the reward equally.
A risked $100k money got 0.
B risked $100k time got 100k money.
A is now at -$100k
B is at zero
My guess it's you'll claim A got $100k of your time so A is at 0 as well but if we follow that logic in other places we can see how it doesn't work.
A pays $10 for B to make a pie
B pays $10 of time to make a pie
A now resells pie for $20. A does not own B any percentage of profit. That's the business success case just replace "pie" with "business". Similarly A drops pie. B does not owe A a new pie. That's the business fail case. $B got their $10 money for their $10 of time. B's risk has now been paid for. A still has a risk, that they can sell the pie. Replace "drops pie" with "business fails".
Person A has not the time to invest into building the product, so they invest money, 100k's worth of dollars.
Person B has not the money to invest into building the product, so they invest time, 100k's worth of time.
So if we compare dollars in the event of company failure, we have:
Person A is now at -100k
Person B is now at 100k
Person A is now at +1 years
Person B is now at -1 years
Again, this means they both invested equally. What is usually harder to see is the time investment. But Person A gains one year of work they did not have to do on the product (via their investment). Person B loses the year they invest/spend on the product.
Purchasing a product does not imply joint ownership. Consumers do not partly own the profit of the Producer. However, if A and B decided to build a pie product together then yeah, they'd split the profits. Which is what is at stake here in this overall discussion: how should profits fairly get split when two or more parties contribute the resources to build it.
Person A is now at -100k: Agreed
Person B is now at 100k: Agreed
Person A is now at +1 years: If you are valuing 1 year at 100k, then no - they are at zero years. They put in $100K over 1 year, so the two cancel each other out.
Person B is now at -1 years: Again, they have been paid at the rate of $100K for 1 year, so they are at zero years.
Again - I reject this "losing a year" thing. The investor hasn't gained a year at all - you can't lose or gain time. But if you value 1 year at 100K then they have paid for 1 year, but that means they have by-passed other opportunities.
If they invest $100K in 2019 and the company goes bust in 2020 how have they gained a year?
But even ignoring that (!!) your math doesn't work.
Well, if you have enough money, you can pay for someone else to work on X while you work on Y. In this way, you have been able to get 2 years worth of work done, in only 1 year. In effect, you doubled the number of years you had to spend on getting things done.
Spending money in exchange for someone else's work is a time multiplier on the one who spends the dollars. They get more done in less calendar time, i.e., because they effectively have more effort-time by converting their money to someone else's calendar time.
The entirety of my reasoning in predicated on one simple thing: an investor trades in their money for something of equal value, and the worker trades in their time for something of equal value.
This means, by definition, they are equal partners in the exchange, and hence must split the profits equally. It also means they each gained and lost equally, because they traded evenly.
If you do not agree with the foundational assumption I am making, point out the error in that, as all else necessarily follows.
But the employee keeps the money.
Indeed. The investor buys part of the company, and the worker gets paid for their time.
If you buy shares in Microsoft you get a proportion of the company, not some weird "time" thing.
Are you saying that when a company fails, all employees should return their past salaries paid by that company? Because that’s what splitting the (negative here) reward equally with investors would mean.
Investor A puts in 100k of dollars, the company fails they've lost 100k worth of dollars.
Worker B puts in 100k of time, the company fails, they've lost 100k worth of years.
The point is, they are both risking equally, when compared in the same units, time or dollars, but not both. The investor is investing 100k worth of time, and the worker is also investing 100k worth of time. If the company fails, they have both lost that invested time.
This is complete nonsense.
The worker has received $100k for their time and keeps that money. The investor has nothing.
If you try to argue that the workers wage doesn't count for some reason, then you also should argue that the investor's time counts the same as the workers did. Either way the investors is worse off.
That is, the investor, effectively, gets 2x the time they otherwise would have, because they traded some of their money for someone else's time.
Whereas the worker has now lost 1 year, though they did gain 100k for the time they spent.
If you do not believe that the investor is trading their 100k for something of equal value, then please demonstrate this. For it is this equality that underpins my argument.
Saying the investor "has nothing" is naive, since, as with others, you are ignoring what they traded their dollars for.
The investor now has an investment in nothing, worth zero dollars.
The worker has $100k.
Eh, expected value is a thing. If you lay 3:1 odds on a coin flip and then win, you get real money and are free to feel all happy about it, but you still made a poor decision.
If an employee has an FAANG offer for 300k but goes with a startup for 100k+options they are absolutely taking a risk. The expected value of those options is very real and relevant.
They risked the single thing that absolutely no one, anywhere on the planet, can ever give them back: time.
Yes, they took a lower salary on the risk that it would pay off but they slid in the chips of their days existing on this planet alongside that risk. If no one was willing to take that risk alongside the venture capitalists who only invest easily-replenished money, the VCs would find their investments significantly restricted.
The problem is that the some of the people taking a risk and making investment, often the ones in the worst position, have far less information than others. It is inherently unfair that one "investor" can be worse off than another, especially when stacking up money against time. As the author wrote, this isn't inherently unfair...as long as it's not hidden.
But it's almost always hidden because the "lottery ticket hope" of turning 1% equity into seven figures is spoken of as being a regular amount of risk when, in reality, you'd be better taking that higher salary at a FMANGUNFXZOR company and putting the difference into actual lottery tickets.
(As an addendum, if anyone is about to reply with the words "rational actor" anywhere in it, I'm not moved by that rebuttal. Human beings are not rational all of the time and we are nowhere near as rational as economic textbooks would have you believe. Yet, somehow, that rationality or lack thereof is only called into question whenever the person in the crappier position with less leverage is the one who loses.)
We humans are such primates, though, that we regard those with far more money as essentially higher class in the social hierarchy, and venerate their actions, and their property, as inherently more valuable than someone with less.
So when investing in a company with money, you are able to participate in that company by buying someone else's time. But, assuming a fair exchange (which is usually not the case for the laborer), then the one who works is trading one year of time for one year of time from the investor, in the form of dollars (assuming a 100k/year salary). However, the investor isn't trading their time in the form of calendar time, but in dollars. The worker is trading their time not in dollars, but in calendar time. The point is, it's an equal exchange. Which, if there are two people, then both would split the reward 50/50 assuming all else is equal.
We get confused as primates because we are comparing dollars and time, not realizing that we need to convert to common units. To know the true fair split, we have to know how much each person invested in the same units, time or dollars, but not both. We have to convert all dollars invested to time, or all time invested to dollars, in order to know the true investment ratios. In the example of Person A and B, both put in 1 year of time, hence a 50/50 split.
If you hired me to build your house for $100k, and you paid me, and then you sold the house, making a profit of $300k, would you give me $150k? Likely not.
I think a better argument is below from 4ntonius8lock, who says that employees were supposed to get (a) $100k AND (b) stock of some value. But employees were not told all the rules under which (b) could be zero.
Obviously works for hire do not always imply joint ownership. The reason for the discussion is that we are talking about startups built with implied joint ownership. We are trying to infer the equitable joint split for the reward in building something that is implied, often overtly, to be owned by both parties. Both parties in the two person startup are investors.
Most of the things we purchase with money (we spend time to acquire someone else's effort), are sold as someone else's time. If you pay someone to build a house, it's because they were offering that time for sale. This is why software consultants at most startups never get any equity, because their time was already on sale, and was being auctioned off.
If the stock is worthless, why offer it? The answer to me is obvious, they are being deceitful (the start up and its investors). As stated, the SECs' mission is so that people who deal with securities don't engage in deceitful behavior, since deceitful behavior removes trust which creates friction.
The argument that people's rewards, one who put in $50 in cash and another who and accepted a lower payment/higher risk which resulted in a decreased earnings potential of say $50 should be treated differently is anti-meritocratic. Both are risking $50.
BTW, if the company offered no stock to employees, we wouldn't be having this conversation. But the comments are, or should be, based on the FA of which this is a thread.
Investors put in money to get something of equal value back: time. That is why there is no difference. Both parties were compensated.
All those who say, "yeah, but they got paid, the investor risked their money" completely see no value in the time that was traded for the money, which, almost by definition, cannot be the case. The money invested was done so in order to be traded for something of equal value - time. But most people do not see this, and consider themselves lucky if the person with the money was "generous" enough to let them have some of the spoils of their joint effort.
I mean on the one hand, they do have enough of a business case to get that many checks, but on the other, my first thought was that there was no upside at all there most likely.
> to align incentives with the I-bankers
What does that even mean?
One way to incentivize the I-bank to do their very best to get the highest price for the shares, and to keep the price high, is to make them shareholders themselves. Thus, Microsoft did a small (Crunchbase reports it as $1M) financing round with their investment bank right before IPOing, despite not needing the money at all. Any dilution is more than made up for by the better IPO price; basically, the I-bank got to share in their upside by making their upside bigger.
As such after the IPO all stocks are common stocks which are valued at the market price.
If they are not pushing everyone to work late hours and long weekends ... then there's little reason to expect that later employees should 'get rich' from a buyout - though they should get something.
Earlier / Senior staff should get something more as well.
Worth noting: Canadian 'News Magnate' Conrad Black went to jail for 'carving out' sales of assets like this as kind of a sales fee. The shareholders not only sued him but he went to jail over it. The tiny but important difference would be the 'buyout carveouts' are backed by shareholders to incent execs to stay on while Black's dealings were ostensibly not (although they probably should have been). And of course Black was a foreigner and this has a material difference in the USA (and many other countries) where non-citizens end up getting treated differently for a variety of reasons.
I was working at a small startup circa 2015, around 100 employees. We looked carefully into payment providers to try to reduce costs. Turns out Stripe was very small, we would be their main customer with a 2 digit percentage of all transactions if we moved our payments through them.
Stripe had (has?) few customers and little volume. Meaning very little revenues, because that's a small percentage fee of all that. It was a fairly risky business and it wouldn't be sustainable without a fair amount of capital upfront and many years.
Lyft and Slack were much much smaller back then, also private companies that don't publish any numbers. Not exactly great references at the time.
If you have to learn something from this, it's that Stripe is a long term play, that really needed the capital to sustain and grow the business. The main growth factor by the way is the second-order effect of growing with their customers, and they're very smart to advertise to the HN crowd.
How many designers does an early stage startup really need? 1, 2, 10, 20, 50? How many SREs do you need when your site is just a handful of AWS instances? How many sales people do you need when your product isn't ready for sale yet?
Each employee fully loaded in the bay area is what like $150-$300K? 20 people like that will chew through your Series A before you know what happened.
Bad (for startups) deals get done when you start running out of runway. Once you're out of runway, you'll sign a 4x liquidation preference at a low valuation because it gets you an infusion of cash now. Now the VCs own you.
I worked for a small company that fired half the employees (10->5, mostly marketing/sales execs) and absolutely nothing changed. Our revenue actually increased over the next year, not to mention gross sales not paying those salaries. We were originally going to replace them but decided to wait it out for a full year because we realized we didn't need them.
They were all expert busy-workers, who used to try hard when they first joined but got lazy about 2yrs in and started phoning it in. Startups and small businesses have no time for those types of people.
The other massive expense VC-backed companies waste money on are high-paid consultants (and lawyers) from the big business corporatey world.
It is also convenient for them to feel like they are contributing to the local job numbers
It is convenient to villify people that accumulate value amongst a small number of people
Regardless of your thoughts if you have money and are aiming to make more of it, the leaner operation is the one to do it
Which was really a pittance.
I acknowledge hindsight is 20/20, but it's interesting to see posts here lamenting that startups hire too many people, when selling for much too little is surely a more grievous financial mistake.
Or to put it another way, if they had 75 engineers when they sold for a billion, the tragedy would still not be that they had too many engineers.
They probably saw the risk in FB or Snapchats or w/e competing with them. It was just photos with filters at that point. Not a massive social network like it's become.
Not every startup can pull this off, but template designs—particularly for web are great and cheap now. Custom UI controls waste money in development and design.
> He has no idea how liquidation preferences work
> He was "told" that the company was being acquired (instead of being involved in the sale)
> No one at the company walked him through how his stock was valued, even after the
acquisition. To the point that he thinks he needs to hire a lawyer.
It's a fine question to use as a lead in to explaining how stock options work, and that's a fine thing to write about. But I'd bet money that the author made up the question.
That's in the article:
> Four years ago, I landed a VP of engineering job at a red hot startup, for which I was granted options for 2% of the company.
That person could have easily been a Senior Software Engineer at FAANG before becoming a VP of engineering at a startup.
How much do Level 5 engineers at Google know about liquidation preferences if they have never worked at a startup before?
Just my opinion.
Actually, there is immense title inflation at large companies as well, just depends which company and field. Have you seen the number of VPs in the Finance industry in NYC?
doesn’t take away from the article.
The advice here is simple. Walk. Former Millionaire owes absolutely nothing to the new company. Staying rewards this screwjob. If the founders + VCs want this Engineering VP to stay then they have to pay the VP to stay.
This could have been handled better if the founders and VCs had left something on the table for the workers. That was a choice they made.
The answer is still "walk", but the acquirer is not going to care. The reason to walk is that there's no sense staying in a job where your employer doesn't want you and isn't going to reward you. It's for your own self-respect, not to stick it to the man.
Still the element of unfairness about is that Certain key employees were incentivized with a “ carve-out “ in order to stay through the transaction and make sure it would happen. Using the example, four years is a long time to be rewarded with squat. However, Roizen also points out that common stock is priced lower than preferred.
Usually someone like an engineering VP or a senior contributor will figure things out well before that and bail. The idea that this was somehow a surprise is difficult to accept.
Yes, it is definitely for your own self respect.
"From 1996 to 1997, Roizen was Vice President of World Wide Developer Relations for [Apple Computer]"
Also, I find it very weird that people project the current name of a company back in time anachronistically.
Easy. Disclose the preference of the terms you got from investors to your early employees.
This problem is self created. If you don't tell them the terms of your deal, they rightfully assume the terms will screw them, since otherwise why wouldn't you be transparent? Good workers rationally and rightfully go to FAANG instead of a startup if it doesn't feel like the startup is being fair.
Honestly, startups should be more transparent, because they can't compete on money. If they can't even offer trust and upside, they are offering literally nothing over an established public company.
Edited to add:
It would be nice if there was an equity dashboard inside each and every startup that basically said, "If the company is sold today at $100M, you get $X." Not only would it serve as motivation, but it would also show every effect every VCO demand on the corporation to your equity.
Ideally it would be a graph over time so you can see if your equity stake is going down or up in value, and you can make an informed decision about leaving. Also many of the VCO shenanigans might stop if people know ahead of time what it means.
In capitalism man exploits man, in communism it’s the other way around.
> How is a legitimate startup supposed to recruit the best people under these conditions?
I’d argue most startups don’t need “the best people”. They need a few hard workers who can wear multiple hats and have a promising skills trajectory. The “social network for dogs” doesn’t need to hire Ken Thompson.
I think you're missing the parent's point. The behavior of the "bad apples" makes people turn away from startups entirely, myself included.
1. As a rule of thumb, you can't.
2. As an exception, you can if they really want to see you succeed (i.e. for your mission).
3. As an exception, you can if they're dissatisfied or bored with their FAANG career and the job represents growth or excitement that they want.
4. As an exception, you can splurge on a few key hires, in terms of salary and/or equity.
5. As an exception, you will find dark horses, people who are currently undervalued by themselves and others.
But as other posters mentioned, the reason I agree with the advice about pricing equity at $0 is because that's rationally the most likely outcome. Honesty about that fact is very much appreciated, but rationally the expected value is actually (approximately) zero.
Not only are the founders going to need to be super transparent with their finances to get good interviewees, but some other event will need to take place in addition . That makes hiring good employees even more difficult, especially as the company grows.
This behavior by the current unicorns can be overcome, but man will it take a change in the funding ecosystem. Since the current crop already has two unicorns (Uber, Wework) with major funding rounds by a shady group (the Saudis), I really doubt the ecosystem will change for the better of prospective employees.
Like it or not, the wild west phase of tech is over. It is better to join up with the FAANGs at this point for most folks. The expected value of joining a start-up is unlikely to be positive.
 Yes, there is a sucker born every minute, but in general, that's the idea.
 Events like the prospective employee will require really good healthcare that only this company provides, or the prospective employee really really needs a job for some reason, or the prospective employee lives 5 minutes away, or the prospective employee really is super passionate about the idea, or the prospective employee is a good friend of the founders, etc. Each prospective employee you hire is also unlikely to share any of these events with any other prospective employee, and these events are likely to change over time.
I don't think that's "the entire point" for all of us. I enjoy the challenges of scaling products that already have product market fit; startups are a great place to do such work. I also enjoy small, but not too small, teams; somewhere between 50 and 150 is a nice sweet spot for me. This setup is also found at many startups. Sometimes, markets lack institutional players as well. If I want to work on certain kinds of healthcare, financial technology or cryptocurrencies, startups are also a great place.
Most of the people I know at the first tier also joined mostly for the money. Those in the second tier, it’s because that startup was the best opportunity they had. Or in some small cases, because it gave them experience in something they couldn’t get at other companies (eg a pure ML role).
So, I'm post-exit from a startup I founded. It was >10x on returns, but not a supermassive company. I've also been part of a few other exits now in various capacities. So let me just tell you:
Startup founders get better stock than they give employees. They also often write themselves in super powers or special exit clauses. So for founders, the deal is nearly always better unless things get very bad (and it's usually better to wind down the company rather that push if things look that bad, a tough call).
Most folks have a very distorted view of what startup equity is. People think the equity will be worth a lot. And it could be in very specific cases, like an IPO. In those cases, stock is often great. In acquisitions, it's usually not quite as amazing.
If you do find yourself holding stock in an acquisition as an employee, usually what happens is either your stock is bought from you for a fee, or in rarer cases it's converted into company stock (which is usually the better option if it's a publicly traded company). You can expect some modest five digit sum from even the best outcomes here. But what will probably happen to said engineers or staff is that they'll get "retention bonuses." For engineers, retention bonuses for folks they want to keep on are roughly double-pay wages on a non-incremental payment schedule (e.g., 25% the first year, 25% the second year, 50% the third year) to try and get folks to stay on and embed themselves in the company. This is often a lot more valuable than the stock you're awarded if you can stick it out.
A famous explanation of a big (but not superhuge) acquisition is an old post by then-workaday engineer and founder of a small startup called GitHub named Tom-Preston Werner . In that post he details the nature of his deal with Microsoft and why he didn't take the money.
Considering what he ended up with, it seems like a good deal, but only because he was one of the very few people who managed to pass a company into profitability.
Another might be to just pay engineers in cash closer to their market value. I think (not sure) that people in other fields who work at startups end up having a smaller gap between elsewhere comp and startup comp? Though that also usually comes with even less equity.
All that said, most startups seem to still be able to hire. Maybe people find the experience rewarding enough relative to FAANG to accept the gaps. Maybe people don't quite do the math to understand what the outcomes look like.
Personally, I had left FANNG to go to a startup a few years ago, was recently looking for a new gig, considered going back to FAANG, but decided on another startup that I liked for a lot of reasons, and got myself to a point where I thought the break-even valuation wasn't too crazy. But it's very much not "this will make me rich" and more "this seems like it'll make me happy and I feel like I'm not literally setting money on fire by going there".
For what it's worth, I've always valued options at private companies as zero in making career decisions and looking back I don't think that heuristic ever steered me wrong (even at a company that is now a "unicorn")
I would not change what we did (which was basically full disclosure) but it was challenging to deal with.
Passionate young programmers who want to work for a startup don't have the background to understand it, even if the raw information is given when signing up.
Plus, you have no idea what the next round of funding will do to the equity structure...
Isn't it time for regulation to limit this complexity?
One is to deceive or withhold information from potential hires and hope they buy the sales pitch about the company's prospects enough to not care to ask anything.
Another is to be honest and find employees who agree with the sales pitch, even given full information.
Yet another is to just pay a high enough cash salary to attract good-enough candidates.
Never join a startup for riches. You join because you join for professional enrichment. That’s it.
People in this position can get screwed on exit of course but it's harder (and usually they are the ones you'll want retention terms for anyway).
Doesn't' work at all past the first small handful of core people.
Sound too expensive? Not early enough? Pay something close to market rates and be doing something interesting.
I'd tend to assume that if you want highly skilled engineers at a reasonable price, you probably have to know them personally and sell the idea of building the company together to them.
Why should startups be entitled to recruit best people?
I don't have a good answer for this. Humanity in general is terrible at coordination problems like this, even when our survival is on the line, so I'm not sure how a purely capitalist endeavor like startups are supposed to do anything about it.
I once worked for a company that was acquired. At the first all-hands meeting after the acquisition closing, the CEO was practically gloating about how cheaply he was able to get us. All because he knew how to structure the deal in a way that wasn't transparent to our company owner.
The areas to lose money are: liquidation preferences, insuficient voting rights, dilution, different stock classes, general benefits to investor's equity compared to staff equity, investor drag-along, 409A valuation, options expiration or company staying private forever.
Book is here
- don't treat verbal agreements seriously
- common stock is 99.9% worthless, you want preferred stock
- liquidation preference is important, if company doesn't want to tell you, insist on market-rate salary
- if a company tries to switch from an LLC to C-Corp and move you from being a minority owner of LLC (0.1-3%) into a common-stock owner of a C-Corp with the same %, block/sue them; you were working for thieves
The first thing they did was fire the founders, of course.
So...foolish founders? Yes. But wait! Foolish investors? YES!!
Because they absolutely screwed every employee, almost all the employees walked the afternoon we were informed.
I've never been prouder of the people I worked with. I think there were four people (tech support/admin) left out of 20 or so. Hard to remember now...so long ago.
For several hours the shitball investors were exceptionally proud of themselves...and then they realized they'd bought a pile of PCs they had no idea how to use. Plus bonus shitty furniture! And goodbye investment, of course.
We all formed a new company within a few weeks. The original founders somehow got money to get us started again...which we did, from absolutely nothing. We rewrote a similar product suite (but better!) in about 9 months, and went to the next big industry show with it.
Shitball investors found out, and promptly sued us (mild shock), claiming without evidence that we must have stolen the code on the way out. Since I was there for every single line of code we wrote the second time around, it was infuriating.
The ball bounces through the courts...they continued to harass us...and all does not necessarily end well.
In any case, don't lose control ;)
Usually you structure your board in a way that prevents this-- not to mention that you could likely prevail in litigation if these are the facts because the board has a fiduciary duty to all investors, not just preferred: only if there is no reasonable prospect for common to get something can you accept an offer like this. Not to mention that when a controlling shareholder enters into a transaction with the corporation they have the duty of showing that the transaction is fair for all involved.
I wonder if there are stories about this happening in certain contexts that predated liquidity preferences?
There's a thing you're missing here, and it's option value. You don't commit to the lost money over 4 years all at once, while a cash investor does immediately give up present-valued money. Instead, you commit to spending a year or so there (~$250k-valued), and only if your options look like they're going to be worth a whole lot do you stay beyond that point.
You raise an amount that will get you to the next capital raise, and convince other entities that you are sufficiently capitalized (banks, lessors, contract counterparties, prospective employees), and deal with a moderate amount of contingency. You don't want to excessively raise, because it's excessively dilutive when capital is expensive. You also don't want to have to raise again with nothing to show for the spent cash.
Even if we grant your statement "there is no advantage of having the entire amount upfront"-- there would be a benefit to the investor of having option value about whether to continue to invest; option value that an employee has. It's easy to model this and see that option value is quite valuable. (Investors would really like it, so we do see things like efforts at tranched investments or leaving a round open... but entrepreneurs hardly want to have to sell an investor equity at the same price if the investor decides he wants it a year from now).
With a direct cash infusion there's none of that. Any idiot can immediately sell $10M for $10M.
Time isn't liquid. If instead of giving a startup time, you gave them literal cash, then it would make sense that you get preferred (instead of common) stock, to protect against the founder just selling the company immediately for the value of your cash (as was mlyle's point). If you give them your time instead, there's no risk of them immediately selling off "your time", and so it makes sense that you get common stock instead of preferred stock (at least for this one consideration).
The other general point I think you're making though, is that if we look at the value of the time being invested by a startup employee, their ROI is much worse than a literal investor in the company.
This is true, and somewhat unfortunate I think, but I think happens because VCs control larger amounts of capital and thus have more leverage. Both in terms of absolute amounts, but also how quickly they pay it out.
You taking a $400k paycut for 4 years and a VC investing $1.6M are numerically the same, but the VC gives up the $1.6M immediately, whereas you give it up over time, and can at any time decide to stop investing. When you first start, maybe your ROI is worse than a VC's, but three years in, maybe the ROI of the time your investing _then_ will have improved relative to a VC that tried to invest three years in.
Anybody seen this?
TLDR: For the vast majority of folks, stock options are opium of the people.
If you take a 100 steps back from the legalese garbage, all this is just a more nicely dressed version of the good old country fair scam.
With respect to the article:
$100m exit on $10m funding? Employees should do well. $100m exit on $110m funding? You can't expect a good outcome for the employees in that case. They may get some sort of retention bonus in an acquisition, but that's about it.
Another thing all employees should know is that, as a rule of thumb, you need to triple your valuation between funding rounds. That is not as true late, ie when you have enormous $100m + rounds that are raised in lieu of going public with more of a debt structure than an investment structure.
You should be skeptical of companies that have raised too much money. Eg if a company raises a $100m round B, they are basically saying their metrics have to justify a multibillion dollar valuation.
Anyway, there's a bunch of good links, but (and I'm a company founder), I'd tell you to keep a couple crucial things in mind:
First, don't work for dodgy founders. I understand that's not easy for you to evaluate, but there are ways you can figure out. eg have the founders hired lots of people they're previously worked with? That's a good sign.
Second, if you want a good outcome, the company must be growing. At a startup, you are comped on growth. You should be unafraid to fire founders and execs (by quitting) that are unable to grow the company. That's not to say quit at the first rough patch, but every year when you are deciding if you re-up for another year or not, you should evaluate the metrics over the last year.
Third, understand the runway and the metrics that get you the next round or an exit. Be unafraid to demand to know all the above, and expect positive performance on all those things.
As in good, or bad?
https://www.holloway.com/g/equity-compensation (The Holloway Guide to
https://gist.github.com/jdmaturen/5830b83c1425c4767f7e1bd4c9... (Who pays when startup employees keep their equity?)
https://gist.github.com/yossorion/4965df74fd6da6cdc280ec57e8... (What I Wish I'd Known About Equity Before Joining A Unicorn)
https://gigaom.com/2011/06/05/5-mistakes-you-cant-afford-to-... (5 Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make with Stock Options)
https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2623777 (Bookmarked comment by /u/grellas about above article/thread)
https://web.mit.edu/tytso/www/OPTIONS-HOWTO/OPTIONS-HOWTO.ht... (Startup Stock Options Tax How To)
https://smile.amazon.com/Venture-Deals-Smarter-Lawyer-Capita... (Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist)
We also have a Guide on Raising Venture Capital (340 pages). We made sure to include an entire chapter on "Assessing Whether to Raise," which includes sections on alternatives to VC and how VCs can control your company. If anyone on here wants to buy it, you can get a 25% discount on it using this link: https://www.holloway.com/rvc?vip_code=VIP25
Predates KISS's and SAFE's and the round sizes are a bit out of date, but the you-get-nothing scenarios like liquidation preferences and down rounds are still the same.
I’ll do you one better. This is like asking someone you’re about to have sex with if they have an STD and then having them act indignant and not answer. And you should do the same thing in both cases and run away.
But if you are trying to lure candidates, this info is critical for them to evaluate their offer (esp. if the offer consists of large amounts of stock/options etc). There's no reason this info should be kept secret from them, except when there's foul play on the part of the employer!
If the employer is concerned about the data leaking if the candidate rejects the offer, make them sign an NDA before telling them!
I agree that during salary negotiations it is less important to tiptoe around things. Perhaps it was a bit premature to have even inquired about the cap table in any way during an interview, unless the interviewer had just mentioned how many options would be offered to a selected candidate (which would be oddly specific, pre-offer).
In a lot of ways, I think the over-emphasis on "startups change the world" has been a contribution to this. There is a greater supply of people who "want to work in a startup" (or rather, think they like the whatever idea they have in their head of what a startup means) than there is demand for early stage employees. So any founders who might have something to hide will have their pick of people to fleece. They can easily pass on anyone who asks the the probing questions about the real value of the company and just wait for a shmuck to come along who doesn't ask.
What can we do to educate the general populace enough to dry up that pool of shmucks? In the long run, the way things are has to be terrible for investors, too. They put their money into founders who aren't being up front with their employees, and probably not getting the best employees because of it.
I guess our definitions of what is "unfair" are quite different. I think a better term here would be "illegal". It's most certainly not illegal - but I definitely would not consider it fair.
Companies throw options at employees - or potential employees - like candy. They imply, explicitly or not, that when the company gets big and successful, these options are going to be worth tons of money.
Most of us here know they're probably worthless. But executives/entrepreneurs/whoever most definitely suggest otherwise. So it's more like false advertising.
Now is that "fair"? I don't personally think so. I think it's pretty dishonest. I think when sale time comes around, they most certainly realize that these employees think they're finally going to cash in, and they are more than happy to let them think, even though they know otherwise.
Obviously there are exceptions. There are occasions where they actually do end up being worth something. Or where the seniors folks are very clear about how worthless these things actually are. But, in my opinion at least, those are most definitely the exception to the rule. I'm also pretty cynical for the most part, too. So there's that.
While it was nice for them to do the math for me, I do think that the scenarios presented were misleading and only represent the case where everything goes exceptionally well.
Now they did caveat that these were based off of assumptions, and that I should consult my own professional advisers etc etc. But, they didn't name any of the factors that could significantly impact returns (liquidation preference, participation, caps, etc.).
It was pretty refreshing.
Investors convert dollars into time (like a conversion from matter to energy), and workers convert time into dollars (energy to matter). Even in physics a seemingly small amount of matter has enormous power with respect to the energy it can unleash. But it can take a lot of energy to form the tiniest lump of matter. Investors are turning their matter, their dollars, into time. A lot of money, in that respect, is essentially lots of time -- more time than you have life, if you have enough of it. So you can do more, by buying someone else's time.
For simplicity, if we ignore non-labor costs (labor is the largest expense in most software startups, e.g.), it would mean that the invested dollars purchased an EQUAL amount of invested time. That is, the investors dollars were converted, with perfect efficiency to time (unless they overpaid the workers, or the workers were underpaid), which means there was conservation of dollars/time. This implies a balance of the two sides of the equation, which means at best (again, for simplicity, only accounting labor costs) the investors could only be guaranteed a share of 50% of the purchase of the company. Or at least that is how it should work, in my opinion.
Also, investors puts in all the money upfront; there is a concept called time value of money that applies here, and what it means is that money paid upfront is worth more than a distribution of the same amount over time. The higher the cost of borrowing (cost of capital), the more valuable that upfront investment is.
Whether an investor puts money up front or not is irrelevant, as it is only converted to time incrementally as the time is traded for it. Any excess dollars in the bank can, and frequently are, returned to the investor in an exit. Hence they only trade in dollars to match what is invested in time (when only accounting for labor).
For an engineer that could get a job at FAANG or similar, I think this is pretty much universally true for all startups.
> Again, let me emphasize, this is not inherently unfair. [...] The problem is most companies hide it.
The author is saying it's not inherently unfair if the company is honest and upfront about it.
The hypothetical bridge loan in this case did earn a profit, but it was a high risk loan. The company was going to be insolvent in 60 days and they hadn't yet found a buyer. The lenders got a multiplier because they risked losing their $10 million loan.
This bridge loan certainly could have been unfair, depending on whether the riskiness was worth the multiplier (for instance, if the company took a loan with 100x multiplier, it would clearly be abusive). If that were the case, the minority shareholders could sue and would win.
Has anyone else had this experience and what do they advise others to do when faced with the dilemma of turning down an offer due to a lack of transparency into the option grant?
The best way to get information about this is to ask you question and then shut up. You'll get a BS answer first. Just sit there and don't say anything. Most people break down after 30 seconds and give up more information. The longer you keep your mouth shut the more you receive.
It's totally OK to say 'this doesn't seem like such a great deal.' Don't answer questions about what you want - just reply that you don't know enough about their financials to know what they could agree to, only what you can agree to. If it starts going round in circles, think of it as a preview of future experience and decide whether you want to be in that position.
Good founders (and companies) will be very transparent about how all this stuff works.
Bad founders (and companies) will not.
If a company that is trying to recruit you is squirrely about this stuff, it's definitely a vote in the direction of walking away.
IMO the best way to tell if the company is a winner, is to see big growth in sales/market size, especially after funding rounds. If the company is on its third funding round with no revenue and no clients then it’s one of these weird VC zombie dogs that manage to get funding because of spectacular bullshit artistry by the CEO (likely with a sales background). In which case your shares are worthless but the pay/gig might be interesting.
Even if you manage to somehow do the research and understand it well at some point, unless your working with options grants on a regular basis, you'll probably forget it all before you ever leave the company.
People don't have time to do all this stuff and not get fucked over.
If a company exists for less money than the amount invested in the company then common stock is worth nothing.
If it exists for more than the amount invested then common stock will (almost always) be worth something.
If you exit for 3X the amount invested you've done allright and will generally see a modest return on your stock.
If you exit for 10X the amount invested you've done real good and will generally see a pretty good return on your stock.
If you're smart enough to learn how to code, you're smart enough to understand this stuff. I promise.
If it was simpler, regular folks would figure out it's just a scam.
You're naive if you think there's any other reason for all this.
Even if you get all the information when signing up at an early-stage startup, you have no idea what the founders will negotiate in future rounds
But if we assume that this was RSUs, or that the strike price was just a fraction of the sale price, I still think the common advice of "consider start-up equity to be worthless" is a little overzealous. Unless the founders accepted some outrageous terms it's probably the case that your options are worth a lot in a company that's doing well. If the company stops growing or takes a down round that's when you should start thinking of your shares as useless.
Most people are better off just working at a big company if they want to build wealth.
edit: Oh, well I guess that's not counting the startup's salary. If they were getting paid $200k/yr, that's L6 at Google https://www.levels.fyi/salary/Google/SE/L6/. Less easy, but not as hard as getting to VP.
It’s bullshit to keep relevant paperwork a secret.
Again, liquidation preferences are perfectly fair.
as an employee (non-founder) do you have a say in liquidation preferences of future rounds of investment?
Relatedly, most of these deal terms are pretty standardized. In the vast majority of cases there aren't a lot of negotiations around liquidation preferences, only negotiations around valuations. The exceptions to the rule tend to happen for very large or late stage fundraises.
If you start a company and you turn $200 million of investment into an exit of $100 million dollars you haven't done anything valuable. Why would you expect your stock to be worth anything?
I don't think it's reasonable to pretend that the current system exists because it's the fairest. Investors exert more negotiating power than employees, and that's the reason they get better terms.
But I get your point. And yes, it has something to do with leverage.
But I also assert that the current system is better for common shareholders as well. The idea that we could have a slightly different world in which investors acted exactly as they did today, but bought common shares instead of preferred shares is clearly wrong.
If they're buying common instead of preferred then valuations would drop significantly. Probably by over 50%. This means that either companies would be giving away much larger %s of themselves when fundraising or they would be raising much less capital (which is of course used to pay the salaries of all those common shareholders). Both are probably bad for common stockholders in most cases. Which is why we see very few companies ever do this.
The man who has the capital, wins. Always.
I would say that this is a learning lesson for all who think options will make them rich. If you're at a company make sure you get paid what you're worth in money. Don't count on options as part of your compensation. You are unlikely to get rich because of them. As we have seen over and over again.
I know of a company that was sold for $1bn+ and common equity got almost zero. It happens, it is a very silly thing to angry about though (because the valuation was never $1bn+).
There's an incentive mismatch then for them to pursue VC funding and keep going while employees with stock won't notice their probably worthless options becoming definitely worthless options or at best a bonus when all is sold. Like my own performance/holiday bonus at a stable firm, options are nice and possibly count toward total compensation but aren't hard cash and should not be relied upon as an investment or in your budget. Bird in hand and all that.
On a side note, I wish Pud would revive fuckedcompany.com (with the last snapshot of the db before it went down). It's still relevant.
As far as I am concerned this scheme with the stock options (some people call them opportunity or investment) never should be substitute to social contracts, like a monthly pay check.
I find it especially nefarious the fact that people who invest time are penalized over people who invest money. This is especially true when the 4-5 year long time investment of a developer today can be easily worth millions. And a dozen developers' time investment can easily reach tens of millions.
Because of different trigger points, whether different investors are participating or non participating, you needed a spreadsheet to figure out what common gets, for each potential outcome. There is no way to have a conversation with a potential employee about the liquidation stack, it is usually far too complex.
More insideously, the buyer can change the rules. As long as the sellers vote for it, you can do things like wash out common, recap common, give new grants that are incentive grants with a one year cliff.
Option holders don't vote, so you won't even see what they are voting on.
That kind of stuff invites shareholder lawsuits, but it is ill advised to sue because then you are a trouble maker. Otoh, not suing means you are a pushover.
An example of a shareholder wash out was when jobs took over pixar, so i was told by a friend who had shares.
The real reason of why the employee got zilch would be found by just reading the documentation - the legal agreements awarding the stock options, the purchase and sale agreements, incorporation docs...
I feel that start ups mostly are cash burn machines built to pay cushy salaries to C-level execs and build "impressive" resumes again for the execs. For most other folks, they are a just stepping stone to a "real" world job in a stable corporation.
assume, your shares are worthless, basically a lottery ticket! In both companies i knew that some people put in real money to buy out options, 100s thousands of dollars amounts. Now they are sitting on a bunch of 0s.
Learn from others mistakes! They are free!
If you have NSOs (or pay AMT) the IRS will happily lie to you about the true value of your options.
The only thing that accurately values your shares is a sale.
>The only thing that accurately values your shares is a sale.
Accurately? Perhaps. But until that sale happens, you can still be on the hook for more tax.
> While it hasn’t ended up becoming the unicorn I was hoping for
it sounds like the company wasn't a success. It could be the preference overhang, or it could be a difficult acquisition.
Fundamentally, if the company isn't a success relative to the funding, employees aren't going to get paid. Employees can get paid quite well on a $100m exit if eg the funding structure was correct for the exit size.
For everyone reading this, there are 3 outcomes:
company failure, company success, middling
In the middling outcomes, people need to know the negotiated rules re: who gets what
Just because something is (even incredibly) risky doesn't mean its value is zero.
Most private equity is worthless in a couple of years. Most companies crash before any liquidity event. Those that don reach an event, have such a preference stack, and so for such a pittance, the options are underwater.
It’s a mindset.
You should absolutely understand the very large chance that your equity is worthless. You should absolutely 100% not plan any part of your life around the equity being worth something. You should understand that, even if the equity is ever worth something, it won't be liquid for a very, very long time.
...but all of that is different than it being worth nothing. I feel like the "your equity isn't worth anything" mindset leads to employees allowing startups to give them smaller amounts of equity than they should. It leads to employees not questioning bad practices (like 3x preferred participating shares) as much as they should.
I've had people quote the "equity is worth $0" thing to me in negotiations about equity/reups. In my head: "Oh that's actually great! You can just give me your equity then instead of me having to negotiate a reup with the company."
Said another way: let's say you find out your startup's VCs have participating preferred shares. There's a world where that's fine -- you just now need more equity to get to the same place as you would in a company that had non-participating preferred. But you need to reason about the value of your equity to reach that conclusion. "Equity is worth $0" discourages thinking about that stuff.
I've always considered illiquid equity lottery tickets. Yes, playing the lottery is stupid because the expected value is so small. At the same time, I am absolutely buying into the company lottery pool, and want to maximize the number of tickets I get. If it pays off, wonderful. It it doesn't, whatever, because I never counted on the money to begin with.
Maybe this has to do with the contexts I've heard it in, but my gut is that it too often deters people from thinking more critically about their equity and whether they're being treated fairly. If someone new to startups read just the comment I originally replied to and not any of this follow-up, would they have understood what you're trying to say?