Are there secondary markets for selling equity from startups and other private companies?
Ultimately, the value of your equity depends on whether and when you are able to convert it into stock that you sell for cash. With public companies, the answer is relatively easy to estimate—as long as there are no restrictions on your ability to sell, you know the current market value of the stock you own or might own. What about private companies?
Definition A secondary market (or secondary sale, or private sale) transaction is when private company stock is sold to another private party. This is in contrast to primary market transactions, where companies sell directly to investors. Secondary sales are not routine, but they can sometimes occur, such as when an employee sells to an accredited investor who wants to invest in the company.
Definition Shares held by an employee are typically subject to a right of first refusal (ROFR) in favor of the company, meaning the employee can’t sell their shares to a third party without offering to sell their shares to the company first.
caution Private sales generally require the agreement and cooperation of the company, for both contractual and practical reasons. While those who hold private stock may hope or expect they need only find a willing buyer, in practice secondary sales only work out in a few situations.
Unlike a transaction on a public exchange, the buyer and seller of private company stock are not in total control of the sale. There are a few reasons why companies may not support secondary sales:
Historically, startups have seen little purpose in letting current employees sell their stock, since they prefer employees hold their stock and work to make it more valuable by improving the value of the company as a whole.
Even if employee retention is not a concern, there are reasons private sales may not be in the company’s interest. Former employees and other shareholders often have difficulty initiating secondary transactions with a company.* Private buyers may ask for the company’s internal financials in order to estimate the current and future value of its stock; the company may not wish to share this confidential information.
In some cases, an employee may have luck selling stock privately to an individual, like a board member or former executive, who wishes to increase their ownership. Further discussion can be found on Quora.
Stock Option Scenarios
The key decisions around stock options are when to exercise and, if you can, when to sell. Here we lay out some common scenarios that might apply to you. Considering these scenarios and their outcomes can help you evaluate your position and decide what you should do.
caution Recall that the window is likely to close soon after you leave a company, often 90 days after termination.
Wait until acquisition. If the company is acquired for a large multiple of the exercise price, you may then use your options to buy valuable stock. However, as discussed, your shares could be worth next to nothing unless the sale price exceeds the liquidation overhang.
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