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Equity Compensation Basics10 minutes, 25 links

History and significance

Companies ranging from two-person startups to the Fortune 500 have found that granting partial ownership in a company is among the best methods to attract and retain exceptional talent. In the United States, partial ownership through stock options has been a key part of pay for executives and other employees since the 1950s. As recently as 2014, 7.2% of all private sector employees (8.5 million people) and 13.1% of all employees of companies with stock held stock options (from a NCEO analysis). Many believe employee ownership has fostered innovations in technology, especially in Silicon Valley, from the early days of Hewlett-Packard to recent examples like Facebook. Stock options helped the first 3,000 employees of Facebook enjoy roughly $23 billion at the time the company went public (Financial Times).

🌪controversy Some controversy surrounds the use of equity compensation for high-paid executives. Public companies offer executives equity compensation in no small part because of a tax loophole. In 1993, President Bill Clinton attempted to limit executive pay with a new section of the Internal Revenue Code, 162(m). Unfortunately, the legislation backfired; a loophole made performance-based pay—including stock options—fully tax deductible, thereby creating a dramatic incentive to pay executives through stock options (Balsam). From 1970–79, the average compensation for a CEO of one of the 50 largest firms in the United States was $1.2M, of which 11.2% was from stock options. By 2000–05, the same numbers had risen to $9.2M and 37%, respectively (Frydman & Jenter, Fig. 2).

Growth and risk

Generally, equity compensation is closely linked to the growth of a company. Cash-poor startups persuade early employees to take pay cuts and join their team by offering meaningful ownerships stakes, catering to hopes that the company will one day grow large enough to go public or be sold for an ample sum. More mature but still fast-growing companies find offering compensation linked to ownership is more attractive than high cash compensation to many candidates.

With the hope for growth, however, also comes risk. Large, fast-growing companies often hit hard times. And startups routinely fail or yield no returns for investors or workers. According to a report by Cambridge Associates and Fortune Magazine, between 1990 and 2010, about 60% of venture capital-backed companies returned less than the original investment, leaving employees with the painful realization that their startup was not, in fact, the next Google. Of the remaining 40%, just a select few go on to make a many of their employees wealthy, as has been the case with iconic high-growth companies, like Starbucks, UPS, Amazon, Google, or Facebook.

Compensation and equity

Definition Compensation is any remuneration to a person (including employees, contractors, advisors, founders, and board members) for services performed or rendered to a company. Compensation comes in the forms of cash pay (salary and any bonuses) and any non-cash pay, including benefits like health insurance, family-related protections, perks, and retirement plans.

Company strategies for compensation are far from simple. Beth Scheer, head of talent at the venture fund Homebrew, offers a thoughtful overview of compensation in startups.

Another term you may encounter is total rewards, which refers to a model of attracting and retaining employees using a combination of salary and incentive compensation (like equity), benefits, recognition for contribution or commitment (like awards and bonuses), training programs, and initiatives to improve the work environment.

Definition In the context of compensation and investment, equity broadly refers to any kind of ownership in a company that can be held by individuals (like employees or board members) and by other businesses (like venture capital firms). One common kind of equity is stock, but equity can take other forms, such as stock options or warrants, that give ownership rights. Commonly, equity also comes with certain conditions, such as vesting or repurchase rights. Note the term equity also has several other technical meanings in accounting and real estate.

Definition Equity compensation is the practice of granting equity in exchange for work.

In this Guide we focus on equity compensation in stock corporations, the kind of company where ownership is represented by stock. (We describe stock in more detail in the next section.) Equity compensation in the form of a direct grant of stock with no strings attached is very rare. Instead, employees are given stock with additional restrictions placed on it, or are given contractual rights that later can lead to owning stock. These forms of equity compensation include restricted stock, stock options, and restricted stock units, each of which we’ll describe in detail.

The goals of equity compensation

The purpose of equity compensation is threefold:

  • Attract and retain talent: When a company already has or can be predicted to have significant financial success, talented people are incentivized to work for the company by the prospect of their equity being worth a lot of money in the future. The actual probability of life-changing lucre may be low (or at least, lower than you may think if your entire knowledge of startups is watching “The Social Network”). But even a small chance at winning big can be worth the risk to many people, and to some the risk itself can be exciting.
  • Align incentives: Even companies that can afford to pay lots of cash may prefer to give employees equity, so that employees work to increase the future value of the company. In this way, equity aligns individuals’ incentives with the interests of the company. At its best, this philosophy fosters an environment of teamwork and a “rising tides lift all boats” mentality. It also encourages everyone involved to think long-term, which is key for company success. As we’ll discuss later, the amount of equity you’re offered usually reflects both your contribution to the company and your commitment to the company in the future.
  • Reduce cash spending: By giving equity, a company can often pay less in cash compensation to employees now, with the hope of rewarding them later, and put that money toward other investments or operating expenses. This can be essential in the early stages of a company or at other times where there may not be enough revenue to pay large salaries. Equity compensation can also help recruit senior employees or executives who would otherwise command especially high salaries.
You’re reading an excerpt from a Holloway Guide.
The Holloway Guide to Equity Compensation
Joshua Levy, Joe Wallin, and over 35 contributors
Over 3 hours and 300 linked resources

Stock options, RSUs, job offers, and taxes—a detailed reference, including hundreds of resources, explained from the ground up and made to be improved over time.