editione2.1.1Updated September 12, 2022
This Guide contains a lot of material. And it’s dense. Some readers may wish to read front to back, but you can also search or navigate directly to parts that are of interest to you, referring back to foundational topics as needed.
Equity compensation lies at the intersection of corporate law, taxation, and employee compensation, and so requires some basic understanding of all three. You might think compensation and taxation are separate topics, but they are so intertwined it would be misleading to explain one without the other. We cover material in logical order, so that if you do read the earlier sections first, later sections on the interactions of tax and compensation will be clearer.
We start with Equity Compensation Basics: What compensation and equity are, and why equity is used as compensation.
But before we get much further, we need to talk about what stock is, and how companies are formed. Fundamentals of Stock Corporations covers how companies organize their ownership, how stock is issued, public companies and private companies, and IPOs and liquidity (which determine when equity is worth cash).
While not everyone reading this works at an early stage company, those who do can benefit from understanding the role of equity in Startups and Growth. This is good context for anyone involved in a private company that has taken on venture capital.
How Equity is Granted is the core of this Guide. We describe the forms in which equity is most commonly granted, including restricted stock grants, stock options, and RSUs.
Now is where it gets messier—taxes:
Tax Basics: A technical summary of how taxation works. Many of the headaches of equity compensation involve how it is taxed, including ordinary income tax, long-term capital gains tax, and the lesser-known but sometimes critical alternative minimum tax.
Taxes on Equity Compensation: How much tax you owe is greatly affected by the kind of equity you have (such as restricted stock awards, stock options, or RSUs), when you choose to pay (including 83(b) elections), and when you choose to exercise options.
After these technical concerns, we move on to how you can think about all this in practice. These sections focus on scenarios common to employees and candidates, but are also of likely interest to founders and hiring managers:
Plans and Scenarios: Whether you have equity now or will in the future, it is helpful to learn how to think about the value of equity and its tax burden. We also cover whether you can sell private stock.
Offers and Negotiations: Equity often comes up as you’re negotiating or debating whether to accept a job offer. Here we cover what to expect, what to ask, tips and pitfalls, and more.
Finally, we offer some additional resources:
Documents and Agreements: A bit more detail on the actual legal paperwork you’re likely to see as you negotiate and after you’ve accepted an offer.
Further Reading: A curated list of what else you can read on the subject, including many papers, books, and articles that have informed this Guide.
CEOs, CFOs, COOs, or anyone who runs a company or team of significant size should be sure to talk to an equity compensation consultant or a specialist at a law firm to learn about equity compensation plans.
Founders looking for an introduction to the legalities of running a company may wish to check out Legal Concepts for Founders, from Clerky, in addition to talking to a lawyer. Founders should also lean on their investors for advice, as they may have additional experience.
Executive compensation at large or public companies is an even more nuanced topic, on both sides of the table. Hire an experienced lawyer or compensation consultant. There are extensive legal resources available on executive compensation.