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.