Column: When to Accept Startup Equity — and Why

Elizabeth Melton
Liz is a problem solver who takes great pleasure in finding new ways to drive business value. Her background in consulting, product management and strategy has helped her cultivate relationships with partners including Target, Madison Reed, Nestle, Experian and Databricks.
Column: When to Accept Startup Equity — and Why

You've been eyeing a new startup for a while now. It seems like they're doing well一they just received a new funding round and are growing like crazy. So you take a chance and apply to one of their positions. Before you know it, you're in the final round of the application process.

Now comes the inevitable discussion about compensation. The hiring manager explains that you can choose between more cash and less equity, or vice versa. What do you do?

If you've worked at a startup before, you are familiar with this tricky situation.

If the startup keeps knocking it out of the park, you're bound to feel some of that upside in your wallet at some point. That said, the fact that only 10% of startups become successful makes the odds seem pretty grim. Can your team make it to an exit point?

With the startup market in Los Angeles booming, we decided to delve into the topic of startup equity. Read on to understand what startup equity is, how to think about the tradeoff between cash and equity, and why startups give their equity away (or not).

What Does Startup Equity Actually Mean?

Having equity means you have a financial stake in a startup. Typically, equity is used to incentivize employees to work towards a common goal, whether that be becoming the next unicorn or being acquired by a major enterprise. CEOs have good reason to offer equity. Hourful CEO and founder Walter Aguilera puts it this way:

"It's important to approach the process of building a company with a team mindset. Knowing there's equity involved helps everyone push through practically working for free at the early stage of a business."

That sounds all well and good, but it means you're putting a good deal of faith in your company's leadership team and coworkers to make the business successful. It's important to remember that equity gets diluted based on the company's performance and valuations that might not have anything to do with how well you, as an individual, perform.

Plus, you don't exactly have that hypothetical money at your fingertips. There are stipulations tied to how much stock you get, how long you have to stick around to realize your full equity package, and how you can exercise your options in the future.

What Should You Consider Before Accepting?

If you're considering roles at startups, expect to get varying levels of equity as part of your offer. Think hard about your level of risk tolerance as you prepare to negotiate 一 and maybe accept 一 the offer,.

L.A.-based NextStep Careers founder and CEO Emily Taylor suggests that job seekers ask one simple question when considering equity:

"Would you invest your own money in this company? Because that is essentially what you are doing," she says.

To answer that question, you may want to step back and do an objective assessment of the company. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Is the startup bootstrapped, or have they successfully raised funding? If the startup received funding, who backed them, and how reputable are they?
  • What stage is the startup at? What is their plan to make it to the next stage?
  • What is the size of the market this startup operates in?
  • Who are the startup's biggest customers?
  • Who are the startup's biggest competitors and do you think the company can build and maintain a moat?
  • What's the startup's estimated cash flow?
  • How much do I resonate with the founder's vision and mission?

You may not be able to find all this information, but you can get scrappy about it. Find and reach out to people who currently work there or worked there in the past to validate what you've found and get more insight. Look up the company on AngelList, Crunchbase, and review sites like Glassdoor. Read the startup's most recent press releases and announcements to find out what product features are coming down the pike and any notable new hires they've made. These could be fantastic clues as to how profitable the company might become over time.

How Much Equity Should You Expect?

Equity packages come in all shapes and sizes, but how much you get depends heavily on what stage your startup is at. Usually, 10% - 20% of total shares go towards the employee equity pool. This means that at very small startups (pre-seed to seed), you may be compensated only in equity. While that's not nice for your wallet now, it can be a fantastic time to get in, since shares will only continue to get diluted with more and more fundraising rounds.

"We gave equity to our first employees because, in my view, early-stage employees are critical to what you're building," says Val Young, former co-founder and co-CEO of apparel company RecRoom. "They ought to have both skin in the game and the opportunity to reap the rewards if things go well."

If you're joining a later-stage startup, on the other hand, you will probably be offered a mixture of equity and cash. Initial shares will have already been absorbed by current employees and investors.

"Many companies will be open to trading off between salary and equity and this can be an excellent negotiation tactic," Nextstep's Taylor writes. "That said, doing so depends on their cash flow - they might be flush after a venture round or are pinching pennies until the next fundraise. So if you are leaving a role with greater cash compensation, it's a good idea to set a total amount of salary + bonus + equity to keep you whole."

Another thing to keep in mind is that the amount of equity you get can hinge on your role. Many companies tend to give employees focused on technology more equity than those with business-oriented roles. According to TechCrunch, a senior engineer might be granted 1% of the company, whereas an experienced business development employee is given a .35% share.

As you might expect, job title plays a role as well. VPs and above are likely to get a much larger stake in the company than more junior employees. Browse AngelList's salary and equity data to see what might be reasonable in your startup's category and your career level.

Understanding Your Equity Offer

Not all equity packages are created equal, so it's important to educate yourself on the ways equity can differ from company to company.

One thing to bear in mind is that startups often denote equity in terms of shares in an offer letter. 50,000 shares can sound like an awful lot, but that may only be 0.05% of the total company shares. A quick way to level-set on how much you're really getting is to ask how many shares are outstanding. The number of shares you're offered, divided by the total number of shares will give you the percent of the company you own.

Another thing to examine in your offer letter is your vesting schedule. It's fairly common to have a 4-year vesting schedule at startups, meaning you gain 25% of the total shares you're given with each year you stay on with the company.

Of course, you won't actually receive your equity in dollars until an exit event. If your startup exits with a huge valuation, your equity could be worth a lot. But, if your startup never goes public and never sells, you may only get paid out what's left of the company's revenue according to your contract.

Finally, pay attention to what happens to your equity when you leave. Sometimes employers have a clause stripping away your equity, even if you've put in a full year. This practice, called a "one-year cliff," acts as a form of insurance so the startup doesn't relinquish precious equity to people who aren't fully dedicated for the long haul.

Should You Take It?

Working at startups isn't a walk in the park. Oftentimes you're doing multiple jobs at once for lower pay. Equity offers can be overwhelming, but all of your sleuthing and pre-research should bolster your confidence in the company's potential—what really matters most.

VoyageLA Founder and CEO, Mayank Bhandari, advises that the decision on whether to accept equity should be part and parcel of your decision to work at a startup.

"You should only work for a startup if you really believe in the mission and team. But if you do, then taking equity is a no-brainer," he says.

Are you in the midst of making a final decision? Let us know how it went!

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