After a Down Round: Alternatives for Employee Incentive Plans

*Excerpted from VC Experts Encyclopedia of Private Equity & Venture Capital


Employee Incentive Plans for Privately-Held Companies

Despite the recent improvement in capital markets activity, many small, privately-held technology companies continue to face reduced valuations and highly dilutive financings, frequently referred to as “down rounds.” These financings can create difficulties for retention of management and other key employees who were attracted to the company in large part for the potential upside of the option or stock ownership program. When down rounds are implemented, the investors can acquire a significant percentage of the company at valuations that are lower than the valuations used for prior financing rounds. Lower valuations mean lower preferred stock values for the preferred stock issued in the down round, and as preferred stock values drop significantly, common stock values also drop, including the value of common stock options held by employees.

Consequently, reduced valuations and “down round” financings frequently cause two results: (i) substantial dilution of the common stock ownership of the company and (ii) the devaluation of the common stock, particularly in view of the increased aggregate liquidation preference of the preferred stock that comes before the common stock. The result is a company with an increasingly larger percentage being held by the holders of the preferred stock and with common stock that can be relatively worthless and unlikely to see any proceeds in the event of an acquisition in the foreseeable future.

In the face of substantial dilution of the common stock and significant devaluation in equity value, companies are faced with the difficulty of retaining key personnel and offering meaningful equity incentives. Potential solutions can be very simple (issuing additional options to counteract dilution) or quite complex (issuing a new class of stock with rights tailored to balance the concerns of both investors and employees). Intermediate solutions range from effecting a recapitalization that will result in an increase in the value of the common stock to implementing a cash bonus plan for employees that is to be paid in the event of an acquisition. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and each may be appropriate depending on the circumstances of a particular company, but the more complex alternatives can offer companies greater flexibility to satisfy the competing demands of employees and investors. This article briefly reviews three of the solutions that can be implemented-the use of additional optionsrecapitalizationsand retention plans (cash and equity based).

Granting Additional Options

The simplest solution to address the dilution of common stock is to issue additional employee stock options. For example, assume that, prior to a down round, a company had 9,000,000 shares of common and preferred stockoutstanding and the employees held options to purchase an additional 1,000,000 shares. Also assume that, in the down round, the company issued additional preferred stock that is convertible into 10,000,000 shares of common stock. On a fully-diluted basis (i.e., taking into account all options and the conversion of all preferred stock), the employees have seen the value of their options reduced from 10% of the company to 5%, or by 50%. In this case, the company might issue the employees additional options to increase their ownership percentage. It would require additional options to purchase in excess of 1,000,000 shares to return the employees to a 10% ownership position, although a smaller amount would still reduce the impact of the down round and might be enough to help entice the employees to stay.

If the common stock retains significant value, the grant of additional options can be an effective solution. It is also relatively straightforward to implement; at most, stockholder approval may be required for an increase in the optionpool. In many cases, however, the aggregate liquidation preference of the preferred stock is unlikely to leave anything for the common holders following an acquisition, particularly in the short term. In that event, the dilution of the common stock becomes less relevant – 5% of nothing is the same as 10% of nothing. Companies with this kind of common stock devaluation will need to consider more intricate solutions.

Recapitalizations

If the common stock has been effectively reduced to minimal value by the down round, a company could increase the common stock value through a recapitalization. A recapitalization can be implemented through a decrease in the liquidation preferences of the preferred stock or a conversion of some preferred stock into common stock, thereby increasing the share of the proceeds that is distributed to the common stock upon a sale of the company. This solution is conceptually straightforward and certainly effective in increasing the value of the common stock. In most cases with privately-held venture capital backed companies, however, the holders of the preferred stock are the investors who typically fund and implement the down rounds and in nearly all cases the preferred stockholders have a veto right over any recapitalization. Accordingly, implementing a recapitalization would require the consent of the affected preferred stockholders, which may be difficult to obtain, particularly because the preferred stockholders may not like the permanency of this approach. In addition, a recapitalization can be quite complicated in practice, raising significant legal, tax and accounting issues.

Retention Plans

Another approach is the implementation of a retention plan. Such plans can take a number of forms and can use cash or a new class of equity with rights designed to satisfy the interests of both the investors and employees. These solutions are more complicated, but also more flexible.

Cash Bonus Plan

In a cash bonus plan, the company guarantees a certain amount of money to employees in the event of an acquisition. This amount can equal a fixed sum or a percentage of the net sale proceeds, to be allocated among the employees at the time of the sale, or it can be a fixed amount per employee, determined in advance. Allocations can be based on a wide variety of parameters, enabling a high degree of flexibility. Often these plans have a limited duration (such as 12 to 24 months, or until the company raises a specified amount of additional equity).

A cash bonus plan is easy to understand, provides the employees with cash to pay any taxes that may be due and can be flexible if the allocations are not determined in advance. However, there are a number of hurdles. Many acquisitions are structured as stock-for-stock exchanges (i.e., the acquiring company issues stock as payment for the stock of the target company) because such exchanges may be eligible for tax-free treatment. A cash bonus plan may interfere with the tax-free treatment and, thus, may reduce the value of the company in the sale or may be a barrier to the transaction altogether.

A cash bonus plan can also be problematic in that it requires cash from a potential acquirer in the event there isn’t sufficient cash on hand in the target company. A mandatory cash commitment from an acquiror may also make the company less attractive as a target. Typically, a cash bonus plan can be adopted (and amended and terminated prior to an acquisition) by the board of directors, although a cash bonus plan creates an interest that may in effect be senior to the preferred stock, which requires consideration as to whether the consent of the preferred holders is required.

New Class of Equity

A stock bonus or option plan utilizing a new class of equity, although more complicated, shares many of the benefits of the cash bonus plan, but avoids some of the major disadvantages. A newly created class of equity, such as senior common stock or an employee series of preferred stock, permits the use of various combinations of rights. The new class of equity can be entitled to a fixed dollar amount, a portion of the purchase price or both. These rights can be in preference to, participating with or subordinate to any preferred holders, and the shares may be convertible into ordinary common stock at the option of the holders or upon the occurrence of certain events. Referring to our earlier example, the company might return the employees to their pre-down round position by issuing them senior common stock entitled to 10% of the consideration (up to a certain amount) in any sale of the company. Although a return of the employees to their pre-down round position may not be acceptable to the preferred stockholders and may not be necessary to keep the employees incentivized, the new class of equity can be tailored to fit whatever balance is acceptable to the investors.

This type of approach has several advantages. First, unlike a simple issuance of additional options, it gives real value to employees that were affected by a devaluation of their common stock. Second, unlike a cash bonus plan, it does not require an acquiror to put up cash when they purchase the company and the acquirer is less likely to discount the purchase price. Third, unlike a cash bonus plan, it will not affect the tax-free nature of many stock-for-stock acquisitions. Finally, it provides certainty to the participants, who know exactly what they will be entitled to receive upon a sale of the company.

The main disadvantage of creating a new class of equity, at least from the employees’ standpoint, is that the employee will either have to pay fair market value for the stock when it is issued or recognize a tax liability upon such issuance, when they may not have the cash with which to pay the taxes. This disadvantage can be partially ameliorated by the use of options for the new class of equity, rather than issuing the new equity up front, which at least allows the employee to control the timing of the tax liability by deciding when to exercise. Moreover, for many employees an option may qualify as an incentive stock option under federal tax law, thus allowing the employee to defer taxation until the sale of the underlying stock. A new class of equity will also be somewhat more difficult for most employees to understand, at least when compared to traditional common stock options.

In addition, a new class of equity adds complexity from the company’s perspective. It may raise securities and accounting issues, and shareholder approval of an amendment to the company’s charter will be required. At a minimum, it will require more elaborate documentation than some of the simpler alternatives, such as a cash bonus plan, and thus it will likely be more expensive to implement at a time when the company may be particularly sensitive to preserving its cash. A new class of equity may also result in future complications such as separate class votes or effective veto rights in certain circumstances. As with the other solutions that address the devaluation problem, there may be resistance from the existing preferred holders, whose share of the consideration upon a sale of the company would thereby be reduced.

These complexities are surmountable and companies may find that they are more than balanced by the advantages that a new class of equity provides over other solutions in addressing issues of reduced common stock valuations and dilution.

Are You Savvy on Restricted Stock Units?

Written by: Joseph W. Bartlett, Co-Chair of VC Experts

A structure is creeping into the process of rewarding and motivating managements of public and private companies with equity awards. [1]

Although the subject of discussion in this article is not new, nonetheless my experience is that a significant percentage of the parties involved in the capital markets … particularly the private capital markets where emerging growth companies are organized to travel the Conveyor Belt, [2] from the embryo to the IPO … are unfamiliar with restricted stock units (“RSUs”).

The grant of a restricted stock unit (“RSU”) by a corporation to an employee gives the employee the right to receive a share of the corporation‘s stock, or if the RSU agreement so provides, its cash value equivalent, upon satisfaction of one or more specified vesting conditions.

The vesting conditions may be either time-based (completion of a specified period of employment following the date of grant) or performance based (achievement of performance goals over a specified measurement period), or both.

To the extent the RSUs granted to the employee become vested, the employee will receive either the number of shares that have vested, or if the RSU agreement so provides, a cash amount equal to the shares’ fair market value.

In the usual case, the RSU’s are “settled” by the delivery of the shares or payment of the cash amount at the time the RSUs vest. However, an RSU agreement can, and often does, provide for the payment or delivery of shares to be deferred until the occurrence of some later specified date or event; but if payment is to be delayed beyond March 15 of the year following vesting, then the payment-triggering event must be one permitted under Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code.

Under Section 409A rules, the payment event could be termination of employment, or it could be the occurrence of a change in control , as defined for Section 409A purposes [3], which would be a typical private company exit event when cash can be realized to enable the employee to sell enough shares to pay the tax … and keep the rest. An IPO, another typical exit event, would not be a 409A-permissible payment event for an already vested RSU. But an RSU agreement could provide for the RSUs to both become vested and payable upon the first to occur of an IPO, a change in control (including one not meeting the Section 409A definition), termination of employment, or at some specified date corresponding to the investors’ expected exit and realization date, e.g., the 7th anniversary of the date of grant.

For federal income tax purposes, an employee is not taxed with respect to a grant of RSUs either at the time of grant or at the time of vesting. He is subject to tax only upon his receipt of the shares or their cash equivalent at the time the RSUs are settled. At that time, he is taxed, at ordinary income rates, on the then fair market value of the shares he receives, or the amount of the cash he receives.

In a number of respects, RSUs compare favorably with other forms of equity grants, as a medium for delivering incentive compensation to a private company’s employees.

    • A grant of RSUs delivers full share value to the employee. It provides him not only with upside potential but also downside protection. He can realize value from the grant even if the date of grant value of the RSUs should later decline. In contrast, with an option grant the employee will realize value only if and to the extent that the shares covered by the option increase in value after the grant date.

 

    • A grant of restricted shares also delivers full share value to the employee, and in addition, provides the employee with an opportunity for capital gains treatment on eventual sale of the shares. In contrast, when RSUs are settled, the then value of the shares is subject to tax at ordinary income rates. But as indicated above, RSUs are not taxed at the time of grant, nor at the time of vesting if settlement of the RSUs does not occur until a later date. As a result, it should be possible in most cases to structure an RSU grant so as to delay settlement, and thus, taxation, until a realization event occurs. This may not be the case with a restricted stock grant. The employee would have to pay tax, at ordinary income rates, on the value of his restricted shares either at the time of grant if he makes a Code section 83(b) election, or at the time the shares vest if he doesn’t make the election. He may therefore be subject to tax, at ordinary income rates, with respect to a substantial portion of the ultimate value of his restricted shares well before an exit event occurs permitting a sale of the shares.

 

  • Like an RSU grant, an employee is not taxed with respect to a stock option at the time of grant or at the time of vesting. He is subject to tax at the time he exercises the option, if it is a nonqualified stock option (“NQSO”), or if it is an incentive stock option (“ISO”), at the time he sells the shares acquired on exercise of the option. [4] In either case, the grant of a stock option, whether an NQSO or an ISO, would permit tax to be delayed until the occurrence of a realization event, since a stock option grant can permit the option to be exercised at any time during its term after it becomes vested. Although in the case of an NQSO, tax would be at ordinary income rates, as is so with an RSU, in the case of an ISO, the increase in value of the shares from date of grant to date of sale could qualify for tax at capital gains rates, subject to certain limits and conditions. However, there are several negatives to be considered in connection with a stock option grant.

(i) Valuation Issues. Tax law requirements [5] mandate that the exercise price of a stock option not be less than the fair market value of the underlying shares at date of grant. Failure to comply with this requirement could result in significant adverse tax consequences for the employee under Section 409A. Share valuations for a private company are an inherently uncertain matter. To minimize the exposure to adverse treatment under Section 409A, the exercise price for the option usually would be established based on an independent third party valuation.

(ii) Dilution. Because an option delivers value to the employee only to the extent that the fair market value of the shares at the time of exercise exceeds the option exercise price, it would be necessary for an option grant to cover a greater number of shares than a grant of RSUs or restricted stock, in order to deliver an equivalent economic value to the employee. As a result, an option grant would mean more dilution for the investors as compared with an economically equivalent grant of RSUs or restricted stock.

(iii) Limits on Capital Gain treatment for ISOs. Capital gain treatment for an ISO is available only if the shares acquired on exercise are held for at least 1 year following the date of exercise of the option, and 2 years following the date of grant of the option. In the usual case, an employee holding an option on shares of a private company would not want to exercise his option until there is an IPO or other realization event, and will want to sell the shares he acquires on exercise of the option as soon as practicable after that event occurs, in order to (a) fund his payment of the exercise price for the shares, and (b) avoid loss of value in the shares in a highly volatile market that could bring a significant drop in share price prior to the end of the ISO-required holding periods. If the employee does sell the shares before the end of the ISO required holding periods, the increase in value of the shares since date of grant will be taxed at ordinary income rates, instead of capital gain rates. [6]

All things considered, for many private companies the grant of RSUs may be the best vehicle for delivering incentive compensation to the company’s executives, despite the fact that the values so delivered will be subject to tax at ordinary income rates.

After all, the objective is to give an incentive to the executives which pays them for navigating the company’s trip from “the embryo to the IPO” or to a trade sale. And, if the tax is at ordinary income rates the answer is ‘so what?’… as long as the executives receive and are able to sell enough shares to make a big difference in the executive’s life.


[1] See, Perkins, “Equity Compensation Alphabet Soup- ISO, NSO, RSA, RSU and More,” Contributing Author, the Venture Alley at DLA Piper, LLP, Buzz, on VC Experts (www.vcexperts.com)

[2] Bartlett, “From the Embryo to the IPO, Courtesy of the Conveyor Belt (Plus a Tax-Efficient Alternative to the Carried Interest), ” The Journal of Private Equity Winter 2011, Copyright (c) 2011, Institutional Investor, Inc.

[3] The definition would include the acquisition by a third party of more than 50% of the total fair market value or voting power of the company’s shares, or more than 40% of the total gross fair market value of the company’s assets.

[4] However, the “spread” at the time of exercise of an ISO might be subject to the alternative minimum tax (“AMT”) in the year of exercise.

[5] Code section 409A and the regulations issued thereunder in the case of a nonqualified stock option, and Code section 422(b)(4) in the case of an incentive stock option (“ISO”).

[6] Other limits on capital gains treatment for ISOs: (i) ISO treatment is available only for shares with a total grant date value of up to $100,000, in respect of all of the employee’s ISOs that first become exercisable in any calendar year; and (ii) ISO treatment is available for an option only if exercised by the employee during employment or by the end of the 3rd month following termination of employment. If an exit event has not occurred before the end of the 3 month post-termination exercise period and the employee wants to wait until an exit event does occur to exercise his option, doing so will result in loss of ISO status for his option and taxation at ordinary income rates, instead of capital gain rates, for the “spread” when he does exercise the option.

Let’s Finally Fix Crowdfunding!

Guest Post by: Christopher G. Froelich of Sheppard Mullin

On April 5, 2012, President Obama signed into law the landmark Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act), for the purpose of encouraging the funding of startups and small businesses throughout the United States.  Title III of the JOBS Act, otherwise known as Regulation Crowdfunding or Reg CF, received the most attention because it legalized investment crowdfunding.  The purpose of Reg CF was to make it easier for startups and small businesses to access capital, to give more people the ability to participate in investment opportunities, and ultimately, to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a business by raising small amounts of money from a large number of investors, typically via the Internet.  Prior to Reg CF, generally only accredited investors – those who earn an annual income of at least $200,000 (or $300,000 if married), or those with a net worth of at least $1 million (excluding one’s primary residence) – could invest in startups and small businesses, usually through Rule 506 of Regulation D.  Reg CF created a new exemption to the Securities Act of 1933 that allows ordinary people the opportunity to invest in startups and small businesses alongside angel investors and venture capitalists.
So how does Reg CF work?  In general, Reg CF allows startups and small businesses to raise up to $1 million in a rolling 12-month period from any investor, including non-accredited investors.  Issuers are required to use online intermediaries known as “funding portals.”

Reg CF officially went into effect in May 2016, but has been off to a slow start.  This is due to several factors that make it difficult for potential issuers to utilize the new law.  The primary difficulty is that  Reg CF imposes high regulatory burdens and costs on startups and businesses attempting to raise funds.  For example, Reg CF requires that businesses raising more than $500,000 have GAAP standard financial statements ready to share with potential investors.  While transparency in investing is important, few startups and small businesses have funds available to pay the accountant fees necessary to prepare GAAP financials.

Moreover, Reg CF requires issuers to file a Form C with the SEC prior to raising funds.  Form C is a complicated document that in most cases requires legal review.  The fact is that very few startups and small businesses have the money to cover the legal fees associated with such review.  Reg CF itself is long and complex, requiring further expensive legal assistance to make sure its requirements are followed.  To make matters worse, Reg CF prohibits issuers from making any offering, or any announcement about an offering (including any general announcement or tombstone statement), without first making the required disclosures with the SEC, including Form C.  This rule prohibits potential issuers from “testing the waters” – i.e., from soliciting non-binding indications of interest from potential investors prior to an issuance, thereby minimizing the risk of paying accounting and legal fees, among other expenses, for an offering that may turn out to be unsuccessful.

There are additional problems with Reg CF.  The $1 million cap on yearly fundraising is a nonstarter for small businesses in industries that require larger sums of startup capital.

There have been efforts to make Regulation Crowdfunding more useful to issuers.  In June 2016, the House of Representatives approved the “Fix Crowdfunding Act” bill (HR 4855).  While the original bill sought to remedy the shortcomings discussed above, the legislation was significantly amended prior to being passed by the House.  HR 4855, however, died in the Senate.

Any new bill should try to address the following issues.

First, the issuer cap should be raised from $1 million to $5 million and the investor caps should be modified by basing the percentage caps on the “greater of” net worth/income, not the “lesser of.”  These higher caps would vastly improve the capital raising capabilities of startups and small businesses.

Second, potential issuers should be able to “test the waters,” permitting them to solicit interest before actually spending money on accountants and lawyers.  Allowing potential issuers to test the waters would reduce the upfront cost of conducting a Reg CF offering and the risk of paying accounting and legal fees for an unsuccessful offering.

Finally, the burden on funding portals to vet the Reg CF offerings they post should be reduced to encourage the development of these new facilities.  Currently, Reg CF requires portals to act as gatekeepers of the offerings they post by imposing significant liability on portals for misstatements or omissions of the issuer, even if the portals are not aware that the information is false.  While the due diligence obligations of the portals should be retained, the new rule should clarify that portals would not be liable under Reg CF unless they knowingly allowed material issuer misstatements or omissions or otherwise engaged in or aided fraud.

It has been nearly 5 years since the passage of the JOBS Act, and the most anticipated portion of the landmark legislation, crowdfunding, has been a bust.  It is finally time to fix the problem, make it easier for startups and small businesses to access capital and democratize access to startup investment opportunities for the every-day investor.


Christopher G. Froelich, Special Counsel at Sheppard Mullin

Chris advises public and private companies and private equity funds in domestic and cross-border transactions, including mergers and acquisitions, private equity investments, joint ventures, divestitures, restructurings, recapitalizations and transactions involving distressed or bankrupt targets or sellers. He counsels clients through all stages of the deal process, including drafting and negotiating letters of intent, stock and asset purchase agreements, merger agreements, shareholder and joint venture agreements, partnership agreements, financing documents, confidentiality agreements, escrow agreements, due diligence reports and corporate governance documents.


 Sheppard Mullin is a full service Global 100 firm with 750 attorneys in 15 offices located in the United States, Europe and Asia. Since 1927, companies have turned to Sheppard Mullin to handle corporate and technology matters, high stakes litigation and complex financial and property transactions. In the U.S., the firm’s clients include half of the Fortune 100. For more information, please visit www.sheppardmullin.com.

What are Registration Rights?

To many investors, registration rights are one of the most important issues in a financing. If an investor is in a minority position in a nonpublic company, his exit possibilities depend on decisions made by others. Thus, some founders are proud that they have turned down entreaties from investment bankers to take their companies public. They claim that public shareholders might cramp their style and interfere with their ability to run the company according to their own tastes. Well and good for the founder, but not so comforting to a minority investor locked into the founder’s company. Even if the investors as a group are in control of the company, there may be differences of opinion as to when an exit strategy should be implemented; indeed, each investor may have a different sense of timing on the issue, based on facts peculiar to that investor.

The decision to sell the company as a whole is almost always dependent on at least a majority of the shareholders approving the sale. To be sure, the shareholders could by contract agree to sell out at the election of the minority, but such contracts, while common in Shareholders Agreements styled on drag-along rights, are seldom enforced in practice, in accordance with their terms. [1] The shareholders, however, can implement one primary exit strategy, in theory at least, singly and seriatim. The company can only sell its assets once, but it can have as many public offerings of its securities as the market will bear, and a public offering will eventually make the investors liquid.

However, the decision to go public in the first instance is often difficult; there are considerations on both sides. Moreover, even if a company is already public, the election to float another offering requires thought and discussion; any offering “dilutes” existing shareholders. Some shareholders may feel the currently obtainable price accurately reflects value and some may violently disagree.

As a technically legal matter, the decision to affect an IPO is a majority decision. Even if the company is not planning to sell any stock, only the company can file a registration statement; [2] a minority shareholder cannot register his stock for sale without the company’s consent. As the registrant, [3] the company sets the terms of the offering, including the question of how many insider shares to include. Accordingly, investors seek to bolster their position by securing that consent in advance, by insisting that there exist, as part of or allied to the Stock Purchase Agreement, an agreement called the Registration Rights Agreement. It is important to recall that a company “going public” does not undergo an instant transformation, with all its stock ipso facto turned into liquid instruments; the only shares which become truly public-that is, are released from resale restrictions [4] -are those registered for sale [5] and sold at the time. And the company ordinarily issues those shares; the investors’ share of the “action” in an IPO is severely limited because the market’s appetite for stock in an IPO is generally confined to those transactions in which most of the money raised is going to work inside the company. Nonetheless, an IPO is the most significant step on the road to liquidity, even for those investors not selling in the offering.

[2]-Categories of Registration Rights

Registration rights fall into two categories: “demand” and “piggyback.” Piggyback rights, as the name implies, give the shareholders a right to have their shares included in a registration the company is currently planning on behalf of itself (a “primary” offering) or other shareholders (a “secondary” offering). [6] Demand rights, as the name implies, contemplate that the company must initiate and pursue the registration of an offering including, although not necessarily limited to, the shares proffered by the requesting shareholder(s). Since demand rights are more controversial, the following discussion focuses principally (but not exclusively) on that variety.

It should be noted that there are various types of stock issuances, albeit registered, which should not be subject to piggyback rights by their nature-that is, issuance of shares in the course of acquiring another company or the registration of shares pursuant to an employee stock benefit plan. Moreover, the practical difference between demand and piggyback rights can be slight; the investors make a noise about demanding an IPO, the issuer (thus prodded) elects to go forward on its own and then the investors seek to piggyback on what has been, in effect, an offering they “demanded.” Thus, the discussion of “haircuts,” stand asides,” and “lock-ups” applies to all types of registration rights, not just demand rights.

[3]-The Principles Underlying Registration Rights

To comprehend adequately the various issues involved, a discussion of basic principles is in order. The first is that registration rights are seldom used in accordance with their terms, and yet some investors and their counsel view them as a central element of the deal. The actual use of the demand rights, for example, could prove very awkward: a group of minority shareholders insisting on registration, the CEO agreeing only because he has to, but saying, in effect, to the minority, “Find your own underwriter; conduct your own road shows; [7] do not bother me with questions from large institutional purchasers; in a word, sell the stock yourself.” Such would make for a disorderly marketing effort, and the price per share would suffer.

On the other hand, as stated, registration rights are often the only exit vehicle, which, as a practical matter, the minority shareholders can compel. A start-up may issue shares redeemable at the option of the holder, but the instances in which that privilege has been successfully exercised are few. A company still in the development stage may not have the legal power, let alone the cash and/or the agreement of its creditors, to redeem stock. If a controlling founder is content to sit in his office, play with his high-tech toys and does not need more money from his investors, the investors need leverage. Other than through the threat of enforcing the registration rights agreement, there is no legal way to compel the company to go public. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that liquidating the investors’ shares through a public offering can be not only a promise but also a benchmark, meaning that the remedy, if the founder refuses to cooperate, need not be a lawsuit. Reallocation of stock interests can be triggered if an IPO fails to materialize on time.

The second interesting feature of the registration rights agreement is that it is a three-way agreement, but only two of the three parties negotiate and sign it. With a minor exception for “self-underwritten offerings,” a primary or secondary offering of securities requires an issuer, selling shareholders and an underwriter, either on a “firm” or “best-efforts” basis. However, the underwriter is usually not present when the registration rights agreement is signed, and the parties themselves have to anticipate what the underwriter will require. Following that point, underwriters as a rule do not favor secondary offerings for early-stage companies.

Given a choice, the market likes to see the proceeds of the sale go into the company’s treasury to be used for productive purposes, rather than released to outsiders. Moreover, whenever stock is being sold, the underwriter wants the number of shares issued to be slightly less than its calculation of the market’s appetite. An underwriting is deemed successful if the stock price moves up a bit in the after-market. If the price goes down, the buyers brought in by the underwriter are unhappy; if it moves up smartly, the company is upset because the underwriter underpriced the deal. Consequently, the underwriter does not want to see new shares coming into the market shortly after the underwritten offering is sold, creating more supply than demand. These imperatives account for terms in the registration rights agreement known as the “haircut” and the “hold back.”

Finally, including one’s shares in a publicly underwritten offering is not the only way shares can be sold. A holder of restricted securities can sell his shares, albeit at a discount attributable to illiquidity, in a private transaction; more importantly, he can “dribble” out the shares into the market once the company has become public, under Rule 144. Registration rights for the holder of restricted shares in an already public company are, therefore, redundant unless the holder wants to sell before the required holding period in Rule 144 has expired or the block is so large that it cannot be “dribbled” out under the “volume” or “manner of sale” restrictions set out in that Rule.

The “points” in a registration rights negotiation (points being a slang term for contested issues) [8] are of varying degrees of intensity. Some are standard. Thus, the issuer rarely agrees to register convertible preferred stock, convertible debt or other rights to purchase common stock. The market in the hybrid securities themselves can be messy and confusing to analysts of an emerging-stage issuer‘s IPO; indeed, the mere existence of a class of senior security may cloud the outlook for the common stock‘s participation in future earnings. [9] Hence, the holders of convertible securities must convert before they can include their stock in the offering and/or must convert in any event so as to “clean up” the balance sheet. Some “points” on the other hand, are potential battlefields. For example, a minority shareholder will want the right to threaten exercise of his rights (and thus bully the company into registration) at any time of his choosing. The company will fight to limit the permissible timing of the shareholder’s election-no less than, say, five nor more than seven years after he makes his investment. The shareholder will want to be able to transfer his registration rights if he transfers his shares-they are part of the bundle of rights for which he bargained. The company will fight to keep the rights personal to the holder-a right to force registration is a formidable weapon if the timing is totally inappropriate. A disgruntled shareholder-for example, a founder recently terminated as president-may wave the rights around like a club to win some unrelated concession.

Following that thought, the company needs to limit the number of fingers on the trigger, so to speak. Assume, for example, 10 investors who each hold 10 percent of the class of convertible preferred stock. If each investor enjoyed his personal trigger-that is, could demand registration-the company might find itself in the path of a stampede, helping neither itself nor the investors generally. Moreover, if the company agrees to pay all or a part of the cost of the registration, multiple demands could be expensive. It is, therefore, in the interest of the company and the major investors to vest control of the trigger in the shareholders acting in concert, at least to insist that most of them agree internally before the issue is brought before the company. In addition, the amount of stock they are willing to sell should also be substantial, both because of expense (a small registration is almost as expensive as a large one) and because a buoyant public market depends on “float,” enough shares in circulation to interest institutional investors. From the investor’s standpoint, of course, the situation is reversed. He wants the trigger to be one share less than the shares he holds. This issue becomes more difficult when an issuer goes through multiple rounds of financing, selling off registration rights in each round. If all the shares are of the same class and series, what does one do with a 51 percent shareholder in round one who becomes a 35 percent shareholder when round two is completed? Does he “lose” his solo finger on the trigger because he did not elect to participate in the second round or because the second round involved the acquisition of another company for stock in a transaction in which he was not eligible to participate?

Indeed, the question of inconsistent registration rights provisions occasioned by separate agreements for each round is a thorny one. If the company’s norm is that the rights are not meant to mature for three years from the date of investment, what is to be done with investors in earlier rounds who have held shares for almost three years? Will they have first and exclusive chance at the gateway to public securities? If series A preferred was sold last year (with a 51 percent trigger) and series B preferred is being sold currently, is there any way to compel the series A holders to join in with the series B (assuming the number of shares in each series is the same) to avoid a situation in which the trigger is suddenly held by 25.1 percent (versus 51 percent) of the outstanding preferred stock? Is the language of the agreement such that investors in the earlier rounds can claim to have a first priority for including their shares in a piggyback registration?

The fact is, when the later round occurs, most practitioners attempt to induce the prior holders (who often overlap with the investors in the later round) [10] to cancel the earlier agreement and accept a new provision that affects all the existing holders, old and new, equally. Alternatively, counsel for the early-round investors may bargain for provisions that constrain the issuer in agreeing to register shares of subsequent purchasers-either an absolute prohibition without the consent of the earlier investors or a priority in their favor.


[1] There is nothing conceptually impossible in the notion of “drag along” rights. If all the stockholders agree in advance, the board could be bound, at the instigation of the minority, to retain an agent and authorize it to negotiate the best terms possible for a sale or merger of the entire company. There could be problems in binding the board in advance to vote for a transaction to occur well in the future-one which passes a given hurdle, for example-but, if the majority refuses the agent’s recommendations, there could be other remedies: a control “flip,” for example, or more stock for the minority.

[2] Section 6(a) of the ’33 Act provides that the issuer, the CEO, the CFO, the comptroller or principal accounting officer, and a majority of the board must sign the registration statement.

[3] The term ‘Registrant’ means the issuer of the securities for which the registration statement is filed. ’33 Act, Rule 405.

[4] Even publicly registered shares may not be freely resold; the privilege of investors holding nonregistered shares in a public company to “dribble” out shares pursuant to Rule 144 is limited by the provisions of that Rule and may be further limited by a “hold back” imposed by underwriters, the NASD, and/or state securities administrators.

[5] ’33 Act, Rule 415, adopted in November 1983, permits underwritten shelf registrations, i.e., the registration of shares for later sale at the option of the holder for (1) mature public companies and (2) for secondary issues. See, e.g., Palm, “Registration Statement Preparation and Related Matters,” in Mechanics of Underwriting (PLI Course Handbook Series No. 547, 1987). The problem is that underwriters are reluctant to allow investors to include their shares in the registration statement for delayed sale under Rule 415 since that creates an “overhang” over the market. If the investor’s stock is registered “on the shelf” under Rule 415, it must be “reasonably expected” it will be sold within two years. Rule 415(a)(2).

[6] A “reverse piggyback” right occurs when the investors exercise a demand right, compel a registration that (under the agreement) is at their expense, and the company seeks the right to “piggyback” some newly issued shares on the investors’ registration. See Frome & Max, Raising Capital: Private Placement Forms and Techniques, 673 (1981).

[7] Road shows are meetings between the company, the underwriters, and potential buyers of the company’s stock held around the country after the registration statement has been filed and before it becomes effective. If a CEO wants to be obstreperous, not agreeing with the concept of an IPO, he can be less than enthusiastic about the company’s near-term prospects at the road show, thereby effectively chilling the offering.

[8] When negotiators want to show an increase in the fervor that they or their clients feel about a given issue, they label it a “deal point” or a “deal breaker.” The way experienced negotiators respond to a litany of “deal points” is to create an “escrow file,” meaning that the issue is left for later consideration. After a deal point sits in the escrow file for a bit, it often defuses itself. See generally, Fisher & Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreements Without Giving In (1981).

[9] Since the existence of a convertible senior security can muddy the investing public’s perception of the common stock, conversion is usually mandated no later than the evening of an IPO.

[10] Investors in the early rounds are expected to follow on with fresh capital in late rounds to show their faith in the company; however, the existing investors often insist that the founder find at least one new investor, “new blood,” to join in late rounds, if only to avoid a situation in which the investors are negotiating on price and other issues with themselves.

Three Basic Rules: Dilution, Dilution, Dilution

Take a sample of 100 venture-backed companies successful enough to undertake an initial public offering. In a high percentage of the transactions, the prospectus discloses that the earliest stage investors (founders and angels) wind up with close to trivial equity percentages and thus, puny returns on their investment in the company. One would think that these investors are entitled to the lushest rewards because of the high degree of risk accompanying their early stage investments, cash and/or sweat. The problem, however, is dilution. Most early stage companies go through multiple rounds of private financing, and one or more of those rounds is often a “down round,” which entails a disappointing price per share and, therefore, significant dilution to those shareholders who are not in a position to play in the later rounds.

The problem of dilution is serious because it has a dampening impact on angels and others who are thinking of financing, joining or otherwise contributing to a start up. Estimates put the relationship of angel capital to early stage investments by professional VCs at five dollars of angel capital going into promising start ups for every one dollar of VC investment. But if angels are increasingly discouraged by the threat of dilution, particularly since the meltdown, we don’t have much of an industry; there is no one to start the engines. [1]

There are a variety of fixes for the dilution issue open to founders and angels.

  • Make sure you enjoy pre-emptive rights, the ability to participate in any and all future rounds of financing and to protect your percentage interest. Pre-emptive rights can be, of course, lost if you don’t have the money as founders and angels often do not to play in subsequent rounds.
  • Try to get a negative covenant; this gives you a veto over the subsequent round and particularly the pricing of the terms.

You don’t want to kill the goose of course, meaning veto a dilutive round and then once the Company fails for lack of cash; however, a veto right at least will you the opportunity to make sure the round is fairly prices; that the board casts a wide enough net so that the round is not an inside trade; meaning that the investors in control of the Company, go over in the corner and do a deal with themselves. Those rounds can be highly toxic to the existing shareholders (cram downs, as they are called). Finally, if you don’t have cash try to upgrade your percentage interest with derivative securities, options and warrants (a warrant is another word for option, they are the same security, a call on the Company’s stock at a fixed price but options are if the call was labeled if an employee is the beneficiary is the holder and the warrants are for everyone else). If you are the founding entrepreneur therefore, make sure you are a participant in the employee option program. Often the founder will start off with a sufficient significant percentage of the Company’s equity that she doesn’t feel necessary to declare herself eligible for employee options. This is a major mistake. In fact, I am likely to suggest founder client consider a piece of financial engineering I claim to have invented; the issuance of warrants in favor of the founders and angels at significant step-ups from the current valuation, which I call ‘up-the-ladder warrants.’ To see how the structure works, consider the following example:

Let’s say the angels are investing $1,000,000 in 100,000 shares ($10 per share) at a pre-money valuation of $3 million, resulting in a post money valuation of $4 million ($1 million going into the Company). We suggest angels also obtain 100 percent warrant coverage, meaning they can acquire three warrants, totaling calls on another 100,000 shares of the Company’s stock; however not to scare off subsequent venture capitalists or, more importantly, cause the VCs to require the warrants be eliminated as a price for future investments. The exercise prices of the warrants will be based on pre-money valuations which are relatively heroic win/win valuations, if you like. For the sake of argument, the exercise prices could be set at $30, $40 and $50 a share (33,333 shares in each case).

Let’s use a hypothetical example to see how this regime could work. Since the angels have invested $1 million at a post-money valuation of $4 million, they therefore own 25 percent of the Company–100,000 shares out of a total of 400,000 outstanding. The three warrants, as stated, are each a call on 33,333 shares. Subsequent down rounds raise $2,000,000 and dilute the angels’ share of the Company’s equity from 25 percent to, say, 5 percent–their 100,000 shares now represent 5 percent of 2,000,000 shares (cost basis still $10 per share) and the down round investors own 1,900,000 shares at a cost of $1.05 per share. Assume only one down round. Finally, assume the Company climbs out of the cellar and is sold for $100 million in cash, or $50 per share.

Absent ‘up-the-ladder warrants,’ the proceeds to the angels would be $5 million–not a bad return (5x) on their investment but, nonetheless, arguably inconsistent with the fact that the angels took the earliest risk. The ‘up-the-ladder warrants‘ add to the angels’ ultimate outcome (and we assume cashless exercise or an SAR technique, and ignore the effect of taxes) as follows: 33,333 warrants at $20/share are in the money by $666,660 and 33,333 warrants at $10 a share are in the money by $333,330. While the number of shares to be sold rises to 2,066,666, let’s say, for sake of simplicity, the buy-out price per share remains at $50, meaning the angels get another $999,999–call it $1 million. The angels’ total gross returns have increased 20 percent while the VCs’ returns have stayed at $95,000,000. Even if the $1,000,000 to the angels comes out of the VC’s share, that’s trivial slippage … a gross payback of 47.5 times their investment, vs. 47 times. If the company sells for just $30 a share, the angels get nothing and the VCs still make out.


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After a Down Round: Alternatives for Employee Incentive Plans

*Excerpt from VC Experts Encyclopedia of Private Equity & Venture Capital

Employee Incentive Plans for Privately-Held Companies

Despite the recent improvement in capital markets activity, many small, privately-held technology companies continue to face reduced valuations and highly dilutive financings, frequently referred to as “down rounds.” These financings can create difficulties for retention of management and other key employees who were attracted to the company in large part for the potential upside of the option or stock ownership program. When down rounds are implemented, the investors can acquire a significant percentage of the company at valuations that are lower than the valuations used for prior financing rounds. Lower valuations mean lower preferred stock values for the preferred stock issued in the down round, and as preferred stock values drop significantly, common stock values also drop, including the value of common stock options held by employees.

Consequently, reduced valuations and “down round” financings frequently cause two results: (i) substantial dilution of the common stock ownership of the company and (ii) the devaluation of the common stock, particularly in view of the increased aggregate liquidation preference of the preferred stock that comes before the common stock. The result is a company with an increasingly larger percentage being held by the holders of the preferred stock and with common stock that can be relatively worthless and unlikely to see any proceeds in the event of an acquisition in the foreseeable future.

In the face of substantial dilution of the common stock and significant devaluation in equity value, companies are faced with the difficulty of retaining key personnel and offering meaningful equity incentives. Potential solutions can be very simple (issuing additional options to counteract dilution) or quite complex (issuing a new class of stock with rights tailored to balance the concerns of both investors and employees). Intermediate solutions range from effecting a recapitalization that will result in an increase in the value of the common stock to implementing a cash bonus plan for employees that is to be paid in the event of an acquisition. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and each may be appropriate depending on the circumstances of a particular company, but the more complex alternatives can offer companies greater flexibility to satisfy the competing demands of employees and investors. This article briefly reviews three of the solutions that can be implemented-the use of additional options, recapitalizations and retention plans (cash and equity based).

Granting Additional Options

The simplest solution to address the dilution of common stock is to issue additional employee stock options. For example, assume that, prior to a down round, a company had 9,000,000 shares of common and preferred stockoutstanding and the employees held options to purchase an additional 1,000,000 shares. Also assume that, in the down round, the company issued additional preferred stock that is convertible into 10,000,000 shares of common stock. On a fully-diluted basis (i.e., taking into account all options and the conversion of all preferred stock), the employees have seen the value of their options reduced from 10% of the company to 5%, or by 50%. In this case, the company might issue the employees additional options to increase their ownership percentage. It would require additional options to purchase in excess of 1,000,000 shares to return the employees to a 10% ownership position, although a smaller amount would still reduce the impact of the down round and might be enough to help entice the employees to stay.

If the common stock retains significant value, the grant of additional options can be an effective solution. It is also relatively straightforward to implement; at most, stockholder approval may be required for an increase in the optionpool. In many cases, however, the aggregate liquidation preference of the preferred stock is unlikely to leave anything for the common holders following an acquisition, particularly in the short term. In that event, the dilution of the common stock becomes less relevant – 5% of nothing is the same as 10% of nothing. Companies with this kind of common stock devaluation will need to consider more intricate solutions.

Recapitalizations

If the common stock has been effectively reduced to minimal value by the down round, a company could increase the common stock value through a recapitalization. A recapitalization can be implemented through a decrease in the liquidation preferences of the preferred stock or a conversion of some preferred stock into common stock, thereby increasing the share of the proceeds that is distributed to the common stock upon a sale of the company. This solution is conceptually straightforward and certainly effective in increasing the value of the common stock. In most cases with privately-held venture capital backed companies, however, the holders of the preferred stock are the investors who typically fund and implement the down rounds and in nearly all cases the preferred stockholders have a veto right over any recapitalization. Accordingly, implementing a recapitalization would require the consent of the affected preferred stockholders, which may be difficult to obtain, particularly because the preferred stockholders may not like the permanency of this approach. In addition, a recapitalization can be quite complicated in practice, raising significant legal, tax and accounting issues.

Retention Plans

Another approach is the implementation of a retention plan. Such plans can take a number of forms and can use cash or a new class of equity with rights designed to satisfy the interests of both the investors and employees. These solutions are more complicated, but also more flexible.

Cash Bonus Plan

In a cash bonus plan, the company guarantees a certain amount of money to employees in the event of an acquisition. This amount can equal a fixed sum or a percentage of the net sale proceeds, to be allocated among the employees at the time of the sale, or it can be a fixed amount per employee, determined in advance. Allocations can be based on a wide variety of parameters, enabling a high degree of flexibility. Often these plans have a limited duration (such as 12 to 24 months, or until the company raises a specified amount of additional equity).

A cash bonus plan is easy to understand, provides the employees with cash to pay any taxes that may be due and can be flexible if the allocations are not determined in advance. However, there are a number of hurdles. Many acquisitions are structured as stock-for-stock exchanges (i.e., the acquiring company issues stock as payment for the stock of the target company) because such exchanges may be eligible for tax-free treatment. A cash bonus plan may interfere with the tax-free treatment and, thus, may reduce the value of the company in the sale or may be a barrier to the transaction altogether.

A cash bonus plan can also be problematic in that it requires cash from a potential acquirer in the event there isn’t sufficient cash on hand in the target company. A mandatory cash commitment from an acquiror may also make the company less attractive as a target. Typically, a cash bonus plan can be adopted (and amended and terminated prior to an acquisition) by the board of directors, although a cash bonus plan creates an interest that may in effect be senior to the preferred stock, which requires consideration as to whether the consent of the preferred holders is required.

New Class of Equity

A stock bonus or option plan utilizing a new class of equity, although more complicated, shares many of the benefits of the cash bonus plan, but avoids some of the major disadvantages. A newly created class of equity, such as senior common stock or an employee series of preferred stock, permits the use of various combinations of rights. The new class of equity can be entitled to a fixed dollar amount, a portion of the purchase price or both. These rights can be in preference to, participating with or subordinate to any preferred holders, and the shares may be convertible into ordinary common stock at the option of the holders or upon the occurrence of certain events. Referring to our earlier example, the company might return the employees to their pre-down round position by issuing them senior common stock entitled to 10% of the consideration (up to a certain amount) in any sale of the company. Although a return of the employees to their pre-down round position may not be acceptable to the preferred stockholders and may not be necessary to keep the employees incentivized, the new class of equity can be tailored to fit whatever balance is acceptable to the investors.

This type of approach has several advantages. First, unlike a simple issuance of additional options, it gives real value to employees that were affected by a devaluation of their common stock. Second, unlike a cash bonus plan, it does not require an acquiror to put up cash when they purchase the company and the acquirer is less likely to discount the purchase price. Third, unlike a cash bonus plan, it will not affect the tax-free nature of many stock-for-stock acquisitions. Finally, it provides certainty to the participants, who know exactly what they will be entitled to receive upon a sale of the company.

The main disadvantage of creating a new class of equity, at least from the employees’ standpoint, is that the employee will either have to pay fair market value for the stock when it is issued or recognize a tax liability upon such issuance, when they may not have the cash with which to pay the taxes. This disadvantage can be partially ameliorated by the use of options for the new class of equity, rather than issuing the new equity up front, which at least allows the employee to control the timing of the tax liability by deciding when to exercise. Moreover, for many employees an option may qualify as an incentive stock option under federal tax law, thus allowing the employee to defer taxation until the sale of the underlying stock. A new class of equity will also be somewhat more difficult for most employees to understand, at least when compared to traditional common stock options.

In addition, a new class of equity adds complexity from the company’s perspective. It may raise securities and accounting issues, and shareholder approval of an amendment to the company’s charter will be required. At a minimum, it will require more elaborate documentation than some of the simpler alternatives, such as a cash bonus plan, and thus it will likely be more expensive to implement at a time when the company may be particularly sensitive to preserving its cash. A new class of equity may also result in future complications such as separate class votes or effective veto rights in certain circumstances. As with the other solutions that address the devaluation problem, there may be resistance from the existing preferred holders, whose share of the consideration upon a sale of the company would thereby be reduced.

These complexities are surmountable and companies may find that they are more than balanced by the advantages that a new class of equity provides over other solutions in addressing issues of reduced common stock valuations and dilution.

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