Stock up: How to structure employee equity in Europe

Stock up: How to structure employee equity in Europe

Andrej Kiska is an Associate at Credo Ventures.


In my last post on importance of employee equity, I set myself up for an ambitious task: to explain how employee equity works and how to set up a stock options plan in Europe. This topic is so complex and robust that it is almost impossible to pack all the relevant content into a single blog post.

Instead, I’ve summarized the basic concepts of employee equity, linking to external sources and providing context for European startups. For more information, please check out the linked articles for full information.

Let’s begin!

The first thing to understand is that while most people associate employee equity with “options,” this is not the only form of employee equity. There are actually four.

And here comes the first caveat for European startups: every post and legal document associated with employee equity will work with the concept of shares as the means of company ownership. We know that a lot of limited liability companies in numerous European jurisdictions don’t work with the concept of shares, but rather with percent ownership interest in the company.

Credo has invested in limited liability companies across various European jurisdictions over the years. To startup founders who fear not having shares for the purpose of a stock options plan: Don’t worry. An experienced investor and lawyer will figure it out for you.

We typically set up a stock options plan in a limited liability company as a commercial agreement (backed up by contractual penalties) that mirrors the same “share-based structure” even in entities that don’t work with the concept of shares. Employees are explained the concept of stock options plan and told that they will get their money at a liquidation event or their departure even if they don’t physically own the shares.

Four steps to set up your plan

One effective way to set up your employee stock options plan is a four-step process that essentially follows Fred Wilson’s logic outlined here.

1. Establish current valuation of the company.

It is crucial to be able to value your company for the purposes of the stock options plan.

Typically, this is done with the valuation of the last financing round. If this valuation was more than 12 months ago, adjust the value based on current performance benchmarked against performance at the time of the investment.

2. Prepare the vision of the company’s organizational chart.

Do this for both current as well as an estimate for the next 12 to 24 months for future hires, with estimated salaries of each position.

3. For each employee bracket (VP level, director level, etc.), assign an equity multiplier to their annual salary.

If your VP takes €100,000 annually and his equity multiplier is 0.5, the EUR value of his equity is €50,000.

Fred provides some basic benchmarks for his multipliers. My only comment regarding those benchmarks is that, in my opinion, the most junior employees, such as secretaries, don’t need to be part of the plan, since a tiny slice of equity is not going to be a strong motivator for them.

4. Take the 50k and divide it by the current valuation of the company.

If it is €10 MM, your VP would own 0.5 percent of the company. Repeat the same process for each position and add up all the percentages.

The sum will be the total value of the stock options plan. It should hover between 10 to 20 percent of the company.

Notes

It is important to understand that by giving out options, you are not giving out company stock immediately (specifically not until the option is exercised): you are giving your employees an option to buy equity in your company at a pre-agreed price (the strike price) at some point in the future.

Options and their advantages are explained here. The strike price is typically set by the startup’s board of directors. We tend to stick to valuation of the last financing round. You can read more about the intricacies of the strike price, even though a lot of the information is relevant only for the US entities. Of course, there are alternate forms of employee equity as well.

It is equally important to understand that an employee doesn’t get the option to buy his entire allocated pool straightaway. It is vested over time.

I have omitted the concept of shares in my four-step plan to make it easier to explain. It is not that difficult to incorporate shares in it: when you establish your valuation, just assign a number of shares to it. Let’s say 100,000. So if the VP in our example owns 0.5 percent of the company, he owns 500 shares.

Regardless of whether you will use shares or just percentages, it is still important to understand how dilution works.

I agree with Fred’s view to communicate equity in EUR value as opposed to percent, plus you should stress to employees that the value of that equity can increase more than tenfold if the startup does well. In our example, the VP can make €500,000 on his €50,000 grant if the startup does well.

Let’s also not forget that the 50k is not received for free; the employee has a right to buy it at a certain strike price.

The plan above outlines just the initial options grant. It is common practice to give employees retention grants as well. Typically, they are given out after an employee has been with the company for two or more years.

To set up the retention grants, go through the same four steps outlined above, but assign lower multipliers (e.g. if you do retention every two years, and initial stock grant is vested over four years, then divide the multiplier by two).

Parting thoughts

I hope this post has provided some guidance. While there are many alternate approaches to this concept (e.g. the Wealthfront plan), my most important piece of advice, especially to first-time founders, is to work with an experienced investor and lawyer to set up the stock options plan. They have done it countless times before and understand all the pitfalls. After all, their knowledge of these topics should be one of the key reasons you would let an investor become part of your startup.

If you have more questions about this complicated topic, you can always shoot me an email at kiska@credoventures.com.

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