Thursday, March 20, 2008

Do 4 Year Vesting Schedules Still Make Sense?

Four year vesting is one of the sacred cows of Silicon Valley. It is a birth right. A practice that can not be questioned. The persistence of this labor friendly term in start up comp plans would make the Teamsters Union proud. When it comes to pay packages in Silicon Valley, everything is negotiable EXCEPT the length of stock option vesting. That has to be 4 years. But does this make any sense? On balance, I don't think so. At least not any more.

During the dot com glory days, it was possible for a venture backed company to be formed and go public in 4 years or even less. Of course, many of these businesses were woefully unprepared for public market scrutiny and subsequently failed. But the idea of a 4 year vesting schedule was palatable when a start up could reasonably expect to be pubic in that period of time. Those days are long gone. It takes closer to 7 or even 8 years for a successful company today to go from launch to IPO. So what happens to all of those employees who are fully vested at the 4 year mark? That is an issue many VCs and boards, Clearstone Venture Partners included, are wrestling with.

If an employee's stock is fully vested, what is her motivation to remain in the company from a financial perspective? The answer is not much. She would quite likely be better off going to a new company and receiving a fresh grant of stock options. In another 4 years, she will have twice as many options as she would have had if she had stayed at the first company for the entire 8 years. She will also enjoy some portfolio diversification by having a financial interest in two different start ups. So the value of 4 year vesting makes a lot of sense for the employees. But what about for the company?

Most venture backed companies create option pools of 20% to 25% of the total shares outstanding. The hope is that these pools will be sufficient - plus or minus 5% - for all of the employee stock option grants from inception to IPO. But imagine a scenario where most of the early employees leave after 4 years. Those people will need to be replaced. And those replacements will need new option grants. So essentially the company is paying twice for the same position. And the situation can get quite odd. I have seen companies in which the collective stock holdings of FORMER employees exceeds the amount of stock held by current employees. Hard to see how a situation like that can be good for the current employees (who are creating value for those that have left) and the non employee shareholders. Eventually, if enough employees leave at the 4 year mark, a company has no choice but to augment the option pool in order to back fill the vacated positions. These new stock grants dilute the ownership percentage of every other stockholder - from VC to founder to employee. In summary, 4 year vesting is not a very attractve compensation structure for start ups given the current IPO time line.

What to do about this conumdrum is far from obvious. Ideally, from a company's perspective, stock options would only vest when a liquidity event occurs (wheher IPO or acquisition). If that takes 10 years, so be it. There are a number of drawbacks to this approach from the employees perspective so such a solution is not practical. However, I do believe that 5 or even 6 year vesting should become the vesting standard. As the holding period for venture backed companies elongates, I believe there will be more and more board room dicsussions about what is fair and reasonable with regard to stock option vesting. It was not that long ago when 5 year vesting was the norm, and getting back to that would be a good first step.

1 comment:

D.K. said...

Dear Mr. Quigley,

My name is Dan Hsu, and I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Entrepreneurship at Syracuse University. I am writing because we need your help.

In business schools today, entrepreneurship and new venture creation is one of the most requested focuses areas of our students. However as an academic area, entrepreneurship is in its infancy. There are few courses, textbooks, and empirical research studies to draw from when creating courses for students, etc. As such, the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University is conducting a national research program focused on advancing our understanding of entrepreneurship, and one of the areas we are focused on is new venture investment. Specifically we are interested in how both angel investors and venture capitalists in new ventures arrive at investment decisions. We are contacting you because of your experience in this area.

This research is important, and will influence how we teach entrepreneurship to our students. Below you will find a link to the online survey that is associated with this study. We respectfully request that you take the time to complete this survey – it should not take more than 10-15 minutes to complete. We would be happy to share the results of this research with you once the study is complete.

If you could also forward this email to the angel investors and venture capitalists you know, we would greatly appreciate. Thank you very much.


Dan Hsu

Ph.D. candidate
Department of Entrepreneurship
Whitman School of Management
Syracuse University
721 University Ave., Syracuse, NY 13244
dahsu at