The Vesting of Stock – Founders’ Equity

Practicing business law in Silicon Valley over the past year, I have seen start-up activity pick up. We are in that part of the cycle where the survivors of the not so great recession have decided that they are better off on their own and have decided to make their dreams come true by forming their own companies.

Because many of these companies hope to become a welcome opportunity for outside investors, their choice of entity is the corporation. From the legal end, the process of incorporation is fairly straightforward and can be accomplished relatively quickly. Founders have a number of decisions to make, such as how much they want to each contribute to the new venture, and who will have which role.

Where a group of founders is involved, one of the most difficult issues, relatively speaking, is the issuance of stock. The first issue involves what percentage of the corporation each of the founders should receive. There are few, if any, rules of thumb as to whom should get what, and the decision is typically made by the founders assessing each of their respective strengths and weaknesses, and their contribution to the new venture, and deciding on a split. If the new corporation never expects to issue any new stock, and each founder will be actively involved in the business with profits being split at the end of each year, there may be little more to do with the stock other than to create a suitable buy-sell relationship.

For those corporations on the start-up path, where technology will need to be developed at the expense of salaries, and where outside funding may be required, additional mechanisms are often designed. The mechanisms, known as vesting, repurchase rights, and transfer restrictions, each have a number of complications and purposes, and this next series of blogs will explore the basic issues that founders should consider when determining whether to apply these mechanisms to their stock.

Let’s start with vesting. Simply put, when something vests, you have the right to it. For example, when an option vests, you have the right to exercise it and receive stock.

How do you apply this concept to already issued shares, particularly those shares that are issued to founders when the corporation is formed? In this case, you adjust the vesting concept so that the shares can be repurchased by the corporation under certain events. This mechanism often referred to as “reverse vesting”. The number of shares that can be purchased, however, is reduced over time or on the occurrence of certain events. Shares that can’t be repurchased are deemed to be vested.

So, why do this? Start with the proposition that vesting only works with shareholders who are actively involved in the business. Vesting encourages the shareholder to stick around and continue to work with the corporation for a period of time so that all of the shareholders get the full benefit of their shares. This helps bind the founders together, because they are doing more than promising that they will work to make the new corporation a success. They now have an economic reason to do so.

Another reason is to make sure that if a founder does not work out, or cannot contribute for reasons of death or disability, their interest will be reduced appropriately. The shares that are repurchased can then be used as incentives for the founder’s replacement.

How does this mechanism work? Here are some examples of time-based vesting. In Silicon Valley, a common vesting structure (although not necessarily for founders) is a four-year vest with a first year cliff. This means that all of the shares will vest in four years so long as the founder is employed by the corporation for those four years. This is the four-year part. For any of the shares to vest, however, the founder needs to be employed for at least one year, at which time 25% of the shares will vest. Thereafter, shares will typically vest evenly on a monthly basis.

Another example, sometimes used with founders, is to allow vesting over a three-year period, with no cliff. This means that so long as the founder stays with the corporation, his or her shares continue to vest on a monthly basis. If the founder is with the corporation for three years, all of his or her shares are vested.

Vesting schedules based on time are by far the most common form of vesting used. Vesting schedules based on time may also be the least effective. My next blog will tell you why.

The information appearing in this article does not constitute legal advice or opinion. Such advice and opinion are provided by the firm only upon engagement with respect to specific factual situations. Specific questions relating to this article should be addressed directly to the author.