Term Sheet – Vesting

When Jason and I last wrote on the mythical term sheet, we were working our way through the terms that “can matter.” The last one on our list is vesting, and we approach it with one eyebrow raised understanding the impact of this term is crucial for all founders of an early stage company.

While vesting is a simple concept, it can have profound and unexpected implications. Typically, stock and options will vest over four years – which means that you have to be around for four years to own all of your stock or options (for the rest of this post, I’ll simply refer to the equity as “stock” although exactly the same logic applies to options.) If you leave the company earlier than the four year period, the vesting formula applies and you only get a percentage of your stock. As a result, many entrepreneurs view vesting as a way for VCs to “control them, their involvement, and their ownership in a company” which, while it can be true, is only a part of the story.

A typical stock vesting clause looks as follows:

Stock Vesting: All stock and stock equivalents issued after the Closing to employees, directors, consultants and other service providers will be subject to vesting provisions below unless different vesting is approved by the majority (including at least one director designated by the Investors) consent of the Board of Directors (the “Required Approval”): 25% to vest at the end of the first year following such issuance, with the remaining 75% to vest monthly over the next three years. The repurchase option shall provide that upon termination of the employment of the shareholder, with or without cause, the Company or its assignee (to the extent permissible under applicable securities law qualification) retains the option to repurchase at the lower of cost or the current fair market value any unvested shares held by such shareholder. Any issuance of shares in excess of the Employee Pool not approved by the Required Approval will be a dilutive event requiring adjustment of the conversion price as provided above and will be subject to the Investors’ first offer rights.

The outstanding Common Stock currently held by _________ and ___________ (the “Founders”) will be subject to similar vesting terms provided that the Founders shall be credited with [one year] of vesting as of the Closing, with their remaining unvested shares to vest monthly over three years.

Industry standard vesting for early stage companies is a one year cliff and monthly thereafter for a total of 4 years. This means that if you leave before the first year is up, you don’t vest any of your stock. After a year, you have vested 25% (that’s the “cliff”). Then – you begin vesting monthly (or quarterly, or annually) over the remaining period. So – if you have a monthly vest with a one year cliff and you leave the company after 18 months, you’ll have vested 37.25% of your stock.

Often, founders will get somewhat different vesting provisions than the balance of the employee base. A common term is the second paragraph above, where the founders receive one year of vesting credit at the closing and then vest the balance of their stock over the remaining 36 months. This type of vesting arrangement is typical in cases where the founders have started the company a year or more earlier then the VC investment and want to get some credit for existing time served.

Unvested stock typically “disappears into the ether” when someone leaves the company. The equity doesn’t get reallocated – rather it gets “reabsorbed” – and everyone (VCs, stock, and option holders) all benefit ratably from the increase in ownership (or – more literally – the reverse dilution.”) In the case of founders stock, the unvested stuff just vanishes. In the case of unvested employee options, it usually goes back into the option pool to be reissued to future employees.

A key component of vesting is defining what happens (if anything) to vesting schedules upon a merger. “Single trigger” acceleration refers to automatic accelerated vesting upon a merger. “Double trigger” refers to two events needing to take place before accelerated vesting (e.g., a merger plus the act of being fired by the acquiring company.) Double trigger is much more common than single trigger. Acceleration on change of control is often a contentious point of negotiation between founders and VCs, as the founders will want to “get all their stock in a transaction – hey, we earned it!” and VCs will want to minimize the impact of the outstanding equity on their share of the purchase price. Most acquires will want there to be some forward looking incentive for founders, management, and employees, so they usually either prefer some unvested equity (to help incent folks to stick around for a period of time post acquisition) or they’ll include a separate management retention incentive as part of the deal value, which comes off the top, reducing the consideration that gets allocated to the equity ownership in the company. This often frustrates VCs (yeah – I hear you chuckling “haha – so what?”) since it puts them at cross-purposes with management in the M&A negotiation (everyone should be negotiating to maximize the value for all shareholders, not just specifically for themselves.) Although the actual legal language is not very interesting, it is included below.

In the event of a merger, consolidation, sale of assets or other change of control of the Company and should an Employee be terminated without cause within one year after such event, such person shall be entitled to [one year] of additional vesting. Other than the foregoing, there shall be no accelerated vesting in any event.”

Structuring acceleration on change of control terms used to be a huge deal in the 1990’s when “pooling of interests” was an accepted form of accounting treatment as there were significant constraints on any modifications to vesting agreements. Pooling was abolished in early 2000 and – under purchase accounting – there is no meaningful accounting impact in a merger of changing the vesting arrangements (including accelerating vesting). As a result, we usually recommend a balanced approach to acceleration (double trigger, one year acceleration) and recognize that in an M&A transaction, this will often be negotiated by all parties. Recognize that many VCs have a distinct point of view on this (e.g. some folks will NEVER do a deal with single trigger acceleration; some folks don’t care one way or the other) – make sure you are not negotiating against and “point of principle” on this one as VCs will often say “that’s how it is an we won’t do anything different.”

Recognize that vesting works for the founders as well as the VCs. I’ve been involved in a number of situations where one or more founders didn’t work out and the other founders wanted them to leave the company. If there had been no vesting provisions, the person who didn’t make it would have walked away with all their stock and the remaining founders would have had no differential ownership going forward. By vesting each founder, there is a clear incentive to work your hardest and participate constructively in the team, beyond the elusive founders “moral imperative.” Obviously, the same rule applies to employees – since equity is compensation and should be earned over time, vesting is the mechanism to insure the equity is earned over time.

Of course, time has a huge impact on the relevancy of vesting. In the late 1990’s, when companies often reached an exit event within two years of being founded, the vesting provisions – especially acceleration clauses – mattered a huge amount to the founders. Today – as we are back in a normal market where the typical gestation period of an early stage company is five to seven years, most people (especially founders and early employees) that stay with a company will be fully (or mostly) vested at the time of an exit event.

While it’s easy to set vesting up as a contentious issue between founders and VCs, we recommend the founding entrepreneurs view vesting as an overall “alignment tool” – for themselves, their co-founders, early employees, and future employees. Anyone who has experienced an unfair vesting situation will have strong feelings about it – we believe fairness, a balanced approach, and consistency is the key to making vesting provisions work long term in a company.