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Here are 3 things you should do with your stock options

The best way you can get ahead is just by understanding how your stock options work, being prepared, and knowing what questions to ask your tax or financial professionals.
Vieje Piauwasdy Contributor Vieje Piauwasdy is the director of Equity Strategy at Secfi, an equity planning platform for startup executives and employees. More posts by this contributor

There’s a reason startup compensation packages usually include equity, or stock options. For one, it’s a way for startups to remain competitive in the job market and attract top talent. But it’s also a way to reward those employees who join early and give them a tangible reason to stay incentivized to grow the company.

The problem is that while many employees do understand that their equity compensation could mean a big payday in the future — and, in 2021, that’s more likely than ever — they don’t often understand the inevitable complexities of their stock options. That puts employees at risk of not getting the most value after an IPO or, worse, losing them.

If you’ve ever been confused about your equity, or haven’t thought much about it, you’re not alone. That’s why I’m going to share three things all employees joining a startup should do with their equity:

Understand how to value your equity — and when it can change

While many startups are getting better at proactively communicating the value of your equity package upfront, some are still figuring out the best way to do it. That’s because, unlike the more straightforward number of a salary, stock options are more nuanced — they’re a living, breathing type of compensation.

The most important pieces of information to pay attention to are your 409A valuation, your strike price, the type of options you were granted and the preferred share price.

The 409A valuation is based on your company’s valuation. This is also referred to as the fair market value (FMV). The 409A valuation can, and does, often change — they have to be updated at least once a year by a third-party valuator in order to meet tax rules. The 409A also changes during a fundraising event. Investors involved in the funding round determine how they value the company and are given options, at that valuation, in exchange for cash.

The most important pieces of information to pay attention to are your 409A valuation, your strike price, the type of options you were granted and the preferred share price.

Since the company has now been valued higher, the 409A changes for everyone. It’s also possible for the 409A to go down if, for any reason, the company is now valued at a lower amount. This is known as a “down round.” Airbnb had a notable down round during the pandemic, though it eventually recovered and went public.

Your strike price is the price at which you can buy your stock options (also known as exercising). Yes, buy. You are given the option to buy them, which is why they are called stock options. But know that your strike price will likely never change. However, if you’re ever given more stock options (perhaps as a future bonus), this would be a separate grant and the strike price could be different. Companies are legally required to issue stock options at the most recent 409A price (or higher).

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