The startup founder's guide to employee equity compensation


Raising funds to sustain your startup’s mission along with developing and selling your unique idea are certainly pieces of the startup puzzle. That said, hiring and retaining employees is just as important. It is vital to recognize that roughly 65% of failed businesses attribute their downfall to poor employee management. 

Employee happiness is at the core of all compensation plans, equity-based or otherwise, and it’s key to never lose sight of this fact. Happy employees go a long way in building a healthy, productive, and united work environment. They can even spread the good word about your startup to potential hires, all setting you up for success.

To learn more about employee equity compensation and how you can achieve this, read on.

What is employee equity compensation?

Equity compensation is a highly effective tool for startup founders to attract and retain top talent while conserving cash. This is especially crucial for startups in all stages of growth, whether they're in the seed stage or Series A, B, or C, as cash is often limited and required to be used in other areas such as fundraising.

There are various types of equity compensation, with the most common being the following:

Why keeping employees happy is important

Utilizing compensation as a tool is crucial because your employees form the backbone of your startup's operations, ultimately determining whether your startup succeeds or fails. Nonetheless, at the heart of all equity compensation plans is employee happiness. Founders must always remember this because:

Employees form the backbone of a startup’s culture

It doesn't matter how many goals you set or how many hours you spend fine-tuning your startup's code of conduct because, at the end of the day, it is entirely up to your employees whether or not they choose to live and embody your vision

Employees often outnumber founders and form the backbone of any startup. Unless they feel valued, heard, and appreciated, they may not be as committed to helping establish a positive culture.

Employees can boost a startup’s reputation

Happy (and unhappy) employees are often the most vocal, highlighting the importance of ensuring their happiness. They can be an ambassadors for your startup, spreading positive sentiments about your company. It is always beneficial to have favorable things said about your startup than otherwise. 

From positive word-of-mouth referrals to glowing online reviews, content and satisfied employees play a crucial role in enhancing your startup's reputation. Their positive experiences and endorsements contribute significantly to improving your startup's standing within the industry and among the general public, ultimately bolstering your credibility and fostering trust.

Employees are more productive

Good equity compensation plans mean that employees are properly compensated, resulting in increased contentment. This often leads to a more motivated, productive, and engaged workforce.

This goes a long way in minimizing any bouts of discontentment and complaints regarding equity compensation. If mishandled, such issues can foster an environment of negativity, inequality, and distrust within your startup which will ultimately derail your startup's daily operations and jeopardize your mission.

3 benefits of good employee equity compensation

Saving cash is just the beginning when it comes to the comprehensive range of benefits offered by employee equity compensation. By compensating employees with equity, founders not only conserve cash, which can be used for other purposes but also offers employees a stake in the startup's future profits, aligning their efforts with the success of the company.

This is beneficial for startups for several reasons:

1. It fosters a sense of collective ownership

When you compensate employees with equity, you align the interests of your company with the interests of your employees. 

This goes a long way in forging a sense of collective ownership, whereby each employee's efforts directly contribute to their own success and the success of the startup. It encourages employees to think and act like founders, promoting accountability and teamwork, and overall creating a more cohesive work environment.

2. It attracts investors

Stability and a trajectory for long-term success are key factors potential investors tend to look for when making a decision on whether or not to invest in a startup. 

Accordingly, when investors see that your employees are motivated, productive, and aligned with your startup's objectives, it significantly strengthens confidence and trust among investors. This, in turn, makes them – both existing and potential investors – more willing to invest time and capital into your startup.

3. It retains human capital 

Properly implemented equity compensation practices significantly contribute to ensuring employees feel appropriately rewarded and valued. This not only incentivizes performance but also aids in talent retention, minimizing turnover and attrition to competitors. 

Hiring new employees and the associated onboarding and re-training processes are cost-intensive, making employee satisfaction and retention crucial for redirecting resources to more productive areas like fundraising.

Employee equity compensation best practices

Creating an employee equity compensation plan may appear straightforward, as it involves granting equity. However, designing an effective plan requires careful consideration.

Even seemingly minor choices can have significant consequences down the line, potentially leading to far-reaching impacts. That said, to avoid issues like this, consider the following best practices:

Fully utilize vesting and cliffs

Vesting and cliffs are effective tools for fostering alignment within a startup, uniting employee interests with the overall goals of the company. When implemented correctly, vesting ensures that employees receive appropriate rewards for their loyalty and contributions over time. 

Similarly, cliffs establish important milestones, such as performance targets, that employees understand they must achieve and work towards to unlock the benefits of their equity compensation plans.

Use cap table software

Cap table software can be leveraged for both planning and executing employee equity compensation plans. It offers a range of functionalities, including scenario modeling to visualize the impact of option pools, promoting transparency by providing visibility into equity holdings, facilitating the issuance of options, and managing ESOPs. 

By using cap table software, startups can ensure alignment and make informed decisions, fostering efficient and effective management of employee equity compensation as a whole.

Implement ESOPs and ESPPs

ESOPs and ESPPs offer numerous advantages when implemented properly. ESOPs can attract and retain top talent by providing long-term incentives through an ownership interest in the startup, fostering a sense of commitment and alignment. 

On the other hand, ESPPs allow employees to purchase shares at a discounted rate, offering a more immediate way to promote alignment and employee participation in the startup's success.

Consult external advice

Regardless of how well you know your product, team, or mission, there’s no practical way you’ll be able to cover all bases when compared to an expert in equity compensation, such as accountants, lawyers, and more.

Experts can provide a wealth of knowledge built from a career's worth of experience, along with valuable tips, guiding you through regulatory challenges, steering you away from pitfalls, and ultimately helping you make the best possible decisions when designing your equity compensation package.

3 key questions to ask yourself about your employee equity compensation package

Designing and implementing your startup's employee equity compensation package can be a tricky process, given the range of factors that have to be considered. Nevertheless, to help guide you through the process, you should ask yourself the following questions:

1. Have I studied the market and my competitors? 

Understanding the market and what your competitors are offering to employees is important for benchmarking your equity compensation package and ensuring your startup remains competitive. Failing to do so can result in the loss of talented employees, both existing and potential, who may decide to head towards greener pastures.

2. Have I carefully specified all relevant terms of your plan? 

Clearly specifying all relevant terms of your plan is crucial for avoiding misunderstandings and conflicts down the line. By clearly defining vesting schedules, exercise periods, and any other important provisions such as the number of shares to be used, you create transparency, trust, and a sense of fairness among your employees, ensuring everyone understands the terms of their equity grants.

3. Am I constantly updating the plan? 

Employee equity compensation plans are not static or set in stone. As your startup grows and onboards new employees, needs, requirements, and expectations will change, requiring you to adapt accordingly. Don't forget to frequently review your plan, ensuring you quickly identify and rectify any potential areas of improvement to keep your plan as competitive and attractive as possible.

Alternatives to note

Despite the utility of equity compensation, it’s important to remember that it is not the be-all-end-all for compensation. There are many non-equity-based alternatives out there that founders must be aware of and consider, balancing them alongside equity-based compensation.

Managing employee equity compensation

No two employee equity compensation plans will ever be the same. Each must be designed according to a startup's unique circumstances, goals, and mission. Accordingly, it's crucial for founders to remain light on their feet, constantly adapting their plans as situations come and go.

Ready to learn more about listing on the Long-Term Stock Exchange? 

Contact the listings team
The information contained above is provided for informational and educational purposes only, and nothing contained herein should be construed as investment advice, either on behalf of a particular security or an overall investment strategy. Information about the company is provided by the company, or comes from the companies’ public filings and is not independently verified by LTSE. Neither LTSE nor any of its affiliates makes any recommendation to buy or sell any security or any representation about the financial condition of any company. Statements regarding LTSE-listed companies are not guarantees of future performance. Actual results may differ materially from those expressed or implied. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investors should undertake their own due diligence and carefully evaluate companies before investing. Advice from a securities professional is strongly advised.