On this episode, Rob talks through profit sharing, stock options, and equity and makes a comparison between these various approaches.
If you are thinking of ways to incentivize team members as a bootstrapper, this episode is for you.
The topics we cover
[07:52] Equity Grants
[11:47] Stock Options
[20:09] Profit Sharing
[26:09] Which is best for your SaaS?
Links from the show
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If you have questions about starting or scaling a software business that you’d like for us to cover, please submit your question for an upcoming episode. We’d love to hear from you!
Turns out, the rumors are true. This is Startups For the Rest of Us episode 519. Thanks for joining me again this week. I’m going to be running a solo adventure today, talking through profit sharing, stock options, and equity, and doing a comparison of those various with the thought of incentivizing employees and team members in mind. This is the conversation I have had at least five times and maybe six in the past three months, so I figured it was time to put some thoughts to tape so it’s a resource I can use to point people in the future.
If you’re thinking about whether as a bootstrapped or mostly bootstrap startup founder, whether to set up a profit-sharing plan to offer stock options to do equity grants or to just pay bonuses or other ways to incentivize your team members, that’s what I’ll really be working through today.
First, I got a couple of the best podcast reviews I think we’ve ever had. The first one is from BrettxKelly via Apple Podcast, and he said, “Rob is the Chuck Norris of bootstrap founders. Thanks for all you do, Rob.” I really appreciate that, Bret. I appreciate the sentiment and the creativity of it.
The other one, the subject line is, “The podcast that changed my life. This podcast was instrumental in my journey from a blah day job to a successful tech founder. Rob and Mike for the first 450 episodes (or so) bring useful, actionable advice every week. I also really appreciate the honest delivery with none of the radio DJ sliminess that so many podcasts seem to embrace.”
Thank you so much for those reviews, and if you haven’t left us a five-star review in Apple podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you partake of this show, I would really appreciate it because it definitely helps keep us motivated and it helps bring more listeners to the show.
Next, I wanted to mention hey.com. I’ve mentioned in the past that Basecamp is a headline partner with MicroConf and in partnership with MicroConf, I have had a few Basecamp ads on the show. We are switching those up, and are now for hey.com. If you’re listening to this podcast, you may have heard of it.
If you go to hey.com, you’ll essentially see that the folks at Basecamp have created an entirely new email service, and they say it’s “email’s new heyday. Email sucked for years. Not anymore — we fixed it. HEY’s fresh approach transforms email into something you want to use, not something you’re forced to deal with.”
Hey allows you to screen your emails like you screen calls. You can fix bad subject lines without busting threads, easily find your most important emails every time you log in. They have a built-in reply later workflow that was built from the ground up, and they block email tracking pixels among many, many other things.
I know many of you listeners are already using hey.com, but if you have not checked it out, head over to hey.com and you can try it free. Thanks to Basecamp and Hey for supporting independent startups, MicroConf, and Startups For The Rest of Us.
Let’s dive into our topic for today. As I said at the top of the show, I’m going to be talking through profit sharing, stock options, and equity. I touched on bonuses real quick just as a side note because it occurred to me as I was writing this outline that I should probably address that.
I had this conversation a bunch of times in the past three, four months, and have sent out a bunch of thoughts via email to folks. And I realized, if I just gathered those thoughts, put the bullets on paper, and talked it through that I can probably create, hopefully, an evergreen resource for folks who are thinking about motivating their team members.
I should be really clear that I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an accountant. Do not consider this legal tax advice or any kind of tax advice other than things I have learned from my own experience dealing with these types of incentive programs.
I’d also like to point out that I actually had a conversation with Dru from Trends.vc. If you haven’t checked out Trends.vc, Dru is putting out two reports a month on different trends he’s seeing in the startup space, the bootstrapping space, and he’s creating insightful reports and thoroughly thought out reports. I believe the reports are $20 each if you want to buy the paid version. Each one has a free version, or you can just subscribe for a nominal fee per year. I’m a premium subscriber.
He and I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago when he was preparing his report on profit sharing. If you haven’t checked that out, head to Trends.vc and you can pay a one-off $20 to read his report that’s focused on profit sharing. But today I’m going to be talking about profit sharing, stock options, equity, and touch a little bit on bonuses.
Let’s start with this first question of, I have one, five, ten team members. Why should I give them anything beyond just a salary or their hourly rate anyway? The idea is to align incentives. It’s to motivate people, not just by giving them amazing work to do every day, but to give them a financial incentive to really stick around.
Some people look at it as a retention incentive to not go elsewhere if they can do the same work and make more money. Others look at it as a way to make people just enjoy their jobs more or want to work a little harder and put in some extra hours because they feel like they can make a difference.
There’s a lot of different ways to do it, and of course, this is not a requirement. Giving bonuses or profit-sharing isn’t a requirement, but I personally feel like if your team is cohesive and is working hard to get the same end goal and you are creating profit, creating value, creating wealth. To me, it does feel right (in some way) to share that with your team members.
The first question of why not just give bonuses? Well, you can, and maybe in the early days, that’s something to think about. The big downside to that is oftentimes, bonus programs are pretty arbitrary. You’ve really just had to make a call and say you get a few thousand, here you get $5000, you get two weeks of pay at the end of the year or whatever.
It can feel a little squishy if you try to do this overtime for many years. People can feel like they get left out or they play favorites. Or if they talk among one another, they can feel like perhaps you’re giving more money to someone who doesn’t deserve it. You also don’t want to reinvent the wheel every year. You don’t want to have to reevaluate every year who gets how much bonus and why. As I said, it can feel or even be arbitrary.
In addition, there have been lawsuits from employees of companies where they’re given bonuses every year and they come to count on those bonuses as part of their income and the employees won. I believe this was in California many years ago, so even using the word bonus can be dangerous if you do it year in, year out.
If I were a brand new startup, I had one or two employees, and I wasn’t able to give a bonus one year or maybe two before I got something really structured in place, that’s probably okay. It’s a risk tolerance thing, but it can be dangerous long-term in terms of people to become reliant on it. And if there’s no formula (so to speak) of how to calculate that, which is what profit sharing and the others give you a formula or it’s a set thing that you don’t have to keep rethinking about and reinventing.
Lastly, bonuses are tough because incentives aren’t exactly aligned, are they? Something about profit sharing that’s nice is if the company doesn’t churn a profit that year, people don’t get the profit sharing. Whereas if a company doesn’t turn a profit and you don’t give bonuses, people can be really angry, and they can blame management or their owners. Or they can say it’s mismanagement, and you spent too much money on whatever thing that they don’t like. Therefore, we didn’t get bonuses because we didn’t get a profit.
Bonuses, I think, have a time and place. I think these days, profit sharing or stock options are actually probably better ways to go.
The second thing I want to touch on is equity, and I’m going through this almost in a reverse order of which I think you shouldn’t do. The reason equity is tough, meaning if you just give 1% of your company to the first employee or 3% to the CEO you bring in. Equity grants are not stock options. These are equity grants where you are literally giving a portion of the company. They are taxable on the current value of the company.
While that can be arbitrary, if you have a company—SaaS companies that are doing millions in revenue and you’re trying to give someone 1% of it, the IRS is not going to believe you when they file that the value of that 1% is $1000. You can have serious taxable events if you are given a substantial amount of equity or even an insubstantial amount (to be honest) if the company is large enough.
Now, I will say, if you run a services business, oftentimes—if you run an accounting firm or a legal firm—those can tend to have buy-ins, whereas you come up to become a partner, they value the business. They say, okay, you need to buy 5% or 10% of this business, and you have to buy-in that amount over the course of years. The partners are (in essence) taking that money out.
That’s not a taxable event for the person buying in, that’s different. It’s not an equity grant, that’s just buying into a business, and that is a model. Professional services usually use that model. I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about you’re running a SaaS company and you’re considering just granting equity to someone.
Aside from it being a taxable event based on the current value of the company. Assuming you are running a pass-through entity like an LLC in the United States, if you give someone equity, they now get a K-1 at the end of each year, which makes their taxes more complicated. And if they have never dealt with a K-1, they’re maybe going to want to hire an accountant to do it.
You can imagine this isn’t a big deal if it’s two founders of a company, but what if it’s 20 or 30 employees that you want to incentivize? You’ve suddenly complicated everyone’s taxes. That’s not an ideal outcome.
Another thing to think about is whether you are an LLC or a Corp, you need to have restricted units that vest over time. This would be, even with an equity grant, I wouldn’t tend to just give someone 1% or 3% right at the start. Typically, you have a four-year vesting period, and there’s an initial one-year cliff where they have to work for a year before they get any of the equity. And at that point, they get 25% and then vest it over the three years. That’s the most common approach. Obviously, talk to a lawyer to get specifics.
The interesting part about equity is it does make profit-sharing easy because if someone owns 5% equity and you take out a distribution, then they get 5% of that distribution. It’s simple. It’s tried and true. Equity has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is simple in that respect, but honestly, there can be a danger too.
Let’s say you have an LLC. It makes $500,000 in profit that year, and you’ve given 1% equity to a key employee. Even if you haven’t’ pulled money out, it’s still in the LLC bank account. They get a K-1 for 1% of that $500,000, which will only be $500,000. But in essence, they would then have an income tax bill of $5,000 even though no money came out of it.
Equity makes things complicated. I’ll just put it that way. Know what you’re getting into. To me, equity is for founding employee type folks. If you have co-founders, you know what you are getting into. Straight equity with some vesting is something that a lot of us do. That’s how it’s normally done. But for employee incentives and aligning incentives, I don’t think personally it’s the best way to go.
One last note, if you hold equity for less than a year, it’s short term capital gains. And if you hold it longer for a year, then it’s long term capital gains. That’s one of the best parts of it is if you do have an exit, whether you sell your shares or whether the whole company gets acquired, you do get that nice capital gains treatment. Instead of essentially paying income tax levels on it, you pay 15% or 20%. There’s a much nicer basis there or there’s a much nicer tax outcome. Those are my thoughts on equity incentives.
Let’s move on to stock options, which are the standard Silicon Valley way to motivate folks above and beyond their salary. A stock option is just an option to purchase stock in the company. It’s a specific amount. You’ll say you have 10,000 options. It means you have an option to purchase 10,000 shares at a particular price called the strike price, and that’s set each year by a company’s filing with the IRS.
That strike price is usually quite a bit less than their last funding round. It doesn’t always wind up being that way, but what they say is, okay, you’re starting with us today. Here’s 10,000 options. You have to work for a year. […] Work a year, then you get $2500. And then each month after that, you get essentially 1/36 of the remaining amount up to four years. They typically give you another big chunk of options to keep you retained so you’re always working to just build that up.
A lot of folks don’t exercise their options. They just keep them around, and as long as you’re working at the company, you can just wait until there’s a liquidity event. Of course, the downside of that is paying short-term capital gains on it.
The good news about stock options is there are no capital gains to worry about. If you grant someone options, there’s no real value to them because essentially there’s an option to purchase at the price the company was worth when you’re given the option, so that’s not a taxable event. And they don’t receive a K-1 that complements their taxes, since they’re just an option to buy a share in the future.
It’s actually not owning equity, and there’s no profit sharing unless you would execute the option. They’re designed to payout if you have a liquidity event like going public or being acquired. I guess if you had options in an LLC, it wouldn’t be called stock because there’s no stock in an LLC but unit options, and then you exercise holding those. In theory, if the LLC took a dividend or distribution, you could get that. It’s a very uncommon scenario, and I don’t think people would typically go for that.
The other interesting thing about options is there’s usually this exercise window where if you leave the company and you haven’t exercised any of your options, you usually have about three months. And if you don’t buy the options, they just revert back to the company and you get nothing. I don’t really like that. I actually disagree with that. I don’t think it’s super ethical. I feel like that window should be much, much longer—one, two, three years—and there is a push for that to get longer because it kind of screws employees.
You think about an employee who comes in and they’re going to get 10,000 shares at a $2 strike price. That’s $20,000 worth of options. They work for the company for the full four years, and then they leave. They have this $20,000 that they could purchase. Maybe they don’t have that much in cash, or maybe it’s not a gamble that they can make at that time. But maybe the company sells or goes public a year or two later at $10 a share.
It’s a big gamble for some people to make, and I feel like having a longer time to evaluate that and a longer time to be able to purchase options feels to me like a better way to do it, a more fair way to do it.
The last thing before I tell you my own story about an experience with stock options is that if you exercise your options, you pay the money, then you own the stock in essence. Usually, it’s restricted stock, but it depends on if the company is private. It often has restrictions that you can’t sell it for a certain time.
But if the company is private, then you are typically just holding stock that you can’t sell. If they’re public, you can typically execute and then sell the same day or the same week. You then pay short-term capital gains on any gains that you get. You pay income tax. What I have heard about are folks who have enough money that they’ll exercise them. Hold them for a year, hope that the stock is still higher than when they exercise, and then you get long-term capital gains treatment on that.
My own story with stock options is back in probably about 15 years ago, I was a lead developer and a technical lead for an early prepaid credit card company in LA. We got options and I worked there—I got X thousand options granted, and I only stayed there for 2 years before I went out on my own.
I got half the options that were granted, and when I left, I had to make the decision within 60 or 90 days. Do I buy these? I did, I bought them all. I wound up spending under about $10,000, which is quite a bit of money for me at the time. I figured, hey, it’s a gamble. Maybe it’ll turn out.
Within a year or two of leaving, they raised another round of funding. They didn’t go public, but they allowed people who owned stock to sell a certain percentage of it. I don’t believe I sold any in that offering, but I did sell a little later for about half of it for 10X gain, and then another half for between 10X and 20X gain. It was several hundred thousand dollars, which was obviously really nice at that point in my life. We used a big chunk of it as a down payment on a house, then a chunk of it to fix the roof on the said house, and fix a bunch of other stuff that was broken. Don’t get me started on homeownership. But all in all, it was a good outcome.
If I had stuck around another 2 years I could have made double the money. But I’ve always thought, those were the years that I really cranked up on entrepreneurship. I started writing my book. I built the Micropreneur Academy. It was some early-day stuff. There were a lot of opportunity costs that probably wouldn’t have been worth it.
But my experience with stock options is that one experience. They did later go public, and I actually sold the last of my shares after they went public. My experience, of course, was positive. The reality is in almost all cases, there is no liquidity […]. Most startups fail. Most venture-funded startups fail, and so most venture-funded stock options really aren’t worth it. They just aren’t worth the money, aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on (so to speak).
That’s the reality of gambling on startups. We know that as founders. That it’s dangerous and that it comes with risk. I think it’s harder as an employee when you have so much less control over the company and over the success of it. But these are your choices that you have to make as an employee.
Now, as a founder, as a CEO, if you’re going the Silicon Valley route, you’re raising a big round of venture funding, and you’re doing the Delaware C-corp, stock options are the standard way. If you did anything else, people would look at you funny. I think with bootstrap startups, you can do this.
I think a big question is stock options typically aren’t worth much unless you plan to have a liquidity event, and that doesn’t mean sell or go public necessarily. You can sell shares on a secondary market. Future employees can buy them back. Founders can buy them. There can be some type of liquidity events that can happen. You could take just a minority investment even at some point if you wanted to provide liquidity for employees with a stock option pool.
The bottom line is most startups and most SaaS apps do sell at some point. The vast majority, they do sell within whatever timeframe we could define, 7-10 years. There are very few bootstrappers who are still running the same SaaS product that they were running 10 years ago. That is a reality to think about is there may likely be a liquidity event even if you don’t particularly plan on it today.
I think stock options are a reasonable choice. I hate to even make a recommendation for or against. I think they’re a longer-term play for sure because they do require that liquidity to be worth anything versus profit-sharing, which is more short-term cash out of the business type approach.
But frankly, if you’re not going to pull cash out of the business, if you’re in a high growth market—I think about when we were growing Drip—we weren’t pulling cash out of the business. If we had implemented profit sharing, people would have wanted us to become profitable. The goal at that point was not to be profitable yet, it was to keep growing. In that sense, I think a better motivating or incentive alignment would have been through the use of stock options, even though that can feel weird.
I think about an LLC having stock options, and it’s totally possible to set up a structure like that, but it can feel a little different than the typical C-corp setup. Again, I want to reiterate that not only am I not a lawyer or an accountant, but there are just a lot of pros and cons to these things. If there were one right answer, then everyone would choose to do that. It just depends on the situation and the specifics of the type of company you’re trying to build and how you’re building it. If it’s going to be profitable in the short-term versus long-term, and how you want to structure things for yourself.
Lastly, let’s talk about profit sharing. What’s nice about profit sharing is if you don’t ever plan on selling or having liquidity events, then money and profit distribution make sense. It’s what real businesses are built on. Real businesses sell real products to real customers. To me, again, it makes sense to share those in some form or fashion that the employees and the team members who are building that company with you get to share in some form or fashion.
One drawback to profit-sharing that you don’t see with the other approaches is that if an employee leaves, they don’t take the profit-sharing with them. It ends when their tenure with your company ends. It’s not like having equity or stock options where you can hold onto these things for a future gain. I left that credit card company two, three years before it went public. But I had that lasting piece of equity that I had exercised. It’s maybe not as ideal for employees who want to leave, which works as an incentive to keep them there but can also be a bummer for folks when they leave.
One thing I would think about if I were structuring profit sharing is to make it a pool, not a committed percentage to an individual. That’s a mistake you can make with an early employee is to say, oh, you get 1%, 2%, or 3% of profits. I would think more about, hey, let’s have a 10% profit sharing pool, and all key employees share in that, or all employees share in that.
Such that as you add more people, obviously, that first employee’s percentage of the whole chunk will go down. But ideally, the company should be growing, and these individuals should be contributing to that. If you’re going to do profit sharing, you probably want to stay away from being a C-corp because that’s going to give you double taxation, so you’re going to want to be in a pass-through entity.
Again, I mentioned Trends.vc at the top of the show, but there’s a really good report that Dru put together over there talking about the ins and outs of profit sharing. The best article I’ve ever seen written on profit sharing is from Peldi Guilizzoni. He wrote about the profit-sharing that he designed for Balsamiq. We’ll link that up in the show notes. But he basically said, they started off with a 10% pool—10% of the profits. I believe each quarter was distributed, and then he moved that to 15% at a certain point, years into the company. Now he’s up to 20%. I love that range right there. That feels really solid to me. To be honest, that 10%-15% stock option pool is also the standard size that a Silicon Valley startup would have.
That number does ring in that zone that I feel personally comfortable with. From Peldi’s article, one thing he talks about is they do quarterly distributions, which is probably what I would do if I was going to do it because if you do monthly, it’s too often. It’s just too much paperwork. If you do yearly, then people wait around and it’s bonus season. People will stay past that mark.
If they’re unhappy, they collect the profit sharing for the year, and then they take off. I don’t like that gap. It should be 3 or 6 months tops. But Peldi says, “Our quarterly bonus program allocates 20% of profits to full-time employees: 25% is split equally and 75% is split based on seniority, then it’s all weighed by the cost of living in each location.”
That’s how he structures it, and I do like that there’s a part split equally. There’s a part split by seniority. I have also heard of folks doing it based on the amount of salary people make, and then not having that cost of living of your location factor in because that’s already factored in.
One thing I would stay away from personally is using performance evaluations as some type of thing that affects profit sharing. That can be dangerous as different managers across a company might rate people differently. Basically, you should have A-players on your team, and if not, then they need to be let go in essence. If someone is performing at a subpar rate, then you need to be addressing that rather than essentially docking a bonus because there’s a lot of ways that this can backfire. Personally, I would not be including employee performance as a part of the criteria.
One drawback of profit sharing is that it’s really always taxed as income. It’s a big hit. If you’re talking about, you’re in the 33%, 35%, or 40% tax bracket, and you get a chunk every 3 months in essence, that’s a big difference versus if you were drawing out dividends. I guess through a C-corp, you’d pay double tax on it anyway. Or if you had a stock that you were able to sell, that long-term cap gains is a really big difference, and it can make a really big difference in the tax bill. But that is what it is.
Profit-sharing is cash. It’s a short-term motivator. I shouldn’t say short-term because it can motivate people over the long-term, but it really does allow employees to focus on not only growing the top line but potentially looking at reducing expenses, which the profit is obviously the revenue minus expenses.
I do think that a lot of folks in your company can impact the net profit that it has. If they’re thinking about their share of that, it does a pretty good job of aligning those incentives in a way that perhaps stock options are pretty nebulous.
Why is the stock worth more? Well, it’s typically worth more when someone buys the company or when you raise that next funding round. Is me saving $2000 a month on our AWS bill going to really impact the value of my stock options? It’s very unlikely versus profit sharing. You can see the money hit the Excel spreadsheet, the Google Doc, and you could see how it could literally trickle down to not only the company’s bottom line, but then to your own.
Some companies have folks vest into profit sharing or not be eligible for the first 6 or 12 months. I don’t think that’s unreasonable much in the same way that many companies have a waiting period to get on health insurance or to start a 401(k). This is another perk that makes sure the person’s a fit for the team, that the team is a fit for the person, and then evaluate getting them set up with all of the benefits.
These days, if I was going to evaluate these approaches for my own SaaS startup, I would think about whether I was going to be able to run it profitably. Obviously, profit sharing might be the choice then. Think about whether I was going to grow this and sell it, or have a liquidity event at some point. Then obviously, stock options might be a better opportunity.
Again, I think bonuses can be useful in the early days, but personally, they’re a little too arbitrary and can create a little bit too much chaos or just reinventing the wheel syndrome every year to personally be my favorite for having to run it long-term. And then equity, obviously, I mentioned, if it’s founder-level folks, then you can talk about that. But there are a lot of complexities there—taxable events, K-1s, and all that—that I don’t think scales to a full workforce.
Thanks again for joining me this week as I talked through different ways to incentivize your team members. If you have thoughts or comments on this episode, please give me a shout out on Twitter, @robwalling and @startupspod. I will talk to you again in your earbuds next Tuesday morning.