409A Valuations: Everything A Startup Founder Needs to Know

Casey Fenton

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December 13, 2023

As a startup founder, you will likely encounter something called a 409A valuation. Understanding this valuation method is essential not only to ensure compliance with tax laws but also to properly value your company's stock options. Like with any other business financial aspect in most private companies and even public, understanding a company’s valuation process is necessary to avoid negative legal repercussions such as incurring tax penalties and for 

In this article, we will explore key concepts, best practices recommended by legal counsel, and compliance requirements related to 409A valuation.

What is a 409A valuation used for?

409A valuations determine the fair market value of privately-held company equity in accordance with IRS regulations. Companies do this when they issue stock options or other equity compensation to employees or service providers.

The purpose is to ensure that the exercise price of stock options is not less than the fair market value of the underlying stock on the grant date and to avoid penalties under the Internal Revenue Code.

A 409a valuation is generally performed by independent third party appraisers using certain valuation methodologies. The choice of valuation method is critical in determining the accuracy and reliability of the 409A. Hence, to a valuation provider, a reasonable valuation method is one that is based on industry standards, financial statements of the company, market conditions, comparable company analysis, and other relevant factors.

409A and the Fair Market Value

One of the key concepts in a 409A valuation is the determination of the fair market value (FMV) of the equity of privately held companies, such as stock options and RSUs. FMV is defined as the price at which the property (in this case, the company's equity) would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller, both having reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts and neither being under any compulsion to buy or sell.

The fair market value is a critical element in a 409A valuation, as it serves as the benchmark for setting the exercise price of stock options and other equity-based compensation. The Internal Revenue Code requires that stock options be granted at an exercise price that is not less than the FMV of the underlying stock on the grant date. This requirement is in place to prevent companies from granting options with an artificially low exercise price, which could result in tax implications and tax penalties for the option recipients.

Determining the fair market value of the equity of privately held companies, including for stock option grants, can be challenging, as there is no readily available market price for the stock. Also, the valuation date is an important factor in the process, as it serves as the reference point for determining the FMV or the company's stock price.

Unlike publicly traded companies, whose stock prices are determined by market forces, privately-held companies do not have the benefit of a public market to establish the equity value. As a result, a 409A valuation requires the use of a specialized valuation methodology to estimate the FMV of the company's stock.

Valuation Methods

To a valuation firm hired by a private company, the choice of suitable valuation methodologies for determining FMV depends on various factors, including the stage of the company's development, the industry in which it operates, financial standing, and other relevant factors.

Five primary methods can be used to value a company in a 409A valuation: the market approach, the income approach, the asset approach, and 

1. Income Approach 

The income approach involves estimating the present value of the company's expected future cash flows, taking into consideration the risk associated with achieving those cash flows, including positive cash flow generated by the company's operations.

The underlying premise of the income approach is that the value of an investment is determined by the present value of the expected future cash flows it is expected to generate. The higher the expected future cash flows of the private company, and the lower the discount rate applied, the higher the estimated value of the investment.

2. Market Approach

The market approach involves comparing the company to similar publicly traded or private companies that are comparable in terms of size, industry, and financial standing. 

This valuation method can be useful in valuing assets or investments for which there is a significant number of comparable assets or investments that have been sold or traded in the market and have the same value. It provides a benchmark or reference point based on the actual market transactions of similar assets or investments. 

However, it may have limitations if there are limited or no comparable assets or investments available, or if the market conditions have changed significantly since the comparable transactions occurred.

3. Asset Approach

The asset approach involves estimating the value of the company's tangible and intangible assets, such as property, inventory, intellectual property, and goodwill.

It's important to note that the determination of FMV in a 409A valuation is a subjective exercise that requires professional judgment and expertise. A credible and accurate FMV estimation is crucial in obtaining a defensible 409A valuation that complies with IRS regulations and avoids potential penalties. Therefore, it's essential to engage an independent third-party appraiser with experience in valuing privately held company equity to ensure a reliable and compliant 409A valuation.

4. Comparable Companies’ Method

Comparable Company Analysis (CCA) is commonly used in equity valuation and involves comparing the subject company to similar publicly traded companies on a public stock exchange in terms of financial ratios, multiples, and other valuation metrics. It provides a relative valuation based on the market performance of comparable companies.

In choosing a 409A valuation method, it is important to choose one that is appropriate for the company’s type, business model, or industry and its stage of development. Other standard methods include the discounted cash flow (DCF) method and precedent transaction analysis (PTA).

409a Valuation for Common Stock

When it comes to 409A valuations, the common stock of privately-held companies plays a crucial role. A private company’s common stock represents ownership in a company and is typically issued to founders, employees, and other stakeholders as equity-based compensation. It's important to determine the fair market value of common stock accurately to comply with IRS regulations and avoid potential penalties under the revenue code.

A 409A valuation for common stock involves estimating the fair market value of the company's common shares on the grant date of equity compensation, such as stock options or restricted stock units (RSUs). This valuation typically takes into consideration various factors, such as the financial performance of the company, industry trends, comparable company data, market conditions, and other relevant factors.

The valuation methodology used for the common stock may differ from other valuation methods, such as those used for preferred stock or other purposes. It may involve approaches such as the market approach, income approach, or other methods that are commonly used for determining the fair market price of common stock.

409a Valuation for Preferred Stock

In addition to common stock, preferred stock is another type of equity typically issued by privately held companies. Preferred equity usually has certain rights and preferences, such as priority in dividend payments or a liquidation preference, which can affect its value. Therefore, a separate valuation may be required for this stock when conducting a 409A valuation, especially if there has been a recent liquidity event such as a financing round or an acquisition, which may impact the FMV of this stock.

A 409A valuation for preferred stock involves determining the fair market value of the company's preferred shares on the grant date of equity-based compensation, such as a stock option or other forms of equity grants. This valuation may require a different approach compared to valuing common stock, as the characteristics and rights associated with preferred stock can impact its value.

The valuation methodology used for this stock may depend on factors such as the terms and preferences of this stock, the financial performance of the company, industry trends, comparable company data, market conditions, and other relevant factors. It may involve approaches such as the market approach, income approach, or other methods that are commonly used by an independent third party valuation firm for determining the fair market value of this stock.

Common Mistakes in 409a Valuations

A proper valuation process can be complex and time-consuming, and there are some common mistakes that startups or founders make in 409 valuations.

One common mistake is underestimating its cost. A valuation from an independent thirdy party can be pricey, and often startups underestimate how much it will cost.

As a result, they may spend more on the valuation than they had initially budgeted for. Another common mistake is failing to account for all of the company's outstanding equity, such as stock options and RSUs.

All too often, valuations only consider preferred shares and common shares are left out of the equation. This can lead to an inaccurate valuation, as common shares typically make up a significant portion of a company's stock.

Finally, another mistake sometimes made during a 409A valuation is using an inexperienced or unqualified valuation firm. It's essential to choose a reputable valuation firm that conducts independent third party valuation with years of experience with 409a to ensure an accurate valuation.

By avoiding these common mistakes, startups, and founders can ensure that they are getting what they need in a 409 valuation.

How Much Does a 409a Valuation Cost?

For early stage companies, typically range from $5,000 to $15,000. For more established companies, this can range from $20,000 to $50,000.

409A valuation costs generally include the cost of the valuation report and any associated consulting fees. The cost will vary depending on the complexity of the company's equity-based compensation plan and the number of employees that need to be valued.

What happens if you don't get a 409a valuation?

If a company does not have a 409a valuation, there could be consequences. For one, the Internal Revenue Code could impose significant tax penalties for non-compliant equity plan offerings.

In addition, the company could be subject to increased scrutiny from investors and lenders. Without a 409a valuation, it may also be difficult for the company to attract new investments or secure loans.

As a result, not having a valuation can affect a company's ability to operate effectively and efficiently.

Why is an Independent Appraisal for 409A Valuation Necessary?

One of the key requirements for a 409A valuation is that it must be based on a reasonable application of a reasonable valuation method and performed by an independent third party appraiser. This requirement is particularly important for most early stage companies, as the valuation will have implications for income tax purposes, specifically related to the option strike price for stock option grants.

Most startups and later stage companies rely on an independent appraisal to establish the FMV of their common stock for 409A valuation purposes. An independent appraisal is typically conducted by a qualified and experienced appraiser that specializes in valuing privately-held companies.

The valuation agency will use various valuation methods, such as the option pricing model, income-based approaches, market-based approaches, or other methods, depending on the circumstances and stage of the company's development. Financial projections, historical financial progress, market conditions, and recent material event such as a fundraising round or acquisitions may also be taken into consideration.

For most companies, the valuation process may include a review of the company's financial statements, including net income, gross income, and other relevant financial metrics. The firm may also consider the company's business model, market position, competitive landscape, and other factors that may impact the value of the company's stock.

In some cases, the company appraiser may apply safe harbor valuation methods, such as the sufficient revenue or prior year's vested options safe harbor methods, to simplify the valuation process and reduce the risk of IRS challenges. These safe harbor valuation methods provide a deemed compliant valuation, which may be used to establish a tax free basis for non-qualified deferred compensation related to stock options.

It's important for companies to engage a qualified and independent appraiser to perform the 409A valuation, as it helps ensure compliance with IRS regulations and provides a defensible valuation in case of an IRS audit. Proper valuation can also help establish a fair and appropriate option strike price, which can align the interests of employees with the long term wealth creation goals of the company.

409A Valuation Tips

There are a few things to keep in mind when getting a 409a valuation done for your startup:

1. Make sure that you engage a third-party appraiser that is qualified based on IRS standards (e.g., the appraiser must have the necessary knowledge, expertise, and educational qualification and training). Using an unqualified appraiser could invalidate your valuation.

2. Be aware of the different methods used to value your company's stock. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, so you'll need to choose the one that best suits your company's situation, including its stock options and RSUs.

3. Don't forget to update regularly. As your company grows and changes, so will the value of your common stock. A yearly updated valuation will help ensure that your stock options are pretty priced and compliant with IRS rules.

As you can see, getting a 409A valuation can be costly, complicated, and confusing. In some types of equity plans such as Upstock’s restricted stock units (RSUs), a 409 valuation may not be necessary for certain circumstances or, if needed or deemed ideal, it could be delayed on a later date. 

If you want to know more about how Upstock’s RSUs can possibly avoid 409a complications, you can book a call with us here

Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog post does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal, business and/or investment  advice. All information, content, and materials are for general informational purposes only. Information on this website may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information, and accessing this information does not generate attorney-client privilege.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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