Unlocking Company Value: Why OpenAI's $86 Billion Valuation Makes a Case for Offering RSUs

Casey Fenton


Ever scratch your head at how OpenAI reached that jaw-dropping $86 billion valuation? Sure, being at the cutting edge of AI technology helps, but let’s not overlook another ace up their sleeve: equity compensation.

This recent article reveals that OpenAI is contemplating selling employee shares, revealing their huge valuation in the process. Just how did OpenAI reach that number, and can you possibly reach that high of a valuation, too?

Equity Compensation and RSUs

Equity compensation serves as a crucial strategy for attracting, retaining, and motivating top-tier talent, aligning individual goals with company success.

Equity Compensation Basics

Equity compensation offers multiple benefits to employers including increased employee loyalty, enhanced alignment with company objectives, and the ability to attract top-tier professionals. OpenAI employs equity to incentivize world-class work in artificial intelligence.

The most popular types of equity compensation include:

  1. Stock Options
  2. Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)
  3. Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs)
  4. Performance Shares
  5. Restricted Stock Awards
  6. Stock Options and RSUs

Stock options offer employees the choice to purchase company shares at a predetermined price, providing a high-reward but also high-risk opportunity. In contrast, RSUs guarantee a set number of shares after a vesting period, with lower risk but also potentially lower upside.

For taxes, stock options are generally taxable upon exercise, while RSUs face taxation when they vest and become actual shares.

Why You Should Consider RSUs

RSUs offer employers several compelling advantages. Firstly, they provide a straightforward and predictable tax event. Upon vesting, the value of the shares becomes taxable income for the employee, making withholdings easy to navigate for the employer.

Secondly, RSUs allow companies to conserve cash, as they offer the promise of future ownership rather than immediate payouts. This can be a boon for startups and companies in growth phases, where liquid capital can be directed toward other strategic investments.

Lastly, and most critically, RSUs serve as a powerful tool for attracting and retaining top-tier talent. Offering employees a stake in the company's future creates a compelling incentive for them to contribute their best work, aligning their individual successes with those of the company.

This last advantage can be a cornerstone in achieving high company valuations, similar to how OpenAI leveraged its own form of equity compensation to attract world-class talent in AI, boosting its company valuation in the process.

Ready to delve into the specific role RSUs can play in becoming a magnet for talent?

The Magnet for Talent

Finding the right talent can feel like a high-stakes treasure hunt. RSUs might just be the treasure map leading you straight to the gold. From the competitive edge in hiring to the impressive effect on retention, let's explore how RSUs can be a magnet for top-notch talent.

The Competitive Edge in Hiring

RSUs can turn a standard job posting into the employment equivalent of a head-turning billboard. When word gets out that your company offers RSUs, you don’t just attract applicants; you magnetize the movers and shakers of the industry.

For instance, Google has long used RSUs to lure the brightest minds in tech. These candidates are not just looking for a good salary; they’re looking for a stake in a potentially high-growth venture.

Employee Retention and Satisfaction

RSUs aren’t a temporary flash in the pan; they have lasting impact. Think of companies like Amazon, where employees might start with a lower base salary but are offered generous RSU packages that vest over time.

This creates a “golden handcuff” effect: employees are financially incentivized to commit for the long haul, enhancing company culture and reducing turnover costs. A financial stake in the company’s future acts as a powerful glue, making staff think twice before jumping ship.

Real-world Examples

The OpenAI valuation isn't just a number; it’s a testament to a robust team, likely beefed up by a strong RSU program.

Another example to look at is Airbnb. Their IPO made headlines not just for its valuation but also for creating hundreds of employee millionaires overnight, thanks to RSUs.

And don't forget about Uber, which also used RSUs effectively to retain talent through its roller-coaster ride to success. These companies aren't anomalies; they’re the smart users of RSUs to build strong teams.

The Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

RSUs aren't a silver bullet; they come with their own set of challenges that need thoughtful navigation.

For instance, issuing too many RSUs can lead to stock dilution, reducing each stakeholder's piece of the corporate pie. But this isn't an insurmountable issue. There are several smart strategies to counterbalance the risks.

Managing Stock Dilution

A simple way to handle this is by setting a cap on the total number of RSUs issued.

Another method is to link RSUs to performance milestones, a tactic employed by companies like Tesla. Here, RSUs only vest when specific targets are reached, ensuring that any dilution is offset by an uptick in company value, benefiting everyone involved.

High Valuation Concerns

When companies like OpenAI experience astronomical valuations, the question arises: can they sustain it?

Offering RSUs as part of the compensation package places added pressure to maintain or increase that valuation. Falling short could lead to disillusionment among team members and, in extreme cases, an exodus of talent.

To avoid this, it's vital to pair RSUs with a robust business model and transparent communication about both the opportunities and risks.

Strategic Use of RSUs

RSUs should not be an afterthought or merely another box to tick off. They should be part of a comprehensive, strategic approach to talent management.

A well-crafted RSU program could be the cornerstone that sets your company apart in a competitive landscape.

Remember, RSUs can be both an asset and a liability, but with astute planning, the scales tip in favor of the former.

Next, want to know how to seamlessly integrate RSUs into your business strategy?

Building Company Value through RSUs

RSUs have the power to add layers of value to a company, acting as long-term investments that pay off for both employees and the organization.

Financial Upside for Employers

RSUs offer a way to conserve cash while still providing valuable compensation, allowing companies to reinvest that saved capital into areas like R&D and marketing. This can enable rapid growth and set the stage for successful market events like IPOs, as seen with X (what used to be Twitter).

Enhancing Company Culture

A vibrant company culture isn't just built on perks; it's about creating a sense of shared ownership and commitment.

RSUs play a role in this by giving employees a financial stake in the company's future, contributing to a productive and satisfied workforce, as exemplified by companies like Salesforce.

Metrics that Matter

Several key performance indicators can help gauge the success of an RSU program, such as employee turnover rates, satisfaction surveys, and changes in company valuation. While OpenAI doesn't use RSUs, their high valuation shows what can be achieved when a company effectively leverages an equity compensation strategy to attract and keep top-tier talent.

The Practical How-Tos

Implementing RSUs is not a one-and-done task; it requires ongoing attention.

Many companies incorporate RSUs into performance reviews, linking an individual's contributions directly to their equity stake. Regular evaluation and updating of the RSU program are necessary to ensure it continues to meet the evolving needs of both the company and its employees.

RSUs can be a key component in the toolkit for building a thriving company, and an effective equity strategy can propel you several steps closer to that ideal. So how do you go about setting up an RSU program?

Crafting an Effective RSU Program

Now that you're convinced of the merits of RSUs, the next big hurdle is implementing them effectively. Just like a gourmet meal, an RSU program requires the right ingredients and a dash of finesse. From legal concerns to clear communication, every detail counts.

Legal and Regulatory Considerations

A word to the wise: law is not an area for improvisation. Consider the case of Zenefits, which ran into hot water for not following securities and labor laws in their equity distribution.

Working with legal professionals, especially those experienced in labor law and securities, can help ensure that the RSU program doesn't breach federal or state regulations.

Vesting Schedules and Conditions

The vesting schedule is like the soul of your RSU program. Should they vest over three years or four? With a cliff or without?

Decisions like these shape how enticing your program will be to current and future employees. For instance, Facebook initially popularized the four-year vesting schedule with a one-year cliff, setting an industry standard.

International Employees and RSUs

Got team members across international waters? It’s a different ball game. Countries like Germany have very different taxation laws concerning RSUs, and Japan has restrictions around foreign equities.

International law firms often provide services that specialize in these intricacies. So, before rolling out RSUs globally, make sure to cross those T's and dot those I's.

Communication is Key

Ever get a gadget you have no idea how to use? And then you turn to the manual and it’s in a language you can’t understand? Imagine that, but with RSUs.

That’s why communication is vital. Transparency is more than just a buzzword; it’s the cornerstone of a successful RSU program.

Make sure to clarify the what, why, and how of your RSU program to the team. A number of businesses offer workshops on the basics of equity to ensure all team members are well-informed.

Wrapping Things Up

RSUs are a multifaceted tool employed by companies of various sizes, including household names like OpenAI, which has garnered an impressive valuation. The valuation of OpenAI showcases the positive impacts of carefully executed equity strategies, although their approach might differ from RSUs. These serve as a testament to the effectiveness of equity compensation in attracting and retaining exceptional talent and facilitating company growth.

Still contemplating the move? Consider RSUs as the premium ingredient that could elevate your company. It could be the defining factor that attracts employees capable of significantly boosting your valuation and growth, akin to how OpenAI attracted talent to reach its valuation milestone.

It's time to turn contemplation into action. Consult financial and legal advisors to determine how RSUs can enhance your organization's compensation framework. The investment is not just strategic but potentially transformative.

And if you want accessible, affordable, and proven support in planning your RSU strategy, drop us a message. Let’s start boosting your valuation today.

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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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