Your Questions Answered: How Do I Use Equity To Attract Workers?‍

Casey Fenton


Building a dream team isn't all about recruitment where you keep finding the perfect blend of skills and personalities. When it comes to talent acquisition, you need a magnetic force: one that attracts commitment, growth, and shared success. 

Enter equity. Offering a slice of the pie, from stock options to profit-sharing, can be the game-changer that pulls top talent through your door and keeps them fiercely loyal. But how do you wield this powerful tool effectively? Read on to answer the burning questions about using equity to attract, retain, and incentivize your workforce.

Does Every Startup Need an Equity Plan?

While equity can be a powerful recruitment tool, the decision to offer it requires careful consideration. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution, and several factors influence its effectiveness for your specific startup.

For bootstrapped startups in their initial phases, offering equity can be significant. With limited cash resources, equity becomes a competitive advantage, attracting ambitious individuals willing to share the entrepreneurial journey and potentially reap significant rewards if the company succeeds. It fosters a culture of shared ownership and aligns employee interests with the company's long-term success.

Meanwhile, with access to funding, later-stage startups might have more flexibility with salary and benefits but remain competitive by offering equity alongside. It retains key talent and incentivizes further commitment, especially as the company faces larger challenges and opportunities.

Still, a consideration is when dealing with competitive fields like tech or fintech, equity becomes almost expected, with potential employees comparing packages across companies. Offering a well-structured plan becomes vital to attracting the best talent.

In some markets, salary might be the primary motivator. However, even in these scenarios, a well-crafted equity plan can attract high-performing individuals seeking long-term growth potential and shared success.

For startups aiming for rapid scaling, equity aligns perfectly with their vision. It attracts individuals who thrive in a dynamic environment and are motivated by potential long-term gains.

Some startups prioritize smaller, consistent growth and long-term stability. While equity might still be valuable, the structure and focus might differ, possibly emphasizing vesting schedules and smaller, but guaranteed, rewards.

But don't underestimate the power of a strong base salary and attractive benefits package. While equity can be a differentiator, a competitive overall compensation package sets a strong foundation. Depending on your industry and target talent, consider offering non-traditional perks like flexible work arrangements, skill development opportunities, or even partial ownership of specific projects.

Ultimately, the decision to offer equity requires careful consideration of your specific context. Analyze your needs, industry landscape, and target talent pool.

How Much Equity Should I Give Away? 

Finding the sweet spot for equity allocation can feel like walking a tightrope. Give away too little, and you risk losing top talent to more generous competitors. Offer too much, and you dilute the ownership of your founders and early investors, potentially hindering future funding rounds. So, how do you strike the right balance?

✔ Industry Benchmarks

While not a definitive answer, industry benchmarks offer valuable starting points. Research typical equity allocations for companies in your stage and sector. This gives you a sense of the "market rate" for attracting talent in your space.

✔ Company Valuation

The stage and perceived value of your company heavily influence the amount of equity you can afford to give away. Early-stage startups with low valuations might offer larger percentages to compensate for lower salaries or limited funding. As your company grows and valuation increases, the percentage of equity required to attract talent can decrease.

✔ Talent Pool and Roles

Tailor your equity distribution based on the specific skills and experience you seek. Key leadership positions and critical roles might warrant larger allocations than entry-level positions. Consider offering tiered structures where equity percentages increase alongside seniority and performance.

✔ Retention and Motivation

Equity isn't just about attracting talent; it's also about keeping them invested in the company's success. Consider vesting schedules that gradually release equity over time, incentivizing long-term commitment. Performance-based bonuses can further align employee rewards with company goals and drive desired behaviors.

✔ Dilution and Investor Considerations

Be mindful of diluting ownership for founders and early investors. Excessive dilution or equity giveaways can make future funding rounds less attractive. Openly communicate your equity plan to investors, ensuring transparency and alignment with their expectations.

✔ Alternative Incentives

Consider supplementing equity with other competitive incentives. Attractive salaries, comprehensive benefits packages, and opportunities for professional development can make your offer even more enticing.

What Are the Different Types of Equity I Can Offer?

Stock options might be the classic equity offering, but they're not the only game in town. Depending on your startup's stage, goals, and target talent, several options can provide the flexibility and alignment you need to attract and retain top performers. 

1. Stock Options

The tried-and-true method, stock options grant employees the right to purchase company shares at a predetermined price or exercise price within a specific timeframe (option period). They incentivize long-term commitment as their value grows alongside the company's success. Two main types exist:

  • Incentive Stock Options (ISOs): Offer tax benefits as employees only pay taxes on the difference between the exercise price and the fair market value at the time of exercise. Popular with early-stage startups due to their tax attractiveness.

  • Non-qualified Stock Options (NSOs): No tax benefits, but offer more flexibility in terms of vesting schedules and exercise windows. Often used by later-stage companies with established valuations.

2. Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)

Grant actual shares of company stock to employees, albeit with vesting schedules to ensure long-term commitment. As shares vest, they become fully owned by the employee, offering a direct stake in the company's performance. Ideal for startups seeking to foster an ownership mindset and alignment with employees.

3. Performance Shares

Tie equity rewards to achieving specific performance milestones or goals. This incentivizes employees to drive strategic objectives and aligns individual success with the company's overall growth. Useful for startups with clear, measurable goals and a performance-driven culture.

4. Phantom Stock

Award virtual shares that track the company's performance without actual ownership. Employees receive a cash payout based on the share's value at a predetermined date, mimicking the potential gains of stock ownership without the legal complexities. Suitable for startups seeking to offer equity-like incentives without diluting ownership or dealing with complex share administration.

5. Profit-Sharing

Allocate a portion of the company's profits to employees, directly linking their compensation to the company's financial success. This fosters a collaborative culture and rewards hard work with tangible benefits. Can be structured as annual payouts or performance-based bonuses.

How Do I Make My Equity Plan Attractive?

A "one-size-fits-all" approach won't cut it. Understand the needs and aspirations of your target talent. For ambitious young guns, a focus on growth potential might be key. Seasoned veterans might prioritize immediate value and vesting schedules. Tailor your plan to resonate with your ideal candidates. Here, transparency is necessary. Communicate the terms and potential rewards of your equity program, avoiding ambiguity that could breed confusion and resentment.

How Do I Use Equity to Retain Top Performers?

Talent attraction is just the first hurdle. Retaining your star performers takes more than a hefty equity package at the starting line. It requires a careful approach that leverages equity as a continuous motivator, fostering long-term commitment and aligning individual success with the company's trajectory. Here's how to keep your top talent hooked with equity:

1. Go Beyond Vesting Schedules

While standard vesting schedules provide a baseline for retention, consider adding creative twists. Performance-based accelerators can reward exceeding expectations by shortening vesting periods and amplifying the impact of achieving goals. Similarly, cliff vesting, where a larger portion of shares vests after a longer initial period, can incentivize long-term commitment from the outset.

2. Performance Refreshers

Don't let the initial equity grant be the end of the reward story. Implement performance-based refreshers that award additional shares for consistently exceeding expectations. This keeps top performers engaged and motivated to push boundaries, driving continuous growth for both the individual and the company.

3. Equity Phantom Shares

For startups hesitant about diluting ownership, phantom shares offer a compelling alternative. They grant virtual shares tied to performance metrics, rewarding top performers with cash payouts based on achieving specific goals. This provides a tangible reward without impacting the company ownership structure.

4. Career Growth and Ownership

Top performers thrive on challenges and opportunities for advancement. Integrate equity rewards with career development initiatives. Offer equity-based bonuses for completing skill-building programs or achieving leadership milestones. This demonstrates your commitment to their growth and aligns their success with the company's future.

How Do I Manage the Tax Implications of Equity?

Equity comes with tax implications for both you and your employees. Seek professional guidance to ensure compliance and avoid any nasty surprises down the road. Openly communicate the tax implications of your equity plan, giving employees a clear picture of their potential rewards.

What If My Startup Fails?

Let's be honest, acknowledging the possibility of failure isn't the most cheerful aspect of running a startup. But when it comes to equity and employee expectations, facing reality is imperative. While no one wishes for it, understanding the impact of startup failure on employee equity ensures transparency and avoids potential disappointment down the line.

In a worst-case scenario, employee equity typically becomes worthless when a startup fails. If assets are liquidated to pay creditors, investors and secured lenders take priority, leaving little to nothing for unsecured creditors like employees with unvested equity. This is why equity shouldn't be solely relied upon for financial security.

Honesty and open communication are paramount. Clearly explain the potential risks and limitations associated with equity in your plan. Highlight that equity represents a shared journey with potential rewards alongside inherent risks. Emphasize that it's an additional incentive, not a guaranteed safety net.

While acknowledging the possibility of failure, shift the focus towards the mutual journey of building success. Frame equity as an opportunity to be part of something bigger, a chance to contribute directly to the company's growth and reap the rewards if it does succeed. This fosters a sense of shared ownership and responsibility, motivating employees to go the extra mile.

While preparing for potential failure, prioritize building a strong, resilient company. Implement sound financial practices, focus on sustainable growth, and actively pursue funding avenues to mitigate risk. Building a successful company is the best way to ensure everyone, including employees with equity, benefits from its achievements.

In certain situations, exploring alternative incentive structures alongside equity might be beneficial. Performance-based bonuses or profit-sharing tied to achieving specific goals can offer more tangible rewards in the present, even if the company doesn't reach long-term success. These options can add stability and mitigate the disappointment of unrealized equity during a failure.

Ultimately, acknowledging the potential for failure in the context of equity is an act of responsible leadership. By being transparent, fostering a shared sense of ownership, and building a resilient company, you can turn equity into a powerful motivator even in the face of unforeseen challenges.

Take note that your startup journey to offering equity doesn’t have to end with defeat and unfulfilled dreams. Upstock is here to make sure your startup flourishes and lives up to its vision through efficient equity plans tailored to your liking and company needs. The best of all? It currently offers your first two employees free equity! Head over to Upstock or book a demo today to find out more about this irresistible gift.

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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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