It is a buoyant workforce that inks the success story of any start-up. Employees leave no stone unturned to translate the business idea into reality, and founders also look for viable options to nurture and retain these team members. The most popular employee reward scheme is long-term incentivization through Employee Stock Option Plans or ESOPs.
Alok Bansal, a long-time entrepreneur and the Co-founder and CFO of PolicyBazaar, believes that ESOPs are the perfect way to compensate early teams in startups. He says,
Here are some basic pointers that founders should keep in mind while giving out ESOPs.
Flexibility in giving out ESOPs at different stages
The ESOP policy should be flexible, meaning that the structure of ESOPs should change according to the company’s financials, vision, and short and long-term goals. At the very start, ESOPs should aim at sharing ownership amongst early employees. This practice results in loyalty and creates value for employees who took the most risk in the long run. At later stages, ESOPs should be restructured to incentivize specialists (or top industry talent) to join and grow the business as well as ensure talent retention.
ESOPs – A just reward to drive fairness
The primary motive of ESOPs is to inculcate in team members a sense of ownership of the business as well as acknowledge stellar performance. It is, therefore, a common practice for founders while giving out ESOPs to employees or talent that has outperformed over a period of time. While employees joining at the earliest stage of the start-up should be presented with a higher ESOP stake than those who join later, benchmarking based on performance might be used to calibrate the allocation percentage.
Offering ESOPs in units & not in rupee value
ESOP has to be viewed from a long-term wealth creation perspective and therefore should not be given out or allocated in rupee terms or value but in unit value of stocks. What do we mean? Say, you gave INR 100,000 in ESOPs to Employee 1 on January 1, 2020, then close a fundraiser in February and have Employee 2 at a similar grade join you on March 1, 2020, and give him INR 100,000 in ESOPs. In effect, you have given Employee 2 a lesser stake due to his joining date; this might be seen as unfair from a longer-term rewards perspective.
Let’s take the example of Flipkart, which has been at the forefront of allocating ESOPs to employees across the organization; as far back as 2016, 40% of all Flipkart employees held ESOPs. In fact, reports suggest that the ESOP pool at Flipkart is worth well over $1.5 billion. But what makes Flipkart stand out is not just the doling out of ESOPs but the sustained focus over the years of creating ‘liquidity events’ at regular intervals for employees so that they don’t have to wait for an IPO or listing to cash out their ‘earnings.’ Since 2017 when the board first approved a $100 million ESOP buyback program to put real money into the hands of employees, Flipkart has actually run annual ESOP liquidity events.
Satheesh KV, Co-founder of Spottabl and the former senior director of HR at Flipkart who worked closely with Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal to craft and deploy the e-commerce company’s legendary ESOP policy, says,
Satheesh also adds that this annual ESOP buyback program helped employees truly value ESOPS as a reward and compensation tool instead of just looking at it as ‘paper money.’
A regular ESOP liquidity program also helps counter attrition and makes employees think twice about taking up offers from competitors. The limited point here is that founders and HR directors need to carefully craft their ESOP policy and keep updating it to ensure that they are doing right by the employees.
If you are looking for an easy-to-use tool to create your ESOP policy and manage ESOPs for your team, check out trica equity.
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