Options Or Profits Interests For Key Employees of LLCs?

Co-Authored By: Steve Poulathas & Mark Roderick

You own an LLC and want to compensate key contributors with some kind of equity. Do you give them an equity interest in the Company today or an option acquire an equity interest in the future?

Before we get to that question:

  • Make sure that equity is the right answer for this particular employee. It’s great for key contributors to have a stake in the company, but if this particular employee is your CMO, a cash commission on sales might make more sense because it provides a more targeted incentive.
  • Make sure you’re giving the employee equity in the right business unit. If you operate a Crowdfunding platform, for example, and want to incentivize an IT guy, maybe the IT should be held in a separate entity and licensed to the operating company.
  • To dispel some confusion, a limited liability company can issue options. In fact, here’s a Stock Incentive Plan drafted for a limited liability company. The only thing a limited liability company can’t do is offer “incentive stock options,” otherwise known as ISOs, which provide special tax benefits to employees but are also subject to lots of rules.

Okay, equity is the right answer for this particular employee and you’re giving her equity in the right company. Now, what kind of equity?

There are lots of flavors of equity. These are the three you’re most likely to consider:

  • Outright Grant of Equity: Your employee will become a full owner right away, sharing in the current value of the business, possibly subject to a vesting period.
  • Profits Interest: Your employee will become a full owner right away, but economically will share only in the future appreciation of the Company, not the current value.
  • Option: Your employee won’t become an owner right away, but will have the right to buy an interest in the future based on today’s value – again allowing her to share in future appreciation but not current value.

In making your choice, there are three primary factors:

  • Economics: How much value are you trying to transfer to your employee, and when?
  • Messiness of Ownership Interests: If your employee becomes an owner of the business, even an owner subject to vesting and/or an owner whose economic rights are limited to future appreciation, you have to treat her as an owner. You have to give her information, you have to return her email when she asks (as an owner) why your salary is so high and why your husband is on the payroll, you have to send her a K-1 every year, and so forth.
  • Taxes: For better or worse (mostly worse), tax considerations are the principal driver behind many executive compensation decisions, a great example of the tail wagging the dog. If you thought the JOBS Act was hard to follow, take a look at section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code!

So here’s where we come out.

An outright grant of equity might be a good choice for a real startup assembling a team to get off the ground, as long as there is little or no value. By definition the founder isn’t giving up much economically, and the outright grant achieves a great tax result for the employee, namely capital gain rates on exit. The main downside is that the employee is a real owner, entitled to information, etc. But that’s not the end of the world, especially if the employee is in the nature of a co-founder.

(If your company already has value, then you’re giving something away, by definition, and your employee has to pay tax.)

A profits interest is just like an outright grant except for the economics:  there is no immediate transfer of value. But the tax treatment is the same (no deduction for the company, capital gain at exit for the employee) and the employee is a full owner right away.

An option is economically very similar to a profits interest, because the employee shares only in future appreciation, not current value (for tax reasons, the option exercise price can’t be lower than the current value). But otherwise they’re the opposite. The employee isn’t treated as an owner until she exercises the option. And upon exercise, she recognizes ordinary income, not capital gain, while the company gets a deduction.

For a company with just a few key contributors a profits interest isn’t bad. You give your employees a great tax result and what the heck, what are a few more owners among close friends? But for a company with more than a few key contributors the option is better only because it’s so much easier to keep a tighter cap table. And while the tax treatment of the employee isn’t as favorable, I’ve never seen an employee refuse an option for that reason.

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