Personal Finance

Startup Equity as Compensation: A Complete Guide

Mar 1st, 2023

Have you just been offered a position at a startup? Congratulations on the job offer! As you might know, many startups offer equity in the company as part of an compensation package. 

If this is your first time working for a startup, or you’re confused about how equity and stocks as compensation work, don’t worry! You’re definitely not alone. 

Equity in a company can be a confusing topic, with difficult to understand phrases like RSUs, vesting schedule, and cliff. To help you get started, check out our guide and easy-to-read breakdown of how equity as a compensation for a startup works. 

What is equity?

Equity is ownership in a company, and normally comes in the form of a stock option. 

If a company is already public (selling stocks on the NASDAQ or New York Stock Exchange), the value of their stock will fluctuate each business day. The stock already has value on the market.

However, for early-stage startups and private companies, equity will not have market value unless the company has an “exit,” which usually means going public or getting acquired by a public company. This is true for startup investors as well. 

In some cases, employees receive stock options as a part of their compensation packages. In others, employees need to purchase the shares at their strike price, or the value the share was assigned when they started working for the company. 

Different types of equity as compensation 

Stock options

Startups typically offer equity as part of employee compensation packages. This equity, often managed on a platform like Carta, doesn't have the ability to turn into immediate cash, but can grow exponentially in value if the company becomes successful. 

If you buy company shares at $.10 and the value rises to just $2 when the company goes public or gets acquired, the value increases 20%. This means you have the option to invest in your company at a lower rate than what the fair market price would be after the company goes public, if it goes public at all.

If the company never has an exit, then your shares will be worthless. Keep in mind, only 7% of startups see an exit. 

Key stock/equity terms 

  • Shares. This is the total number of shares that employees have the right to purchase once they vest. Employees do not own these shares unless you have vested and purchased them. Most startups allow you to start buying shares after 1-year, with more shares becoming available every month (read more below).

  • Exercise price. This is the cost per share if you decide to purchase them. The exercise price is normally lower than the 409A fair market value. This gives you the option to purchase shares in the company at a discounted price. 

  • 409A valuation. The independently valued fair market price of the company valuation. This is how the cost of a company share is determined. 

  • RSUs. If your compensation package includes restricted stock options (RSUs), you will not need to purchase those stock options and will instead receive the stock at face value. 

  • ISOs. An ISO or incentive stock option gives employees the right to buy shares of company stock at a discounted price, with the possibility of receiving tax breaks on the profit.  

  • An Option pool consists of certain shares of stocks reserved for the future for employees of a private company.  

  • Equity stake. The percentage of a business owned by the holder of a certain number of shares of stock in a business. This is usually built up through the purchase of equity shares in a company. 

  • Equity grant. This is the grant of a stock option at the market valuation. This is one of the ways employers give stock options as part of a compensation plan. 


When you receive employee equity in a startup, there will be a vesting schedule. This means that the stock option becomes available to you incrementally for a fixed period of time. 

One of the most common vesting schedules is a 4-year vesting period, with a 1-year cliff. This typical schedule means that employees receive nothing if they leave the company within the first year. After 1 year, you will receive 25% of the equity package. Starting in the second year, you will receive 1/48th of your equity each month. Remember, if you leave the company before the 4th year, you will leave behind any of your unvested stock with no capital gain.

How does equity turn into real value? 

Company goes public

When your company finally goes public, this is a day for you as an employee to celebrate. This means that all of your time and work in the company finally has value and so does your stocks. If you have an RSU your stock now has value, and if you have stock options, you now have the ability to purchase publicly traded stocks. If your company offers a great exercise price, you will be able to acquire this stock at a much lower market rate than the average buyer.

Company gets acquired by public company 

The value of the equity is dependent on the success of the acquisition. If the company exited successfully, then the stock equity given to the employees will still be valuable. However, if a merger or acquisition makes the stock price lose value, then the equity value lowers–or worse, it could be worth nothing. 

Selling your shares on the private financial market 

Thinking about selling your shares in a startup privately? Services like Carta X, for example, make it possible for you to liquidate your shares before the company goes public. 

If you want to sell part or all of your shares on the private market, software tools like Carta X allow you to upload and privately trade your stock options as tech and startup companies take longer and longer to become publicly traded. 

These new trading companies make it easier to actually liquidate your startup equity in this riskier market. 

What happens to your equity if the company goes out of business? 

Venture capital is fraught with risk. 

Once a company shuts down or goes out of business, your equity does not have any value. This is one of the biggest risks of working for a startup and taking equity as part of your compensation packages. While there is the potential for huge payouts, many early stage companies don’t last long enough for this compensation to be worthwhile. Even later stage (Series D, Series E) startups have the potential of going out of business. 

When deciding whether you want to take this type of compensation, you should strongly consider the company you’re planning to work for. Does the company have the ability for high-trajectory growth? Do you think the ideas of that business are going to last after a few years? Do the employees seem mentally and emotionally invested? Is the product part of a consumer niche or target a need in the market? 

All of these considerations should come into play when you decide whether or not to work for a startup. 

Why companies partner with Via

Companies want to hire talent across borders and offer startup equity, but don’t know where to start.

Via makes hiring international talent seamless. With our-easy-to-use platform, Via manages the local human resources processes for global employment such as work visas and permits, benefits, payroll, background checks, work data privacy, and more. Our team of local labor lawyers and on-the-ground experts ensure that your company remains compliant while expanding abroad. As your employer-of-record/entity, Via assumes responsibility for employment liability, so that you can focus on what matters: recruiting and managing your team. 

With Via’s transparent pricing, you can pay full-time employees or contractors across borders with no hidden set-up fees, no foreign exchange or transaction fees, and no minimums–start with 1 employee and scale up at your own pace. You can get started in 1-2 business days. That’s why a lot of businesses partner with an EOR service like Via. We expedite the process of hiring and recruiting, setting up HR, and adhering to all employment laws in other countries. 

Need help building your global team?

Janelle Watson
Janelle Watson
My name is Janelle Watson and I'm a Colorado native. I have a BA in English from University of Colorado Colorado Springs and an MA in English from University of Colorado Denver. Before moving to blog and copywriting, I was an English teacher for 3 years at the University of Colorado in Denver. Prior to writing for Via, I wrote reviews and content for a local concert and promotion company in Denver.

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  • Can you get rich off of startup equity?