Plenty of people would give everything to be an early employee at seven-year-old Uber. But Uber employees who’ve been with the ride-share company for at least a few years have discovered a considerable downside to their ride with the transportation juggernaut. They can’t afford to quit. Startup employees have to exercise their options within 90 days of leaving a company or else lose them and at Uber, that cost is simply too high.
A quick scan of LinkedIn for former employees underscores the point. Of Uber’s roughly 6,700 employees, only a tiny fraction have left, and in most cases, those hires weren’t around long enough to be worrying about vested options.
Employees of privately held companies have long wrestled with this issue. (We wrote about it here last summer.) With valuations of many privately held tech companies having soared so dramatically in recent years, the amount of capital needed to buy employee options has escalated at an unprecedented pace for employees at a variety of places.
Uber appears to be the most extreme example ever, however. In a completely hypothetical example, let’s say an early, top Uber engineer was given .5 percent of the company. Now let’s say this person was awarded options in 2011, when Uber raised $11 million in Series A funding at a reported $60 million valuation. His ownership stake at the time would have been $300,000. Yet today, that same stake (undiluted) would now be worth $300 million at Uber’s reported current post-money valuation of $60 billion. That’s a paper gain of $299,700,000.
It’s very hard to cry about that, it’s true. But there is bad news: at a 40 percent tax rate for short-term gains, if the engineer opted to leave Uber, he’d confront a tax bill of $119,880,000, not including that earlier $300,000 needed to exercise the options. And leaving Uber would start the clock. He’d have just 90 days to come up with the $300,000, and he’d have to come up with the rest of the money for the much larger tax bill by the next April 15.
Maybe Uber will be publicly traded by then. Maybe it won’t.
Some highly valued companies have tried to ease this issue for employees by allowing them to sell some of their sales to preapproved secondary sellers at certain points. Not so Uber, which amended its bylaws in 2013 to restrict unapproved secondary sales. Not only does it not allow employees to sell their shares to secondary buyers, it also won’t allow them to use services like those offered by 137 Ventures, which makes loans to founders and early employees, using their stock as collateral. (Snapchat, Dropbox, and Airbnb have similar policies.)
Our sense is that the company doesn’t mess around, either. Four secondary players have told us of employees who’ve tried to find ways around Uber’s regulations, only to be stymied. “We’ve been approached by big groups of early employees, and I know a lot has been written about loans or hypothetical products to get around its policies,” says one source. “But Uber’s position is that if it learns [of a sale or loan] that goes around its share-transfer restrictions, there will be consequences.”
It may seem uncharitable on some level, but it’s very much by design, according to insiders, who say Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has two primary motivations for keeping his company’s shares on lockdown.
(Photo: Bryce Durbin)