The WSJ recently reported in Zynga Leans on Some Workers to Surrender Pre-IPO Shares that the technology company is making certain employees an offer they can’t refuse: cough up your pre-IPO stock options or your first born is dead. Well, not really. The threat is that the employee will lose his or her job. While it is understandable that the company doesn’t want to have another Google cook who makes out like a bandit when Zynga goes IPO, it is also unclear whether Zynga’s approach is either legal or wise.
Under New York’s Limited Liability Company Act, for example, an employee’s sweat equity is valued like a cash contribution. So if you offer $50,000.00 of your cooking services to a cash starved start-up in exchange for 2% of the company and a measly $25,000.00 salary, you are in the same position as another investor who put in $50,000.00 cash for 2%. Of course, you could end up getting a windfall if the company eventually goes public and is worth $2 billion.
That is the position Zynga is about to find itself when it goes public. To rectify the problem of attracting new talent with not enough shares to dole out, the company is apparently going to certain employees and demanding that they return some or all of their stock options, or else. If this is merely a case buyer’s remorse, then Zynga will be asking for a great deal of breach of contract and wrongful termination litigation from terminated employees. Of course, if the employees have not lived up to their part of the bargain, then the law in New York at least allows companies like Zynga to ask for interests back under threat of breach of contract litigation against the employee.
In either case, it doesn’t seem like good business. People will be more reticent to work with start-ups if they expect that, down the line, the company will finagle them out of their not yet vested stock options so that they can go to more efficient resources — i.e. more valuable people. If a company is worried about getting itself into a tight bind like this, it seems better to hybrid the transaction with some cash so that the company doesn’t find itself later on with not enough stock to go around, or, worse, embroiled in class action litigation. Otherwise, the company shouldn’t make the deal in the first place.