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Introduction to Pre-IPO Stock Options

I’m not an investing guru, I dispense no professional advice, and the only investing training I have is from the University of Google where classes are available 24/7. That being said, I recently had a chat with my girlfriend who was being compensated, in addition to salary, in the form of pre-IPO shares in the company she’s currently working for. Having little to no understanding of the terminology of options, let along pre-IPO stock options, I had to seek an education.

Here’s how it works, you get hired and they give you a option grant – a document that says how many shares you can buy and for how much. The strike price is the price at which you can purchase the shares. The grant date is the date you officially begin vesting and should be on that option grant sheet.

Capital Gains

You have two dates to remember, the grant date and the exercise date. The exercise date is the date you purchase the shares from your option.

If you sell your shares within two years of your grant date or one year of your exercise date, it is called a disqualifying disposition and your earnings will be treated as income. If you sell within one year of your exercise date, it will be considered short term capital gains – taxed at your marginal tax rate [3].

Lockup Expiration & Blackout Periods

A lockup is a period of time after an initial public offering when pre-IPO shares can’t be sold; check how long you’ll have to wait after the IPO before you can sell your shares. A blackout period is a period of time, usually around earnings announcements and the like, where you can’t trade your shares either. There is an SEC mandated 3 day waiting rule for trading after announcements too.

Okay, now the vocabulary lesson is over…

Evaluating How Rich You’ll Be

You are not rich. Options are worth nothing in an IPO, just ask all the dreamers from the dotcom era, but they have potential to earn something. How can you figure this out? You really can’t unless you have a crystal ball but if you just ballpark how companies in your industry are faring, how you compare to them, you might be able to ballpark a share price if you know how many shares your company plans on IPO’ing with.

Get everything in writing

This is sage advice for everything. Make sure that option grant explains everything, the schedule your shares vest, what happens in a buyout, etc. because while the intentions might be good when the company is performing well, people can get real ugly when the ish hits the fan.

Remember the old adage, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”