Unicorn Stock Options - Golden Goose or Trojan Horse?

Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019

2019 Colum. Bus. L. Rev. 107 (2019)

86 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2018 Last revised: 30 Apr 2021

See all articles by Anat Alon-Beck

Anat Alon-Beck

Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Date Written: 2019


Large privately held startups valued at $1 billion or more (“unicorns”) are dealing with employees’ conflicts of expectations due to the illiquidity of the shares of stock acquired upon exercise of their options.

Until about eight years ago, many talented workers chose to work for a startup company for a lower cash salary combined with a substantial stock option grant, and the dream of cashing out for a large sum of money after an initial public offering (“IPO”) of the startup’s stock.

Today, unicorns remain private for extended periods of time in part because they are often no longer dependent on an IPO or a trade sale to raise sufficient capital. As a result, they are delaying liquidity events for their founders, employees, and investors, thereby causing their employee stock options to lose some of their allure as a hiring and retention device.

This article examines a contemporary puzzle in Silicon Valley – is there a shift in unicorn employees expectations that results in labor contracting renegotiations? It explores the challenges faced by unicorn firms as repeat players in competitive technology markets. It offers the following possible solutions. First, new equity-based compensation contracts, and critiques them. Second, alternatives to the traditional liquidity mechanisms, and critiques them.

It concludes with proposals to remove legal barriers to private ordering, and new mandatory disclosure requirements.

Keywords: unicorn firms, entrepreneurship, corporate law, employees, contract, IPO, golden handcuffs, stock option, equity, technology, lock-in, illiquidity

Suggested Citation

Alon-Beck, Anat, Unicorn Stock Options - Golden Goose or Trojan Horse? (2019). Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019, 2019 Colum. Bus. L. Rev. 107 (2019), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3228400 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3228400

Anat Alon-Beck (Contact Author)

Case Western Reserve University School of Law ( email )

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Cleveland, OH 44106-7148
United States
2163683311 (Phone)

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