409A Valuations in Startups

A proper 409a valuation would show the value of the company, and ultimately the stock options given to employees.

When a startup is created and is in the idea phase, it has little worth and may lack proper funding until the operations get off the ground. Due to this, the company may not be able to afford high salaries for talented new hires. In this case, you need a way to pay your staff, and one way is by offering them company stock options. And for this, you will need to look into 409a valuations for startups.

A proper 409a valuation would show the value of the company, and ultimately the stock options given to employees. Without this, the company would be unable to determine how much each option is worth, and how much tax is to be paid on these later when they are exercised, or when the shares are sold.

This article will help you understand all you need to know about 409A valuations in startups.

409a Valuation for Startups

The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 409A was created solely to regulate the way companies treat so-called “nonqualified deferred compensation”, which is given out to employees in place of a high salary. A 409A valuation is normally performed to assist companies to set up a current strike price for the employee stock options that are about to be issued to employees. These options have to meet the IRS requirements of having a proper Fair Market Value (FMV).

The best way to get a 409A valuation done is by having an objective and qualified third-party perform the 409A valuation for startups and other big companies. This means that the companies will have to hire an appraisal firm, which is not as daunting as it sounds. Just so you know, the 409A valuation is there so that the federal income taxes are paid on deferred compensation plans. It also helps companies make sure their options value is covered by the IRS safe harbor protection.

This means that companies that do not comply may face fines down the road for non-compliance, resulting in a 20% tax and interest payments. Also future investors may be weary of funding a company with multiple tax risks and indemnities due to failures to follow tax rules. And this is why, regardless of if your company is just a startup offering stock options, it is highly crucial for you to have the 409A valuation for startups performed by professional 409A valuation providers.

When does my startup need a 409a Valuation?

With that said, there are a few reasons to have a 409a valuation performed. They are:

  • When you are about to offer stock options to your employees you need the 409A valuation to get the strike price of the options.
  • Every 12 months (A 409a valuation is only valid for 12 months from the valuation date)

Let us explain this a bit more and take an example. Let’s say there is a company that wants to hire top-notch talent with experienced professionals with a background in the industry. But the company does not have the money required to pay them competitive salaries. In this case, they decide to offer the employees with stock options, which is nonqualified deferred compensation as referred to in Section 409A.

And as per the rule, if a company wants to offer options to their employees, it is important to get a 409A valuation performed. A proper 409A valuation performed by a professional appraiser will help you ensure that your option plans are covered by safe harbor protection. There are a lot of companies that tend to put their company’s valuation until after the Series A funding as some firms can charge up to $5,000 for a 409A valuation!

And if you are worried about the cost, check out the starting price at Eqvista. Eqvista is both professional and offers reasonable rates. It is better to spend the amount now than to pay higher overheads for possible penalties by the IRS later.

Exceptions of Illiquid Startup for 409A valuations

The very first choice for getting your 409A valuation is one done internally by a qualified individual. An inside valuation is acceptable for those small startups that have not yet grown to a point where they can bear expensive independent valuations. The illiquid startup insider valuation method permits you to do so, but there are rules that need to be followed before being eligible to be qualified for this method. They are:

  • The company should be less than 10 years old.
  • No common stock subject to put or similar obligations or call rights
  • The company should not have any publicly traded securities
  • The company should have no reasonable expectation of going public within the next 180 days; and/or being acquired in the next 90 days.

In addition to this, the individual performing the valuation has to be considered “qualified”, which usually means having at least 5 years of experience in relevant areas like private equity, investment banking, financial accounting, business valuation, secured lending or other comparable experiences. Due to this, the valuation is normally done by the CFO or board member.

But as the IRS does not have clearly defined terms for work experience in the field, it may lead to confusion on whether or not you fit all the requirements. As many companies wish not to risk any possible negative tax effects, most opt for third party evaluators to provide a 409a valuation for their startup.

409a Valuation and Venture Capital Valuation

A 409A valuation for startups is very different from Venture Capital Valuations (VC valuation). A 409A valuation is performed by compliance experts and is the estimate at the low-end of a defensible valuation range, while a VC valuation is the market value negotiated between entrepreneurs and the VC offering the company investment in exchange for equity. In fact, a 409A valuation and a VC valuation can be performed at the same time, and both will have different final values.

VCs do not take the 409A valuations into consideration as an input for their valuations. But the experts who perform the 409A valuations always take the VC valuations, if any, into consideration.

To explain better, professional valuators recognize the value of an asset in the company at its FMV. And the IRS considers the FMV of something like the price at which the property would be sold in the open market. So, the 409A valuation is usually the price that the buyer and the seller have agreed on, with neither of them required to act and both have a reasonable understanding of all the facts and details that lead to the value.

When talking about the VC valuations, it is never considered as at FMV as the VCs try to value the stock at a rate that suits them best and is beneficial to them. Yes, the owner does have a discussion with the VCs about the price, but since they are the ones taking in the investment, the power usually lies more in the hands of the VCs. That is also why VC valuations are usually higher than 409a valuations, as the valuation professionals find the value towards the lower end of the acceptable range, and VCs don’t.

In short, both the valuation methods have their own uses. The 409A valuation is performed for the company to issue shares to its employees and follows the rules of IRC Section 409A. On the other head, VC valuations are done by VCs to invest in the company and determined based on the pre-money valuation.

So, if you see a difference in your VC valuation and your 409A valuation, you now know why this is. To know more about the difference in both the valuation processes, check out our article here!

Possible ways to get 409a Valuation

There are three ways by which you can get a 409A valuation of your startup performed. Just note that out of the three ways, only one method offers the safe harbor status keeping your company away from an IRS audit. But just to let you know the methods, we have shared them below:

#1 Do it yourself (DIY)

You can get your valuation done by yourself, especially if you know a lot about it. But this is the riskiest method you can opt for. Should the IRS get involved, you will have to prove that the valuation you gave is right. And it is rarely a case where it turns out right in such a situation. So, this may lead to you having to deal with the penalties that come your way. With this said, ask yourself, is it worth the risk?

#2 Use any valuation software

The next 409A valuation method is by using a software application to get the valuation. Yes, there are many software applications out there but are they reliable? Every company has its own kind of assets. And when the 409A valuation providers value a company, they never use a specific method. Each company has a different case and based on the case, a method or multiple methods are combined and used.

Now that is something that the software would not know. So if you choose to use valuation software for your company, know the limitations involved and how it may affect your overall share price.

#3 Hire a valuation provider

The last option is to go through a 409A valuation provider. But it is much better to pay for a 409A valuation method that is less risky and gets safe harbor protection. With this, the IRS would normally trust your valuation and you could avoid any tax penalties later on. Additionally, you will not have the burden of proving the IRS that your valuation is right.

But for this process, you need to find a knowledgeable and highly experienced firm that can give you the right and best service. The firm that has the right education and experience would be the best choice as compared to the other 409A valuation providers in the market.

Finding a 409a Valuation Provider

As mentioned above, you will want to get the 409a valuation provider that has the experience in valuing companies. In fact, for private companies, a 409A valuation is very important and it is critical to have the right level of support for any conclusion of value. Working with a valuation advisor who has the relevant experience can help companies shape their point of view and save them a lot of potential pain down the road.

Eqvista – Your trusted 409a Valuation provider

409A valuation for startups is still something new for some entrepreneurs. And we do not blame them, which is why articles and knowledge centers exist on our website to help you understand everything better.

But remember that no matter what, you should always choose the firm that you can trust and see building a good relationship with since you will be needing their services almost every year. With that said, Eqvista provides professional 409a valuation services for both startups and larger companies. So, if you want your valuation handled by us, contact us today. Our 409a valuations start at $1,100 and are set based on your company details.

Eqvista also offers many other services other than this. Eqvista is an advanced cap table application that helps you track and manage all the shares in your company. And the best part about Eqvista is that it is FREE to use (for small companies).

Here are some of the features of Eqvista:

  • Share Management on the cloud
  • Less time spent on data entry
  • Company incorporation (Yes, we also help you in incorporating your company in the US)
  • Issuance of electronic stock in seconds
  • Manage your shareholders in one place & give them access to the cap table
  • Share the cap table easily with lawyers, accountants and company consultants
  • Scenario modeling to help you make a proper decision when you are about to exit or raise new funding rounds
  • Get defensible 409A valuations

Eqvista provides professional 409A valuation services that start at $1,100 and the price increases based on the stage that your company is in.

So the best way to take care of everything from the shares in your company to 409A valuations is through Eqvista.

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