New Australian laws in 2015 change the tax treatment of Employee Share Option Plans (ESOPs), making ESOPs usable by Australian startups for the first time since 2009. Basically, the way it used to work was that when you received equity “for free” the market value of that equity could be taxable when you received it. Now, that “free equity” can be taxed when you sell the equity – subject to your ESOP meeting certain conditions. However, the law doesn’t give startups a user-guide on how to create and manage ESOPs that qualify for the favourable tax treatment. From the currently available information, we set out what we can deduce about ESOPs in the context of Australia startup companies to help you understand more about ESOPs and how you can use them in your startup.
What is an ESOP for a startup?
What is a compliant, tax effective ESOP?
The primary benefit of the new law is that under certain circumstances a recipient of ESOP securities will qualify for the small startup tax concession. This concession means the recipient will not be taxed on the market value of the securities on the day they receive the security, but instead will only be taxed when they dispose of the security.
To implement a compliant, tax effective ESOP for a startup, you need to have a few qualifying features:
In addition, the value of the ESOP securities (and in turn, the company) must be taken into account. Another benefit of the new laws are safe harbour valuation methodologies (valuation formulas that are approved by tax law) that make sensible, practical startup valuations possible. These methodologies acknowledge that despite any investment capital injected into a startup, the value of the company (and in turn, the ESOP securities) is often still closer to nil, given the risk that the company will not succeed. Where there is real value in the company (and in turn, the ESOP securities), to achieve the small startup tax concession and issue “free” securities, it will be necessary that the securities issued have an exercise price above the current valuation (namely options will need to be issued, not shares). If the company has a real value, and/or financial resources, it will be expected to use a comprehensive market valuation methodology to accurately determine the value of an ESOP securities. In this case, should you issue shares under the ESOP, only a small discount to market value will be tolerated.
The tax impact on issuing securities directly, without adopting a formal ESOP, is not dealt with in this post (although the new law makes it possible for the safe harbour valuation methodologies to be approved to apply in that circumstance).
What are the steps to implement an ESOP?
By definition, an ESOP is a “plan” and therefore is a formal written policy of the company, not just an ad-hoc issue of equity.
An ESOP will require:
There will be a legal process involved in preparing all the documentation.
Some Critical Considerations for an ESOP
At General Standards, we work with hundreds of startups every year, and implementing an ESOP will have an impact on the overall running of the company, which must be taken into account:
Do you need a lawyer or accountant to implement an ESOP?
It is likely that most startups will require assistance implementing an ESOP. Our experience at General Standards, working with hundreds of early stage startups each year, has shown that even simple corporate actions (such as director resolutions) are often not completed properly. Therefore it will be prudent to have a professional assist the directors to setup the ESOP. In addition, many startup directors may wish to obtain formal tax advice before issuing ESOP securities to make sure that their valuation methodologies are sound. On that basis, getting legal and/or accounting advice makes sense, especially while these laws are so fresh.
In the future, it is likely that newly incorporating companies will be able to adopt an ESOP at (or very close to) incorporation, resulting in the ability to use standardised documentation without legal or tax complications. If you’re already in business, and especially if you’re generating revenue or have raised capital, then there are a lot of variables to consider, and it is unlikely such simplicity will be available to you.
The new ESOP laws are a positive step for Australian startups. Like all things, it is easy to consider the negative elements, and these laws are by no means perfect or completely clear (and on that basis, if you think we’ve got something wrong, please let us know). However, they are better than what we’ve had since 2009.
However, you have to take laws in the context of the whole business landscape. Australia still remains a simple and stable jurisdiction to do business; the last budget gives startups great tax relief in the form of more deductions, a soon-to-be-lowered corporate tax rate and these new ESOP laws; we have great programs like the R&D Tax Incentive and Export Market Development Grants – all of which make Australia a wonderful country in which to live as an entrepreneur.
If you’d like to discuss implementing an ESOP with General Standards, we have a number of dedicated free ESOP consultation times available each week (book here). Prices start from $2,000 and include all documentation and the issue of securities to your first 2 participants.
This post does not constitute legal or tax advice, and General Standards recommends you seek the assistance of a lawyer when implementing an ESOP.