By Ifty Nasir, co-founder and CEO of Vestd, the share scheme platform
In a survey of 500 SMEs, nearly half told us that the pandemic had made them re-evaluate how they operate. That’s not surprising as they’ve been faced with some unique challenges this year. Government support during the early stages of the pandemic, is now being extended till March 2021 but many businesses continue to struggle.
Making good people redundant improves cashflow in the short term but will have a long-term damaging impact on the business. At the same time, motivating employees, who are working remotely and worried for their jobs, is not easy. It’s therefore not surprising that equity sharing, in the form of ‘share’ and ‘option’ schemes has become even more popular, with one in four SMEs now sharing equity with their employees and wider team
However, sharing equity can be a complex area and is easy to get it wrong. When it goes wrong there is a danger that you create tax issues (for you and your employees), de-motivate your team and even create future funding issues for the company. It is therefore really important that you choose the right scheme to set-up, but make sure you manage it too.
Below is a brief summary of the main schemes used by Start-ups and SMEs in the UK today. There are similar schemes and considerations globally.
- EMI Option Schemes – This is the most tax efficient scheme. Recipients pay just 10% Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on any value growth. The employer can also offset both the cost of the scheme and the value growth achieved by employees against its Corporation Tax liability. You can also set conditions to control the release of equity, such as time served or performance. The recipient can’t simply walk away with shares, having delivered no value (which is one of the top concerns of many of the businesses and founders we talk to). EMI Option Schemes are used by 41% of SMEs (who share equity) and, for good reason, are the most popular. Read our full guide to EMI for more information.
- Ordinary Shares – This is the issuance of full ordinary shares in the business, often without conditionality and with immediate effect. They are most often issued against cash investment. Once an employee (or any other recipient) has ordinary shares, you have no control over what happens to the shares thereafter. The individual can simply walk away with the shares, so we don’t normally recommend them for contribution that’s yet to be delivered. They’re also not tax efficient, as the recipient will have to pay tax at their marginal Income Tax (IT) rate, on any value the shares have at that point. These are used by 31% of SMEs.
- Growth Schemes – These are a good option when the founders have built value into their company. The recipient only shares in the capital growth of the business from the date that the shares are issued. You can give growth shares to anyone (not just employees) and you can attach additional conditions. These shares limit the risk of the recipient having to pay income tax on receipt of the equity, as they do not hold any value when they are issued but do pay CGT on the value growth at sale. Growth schemes are used by 31% of SMEs. Read the full details on Growth Shares here.
- Share Incentive Plan – SIP – This is a tax efficient plan for all employees that gives companies the flexibility to tailor the plan to meet their needs. Share Incentive Plans are used by 23% of SMEs.
- Unapproved Options – These are not very tax efficient as the recipient will pay IT on any value inherent in the share, above the exercise price, when they exercise the option. That said, they do provide more flexibility than the other options and are the easiest to set up as you don’t need HMRC approval. Unapproved Options are used by 22% of SMEs.
Is it worth the hassle? Earlier this year (i.e. during the first lockdown ) we carried out a piece of research with business leaders, exploring their attitude towards sharing equity with employees and wider team. We spoke to over 500 owners of SMEs and identified six main business benefits to doing so:
- Recruitment. You can combine salary with equity, to create compensation packages that match, or improve on, offers made by other more established companies with deeper pockets.
- Retain the best talent. Share schemes are proven to increase employee retention and can help you reduce if not avoid hiring costs.
- Increase productivity and performance. Studies have shown that employees who are also shareholders are more committed to their work and contribution because they feel directly vested in the growth in value of ‘their’ company.
- Improve employee engagement and happiness. The more all employees feel included in the mission, direction, and success of the business, the more they’re motivated to contribute to the company.
- Relieve cashflow pressure. Equity can be used to reduce the need for finance. Instead of paying people top rates and large bonuses, you can incentivise them via shares or options…giving them a share of the future they are helping to create.
Recruitment and retention are clearly the key drivers. It’s not too surprising to see why. Companies succeed or fail largely due to the quality of the people they manage to attract and retain. However, for smaller and start-up employers, attracting the right people can be difficult. Good people are typically attracted to the idea of working for a house-hold name brand, they look for job security and are enticed by comprehensive employee benefit packages and high salaries that are unaffordable by most smaller companies. Employee share schemes are an effective way for smaller companies to compete in the job market against larger companies, with that potential for a massive/significant upside.
However, at this challenging time, it’s not all about money, keeping people focussed and motivated during the pandemic is at the top of most employers’ worry list. If you choose the right scheme, equity sharing encourages employees to align their motivations to that of the long-term success of the business, over the immediate or short-term gains. And, right now, that is perhaps worth more than anything.
If you’d like to get into the detail then check out our guide to employee share schemes.