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Employee Stock Ownership - the secret sauce of succesful startups

Dec 21, 2023 • 5 minute read

There are multiple reasons why Europeans own less of the startups they work for compared to their American counterparts and, while cultural differences play a role, the need for more transparent infrastructure to help narrow this gap is still a fundamental area to address.

In an attempt to narrow this gap, SeedBlink, the European investment & equity management platform, has created Nimity, a solution designed to help founders, investors, and employees manage their equity ownership with ease.

The higher adoption of ESOP is not just about the infrastructure, though, but also about the public understanding of the benefits of employee equity ownership. To that end, SeedBlink recently launched its ambassador program – NimityLink and joined forces with The Recursive team to spread awareness about the advantages of equity ownership. The ultimate goal – grow equity ownership in Europe.

Why are most successful startups those who share their success with employees?


To better understand the role ESOPs play in nurturing a growth mindset and motivating employees to join a business, we asked some of the most successful startups, investors and ecosystem builders in the region about the impact and best practices of implementing an employee stock ownership plan.

Together, these companies have raised over $1B and achieved some of the most remarkable exits in CEE, catalyzing the growth of the entire startup ecosystem.

Do you believe ESOP is important for the growth of the startup & tech ecosystem?


Hristo Borisov, Co-Founder and CEO at Payhawk:
‘Building our ESOP program was one of the fundamental things we did even before starting the company. We put together a plan on how we will distribute ESOP for the first 12-14 employees. You have to have an ESOP plan and distribute the value that you are creating together fairly to ensure people are motivated and feel part of the bigger picture. It’s also the way to pay it forward because the employees who benefit significantly from an ESOP program are likely to start their own companies in the future and grow the economy.’

Andrei Dudoiu, President of the Board at SeedBlink: ‘In terms of numbers, a majority of business angels worldwide were once employees who benefited from Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs). No salary can ever match the long-term rewards of an ESOP given to an employee in a startup that skyrockets to success. Take, for instance, the example of UiPath: early-stage employees who genuinely added value saw returns that surpassed their wildest dreams. What once seemed like a mere optimistic outlook became a tangible reality. It’s that simple: share the work; share the worth.’

Dimitris Kalavros Gousiou, Co-Founder and General Partner at Velocity.Partners; Co-Founder and Partner at Found.ation: ‘Yes, ESOPs are crucial for the growth of any startup ecosystem. It aligns employee interests with company goals, fostering a sense of ownership and commitment. As companies evolve through various venture stages, the diverse skill sets and experiences of employees become integral to success. ESOP incentivizes and retains talent, driving innovation and growth.’

Hristo Pentchev, Site Lead and Director Product Development Operations and Technical Programs at Leanplum, a CleverTap company: ‘ESOP is a powerful tool for letting employees participate in venture successes. The growth of the ecosystem needs to have a high-reward opportunity paired with the higher risk of joining a starting company. ESOP is a key enabler for startups to attract talent, and talent is critical for building a successful business. Another very important aspect is that we can look at ESOP as the first step of transitioning from an employment mindset to an ownership mindset.’

Svetozar Georgiev, Co-Founder at Telerik, Partner at Eleven Ventures: ‘ESOP is important for the startup ecosystem, as it reinforces the notion that success is a team sport. Good companies are not ‘employers’ – they are a ‘mission’ for team members. So if/when success comes, the benefits should be shared with the team. Furthermore, because of Telerik’s widespread ESOP, many colleagues were able to bootstrap their own businesses. This way one successful company can give birth to many others and expand the ecosystem in a non-linear fashion.’

Miroslav Miroslavov, founder and CEO at OfficeRnd: ‘It’s arguably THE single most important element of employees’ compensation package for any company with high-growth ambitions (50-100+% YoY). Founders should align the incentives with employees – so that if the company is successful, employees also get extraordinary, at times life-changing, outcomes.’

Ned Dervenkov, CEO at BESCO: ‘ESOP is probably the most up-to-date tool of the business as it provides the greatest economic prosperity feature – ownership. Creating an easy and legally effective way to provide ownership (under specific circumstances met) will provide unmatched employee motivation and efficiency. The ESOP could be considered the 3rd best economic discovery after the right to own land and the freedom to work and travel freely.’

Tatyana Mitkova, Co-founder and CEO at Claim Compass: ‘Equity compensation has become industry-standard in the startup world. It’s a great way to recruit and keep top talent, and to incentivize your employees to work for the future success of the company.’

Vince Gaydardzhiev, CEO at Alcatraz AI: ‘ESOP is very important for any company, big and small, to make sure all employees are engaged and own back some of the success of the company they are working for. As remote working is skyrocketing with everyone having a plethora of options, what separates each opportunity is the product, vision, and team. To keep a loyal and motivated team, one of the best ways is to make everyone part of the ESOP journey as well.’

Yannis Larios, Senior VP Strategy & Business Development at Viva.com: ‘In Greece, the ESOP concept was essentially born together with the local tech ecosystem, aligning with the rising regional start-up scene. As geographic limits no longer exist, this was yet another motive for top talent attraction, as well as sustainable growth for those aspiring companies. Greece and the region are becoming tech hubs, attracting multi-million investments from around the globe. Turning employees into shareholders means everybody has a stake in the company’s future success; they all own a piece of the company and this translates into a different work mindset. This motivational culture of ownership is critical for innovation.’

Yavor Popov, CEO at Phone Arena: ‘ESOP is a great way not only for start-ups/scale-ups but also for established companies to share success and align incentives.’

What do you believe is needed for its more widespread ESOP adoption in the region?


Hristo Borisov, Co-Founder and CEO At Payhawk:
‘Bulgaria just passed legislation formalizing the use of ESOP programs in a new type of business entity focused at startups. Founders need to understand that ESOP allows you to motivate, hire and retain strong talent that won’t be incentivised by just instant monetary rewards like salaries. People want to have a stake in something that is going to become bigger, and ESOP allows them to invest in their own future – one that they can control. And because it’s such a powerful tool, founders can also keep the discipline on burning cash early on to a minimum, so that they can maximize their chance of bigger success.’

Dimitris Kalavros Gousiou, Co-Founder and General Partner at Velocity.Partners; Co-Founder and Partner at Found.ation: ‘It’s interesting to note that employees in the portfolio company are not actively considering ESOP as a compensation method. This highlights a significant awareness and understanding gap regarding the benefits of ESOPs. Educating both employees about the long-term advantages, like wealth accumulation and a sense of partnership in the company’s success, and employers about the strategic value of ESOPs in talent acquisition and retention, could bridge this gap. Moreover,  addressing the challenge of liquidating ESOP stocks is vital, especially since startups are private companies with limited liquidation opportunities.’

Hristo Pentchev, Site Lead and Director Product Development Operations and Technical Programs at Leanplum, a CleverTap company:  To increase ESOP adoption, we need a shift in the ESOP perception. ESOP is an investment opportunity and gives you ownership of what you build. To achieve it, we need more transparency and education around successful exits and how they would help create long-term wealth creation for employee-owners. We might also need some changes in the legal and tax framework.’

Svetozar Georgiev, Co-Founder at Telerik, Partner at Eleven Ventures: ‘General awareness for both founders and team members could boost adoption. Founders should learn that having a smaller share of a bigger pie is ultimately better. Team members should understand that ESOP is not a given, i.e. it does not come for everyone by default. So you should prove your commitment and dedication first and then qualify for this shared ownership instrument.’

Miroslav Miroslavov, founder and CEO at OfficeRnd: ‘There’s only one thing that we need – more real, high-quality exits of companies that have decent ESOP plans. People should see the actual outcomes and hopefully big money in their accounts to believe.’

Ned Dervenkov, CEO at BESCO: ‘The ESOP should be a tool in the arsenal of 21st-century business. Providing governance flexibility, and running business operations cheaply are also a significant part of the arsenal. Those three aspects (ESOP, flexibility and low-cost management) could (and should) be combined to form a new type of legal entity that allows for the companies in the region to match their competitors from the West. Having this type of entity but also being exposed to more strategic capital (such as the pension funds to be able to invest in alternative capital and various schemes to promote angel investment), along with the possibility to freely recruit people from all over the world (via a Start-up visa and/or Blue cards) lie down the foundations of a prospering ecosystem where access to capital, access to talent and ease of doing business are present.’

Vince Gaydardzhiev, CEO at Alcatraz AI: ‘The executive team/founding team needs to believe in ESOP’s benefits so they offer it as a significant perk. Getting everyone excited about being a co-owner of the company they work for starts with the founding team.

Yannis Larios, Senior VP Strategy & Business Development at Viva.com: ‘We are really proud to have implemented one of the greatest Share Option Plans in the fintech space. Viva.com’s pool of “intrapreneurs” is our greatest gain. These are the people that have adopted the entrepreneur’s mentality, that drive innovation within the Company across all layers. This is the Company’s way to reward our employees for their contribution and efforts. ESOP will remain one of our key drivers for attracting talent and for motivating them to continue growing the company as “intrapreneurs” who bring our cutting-edge technology to life. We do feel that our people appreciate the transparency and fairness of it all, as their own goals and Company’s objectives align.’

What are the best practices and learnings you can share from your experience with ESOP?


Dimitris Kalavros Gousiou, Co-Founder and General Partner at Velocity.Partners; Co-Founder and Partner at Found.ation:
‘Clear communication of ESOP terms and benefits to employees. Not giving too much ESOP too early and to people that have no long-term alignment & association, such as early Advisors or ‘mentors’. Regularly reviewing and adjusting ESOP to reflect company growth and market changes. Ensuring legal and financial compliance in ESOP implementation. A portly implemented ESOP plan creates legal challenges & unnecessary bottlenecks in a future DD (Due Diligence) conducted by the next investors & their lawyers!’

Hristo Pentchev, Site Lead and Director Product Development Operations and Technical Programs at Leanplum, a CleverTap company: ‘The ESOP practices are different in the different stages of a company, so I can’t share the one-size-fits-all rule. In general, the earlier you join a company, the higher the share of stock as an incentive in the total package employees get. At a later stage, it is less of a life-changing opportunity and more of a long-term incentive that also supports strong team retention. In other words, if done right: Joining an early-stage company and contributing to its success should change your life. Joining a later-stage company should give you a significant bonus on top of your salary.’

Svetozar Georgiev, Co-Founder at Telerik, Partner at Eleven Ventures: ‘Granting ESOP should be communicated properly so that people appreciate it. Founders/managers should use this opportunity to sit down with people and discuss their path forward, as a company and as an individual. Don’t send ESOP info over email, even if you have to meet 100 people!’

Miroslav Miroslavov, founder and CEO at OfficeRnd: ‘We implemented a decent ESOP plan that actually materialized in very good outcomes for a lot of people. The key element is to try and make the grants as objective as possible as early as possible. You can’t change it backwards.’

Vince Gaydardzhiev, CEO at Alcatraz AI: ‘You need to create boundaries, per what the market says, around how much stock is given to an employee, given their experience, seniority level, scope, and responsibilities. Subsequent grants for everyone per milestones achieved (new fundraising round done for example) will serve as an additional appreciation to the team.’

Yannis Larios, Senior VP Strategy & Business Development at Viva.com: ‘We are really proud to have implemented one of the greatest Share Option Plans in the fintech space. Viva.com’s pool of “intrapreneurs” is our greatest gain. These are the people that have adopted the entrepreneur’s mentality, that drive innovation within the Company across all layers. This is the Company’s way to reward our employees for their contribution and efforts. ESOP will remain one of our key drivers for attracting talent and for motivating them to continue growing the company as “intrapreneurs” who bring our cutting-edge technology to life. We do feel that our people appreciate the transparency and fairness of it all, as their own goals and Company’s objectives align.’

NimityLink’s Referral Program – Connecting The Dots


Millions of stakeholders throughout Europe are already connected through cap tables, and NimityLink aims to act as the conversation starter around the topic of equity ownership, bringing the community together into one single network that spreads knowledge and best practices about ESOP with the broader startup community.

The program addresses every type of stakeholder in the startup ecosystem, from investors and founders to advisors and evangelists, and one of its rewards is the possibility to earn up to 10 SeedBlink shares.

During the building phase of this community, SeeBlink offers different reward packages for any user from the ecosystem who refers users to the platform, including access to the Nimity product for life, SeedBlink’s Tech Investors Academy, NimityLink’s Circle and Experts’ Program, and even SeedBlink shares for the most active ambassadors.

You can join NimityLink’s ambassador program here.

Building the Future of Equity Management in and beyond CEE


In conclusion, the insights gathered from 11 prominent founders and ecosystem leaders across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) highlight the pivotal role of Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) in shaping the future of the startup and tech ecosystem. The consensus is clear: ESOPs are not just a financial tool, but a powerful motivator that aligns employees’ interests with company goals, fostering a culture of ownership and commitment.

The experiences shared by these leaders demonstrate the transformative impact ESOPs have on startups, from attracting and retaining top talent to incentivizing long-term growth and innovation. The success stories of companies like UiPath serve as a testament to the life-changing potential of well-implemented ESOPs, inspiring a shift from a mere employment mindset to one of ownership and shared success.

However, the journey towards widespread adoption of ESOPs in the region is not without challenges. The need for regulatory reforms, increased financial literacy, and more high-quality exits are critical to foster a thriving ecosystem where ESOPs are the norm. Initiatives like SeedBlink’s Nimity and NimityLink programs are stepping stones in this direction, offering platforms for knowledge sharing and community building.

Ultimately, the collective voice of these leaders echoes a resonant message: for the CEE startup ecosystem to reach its full potential, embracing ESOPs is not just beneficial, but essential. As these plans become more prevalent, we can expect a ripple effect of entrepreneurial success, innovation, and economic prosperity throughout the region.

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