SAN FRANCISCO — Last year, Bolt Financial, a payments start-up, began a new program for its employees. They owned stock options in the company, some worth millions of dollars on paper, but couldn’t touch that money until Bolt sold or went public. So Bolt began providing them with loans — some reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars — against the value of their stock.
In May, Bolt laid off 200 workers. That set off a 90-day period for those who had taken out the loans to pay the money back. The company tried to help them figure out options for repayment, said a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke anonymously because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
Bolt’s program was the most extreme example of a burgeoning ecosystem of loans for workers at privately held tech start-ups. In recent years, companies such as Quid and Secfi have sprung up to offer loans or other forms of financing to start-up employees, using the value of their private company shares as a sort of collateral. These providers estimate that start-up employees around the world hold at least $1 trillion in equity to lend against.
start-up economy now deflates, buffeted by economic uncertainty, soaring inflation and rising interest rates, Bolt’s situation serves as a warning about the precariousness of these loans. While most of them are structured to be forgiven if a start-up fails, employees could still face a tax bill because the loan forgiveness is treated as taxable income. And in situations like Bolt’s, the loans may be difficult to repay on short notice.
badly burned by loans related to their stock options.
Ted Wang, a former start-up lawyer and an investor at Cowboy Ventures, was so alarmed by the loans that he published a blog post in 2014, “Playing With Fire,” advising against them for most people. Mr. Wang said he got a fresh round of calls about the loans anytime the market overheated and always felt obligated to explain the risks.
“I’ve seen this go wrong, bad wrong,” he wrote in his blog post.
Start-up loans stem from the way workers are typically paid. As part of their compensation, most employees at privately held tech companies receive stock options. The options must eventually be exercised, or bought at a set price, to own the stock. Once someone owns the shares, he or she cannot usually cash them out until the start-up goes public or sells.