Options or Warrants: Which Is Right for Your Startup?

Stock Options Warrants

Options or Warrants: Which Is Right for Your Startup?

So you've launched your startup, brought on some initial investors, and now you're thinking about ways to incentivize your team and give early backers a chance to share in your potential success. You've heard about stock options and warrants, but you're not sure which is the right choice for your company. Let me break it down for you in simple terms. Options and warrants are both securities that give the holder the right to purchase stock at a set price. While they share some similarities, there are a few key differences to understand before determining which is the better fit for your startup. If you're looking for a way to motivate employees and reward early investors without giving up too much equity or control of your company upfront, warrants deserve a close look. They can be an extremely founder-friendly tool if structured properly. Ready to learn more? Let's dive into the details.

Stock Options vs. Warrants: What's the Difference?

As a founder, you need to consider the pros and cons of options vs. warrants to determine which is right for your startup. Options give employees the right to buy stock at a fixed price in the future, usually the current fair market value. Warrants, on the other hand, are issued to investors, contractors or advisors as compensation, allowing them to buy stock in the future at a pre-determined price.

Warrants are often better for founders because they don't dilute your ownership as much upfront. You only issue warrants for the potential of future investment, rather than giving away equity right away. This allows you to raise capital without an immediate impact on your ownership. When the warrant is exercised, you get an investment and only then is your ownership diluted.

However, warrants come with risks. The investor may never exercise the warrant, missing out on funding. Or, they may exercise when your valuation is much higher, minimizing their investment. Another downside is that warrant holders aren't shareholders yet, so they have no incentive to add value or help the company in its early stages.

Options, on the other hand, give employees skin in the game from the start, aligning their interests with the company's success. However, options result in immediate dilution and there's no guarantee employees will gain enough for the options to be meaningful.

As with many startup decisions, there's no easy answer. You need to evaluate your own priorities, risk tolerance and short vs. long term goals. But understanding the differences between these two vehicles can help you make the right choice for your company.

What are warrants?

Warrants are financial instruments that give the holder the right to purchase stock in a company at a fixed price within a certain time period. They're often issued by startups as "sweeteners" for investors or as compensation for services.

For you as a founder, warrants provide flexibility and control. You can issue them to attract strategic partners, advisors, or service providers without giving up equity right away. If the relationship proves valuable, the warrant holder can exercise their option to buy stock. If not, the warrants simply expire worthless. It's a chance to "try before you buy."

Warrants also allow you to raise capital without diluting your ownership too quickly. You set the exercise price and time period, so if your company value increases a lot, warrant holders have to pay more to own stock. You win either way.

The details matter though. The exercise price, time period, and number of shares can be negotiated. Find a balance that motivates warrant holders to help increase the value of your company while still being fair to you as a founder.

Warrants do come with risks like potential stock price manipulation. But when used strategically, they give you flexibility and control over who owns a stake in your startup. For founders looking to build value, warrants can be an appealing choice.

Key Benefits of Warrants for Startup Founders 

As a startup founder, warrants can offer some appealing benefits over traditional stock options. Here are a few of the key advantages warrants provide:

Lower Cost

Warrants are typically issued at a lower cost than stock options. This means you can provide incentives to employees, advisors and other stakeholders at a lower cost to your company. Since warrants have a longer exercise period, the value is often lower at the time of issuance compared to a stock option.

Longer Exercise Period

Warrants usually have a longer exercise period, often 3 to 5 years. This gives warrant holders more time to exercise their rights even if there are fluctuations in the company's value or stock price. The longer exercise window provides more flexibility and stability.

Can be Exercised for Cash or Cashless

Warrant holders can choose to exercise warrants for cash or use a "cashless" exercise. With a cashless exercise, the warrant holder receives shares equal to the spread between the exercise price and the current stock value. This means they don't have to come up with cash to purchase the shares. The ability to exercise cashless provides more flexibility for warrant holders.

Higher Incentive for Long-Term Commitment

The longer time period and flexibility of warrants encourages warrant holders to take a longer-term view of the company. This can help align key stakeholders and incentivize them to contribute to the company's success over the long run. The longer vesting and exercise periods promote stability and long-term commitment.

In summary, warrants provide some useful benefits for startups and can be an attractive alternative or addition to a stock option plan. The lower cost, longer exercise periods, flexibility of exercise methods and alignment of long-term interests are all key advantages warrants offer for high-growth companies. For startup founders, understanding these benefits can help in developing effective strategies for attracting and retaining key talent and stakeholders.

How to Use Warrants to Incentivize Early Investors

As a startup founder, using warrants to incentivize your early investors is a smart move. Warrants give investors the right to purchase stock shares in the future at a fixed price. Offering warrants in addition to shares sweetens the deal for investors and aligns their interests with the long-term success of your company.

Set a Vesting Schedule

Attach a vesting schedule to the warrants so investors earn the right to exercise them over time. For example, investors could earn 25% of the warrants after 12 months, then 1/48th each month thereafter. This ensures investors stay committed to your company long-term.

Determine a Strike Price

The strike price is the fixed price at which investors can buy shares when exercising the warrants. Set the strike price at a discount to the share price at the time of investment to make the warrants attractive. For example, a 20-30% discount is common. The strike price should also account for the increased value you anticipate over the vesting period.

Consider a Cashless Exercise

Allowing "cashless exercise" means investors can exchange warrants for shares instead of paying the strike price in cash. This benefits investors and ensures your company receives the capital. Investors exchange a number of warrants for a percentage of shares. The percentage is based on the current share price compared to the strike price.

Place Limits on Exercising

You can place limits around when and how many warrants investors can exercise at once. For example, allow exercise only after an IPO or acquisition. Or limit exercise to 25-33% of warrants held each year. This prevents too much dilution of your shares at once.

Warrants are a powerful tool for motivating early investors and giving them upside in your company's success. By thoughtfully structuring the warrants, you can incentivize long-term commitment to your vision.

Aligning incentives and building strong relationships with committed investors will help your startup thrive.

Structuring Warrants in Fundraising Rounds

As a startup founder raising capital, warrants are a tool you should consider including in your fundraising rounds. Warrants give investors the right to purchase stock in your company at a fixed price for a certain number of years. This incentivizes them to help grow your company so the stock price increases in value.

When structuring warrants, there are a few key points to keep in mind:

  • Set an exercise price that balances risk and reward. The exercise price is the fixed price at which the warrant holder can buy stock. Set it at a discount to the current share price, maybe 15-25% lower. This gives investors some upside if your stock price rises, but still requires the stock to appreciate before they can exercise.

  • Determine a window of time, typically 2-5 years. This is how long investors have to exercise the warrants before they expire worthless. A longer window, like 5 years, gives more opportunity for your stock price to rise and reach the exercise price. But a shorter window, like 2-3 years, creates more urgency for investors to help boost your stock price.

  • Limit the number of warrants to no more than 20% of your current shares outstanding. This caps the potential dilution to your ownership and control. You can allocate the warrants across multiple fundraising rounds.

  • Include provisions to protect yourself. Add clauses like cashless exercise (investors surrender warrants in exchange for shares), anti-dilution (adjustment of exercise price for stock splits), and expiration upon acquisition. These help avoid scenarios that could lead to excessive dilution or loss of control.

  • Consider vesting schedules. You may vest warrants over time to incentivize long-term commitment from investors. For example, vesting 1/3 of warrants each year over a 3-year period. Unvested warrants are forfeited if the investor leaves before the schedule is complete.

Warrants are a powerful way to attract investors while still maintaining control and upside in your company. Use them strategically in your fundraising, with the proper balance of risk and reward, to set your startup up for success.

Exercising Your Warrants: Timing and Process

As a startup founder, knowing when and how to exercise your warrants is key to maximizing their value. Warrants give you the right to buy company shares at a fixed price for a certain period of time. If your company's share price rises a lot over that time, warrants can be very profitable. However, if the share price stays flat or declines, your warrants may expire worthless.

Timing is Everything

The optimal time to exercise your warrants is usually when the company's share price is well above the exercise price of the warrants. This allows you to buy shares at a discount and instantly realize a gain. However, you don't want to wait too long, or you risk the warrants expiring before you can exercise them. A good rule of thumb is to exercise warrants once the share price is 2-3 times the warrant exercise price.

The Exercise Process

Exercising your warrants is usually straightforward but does require a few steps:

  1. Review your warrant agreement to confirm expiration date, exercise price and process. The specifics of exercising warrants can vary between companies.
  2. Determine how much capital you need to exercise your warrants. This is simply the warrant quantity multiplied by the exercise price. You will need to fund this amount to purchase the shares.
  3. Notify your company in writing, prior to expiration, that you intend to exercise your warrants. Follow any instructions in your warrant agreement regarding notice and forms.
  4. Provide payment for the total exercise cost, either in cash or by surrendering other company shares you own. The method of payment will be specified in your agreement.
  5. Once payment is received, your company will issue you the shares for which you exercised warrants. These become fully tradable shares, and you can sell them at any time subject to applicable laws and company policies.

Exercising warrants at the optimal time can be very rewarding. However, it does require actively monitoring your company's share price and being prepared to act quickly before expiration. With the right timing and execution, warrants can provide founders like yourself a very valuable way to participate in a company's success over the long run.


So there you have it, an overview of options and warrants and why warrants might be appealing for founders and investors. While options certainly have their place and benefits, warrants provide more flexibility and control. As a founder, you want to make strategic decisions that set your company up for success. Issuing warrants to investors instead of options could be one of those pivotal choices that shapes your startup's future. Do your research, weigh all factors carefully, and choose what's right for your specific situation. But don't overlook warrants - they could be the vehicle that fuels your company's growth in a big way.

Related Posts