Not Optional campaign helps put €5 billion more into the hands of European startup employees

Spearheaded by Index Ventures and supported by more than 700 CEOs, the Not Optional campaign is spurring policymakers to reform outdated rules and regulations that limit employee ownership.
Not Optional campaign helps put €5 billion more into the hands of European startup employees

Working for The Man. Right next to Benjamin Franklin’s words, “but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” it’s a fact of life. Unless of course, you are The Man. In which case, you’re working for the Shareholders, who effectively become The Man.

But isn’t one of the original draws of working for a tech startup, supposed to be a lucrative options plan if/when the company is a success? As a veteran of the first dot com boom, I can personally testify to the appeal, as after I cashed out, it was one of the ways I funded my first trip to Europe. That turned into a now 23-year, slightly interrupted stay.

Perhaps it’s the latent American still residing in me, but when I read that in 2017 the average European employee ownership figures for late-stage startups averaged around 12 percent as compared to 20 percent my countrymen enjoyed, well, something’s gotta give, no?

Not Optional

Thanks in part to a campaign initiated that same year by Index Ventures, alongside some 700+ CEOs, Not Optional, the give is starting to give.

A new analysis by Not Optional finds that over the past six years, that average of 12 percent is now up to 16 percent. Not quite the 20 percent still enjoyed across the pond, but a 4 percent increase is better than a no percent increase, and figures are climbing.

Looking at 2021 and 2022 numbers, years that saw the crowning of 124 new venture-backed unicorns, this increase in percentage equates to some  €5+ billion more that’s been put into the hands of European startup employees.

“This increase in European employee ownership will further strengthen the startup ecosystem and jump-start a flywheel of innovation and investment,” says Index Ventures’ VP of Insight and Talent Dominic Jacquesson. 

And rightly so, as increased employee ownership not only puts the co back in co-operation and increases pride of ownership in one’s work, but also puts capital in their collective pockets to pay it ever forward. I believe this might be called trickle sideways economics? Jacquesson further elaborates:

“Not only do stock options help companies compete on a global stage for talent, those that have successfully exited also create ‘graduates’ who frequently re-invest their wealth, seeding the ecosystem with fresh founders and angel investors. The benefits of employee ownership have long been known in Silicon Valley; it is hugely rewarding to see Europe catching up.”

Policymaker Engagement

To be fair and remain in perspective, Not Optional is a campaign to heighten awareness and draw policymakers' attention to outdated rules and regulations that limit employee ownership and only add to the disparity. 

And clearly, it’s playing the part well, as reforms have already been seen in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Spain, with additional reforms slated to take place later this year in the UK, Austria, and Belgium.

According to Not Optional’s country ranking, which takes a range of factors into account to score the effectiveness of 24 separate national stock option schemes, countries that have implemented reforms have, as one would expect, risen in the ranks:


Previous ranking

New ranking



Joint 5th






Joint 11th

Reforms introduced from 1 January 2023:

Ireland: The national stock option regime or Key Employee Engagement Programme (KEEP) was extended to the end of 2025, with part-time and flexible workers brought into scope. Improvements were also made to the lifetime company limit (increased from €3 million to €6 million) and the buy-back of shares by the company from relevant employees.

Spain: As part of the Startup Law which was approved in 2022, the total amount of tax exempt stock options employees can receive annually increased from €12k to €50k, with taxation only incurred at liquidity.

Netherlands: Stock options are no longer taxed at exercise but instead at the point of tradeability.

Reforms being discussed or due to come in this year:

UK: Historically a leader of the pack in Europe, the UK is bringing in reforms, effective from April, to the Company Share Option Plan scheme to make it accessible to scaleups, alongside the existing and successful Enterprise Management Incentive scheme focused on smaller startups.

Austria: Negotiations on the "FlexKap" new company form package, and an associated proposal to reform stock options taxation in Austria, are now intensifying. The proposal is expected to introduce an informal, non-voting stock options framework where taxation is only incurred at liquidity.

Belgium: The Ministry of Finance in Prime Minister Alexander de Croo’s government included a commitment to reform on stock options as part of Belgium’s global taxation review. The stock options reform proposal could be put to the Belgian Parliament in Q1 of this year.


And the reforms don’t just end with these six countries above, following the publication of the New European Innovation Agenda in July last year, the Commission is now expected to establish the European Stock Options Working Group led by Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, and the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. 

While Brussels may be full of talk, for better or for worse, this initiative will mark the first time a Commission expert group is set up to solely address the issue of stock options reform at the European level. 

And a voice at the table is a clear indication that EU policymakers may very well be awakening to the realisation of the need for a more harmonised approach. 

Now, about those Webrazzi/ stock options …

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