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Monday, February 9, 2015

How much should startup founders be paid?

This is a very sensitive topic which many startup founders grapple with whether they raise capital or not. I am sharing based on personal experience both as a startup founder and also as an investor. I am not saying it works perfectly or is the best. In fact, I found that I had to bargain a lot over the years and the key is to be transparent and open. So will be happy to hear how other readers do it.

1) Bootstrap Stage (Usually first year, up to $150K expenses)

At this stage, I feel founders should be paid a roughly similar basic wage. Meaning plus minus $500 of each other. In Singapore, that can range from $1000 per month to $3000 per month.  This is enough for food and transport. Anyway, this money comes from the founders themselves. My cofounder and I were paid $500 a month and later $2000 a month back in early days.

The reason for similar pay is because the roles are all mixed up in the beginning and if everyone works equally hard and full time, each key role of sales, marketing, tech and leadership all make and break the company.

One point of view I sometimes hear from founders is that they used to earn $5K, or $10K outside. So that is their opportunity cost. That is fine to say but should not affect the actual pay. Once you decided to come out and do a startup, your last drawn pay matters little, though it would be good if your co-founders appreciate your sacrifice. Also shareholding should not affect pay. If I put in $80K and you put in $20K, we should still agree to a roughly similar pay at this stage. Though if shareholding is very different, the basic may be closer to $3K whereas if the shareholding is similar, then it can be $1K.

The only time where it makes sense to me when a bootstrapped stage founder is paid >$4/5K or more is when there is a passive investor who joins the bootstrap round. Even then, I feel the various founder pay should be roughly similar.

2) Seed Stage (Year 2-3+, S$500K expenses)

Seed stage founders should be paid about $3000 to $5000. During our seed stage equivalent, we drew about $4-5K salary all in each. The thinking is somewhat similar to bootstrap round in terms of how founder pay should be similar to each other. Again, my logic is that the outfit is still small. Everyone has multiple hats and roles. So paying a similar value reflects that all founders are contributing on multiple aspects.

3) Series A Stage (Year 3-5+, $>1-3M expenses)

At Series A, it becomes necessary to have different pay for founders as roles get more defined and some roles start to be outsized in impact. For me, 3 principles are followed.

a) Pay does not exceed  and is usually below market rate for same role in similar sized company esp of outside money came in.

b) Founders are ok with the differential among themselves. Usually vesting is used to make things fairer. Founders are usually ok with differential once they agree what is the market rate for each role. Then from each role, take a fixed discount off it and build it up through a combination of base, incentives and vesting options. The biggest shareholder founder may need to be behave more generously at this stage.

c) Clear KPIs are written up for each founder role with bonuses tied to those KPI and overall company KPI.

4) Beyond Series A (Year >6, revenue 3-10+M and usually profitable)

At this stage, it really depends if the company is profitable and whether it took VC money. If the company is profitable and has not taken VC money, founders usually pay themselves up to market rate. Once market rate is hit, dividends are paid to founders based on shareholding basis. The logic is that we can always hire a market level replacement for a founder so there is never a need to pay more than market.

If the company took VC money, then there  are some controls on management pay but it is reasonable for  founder management to negotiate KPI based incentives and advocate to move towards market pay as the business grows according to plan. A good mgmt. team will ensure they feel aligned and balanced by discussing mgmt. targets and pay annually with their board.

To my knowledge, a fair market rate for a single country MD of about 50-100 staff in a dot com should be paid $200-$350K all incentives including options factored in. Base would be about 60% thereabouts of total. The CTO pay would be lower  at about $150-250K but with much higher base component. 


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