Joining a startup: high salary, no equity OR "startup salary" with equity?

TL;DR: Push for stock options from companies who don't want to give them, and always avoid them from those that offer.

As a potential employee, the negotiation for equity is a great way to gauge the future of a new company.

If you know the signs, it can help you from getting screwed in the long run, potentially saving years of regret while waiting out the vesting period in the hopes the company will make it big.

It generally goes like this:

  • If founders openly offer lots of equity, chances are the company will never make it big. If you settle for equity and a lower-than-market rate, you're probably in for years of hard work that will never reap the vision you were sold when you joined the company.
  • If founders would rather pay a high hourly rate and offer no equity, chances are the company will succeed. This is a sign that there are big things at stake, and for one reason or another, they're holding their options close to their chest.

The founders who promise lots of equity by joining early are usually unintentional scam artists. They offer the world, but these founders are taking a stab in the dark (even though their idea might be good and well-intentioned) and generally have no real plan for execution. They're usually great salespeople who help you buy into the vision, but since they don't have a plan or the connections they need to make the company successful, you should stay away at all costs.

The founders who know what they're doing, have industry connections, and know their ideas will turn into profitable businesses will do as much as they can to maintain their stake. They don't need to offer copious amounts of equity because their idea and vision is enough to sell the typical prospective employee. And they're usually willing to fork over extra cash up front (market rate) to keep you happy.

(Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. But this is generally what I've noticed from my experience in the startup space.)

If you're facing the opportunity to work for companies in both categories, work for the latter who will pay market rate - who doesn't sell you the vision by promising fame and fortune. Opt for the company who knows what you're worth and pays accordingly.

The dance for something worthwhile is never easy. It's sort of like dating. If you go for the easy catch, are they really a catch? When you are forced to relentlessly persue (and then end up achieving) what you want, it's usually worth it.

The fight for equity at a company where equity will be valuable won't be easy to get. But if you keep these principles in mind and are able to fight for a meaningful stake, it's worth so much more than the equity that is freely handed out by companies that have no real future.

Update: There's some great feedback on Hacker News.

5 responses
Another way to phrase it is: companies offer employees equity based on how they value their company. If they value their company highly (or their potential), then they will offer less equity.

For example, there were periods when Google would do all cash deals because they valued their equity very highly.

On the flip side, I've seen situations where the founders are just plain wrong/stingy. If you aren't able to hire folks, then you are going to lose when playing this game.

My philosophy is to be generous, but not right off the bat. Reward people who work hard and are leaders. It feels good to take care of your team, even if you don't strictly have to.

Iam new to this blog and stuff,so i dont have any idea to share my thoughts about this post, can you help me.?
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We need a simple model to help us properly slice the pie. It needs to be flexible and fair. By fair I mean it needs to give each founder what they deserve. And by flexible I mean it needs to adapt over time to re-allocate the equity so that the distribution stays fair until the fledgling company takes flight. check out mike moyer's book slicing pie it talks about 50/50 share and how to divide it through his grunt calculator.
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