Early Startup Employee Compensation

Background reading:

Given how deeply involved we are with early-stage startups hiring their first key employees, I figured it would be helpful to outline a few key principles to help entrepreneurs navigate the topic.

Make sure they are actually employees, and if they are, at least minimum wage.

States vary in how strict they enforce the line between contractors and employees. California is way harsher than elsewhere in the country.

In general, employees are under your control as to how they work and when they work. Contractors, on the other hand, are required to deliver a service/end-product, but have more control over how it gets done, and they usually are working less than full-time hours and have multiple ‘clients.’ Those are very rough guidelines, and you should work with lawyers to ensure you stay on the right side of your state’s (and federal) specific rules.

The employee v. contractor classification is very important, because contractors can be engaged for free from a cash perspective (equity only). Employees, however, need to be paid at least minimum wage, and may be entitled to benefits. The legal and tax requirements for engaging (and terminating) contractors v. employees are also very different.

Every startup lawyer knows stories of startups that treated someone as a contractor in order to keep costs low, then the relationship went south, and the person ended up filing complaints and getting the startup into hot water. On top of following the rules, your best protection is to be careful with whom you hire, and be respectful/thoughtful if you have to terminate them.

All else being equal, more equity means less cash, and visa versa.

Generally speaking, if someone is getting paid significantly less than what’s “market” for their position, they will expect to receive more equity in order to make up for the difference. Very early employees are generally working at below-market (often substantially below market) cash compensation, and therefore receive much larger portions of equity than someone hired post-Series A or Series B.

And the converse is true as well. If someone, for whatever reason, needs to make $X, even if it’s a serious stretch at the startup’s current budget, then their equity should be proportionately lower. And it should go without saying, all employee equity should have a vesting schedule. 

All of that being said, the early employees will of course expect their compensation to move closer to market as the startup raises funds and hits revenue milestones.

In the very early days, employees are often paid more than founders / senior executives.

The further you move away from the founder team, the greater the dilution of a person’s commitment to the “mission” of the startup; and that means more cash to keep them committed.  For that reason, at pre-seed and seed stage, it is not uncommon for *true* employee hires to actually be earning more, from a cash perspective, than the founder CEO; obviously with substantially lower equity ownership.

After a decent-sized seed round (and certainly Series A), it becomes a lot rarer for the CEO to not be the highest cash earner on the roster.

For more info on what founders are typically able to pay themselves at the various stages, see: Founder Compensation: Cash, Equity, Liquidity.

Don’t over-optimize for market data.

When you reach post-Series A or Series B, it can be helpful when hiring people to obtain hard data on what’s “market” for a certain position, and use that data in negotiations. There are some good services to help with that.

But at very early stages, everything is highly contextual. I’ve seen teams where everyone is making almost nothing. I’ve seen situations where the founder CEO is making nothing, and their lead developer is making six figures. I also see everything in-between. It all depends on the relationships and context. Maybe ask around if you need to, or do some AngelList Jobs perusing, but don’t put too much faith in the value of broad market data for your pre-seed or seed stage startup’s hiring needs.

Employment laws and taxes are not a place to move fast and break things.

Finally, as much as I appreciate keeping things lean, moving fast, and skirting the rules where the costs are low, realize that violating laws around employee compensation and hiring/firing can burn you, badly.

In some contexts, unpaid employee compensation is even recoverable against the Board or executives, outside of the Company. Did you catch that? Let me repeat it for you: failing to pay employees compensation you promise them, or taxes for that compensation, can in some contexts result in personal liability for you, even if the company itself files for bankruptcy.

Take. This. Sh**. Seriously. While I’ve seen more than my fair share of nuclear wars between founders – see: How Founders (Should) Break Up – the deep relationships among founders often allow for more leeway in terms of following/not following the letter of the law. Employees are usually different, and will hesitate significantly less to use every weapon against you if you cross them. Make sure you’re well-advised from the moment you bring on your first *true* hire. 

Checklist for choosing a Startup Lawyer

A friend mentioned to me the other day that, as much great content as there is on Startup Law, there isn’t a simple list of things a founder team should assess in choosing their own company counsel. So here it is, leveraging past SHL posts in a distilled form.

Background Reading: Startup Lawyers – Explained.

Are they actually a “startup lawyer”?

The number of lawyers over the years who have attempted to re-brand themselves as startup lawyers – meaning corporate lawyers with a heavy specialization in early-stage technology and venture capital – has gone up significantly. Law has numerous specialties and subspecialties, much like healthcare, and you want to ensure that, if you’re building an early-stage technology company looking to raise outside capital, your main lawyer(s) has deep experience in exactly that.

See: Startups Need Specialist Lawyers. The last thing you want to end up with is a litigator, patent lawyer, or small business lawyer who thinks that, because he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, he suddenly knows startup law.

Ask for their AngelList profile, or a list of deals they’ve closed in the last 6 months.

Do they have access to other specialist lawyers that you’ll need?

In line with the above, the first lawyer you’ll need is a startup lawyer, but once the business gets going, you’ll quickly need others, including commercial/tech transactions lawyers, tax lawyers, data/privacy lawyers, patent lawyers, trademarks, litigation, etc. They do not need to be under the same firm (and you often benefit if they aren’t), but a serious startup lawyer who represents scaled companies must have direct access to these kinds of specialists to provide responsive counsel to their clients.

A simple “yes, we have access” is not enough. Ask for names, info on how they normally engage, and do your diligence.

Is their infrastructure / cost structure right-sized for what you’re building?

Be realistic about what your company will look like over the next 5 years if things go as planned, and hire a lawyer/firm that can serve that company, without scalability problems. Are you building a narrow app for which a successful exit would be a few million dollars? A solo lawyer would probably be a good fit for you.

Do you legitimately see yourself as on a potential IPO or >$500MM exit track, and targeting a $10-20+MM Series A in a year or two? Law firms that represent “unicorns” may be a good fit for you, even if they’re much more expensive.

Are you realistically on more of a $3-10MM Series A, and $50-300MM exit path; or maybe you’re more interested in scaling on revenue alone? You’re going to get too big for a solo, fast, but “unicorn” firms are probably overkill for you. Try a boutique law firm.

See: When a Startup Lawyer can’t scale and Lies about startup legal fees.

Are they familiar and aligned with the norms / expectations of your likely investors?

In line with the idea of hiring a right-sized law firm, if you’re not on the unicorn track, you will run into problems if you hire lawyers who generally represent (and target) companies who are.

We see this often when, for example, law firms from Silicon Valley represent a tech startup raising local money in, say, Texas or Colorado. Ecosystems of different sizes often have very different norms and expectations, and you can run into cultural or even process conflicts when your lawyers simply don’t speak the same language as your investors, or other stakeholders. The largest deals in the largest tech ecosystems – SV and NYC – have much closer market norms, and smaller/mid-size deals in smaller ecosystems like Austin, Boulder, Seattle, etc. often behave similarly among themselves.

See: The problem with chasing whales.

Are they not conflicted with investors you’re likely to raise money from?

Entrepreneurs, and especially first-time entrepreneurs, lean heavily on their startup lawyer(s) for core strategic guidance in navigating negotiations / issues with their main investors. Ensure that the lawyers you hire do not have deep ties to, or dependencies on, the people who are likely to write you checks, or the lack of true independence of the advice you get can burn you in the end.

See: How to avoid “captive” company counsel. 

Finally, do they “not suck”?

After all of the above, do these folks actually answer their damn e-mails quickly enough? Do they have good technology / processes in place to make your life easier and work efficiently? Do they give real strategic advice, and not make tons of costly mistakes that you end up having to pay for in the long run?

See: Lawyers and NPS.

There are lawyers who will check all of the above boxes, and yet after you talk to their clients, you’ll find that they just suck to work with. Do your homework / research on the more objective checklist items, but in the end never forget to choose lawyers who actually care about doing all the subtle human-oriented things that result in good service.

post-script: A few questions that don’t belong on the checklist:

  • Is the lawyer in my city? – Nothing about local city law applies to startup lawyering. Think regionally, or focus on their client base resembling what you’re building.
  • Can they introduce me to investors? – See: Why I (still) don’t make investor intros.  There are far more effective ways to get connected to investors than through intros from a law firm.

More Tech Startups are LLCs

Background Reading:

If you have spent almost any time reading about the basics of startup legal issues, you know that Delaware C-corps are the default organizational structure for a “classic” tech startup (software, hardware) planning to raise angel/VC money and scale. I’m not going to repeat what you can read elsewhere, so I’ll summarize the core reasons in 2 sentences:

Delaware because DE is the “english language” of corporate law and all serious US-based corporate lawyers (and many foreign lawyers) know DE corporate law.  C-Corp largely because (i) VCs have historically favored C-Corps for nuanced tax and other reasons, and (ii) virtually all of the standardized legal infrastructure around startup finance and equity compensation assumes a C-Corp.

However, times are changing. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a noticeable increase in the number of emerging tech companies that, despite knowing all of the reasons why startups favor C-Corps, deliberately choose to organize their company, at least initially, as an LLC. To be clear, C-Corps are still the norm, by far. But the C-Corp / LLC mix has, for us at least, moved maybe from 95/5 percentage-wise to about 85/15. That’s an increase worth paying attention to.

The growth in interest around LLCs has very little, or really nothing, to do with legal issues, in the sense that nothing much has changed about LLCs or C-Corps to drive people in one direction or the other.  The main drivers, from our viewpoint, are:

  • Many tech entrepreneurs no longer view venture capital as an inevitability in their growth path, and have grown skeptical of the traditional “growth at all costs” mindset found in many startup circles; and
  • An increasing number of VCs are growing comfortable with LLCs.

Profitability is now a serious consideration among tech entrepreneurs. 

C-Corps have 2 “layers” of tax: corporate-level tax, and then tax at the shareholder level. LLCs don’t have a corporate-level tax, and therefore have only 1 layer. Speaking in broad terms, this “disadvantage” of the C-Corp structure has not deterred tech startups for one simple reason: the corporate level tax is on profits, and many tech startups don’t intend to be truly profitably any time soon. Achieving very fast growth through reinvestment of any ‘profits’ has been the dominant growth path among tech entrepreneurs, which means no “profits,” which means being a C-Corp doesn’t really result in more tax.

However, the zeitgeist among startup ecosystems is shifting from “focus on growth, and raise VC” to “unless you’re absolutely positive you’ll raise VC, keep your options open.” Keeping your options open favors starting out as an LLC, because converting an LLC to a C-Corp is way easier than converting a C-Corp to an LLC. The reason for that is simple: the IRS welcomes you with open arms if you choose to move from 1 tax layer to 2. But going in the opposite direction costs you significantly.

As more tech entrepreneurs take seriously the possibility of building a profitable, self-sustaining business, their interest in starting their companies as LLCs is growing, because building a truly profitable business as a C-Corp is much more expensive (tax wise) than it is as an LLC. Many angel investors, and also strategic investors, are comfortable investing in LLCs, particularly under a convertible security structure that doesn’t immediately result in equity holdings.

So starting as an LLC allows you to build your company, and even raise some early capital, while letting things develop to see if you’re really building a business that needs conventional venture capital (and then convert to a C-Corp), or if you’re building one that may instead become profitable and distribute profits to investors (stay an LLC).

VCs are also growing more comfortable with LLCs.

The conventional line given for why VCs “must” invest in C-Corps is that the “pass through” treatment of LLCs can result in various negative consequences to their own investors (LPs), many of whom are tax exempt – so the C-Corp structure prevents the tax problems. However, more sophisticated VCs have realized that in most cases this problem is quite fixable. They can set up what’s often called a “blocker corp” that eliminates the possibility of pass-through income negatively impacting their tax-exempt LPs. Problem solved. It’s not that hard to do.

Truth be told, a lot of VCs still don’t want to mess with LLCs. But at this point it has more to do with inertia and a desire to minimize their own legal bills than any real legal issue. Also, most VCs are only looking for companies in a high-growth track where any net revenue will be reinvested for growth (no corporate profits, no corporate tax), so they are selecting for companies for whom an LLC structure isn’t really that appealing.

But not all VCs think that way. VCs are growing increasingly comfortable with LLCs, and when it makes sense, they will invest in them.

If you are an LLC tech startup, you need tax counsel.

If you are a tech startup that wants to be an LLC, realize that while LLCs may save you taxes, they will not save you legal fees. Equity compensation, particularly to employees, is much more complex under LLCs, and requires the oversight of true tax lawyers. It is not something to be handled solely by a “startup lawyer.” Any law firm working with LLCs should have access to tax specialists, and if they don’t, that is a red flag.

Also, as startups move from a uniform growth path to one that considers a wider variety of sources of capital (angel, non-traditional seed, strategic, private equity, debt, royalty-based, etc.), they need to accept that the standardization found in conventional Silicon Valley-style fundraising is simply not a possibility. The huge push to standardize investment documentation into templates that can be almost automated stems from the “billion or bust” mindset of classic VC-backed startups. In that world, everyone is a Delaware C-Corp. Everyone is trying to be a billion-dollar company that will eventually get acquired or go IPO. All the angels talk about the same things on twitter and are comfortable investing on the same docs. So just automate a template, plug in some numbers, and focus on growth.

But in a world where everyone isn’t a Delaware C-Corp; everyone isn’t on the same “billion or bust” growth path, and there is far more diversity among companies and investors, the conditions for heavy automation and standardization simply aren’t there, and likely never will be. It requires real financial, tax, legal, etc. advisors to handle real complexity, while right-sizing it for the stage and size of each particular business.

The truth is that outside of a few large startup ecosystems, there has always been much less uniformity among financing structures. Software engineers – frustrated with their inability to force everyone into uniform documentation that can be automated – have criticized this reality as backward and just needing to “catch up,” but to people on the ground it’s been pretty obvious they’re just hammers screaming at everyone to become a nail. More entrepreneurs are no longer comfortable being pigeon-holed into a one-size-fits-all growth path or legal structure, and long-term that’s a good thing for everyone.

Vesting Schedules – Beyond the Standard

TL;DR: The standard 4-year with a 1-year cliff vesting schedule is not the only option. Companies can use a number of alternatives to better align incentives, and even select for employees/founders with more loyalty and interest in long-term commitment.

This is not a post explaining what vesting schedules are – I make it a point to (try to) not duplicate content that others have already written about 10x on the web. See this post for a quick run-down.

Most people know that the “market standard” vesting schedule is 4-years with a 1-year cliff. That’s standard for employees, but also quite common for founders. I occasionally hear founders say that a founder team shouldn’t subject each other to a cliff, but generally I think that’s a bad idea. Some kind of cliff is a great way of ensuring that anyone there on Day 1 intends to be there for some meaningful amount of time. If they balk at a cliff, it says something; not entirely clear what it says, but it certainly says something of significance.

Advisors tend to have shorter schedules, like 1-2 years, because their grants are smaller and tenure tends to also be shorter. At least a 3-month cliff is always a good idea for advisors, in my opinion. If they balk, it, again, says something.  Making small, reasonable requests in any kind of relationship, and observing the response carefully, can be a great way to gauge a person’s personality, motivations, and perspective; even if you consider the request itself immaterial and easy to drop. 

However, for companies that feel like the standard approach doesn’t fit their context, or align incentives properly, there are a lot of smart alternatives that we’ve seen our client base adopt. Here are a few:

Milestone Vesting

Instead of vesting based on time, you set it to occur upon certain milestones. These can be any number of things: achieving a certain financing, a certain revenue level, hitting a sales quota, etc. Whenever we see milestone vesting, the milestones tend to be contextualized for the individual. And certainly it only makes sense to have milestones that the individual recipient of the stock actually plays a lead role in achieving.

The benefit of milestone vesting is it can, when it works, better align “earning” equity with actually delivering results, as opposed to simple tenure based on time. However, the challenges that arise are (i) in the drafting – getting people to agree on reasonable milestones, (ii) in deciding when they’ve been achieved – who ultimately decides? the Board? the CEO?, and (iii) when circumstances change and ambiguity arises as to whether the milestone has been met. And of course, it is just more of a hassle to have to track milestones for vesting purposes as opposed to just letting the clock tick.

My strong suggestion to clients whenever they go with milestone vesting is to stick to milestones with objective, unambiguous metrics. Stay away from anything that depends on someone’s opinion – like “doing X to the satisfaction of Y person.” You’re just asking for trouble if you go there. Something like “achieving $X in cumulative customer revenue” will result in far far fewer disputes. And remember to use milestones that the stock recipient plays a significant role in helping the Company achieve. That too will prevent arguments over unfairness or bad faith as to person Y being responsible for why person X didn’t get their vested equity.

Longer Schedules (5-6 years)

There is a lot of value in attracting employees who intend to be with your company for the long-haul, as opposed to those who hop between employers. The sense of long-term thinking and loyalty that a long-term employee can bring to key projects can be hugely important strategically. I’ve always found the “perk wars” of certain tech ecosystems to be somewhat counter-productive, as they tend (in my mind) to select for employees with more mercenary personalities, as opposed to people who want to be there for much more important reasons.

I’ve certainly applied that thinking to how I recruit for MEMN.  Honestly, if whether or not we offer free lunch or doggy sitting will influence your decision to work for us, I’d prefer you not.

Companies that deeply value long-term commitment will often consider having longer-than-standard vesting schedules; maybe 5 or 6 years. Of course, for this to work you generally need to provide an appropriately larger equity stake.  Someone might ask why not, instead of one grant with a longer schedule, simply committing to do another grant after the standard 4-years?

It’s true that you can do that, and the standard approach is to provide ‘fresh’ grants to employees, for retention purposes, once their original vesting schedules run their course. However, (i) a grant made years later will have a higher exercise/purchase price (for tax purposes), so it’s actually tax favorable to do an earlier grant with a larger schedule, and (ii) there’s something about a longer schedule that just signals a person’s long-term commitment better, particularly if coupled with back-weighted vesting (see below).

Back-Weighted Schedules

If you’re looking to use vesting schedules as a way to gauge long-term commitment, back-weighted vesting is definitely an option worth considering. The concept is quite simple. Instead of vesting in equal installments over a schedule, the back-end of the schedule provides more vesting than the front-end. So instead of 25% vesting per year, Year 1 may be only 10%, but Year 4 may be 40%. There is definitely some logic to this idea, because the value someone delivers to their employer tends to go up over time, as they’ve become integrated into the culture, moved up in rank, taken on more responsibility, etc.

A longer-than-standard schedule with back-weighted vesting is one of the strongest messages you can send as to how much significance the Company places on loyalty and long-term employment. And as I mentioned before, if someone really balks at the idea, pay attention to what that tells you, because it definitely tells you something.

For key hires, the standard doesn’t always fit. 

I hear it all the time: “just go with what’s standard.” I understand that approach, and it’s sometimes driven by an attitude that all of this legal mumbo jumbo doesn’t matter. Except for when it does.

For strategic hires, particularly in the very early days of a Company when your core team will totally make or break you, non-standard vesting schedules can be a valuable tool to align incentives, and “filter” for people who may not be as committed to the cause as you think they are. Remember: when someone says “no” to something you think is reasonable, it may not be fully clear why, but it tells you something. And that something can be very important. 

Promising Equity v. Issuing Equity

Background Reading:

An underlying theme of a number of SHL posts has been the common misunderstanding among young, first-time founders around what startup/vc lawyers in fact do. As I wrote in Legal Technical Debt, a mindset has emerged from certain startup circles suggesting that virtually anything legal that startups do at early-stage, from forming their company to raising seed financing, can be automated with software.

That confused mindset leads founders to (i) assume that all lawyers are just luddites over-charging startups for effectively filling in forms, and (ii) results in founders accruing an enormous amount of compounding ‘legal technical debt’ from badly drafted documents, mis-matched contracts, missed legal steps, etc. For companies that fail fast, the debt never comes due. And yes, there is a clear correlation, from my experience, between founders who arrogantly think lawyers are worthless and those that never build anything of significance.  Dumb people believe and do dumb things.

For those founders that do end up building a real business, however, the 10x cleanup cost of legal technical debt (relative to what it would’ve cost to do it correctly from the start) is often brutally painful. There are a lot of very interesting new tools out there being built to streamline and optimize how tech/vc lawyers work, and you should certainly look for lawyers who are using them. But if you think for a second that you’re going to build a real tech company without needing serious lawyers who can safely manage significant legal complexity, you are, without question, deluding yourself.  

A significant source of “automation confusion” arises from founders not understanding the difference between promising equity and actually issuing equity. I’ve noticed this from how many of our own (very early stage) clients will randomly e-mail us a set of contracts executed over a period of several months with a short message like: “we went ahead and *issued* some equity on our own.  just FYI.”  This blog post will save me from having to write the same e-mail 30 times in the future.

Promising Equity 

I can promise someone equity in 5 seconds, and 1 sentence.

“I promise to issue you 10,000 shares.”

See, it’s not hard. Promising equity is exactly as easy, and as automatable, as it sounds.  Anyone who automates a contract for promising equity, which usually means filling in numbers into a static template, doesn’t deserve the slightest bit of praise for innovation. It’s been do-able for decades.

Sure, people still make mistakes in promising equity all the time. They calculate the number of shares incorrectly, or they get the vesting schedule wrong (or don’t offer one at all), or they simply grabbed the wrong form to begin with.  But the point is that, perhaps with a little guidance from educational materials and a boilerplate form, promising someone equity is do-able as a DIY project.

Reality Check

The problem, of course, is that promising equity is 2% of the much more complicated process needed to actually issue equity. To correctly accomplish the issuance of equity from your company and into the hands of the intended recipient, a web of highly contextual legal analysis needs to occur. Just a short (non-exhaustive) example:

  • What kind of entity are you? That influences the type of equity you can issue.
  • Stock? Option?
    • If Stock, at what price?
    • If Option, at what price? To an employee, or a contractor?
  • Vesting schedule? 83(b)? Acceleration?
  • Was the price set correctly to avoid tax consequences?
  • Enough authorized shares?
  • Correct class of equity?
  • Is it being issued under an equity plan?
  • Was the plan adopted correctly?
  • Are there enough shares in the plan?
  • Is the recipient eligible to receive the equity under securities laws and tax rules?
  • Any state-specific rules/filings to comply with?
  • Any contractual approvals needed?
  • Any cap table adjustments needed, like anti-dilution?
  • Approved by Board?
  • Anyone else that needs to be notified about the Board action?
  • Any spouses we need to worry about for community property purposes?

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Want to try automating that? Good luck to you. Medical care will be fully automated before complex legal work is. Why? Because there’s far less variability in biology than there is between the legal structures of companies. You simply cannot automate (not in a commercially viable way, at least) in an environment where every use case has a totally different starting point, context, and history, in an infinite number of combinations. Even less so where high-stakes errors are cemented in ways (via contract execution and enforceability) that do not allow for quick and easy bug fixes. That is precisely the world in which serious VC lawyers operate.

Believe me, I empathize deeply with the disdain for lawyers held by many entrepreneurs, and share some of it myself. As someone who manages recruiting for our firm, I constantly find myself fighting a sense that the legal field is a magnet for people who think that perfecting their punctuation matters more than learning to actually advise clients on the what, why, and how of startup law.

But there are lawyers in the market who know how to get things done efficiently and correctly. I hire those lawyers. You can either (i) pay them now, (ii) pay them 10x later, or (iii) assume your company will fail before the debt comes due.