Splitting Founder Equity: Avoid “Grunt Funds”

TL;DR Nutshell: If you plan on building a scalable, VC-backed company, you need to learn (early on) to have hard conversations. Fact. Your first hard conversation may involve figuring out the equity split among founders. A few people (who are good at SEO) are pushing a concept called “Grunt Funds” in which founder equity, instead of being negotiated and set from the beginning, continues to change month-by-month according to some overly complex formula.  I’ve never seen it work well in the context of high-growth tech startups. Have the hard conversation. If you can’t figure out how to split founder equity, good luck building a company. 

Negotiating the “equity split” among a pair or group of founders is an extremely important part of a startup’s formation process, and there is a lot of good web content available providing guidance on how to get it done. Below is a list of a few articles worth reading. I don’t necessarily endorse all of what they say, but it’s your job as CEO/Founder to read, make your own judgments, and act on them. Advisor Whiplash is part of the job.

Another piece of relevant reading on how to document founder splits: SHL: How Founders (Should) Break Up

The point of this post is to make one thing clear: if you are building the type of startup that will raise angel and VC money, stay away from “Grunt Funds” or anything that attempts to create a variable, constantly changing founder equity split. 

Figure Out the Numbers. Don’t Hide Behind Formulas. 

I’m not going to link to any articles promoting the “grunt fund” concept to avoid giving it any more air time on Google than it already has. The origin is a book called “Slicing the Pie.” Basically, instead of figuring out founder equity %s like a normal company, “grunt fund” founders set up a formula with half a dozen metrics that are measured on a monthly basis to gauge “performance,” “contribution,” whatever, and founder equity is accumulated over time based on those metrics. It is tedious, ends up costing more in legal fees in the long-run, and in my experience never survives scrutiny from investors. It has, every time I’ve encountered it (thankfully, a significant minority of cases) ended up being a waste of founder time and money.

Good Founder Docs Are Already Flexible

The core driver behind the desire for an always-changing equity split among founders can be boiled down to one question: “what if things change?” What if one person turns out to be a dud, and another unexpectedly a rockstar? What if someone’s personal life causes them to leave? What if the business changes and a particular founder’s skills are no longer valuable?  These are absolutely valid questions, and they require that founder equity have built in mechanisms to allow equity to be readjusted if needed.

Thankfully, there already is such a flexible mechanism in well-known, standard startup formation documents: it’s called a vesting schedule. If one person is no longer valuable to the startup, then they can leave, forfeiting their unvested equity. Or if they refuse to leave, they can be fired, also giving up their unvested equity.  Or if one person knows they’ve turned out to be more valuable than the % they got, they can force a hard discussion, with a credible threat to walk. If they are in fact as valuable as they think they are, the other founder(s) will change their %.

Is this set-up totally flexible? No, it’s not meant to be. Is it as egalitarian as a grunt fund? Maybe not, but nobody said successful startups are democracies. Brilliance is rarely built by committee. See Mark Suster on “The Importance of Benevolent Dictators.” Founder in-fighting probably ruins at least as many companies as flawed business fundamentals.

Smart Founders Figure it Out.

In my experience, successful startups are generally built either by a single founder or by founders who, more or less, know their place in the hierarchy. They have a common vision, often have strong, trusting relationships (friendships), and have a pretty good feel for whose skills really are more valuable to the startup than others. The CEO is the CEO, and the other founders know exactly why he/she is CEO. They have the tough conversations early-on, and if circumstances warrant a change from the original split, they figure it out. Ultimately, a solid founder group cares far more about building a successful company than about burning time in nonsensical formulas every month trying to see whose % went up.

I’ve seen all kinds of equity splits: 50/50 (generally a bad idea, but not always), 60/40, 33/33/33, 51/49, 80/20, all kinds of iterations. The “right” split is highly circumstantial. But in the end, the founders figure out the numbers, paper them with solid docs, and move on.

Does this mean “grunt funds” don’t work for anyone? No, I didn’t say that.  I work with the segment of the startup space that goes after scale and (usually) large amounts of outside investment needed to reach that scale. Founders jumping on that train know from the beginning that they are in for a very bumpy ride, and that anything short of complete trust and unity of vision among the team will result in a train-wreck. I’m sure GFs work in some contexts, just not in high-growth tech startups.

Have the hard conversation, avoid tedious formulas, and then get to work.