Hiring for Startups- Cash vs. Equity Compensation

I help startups with growth- and my job revolves around product, customer acquisition, creating and automating marketing process. The job is challenging, exciting and stimulating.

Over the last couple of years I have started seeing a pattern in the startup madness.  Startup founders have similar challenges and question and the opportunities and answers also have a pattern.  In the last 15 years of my startup life I have been asked same question multiple times by different entrepreneurs. These days, at times it feels like Deja-vu.

However, every once in a while founders pitch a question that puts me on back foot. Last week, in a routine growth strategy meeting, one of my advisee founders hurled one such question. This startup is addressing the urban commute problem in India.  They have raised the seed round and are preparing for Series- A. It is a 2 founder startup with a 20 people operations and they are now looking to hire a Head of Operations- a person who will be No. 3 in the organization matrix.  The question was- How much equity and cash compensation should be offered to the head of  operation they are planning to hire.

Hiring for startups is different as startups pay less than the market and compensate with non-listed (non-liquid) equity with a lock in period. I have hired for my startups in the past. However, to be honest, I have not figured out the formula to compensation structure, most of the times the compensation structure was based on ‘hunch’.

In this article I have tried to put a template for the cash vs equity decision. The numbers you arrive at with this formula are guidelines and subject the stage of the startup.

Let’s  assume you are trying to hire a person who is drawing  $ 40,000 per annum however, she is due for increments and her market value is $ 50,000 per Annum. You want to lock in  the new employee for 3 years and can pay $30,000 per Annum in year 1 with a 15{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c} increment every year.

Step 1: Calculate the potential loss of  earnings:

(Here I’m assuming star performers get a 25{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c} hike Year on Year in India.)

Loss of Pay year 1:  $20,000
Loss of Pay year 2:  1.25 * 50,000 – 1.15 *  30,000 = $ 28,000
Loss of Pay year 3:  1.25 * 62,500 – 1.15 *  34,500 = $43,625
Total Loss of Earnings: $91,625

Step 2: Calculate the cost of raising  capital  (equivalent to total loss of earnings) .

What percentage equity did you part with for $91,625 in the previous fund raising round. Say you are valued at $4 million in the previous ( angel) round, then $91,625 is equivalent to  3.05{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c}

Step 3: Compensate for the risk the employee is taking.

I do not have a foolproof formula for calculating the risk. However, you could try the probability of  raising next round method. Try to answer the question – what is the likelihood  of  you raising the next round before you burn the cash reserves. If you think it is 60{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c} ( you are in advanced discussions with 3-4 VCs) then the risk is 40{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c}
Step 4: Compensate for complementary skill the new employee brings to the team.

This is another judgement. Try to answer the question-  what is the likelihood  of  you raising the next round without the new employee. If the answer is 30{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c} then the compensation for complementary skill is 70{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c}.

Step 5: Calculate the Equity.

In this case- 3.05{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c} + 20{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c} (3.05{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c}) + 70{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c} (3.05{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c}) = 5.79{b533f414762ff80097ee09d177cb5141b2a13e37c77cdd72580da9125ed6123c}

The above formula is just a guideline. The key to startup hiring is “Great Teams makes Great  Products and Great companies.

Bhaskar Thakur

Digital Transformation & Marketing Leader , Growth Enabler, Recreational Runner, Learner & Seeker. On this blog I share my perspective on Technology, Entrepreneurship, Startups, Growth, Health, Running and Biking.