I had 3 founders who had questions about compensation in Indian startups last week. One founder is building a mobile application for social TV, another a SaaS marketing application and the third a retail loyalty program using mobile phones.
They had multiple variants to the same question:
1. One was trying to figure out what percentage of stock to give an “active” advisor who was promising connections and a deal with a top customer.
2. Another was trying to see if she should pay for legal fees with stock (this is a US entrepreneur). Indian lawyers rarely accept stock as payment.
3. The third had a MySQL consultant who wanted to be paid only in cash.
To address these questions and more I am sharing a “compensation framework”, that I have used consistently for figuring out “how do I pay” for startups.
On the x-axis I put part-time and full time commitment. On the y-axis I put the payment methods – stock and cash.
For most parts, before getting funded, founders of the company get “paid” only in stock. So if your company is not making money or is making “not sufficient” money to pay the founders full salaries, then stock is the only compensation for founders. Usually most founders will get their stock vested over 4 years, or they may own the company outright. On funding (institutional or seed), most founders still tend to take a small amount of money (not full opportunity cost salary) since their motivation should be to grow the company and use the investment towards growing the company’s value instead of growing their own bank accounts.
Full time employees get paid mostly in cash (and some stock). The Silicon Valley model is to pay 20-25% less than market rate for key full time hires, and “make them whole” with stock options which will have more value than current cash, if there was an exit in 2-5 years. Most Indian employees however do not like stock options and view them as “gravy”. I agree with their view for most parts, since exits are far and few between in Indian startups. Since key engineers, marketing professionals in India expect full pay or close-to-full-pay (some actually expect a pay hike with a startup because of the perceived risk), I am of the opinion that you dont give everyone stock options until you have proven that the company has market momentum. You can always accelerate their vesting pro-rata based on their tenure with the company when you believe there’s a strong potential for an exit for the company (i.e after 2-3 years).
Consultants of every kind (sales, lawyers, accountants, UI experts, marketing consultants) who work part-time should get paid only in cash is my perspective. They dont add long term value to any startup and while they are valuable in the short-to-medium term, their commitments are rarely with the startup alone. If you cant afford to pay the consultant market rate, I would offer the deferred compensation, or “true up” compensation on growth, but not stock.
Finally advisors and mentors, should only be paid in stock. How much equity you pay the advisor in a startup depends on a) the quality and market-worthiness of the advisors b) the amount of time they spend with the company and c) the expected objective you get them on board as advisors. E.g. If you are getting a mentor to open doors to potential customers, they would be given stock corresponding to the type and number of doors they open for your or the number of customers you close because of their help. Usually advisory positions are awarded stock vesting over a 18 or 24 month period (tenure of their position with the company). I know most entrepreneurs in India use US metrics (0.25-1% of stock in the seed stage, less in follow on stages) for percentage of stock to give advisors, but that’s not going to get you quality advisors in India. Since exits are fairly rare, you have to double the US (Valley) advisor stock options percentages and motivate good, high quality advisors to help you get achieve your goals.
Love to hear if you guys think differently.
P.S. Friend and investor Rohit has some datapoints around active angel investors data points.