Founder salaries are not a topic I’ve had to spend a lot of time with so far. I usually just “OK” them, since the founders we are working with are all super reasonable people who carefully weigh how much they need against the interests of the company – their company. But sometimes founders ask me for a suggestion or some guidance because they are uncertain as to what is fair, and so I thought it might be useful to create a simple model.
The model calculates the founder salary based on three drivers: stage, family situation, and location.
Unless you’re in the fortunate position to generate revenues almost from day 1 or to raise a sizable seed round right at the start you’ll probably not be able to pay yourself any salary at all, at least in the first few months, for the simple fact that the company doesn’t have any money to spend. If you raise a small angel or friends & family round, you’ll probably want to spend it on other things than founder salaries. Once you’ve raised a bigger seed round and/or you start to generate revenues, that changes and you can pay yourself a modest salary.
In the calculator, I’ve assumed that the “entry salary” for a Berlin-based founder who doesn’t have kids is $50,000. I’ve then assumed that that amount increases to $75,000, $95,000 and $115,000 when you reach funding and revenue milestones that roughly correspond with a Series A, Series B and Series C round, respectively. I don’t think founders should get salaries that make them rich, but as soon as the company can afford it the founders should get enough so that they don’t have to be worried about how to make ends meet all the time. And if a little more allows them to outsource some errands and chores after a 100-hour-work-week I’m all for it!
It might surprise you to hear this from a venture capitalist, but my approach to founder salaries is a little communistic: I think founder salaries should not be based on performance alone but should also take into account what the founder needs. If that means that one founder gets more cash than the others because in contrast to them he or she has a family to take care of, that’s fine with me. A founder’s cash compensation doesn’t reflect the value which she contributes to the company anyway, so who cares if one of them gets a little more than the others.
My model, therefore, assumes that for each kid you add $10,000 (multiplied by the location factor, more on that soon). Whether this is the right amount is of course debatable, and there can be other aspects besides having children that need to be taken into account.
The “need-based” approach can, of course, go both ways: if a founder had a sizable exit already, he may want to forgo his salary or reduce it to a symbolic amount, at least in the first few years. I did that at my last startup, Pageflakes, and thought that besides saving the company some money it can also have a positive impact on the company culture if people know that the founder’s interests are 100% tied to the company’s success.
The third factor that I’ve included is location. I’ve defined Berlin as 1.0x and have assumed that in Paris, London and San Francisco, you’ll have to pay yourself 1.3x, 1.5x and 1.8x as much in order to have a similar standard of living. These ratios are roughly in line with the data published on this website. If you want to find out the ratios for other cities, take a look.
- The numbers in the model reflect what I think is market and fair based on the data points that we have and some industry benchmarks that we were able to get. However, our data set is quite limited and the numbers produced by the calculator should by no means be taken as the ultimate truth. If you disagree with my assumptions or have seen different numbers in the market I’d love to hear from you!
- I saw a study according to which founder salaries are much lower. According to this data source, 75% of Silicon Valley based founders pay themselves less than $75,000, with 66% paying themselves less than $50,000. Based on these numbers, even for companies that have raised more than $10M the average salary is only $81,700. This looked odd to me, and maybe the difference is due to the fact that the study is three years old. I ignored this data source for now, but again, suggestions and input are very much appreciated.
- The model assumes that the founder gets a fixed salary with no bonus. I’m not strongly against including a bonus component in a founder’s package, but I think it’s usually not necessary. If you own a big chunk of equity, I don’t think you’ll need a performance bonus to be motivated and rewarded.
- The model doesn’t differentiate between the founding CEO, tech founder and other roles. In the first couple of years it’s usually not necessary to differentiate based on the founder’s role because everyone in the founder team carries a similar load. At a later stage, when the company has a bigger leadership team, it makes sense that the CEO gets more than the other founders. The numbers in the model are calibrated for founder CEOs, so you may want to reduce the amounts for other founders at the Series B or C stage.
- The calculator shows the results for the various stages and locations simultaneously, so you can easily compare the numbers side-by-side. The number of kids, however, needs to be entered (column I). If you enter a different value here, the numbers in column K and column P will be updated accordingly. Showing the results for various numbers of kids simultaneously would have added a lot of additional permutations and would have made the sheet very large.
- The blue numbers are input variables and you can change them if you’d like to adjust the model. The brown numbers can be changed, too, but aren’t used as inputs for the calculation. To play around with the numbers please make a copy (File > Make a copy).