How start-up founders decide what they should get paid

Money founders pay themselves is money that isn't going back to the company to pay for things such as staff salaries and rent. PHOTO: PEXELS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The first thing Ms Karen Cahn usually says to the founder of a new start-up is: "Congratulations, that's so great."

Then Ms Cahn, who runs a platform that helps fund start-ups, quickly gets personal: "Do you have savings? Are you wealthy? Are you keeping your day job?"

It all leads to an important but sometimes awkward question for people starting businesses now: What are you going to pay yourself?

It's an especially challenging question as start-ups navigate a moment of layoffs, limited funding and uncertainty after months of riding high.

After all, money founders pay themselves is money that is not going back to the company to pay for things such as staff salaries and rent.

"Every founder is trying to make their cash last longer," said Ms Jenny Lefcourt, a partner at Freestyle, a venture capital firm that typically invests in seed stage companies.

After a company in her portfolio recently laid off some employees, she said she was impressed and surprised to see that the founders volunteered to reduce their pay more significantly than did the remaining staff.

To her, that sent the message: "We care, we're believers."

But founder pay - whether in a downturn or when things are flush - always sends some kind of message.

Ms Fern Mandelbaum, a managing director of venture investing at the Emerson Collective, a social good organisation, and a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said that especially in this uncertain funding environment, it is crucial that founders consider whether their own pay is fair and equitable.

"If you're getting an above-market salary, does it send a message to take a cut? 100 per cent," she said.

One school of thought on founder pay - call it the ramen noodle camp - errs on the side of extreme frugality. If you have only so much runway and want your company to be a success, maybe you should pay yourself a bare minimum, or even not pay yourself at all for a few years.

"There's sort of this game of chicken that you're playing as a founder," said Associate Professor Ethan Mollick from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies entrepreneurship. "A lot of the reason why founder salaries are low is the symbolic importance of taking a low salary. It's kind of ritualistic at this point."

Others suggest that a salary closer to market rates for mid-level tech workers is appropriate and that founders at early-stage companies should be able to devote their energies to building the company without worrying about basic necessities.

"You must take care of your needs," Ms Mandelbaum said, even if you are optimistic about how the company will grow.

Although some founders think paying themselves poorly sets a worthy example, others actually worry that the perception of drawing a low salary could backfire.

Ms Cahn, who said she had built up her personal wealth in her tech career, did not want to pay herself a salary when she founded IFundWomen, her start-up platform.

She wanted to put that money into hiring her team.

But in 2019, she started paying herself a salary of US$75,000 (S$105,000), which she reduced to US$45,000 during the coronavirus pandemic. (She has since reinvested that money into product development.)

"I only did it to actually show investors that this wasn't just some rich lady's hobby," she said. "Oftentimes, that's how investors will look at women who are starting businesses and that are not paying themselves."

A founder is generally not the only one deciding what he or she will be paid. The board and investors may weigh in, too.

According to an analysis from Carta, a company that collects and analyses data on start-ups' financials, the median salary for a chief executive at a start-up with a valuation between US$1 million and US$10 million is about US$162,000.

Start-ups' CEOs are often, but not always, founders.

A 2021 survey from Pilot, an accounting firm that focuses on start-ups, showed that founders of companies that had raised US$1 million to US$5 million paid themselves an average of US$96,700.

Factors such as a company's size, stage, location and sector can all influence what founders pay themselves, as can the technical background of the founder.

As tech companies face layoffs - last month Cameo, a celebrity shout-out app, and On Deck, a career services company, were among those that cut at least 20 per cent of their staffs - and valuations plummet, it is possible that some founders will feel pressure to reduce their own pay.

"Maybe eating ramen in a small apartment will feel more normalised again," Ms Lefcourt said, quickly adding, "I'm not recommending it."

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