How much should you pay your first employees?

March 13, 2024

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Grab your coffee, folks, because today we're going to unravel the murky waters of employee compensation. As startups, we often feel like David in a world full of Goliaths when it comes to hiring. "What on earth do I pay people?", "Do I offer them stock options, avocado toast, or maybe an adorable company mascot?" 

The first employees in your startup are a critical investment, not just a line item on the budget. You're not just paying for their skills, you're paying for their belief in your vision, the risks they're taking, and the value they'll create. However, setting the right salaries involves a balance between your startup's budget constraints, industry standards, and the specific value each employee brings to the table. Now, on to the good stuff.

Understanding the Value Proposition

What's your startup's superpower? Your value proposition is that magic spell you've concocted that sets you apart from the competition. It's your startup's unique blend of problem-solving skills, disruptive technology, or maybe you've just cornered the market on left-handed can openers. Whatever it is, it's what makes your business stand out from the crowd. 

But how does this link to employee compensation, you ask? Picture this: your startup is a rock band. Your value proposition is the catchy hook that everyone hums in the shower. Now, your first hires? They're your lead vocalist and drummer - they bring your catchy hook to life. They amplify your value proposition and make it resonate with your customers. Therefore, their compensation must reflect their role in turning your unique value proposition into a chart-topper.

Let's say you've invented the world's first AI-powered, vegan, latte-making robot - the next big thing since sliced bread (or sliced avocados). Your value proposition is clear: you're saving the world one dairy-free latte at a time. Your first hires, whether they're coding geniuses or marketing gurus, will play a crucial role in turning your caffeinated dream into reality. So, when you're deciding how much to pay them, consider how their skills and effort will contribute to delivering that unique value you're offering.

Remember, your compensation should not just be a number plucked out of thin air or the result of a thumb war. It should be a reflection of your value proposition, a reward for the employees' contribution to delivering that value. After all, we're not just creating jobs here, we're creating value, and that's worth every penny. 

So, buckle up, startup rockstars. The ride is bumpy, and the stakes are high. But remember, the rhythm of your startup's success is played on the drum of fair and strategic employee compensation. Now, let's rock 'n roll, shall we?

One of the most critical yet complex tasks is determining how to compensate your early employees. These pioneers, who join you on your entrepreneurial journey, play a pivotal role in shaping the future of your company. Therefore, it's essential to ensure they are fairly compensated, fostering a sense of ownership and commitment. Let's delve into the first three key aspects of this process.

The Option Pool: A Strategic Reserve

The concept of an option pool is a cornerstone in startup equity distribution. It's not just a fancy term thrown around in board meetings, but a strategic reserve of equity specifically set aside for employees. This pool serves as a tool to attract, motivate, and retain talent by offering them a share in the company's potential success.

Typically, startups reserve between 13% to 20% of their total equity for the option pool. However, this isn't a one-size-fits-all number. The size of the pool depends on various factors such as the startup's growth stage, its hiring plan, and the competitive landscape of the industry. For instance, a startup in a highly competitive tech sector might need a larger option pool to attract top-tier talent compared to a startup in a less competitive market.

The option pool also plays a crucial role in mitigating the dilution of each shareholder's ownership as the company grows. As more employees are granted options and the total number of shares increases, each shareholder's percentage ownership decreases. However, because the company's value is expected to grow over time, the hope is that the shareholder's smaller percentage will represent a larger absolute value.

Salary and Equity: The Balancing Act

When it comes to compensating early employees, salary and equity are two sides of the same coin. They represent the delicate balance between immediate financial stability and potential future gains. 

In an ideal world, startups would offer competitive salaries and generous equity packages. However, given the financial constraints many startups face, this isn't always feasible. Therefore, startups often need to offer more equity to compensate for salaries that may be below the market rate. 

The balance between salary and equity isn't just about making up for a financial shortfall. It's about aligning the interests of the employees with the long-term success of the company. When employees hold equity, they have a vested interest in the company's growth and success. This alignment can foster a culture of ownership and commitment, driving innovation and productivity.

However, it's important to remember that equity compensation isn't a substitute for fair pay. While the promise of future gains can be attractive, employees also have immediate financial needs and responsibilities. Therefore, startups must strive to offer a salary that, while perhaps below market rate, still respects the skills, experience, and contributions of the employee.

Levels and Fields: The Equity Landscape

The level of the role and the field of work are two key factors that influence the size of an equity grant. Just as in a game of chess, each piece on the board has a different value, so too in a startup, different roles command different levels of equity.

Senior roles such as C-level executives or top engineers often command a premium in terms of equity. These roles are critical to the startup's success and often require a unique blend of skills, experience, and leadership. Therefore, to attract and retain talent for these roles, startups often need to offer larger equity grants.

The field of work also plays a significant role in determining equity grants. For instance, in the tech industry, roles in engineering and product development are often in high demand. To attract talent in these fields, startups may need to offer larger equity grants. On the other hand, roles in other fields, such as sales or marketing, might have different compensation expectations, often leaning towards more cash compensation and less equity.

However, it's important to remember that while levels and fields provide a general guideline, each startup is unique. Factors such as the startup's industry, growth stage, and culture, as well as the individual's skills, experience, and contributions, should all be considered when determining equity grants.


Engineers are the backbone of any tech startup. They're the ones who turn the founders' vision into a tangible product. As such, their compensation often reflects their critical role. 

According to data from Carta's "State of Startup Compensation H2 2022" report, the median equity granted to engineers at seed-stage startups is 0.8%. This figure decreases as the company grows, with engineers at Series A, B, and C startups receiving median equity of 0.6%, 0.4%, and 0.2% respectively.

However, the equity granted can vary significantly based on the engineer's level. For instance, a lead engineer at a post-Series A startup could expect equity in the range of 0.5-1%, according to the Holloway Guide to Equity Compensation. A senior engineer might receive 0.33-0.66%, while a manager or junior engineer might get 0.2-0.33%.


Operations roles are crucial for ensuring the smooth running of a startup. These roles might include operations managers, project managers, and HR professionals. 

While specific data on operations roles is harder to come by, we can infer from the Holloway Guide that operations roles would likely receive less equity than their engineering counterparts, given the higher risk and technical nature of engineering roles. However, this doesn't mean they're any less valuable. A well-run operations team can be the difference between a startup that thrives and one that struggles.

Human Resources

Human Resources (HR) plays a vital role in startups, especially when it comes to hiring and retaining talent. However, as with operations roles, specific data on HR compensation in startups is scarce.

That said, it's reasonable to assume that HR professionals would receive a similar level of equity to operations roles, given their non-technical nature. However, an HR professional with a strong track record and in-demand skills could potentially negotiate for higher equity.

Making the Right Offer: A Balancing Act

In the hiring labyrinth, negotiations serve as the final litmus test. This stage can dramatically sway the compensation package, and hence, should be handled with utmost finesse. Let's delve into the methodology:

  • Research is Your Rudder: Before you step onto the negotiation turf, arm yourself with knowledge about industry standards for the role in question. Also, don't overlook the distinct attributes the candidate brings to the table. 
  • Transparency Triumphs: A candid dialogue about your salary and equity calculations, the company's finances, and growth projections helps build trust and showcases your faith in the venture's success.
  • Individualize the Offer: Recognize the unique needs of your candidate. Some may favor salary over equity, while others may be inclined towards the latter. Mold your offer to fit their expectations to the extent possible.
  • Flexibility Within Framework: Be adaptive in negotiations, but maintain clear limits. If demands exceed what you can sustain, don't hesitate to retract. Stand firm but fair in your stance.
  • Post-Negotiation Protocol: Summarize the agreed terms in an employment contract and maintain open lines of communication about role expectations and future compensation possibilities. 


Marketing is another crucial function in startups. After all, even the best product won't succeed if nobody knows about it. 

According to data from, the Head of Marketing at a Series C startup with 101-200 employees received a salary of $330,000 and 0.17% equity. This shows that marketing roles can command significant compensation, especially at later-stage startups.


Sales roles are vital for driving revenue and growth in a startup. As such, they often come with competitive compensation packages.

Again, specific data on sales roles is hard to come by. However, given the direct impact of sales on a startup's bottom line, it's reasonable to assume that sales professionals could command a similar level of compensation to their marketing counterparts.

In conclusion, while the exact compensation can vary based on factors like the startup's stage, location, and the individual's skills and experience, these figures provide a rough guide to what early employees might expect in different roles. As always, it's crucial for startups to offer fair and competitive compensation to attract and retain the best talent.

Legal Nuances of Employee Compensation: A Closer Look

The legal aspects of employee compensation present a maze that needs careful navigation. This section aims to illuminate the legal requirements of benefits, tax implications of equity compensation, and legal considerations of different equity types.

  • Benefit Blues: Legally, employers are obligated to provide certain benefits like Social Security, workers' compensation, and unemployment insurance. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provisions, as well as healthcare under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for companies with 50+ employees, also need adherence. Ensure you stay compliant with these regulations.
  • Equity Compensation and Taxes: The tax implications of equity compensation hinge on several variables like type of equity, grant date, vesting schedule, and exercise date. For instance, Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) and Non-qualified Stock Options (NSOs) have differing tax treatments. ISOs, while free of ordinary income tax at exercise, can trigger Alternative Minimum Tax. NSOs are taxed at ordinary income rates upon exercise. Always consult a tax professional for guidance.
  • Equity Types – Stock Options and Restricted Stock Units (RSUs): Stock options give employees the right to buy a company's stock at a set price, while RSUs are company shares given to an employee through a vesting plan and distribution schedule. Each has unique legal and tax implications. Options may become worthless if the company's stock price doesn't rise above the exercise price, while RSUs hold some value unless the stock price falls to zero. Again, a tax professional can provide essential advice in these matters.

Legal components of employee compensation are multi-faceted and complex. It's advisable to engage legal and tax professionals to ensure your compensation structure is compliant, optimized, and equitable. This not only safeguards the company from potential legal woes but also helps retain and attract top talent by demonstrating ethical and professional practices.

Transparency: The Key to Trust

Transparency in compensation is not just a buzzword; it's a crucial element in building trust between employers and employees. When employees have a clear understanding of how their pay is determined and believe that the process is fair, they are more likely to feel valued and engaged. This, in turn, can boost morale, productivity, and overall job satisfaction.

However, transparency doesn't mean revealing every employee's salary to the entire company. It means being open about the factors that influence compensation decisions, such as the market rate for the role, the employee's skills and experience, and the company's financial situation. It also means providing a clear explanation of the equity compensation structure and how it might change over time.

Transparency can also help address pay disparities and promote pay equity. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, pay transparency can help close pay gaps. However, it's important to approach this with care, as it can also lead to comparisons and potential dissatisfaction if not handled properly.

Accounting for the Total Cost to Company

When considering compensation, it's important to remember that an employee's salary and equity are just part of the total cost to the company. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, benefits cost employers an average of $13.17 per hour, accounting for 31% of total costs. These benefits might include health insurance, retirement contributions, and paid time off.

In addition to benefits, there are other costs associated with hiring and retaining employees. These might include recruitment costs, training and development costs, and the cost of providing a suitable working environment. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, the total cost of an employee is typically 1.25 to 1.4 times their salary.

Therefore, when setting compensation, startups need to consider the total cost to the company, not just the salary and equity. This can help ensure that the compensation package is sustainable and aligned with the company's financial situation.

Strategies in Action

One of the most effective ways to understand the practicality and effectiveness of these strategies is to look at their implementation in real-world scenarios. Let's take a deep dive into a few examples of how startups have successfully applied these strategies.

  • Buffer's Transparency Policy: Buffer, a social media management platform, is widely known for its radical transparency in all business aspects, including salary. They have a publicly accessible salary formula that everyone in the company follows, and it provides a clear understanding of their earnings. This practice not only eliminates ambiguity and potential disagreements but also improves employee trust and engagement.
  • Gravity Payments' Minimum Wage Hike: CEO Dan Price of Gravity Payments, a credit card processing company, took a radical step in 2015. He slashed his salary from $1.1 million to $70,000 and raised the company's minimum wage to the same amount. The move resulted in a significant increase in productivity and loyalty, proving that an investment in employees is indeed an investment in the company.
  • Gusto's Flexible Benefits: Gusto, a payroll and benefits provider, offers a flexible benefits program. The program allows employees to pick and choose their benefits, such as fitness or continued education stipends. This customizable approach respects individual employee needs, boosting satisfaction and morale.
  • Asana's Equity Strategy: Asana, a project management platform, offers equity to all its employees. Their philosophy is that when everyone is an owner, they are more committed and invested in the company's success. This broad-based ownership approach promotes inclusivity and unity, fostering a collective drive towards business goals.

These examples illustrate the practical application and effectiveness of the strategies discussed in our guide. They prove that thoughtful, employee-centric compensation strategies not only contribute to a positive work culture but also drive business success.

Setting Up the Compensation Structure

Setting up a compensation structure for a startup is a complex task that requires careful planning and consideration. Here are some steps to guide the process:

1. Market Analysis: Start by conducting a market analysis to understand the going rate for different roles in your industry and location. This can help ensure that your compensation is competitive and fair. According to Payscale, the average salary for startup employees stands at roughly $101,000 per year, with a range of $54,000 to $185,000.

2. Define Levels and Roles: Define the different levels and roles within your startup and determine the base salary and equity range for each. This can help provide a clear structure for your compensation and ensure consistency.

3. Consider Total Cost: As mentioned earlier, consider the total cost to the company, including benefits and other costs. This can help ensure that your compensation is sustainable and aligned with your financial situation.

4. Transparency: Be transparent about your compensation structure. This can help build trust and ensure that employees understand how their compensation is determined.

5. Regular Review: Regularly review your compensation structure to ensure it remains competitive and aligned with your company's growth and financial situation.


In conclusion, setting up a fair and effective compensation structure for a startup is a complex but crucial task. By considering factors like market rates, roles and levels, total cost, and transparency, startups can create a compensation structure that attracts and retains top talent, aligns with their financial situation, and fosters a culture of trust and engagement.

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Note: Our content is for general information purposes only. Levy does not provide legal, accounting, or certified expert advice. Consult a lawyer, CPA, or other professional for such services.

  • Understanding the Value Proposition
  • The Option Pool: A Strategic Reserve
  • Salary and Equity: The Balancing Act
  • Levels and Fields: The Equity Landscape
  • Engineering
  • Operations
  • Human Resources
  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Legal Nuances of Employee Compensation: A Closer Look
  • Transparency: The Key to Trust
  • Accounting for the Total Cost to Company
  • Strategies in Action
  • Setting Up the Compensation Structure
  • Conclusion

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