Startup Scaling

Startup Salaries Revealed: How Do Startups Pay Employees When Cash Is Tight

Learn how startups pay and compensate early employees with limited cash by using equity, stock options, and modest salaries to attract and retain top talent.
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Min Read
September 27, 2023

You've raised that all-important seed funding round, and now it's time to build your dream startup team. But how exactly do you structure employee pay at a very early-stage company? There are a few common options startups use, depending on their budget and goals.  

Stock options for employees. If cash is tight, stock options are a popular choice to attract top talent. They allow employees to buy company shares in the future if the startup does well. For early employees, stock options can represent a significant portion of total compensation.  

Founder's shares. For the very first hires who will help build your company from the ground up, founder's shares can motivate them like full co-founders. These shares typically vest immediately and carry more influence in the company.

Cash salaries. Though often modest at first, a regular paycheck provides stability for employees, especially those who can't afford to take the risk of stock-heavy compensation. Salaries also increase as the company scales and raises more funding.

You should offer benefits. Even basic benefits like health insurance and paid time off can help attract the right people, especially when competing with larger companies. Over time, matching 401(k)s, stock purchase plans, and more comprehensive benefits become feasible.

Remember, the goal is to structure compensation that fairly rewards employees for helping build your startup and aligns their interests with the company's long-term success. With the right cash, equity, and benefits balance, you'll be ready to hire that dream startup team.

Stock Options, Salaries, and Grit: How Startups Pay Employees When Funds Are Low

Cash is usually in short supply when startups are getting off the ground. This forces founders to get creative in how they pay and compensate employees. Stock options are often the most versatile and cost-effective tool for early-stage startups. They allow the company to attract talented individuals hungry for the promised growth in a startup's equity. Founders can grant stock options that don't cost the company any cash upfront but motivate employees to work hard to help the startup succeed and become valuable.

Founders' shares are common for the very first hires who help build the company. These shares typically vest immediately, giving key early employees a sizeable stake in the startup from day one. While salaries tend to be modest initially, even a small regular paycheck offers the stability that some employees need, especially compared to entirely equity-based compensation.

As startups raise more capital through funding rounds, salaries, and cash compensation usually increase to stay competitive and attract new hires that require market rates.

Out of necessity, startups often rely heavily on stock options and equity-based compensation to attract and retain top talent when cash is limited. But a balanced approach that provides some base salary and benefits can help motivate diverse employees.

Plants growing up on a background of a stock market diagram

Building Loyalty with Benefits: How Startups Care for Employees in Germany

As a startup founder in Germany, you know attracting top talent requires more than just competitive pay. Germans place high importance on work-life balance and healthcare protection. Some benefits are also mandated by law here.

You offer the standard 30 days of paid vacation that German workers expect. This helps employees feel valued while promoting better mental health and productivity over time.

Healthcare is a priority, so you cover statutory or private Krankenversicherung (public health insurance). Policies like TK or AOK provide employees with doctor visits, hospital care and more.

Regardless of children, German workers appreciate any support for families. Consider partnering with a kinderbetreuung to subsidize daycare. Offering parental leave exceeding the legal minimum also improves loyalty.

As public transport is king in Germany, you may cover job tickets for trains and buses so your employees can commute easily. A job ticket helps integrate work into daily life seamlessly.

Beyond legal requirements like a company pension, Germans welcome opportunities to save for retirement. Can you provide a small Riester-Rente or pension fund match after your first funding?  

Treating your workers well runs much deeper than salary here. By embracing the German emphasis on holistic well-being, you inspire the kind of dedication that truly moves businesses forward.

Regularly ask for feedback and adjust your benefits. Showing you're willing to keep improving for your employees' sake builds trust that you truly value them as people, not just workers.              

In the early days, you have to get creative. But any investment you make in your employees' well-being—from healthcare to company culture—will pay you back a hundredfold in the form of a motivated, high-performing team focused on building something great together.

Aligning Equity to Motivate and Retain  


You want your equity distribution plans to achieve two goals: motivate your early employees and retain them for the long term. You accomplish this by:  

Granting larger shares to your first hires. These individuals take the biggest risks to join your startup, so you reward them with a greater stake in the company's success.  

Using a vesting schedule that spans multiple years. This keeps employees' equity "at risk" if they leave prematurely, encouraging them to see their equity grants through. You may start with a 1- to 2-year cliff and monthly vesting afterward.    

Establishing stock option pools for future hires. This allows you to offer competitive equity grants as you scale without diluting your early employees' shares too much.  

Clearly explaining how equity works. You cover topics like exercise price, stock value, liquidity events, preferred vs. common stock, and more. Transparency helps employees understand the full value of their equity.

Regularly revisiting equity plans. As your startup grows, you may adjust vesting schedules, implement new stock option plans, or grant refreshers to retain key players. You make changes based on feedback from employees.

In the early days, equity is your primary motivator and retainer. By crafting distribution plans that are fair and transparent, you show you value employees' long-term commitment. You use stock to attract and retain the all-stars that will help your startup succeed.

Electronic cards on a futuristic background

Funding-Worthy Foundations: How Your Early Compensation Plan Lays the Groundwork for Future Investment

A well-thought-out compensation structure for early employees can help build a strong team and signal to future investors that you are managing your resources responsibly.

Investors want to see that you are budget-conscious, distributing equity in a fair way that properly motivates employees while conserving enough shares to attract the specialized talent needed for growth.

They also want to know you are giving enough salary and benefits to retain top performers who can maximize the impact of the capital they provide. A transparent and realistic compensation philosophy demonstrates to potential funders that you understand what it takes to build a sustainable company culture and workforce. A compensation plan that balances your early hires' needs with future growth requirements helps validate your business model and operational strategy to investors.

Ending on a High Note: Final Thoughts About Paying Your Early Employees

From day one, you want your compensation philosophy to be defined by three key principles: fairness, transparency, and adaptability.

Ensuring compensation feels fair to all employees motivates high performance. Early employees rightfully expect higher pay in terms of salary and equity given their added risk and responsibility. You balance this against maintaining internal equity as the company scales.      

Transparency means clearly communicating your pay strategy, equity terms, and compensation decisions. Early employees are still figuring out how startups operate, so you try to explain your reasoning around compensation. Frequent and open communication builds trust.        

Adaptability is essential as dynamics change. You regularly reevaluate salary levels, equity distribution, and benefits based on employee feedback, market trends, and what's needed to attract new hires. You make changes transparently and in the best interests of motivating your whole team.

Paying early employees poses unique challenges for startups. But by maintaining a compensation philosophy grounded in fairness, transparency, and adaptability, you build a motivated team focused on the venture's long-term success. Though tight on funds today, tomorrow's payout will be well worth your investment in your all-important early hires.

Images: Custom edited based on images from Unsplash by Javier Allegue, Planet volumes, Daniel Oberg & Ferdinand Stohr.

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Written by
Laura Bonomini
Written by
Laura Bonomini

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