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What is a reasonable salary for early founders when raising outside capital

In the intricate dance of founding a startup and seeking outside capital, determining a reasonable salary for CEOs or founders becomes a crucial consideration. Typically, a CEO or founder’s salary ranges from $100,000 to $200,000, taking into account their experience and market value. In certain scenarios, the value can soar to $500,000 or more, especially if the individual brings a decade of seasoned leadership to the table. Investors, however, prefer CEOs to have “skin in the game” — a financial stake that fosters commitment and a sense of urgency.

Like a salesperson, you never pay them enough in base salary to be totally happy, or financially comfortable. Stock value should be the main long-term motivation.” – Unknown

Motivation, it seems, is intricately tied to financial structures. The base salary, though a vital component, is dwarfed by the potential upside of equity. Investors seek founders who are a hundred percent committed, unburdened by personal financial concerns or distractions. It’s a delicate balance — offering enough to sustain founders’ livelihoods while keeping them hungry for the substantial rewards tied to their equity.

The Marathon of Building a Company: Founding a company is likened to a marathon, not a sprint. Commitment for a minimum of five years is expected from all founders, with the potential for substantial financial gain contingent on reasonable success. In the realm of venture capital opportunities, a $10 million to $20 million upside is considered par for the course. A robust stock option pool of 10% to 50% is set aside for the core team, offering a tangible stake in the company’s growth.

“I would never sell more than twenty percent to investors in a first-round series A.” – Unknown

Strategic Dilution: In the delicate balance of equity distribution, wisdom prevails. In a Series A round, founders typically avoid selling more than twenty percent to investors. This careful approach ensures that founders and their core team retain a significant 80% ownership. Seed funds ranging from $1 million to $3 million are secured to propel the real product into the market at scale, steering clear of a myopic focus solely on the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). A subsequent Series B round, while raising 2 to 4 times the capital, still entails selling only 30%, preserving a substantial 50% for founders and employees.

“Smart investors grant more options if the management team is diluted below 20% with 10% to a CEO Founder maintained.” – Unknown

Recognizing Value: Smart investors recognize the value of retaining key players. If the management team faces dilution below the 20% threshold, wise investors often grant additional options, with a special focus on preserving the CEO Founder’s stake at 10%. This becomes even more pronounced if the founder contributed early-stage capital — a strategic move that aligns investor and founder interests.

The Bootstrap Blueprint: A resounding truth echoes through the corridors of entrepreneurial success — every billionaire started by bootstrapping. Proof of concept and revenue precede institutional capital, adhering to the lean startup methodology. Founders, through sweat equity and personal funds, build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), creating a practical path for most companies.

In the intricate tapestry of startup growth and scaling, the decisions around founder salaries and equity distribution play a pivotal role. Striking the right balance ensures not only the financial sustainability of founders but also the unwavering commitment essential for steering a startup through the marathon of building a successful company.

Bob Norton is a long-time Serial Entrepreneur, CEO and investor who founded six companies with four exits that returned over $1 billion to investors for a 25X ROI. Two others are still in development. He has trained, consulted and advised thousands of Entrepreneurs, CEOs and boards since 2002. Mr. Norton works with companies to 2X to 10X growth rates and valuation using AirTight Management™, the world’s most comprehensive Leadership Operating System. He also helps companies raise capital to fund growth. He is also the Founder of The CEO Boot Camp™ and Entrepreneurship Universityfor early-stage companies that have not reached product-market fit and $1M ARR.

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