Guest Post – Team, the most important ingredient in a startup

Ask any investor or successful entrepreneur, and they will reiterate that the most important factor in a start-up is the quality of its founding team. A team is more important than the idea or the size of the market or the technology or the business case, or indeed any other factor that investors will review to check the investment-worthiness of a venture.

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Even if  – the product is great; the technology is cutting-edge; the market is large and the company has a strong chance to be a dominant player in that large market – investors will hesitate to invest in the venture if they do not get the confidence that the founding team can deliver in the market.

What investors seek is a team that is passionate about the subject, is enthusiastic about the opportunity, has a good grasp on the dynamics of ‘business’ and not just the product/service, and who can demonstrate commitment to fight it out in the market.

While it is good to have experience in the domain, that is not a must, as that will exclude a number of bright people who either do not have work experience or are from a different domain than the concept they are pursuing. However, what is important is that even without experience in the sector, the team should have studied the sector enough to understand it very well. In fact, that is also why passion and interest in the sector is critical, because that makes it easier for a person to study the sector well.

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How much equity should I ask for, from an early stage startup, in lieu of a normal salary?

While there are several approaches available, and a lot will depend on the stage of the startup, status of funding, criticality of your role, etc.

Typically, if your role is critical to the success of the startup, the founders will be willing to give a higher equity in lieu of normal salary. However, if you bring generic skill sets to the team (e.g. social media marketing, sales, coding, etc.) then the percentage of equity will be, understandably lower.

A good way to think about this is to multiply the difference between ‘normal salary’ and what is actually paid by a number that you and the founders feel is right to justify the ‘risk’ associated with the engagement.

E.g. (and these numbers are just for illustration) if your ‘normal’ salary should be $ 10,000 pm, and suppose the startup was giving you $2000, and that this lower salary was to continue for a period of 18 months, then the total salary that you would not get would be $8000 pm X 18 months i.e $144,000. Now, assume that the founders and you agree that you should be compensated in equity worth 3x of the amount that you are foregoing, in which case, you would need to be given $450,000 in equity.

Now comes the tricky part… i.e. of estimating how much equity would be worth $ 450,000 when it is given to you. Here’s where the math changes into art/perceptions/negotiations. Assume that the founders feel that the startup will be valued at $ 45 million, then they would give you 1% equity, whereas if you feel that they would be valued at $4.5 million, you would want 10% equity. Here is where you and the founders would need to agree on the vision, aspiration, potential, etc.

Of course, this conversation will happen only if you are critical to the team… else, you will be given equity in line with the ESOPs policy of the startup.