Pay and Precedent

We are finally in an era where an equal role comes with equal pay. This is a very good thing but it comes with some hard lessons. One of them is about pay and precedent.

You cannot make a hire and a compensation commitment without thinking very deeply about the precedent you are setting.

Let’s say your company is now fifty people and you can see that you will need to be a hundred and fifty people in a couple years. You decide it’s time to build a proper senior leadership team. And you want to start with a CTO. That first “C level” hire will set a precedent for what you should be prepared to pay (in cash and in equity) for all of your C level hires. You do not have to pay every C level executive the exact same amount but they need to be in a band and I would argue that they need to be in a tight band. And there needs to be a strong rationale for the compensation for each role.

Let’s say you are bringing on your first independent director and that person is so great and you want to give them a very generous equity grant. You can do that but you should know that you ar setting a precedent for what the next independent director will get.

Let’s say you want to bring on a mentor and advisor for your VP Finance to help her “level up” to a CFO. That advisor will want and should get some equity compensation. What you do for that advisor will set a precedent for all other advisors you bring on.

Many times I hear founders say “this is good enough for now and we can fix it later.” But fixing compensation issues later can be very hard and sometimes impossible, particularly if your company significantly increases in value between the problem you want to fix and when you need to fix it.

These are some of the most painful errors you can make in a startup. It is very important to be thoughtful, diligent, and precise in your compensation decisions and approach and you have to start early in a company’s life. Getting a strong and experienced head of people onboard early on will help you avoid these issues. And trust me, you want to avoid them.