Planning, Startups, Stories

Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

A Case Study on Startup Equity

I had an interesting exchange over the weekend. Shane Diffily tweeted:

Setting the Scene

Shane was referring there to a post on startup equity I did a while back, highlighting the problems that happen all too often as founders fail to define their own functions and ownership, in writing, in time. The situation I described was a hypothetical. Here’s a quick summary of that post for you:

Parker  comes up with a great idea for an iPhone application, and works on it for three months in spare time. … develops sketches and designs…

About three months into it, Parker has spent maybe 10 to 20 hours on it so far. [enter Leslie, programmer] … Leslie is excited, which rekindles Parker’s excitement. They agree to be partners in a new business based on this initial iPhone application.

Four months go by. Leslie … gets into the code … discovers Parker’s initial idea isn’t quite possible … revises the idea radically, makes it practical and develops a prototype. Parker meets with him three times, they talk, she accepts his changes begrudgingly. At this point Parker’s total hours have gone from 15 to 25, but Leslie has worked a lot, probably 120 hours, on the programming. … [they] … take the prototype to Terry, who has been through a failed startup, has a business education and is looking for a startup to do again … Terry does a business plan and networks with local business development groups to find angel investors. They win an opportunity to present to an angel investment group. Another three months have gone by. Parker has now put in more like 40 hours, Leslie 250 hours, and Terry 120 hours. Leslie wants to quit a current job and work full-time on the new thing but needs to get paid. Parker doesn’t want to quit a current job but wants to stay involved; she’s not quite sure how. Terry wants to lead the new company as soon as he can get financing.

I asked three questions at the end of the post. I asked, but didn’t answer them:

  1. How would you suggest that Parker, Leslie and Terry divide up the 100 percent ownership of the company now, before they go to the angel investors. Who owns how much?What do you think of the management team here?
  2. Leslie and Terry both want to work full-time on the business when there’s money to pay them. What titles should they take? How much salary?
  3. How much of the company should these three offer to the seed investor for $250,000?

Pre-money Valuation

It was relatively easy to answer the third for Shane. I put it into a tweet:

“Pre-money” means the valuation for the transaction with the initial seed round investors. To clarify, “post-money” would be the valuation after new investment funds are received. So if “pre-money” was $750K, then the angel investors’ $250K would buy 33.3% of the shares and the founders would end up with 66.7% of a business values post-money at $1 million.

I can’t get more specific than that without filling in some value judgments about the relative value of the application, the presumed product-market fit, and the credibility of the team. If all three factors are positive, then I’d suggest starting the negotiation with a valuation of $1 million. That would give the angels 25% ownership and the founders 75%. That leaves enough equity for future rounds. Otherwise, if the deal isn’t that stellar, then the three founders would have to go down to $750K or even $500K, hoping to get some angel investment to develop traction and increase the valuation later.

For the sake of explaining dilution, I’m going to go with the $750K valuation for the discussion on dilution below.

Startup Equity

Shane then asked the much harder question:

Keep in mind that I just made these people up and imagined an unspecified iPhone app without describing what it does for whom. In the real world it would take a lot more of understanding who these three people are and how credible their real skills. Here’s what I think:

  1. First, Parker can’t have much equity because she hasn’t done that much. Her initial idea didn’t work. She has put in only 40 of the 410 hours (less than 10%) and her hours weren’t all that useful. Still, she was the originator, she came up with the market need, and she set the wheels in motion. So she should stay involved as long as she wants. However – also very important – Parker doesn’t even want a full-time job. I’d ask her to take 10% of the pre-investment 100% shared by the founders. And I’d give her a seat on the three-person early board of directors, with the assumption that she’s going to go off to make room for investors.
  2. With Terry and Leslie, I’d put Terry in charge and at the top of the business, with a title like CEO or President or some such; and Leslie should be the technology/product development lead, reporting to Terry. I’d want both of them to take minimum possible full-time salaries as soon as possible, Terry’s a bit more than Leslie’s. Their salaries should be a compromise, enough to support them and their families, but less than market value because they have to keep the burn rate low. And I’d want to get their salaries up to their market value as soon as possible. In a real company, if it’s going to make it, the people it depends on get paid.
  3. I’d want Leslie to take 50% of the founders’ 100%, and Terry 40%, bringing the total, including Parker’s 10%, to 100%.

Why? Obviously I’m making some assumptions on the unknowns. I assume that Terry has a credible background in startups and holds up as lead founder. I assume Leslie has a credible background in tech and can run the technology, even as the business grows. I assume Parker has knowledge and experience beyond just the idea, and can contribute to the business even if not an employee. I assume all three are there for the long term.

I confess to some bias here too. I don’t believe the original idea has much value without ongoing contribution. I do believe in product-driven businesses, and technology-driven businesses, which is why I end up giving Leslie more equity than Terry. And I assume Terry’s MBA is a healthy number of years in the past, which means (to me) that it has been tempered in the field and has more value.

Valuation and Dilution

founder-shares-and-dilutionAfter angel investors put in $250K, they own one third of the shares. Usually the legal work is done with preferred shares and more subtlety, but, for purpose of illustration, let’s assume this is all done with common shares and the total founders’ shares, before the angel investment are 1,000. That’s a small number because startup attorneys usually write up the original corporate documents with more shares, such as 10 million instead of the 1,000 I’m showing. I’m using these simple numbers because it shows how the founders are diluted when the angel investors join the ownership. Each of the founders retains the founder shares he or she has, but the additional shares mean that they end up owning less of the company than they did before the deal.


  • Adam Pressman

    Great stuff here Tim. Another very thorough approach to dynamically allocating equity and preserving control, options, harmony and sanity is at by Mike Moyer. I’m not affiliated in any way just another customer and ‘Grunt’.