Are you thinking of working for a start up?
Let’s say you want to work for a start up. You aren’t one of the founders: you’re coming in after the company has raised some money: it looks like it’s serious about success.
You know that the start up route is a work hard, work harder environment. You’re going to push yourself to the end of your rope and then push yourself harder. You know the deal: work 60, 70, 80, or even 100+ hours a week in exchange for working with great people on something you believe in.
If the personal rewards matter more than any monetary consideration, you can stop reading right here. I wish you well, and nothing would please me more than to hear that the years you spent in a start up were the most thrilling years of your life to date. Go for it!
But what if you want a little more than the vibe
? Everyone’s heard about the riches available to employees with stock options when their company goes public or gets bought for big money. Should you consider the working for a venture backed company to make money? Is it worth it?
I’m going to give you my perspective, based on widely disseminated anecdotes about working for start up companies in the technology sector. After you’ve read this post, you should be able to come up with a basic figure of how much money you need to make on your options to justify the long hours, hard work, and lower pay of a start up company.
Let’s say you’re a senior kind of person and you’re offered options worth 1% of the company. Not so fast! As the company grows, it takes in more investment. With every round of investment, the existing stock holders get diluted. You need to figure out how much of the company you’ll have when the company is worth M$100.
First, a disclaimer: I absolutely positively cannot value your stock options
. Even if your employer is wildly successful, your ability to cash in depends entirely on the whims of your Board of Directors. If they want to screw you out of your option money, they can and will do so. If you’re an employee, the only reasons to let you cash in are to keep you from quitting and to hold you up as an example so they can motivate other people to work for them.
(Some of the time, those two reasons are good enough. This is especially true if the company has been backed by a reputable VC firm. The VC business depends on “deal flow”: a steady stream of entrepreneurs walking into the offices and offering the VCs new businesses to own. It hurts their deal flow when word gets around that they don’t share the wealth.)
So how much will you get? And is it worth the work? As I said, I don’t know how much you’ll get. I can give you a few tools for making a Wild Assed Guess.Raganwald’s Scientific Wild-Assed Guesstimation Methodology
First, you have to convert options into your interest in the company. Don’t waste your time figuring out “if the company goes public at $100 a share, and each option has a strike price of $1, I get $99 per option, times 10,000 options is…” That doesn’t work. The thing to do is to figure out how much of the company you have a right to buy
Let’s say you’re a senior kind of person and you’re offered options worth 1% of the company. That sounds like a lot. If your company is purchased for M$100, your options are worth a million dollars give or take. (Just so you know, lots of software companies are sold for between one and four times revenues. So unless your company is really, really hot, your company isn’t going to be worth M$100 unless you get revenues up to M$25 at the very, very least.)
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Okay, 1% is worth a million dollars. Not so fast! As the company grows, it takes in more investment. With every round of investment, the existing stock holders get diluted. That means the 1% you have now (I’m being generous: you typically have the right to buy 1% provided you don’t quit or get fired over the next four years) will actually be worth less than 1% of the company when you cash in.
So you ask the President about the dilution, and she laughs and says “yes, but that means we’ll be on track and on our way to riches, so it’s worth it.” Okay, but you can’t have it both ways: you can’t say 1% of M$100 is worth a million dollars: you need to figure out how much of the company you’ll have when the company is worth M$100.
Here’s an easy way to figure out what your 1% is worth: pretend you’re a VC. They just invested in the company, right? So… what was the post-money valuation? If the company shares this with you, they’re telling you how much the VCs thought the company was worth when they made their investment.
Let’s say you get a rough estimate of the post-money valuation. I’m going to take a really early stage company, a company that just raised M$4 on a post-money valuation of M$12. In other words, the investors just paid M$4 in exchange for 33% of the company.
Guess what? Some people with a reasonable idea of what start up companies are worth just said that 100% of the company is worth exactly M$12. So what do you think 1% of the company is worth? That’s right, 1% of M$12 is worth $120,000. No more, no less.Another SWAG
Is that worth it to you? Maybe you want a second opinion. Or maybe you aren’t told the post money valuation. Okay, here’s the other way to calculate what your options are worth. For this, you need to figure out your share after all the dilution. Basically, you need to estimate how many times the company will raise more money and how much stock they’ll give investors to do it.
You’re going to have to do some research on comparables to get a good estimate. I’ll take the example I’ve used above and hypothesize a company that’s just raised M$4 on a post money of M$12. This is their second round: the founders started with credit cards and sweat, then management and an “angel” investor put another M$1 to really get things going.
I would expect a company like this to raise at least two more rounds of capital if they’re going to do something big. They’ll probably give away another 50% of the company to do so. So the 1% you have today is going to be worth .5% when the company scores a big win. What’s that worth?
A VC is having a good year when one in five investments hits a home run. If you honestly can do a better job of picking winners, drop your day job and go into venture capital. You’ll make way more money investing in start ups than working for them!
Well, you can always say “.5% of M$100 is half a million dollars.” And that sounds great, much better than $120,000. Where did the $380,000 come from? Well, the first calculation measured what investors think of the company. That takes risk into account. The second calculation doesn’t take risk into account. What’s the chance that the company will be a big success?Making book
I know, I know. It’s a sure thing
. If you didn’t think so, you wouldn’t go to work there. And the President is awfully confident. She ought to be, she’s put her career and possibly her retirement savings on the line. But don’t forget, everyone is that confident, and most VC investments tank. By most, I don’t mean 51%. I mean 80% or more go right down the toilet
The bottom line is, you ought to ignore your gut and the pedigree of the management team. The VCs take that into account when they invest, and the best they can do is about 20%. Yup, a VC is having a good year when one in five investments hits a home run.
If you honestly can do a better job of picking winners, drop your day job and go into venture capital. You’ll make way more money investing in start ups than working for them!
So back to 20%. That’s the number I’d pick when figuring out the odds of a spectacular success. Oh, I don’t mean that there’s an 80% chance of mass layoffs and/or bankruptcy. Many VC backed start ups eke out a living and make a little money. But the option are worthless unless the company does really, really well and can go public or get bought for major money. And that only seems to happen about 20% of the time.
So… What does that do to the $500,000 we get if the company is sold for M$100? You guessed it, that means that the value of those options is really only about $100,000. Not $120,000 by this calculation, but close enough. And it should be: the investors use pretty much the same reasoning when they decide on the post money valuation.So is that a lot of money or not?
Okay, final calculation: what’s $120,000 worth to you? I mean, is $120,000 a good return on your investment?
To figure that out, you need to know how much you’re investing by working for this company. You need to calculate your opportunity cost, the money you could have made elsewhere. Let’s start with your salary: if you could make more money somewhere else, calculate how much salary you forgo.
For example, let’s say you can get another $5,000 a year working somewhere else with little or no risk. Over the four years your options need to vest, that’s $20,000 you’ve just invested to get $120,000 when everything works out. Okay, not bad.
But wait: how hard will you work? If the other job is only 45 hours a week and the start up is 60 hours a week, you’re investing 15 hours a week. What’s that worth? You can take the other job and work out the hourly rate, but I prefer to calculate what I could make by the hour consulting. If you can work 60 or more hours in a start up, you can work a night job programming for other people.
Let’s say it’s $30 an hour. $30 by 15 hours is obviously $450 a week. You’re probably going to work 200 weeks over four years, so you’re investing another $90,000 over four years. Add that to the $20,000 and you’ve just put $110,000 into the company to get $120,000 out.
For me, that’s breaking even. It’s not terrible, but it’s no short cut to riches. If you can get a substantially better stake in the company, you’re on track to do much better. But if you’re such a hot shot, you can probably do very well seeking out a job or contract that pays well. So you probably end up in the same place.Coda
Of course, there are other ways to get rich in a start up. The best is to be one of the founders rather than an employee
. In this capitalistic world of ours, entrepreneurs are higher on the food chain than employees. Below investors, but higher than employees.
p.s. Here's Paul Graham's take on starting a company
. Jerry Colonna has some reasons why you should be self-funding
. And the Anti-Venture Capital web site gives an excellent example of why you'll make less money
using venture capital to grow than you would staying small and profitable.
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