Connecting The Dots: Mergers Of Early-Stage Startups

By Dharmesh Shah on August 16, 2012

The following is a guest post by Ken Smith.  Ken is a startup marketing & strategy professional with leadership, consulting, and advisory experience in thirteen high-tech ventures with 10 successful results/exits.  You can find him on LinkedIn at  http://www.linkedin.com/in/kennethhsmith or follow him on twitter: @CareerEntrepnr

The explosion of co-working space has created an parallel explosion of would-be entrepreneurs. This is good for both the nation and innovation economy. But as any seasoned entrepreneur or investor will tell you, if you have a good idea for a business, it’s very likely that 100 other people have the same or very similar idea. And if you have a great idea perhaps 1,000 people are working on the same idea too. Lower cost office space (coworking, innovation center, etc.), cloud hosted everything, WYSIWYG tools and rapid prototyping applications, easy access to global networks of potential users and customers – well, let’s just say it’s a lot easier and cheaper to get a product concept to market today than it has ever been.merger arrow

 

Those same seasoned entrepreneurs and investors will also agree that the key to entrepreneurship is not having the best idea, it’s execution. I have been involved in more than a dozen startups and reviewed plans or advised dozens more. Often times when I see two teams going after a very similar market opportunity I look at the founders and can easily envision a great combined team. One start up has been founded by a marketing professional with ten years experience in a major consumer technology company, another by a tech whiz with a newly minted Masters from MIT, and a third by a born saleswoman who already built a small network of beta testers for her nascent product. But each continue to struggle to reach the critical mass or momentum required to break away from the pack because they are often working alone. Once the CEO hat goes on, it’s hard to take it off, especially willingly. Yet many an entrepreneur would do their fledgling company and their wallet good if they pooled resources with another entrepreneur – money, talent, and especially time – rather than seeing another startup operating in the same space as competitive.

 

Pooling technical resources can deliver a product with a more complete feature-set because of the different perspectives brought to the design and development process by team members with a slightly different but equally valid view point. Pooling capital can mean delivering a more complete product, or if minimal viable product (MVP) is attainable without additional capital then money can be focused on capturing beta testers and/or early users. Pooling talent increases your chances of attracting outside investors and shows with action that all team members are professionals dedicated to making the company successful rather than being CEO of their own startup. And pooling time means that by dividing up critical tasks and responsibilities more gets done faster and with less effort because team members can focus what time they have on doing what they do best.

If all of the potential merger partners are very early stage, especially if no company has any market traction or revenue, the best approach to a merger is a simple equitable split – 50/50, 25x4, etc. If one person gets greedy, arguing their contribution holds greater value than the rest, then you don’t want them for a partner now or at any stage - championships are rarely won by a single player. If one company has revenue and the other potential partners do not, then some small concession should be made for the entity bringing in the most important resource to continued success.

At the end of the day, the best early mergers are teams of professionals who have all seen the same market opportunity and have dedicated this segment of their careers to it. As you sit at your desk in a co-working space or innovation center and engage with other clever people at the coffee shop, consider the notion of joining forces, talk about it openly – you may find a willing partner, a kindred spirit, and greater success than working alone.

 

Topics: guest strategy
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How Much Should A Startup Founder/CEO Pay Herself?

By Dharmesh Shah on August 14, 2012

The following is a guest post by Chris Sheehan. Chris is a seed stage VC and angel investor at CommonAngels. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_sheehan and his blog Early Stage Adventures.

Back in 2008, Peter Thiel did an interview at TechCrunch50 in which he said one of the most important things he looks at before investing is how much the CEO is getting paid.

The lower the CEO salary, the more likely it is to succeed.

The CEO's salary sets a cap for everyone else. If it is set at a high level, you end up burning a whole lot more money. It [a low salary] aligns interest with the equity holders. But [beyond that], it goes to whether the mission of the company is to build something new or just collect paychecks.

In practice we have found that if you only ask one question, ask that.

What's the average salary for CEOs from funded startups? Thiel was hesitant to answer, but eventually said $100-125k.

An interesting perspective. I'm not sure that it's a leading predictor of success, but it certainly is a very important aspect at the seed stage because cash is so precious. The more a CEO pays herself, the less runway available to hit milestones.woman checkbook 2

CEO founders sometimes ask me for guidance on what is “market” for salaries in a seed stage startup. Some observations:

  1. Stating the obvious, salary needs can vary widely. A founder with no mortgage, kids, etc will have different cash needs than a founder that has a minimum cash hurdle to clear (in the absence of being very wealthy)
  2. The amount raised in a seed round has an obvious impact. I know a couple of cases where if bigger seed rounds had been raised, the founders would probably have bumped up their salaries a little
  3. The percent equity owned by the CEO post the seed financing varies as a function of not just the size and terms of the seed round, but quite significantly, by the number of founders and how equity is divided up between them. While not a direct driver of cash salary, the amount of equity owned can have a psychological impact on salary expectations.
  4. Another influencing factor is how long the company has bootstrapped prior to the seed round and how much were the founders getting paid during this time. I know of a couple of companies I am invested in where the founders didn't pay themselves anything for quite a while as they were building the foundations of their product
  5. If the company raises a Series A round, its typically to see seed stage salaries adjusted upward.
  6. As companies mature, its typical that a compensation committee is formed by non-management board members. In fact, the VCs will insist on this. The role of the compensation committee can vary, from making recommendations to the board on executive salaries, bonuses (and option grants) to having authority to set executive salaries

So what is the range of CEO salaries in the seed stage?

Based on what I see in the market, I'd say the range for founder CEO salaries after a seed round is between $60k and $150k, with the average/median in the range of $90k - $110k. This is based on an average seed round of around $900k with the expectation that the round will provide runway for 12 to 18 months. Salaries at the upper end of the range ($150k) are correlated with larger seed rounds of around $1.5 million.

While there is no correct answer to the question, here is my main take-away: it's so critical to be capital-conscious at the seed stage. Within what will feel like an incredibly short, stressful period of time, the startup needs to build product, figure out the market, and get some initial traction. Every month of cash burn is valuable.

By the way, to see some survey data on what other people think the founder/CEO salary should be, check out the OnStartups poll on founder salary.  

Topics: guest funding
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