I was asked this question at a talk I gave to the recently graduated TechStars Boulder class and thought it deserved wider dissemination than to just the group in the room at the time. This is a loaded question and while there are many variations I do actually think there are some general norms that are followed in most cases. So here goes with some guiding principals and then below that some numbers. Keep in mind that I’m talking about Seed and Series A stage businesses.
– Pay yourself as little as you can. Cliché, of course, but true. At the seed stage the modest amount of money you have raised is best spent on product and attracting initial customers than it is on paying yourself. This advice is generally true across the organization. It’s also true that generally founders and early employees own a large portion of the business at this stage and as a result, business progress at this stage disproportionately benefits founders. So the trade-off is most beneficial to the founders and employees – including the CEO.
– Don’t starve. There’s no sense in paying yourself so little that you can’t live or will be overly stressed about paying your bills. Seed stage investors are sympathetic to varying life conditions and you don’t need to tighten the belt so much that it ends up distracting you from your focus on building a great business. Some founders are happy to live in their parent’s basement and take almost no money; others have families or student loans, etc. and can’t work for minimum wage.
– Have an open conversation with your investors about what you need. As is typically the case, you should be as transparent as you can with your investors on this topic and have a open dialogue about compensation.
– Map out a plan. As part of this open conversation be clear about what your expectations are going forward and what milestones might trigger incremental compensation (raising a larger round, getting product into the market, hitting a certain revenue target, etc.).
So what does this all translate to? I think market (and this seems to be true whether you’re in San Francisco, New York, Boulder or somewhere else) is that companies that have raised $1M or less tend to pay their CEO between $75k and $125k (skewed very much to the low end of that scale – companies that have raised less than $500k tend to top out at $75k for CEO comp). Companies that have raised between $1M and about $2.5M tend to pay their CEOs around $125k. Companies who have raised above that amount skew up from there. Not science, but these observations are based on a sample size in the many hundreds.