Startup Equity: Slicing the Pie, From Main Course to Crumbs
Financial Management

Startup Equity: Slicing the Pie, From Main Course to Crumbs

Martin Bell
Martin Bell
6 min read.

The startup world is a booming arena of innovation, ambition, and high-stakes gambles. In this game of high risk and high reward, few metrics matter as much as equity. For a startup, equity isn't just a financial term; it’s the lifeblood of a dream, the roadmap of potential, and the heart of the company's culture.

When it comes to startups, equity is not just about how many shares you have, but also about how you exercise your options and carve out and distribute equity, and what you promise your people for the future they will help build.

In this article, we'll walk through the intricacies of startup equity – from its theoretical foundations to real-life applications, potential pitfalls, and a glimpse into the future of how much equity is in startup companies

Understanding Startup Equity

Before we venture forth, let’s establish our understanding of what startup equity is and why it’s central to the startup ethos. Startup equity represents ownership in a company. It’s a piece of the pie that investors, founders, and employees get in return for risking their capital, time, and expertise.

This equity can come in various forms - stock options, restricted stock units, or direct shares, but its principle remains the same: a stake in the potential of the enterprise. Understanding the company's valuation is crucial, as it significantly influences the distribution and value of equity stakes for investors, founders, and employees, especially during various funding rounds.

Defining the Key Terms

  • Fair Market Value (FMV): The price at which you could sell your vested equity. This is influenced by the company's valuation and the terms of the equity offer.
  • Common Vesting Schedule: The timeline over which equity is granted to an employee. Common milestones are one-year cliffs, followed by monthly or annual vesting periods.
  • Strike Price: A predetermined price at which an option holder can buy or sell a particular stock, in our case, the value at which employees can 'buy' their equity.
  • Equity Stake: The percentage of a company's value that an investor gets for their investment. It's calculated by dividing the number of shares owned by the investor by the company's total number of shares outstanding

The Importance of Fair Equity Distribution

Startup equity is often touted by venture capitalists as the great equalizer in the tech industry, with the potential to turn average employees into millionaires. However, this can only be achieved if equity in a startup is distributed fairly among all stakeholders.

In the early stages of a startup, equity ownership is more fluid and subject to change as investors come on board. As the company grows and becomes more established, it's crucial to have a clearly defined and fair equity distribution plan in place.

Factors Affecting Equity Distribution

Valuation of the Company: Understanding a company's valuation, including post-money valuation, is crucial as it directly influences the equity distribution among stakeholders. The higher the company ownership valuation, the less risk investors face, and the more valuable each individual’s equity stake becomes.

This is especially relevant during different funding rounds, where the post-money valuation plays a significant role in determining the value of equity grants and shares, impacting the distribution of equity among existing and new stakeholders.

Stage of the Startup: Early stage startups, employees who join at the ground level often receive larger equity packages than those who join later on when the company is more established.

Employee Contributions: Individuals who bring unique skills or make significant contributions to the growth of the company may receive cash compensation or a larger equity stake, especially an experienced business development employee.

Market Conditions: The demand for talent in certain industries, private companies, or job roles can also impact the amount of equity offered to employees.

Equity Compensation and Rewards

Equity compensation is a way for companies to reward employees with shares of the company's equity stock in addition to their salary and bonuses. By providing equity, the company aligns the interests of its employees with those of the business, creating a sense of ownership and motivation to see the company succeed.

Types of Equity Compensation

  1. Stock Options: The right to buy company stock at a fixed price in the future, usually as an incentive for employees to stay with the company.
  2. Restricted Stock Units (RSUs): Grants of company stock subject to vesting conditions, such as remaining with the company for a certain period of time.
  3. Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs): Allows employees to purchase company stock at a discounted price through payroll deductions

Fair Market Value vs. Strike Price

When it comes to buying or selling stock options, the terms "fair market value" and "strike price" often come up. Fair market value refers to the current price at which a share of company stock can be bought or sold on the open market.

On the other hand, strike price is the predetermined price at which an employee can exercise their right to buy shares of stock in the company. This is usually set at a lower price than the fair market value and provides employees with an opportunity for potential gains.

Employee Equity Pool

One way startups can ensure fair equity distribution is by creating an employee equity pool. This is a predetermined percentage of the company's shares that are set aside for current and future employees. As the startup company grows, this pool will be used to grant equity to new hires or reward existing employees.

Benefits of an Employee Equity Pool

  1. Retention: Offering equity as part of an employee's compensation can incentivize them to stay with the company for long-term growth.
  2. Attracting Top Talent: Equity can be a powerful tool in attracting top talent, especially in competitive job markets.
  3. Sense of Ownership: Employees who have equity in the company are more likely to feel invested and driven to contribute to its success.
  4. Tax Benefits: In some cases, equity compensation can result in tax benefits for both the company and its employees.

Startup Equity Distribution in Practice

Equity distribution can vary greatly depending on the company's size, stage of growth, and industry. It is common for senior executives and key employees to receive larger equity packages, while junior employees may receive smaller amounts of equity.

Vesting Schedules

Equity grants typically have a vesting schedule, meaning employees must stay with the company for a certain period of time before they are fully entitled to their full equity grant. This encourages employees to stay with the company and contribute to its success.

Performance-Based Equity

In addition to time-based vesting of equity, some companies may offer performance-based equity grants, where additional shares are awarded based on meeting certain metrics or milestones.

Challenges and Solutions

Equity compensation can present challenges for both employees and employers. For employees, understanding the long-term value of their equity in the right company may be difficult, as they may also face tax implications if they leave the company before their equity is fully vested.

Employers must carefully consider equity distribution issues, including the dilution of ownership and the potential administrative burden of managing equity grants. To address these challenges, some companies provide education and resources for employees to better understand their equity, while others may offer more equity and consider implementing a buyback program or offering cash bonuses in lieu of equity grants.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Startup Equity

As the startup landscape continues to evolve, so too will startup equity compensation. Some trends that may shape the future of startup equity compensation include:

  • Increased transparency and education for employees about their equity
  • Greater emphasis on performance-based grants over time-based grants
  • Use of alternative structures such as virtual shares or phantom stock
  • More diverse and inclusive distribution of equity among all employees, not just top executives
  • Implementation of technology and tools to simplify equity management for both employers and employees


Startup equity is the language of opportunity in the entrepreneurial world. It's both a carrot and a stick, motivating and aligning co founders and teams, setting the culture and governance of the enterprise, and, for many, promising a life-changing return on time and sweat investment.

In dissecting the intricacies of this foundational element in startup life, we have barely scraped the surface of a topic that could fill volumes. Founders, co-founders, and early employees beware — this slice of the startup pie isn’t just about the deal you strike with angel investors today, but the future feast or famine that equity can pave the way to.

Frequently asked questions

Is 1% equity in a startup good?

The answer to this question depends on several factors, such as the stage of the startup, its valuation, and the role and level of responsibility of the employee. In general, 1% equity in a successful startup can be worth a significant amount..

How much equity should a founder get in a startup?

There is no set rule for how much equity a founder should receive in a startup. It often depends on the individual's role, experience, and contribution to the company. As a general guideline, founders may receive between 20-30% equity in the early stages of a startup.

About Martin Bell

Martin Bell (Founder & CEO of Bell Ventures) is the visionary and driving force behind the hyper-successful 100 Tasks Startup System which has driven the growth of 20,000+ startups including Zalando and Delivery Hero.

At Rocket Internet, he pioneered the 100-Day-Launch process and led 120+ private and public sector venture-building projects.

Now Martin aims to democratize entrepreneurship by sharing his invaluable practical knowledge and tools to empower aspiring entrepreneurs just like you. Does that sound like you? Then make sure to learn more below ...

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