Jan 2 2013

Issues with Equity Misalignment

Q: In our startup we have 4 founders, two of whom are not full time.  We’ve all put in a good sum of cash thus far.  The two founders with the least equity happen to be the two tech founders.  Some of us feel that we made a mistake when allocating shares in the beginning – there is one founder in particular who does not do any work, and he has the second-most equity (the split goes like this: 32%, 26%, 10%, 7.5% with the rest for employees + advisors).  To me, it seems like any outsider would see this as a big disparity and wonder what happened, but one of our guys (Mr. 32%) seems to think that if we can get funding, the VC will correct this wrong.  I’m rather doubtful of that – what VC will want to fund a team that didn’t have the foresight to motivate the biggest contributors and keep them interested?  I’m looking to convince him that we need to fix our own mistakes before pursuing funding.  Am I off base?
 

A (Brad): You aren’t off base. Furthermore, this is a common problem and one of the reasons I strongly encourage every founding team to have four year vesting on their stock.

While some founders thinks this simply gives future investors a way to claw back equity in the future, it’s much more often the case that this protects the founders from each other, in cases like this or situations where one of the founders simply leaves.

In your case, you feel like the 32% founder doesn’t do any work. If your other two founders believe this also, the three of you should directly confront Mr. 32% right now. Don’t wait, don’t defer, don’t let more time pass. Deal with the issue – up front and directly. It’s an easy thing to solve – if you all agree (including him) that he should only have 15% of the company, then he can simply forgive (or give back – the mechanism will depend on how the company is structured) 17% of his equity. Then, each of you will end up with an increase of your pro-rata percentage of his equity.

If you have equity alignments early in your company, deal with them. Don’t let them fester.