How Do Startups Pay Employees in the Early Stages?

Person using a calculator.

Early-stage startups are known for their innovation and disruptive potential, but they're also notorious for their financial constraints. With limited budgets, these growing businesses face the challenging problem of attracting top-tier talent while managing their costs at the same time.

Setting startup salaries isn't as straightforward as larger companies or established corporations. There are several contributing factors such as the funding level of the startup, the industry it operates in, the nature of the role, and location. This guide will walk you through how startups pay employees in the early stages including determining salary amounts, company equity, and employee incentives.

Understanding Startup Compensation

Early-stage startup compensation is a balancing act. Startups are often faced with financial constraints as they are typically funded from the founder's pockets, grants, or initial seed funding. This limited budget often means they can't compete with the attractive salaries and benefits offered by established companies. However, startups need quality talent to turn their inventive ideas into reality and this often means having to offer competitive compensation packages.

The key to this balancing act lies in understanding that while startups might not be able to offer high salaries they have other forms of compensation at their disposal. These include equity shares, flexible working conditions, and the opportunity to be part of something new and exciting. 

These aspects of working at a startup can often tip the balance in the founders’ favor when it comes to attracting talented professionals who are willing to take a risk for potentially high rewards. It's all about finding that sweet spot between limited resources and competitive compensation to ensure survival and growth.

Salary Compensation

Understanding how startups determine salaries for their early employees is a process that involves a great deal of nuance. Despite the challenges that startups face such as limited budgets, there’s no getting away from the fact that you need to attract quality talent with competitive salary offerings.

Several factors influence pay scale though, including the startup's funding level, the industry it operates in, the employee's role, and the company's location.

When it comes to salary determinations here are a few key things to keep in mind:

  • Startups often use benchmarking to set competitive salaries
  • Salaries can be lower than market rates due to limited funding
  • Pay scales vary depending on funding, industry, role, and location
  • Negotiating salaries is a common practice in startup environments

Additionally, it is important to prioritize salary expectations for roles that are important for your business. For example, a senior software engineer may require a higher base salary than a social media manager but could be more necessary for your business in the early stages.

With this in mind, equity has begun to play an increasingly significant role in compensation packages offered by most startups, which we’ll cover next. 

Equity Compensation

Equity compensation or equity grants are a powerful tool startups utilize to attract and retain talent. Essentially it's an alternative form of compensation where you offer employees a stake in the company, typically in the form of stock options or restricted stock units. This strategy may be employed when a startup may not have substantial funds for competitive salaries but can offer a slice of the company's future potential instead.

Equity compensation achieves another important objective - it aligns the interests of employees with the success of the startup. Here's how it works: when employees hold equity they're essentially partial owners of the company. Therefore their financial success is tied to the company's performance. If the company does well its equity increases in value. This builds a vested interest in the company’s success promoting long-term commitment and high performance.

Consider these typical equity distribution examples:

  • Startup founders typically hold the majority of equity since they took the initial risks and contributed the original ideas. Depending on various factors including the state of the company's finances, they may opt to take a salary or self-fund.
  • Early-stage employees might score around 1% equity each under some models. The allocation can change as the startup grows and raises more funds.
  • About 10-15% of total equity is usually set aside as an employee pool. This reserved pool provides flexibility to offer equity to future hires.

In a nutshell, equity compensation is a dynamic strategy for startups that can both attract skilled personnel and foster a strong success-oriented culture. It's all about harnessing collective ambition to power your young company's overall growth.

Beyond the Paycheck: Benefits and Perks

When it comes to attracting top talent, startups often think a bit outside the box. It's not just about the paycheck; there's a world of benefits and perks that can make working for a startup a rewarding journey, create a positive company culture, and motivate employees, even when monetary compensation might be lower incentivize early hires:

Flexible Schedules

One of the most attractive benefits that startups offer is flexible working hours. This perk allows employees to adjust their schedules to fit their personal needs and lifestyles. It's a welcome shift from the traditional 9 to 5 grind making work-life balance easier to achieve.

Remote Work

Another significant benefit is the option for remote work, depending on the industry of course. More and more, startups are offering this as a perk freeing employees from a daily commute and giving them the freedom to work from anywhere. This flexibility can be a major draw for talent seeking a better work-life equilibrium.


Basic benefits such as health insurance, while not always seen as a perk, are essential offerings many startups offer. Given the rising cost of healthcare, providing employees with quality health insurance is a powerful tool for recruitment and retention by ensuring they aren't paying for their own benefits out of pocket.

Continued Education

Last but not least, startups can also provide professional development opportunities. This can take the form of learning stipends, attendance at industry conferences, or on-the-job training. These benefits not only help employees grow their skills but also demonstrate the startup's commitment to its team's growth and success.

Legal and Regulatory Considerations

Navigating the legal and regulatory terrain is vital for startups as they set up their compensation structures. This requires consideration of factors like minimum wage laws and guidelines surrounding equity distribution.

Regardless of the financial resources available, startups are obligated to adhere to minimum wage laws. It means they can't offer a salary below the state-defined minimum levels even in the early stages. Failure to comply can lead to heavy fines and, in some instances, legal action.

Equity distribution is another critical area with its legal intricacies. Allocating equity, whether in the form of options or shares requires a clear understanding of laws governing these transactions. For example, startups typically allocate between 10-15% of the total equity to form an employee pool. However, employees need to be well informed about how this equity would vest over time and their rights to purchase these shares.

Follow these rules and regulatory considerations, and you should be well on your way to a smooth-running company and attracting top-tier talent.