I started a company back in late 2007. We raised $550k in seed funding and, despite a lot of hard work, things didn’t work out. It turned out I wasn’t such a great product manager, the technical things we were doing were about two years too early—about to be made orders of magnitude easier by a lot of cloud and big data tools, and, oh, yeah, Lehman went under when I was pitching VCs for money in 2008.
Because we hadn’t raised much money, me and my co-founder didn’t take much in salary—but as things started to look like they weren’t going to work out, we took less and less. I was optimistic about my financial situation because I was in a relationship with someone graduating law school who I thought I was going to move in with. I was just bridging to the economics of scale of couplehood—at least, that was the plan until the relationship ended. That’s when things really went off the rails and my debt started to pile up.
The hardest thing about that situation was that there wasn’t anyone to talk to about it. Personal finance is a thing that no one likes to talk about. It comes with a lot of shame and embarrassment—that somehow if I was more successful or more savvy I wouldn’t be in this situation. I definitely should have saved up more—but I was also embarrassed that I wasn’t more successful at my startup.
What I did do was to create some boundaries for myself. I wasn’t going to sell my apartment and I wasn’t going to sell my car, nor was I going to touch my 401k. I was done when my credit card maxed out and my personal savings were both gone and that was it. When I joined First Round Capital in October of 2009, I limped in with about $31,000 in credit card debt and no immediate savings.
The reality, though, is that the salary I made isn’t realistic for everyone. If I had kids, I wouldn’t have been able to make it as long—but if I had kids, I probably would have raised more capital and just taken more dilution to cover that.
One of my investors made us feel like taking any salary whatsoever wasn’t enough sacrifice—and that they wanted to see us forgo salary until we launched a product. In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have taken on that investor—because anyone that things that starting a company should be an exercise in putting thumbscrews to founders to create the most painful exercise possible to get the best results just didn’t share our values. Maybe that was their experience, or how they were best motivated, but that’s not how we worked best and you want to make sure every aligns on how to get the best effort from the team.
Founders need to feel empowered to build companies on their terms—and they should seek to find investors who align with their values. Your salary, what you pay employees, work hours, etc. are all very personal decisions for team members and there is no single formula for success.
Generally speaking, I back founders that I trust to understand that any money they take is money the company doesn’t have, while at the same time being self aware enough to know how they do their best work. If you cut your salary to $35k and you can’t afford to pay your rent or feed your kids, that’s not going to get me and my investors the best return on our money. It’s only going to exacerbate a long, slow, stressful death for the company because you were too stressed to make the right decisions for the long term value of the business.
If you’re in NYC and you’re interested in having a transparent and honest conversation about founder finances, check out the Financial Gym and their event on this difficult topic this Thursday. They’re a financial wellness company that I invested in built around eliminating the fear and shame around money and staffed with trainers who are experts in having honest and non-judgemental conversations.