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Ask HN: How much did you earn as an employee from an exit?
202 points by twidlit on Sept 4, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 110 comments
If you joined a startup before as an employee, how much did you earn out when it exited?

I joined as their 3rd employee - as a junior developer to assist the current senior. When they saw how good I was, they sacked the senior. I was given a pay cut, ostensibly to keep the lights on, prettied-up with a new contact saying if after a year they were still in business I'd get my salary restored, but a major bonus if they reach profitability or were bought out within a year. Cue 12 months of being an idiot, regularly working weekends and all-nighters to add major features on little notice for meetings with potential customers and developers. New projects were piled on with no regard for workload or realistic deadlines. They needed a new DC, but rather than hire a sysadmin they passed it to me because I'd had experience on my CV.

By this point I'd lost sight of salary and bonus - I was working to try to avoid letting the team down by missing deadlines. As absurd as it sounds now, the atmosphere in the office made me feel I was part of something special, I was doing my part, and I was going to anything I could to keep up my part. I'd been hired part-time, but I worked full time, and then some, spurred on by my mis-placed sense of loyalty and necessity to cope with my workload. Then at the end of the year they said they couldn't afford to give me back the pay cut, and a couple of months later they announced they were going to be acquired - conveniently close to the year end to be a coincidence. I realised that I wasn't part of the team, I was just employee 3. I'd already started to suffer major burn-out / a bit of a breakdown, so I quit. That was years ago and I'm only just starting to get myself back together.

I blame myself entirely - I was naive and let myself be manipulated and used. By that point I was so deep into the "we're all in this together" that I couldn't see what was happening. But you're not in it together - there may be more honorable founders out there, but at the end of the day, you're working to line their pockets, and just because you've got a bit of paper saying they'll be nice doesn't mean they will. Trust no-one, get everything you're owed up front, and remember at all times that for you it's just a job.

Work to live, don't live to work.

(From a throwaway account for obvious reasons. Ahh, that's better ;) )

Sounds like my 2010, I was underpaid, I didn't take a pay cut though I would if asked.

I was naive enough to don't get the raise I was promised because I cared about the company, got fired on December 22nd (I'd never forget that, since, I've already spent my money on gifts and stuff) after they got more funding and they went for more-experienced-talent.

Karma is a bitch though, most of the people they hire quit because of the working conditions, from a team of 10 (that I was managing) they're down to 2. Recently they asked me to join them again, I told them "fuck no!".

Now, I'm happy at another startup but making an industry level salary (probably more, since I live in Florida) and stock options (which are a bonus since I already make a good salary, and to be honest I don't care about them too much). Also I have time to live, I go out now, get drunk, clean my apartment, I started a company, I launched a product recently, we even got some customers already! I read books, do some consulting for friends.

I'd never let work affect my life again.

I feel you. The first company I worked at was like this, except I got out before I got completely exploited. It's a charming story.

I was interviewed by the lead developer and the head of Human Factors. Fresh out of college, I didn't have much experience other than a campus job, so I was turned down for a developer role. Two weeks later I get a call saying they'd like me to join their Human Factors team.

I accepted. Three weeks in I was tuning their speech recognition applications and committing code to their main application repo. Six weeks after that I wrote an algorithm to optimize grammars on sentence fragments for searching databases by speech recognition. They moved to have it patented. However, they ended up firing my boss and they put me on more mundane tasks. I ended up leaving because the CTO was more impotent than my grandfather after a bottle of Jack and the president thought he was Steve Jobs. It became a terrible place to work.

They never patented my algorithm because I was the only one who knew how it worked. The other developers weren't computer scientists and were just wasting time trying to dissect an implementation of expectation maximization. I'm kind of glad they spent a boatload on lawyers and came up empty-handed.

I will never again work for equity or shares unless I really trust the organization or people involved. Money (cash) talks, and paper is used for wiping your ass.

> Work to live, don't live to work.

Noone's allowed to believe this in the startup world ;)

+1 sir.

Should be revised to "Work to live, don't live to work. (unless it's your own startup)" :)

Perhaps his thread can also be good lesson for those trying to run a startup, to treat your employees fairly and don't take advantage of them (no matter if they are a programmer or not)

Any legal way to hack this by, say, something along the lines of "Glassdoor for founders/VCs/etc."?

This is a familiar story to at least a few Hacker News readers. You're not alone.

Rule 1: Get all compensation and consideration in writing. Even if you think the people on the "other side of the table" are trustworthy, you could face an entirely different set of people when the contract actually matters.

When did you sign over the IP? The absolute latest time to get your compensation (including what happens to your equity if you leave or get fired) locked down is when you assign the IP. If you've never signed over the IP, this is good news but you must talk to an attorney right now.

Rule 2: If you have any documentation, the court system is your friend. If there's a substantial amount of money involved, and it sounds like there was in the context of the acquisition, an attorney will take your case on contingency. Trust me: this is more common than you think.

You absolutely must get at least a settlement out of this. Being beaten down at a previous job makes it hard to keep on an even keel, emotionally speaking, at the next one. Even if the money means absolutely nothing to you, you must fight.

There are good startups and good founders out there. You just fell in with one of the bad ones. The good founders will set fair contracts (not just golden-road promises) in advance. Talk is cheap. It's easy to make someone "feel like" a real co-founder but it's hard to actually show that the person is one.

1st time I was naive didn't get all the details and ended up getting screwed, was also a really good exit. was hired as first engineer.

2nd time was a little more than a quarterly bonus at last corporate job, so yeah wasn't much. was 2nd engineer hired.

I know its anti karma saying this but working at startups suck.

edit- I see people putting 18 / 20k and is probably good depending on what area you live in but for perspective my last quarter bonus was 10k.

Throwaway account here

I've now owned stock in five different companies throughout my career. The company I'm currently in is going through a buyout and it's the first time I'll ever see any money from any deal. I've been at this company since it's early days and watched it grow from an unknown company with barely enough money to pay it's employees, into a $16-18 million a year player in our industry.

At the end of the day my shares are worth about $100k, which if you average it out, brings my 5 years salary up to the industry average. When they first told me the value of my shares, I thought I was getting screwed, that they must have diluted the shares without telling us. Turns out that after all these years of hype, our shares ended up equaling 1x revenue instead of the 3x revenue they claimed would be the "bottom of the barrel" value in the event of a sale.

The work as always interesting, but the payout means having much less money then anticipated to start my own business.

> 1st time I was naive didn't get all the details and ended up getting screwed

What details is one meant to know?

+ number of shares outstanding

+ who gets diluted

+ vesting schedule

+ does vesting accelerate with an acquisition?

+ liquidation preferences

+ how large is the employee option pool

+ what happens to your holding on a down-round or restructure (this is hard not to get screwed on if this is the intention)

+ not checking that the options agreement has been signed by the company

+ not signing an options agreement and taking the company and/or founder at their word that you have stock

founders usually give themselves a sweet deal. ask to see their agreement and compare it to yours.

while you are at it, check the structure of the board and if the board are able to block an acquisition. you may be working for a company who can't exit unless the investors get at least 4-5x, and if they don't, you get nothing

there are probably some things that I am missing, which is why it is worth paying a lawyer for 3-4 hours of time to go over it (not the company lawyer - see 'the social network')

Liquidation preferences (in particular) are a big deal. It's entirely possible (if not common) for you to purchase stock that is literally worthless. In small and even mid-size exits certain employees simply won't get paid.

That' probably the best advice possible. If your employee number 3 and they want to to take a payout etc get 'liquidation preference 'on any lost income * risk + interest or work for someone else. If your employee #10 and they still want a significant pay-cut work for someone else.

PS: The law is on your side, as an employee lost pay is paid out before any other creditor but you need to list actual salary in $ and not just shares. You also can have issues with taxes so be careful.

This should be a great howto guide on not getting screwed.

+1 Someone knowledgeable needs to take all of this write, "Startups: How To Not Get Screwed"

You get an offer of X shares or options. What is often carefully left unsaid is how many shares exist. Also left unsaid are what rights you have, once you start vesting, to know about the financials of the company.

You have to elaborate on this. So options you get are different from the options that can exit? 1st engineer typically get 1-3% of the company, and if there is a clause that can prevent you from getting those shares on exit even though they were vested, joining a startup loses a lot of luster.

Possibly. Investors (generally) have some sort of liquidation preference on the stock. The details of that preference are complex and can take some time to fully understand. Things like double-dipping (owning a liquidation preference and THEN participating on the same percentage os a common stock holder) make it even more complex.

The key thing to know is that not all stock is the same. "Owning" 1% of the company doesn't mean you get 1% of the exit necessarily.

In smaller exits those liquidation preferences can mean that the investors are paid out and nothing is left of the pie for you.

A good article on this:


It's common to get a job offer that says something like you get 10,000 options on shares. But you don't know if the company has 2M or 20M or however many shares; your percentage ownership could be 0.5% or 0.05%. If you're receiving an offer with shares or options, you should ask and be told what the total number of shares are (a cap table would be even better).

I have not heard of cases where shares were vested then lost outright, except for perhaps Eduardo Saverin of Facebook. There are other (quite common) cases where the exit is not at a sufficiently high valuation compared to the most recent investment round and preferred shares cash out while common shares are reduced to little or no value.

FYI the employer has to tell you what the shares outsanding is (or, I guess, what the % of the company the shares represent.)

my last quarter bonus was 10k.

Quarterly? So ~$40k/year in bonuses? You must either be at a company really generous with the bonuses, or making one heck of a salary.

Entry level engineers at google look at ~30k/yr pretax for middle-of-the-road performance with both stock and cash considered. 40k doesn't sound too far off the mark for an experienced engineer.

Are you talking about bonuses or salary? 30k bonuses + salary sounds kinda lot for an entry level engineer.

Roughly 30k is bonuses on top of guaranteed yearly salary, assuming middling performance and current stock prices. You can theoretically double that, or get zero, based on that scale. Though I'm guessing you'd get canned before you get a zero bonus, and fully doubling it is I'm sure extremely rare. Ask any recent college grad who got an offer, they all get the same offer.

Just like YC is equalizing informational asymmetry between twenty-something founders and people with signatory authority on hundreds of millions, I'm really glad that HN contributes to education of prospective employees like this.

I like to think I'm smart. Two years ago, prior to HNducation, many common-as-dirt features of cap tables like e.g. liquidation preferences would have been a totally successful ambush on me. (If you can't explain three ways why 2% of $40 million is zero, consider carefully whether your best interests are being represented in a negotiation with someone who can.)

Counterpoint: sometimes regular employees do great. An older (~now 35-ish) acquaintance of mine made near-FU money from Amazon.com. He was an English major fresh out of college, started at Amazon when it was still a startup; his jobs were _reviewing books and doing secretary stuff + odd jobs_.

Lots of talk here about the myriad ways employees can get screwed, but sometimes they do great.

Another awesome company? Linear Tech. Not quite a startup anymore, but they do a lot of hardcore analog+digital EE design. Their engineers get design ownership over specific projects/chip designs, and are paid _a percentage of profits_ on that chip. So there are a substantial number of regular employees there who are millionaires because they designed something cool.

Ironically, this particular information dispersal is directly contrary to the interests of YC -- it is in founders' and investors' best interests to drive the employee option pool as close to 0% as possible, without communicating that fact to employees.

I'd be inclined to trust YC that they make their money by picking AirbnBoxen rather than chiseling twenty somethings out of a few thousand bucks. Even if I were cynical regarding their motivations, I would personally take a YC investment as a Good Housekeepng Seal of "will probably not pull sociopathic moves.". My theory: founders only need to exit once and might be tempted to get screwtastic. VCs face no market penalty for screwing employees because a) employees have severe information asymmetry when it comes to deciding who to work for based on investors, b) the Valley practices institutional omertà about speaking ill of fellow investors except over backchannel, and c) a reputation for chiseling out employees doesn't hurt VCs at their main opportunity for market feedback: seeking LP.

By comparison, YC is an early employee-comprehensible brand, and I'd expect anyone contemplating screwage would hear "You are about to chill hiring at several hundred companies in the mafia. Are you sane?! Don't do this. If you insist on doing this, we'll be forced to very publicly disassociate ourselves from your decision. You do not want to be the one ex-mafia guy in the Valley. It is a lonely place."

How is 2% of $40 million zero?

Three options:

1) Liquidation preferences.

2) "We wipe out common stock at acquisition and offer employees retention bonuses, leaving 2% owner who moved on totally shafted."

3) Pretend your corporate charter is a Ruby program and a malicious adversary gets write access to it. Seriously, the sky's the limit. Integers might be kitten pictures now, and multiplication returns shades of pink.

1) Liquidation preferences: Right, and part of the problem is that as more investments are collected, more preferred shares get in line ahead of employees' common shares. "Down" rounds tend to devastate the value of common shares.

But the good news is that upper management and regular employees are in principle affected the same way by these vicissitudes, and in practice I've seen that mostly happen. Some exceptions include founders/upper-management getting special opportunities to cash out or receiving significant anti-dilutive share bonuses. I'm not saying that the founders and employees have exactly the same incentives here, but they are at least somewhat helpfully aligned.

2) Agree that I've heard gossip about these kinds of scenarios, but (I've often wondered) wouldn't this be a violation of their fiduciary duty to certain stockholders? Can a lawyer weigh in on whether (in theory) this scenario allows for a legal remedy?

3) True, the corporate charter is not a contract with an employee, and it can be rewritten at will by the Board. But it seems to me there are limits: if they edit the charter in a way that deliberately wipes out the value of your shares and had a choice not to, this resembles case 2, where I suspect one can seek legal redress (right?).

Different classes of shares, liquidation preference, the IP being in a separate company that leases it to the company that you own the shares in, performance clauses (company needs to earn 2x revenue over the next 2 years).

If investors hold $40m in preference, it's 0. But I'd be interested in the other two ways?

Is this was a record company deal, they'd have advanced you some goodwill and charged you for it. You'd be lucky to get out with $0, instead of owing them money for having worked there :)

So is no one naming names of the companies they worked for? Most of this stuff doesn't seem to violate any NDAs and we're all past the quiet period...

Anyway, I was an early rank and file employee at a startup that was acquired by WebMD. When WebMD merged with Healtheon in '99 - which I'm counting as an exit, since our office was shut down shortly thereafter - we were able to exercise our options. I cashed out a third of my vested ISOs to the tune of about $50K. Not FU money, but a nice boost to a 25 year old, and enough to put a substantial down payment on a house.

What I learned:

• Some of my coworkers thought I was loony for cashing out when I did - they thought the stock price would keep going up. And it did - for a while. Remember, this was 2000. We were all out of a job in six months. A bird in the hand, etc.

• Some people cashed out 100%, seeing dollar signs, and didn't get counseled on the tax ramifications. That ended poorly. These were young engineering types who chose not to listen to our awesome CFO/office manager/HR person back when we were a tiny startup. It's amazing how someone can grok Python, and not compound interest.

• The house I put 25% down on in 2000 sold in 2006 for more than twice what I paid for it, while the "nostalgia shares" I kept from WebMD aren't worth one-tenth of what they were in 2000. This was a valuable lesson in the benefits of diversification.

Finally, what I learned was that the only difference between gambling in Vegas and gambling with tech startup stock options is that in Vegas, you get free drinks.

Some startups have free drinks too, which generally means there is NO difference from Vegas.

Heh, good point, and fodder for another interesting post - how working at a startup is like Vegas...

Pardon my naivety, but you mention here that you cashed out only 1/3rd because cashing out 100% had "tax ramifications", even though 6 years later the shares you kept were worthless. Could you elaborate on the tax ramifications that made cashing out 100% a net loss compared to keeping shares that would only depreciate over time? If you cashed out for $50k with a third of your options, why wouldn't cashing out all of them be in the $150k range?

Good question. To clarify: I cashed out 1/3 because I'm inherently conservative financially and had no idea whether the stock would go up or down. Not because of tax purposes.

My colleagues who ran into problems with Uncle Sugar are the ones who bought and held their stock for less than a year (but long enough for it to tank in value), didn't make estimated tax payments and were fined by the IRS, or otherwise made decisions based on irrational exuberance, like borrowing against their options to buy jet-skis and crap.

Hope this answers your question.

2nd developer, $1.4M in an IPO after 8 years. Took what I considered to be a reduced (around 75%) salary for the first 3 years. The first 5 or so developers probably all got something in the same range or more. The company is not particularly famous; most on HN will not have heard of it.

I understand that the good outcome was partly due to years of draining work and even more so due to very good luck.

Many developers are undervalued by employers, but shares can work out. It's worth taking the time to learn what percentage stake you're getting (if you ask and the employer doesn't tell you, walk away) and doing your own assessment of the possibilities and risks for the company.


No. Sorry about the throwaway account, but I wanted to mention that my colleagues did well without allowing people to identify them.

I'm not sure if you would consider these "startups" per se, but I've been at two private companies that had an acquisition or equivalent.

Large comparison shopping site, I joined about 9 months before a majority stake was sold to a private equity group. They took a while to grant my options and by that time they were in talks about the acquisition, so the options were priced at the acquisition price (since once they'd seen an offer, they couldn't price "fair market value" below that). I didn't exercise, since at that price it wasn't going to perform better than any other stock and wasn't liquid.

Next time around, I got eleventy billion options in a "startup" around series G or H funding. They got acquired but did not cover the liquidation preferences for investors, so no employees saw a dime. They did hand out some pretty significant bonuses.

Once: nothing. (Except a mac mini which the founder was nice enough to buy me as a kind of `exit bonus' :)

Despite my options having vested, investors held preferred stock which (since the exit was small-ish) left no liquidity on the table for the employee option-holders.

Then, because I was no longer working there at the time of the exit, nothing was negotiated for me as part of the sale. (Those employees who did stay on got something I think, not tonnes though AFAIK and they came with `golden handcuffs').

I had worked hard for them at well below market on the basis the options would make up for my opportunity cost. They didn't, despite the company getting an exit.

My advice would be always treat options as a `nice to have' not a replacement for salary, they're so hard to value effectively, and even in the event of an exit their value can still depend to a great extent on the goodwill of founders and investors at the time, on whether you're still working there and whether you want to work for the acquirer, and in general on so many factors outside your control.

(To clarify, I did have fun there and learn quite a bit; if you like the work, you've got to take that into account too when considering opportunity costs vs working at a bank etc. But my advice on options still stands.)

1st time, I was the first employee of a company that grew to over 150 people. It went bust in the first dot-com bubble bursting and I got nothing for my sizable number of options, except for a lesson in how easily CEOs can break promises regarding money held in escrow.

2nd time, I was the first employee of a company that never got bigger than 15 people. I had 2%, with a quarter of that vested (0.5%) The company was acquired and I got nothing except one week's notice that I might need a new job and a lesson in liquidation preferences.

This time around I'm getting 25 basis points, and I'm employee number 50 or so. We'll see if the third time is the charm, but to be honest, I truly don't care. Equity is nice to have but it's worthless until it's not.

So employees complain about options being worth squat.

And founders/managers complain about not being able to hire talent.

I believe that's referred to as a "market disconnect."

Markets are dynamic. Reality can change faster than the way people play the game.

Traditionally, you needed (say) 100 people plus a few million in servers. Now, you need 10, and a few bucks for the VM (figures exaggerated for rhetorical reasons).

You needed to raise big dollars to get to a MVP. You had more dollars being put in by early investors, so they quite rightfully wanted a large slice of the pie. And a small option pool being shared by 100 "early" employees won't make a lot of millionaires.

Now, you have less money being put in (I hope), and few early employees (I assume). The investors deserve less of the pie, and the early employees can get a greater portion each.

But the standard employment contracts are still written (thus anchored) to 1% or less per employee.

It's the same in the games industry:

Employees complain about burnout and being treated like slaves and many end up leaving the sector never to return.

Owners & upper mgmt. do interviews on gamesindustry.biz bemoaning the lack of talent and blaming the governments for insufficient education.

...and insisting they deserve tax-breaks (in the UK).

1st, after a couple years work, non-founder, was mid-tens.

2nd, after a year and a half, non-founder, was "could have bought a house and put kids through college if I wasn't young and stupid"-money.

3rd, founder, zero. Sucked up the money from 2nd, in fact; it was negative.

4th, employee, four years; would have been six figures had I bought my options when I quit (but even after that, I'd still recommend being wary of buying your options when you leave). But: you gotta put the four years you worked there in the divisor, too.

5th is current company, and I'm a founder.

Wow from the sound of it all, sounds like staying at a wall st job with a decent pay/bonus is better than joining a startup, except for the possibility of working on something kick-ass.

As I gather, start-ups have always been that way. Only people who really stand a chance of making it big are the founders and the investors; as a regular-Joe employee you make competitive compensation on a good day, so you should really be there because you like the work, not because you want big money.

You work at a startup because you believe in the mission, want to have a bigger impact, your co-workers rock and you want to KNOW how to start one someday. The exit is the gamble for gravy.

1) Business owners will just take advantage of this (this thread is littered with comments that show exactly this). You will get less pay and make them rich.

I'm really sick of companies that think I will take a 30-50% pay cut for a foosball table and Nerf-gun fights on Fridays.

2) You can gain valuable experience by starting your own company. There are plenty of blogs, articles, and sites like HN that can help you along the way.

Don't take the 30-50% pay cut, use the money to buy your office a foosball table, and go out and play laser tag on Fridays? If you need your officemates to be there, pay their fees, and you'll probably still come out ahead.

^---- this

i left my electronic trading job, which had great compensation, to move to san francisco and work at a startup. i knew i'd be taking a pay cut, but i did it for the experience, so i could be better prepared to do my own startup.

i'm glad i did.

It depends on what you do at the startup. If you are coding away just like you would at the electronic trading firm, you wouldn't learn much about running your own startup.

Are you involved in customer development, talking to investors, making connections as part of the startup? If not, there's not much upside.

And now you know the biggest obstacle facing the New York startup scene.

As far as income goes, yeah, and you should be able to easily save up enough to start your own company with a much higher chance of a worthwhile payout. Plus some of the Wall St. players have very interesting problems to solve, much more so than your typical groupon-for-used-baby-clothes startup.

In my experience the best reason to work for a startup is the freedom it gives you. No "architecture board" telling you what technology you can and can't use. No reprimands when you stray from your assigned niche.

I'd definitely advise against taking an insufficient salary and thinking the equity you may receive in exchange will cover the loss. The odds of that aren't really any better than gambling. Fortunately there are plenty of early-stage startups willing to pay fair salaries and decent benefits!

Most employees at a startup often get screwed. I recently joined a startup and I'm considering the value of my options to be zero. If they do pay off, it'll be a bonus for me. Go for either the learning experience, or if you really love working there. Chances are, if you aren't among the founders, you won't see much even on a successful exit.

Tip: Do an early exercise (83b election) and convert your options into RSUs to avoid higher taxation.


since 90% of startups fail, most employees and founders don't get a pay off.

This submission is about startups with a (presumably positive) exit. Despite that restriction, removing the 90% you cite, many employees are still expressing significant disappointed with their resulting compensation.

I worked at a semiconductor startup that was acquired in the recession of 08. Got 2 years of a 12.5k annual retention bonus, and well, my job (engineers stayed on, sales/upper management were out)

Was it worth staying there for 2 more years? Dear god No. My opinion these days is that "most post-m&a situations suck", especially those where you're not immediately integrated into the acquiring's company culture, or promoted to lead them to better things. The problem is that it's deceiving at first. When you get acquired, you're like, "hey, my fellow engineering team stays the same, and all the crappy management from startup is out!". They built a new satellite office for us to move into with their other recent acquisitions. While it sounds nice, it's miserable if you don't see a growth path for yourself, and don't understand how the rest of the acquiring company functions. Why should I work for some options of a company I don't understand?

In the 2+ years, I've dealt with lack of funding for projects I want to do (project customers want and competitors already have), watched several very smart engineers (the ones you look up to) leave the company, as well as my own manager recently leave. Simultaneously, I feel like my work-life is more stressful as I have to work with "company-wide" field engineers that don't necessarily care about our product line, we've been losing customers since they notice us not shipping new parts and integrating our support across the company.

To help clarify, I'm an apps engineer - i.e. a mix of trying to do software development, customer support, working/managing a contractor, setting up our issue tracker, and dropping everything to hack something up for a tier-1 customer.

My advice to other non-founders getting acquired: If you're not in debt, don't worry about the money from your acquisition. Worry about whether you'll be gaining any new experiences post-acquisition. If the acquiring company is just dangling you along, leave. Be very weary of "retention bonuses" - they can alter the way you perceive your work for the worse.

Disclaimer: I need to start following the above advice.

That sounds very familiar for some reason.

I must say, though: I've never heard of anyone who was an employee at the last n or so startups similar to yours who actually made money off their options from an exit - though hopefully a certain large recent acquisition beats that average :)

eh, I blame our former management for not selling us before the recession. We had some much acquisitions better offers come our way and they were too thickheaded about the success of the market to take em.

Hey quit ruining the Ponzi scheme for all us startup founders and investors! If word gets out that the vast majority of tech startups go nowhere and even in an acquisition the chumps...I mean employees... make shit, the game is up!

Then I won't be able to attract any underpaid, overworked slaves for my crappy company!

I tell them that they'll learn about startups by sitting in their corner writing code while I hang out with the investors. I tell them any old bullshit about bonuses and vacations and the fools never ask for it in writing. Morons!

Haha, not to worry. Starry-eyed, "passionate" idiot nerds are born every minute. HN is the best place to find them.

Carry on, gents! I'm laughing all the way to the bank.

Not sure why he is getting downvoted as this is obvious satire, but this is probably the case at some startups.

Like many others here, the couple times I've been along from start to exit, despite all the contracts and promises and hard work at low pay with no overtime, key contributions, etc, so far, never a dollar, and in one case, a protracted legal battle as they tried to steal my preexisting IP which I had a signed agreement from them acknowledging belonging to me, signed before I started work.

What kind of loophole in your signed agreement did they try to use to get hold of your IP? Was there a problem with the contract, or were they simply hoping you would cave in order to avoid a legal battle?

I had things locked down great, as I had gone to work with them to implement my IP that they required fundamentally as part of their business. They signed a licensing agreement and a document outlining the various inventions I had coming in to it. After their product was ready to ship, there was a buy out offer, but required exclusive ownership of my IP. The license was non-transferable and required renegotiation. They didn't like this and asked me to transfer ownership outright to them for free or they would fire me and I would lose all my equity. They had absolutely no case whatsoever, but this didn't stop them from launching legal proceedings against me. These went no where since it was only for the purpose of strongarming and intimidating me. At one point, a vice president of the company was telephoning relatives of mine and threatening them if I didn't cave. I didn't cave, held to my position (which was very reasonable), and they didn't bother to proceed since they knew they had no case, but only after tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to top notch lawyers to represent me against them. Several months after this they sold to another company (Fortune 500 sort) and lied to them that they owned my IP, not mentioning me at all. That company then patented it, with the VP claiming to have invented it. At the same time I have his signature on a licensing agreement, the exact text describing the invention which appears on their new patent, granted some 10 years after I first implemented it. (It was previously a trade secret that I was selectively licensing.) Of course the next question is why don't I sue them. That's easy. At the end of all this I was broke and in debt and there's no lawyer taking IP cases pro bono. They are tremendously expensive and in the end the company with the deeper pockets nearly always wins. Good IP lawyers run $400+ per hour.

When my current company (~200 employee startup) got acquired about 5 years ago my internal stock was translated into about 20k.

We then had a 10k payout for staying an additional year.

Considering everyone assumed that our internal stock would never be worth anything, I was fairly pleased overall.

I'm surprised by how uniformly negative most people's experiences are. The positive stories seem to be the exceptions.

It's not surprising to me at all. People seem to expect a large stake in a company where they are just an employee..and then get frustrated and upset when the owners take a buyout and they get canned.

They "seem to expect it" because they are very often told to expect it.

Would you go work for IBM as just an employee for half your salary and double your hours? No, then you shouldn't do that for any company.

Some people are choosing to do so because for them the experience is worth it.

It's like "working" by going to an apprenticeship. Your salary is lower, but you learn a lot.

If you're going to start your own business in the near future, then it might be worth it to work for a startup even if its a huge pay cut all things considered.

Yes, but that actually has to happen.

If you are working 80 hrs/week churning out code to realize someone else's "vision" who treats you like a slave not a partner, then what are you learning? Apart from not to get suckered again.

Yes, but that's subjective.

You have no idea if you're going to feel like a slave or a partner until you've already taken the job.


I'd say try it. Don't assume that you will be dissatisfied based on treatment you can't predict.

1) 5%, and they kept their word. Unfortunately it turned out to be only around $5k -- small ISP sold when the market was transitioning away from dial-up. But I was young, and this was good money for me at the time.

2) 0% - the company performed poorly, and I needed cash, so when salaries were cut, then cut again, then again, I bailed for the security of a bigCo. Apparently its now a pretty successful division of a bigCo.

3) Currently awaiting an exit, at the prices we're currently talking about I should see mid-six figures.

4) Still building (I'm at 3 & 4 simultaneously), co-founder of a bootstrap.

I've also worked at a couple bigCos in the meanwhile, but outside of some profit sharing that goes into a retirement fund...it's just salary and bonuses.

One place to get this information is in SEC filings. Look, for example, at Google's filing for the YouTube acquisition:


With a little rummaging in LinkedIn you can figure out who started when. Multiply the number of shares times $500 or so and you'll know what they ended up with.

Easy market: do lookups on silicon valley individual's estimated networth. Creepy as hell, but inexpensive to engineer.

A little late, but I'm adding this since there's not a ton of comments on here on relatively-late employees.

The first time as an employee, I would've received mid-five-figures, if only I'd been able to afford the $10K to exercise my options when I left. (Whoops.) I was employee #150 or so.

The second time as an employee, low-five-figures from the options, and close to $100K from a year's worth of retention bonus. Would've been more if I'd stayed for three years instead of one. Here I was around employee #100.

In both cases the startups were already mature when I arrived - not guaranteed to exit, but a stone rolling downhill. Whatever I made was gravy; I was paid at or close to market rate at both places.

In my opinion, employees do best at startups that've already had some success. Being the first employee is too close in risk to being a founder, but with just a fraction of the rewards.

Here's an academic article on the pay for entrepreneurs backed by VCs:


High average returns driven by huge exits and most entrepreneurs earn 0.

I made something like US$18k (pretax). Was the downpayment on my house. Not as much as I wished, but beats the hell out of flaming out.

ETA: Company sold out about 2 years after I started. I didn't make nearly as much as if I had continued being a contractor with a BigDumbCo. But I had a _LOT_ more fun.

20k on a 30M purchase by a large company wanting to enter our space. I didn't know shit about options. Pretty good for 9 months, nearly even with the salary I should have had in a non-startup job. So in the end, deferred savings plan.

Beware of taxes! If you exercise at least 1 full year (366 days) before the company sells you pay capital gains tax (currently 15%) instead of full income tax (could be ~35%). I did not exercise my options early. Consequently, I coughed up over one-third of my cash to Uncle Sam in the form of taxes & withholding.

Exercising options in a company with no market to sell those shares is a recipe for bankruptcy. Exercising an option is a taxable event, regardless of whether you sell the result shares to receive cash. If you try to anticipate an exit by exercising options early to minimize tax, you might find yourself with a hefty tax bill and no way to pay it should that exit not actually materialize.

When dealing with stock options the best advice is, IMO, always to exercise and immediate sell enough of the stock to cover the result tax hit.

I know of several MIT people who've been early employees at startups in their 20s / early 30s and made few hundred K upon exit.

Does that happen often? No.

Will it happen for early Dropbox and Airbnb employees? Yes.

Can you get the same options if you joined Dropbox today? No.

I think you're asking how much was earned on the day the deal closed - which is a fine way to measure.

But it's worth keeping in mind that it's very common for employees, particularly early/key employees, to have significant additional upside after the deal closes: unvested shares, retention bonuses, etc.

can you provide any sources please?

I wouldn't work for a startup, unless the pay was higher than than market (since there is more risk involved). I would also treat it as a job (IE: no insane hours).

All too often, people toil away their life for someone else's idea and then get kicked to the curb (it's happened to me a couple times too). If I'm going to be wasting my free time working, it's going to be for the possibility of a big payout..which will only happen if I own the company.

Most people try to higher day 1 employees that believe in the company.

The only reason to hire someone at a above the market rate is if you're funded, and have no technical compentance of your own.

So, its doubtful that you'd be a startup employee.... but you're the right type to be a founder.

0. 1st employee. 1.6%. Not much left of the company. Was also taking cut in salary.

#1 Startup:

Left before the first year. Company was acquired later. The payout is engineers got to keep their job.

#2 Multinational:

The stock option I was granted once valued 500k at the peak of dotcom bloom. In the short window before the crash I've cashed out about 40k. It goes toward the down payment of the house. This might turn out to be the best financial gain thus far.

#3 startup:

The firm has over 100M VC funding and 300 employee when I join. My stock valued above 100k at acquisition. It has shrink about 25% when they are fully vested.

#4 startup (current):

I took about 25% pay cut to join this startup. If the stock makes the same money as startup #3 I will about break even. Financial aside I'm quite happy working here.

Fun and sensitive question! Taxes certainly bite big time, especially on on an acquisition where its paid out as a bonus.

Longest engineer at the company when the acquisition happened, exit was around ~200k, pre-tax.

Is flaming out considered an exit?

Yes, but not a good one.

My previous company was a little beyond the startup phase. I had a decent amount of stock options. Nothing to retire off of, but it would have been a nice pay day had the company grown to an appreciable size (i.e. valuation). Unfortunately that never came to be. After a few haphazard mergers and acquisitions and a downright terrible financial performance my options were worthless when I left. My new employer is a much smaller startup. We'll see how it goes over the next year or two.

I haven't exited yet; I'm instead a co-founder raising money.

This has been a good thread to read about how I should protect my employees. I firmly believe in this rule: give a good deal to your VC's, co-founders and employees as it will make it even easier for your next startup to succeed.

We've got a nice big options block for our employees and I want to be able to say to every person in the company that has options that they'll get a cash-out.

software engs in the startup I joined made anywhere from tens of thousands up to more than half a million (depending on how early they joined, when they sold their options, etc).

Should be a poll

Dunning-Kruger, hello?

wouldn't commenting be even worse on it? commenting reveals an 'identity' and 'source' poll could be ran with 'only if you actually participated'.

They both have same problem of misrepresentation but at least the latter is easier to visualize.

It's a lot easier to criticize someone AFTER you receive data. Hindsight bias.

2nd engineer, started right out of college. Was always being paid what I felt to be market value. Had ~2% in stock after a re-incentivizing due to a near bankruptcy after failing to close a Series B. Turned into 180K after 5 years at the company. This company had good founders, so perhaps that's why this seems to be the exception; former CTO/CEO of a large company that was acquired.

This about sums up HN these days -- not a single answer in these 166 responses! Just a bunch of unrelated (and for the most part), uneducated opinions!

dunno, never calculated total amount. maybe few years' salary worth at most, spread over a few years. nothing to write home about, yet :)


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