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Any stories of employees with equity successfully taking home over $1m? $500k?
213 points by fideloper on Mar 18, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 196 comments
Equity for employees is commonly part of an employment package, but:

1. It's rare for startups to succeed 2. It's rare for non-owning employees to be able to exercise shares/receive money when the company sells due to the structure of VC-backing/ownership and the resulting order of who gets paid/when

We all hear stories about when employee equity does not work out. Are there any examples of when it DOES work out well for an employee with equity?

I'm at the bottom end of that range - here are my real numbers for one real option vesting story (on a throwaway):

1. I quit an engineering job at a bigco to become engineer #2 (employee #3) at a startup where I was given about 1.5%. I joined just after their initial fundraise.

2. I took a huge pay cut - from $120k in total comp at bigco to $60k at startup.

3. The startup was acquired roughly 2.5 years later by a larger startup, my pay went up to $140k and my options converted to roughly 0.1% of the larger startup.

4. I stayed for a year at the larger startup, vested half my options and purchased them, which cost me about $60k to exercise. This is a lot of money to come up with when you've been underpaid for a couple of years.

5. The larger startup was acquired by a large public company - my shares were worth just shy of $500k once the dust settled.

Overall, the money I lost in salary is a little bit less than what I gained in equity over that 3.5 year period, once you factor in taxes, exercise costs, the time value of deferred compensation, and the raises I presumably would have gotten if I had stayed at bigco.

I'd do it again in a heartbeat because the experience was amazing (and led me to start my own company), however, I would have a hard time advising anyone to take a big pay cut in exchange for employee equity for solely financial reasons.

Half a million sounds awesome until you factor in lower salary like you did. Great post. Thanks.

Yes, my first startup job got me into the high end of that range, as employee #5, with a relatively small acquisition.

I know several people who took home much more from employee roles (albeit in larger acquisitions) in the recent past.

A lot of it has to do with who you work with. In every case I can think of, windfall money for employees came from founders with a track record of accomplishing that (or, in my case, a founder who would soon develop that track record, and was, in the company I was at, extremely committed to making sure his team was well compensated at liquidity).

This is one of the reasons I don't love Paul Graham's hacker startup thesis, about working very hard for 5-10 years so you can take it easy for the rest of your life. There are a lot of problems with that idea, but one of them is that it generates a lot of loss aversion instinct for founders.

Right, PG's advice is not useful for all founders, just the 1 out of every 10 that makes it big. The others are supposed to nut up and get over it.

His advice does, however, benefit every venture capitalist.

Critiques of Paul Graham and YC lose me the instant they suggest that they're rigging the system for venture capitalists. I've got friends in YC, I've worked closely with YC companies for years, I know several people at YC, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that their intentions are (a) good and (b) founder-aligned.

I'm pretty sure they're wrong about a couple things --- particularly the stuff that comes from some of the earlier PG essays. That's not the same as being corrupted. I'm wrong about a lot of stuff too.

I don't think there are many who would seriously suggest that YC/PG have bad intentions but survivor bias can have exactly the same effect.

So can a "big picture" view: a 90% probability of failure might not seem nearly so bad to someone who can hedge by investing (not necessarily just $) in hundreds of companies. Expectation maximization is much more appealing when you have enough trials to get one of them off the ground. Whereas a founder "starting from 0" might reasonably prefer a ~maximin approach. Neither objective is wrong or corrupt, but advice that suits one and not the other might as well be.

PG and everyone in YC know this and I'm sure they all make honest efforts to work around the tension, but we should be realistic about the fact that tension exists.

It seems rational for entrants in a YC class to all invest in each other, to hedge the failure risk. Why doesn't everyone in a given YC class (say, of 100 people) agree to give 10% of their company to a holding company, in response for 1% ownership of that holding company?

Everyone might have to be an accredited investor, which the majority would not qualify for. Another potential problem is that companies want to keep their cap tables minimal for regulatory reasons. Also, how does the 10% vote in board decisions?

Also, what if some companies held out. So now 80% of the YC companies are in this hedge fund. Wouldn't the most successful companies disproportionately come from the 20%--the ones who had enough confidence to reject the deal? Would the smart people in the 80% then defect as well, bringing the cabal down to 60%?

Founder Institute has something like that model. I haven't heard of any breakout successes from them yet.



YC can have founder interests at heart and still give out VC biased advice because of the type of startup they encourage. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

PG's advice isn't geared primarily towards VC interests (beyond a successful startup), it's mainly biased because it's based on his own personal experience. There's no conspiracy.

Historically YC has given more power to entrepreneurs vs the VCs. JL & co. founded YC mainly because VCs sucked even more at the time. Given what YC has accomplished, I'm sure a lot of people can say that they've made things better.

Can the current VC environment be improved? Yes. Has it gotten much better ever since YC's influence has grown? Yes. Will Sam change one of YC's core missions of giving founders more equal footing? It's possible but I really I doubt it.

Perhaps you'd understand if people discounted your comment slightly because of your apparent close relationship with YC, then?

They have the best interests of founders in mind only insofar as their pocketbooks and reputation benefit from it. That's at best an intersection that doesn't contain all the elements in both sets.

Disclaimer: I'm a pretty cynical and skeptical person by nature. I'm especially suspicious when people with a lot of money at risk say, well, just about anything. My experiences have lead me to believe that it is an extremely rare individual who will not go to great lengths to protect and accumulate his wealth, even to an extent that many would consider sociopathic, and further that this trait is amplified geometrically as wealth is accumulated.

Hopefully a little less than they'd discount a comment from someone who'd casually impugn the integrity of a total stranger on the Internet solely to make a banal point-scoring argument.

A complete ad hominem. You did not address his point at all, which was quite valid.

Have a read over this [1], one of countless studies which supports the original commenter's assertion that wealth and status accumulation tend to the be prime directive of every individual who has even a modicum of either asset.

If PG and YC truly cared about entrepreneurship in spite of their own best interests, they would be working tirelessly for a worldwide basic income which frees talented individuals from the whims of VCs, incubators, and employers alike and allows said entrepreneurs to fully focus their energies on bootstrapping their ideas with maximum freedom over their time, equity, and strategic decisions.

1. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9226268

I don't think we're working from the same definition of "ad hominem".

Seems to me they're about equal in merit. Also, in case your comment was directed at me, I didn't impugn anybody's integrity.

I agree with you on many levels. I think it's important to remember that founders looking to get into YC are seeking PG's advice and thus have specific goals in mind. I don't want to debate whether YC is biased towards VC's or not because I think that's irrelevant here. In my opinion, what matters is YC's track record. Remember, no one is forcing you to look to YC for startup advice...

>and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that their intentions are (a) good and (b) founder-aligned.

But the characteristic we're looking for here is employee aligned. Founders can make out like bandits whilst the employees find out the hardway what their contracts really mean.

What do you see wrong in PG's early essays?

> Right, PG's advice is not useful for all founders, just the 1 out of every 10 that makes it big. The others are supposed to nut up and get over it.

Quite contrary, the opposite is true: the "1 out of every 10" companies you hear about are the companies where founders resisted opportunities to sell early, which grew to a size where millionaires continued to be minted even after the IPO.

Some VCs have even refused to permit early sales that would have made the founders comfortable (i.e., 1-5mm per founder): while top-tier VCs _won't_ do that (that would make founders who have their pick of VCs be reluctant about accepting their funding), it's probably not the best idea in the world to take substantial amount of VC funding without even considering the possibility of building a public company.

There's a lot that one can accuse pg of, but pushing founders to take long odds to make VCs rich is not one of them.

>Some VCs have even refused to permit early sales that would have made the founders comfortable (i.e., 1-5mm per founder): while top-tier VCs _won't_ do that (that would make founders who have their pick of VCs be reluctant about accepting their funding), it's probably not the best idea in the world to take substantial amount of VC funding without even considering the possibility of building a public company.

Why? If the odds really are 1 in 10 (I suspect they are lower than this) and you only have a couple of chances to do a start-up in your life then why risk it all on the chance of getting big? The hedonistic value of money has a pretty steep fall.

"1 out of every 10"? That sounds high to me. Is it based on YC-backed founders, founders in general, or totally made up?

It's a standard figure. Suspiciously round, basically unsupportable. It's really hard to measure what percentage of companies fail because so little of the data is public.

But the figure wasn't companies that didn't fail, it was companies that made it big. Surely that's an easier number to come up with, depending on your definition of "big".

tl;dr: 1 in 20 would be a better estimate than 1 in 10, but even this underestimates the skew.

Across all VC-funded startups which received first-round funding between 1985 and 2009, 55% were terminated at a loss, and only 6% returned more than 5 times the original investment. But this 6% group generated more than 50% of the gross return across all ventures.

At a "single large and successful" (but, for obvious reasons, anonymous) VC firm which invested about 1 billion over the last decade, about 5% of the total money invested generated a return of 10x or more; almost 60% of the money was invested into companies that terminated at loss.

Source for both assertions: Kerr et al., 2014 (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2473226)

You may also want to take a look at Figure 2 in Hall and Woodward (2008), which shows the distribution of exit values over 22,000 VC-backed startups founded between 1987 and 2008. About 5% of these startups had exit values of $50 million or more. (http://www.nber.org/papers/w14219)

>nut up

It would be nice if people on Hacker News would not use phrases like this.

There's a button for that.

> A lot of it has to do with who you work with. In every case I can think of, windfall money for employees came from founders with a track record of accomplishing that (or, in my case, a founder who would soon develop that track record, and was, in the company I was at, extremely committed to making sure his team was well compensated at liquidity).


I am the founder of OpenFeint which was acquired a few years ago for ~$100M. Many of my early employees there got into the range you mentioned. But I also had to work incredibly hard to make sure that every one of the 60 people at the company got compensated at some level. It's very easy for people at the table during a transaction to focus on themselves... most people do.

A good founder will constantly fight for his/her team.

So, did that founder make clear exactly how you were going to be taken care of, or was it something you had to take on faith, or was it a surprise altogether?

How'd you handle this sort of thing at Matasano?

A little of both. I have yet to handle a liquidity event as well as he did, but I got insulated from that a bit because consultancies pay market salary and don't do equity compensation.

Sorry to dig, but I'm basically trying to figure out how a founder can properly reassure employees that they've planned for this sort of thing--also its converse, that an employee has a straightforward way of telling if they are being misled by their founder.

It would be tough for me to distill it out, because he's also the best leader I've ever worked for. My two Matasano co-founders also worked with him, and one of our mottos was "WWxxD" (s/xx/his initials).

I think a lot of successful founders are successful once, and only plan on being successful once, and --- especially if it's their first company --- that changes the dynamics.

I'm new here. Can you summarize "Paul Graham's hacker startup thesis?" for me? (Or point me to an appropriate manifesto, whatever). Would like to read your last sentence in context... thanks

See generally: http://www.paulgraham.com/wealth.html

(My favorite pg essay, mostly because the bit about measurement and leverage is wildly instrumentally useful even if you agree with no other conclusion of the essay.)

And if you don't have time, just read the part about the Pie Fallacy :-)

excellent, thank you both.

I'm not really following.

What's the contradiction between the PG startup thesis and your experience with employee equity?

I was employee, like, #1,000 or so for NetSuite -- hired as a QA engineer and eventually moved over to development. I was hired I think about two years before it went public, and stayed for six years overall.

My equity came out to about $300k. Which I know does not hit the thresholds that you put in the post, but clearly many of my coworkers who came in earlier and were more senior -- but still not founders nor part of the founding team -- did a lot better.

EDIT: I should point out $300k was more or less actual. If I had been really good at selling at the top of the market, it would've been more like $400k. I suppose that overall it might end up being more or less, I still have a few tens of thousands in stock, but most of it ended up being the down payment on my house. The $300k was after buying into the stock (since I wasn't a super-early employee, many of my options cost like 10-25% of the then-market-value to buy), and after some taxes? But not all? AMT and prepayment of some taxes and stuff and my overall lack of financial discipline made it really hard for me to figure out how much tax I owed specifically on the stock.

Another EDIT: Something else to point out was that at NetSuite, this was NOT principally from my initial grant at hire. NetSuite gave new grants of stock every year with ones yearly review, and those grants were pretty generous. Everything was on the same five year vest with a one-year cliff, so I got my entire year 1 and year 2 grants and then fractions of my remaining years. The year 1 grant was at the lowest rate to buy in, but that wasn't hugely important. I would guess that about 1/3rd of the stock that I eventually realized came from my year 1 grant. I've never been sure if that's common practice or not with other companies, and if someone could shed some light on that, it'd be awesome.

Sounds like an equity refresh(er). Companies will grant refreshes to vested employees like you (i.e. past the 1-year cliff) to incent and award performance, and they are often given in lieu of a larger yearly cash bonus, which totally makes sense given the cash-strapped nature of most startups.

However, what they won't tell you is if the company has gone through any recent rounds of financing, you as a common stock shareholder have been diluted, and getting a refresh often times only brings you back to your original ownership percentage, if that, so getting a refresh is really only bringing you back to square one in a lot of cases.

In your case, it sounds like your additional grants were substantially more than refresh level (5-20%) which worked out pretty great. In my (limited) experience at 2 larger SV companies - 1 public, 1 private - they both "awarded" refreshes, and I would be surprised if most companies didn't. It's a win/win for the company - they can continue to raise cash through financing and use the cash to fund operations vs. paying out employees, and they can also "incent" their employees to work harder and faster with the promise of future riches.

Would you mind disclosing at what stage of the process you got your initial grant, and how much that grant was diluted along the way to the IPO?

I don't mind disclosing but I don't really know. This was almost 9 years ago at this point, and my memory is hazy, plus I was pretty naïve about all of this crap back then.

I definitely had at least one dilution event. Could that have been concurrent with the actual IPO? I want to say that I lost like 1/3rd of the ownership share of my stock, but honestly that could be total fabrication at this point, please don't bank on it.

Worth pointing out that when people throw numbers around the stock value alone may sound impressive but that has to be compared against the opportunity cost that's usually associated with that route. Usually those options are handed out because the employee is accepting less cash or other compensation than another employer might pay then for similar work.

Walking away with $750k after 5 years might sound fantastic, but in some cases the person might actually be worse off relative to someone (say a senior role at an established firm) that had a package of higher salary, sizeable annual cash bonus and other perks often not found at startups. One needs to study the whole picture, not just some cash out amount at a liquidity event.

I would argue there is value in the bubble payout itself. Even if you're good at saving & investing over the course of many years the assets and liquidity you have when you cash in your equity gives you a chance to take risks and meet potential business partners that you don't have as a salaryman who's good with his money.

That might be true as a rule of thumb for the general population. Although historically people who get large payouts (eg, lottery winners) tend to do very poorly with them. And for someone who is truly "good with money" to the extent of avoiding all lifestyle inflation and investing as much as possible, the periodic payouts are definitely better.

For the sake of argument, let's say that you have two positions which will pay the same total cash compensation. BigCorp's job will pay it out in equal amounts over 5 years, whereas NewCo's job will pay out 10% each year for 4 years, and then 60% in year 5.

BigCorp will almost certainly result in a lower overall tax bill because much of each year's income is taxed at lower rates. NewCo will result in a lower tax bill for 4 years due to the lower income, but year 5 will probably put a large amount of compensation in the top marginal tax bracket.

Also, the BigCorp job will afford more opportunities for outside investing (stock market, real estate, whatever) and possibly more free time to do it in. So with BigCo you'll have had four years of compounding investment growth before NewCo really gets started on it.

Realistically do you think a lottery winner is comparable to a successful startup employee? Lottery winners are entirely random while startup successes comes after years of working in a structured business environment with a built in community of successful business people. A lottery winner could be a guy in small town Tennessee who got lucky while he worked at the local corner store and has a group of friends & family asking for his money. A startup success is one or two social ties away from Sequoia or Peter Thiel, has meaningful work experience and has a group of friends actively trying to make him more money. There's a huge difference.

And I honestly don't mean this to be dismissive of a "typical lottery winner." The social environment you live in is a huge deal. Being in the SV community is going to lead you down a path of investments that typical lottery winners don't have immediate access to. If you win the lottery and Warren Buffet is a family friend you're much more likely to do well than if you win the lottery and your mother was receiving food stamps when you were in elementary school. Business people will answer your email, almost anyone's email, I'm not a big deal by any stretch of the imagination but I've chatted with Gary V and exchanged emails with Paul Graham. If lightning struck and I had a suddenly had a bunch of money to invest I could ask for powerful, connected help and there's a good chance I would get it from someone because no one cares how you made the money in your bank account. But at the very least I know where to look for that help, random lottery player guy doesn't necessarily have that and that's just his environment not anything inherent about him. Startup employee who cashed out is probably a lot more like me than typical lottery winner.

>>Realistically do you think a lottery winner is comparable to a successful startup employee?

In some ways, yes. Certainly there are difference, but people are people. How many college grads get their first job that pays real money and immediately throw themselves into debt for new cars and nice condos? How many people cash out of a startup and plow the proceeds into another one, effectively doubling down on that particular lottery?

Clearly there are differences between the groups, so the average outcomes could definitely be different. But I don't think it's obviously true.

It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study of people who cashed out significant amounts from startups. I'm sure they do better than the average lottery winner - but then they were probably doing better before the windfall as well. The interesting question would be whether the windfall changed their trajectory, or was just a blip.

I joined in Google in early 2005, post IPO, as an entry level SWE. I was probably employee #3000 - #9000 (there were about 3000 employees at the time).

I made over $2M from stock options. Lots of people sold their stock as soon as it vested, in which case it would've amounted to about $1M. If I had held out until now (the price spiked around 2013), it would have been closer to $4M.

I think people don't understand the order of magnitude difference between great companies and astounding companies.

A great company is worth $300 M. Google is worth $300 B.

That means if you would have gotten two THOUSAND dollars from the successful company, you would get two MILLION dollars from Google [1]. 3 orders of magnitude is a big difference!

If your goal is to get rich, it's perhaps a better strategy to join the right company at the right time, rather than start your own company (although that was definitely not my strategy).

Though this advice sounds obvious, I haven't heard it in many places. I recall a startup class lecture [1] from a founder of Asana, on why NOT to do a startup. And he said don't do it for the money -- because if you want to do it for the money, you should join a company like AirBNB or Dropbox now. These are companies that could be at a similar cycle in their growth as Google was in 2005.

In other words, join a great company that could be astounding.

Another source is Piaw Na's book. I don't really know him, and at first I thought it was weird to have a career strategy of choosing companies based on equity, but it's definitely a logical thing to do if you're so inclined:


$2M doesn't sound like that much any more, but when I see these HN threads about exits and equity, I believe I made out better than many startup founders, as a regular employee.

[1] caveat: I believe Google was still idealistic and generous in 2005; the Valley has changed a lot in the last decade, so YMMV

[2] I can't find it here, but I thought it was? http://startupclass.samaltman.com/

It also depends on what you mean by "getting rich." If you want to make say $500k-$5M, I think that by far your best bet is to join a company that is shortly pre-IPO or shortly post-IPO that is CLEARLY valuable. Where your equity will be worth something, barring disaster.

If you want to make $10M+, then joining an already-valuable company isn't going to do it unless you can become an executive. Founding a company might do it. If you want to make $100M+, then founding a company is probably the only way you can reasonably do it (unless you're competitive for a very small number of very high end executive slots).

What is interesting to me is that I find it kind of hard to imagine many results in which it's truly worthwhile, monetarily, to be an early employee at a start-up. You are much less likely to get wildly mega-rich, like a founder -- probably at least 10x less likely -- and you're much less likely to get a medium-rich than someone who joins already-successful companies.

I say this as someone who has been an early employee at several start-ups. And really enjoyed it. But it's hard to make a financial case for it.

Maybe the answer is just that being an early employee is financially non-optimal, but some people for a variety of reasons can't or don't want to be founders, and some people for a variety of reasons can't or don't want to get a job at an already-successful company.

This is the most thoughtful, balanced answer in this thread. Kudos.

Agreed. View your prospective employer as if you were an investor. Think like Buffett. If your timing is right, a profitable, proven and sustainable business model is worth far more for most than a lottery ticket. Grow rich slowly.

Joined a post-IPO company, saw peers waste options on cars 10K cars that would be $800K homes today, sat tight, did good work, collected equity, which, if spread over my whole career, equates before tax to about 3-4x my average annual salary per annum over a very long, multi-decade career.

It was risky, no doubt. Had I not executed, my cumulative equity might have ended up 1-1.5x salary over a long career. But the downside was incredibly low given the risk taken.

One caveat: since companies IPO so late now, to luck into it like I did, you will likely have to find pre-IPO companies (but post having a non-insane biz model) to achieve similar results.

Happy Hunting.

I worked at Palantir from 2009 to 2014 (started as SysEng, pivoted to Infosec). I have only "taken home" enough to recoup the cost of exercising my options and paying taxes (ugh, AMT), but my stock is worth something in that range. A friend who started around the same time I did recently sold a little less than half of his stock for about $500k to a private equity fund. I also know of a few other non-executives who started before me who have cashed out over $500k.

EDIT: If anyone's curious about selling pre-IPO stock, I have an email address in my profile and would be happy to share some knowledge. Seems like there's not much out in the open about it.

Please call me in Arizona @ 602-418-4542 anytime Friday, March 20th to discuss Pre-IPO Stock sales info. Thanks Victor..

Well in January of '95 I sold 1000 shares of Sun Stock that I had accumulated over the employee purchase program the previous few years. Sure it was only $35,000, this allowed me to purchase a car for cash rather than get a loan on it. When I sold the car in '99 to a used car dealer I realized the same 1000 shares, 4 years later were worth $1.6M.

Granted at 1995 it wasn't a start-up any more, but it is an easy counter illustration to the myth that "only founders make money." Granted, half or 3 of the 6 managers I had at Sun are actually quite well off with two being VC partners these days and one enjoying their post work life.

Well, at least you are not Ron-Wayne.

I was not aware of his story... ouch:


"He sold his share of the new company for US$800, and later accepted US$1,500 to forfeit any claims against Apple."...

"Had Wayne kept his 10% stock until then, it would have been worth approximately $60 billion."

Not a bad time to remember that Ron Wayne has said he does not regret getting out of Apple.

$60 billion is incomprehensible to most people. It's money so big that it is not money anymore, it's the power to make society-level decisions. In a sense it is so big that it becomes an obligation--see Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Steve Jobs himself was not nearly that rich because he made decisions for reasons other than money--like selling all his Apple shares out of spite when he got fired. And sinking huge amounts of his personal wealth into NeXT to design the computer he thought should exist (but which never sold well).

In a macro sense it is good that it is so hard to make large sums of money. It ensures that the people who make that money will at least have some ideas about what to do with it. Contrast with the typical fate of lottery winners. Most self-destruct in pretty short order.

"$60 billion is incomprehensible to most people. It's money so big that it is not money anymore, it's the power to make society-level decisions. In a sense it is so big that it becomes an obligation--see Bill Gates and Warren Buffett."

Add to that that not everyone wants to live in a fishbowl. Some do of course, but there is something to be said to having enough money to have a nice life, and some toys, and homes, and be able to do what you want when you want, but not be on everyone's radar and a potential target because of notoriety and wealth.

Wow, talk about lost opportunity. I can only assume you're willing to talk about leaving so much money on the table because you got some other windfall a few years later!

Not sure why your getting voted down but once you've experienced the ups and downs of equity value it gets to be quite noisy. So the car I sold to used car dealer which I "paid" 1.6M for was replaced by another car I had bought using some stock money I got from a company that had acquired my startup, when I sold that car 5 years later the stock used to buy the car was worth a bit less than $400. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the reality was "Hey, I've got a car and no car payments." which at the time was relevant.

The message is very much that getting "rich" doesn't really matter if you're the founder or a later employee, and its pretty random with respect to "skill". If you happened to be at Sun in the 80's and you sold your stock in the late 90's you made a lot, if you kept it until Oracle bought the remains, you made much less. Same stock different value. (and yes I had a wee bit of stock left when Oracle bought them)

What I learned from that was that making money in the stock market was about targeting a gain and capturing it. So when Facebook went public I bought some at $18 and told my financial advisor to sell it if it ever hit $36 (which it did of course). So for that part of my portfolio I made a bit more than a 100% annual rate of return for that one stock. Its up to $81 today, at some point it will likely be worthless. But for me, it took some of my money and doubled it in less than a year. Good enough for me.

But the Ask HN post is about whether or not equity compensation is "worth it" and the answer in the Bay Area has always been "yes". How much, or how little, extra it is, varies but as long as you wait to exercise and make a profit (yes you pay a bigger tax burden but its always a positive amount of money) it is just "extra" money that you got in addition to your pay. It it worth to work for stock instead of pay? That is a much riskier deal and probably not if you can't afford to pay your own bills independently. And do you have to work at a "startup" to get a big boost out of equity value? Absolutely not.

Yeah not sure where the down votes are coming from, but I appreciate your response and I think it's great advice for the folks in this thread.

When I was in my early twenties I scraped together about $5K which I was planning to invest in the Google IPO and instead used it to buy my wife her engagement ring. Today that stock might have been worth $50K or more.

So while some may see it as lost opportunity, I've enjoyed a wonderful marriage for 10 years as a result of that decision, and I don't regret it one bit.

Or it could just be that he doesn't base his entire self-worth on how much money he has accumulated or view himself as a failure because he hasn't maximized said money.

I don't know which it is myself, so my presented theory is just as speculative as yours, but -- and I know this might be a big surprise to some here -- you can live a very comfortable, happy life without ever being a legitimate early-retirement-capable dozens-of-millionaire.

Or cause, whatcha gonna do? I had 25% of a company, let myself get pushed out. New owners did a good job turning it around, sold it for over $20M. I ended up getting a few K. While not as clear-cut as making more money would have required positive action on my part, eh, well, this was years ago and just serves as a lesson.

Or when Bitcoin was cheap and CPU-capable and I started a 64-core mining setup but figured I'd only make a few hundred BTC a month and turned the system off cause a hundred bucks a month wasn't worthwhile (even though I wasn't paying for the hardware/electricity). Including throwing away whatever I had mined so far (a block or two?). Oops.

Or another settlement, that's under NDA.

Or not taking this prototype software I had (that's actually now powering the tech support of voice division of a public telco) and turning it into a commercial offering because I figured the tech was too easy. Then finding a similar solution with 1/100th the performance sold for around $21M.

I prefer to try to view these as inspirations, that opportunities are around and even random "nobodies" can end up in the right place by moving at the right time.

This is why it's important to dollar-cost-average (finance speak for sell over time) your way out of a large position. You'll never time the market so stop trying. Set up a recurring transaction that gets you out of the position over a sensible timeframe.

Just shows right place and right time are necessary but not sufficient conditions. Still need right decisions...and when it comes to picking stock trajectories, that largely correlates with luck or insider knowledge for ordinary mortals.

I guess this is why if you stand to make small profits by selling something against making a wild profit at a later stage albeit with a lesser chance of it happening. You must chose the latter.

Graduated from an Ivy League engineering program in the late nineties. Worked in four different start ups. Never made any money. Of those four startups I only count two as being valid data points as they were funded by "good" VCs. The others were funded by rich people who in retrospect did not know what they were doing.

Now on my fifth startup as employee number 15-20 (not sure which since we are growing so fast). We are funding growth out of VC money. Good name brand VCs that everyone here would be happy to take money from.

Still, I have learned my lesson. I make my life plans as though I can only depend on my salary and my wife's salary. Luckily for me, my wife is a lawyer from an Ivy and makes enough money that I don't worry about failing too much.

Even though most of my peers who graduated with me are independently wealthy (Yahoo, Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), over the years I've learned to moderate my life expectations. My wife and I don't expect to ever afford a big house in Silicon Valley. Our long term plan is to move somewhere cheaper.

That is unless startup #5 succeeds in a big way ... HAHAHAHA lets not kid ourselves. But its fun to imagine :)

Good luck on your 5th startup. I always wonder for people in your situation how long one can stick it out before decamping to somewhere more affordable to start a normal life (house, kids, etc.)

Well life has not been hard. We live modestly by Bay Area standards: one old car, eat out rarely, socialize with friends at home, vacation cheaply. But its still a great life by the standard of anywhere else in the US or World. We don't feel its a hardship to live here ... we have a small apartment, but not small by NYC or European standards. Just small compared to my brother's enormous American suburban home, for example.

We can't afford to raise teenagers here ... but we do plan to live here until our first kid is 2 (kid not conceived yet ... just planning ahead).

Size is definitely relative. I just visited my cousin in Georgia and my house would fit in the play room he just added. He cleans carpet for a living.

Honestly I haven't seen anyone in this industry get any significant money, outside of investors and owners, since the dotcom days. Back then I knew quite a few programmers that made a killing and still have money today from that era.

Large money comes from ownership and the inherent risk. No one will ever give you enough money to go away completely as an employee. Can you make a little scratch? Of course. This industry pays very well. But if you want 500k and up in lump sums? Being an employee is never going to make it happen imho.

And just for the record equity is not ownership. Go read up about all the maneuvers businesses can and will take to screw you out of your shares and you'll open your eyes. Businessmen don't give away anything they don't have to. Just a reality. If you can navigate that minefield you may one day be the outlier and get rich. But more likely you'll be fighting in court for years only to learn that well, you should've read the fine print.

Don't get duped out here guys. Don't do this to get rich. Do this because you want to do it and everything else, with hard work, will fall into place.

This is a side effect of companies filling coffers via investors instead of via customers. If you're part of a high growth company with reasonable earnings, that sales multiple means you'll likely get a taste of the action. If you're in a high growth VC funded company with no revenue, then that multiple goes to the VC and maybe one or two people they might like to work with again.

You can restate this via all sorts of dilution and complex shareholder classes and endless paperwork and HN blogposts, but that's what it boils down to.

Chances are you're in a no-growth or modest-growth company so none of this matters and you should read a basic business book from the 1960s instead, serve your customers well, and charge a reasonable fee for the goods and services you deliver.

Indeed. If the company is a "real business" with actual customers and real profitable finances then those shares can be worth something.

If it's all a bunch of VC backed fluff, well then good luck. At that point it's just a game of selling these virtual units to others wheeling and dealing in similar pumped up virtual fluff. There are lots of ways the 'options' holders get diluted and made irrelevant and are in effect just pawns that can be made to work for less cash based on the, mostly, pipe dream that these options will be worth something some day. One needs to be very careful if you're in this bucket.

Could you point me to some decent reading on the subject? I've asked around a bit but it's not really something that people like to talk about.

Perhaps not exactly what you are looking for, but a very good read on the subject is "Venture Deals" (http://www.amazon.com/Venture-Deals-Smarter-Lawyer-Capitalis...).

If you want to know exactly what rights your shares have (and don't have), this is the book.

I've been in the valley for ~20 years, and I've only made money on my options once, about $250k on a company that had already ipo'ed a year before I joined.

That said, my wife and I earn a combined salary of just over $500k/yr, and I much prefer this to stiking it rich via equity.

Do you mind if I ask what types of jobs you and your wife have? I don't think many software jobs pay $250k unless you're upper management. Physician or legal partner maybe? Even with dual incomes $500k seems like an outlier but maybe I'm wrong.

Recalibrate your expectations of Valley pay in engineering positions upward. $250k is not outlandish in total comp (base + bonus + RSUs) for a 30ish engineer at AmaGooFaceSoft.

If anyone wants to take bets on when that's a reasonably achievable starting salary for a new Stanford CS grad my money is on 2020.

I knew a Harvard CS grad with starting salary at AmaGooFaceSoft of (base+bonus+RSUs) of between $200k and $250k, so I'd take the under on 2020 if we're willing to take the upper end of reasonably achievable rather than the standard offer at the big places.

... and grandparent has "been in the valley ~20 years", so adjust upward from the 30ish engineer figure.

For a senior, non management, engineer at one of the big companies in the vally, 250K in total comp is pretty common.

I spent ~3 years at Twitter (2010-2013) as an engineer and manager. Made a competitive salary while there. Left with almost $2m in equity (ISOs + RSUs).

I sold the bulk of my position quickly due to serious concerns about tying the bulk of my net worth to a single company's future.

After strike price, AMT, and income tax I ended up with roughly $1m in cash. Probably could have been closer to $1.2m if I knew what I was doing tax-wise.

Not a reproducible pattern to be sure, but it was a nice outcome.

Stories like this one make me feel foolish. I recall not applying to Twitter in 2008 partly because I thought that they were already too successful and famous for the equity to be worth much. Clearly, I was mistaken. (It is a small comfort that I probably would not have received an offer anyway, due to my skills and experience level not being a great match for the open positions that they had at that time.)

Hindsight is 20/20. I thought I had missed the boat in 2007 when Facebook was valued at $500 million. "Clearly they couldn't go much higher than that!" I thought.

I have a friend who got an offer from a startup in 2011 w/ 0.15% equity. He didn't take the offer. The company was WhatsApp and his equity would have been worth $27 million.

Go work at Uber :P

According to their angel.co page, they are not offering equity: https://angel.co/uber/jobs/

I don't know if they're offering equity at the moment but they were offering it to engineers 18 months ago.

Why did you leave?

My reasons for leaving were 100% personal. Financially I would have been much, much better off staying for at least another 2-3 years.

When you say personal do you mean unrelated to your work?

Facebook and Google both created literally thousands of millionaires, IIRC. Bad news, though: power law distributions of startup returns have some really toothy consequences for employees as well as for investors.

There exist some less famous answers I could give here but they would be socially embarrassing to friends/colleagues. Let's put it this way: IPOs are public, right? Each of them allocates 10%ish of the market cap to employees. If you guessed employees 1 to 100 split half of that you wouldn't be insanely off base. If 5% of market cap is $100 million...

Another thing you could do, if you're interested, is look up the Angels participating in an early round in a recent startup and check out their LinkedIn profiles. Most have an obvious tuple of (Company, Start Date) which itself explains accredited investor status.

IPO's are not public in the sense that they make public who gets what (except at the top levels), they are an initial public offering of stock.

How many % is allocated to employees is a very complicated process depending on how much dilution happens and if any down-rounds have happened, or funding needed to be done in a rush (look at say Box ...)

I believe VC's generally want an options pool for non-founders/early employees of around 15-25% but every company is going to be a bit different.

"...I think it means, as all other aspects of life, there are distinct clusters of people in this field, with little cross cluster exchange. Either you are in that group in which all of you make money or you are in the group that you and your friends none make much money...." -alimoeeny

This is probably the best take I've read on what is going on. There ARE people who make a lot of money on equity, even as employees. The issue is that there are a lot more people who make nothing. This is actually what is supposed to happen. After all, most businesses fail.

If you made money through equity... then obviously the friends you worked with at that company made money too. And if you didn't... then your friends, who were at the same company, probably made nothing as well.

Just as a matter of full disclosure, I've had two SUPER nice exits. I got them by NOT going out to Silicon Valley to try the internet startup route though. I stayed in the midwest and went the medical imaging route. The thing is this, there were't 1000 other companies doing the same thing. So the odds of winning were much higher. So my personal advice would be to look at the KIND of company you're getting equity from. Molecular Imaging startup??? Yeah... you're probably gonna want as much equity as possible. Yet Another Consumer Web/SmartApp startup??? Your odds of that equity being lucrative are much lower, you should plan accordingly.

Either way, it's basically a lottery ticket. I got really lucky a couple of times. Others won't. But it's basically all down to luck of the draw. I just drew a straw from a pool with very few lots. Whereas the people in the Silicon Valley-Web/SmartApp industry draw straws from a pool with millions of lots. In both cases, luck is probably a pretty big factor.

Marco Arment appears to have done pretty well on the Tumblr aquisition.

"As for me, while I wasn’t a “founder” financially, David was generous with my employee stock options back in the day. I won’t make yacht-and-helicopter money from the acquisition, and I won’t be switching to dedicated day and night iPhones. But as long as I manage investments properly and don’t spend recklessly, Tumblr has given my family a strong safety net and given me the freedom to work on whatever I want. And that’s exactly what I plan to do."


He also shared the numbers for his current project: http://www.marco.org/2015/01/15/overcast-sales-numbers

Another things that is interesting, is the diversity of responses on this thread.

One saying "I've been here for long, I cannot remember of anybody" another one saying, "of course I know plenty of people who made a lot of money".

I think it means, as all other aspects of life, there are distinct clusters of people in this field, with little cross cluster exchange. Either you are in that group in which all of you make money or you are in the group that you and your friends none make much money.

I did say something to the effect of "I know plenty of people who made a lot of money", but I also have lots of friends and acquaintances who haven't. Many failed (or failing) companies, a few "small" exits.

Sure. I've been a part of several startups that have achieved liquidity events and seen non-executive employees walk away with notable 6 figures in value. One coworker was able to purchase a vacation home for over $500k with cash from his post-tax proceeds, amongst other takeaways.

It happens, you just need a team that understands how to manage an equity plan through fundraising, growth phases, org evolution and is motivated to create value for everyone involved.

I was the first employee at Twitch, back in 2007. It worked out very well for me, but - having watched the sausage get made - I'm very aware of how incredibly lucky I've been. It could very easily have all come to nothing.

To be honest it's not something I'd ever advise someone to do, even though it did happen to work out for me. I'd advise most people to join one of the big giants and enjoy a predictably comfortable life, and those with a certain temperament - like myself - to found a company instead of joining one.

What does "worked out very well" mean? Also, what do you mean by watching the sausage get made? Not sure I follow.

"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." [0]

There have been many variations on this quote; the one I like best is "Those who love sausage and democracy should not see either being made."

[0] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Godfrey_Saxe

I'm assuming Bill left out specific numbers because he doesn't want to share them. "Watching the sausage get made" just means he got to see all the details that went into building Twitch.

If everyone followed this advice, there will be no startup employees left.

I was an mid-seniority employee and netted in the low eight figures when I sold my equity stake after our IPO.

A couple important points I didn't see others mention: 1. When I got an offer, I asked if I could take a lower salary to get more equity. They said yes.

2. I pre-exercised all my options. So as far as the IRS was concerned, there was no tax liability when I exercised the shares. This meant by the time I sold, it was a long term gain instead of a short term gain on a same-day exercise+sell. Highest federal + CA income tax rate is 53%, so I would have kept less than half if I didn't get to pre-exercise.

3. I was able to sell when the Bush-era tax cuts were in place. So LTCG federal + CA rate was 25% for me. If I sold those shares today, it would be 37%.

So it worked out for me, but I'm still an engineer and 99% of my coworkers aren't rich - which means I don't talk about it, I don't flaunt it so no Lambo in the parking lot, and I still try to nod in sympathy when they tell me about how expensive private school or summer camp is for their kids. In other words, my life hasn't changed much aside from my bank accounts.

It is absolutely not true that there is no tax liability when you exercise your shares, at least for commonly granted ISO stock options.

Here's a site on it: http://fairmark.com/execcomp/isoexer.htm

Basically, there's no "regular" tax liability, but the difference between the exercise price and the market price at time of exercise counts as income for AMT, and so have a great day, you're gonna pay AMT that year if you do this for any significant quantity of stock.

You missed my point. By pre-exercising my ISOs and filing an 83(b) with the IRS showing that the exercise price and the market price were in fact the same when I exercised, the gain was zero, even for the purposes of AMT. Not everyone will be so lucky to be in that situation where the prices match, but I was.

Interesting reply - 8 figures is enough for taking a break and do other things. Is there a reason you've still stuck to being an employee ?

Not stuck, I choose to be an employee. There's also a sense of loyalty since the leadership treated me well even when it wasn't clear we were going to make it, and I still enjoy the work I do. In some ways I picked the right company even if we would have never IPO'd.


I was approximately employee #500 at Facebook (mid-level engineer), sold the stock pretty quickly after the IPO lockup ended. I left after 3.5 years. I came out with around $2.5m after taxes.

If I had sold at an optimal time, and fully vested. I would have around $4.5m. Almost everyone I know waited the full 4 years, but most did not wait for the stock to appreciate due to fear of concentrated holdings.

Consider the time frame in which these anecdotes took place. My understanding is that most people "in the know" believe the environment has changed such that you'll never get a early Facebook employee type payout anymore. Founders, VCs and their lawyers have developed a plethora of tricks that disguise the way you're getting screwed or ensure that, through some future trickery, you will. You're best bet is to command a high salary worthy of your skills, choose a company that has a culture you'll enjoy and assume that your options are worthless.

This is definitely the case.

Sometimes you get lucky and get a mid 6-fig payout (me and a friend did in a medium-sized acquisition), but most of the money I and most of my friends make is from RSUs, high salary, and year-end bonuses that are actually somewhat tied to company performance.

Playing the lottery is all well and good, but a stable high-paying job will yield a higher EV.

Honestly, in this field, even a $1m payout isn't hugely life changing. By your late 20s you should be making at least 150k/yr + bonuses/etc, and with proper investment you'll be fine for retirement.

I joined a company in the summer of 2011 that IPOed in the spring of 2012. Company was under 400 employees at the time (I was around #~380). The company is not Facebook or Twitter.

My pre-IPO grants alone were worth over 1.5M, and my subsequent RSU grants probably added another 1M on top of that.

I'm using a throwaway account for obvious reasons, but happy to answer any questions. I definitely was not an outlier in terms of the payout.

What types of positions offer large pre-IPO grants? How were you hired? (referral from friend already working there or were you headhunted or what?) Were you aware of the IPO plans before applying, and is this the sort of strategy that is repeatable?

I was just an individual contributor dev. I was hired as a referral, though other folks we hired, even after me but before the IPO made out well.

I was aware of the IPO plans, though the price I was given was about 3x less than what it ended up getting to after the IPO, and it's now 6x less. In that sense, I was extremely lucky - if it had been at the original price and stayed there, I don't think it would have been more than 500K.

Repeatable? Probably not, just given the luck involved. However, I think the payout I was likely to get (200k-500k) was much more likely than getting the same payout from a real startup.

The strategy being looking for pre-IPO companies that plan to IPO within 1 to 2 years. Targeting these types of companies allows you to get market compensation with quite reasonable upside potential and seems a lot better risk/reward profile than joining a "real" startup.

The main question to me is how generous the company is with its grants. I feel like mine was very generous pre-IPO, as they pursued a retention strategy (not wanting the typical exodus of folks when the lock up expires).

However, if a company is not generous, it's likely not a viable strategy.

My strong belief is that you should go work somewhere that you enjoy the work, the people and you feel like you are being compensated appropriately. Getting "rich" is pretty much pure "luck", IMO.

I'm not sure if this question is really applicable since you weren't there for very long before the IPO, but do you know what the Series A -> IPO dilution of shares looked like?

I don't, unfortunately. The company had three series (A, B and C).

Anecdotally I know that the company was not super generous with early employees. Part of what it did prior to IPO was to do a couple of refreshes to make sure people had a reason to stay (and they were extremely successful in this, we've had very little turnover).

What level did you join? IC (Dev, Prod), Management, Sr Management?

IC in Development, not a "senior" at that point.

I'll also add that I was given a competitive salary as well (120K/year with around 15% bonus target) for my location.

I would say as a general rule, you either need to be in the A round of something REALLY big to survive dilution, for an acquisition. The alternative is that you join a public company or soon to be, that will have a very high market cap.

Big companies routinely pay equity packages in the $200k-$1m range for senior people. Some just pay you in cash, and let you make the choice on how much equity you're up for.

I've been in 3 liquidity events, one which was a nice bonus for 4 years, one which I didn't get anything, and the last which has worked out very well for me.

Could you give some more info on what typical dilution looks like from Series A to an exit?

It depends on the structure of the deal, and varies. The larger worry for most employees would be liquidation preferences. The investors tend to protect themselves, and often times this requires a 2-3x return before an common stock sees any money.

yes - I was part of a recent acquisition and made a little over 4M (pretax). I had 0.1% of the company. I was 24th employee (engineer). The company had 55 people at the time of acquisition. I joined about 14 months before the acquisition.

Trying to think of what 55 person company sold for $4B. Was thinking Whatsapp but you would have had more like $19M pretax at 1%.

edit: If vested. But after so short, only 25% vested. Congrats! Sounds like there's more upside for you!

Please don't try to deanonymize people who aren't sharing their own details - individuals are being frank with personal, sensitive financial information in this thread and that's a good thing.

It's the internet. People can do what they want. Everyone is in the pool. Sharks and swimmers. If swimmers want to risk, sharks can bite. End of story.

I for one support the uncovering attempts. I'm attempting to do that myself on all the stories as well.

Several IndexTank employees did well. I can't tell you the exact numbers, but some went from essentially zero net worth to owning property in the Bay Area.


> owning property in the Bay Area.

Ah, the American dream. So attainable.

I'm now on my third startup that has IPOed (Zendesk). I've been relatively lucky, but I also tend to eschew media and gaming companies; my perception of the risk of long-term failure is higher for those. I prefer to work for B2B and infrastructural companies that serve up-market customers and provide real technological value (i.e. can't be easily copied), and my choice has served me well thus far.

I've lived in the valley for like 7 years now and my only friends who have taken a ton from equity are early Twitter folks and the few who sold their startups to bigger companies like Google, Square, Twitter, whatever.

My guess is that the answers will follow in this vein -- the huge rare success stories, "household names" (at least to us?) are the prime (only?) examples.

I joined a startup in the late 80's. By the top of the bubble in the spring of 2000, I had pre-tax equity on the order of ~$10 million. Pretty good for a grunt in a cubicle. I was not a manager or any kind of super-star engineer.

Within a year, I was laid off and the stock had tanked 95%. I had broken all the rules of investing and rolled up a nice pile, but eventually got burned big time.

I would estimate my gross proceeds from stock sales at a little less than $1 million over about 10 years.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda...

Yes, this is also my story from the turn of the century. I still work in startups, but also I jump out of planes for fun. Money like the kind in this thread has nothing to do with my life choices anymore.

As a fairly late hire at Twitch, my equity is somewhere between $500k and $1m.

Is this amount vested over 4 years after the acquisition?

I have not been here 4 years, but that's the full amount assuming the current Amazon price. I don't have any strong opinion about where Amazon's price is headed.

A dead sibling comment claims that $0 is $0, which might be a relevant thing to say if I had not vested any shares yet.

Not sure you answered my question. I was asking whether the $500k - $1m was paid as a lump sum on acquisition.

Sorry about that. I did not receive any lump sum. I have the standard options setup and I received a (much smaller) equity grant that vests over 4 years starting at the date of the acquisition.

How late of a hire? What kind of % did you get?

I joined a startup several years ago as an early engineer. The company was acquired last year, and my equity was worth more than $1m after investors were paid.

I always go for salary first, equity second. So far, after half a dozen start-ups, I haven't regretted that strategy.

Not faulting your decision making process, but have you kept track of the startups you declined offers from?

I would be curious if that paradigm changes in 10 years, not that I will remember to ask you :D

In the one case of a successful exit, I was able to pull off enough of a salary bump that it more than compensated for what I could have gotten with equity. There may end up being one that proves me wrong, but overall, I think equity has generally been used as an excuse to push down salary.

I also have a family and they eat today, so my appetite for risk has been lower. At 22, my decisions might have been different.

Posting this under a throwaway for obvious reasons.

Employees at Facebook and Google who are high achievers (top 2-5% generally) make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in equity. I am one such lucky son of a bitch and know many others.

I'm well over 500k in cash after taxes at this point.

How does one even make 480k a year? I doubt it's 480k in pure cash. Do they mean salary + market value of stocks?

A somewhat dual question, can anyone offer advice on what to look for when negotiating an offer with an early-stage startup with a view towards achieving an outcome in this range? What are some red-flags in an equity offer that suggest it won't be worth what it seems? What are some reasonable stipulations/demands to make as the employee, to protect yourself and your stake?

I've been told that there are so many loopholes that equity in the range of half a percent or so is mostly worthless after dilution and taxes. But it seems there are folks here saying they had equity in that range which was worth a lot.

Ask if they allow early exercise, and do it if you can afford to. It will probably be money down the drain, but it will save you a lot in taxes if there's an exit. If you do not do it and the company takes off, exercise can become unaffordable due to AMT, and you may feel "trapped" by your options.

I think it's mostly the trushworthiness of the founders (plus if they have a track record) coupled with the kind of industry/product they are working on.

Some categories inherently need more capital (hardware, network-based) so chances are maybe higher that you will have more dilution but hopefully the pie gets bigger each time so that may not be the worst thing.

Even though "making money" seems so passe these days, the startups I've experience with that were not viciously focused on revenue and at least break-even are dead and the other two still exist so not a big-enough "N" for a sample but ....

For results in the $X00k range, I think it's easier to just pick more inevitable startups (relatively). I would also say that you should plan to stay through the vesting and event and to only work for market salary.

Picking at the Founder+epsilon stage is not easy -- if you are doing that, pick serial-winners.

I don't know if you will see anyone openly stating how much they walked away with, but you can do some basic math to figure out that this is very plausible.

Take Stripe, valued at $3.5b[1]. $1m / $3.5 b ~= 0.029%, so any employee who vested at least 0.029% (after dilution) is a paper millionaire, and chances are their early employees have more than 0.029% equity vested.


I don't know of anyone personally who got an exit like that but I do know companies are staying private longer nowadays. This can increase the risk for employees. EquityZen (where I work) is trying to make it easier for employees to exit before their company has an liquidity event. This blog post explores Fab and Aereo and how a big exit is not always guaranteed: https://equityzen.com/blog/learning-from-fab-and-aereo-liqui...

Do you guys have any data on what Series A -> Exit dilution looks like for regular employees>

It really depends on the company and the terms of the investments they take on. This is a little case study of what you equity might look like if you joined Uber in 2012: https://equityzen.com/blog/uber-employee-shareholder-value-a... . It's a little outdated but it goes over some of the math you would need to figure out what your shares would be worth.

This is a very good question. I also want to know if there are examples other than major successes like Google and Facebook.

One issue is when you want to hire people and you want to feel confident that you are offering them a "real chance" for financial success, even if it is a slim chance. I mean if you know that it is very likely that even when "you" have a win (whatever your goal is) and your investors have a win, still your employees don't benefit significantly, that will be a sad story.

Yes. 99.9% of people will never have heard of the company I worked at that IPO'd...

Yes, again above the high end of that. Employee ~65 of a startup that raised very little money and IPO'd for over $1BN (over ten years ago now though ... )

Would you mind disclosing at what stage of the process you got your initial grant, and how much that grant was diluted along the way to IPO?

The first startup I worked for, back in the Ancient Days Of The Web, gave me (employee #4, 5, or 6, depending on which of the three of us walked in the door first) options that would have netted me low seven figures when the company was gobbled up in the first bubble. Would have, had I exercised those options before I quit the place and let them expire. So it goes.

The second time I had equity was a few years later, joining a much larger company shortly before a terribly botched IPO. The next morning the CEO parked his new Ferrari right next to the employee entrance; the rest of us were stuck with a strike price well above the current valuation. My options eventually peaked out at ~$300K value, but were underwater for years; in theory I could have made far more just buying the stock like any old yutz off the street, if I'd had any expectation that the company would recover, which I didn't.

The third time, well, ask me again in a couple years and we'll see how it turns out. It'd be nice, of course, but I'm not counting on it.

My advice: * Be an early employee, preferably during a bubble. (Now is probably good.) * Exercise your options. * Never park your shiny new sports car where your employees can see it.

I used to work for Yahoo M&A (hence the throwaway account). When we did the acquisitions under Marissa we valued the engineers at around $1M each. Most acquihires ended up getting $1M+ vested over 3-4 years. I'm no longer there.

Throwaway account.

Our start-up was acquired by famous bigco after 2 years. ~20 of us were in the company. Every single person is making >$500K, 16 of 20 are making >$1.5M, and 7 of 20 are making >$2M. The founders likely made much more.

Few things to note: - The team didn't take big salary cuts to join the start-up - salaries were pretty much in line with large companies - Most people were at start-up for less than 1 year when acquired - Four years needed to get the full payout at bigco

Although salaries were fine, the employee equity made all the difference on a good->great outcome. The start-up was enterprise focused, and built innovative, new technology. The team worked really hard and was focused.

Pretty much beat all my university classmates on outcome including the ones that joined Google/Facebook/etc.

Dell bought ConvergeNet, which made a fibre-channel virtual storage device. At the time their stock price was >$50. By the time I could sell, it was half that. So I didn't 'take home' as much as I'd have liked to. But on paper it looked good for a while.

I'm 24 now and made $900 pretax in FB (no college loans).

I think i'm lucky that i joined Facebook after IPO but when the stock was very low. My new grad offer was $280k (negotiated like a VC with tons of counter offers from GOOG, DropBox, etc...) and stock was $19 the day i had joined around Sep 2012. So, i got ~14000 FB shares. I sold all my vested shares(~11000 [9500 vested on my base offer and 1500 out of my refresher grants over last 2 years) at $80 very recently and leaving the company for $1M offer with a startup.

Total Money i made pre-tax: $900k. Bought a Porsche and chilling out in LA for a month now before my next gig. Everyone call me as a lucky kid.

I'm actually very curious what startups gives you a $1M offer, and in what position. The most I've seen is grants that are worth up to $500k at day 1 valuation.

I joined an enterprise data storage company in the Bay Area in 2012 about 2 years before IPO as a software engineer. Company went IPO in late 2013 and total value of initial grant over 4 years is currently around $800k.

My first startup job put me barely at the beginning of the range you're talking about. Honestly I thought we could have made it further on our own but I didn't really have much of a choice, but in retrospect it probably was the best thing we could have done for ourselves and our other employees.

I guess the working hard for 5-10 years bit and taking it easy for the rest of your life is fine and all, but I think I would go insane if I didn't have work to do.

I did a blog post about that: http://2pasc.com/2012/05/18/the-power-law-of-startup-employe...

Overall - it depends when you get in, and its valuation potential at exit. Companies with 10B-100B+ exits can create hundreds to thousands of millionaires. Companies that exit at 200-500M, much less, obviously!

The first startup I worked for, after taxes, made me over 1m and I was employee 42.

Would you mind disclosing at what stage of the process you got your initial grant, and how much that grant was diluted along the way to the final exit?

The average engineer who joined square about 3 years ago has made more than 2M

But is that cash in the hand or "paper" money ?

a lot of top engineers are understandably going ot be risk-averse about taking low-salary for equity in a company that most likely will not work out... this however is not good for vc firms, because for their investments to work out they need to be able to hire the best hackers (away from places like google and facebook) . this makes me thikn there might be value in vc firms having hackers on their books, hired guns if you will. where the hacker gets a stable income from the vc firm and multiple attempts at joining different start-ups.. across each individual hackers' 2/3 attempts annd the portfolio of hackers,,,, the massive ten million dollar options could be spread around a bit more, to make it more attractive for top hackers to take the risk and join a start-up

crucially this would also allow investors to take some of the sunk cost risk out of funding a start-up which is the employees wages..

I'm not convinced that top-funded tech companies don't still pay great salaries AND give a small smattering of stock options....to keep the employees motivated and to attract the level of talent they need to succeed.

yeah it's difficult to tell... the narrative from all the vcs is it's all about the team, pg even goes as far to say that if you choose good people even if they initially have a bad idea they'll pivot out of it... but given the high percentage of start-ups that fail would seem to suggest that a lot of 'teams aren't up to it' i.e. there is a lack of talent going into start-ups... if that's the case it doesn't seem unreasonable to think some of that talent might be in big lucrative jobs at established technology companies

I was an employee #15-30 range of a small startup and got around $200k out of options and $1.3M of additional RSU upon acquisition. I've more or less kept all of my equity. Because the parent company did well, they're currently worth roughly $2.5M post tax (and I'm hoping the parent company continues to do well).

If you had $2.5 million cash, would you put it all into one company? Even if you like crazy growth stocks, there's an index fund for that.

This is about risk reduction and wealth preservation -- going for expected value maximization is not a good idea when you only get one shot.

Bah...if you had skills that could guarantee you could retire at 55, and equity that might let you retire at 30 (best case) or 45 (worst case), why not take the chance if you believe in your work, your company and your mission?

If you know what your company is making is bullshit, then by all means bail as soon as you can. If it is important work, then the risk is far less.

2.5 million in a well managed (even conservative) portfolio is practically guaranteed to be enough for retirement in 10 years with passive oversight. You would be adding to it with savings as well.

I guess if you're hell bent on being all in, I'd recommend some kind of insurance in the form of a Put option that you hope expires worthless (assuming this is a public company).

It's a good question. My bias is that it often does not, and that the current investors make sure it does not. However, it also isn't in people's interest to advertise that they have a lot of money suddenly, so I'm not sure we'll see some good answers here.

Yes, I joined a company fairly late in its history (just two years before its IPO), ended up in the lower end of that range, despite doing nearly everything wrong from financial POV: stayed for roughly 3 years (didn't fully vest the initial grant), sold large portion of the stock right after the lock-up expired, and so on.

I know plenty of other folks with similar stories: they also joined a mid-sized, yet fast-growing (in terms of both company size and revenue) private companies, ended up doing well financially.

There's a catch, however: this isn't a "get rich quick" scheme, in fact neither myself nor any of the people I know made the decisions they did _for the sake of money_: my own choice had more to do with interesting work, great team, applying my skills at greater scale, and so forth. Lot of folks told me that joining said company was "just too late"; I also considered it as such (thinking of options -- if they were to become worth anything -- as a nice potential bonus, but not a life-changing event).

I don't like giving advice, but here are some heuristics (YMMV, none of this is universal):

1) Don't treat equity so cynically as to never take an offer that offers slightly lower title/salary/etc... vs. the others _especially_ if there are other great reasons to take the "lower title/base pay, but higher equity" offer.

2) On the other hand, don't over-optimize for equity such that one ends up with high percentage of equity but of little or overall negative value. This value can be financial (simply put, if a company is less generous with equity it means they think it's worth _something_), but more importantly it can be in terms of missed learning and growth opportunities. I hate to jump on the "too many SELECT ajax FROM php startups" bandwagon -- I happen to work for one that is _very far from that, and yes we're hiring! -- but there are plenty of startups that don't offer much technical depth, or (for non-technical-folks) don't do anything terribly interesting business-wise, either.

3) The two anti-patterns I've seen in Silicon Valley are folks _never_ working in smaller teams AND folks trying to get in "as early as possible" for the sake of... "getting in as early as possible" (treating all startups interchangeably, etc...). Good people and interesting work can be found in companies of _any_ size: don't pass up these opportunities just because the company seems to be too bi _or_ too small. In the end, the compensation (not just financial/equity, but also choice of projects/responsibilities) company N+1 will offer will depend on what you can bring to the table, which in turn depends on what you've learned at companies {0,..., N}

I've known multiple "employees" who have gotten 10X that.

Some of the stories:

- In 3 years before a big IPO to turn around sales at a non-tech company.

- A few 10x (100x?) engineers who joined Apple around 2000 and 2001, sticking around for the long ride up.

- Junior Engineer (~Employee #30) at a big ERP company that had a massive IPO a few years later.

In most of the cases they were expecting "new house" money rather than "new life" money. In all the cases, they are still doing roughly the same jobs before the windfall. In all but the last case they were very talented workaholics surrounded by similar minded folks. Of course they also lucked into the right opportunity.

I've worked for startups and for public companies. All of my equity success (into and past your range) has come from my stock options in the public companies I have worked for. The startups have netted me exactly 0 thus far (but the jury is still out).

Just accepted an offer of $150k base and $1M in stock options from one of hot startups in SF. I will update here if the startup makes it to IPO in next few years and i made real money more than $500k and stock market does not crash in 2016.

This post may benefit from having 'Ask HN:' in the title.

Can we count being paper millionaires for a while?

Seems there would be work for a clued up lawyer to advise early hires on their employment contracts. Do such people exist?

Microsoft was an example where it's owners became billionaires and they're employees became millionaires.

Well, its a company that its fashionable to hate on on ycombinator, but http://gizmodo.com/5019527/bill-gates-made-men-the-wild-n-cr...

That list left off Gabe Newell.

I notice all the answers so far are in the US. Any UK or Australia stories to keep my hope up?

Interesting to see 250k is a realistic salary for a developer as well. I never see any jobs anywhere near that in the UK or Australia - except maybe London as a contract developer in finance.

I know of a couple, but it's rare. You're much more likely to make money in a hedge fund. Year-end bonuses (profit-sharing) are a much better model, at least for employees, than startup equity, which is usually a retention carrot for after the company is bought and dies. Unless you become an executive, you have to get very lucky to have that kind of outcome.

The million-dollar houses are mostly being bought by investors and well-connected career startup executives who take almost no risk. Engineers are renters in the Valley.

I disagree on the houses bit. Literally speaking, the million dollar houses in the Bay Area are being purchased by a wide range of individuals, many of whom are young professionals earning a decent amount and stretching themselves very thin or relying on family gifts to purchase what amounts to a shitty starter home.

Certainly investors and execs in the mix as well, but I think you are painting with an overly broad brush on the housing front.

Not all engineers are renters, and not all renters want to rent forever.

The current median price for a 3 bedroom single family home in Mountain View (just picked a random valley town) is 1.275 million. Aside from the fact that this is INSANE, this is what the average engineer might spend on a decent starter home. It's not just executives (though it's still insane).

Making it more insane is that the price you quoted could very well be for a not-so-nice home east of Central that has quite a bit of section 1 to address, not great schools, etc. Anything further west that is big enough for 3br in Mountain View will quite likely be north of $1.3.


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