First off let's figure out what your rate should be. That is, how many dollars per year you are worth. I'll haul out that old economists' maxim, "The value of something is how much someone is willing to pay for it." So let's take your most recent job. How much did you make last year in total? Count salary, bonus, and equity (more on that in a minute).
That total number is your rate. I'm going to use it to figure out what your compensation should be at that startup you're thinking of joining.
But let's tackle that equity thing first.
If you were at a publicly traded company then your equity compensation is easy to value since the shares or options have a well defined value. But what if you were at a private company or another startup? In that case, if you have equity you need to see the capitalization sheet (shorthand for a listing of all of the outstanding shares, who is holding them, when they got them, and what they paid for them) to determine what your equity stake is worth.
You ask why?
Well, suppose your rate is $100k/year and I offer you $50k/year plus options on 100,000 shares. Is that a good deal? What about $50k/year and options on 1,000,000 shares? Look good now?
What if I tell you that in the most recent funding round the company sold an investor 5 million shares for $50k? That million shares of your represents $10k of value. A million shares sounds like a lot, but without seeing the cap sheet you have no way of knowing.
The formula is this; take the value of the total compensation being offered (salary + bonus + equity value determined from cap sheet) and compare it to your rate. They should be about the same.
There are reasons other than pay to go work at a startup. The fun, the excitement, the team, the lack of rules prohibiting bringing your dog to the office, the awesome late night jam sessions, the overwhelming stress of not knowing if the boss is really going to manage to close this next round of funding because he started the company to design software not spend all of his time fundraising and if he doesn't then all that equity you're holding is completely worthless and you need to start freshening up that resume and looking for another bland gray corporate job again. But I digress...
Now, here are some things to look for:
- Equity is "a large part of your compensation" but they won't show you the cap table.
This almost always means that equity is not a large part of your compensation. They are telling you this to get you to swallow the small salary. They may think it is a large part of your compensation, but they may also overvalue their own company.
- You don't really trust the founders but they are offering you what looks like a great deal.
There are innumerable ways for shady founders to screw the employees at a liquidity event. Everything from extreme dilution, to a very low sale price and an employment contract with the acquiring company for the founders that is "very generous." At the end of the day, you really need to be able to trust the founders to look out for you.
If that were true then it wouldn't matter whether the equity was used to pay the employees directly or exchanged for cash to pay the employees' salaries. Either way, the equity is being traded away. The fact that some people are so loath to share the cap table info, thereby making the value of the transaction transparent, at the same time they want to push equity in lieu of pay makes one wonder.
I honestly don't think that most founders even think this through. I think most of them are trying really hard to do right by their employees. But it is one of those situations where the transactions are so convoluted that it is really easy to lose sight of the final outcome.
Bottom line, if equity is part of your compensation you need to see the cap table. You have a right to see the cap table. After all, you are an investor too. You are investing days of your life and that is more valuable than some angel investor's money.
Update 6/25/2011: I gave a talk on this at BarCamp Seattle and the notes & deck for that talk can be found on my Equitable Equity: Fairness and Transparency in Equity Compensation post.