After six months of exploration since leaving Red Rover, I’ve narrowed down my list of potential new projects to one that is most exciting. For now I’ll hold off on talking about the idea, but since this is my third (maybe fourth) time ramping up a new business, my goal is to be extremely transparent in the process by reflecting on my thoughts, and actions, on this blog so you all can share in the journey with me because it’s bound to be a fun, bumpy, and exciting ride. I’m calling the series “Founder Lessons.” So let’s get started…
When Kevin and I started Swift Kick seven years ago, I naturally thought we’d split the equity ownership of the company 50/50. Kevin refused and said he would never do an equal split again after some ugliness his last company because without a clear leadership structure both legally, and through an organizational chart, it would cause too many issues down the road. Plus he didn’t believe we were both going into the new venture as equal partners. He wanted to spilt the company more along the lines of 75/25. I understood not being 50/50, but a 75/25 split seemed insane to me. What did he know that I didn’t? Turns out there was a lot I didn’t know I didn’t know. To my benefit, we ended up starting Swift Kick at 51/49, though the equity conversation came up several times again throughout the years and it kept shifting through renegotiations and ended around a 75/25 split. The renegotiations were mostly initiated due to feelings of unfairness around the equity split. But mixing feelings with negotiations creates an ugly stew, especially when it isn’t based on a foundation of tangible facts.
As I ramp up my new idea, I find myself going back over seven years of notes to see what and how we ended up determining the equity each time. In doing so, I came across a little gem that I’m calling The Starting Founders’ Equity Equation. It’s a way create a foundation of tangible facts to determine what everyone is bringing to the table to start and thus what the equity spilt should be.
Here’s a description of each element…
- Idea / Vision – If the idea / vision were a tangible pie that equaled 100, who contributed what amount to the creation and generation of the idea up until this point?
- Capital ($) – If the company needs X amount of money (in this case I’m using 100 for X) to get going, who can put in what amount of that total to start?
- Unpaid Time – In the beginning, founders exchange a paycheck for equity. If the max unpaid time someone could put in is 100, what amount of unpaid time will each person be able to put into the business in the start-up phase?
- Resources – If you listed out the resources (knowledge, skill, connections, etc) that were needed to make the business successful and the max were 100 per person. How close to 100 would each person get?
Once you’ve filled in numbers for each element, add up the totals for each founder and divide that number by the total for all the founders combined and you will get a rational way to spilt up the equity that is based on a foundation of tangible facts. In this case, if founder #1 would’ve agreed to a 33/33/33 split then eventually it would’ve come up that he/she was the only one putting money in, or that he/she was the only one with contacts, or that he/she was the only one working for free. It’s better to work through this equation now than to face the argument later and try to renegotiate.
Update 4/21/12 – Someone created a nice little calculator that helps you figure out the equity split.