Founders often ask how they should split equity with their co-founders. When I search the web on this topic I often see horrible advice, typically advocating for significant inequality among different founding team members. We see this trend reflected in the thousands of applications we review at Y Combinator every year.
Here are some of the most often cited reasons for founder equity splits:
- I came up with the idea for the company
- I started working n months before my co-founder
- This is what we agreed to
- My co-founder took a salary for n months and I didn’t
- I started working full time n months before my co-founder
- I am older/more experienced than my co-founder
- I brought on my co-founder after raising n thousands of dollars
- I brought on my co-founder after launching my MVP
- We need someone to tie-break in the case of founder arguments
Founders tend to make the mistake of splitting equity based on early work.
All of these lines of reasoning screw up in four fundamental ways:
It takes 7 to 10 years to build a company of great value. Small variations in year one do not justify massively different founder equity splits in year 2-10.
More equity = more motivation. Almost all startups fail. The more motivated the founders, the higher the chance of success. Getting a larger piece of the equity pie is worth nothing if the lack of motivation on your founding team leads to failure.
If you don’t value your co-founders, neither will anyone else. Investors look at founder equity split as a cue on how the CEO values his/her co-founders. If you only give a co-founder 10% or 1%, others will either think they aren’t very good or aren’t going to be very impactful in your business. The quality of the team is often one of the top reasons reason why an investor will or won’t invest. Why communicate to investors that you have a team that you don’t highly value?
Startups are about execution, not about ideas. Dramatically unequal founder equity splits often give undue preference to the co-founder who initially came up with the idea for the startup, as opposed to the small group founders who got the product to market and generated the initial traction.
Thank you to Justin Kan, Qasar Younis, and Colleen Taylor for reading drafts of this essay