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How much should founders really pay themselves?

Protocol Workplace

Welcome back to our Workplace newsletter. Today, a new report shows what founders are really paying themselves, and experts weigh in on how founders can avoid common mistakes when deciding on their salaries. Plus, Elon Musk’s reign at Twitter is “already a bloodbath.”

— Allison Levitsky, reporter (email | twitter)

Founder salaries

“How much should I pay myself?” is one of many sticky questions that arise when founding and scaling a company. A new report from accounting provider Pilot shows how 500 startup founders are answering that question.

Know that 46% of founders are making less than six figures. That range was more common among bootstrapped founders, 69% of whom reported paying themselves less than $100,000, compared to 42% of founders who had raised VC funding.

Don’t be a martyr. Three percent of VC-backed founders and 18% of bootstrapped founders reported paying themselves a $0 salary. But founders should pay themselves a living wage that covers their expenses, whether they’re single and living with roommates or paying a mortgage and supporting a family.

  • “It can be sort of a flex: How little can you take?” said Joe Du Bey, co-founder and CEO of Eden, a people success software maker.
  • That mentality can hurt founders who don’t have as much of a safety net, have families to support, or are paying off student loans, Du Bey said, noting that it “was not on the menu for me to take zero” early on because he had just finished his MBA and had student debt.
  • Startup fundraising adviser and former Y Combinator partner Aaron Harris said he’s seen some founders go into debt from not paying themselves, despite raising millions in funding. “No one forced them to do that,” Harris said. “They just sort of had the impression that, ‘I’ve heard I’ve got to starve to win,’ or something like that.”
  • Paying yourself too little can create mental stress or distraction, said Susan Alban, operating partner and chief people officer at the early-stage VC firm Renegade Partners. “If it is, that’s a really important wake-up call,” Alban said.

Get help from your board. “Having a board makes this way easier,” Du Bey said. “If we didn’t have a board, I would probably feel weird about it, honestly.”

  • Paying yourself can feel “like you’re taking money from your investors and putting it in your own pocket,” but boards can weigh in on salaries that make sense for founders and other executives, Du Bey said.

Remember that salary is only one component of founders’ long-term wealth. Only 2% of VC-backed founders and 6% of bootstrapped founders reported paying themselves $300,000 or more.

  • Employees and non-founder executives will often make larger salaries than the founder, though there’s an argument for having other execs’ comp packages lean toward equity rather than cash.
  • “Ideally you want your C-suite to have compensation that’s very heavily equity-based, so that their reward is directly tied to company performance,” said Matt Birnbaum, talent partner at Pear VC.
  • At the same time, underpaying execs can hurt your ability to recruit talented leaders, which can mean “you’re going to end up wasting [investors’] money in a different way, not on salary, but on a subpar outcome,” Du Bey said.
  • And don’t shy away from considering selling some of your shares at a funding round, Harris said. “If you ever talked to a financial adviser and you say 99% of my wealth is tied up in one thing, they’d tell you to diversify,” Harris said.

‘The bird is freed’

Elon Musk’s reign at Twitter is “already a bloodbath,” reports Protocol chief correspondent Issie Lapowsky. Musk completed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter on Thursday night and quickly fired CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal, top policy exec Vijaya Gadde, and general counsel Sean Edgett.

Musk has reportedly already named himself interim CEO and tweeted Friday that he would wait to form a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints'' before reinstating any banned accounts. It’s unclear how he’ll run the company without several of its most senior leaders (though here’s one idea).

Read the full story.


No two recessions are alike. In fact, eight in ten workers reported looking for a new job before the upcoming market shift. Learn what HR can be doing to ensure meaningful retention today and in the near future.

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Careful with the ❤️ reactions?

What counts as workplace misconduct when you don’t have a workplace? A new report from the sexual harassment and DEI training provider Traliant asked 2,000 U.S. workers and found that 27.4% of their leaders haven’t defined a workplace misconduct policy when it comes to hybrid and remote work.

  • 57% of respondents said they would consider a colleague asking them out over email, video, or chat to be misconduct.
  • “Flirty” GIFs and emojis — such as a kiss, a heart, or a hug — would read as misconduct by more than 55% of employees, Traliant found.
  • One in five respondents said they wouldn’t feel comfortable complaining of workplace misconduct at work, with almost 60% expressing doubt that it would remain confidential.

Some personnel news

Anyone else having a bad case of Great Resignation whiplash? It’s hard to keep up with which tech companies are growing, shrinking, floating, or sinking. We’re here to help.

⬇️ Unions said that Standard General LP didn’t alert the FCC of planned layoffs connected to the private equity firm’s $5.4 billion acquisition of the TV broadcasting company Tegna, Bloomberg reported.

⬇️ Elon Musk planned to start layoffs at Twitter this weekend, according to The New York Times, citing anonymous sources.

⬇️ The African genomics startup 54gene’s valuation has been slashed by two-thirds, to about $50 million, in the wake of its CEO departing and the layoff of 55% of its employees, TechCrunch reported.

For more news on hiring, firing, and rewiring, see our tech company tracker.


In conversations around pay equity and pay transparency, the stakes are high and the responsibility is stressful for HR. Learn how to confidently and capably discuss these topics with everyone from executives and managers to entry-level employees with three important steps.

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Around the internet

A roundup of workplace news from the farthest corners of the internet.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Here’s how execs can respond to it. (Chief)

What does the VC slowdown mean for young investors’ careers? (The Information)

How to build company culture when your team is remote. (Forbes)

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