Series A Startup Salary and Negotiation
Salary Negotiation
December 13, 2022

Series A Startup Salary & Negotiation

At Rora, we have helped thousands of data scientists, product managers, and software engineers negotiate higher total compensation across various companies - from seed startups to FAANG companies.

Startups tend to be tricky to negotiate with — primarily because each one is so different! One Series A company may have a totally different compensation philosophy than another company of a similar size and stage. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that you’ll find many data points online that are specific to that company (quite different than the thousands you’ll find if you search something like ‘Google L5 Software Engineer Compensation).

One of the most essential pieces of negotiating with an early-stage startup is the equity — which is likely close to worthless when you join but could be worth thousands or even millions down the road, provided that the company continues to grow.

This article will overview how to think about equity — and all of the other components of startup pay — particularly for companies at the Series A stage. We’ll also share benchmarks for Series A salary and equity packages for data scientists, engineers, and product managers. Lastly, we’ll provide guidance on negotiating with a Series A startup since you’ll likely be negotiating with a member of the leadership team, if not the C-Suite!

If your situation is unique or you want 1:1 support to ensure you’re prepared and confident going into your negotiation, sign up for a free consultation with our negotiation team.

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Table of Contents

What is a Series A startup?

Series A refers to (roughly) how many funding rounds a startup has raised.

Since it’s very challenging for a startup to grow just using their funds and revenue (this process is often referred to as bootstrapping), the vast majority of successful startups grow with the support of external funding — to help give them the resources they need to grow and, eventually, seek profitability.

These funding rounds allow outside investors to contribute money to a developing business in exchange for equity or a share of the business. It is typical for a firm to start with a seed (or even pre-seed) funding round and then go through funding rounds A, B, and eventually C as it gets more established and requires more capital to grow.

Almost all investments made at a particular stage of developmental funding are set up so that the investor or investing business keeps a portion of the startup's ownership. The investor will receive a return on investment in line with the amount invested if the business expands and turns a profit.

If you’re considering joining a startup as an employee, you must consider if you believe in that company and its growth potential. Often startups will compensate their employees with stock (more on that below), so understanding if that equity might one day have value is part of how you can evaluate the fairness of the compensation you’re receiving.

As Warren Buffet once said, "If you aren't willing to own a stock for ten years, don't even think about owning it for 10 minutes.” This can be highly applicable to deciding whether or not to join a startup — believing in the company's long-term goal is essential; additionally, looking at the track record of its investors will give you a good understanding of the startup's prospects.

What does Series A funding mean?

Series A funding is the initial phase following the seed stage. Companies receiving Series A funding are expected to have a strategy and business model that has the potential to yield long-term profit.

Seed startups frequently have fantastic ideas that attract many users but may be unsure how they will monetize the business. In Series A, investors are looking for more than just great ideas — they want to see a strong strategy for turning that idea into a thriving, money-making business. Fewer than 10% of seed-funding companies will go on to raise Series A funds.

Series A rounds typically raise between $2 million to $15 million; however, this amount has generally increased due to high valuations. The median Series A fundraise in 2021 was $10 million.

The average Series A company valuation is $24 million.

Investors in the Series A round typically come from more traditional venture capital firms. Well-known venture capital firms with great track records are Sequoia Capital, IDG Capital, Google Ventures, and Intel Capital (just to name a few).

A small number of venture capital firms frequently take the lead. Once a business has found its first investor, finding additional investors becomes easier. Angel investors also make investments at this point, but they often have less of an impact than they may have during the seed funding phase.

Series A Startup Compensation Structures

Compensation at Series A companies is generally a mix of base salary and equity. Signing bonuses aren’t the norm, but we have seen them before — and will discuss them in more detail below!

Base Salary

Base salary tends to make up the majority of annual compensation for Series A startup employees - since signing and fixed annual bonuses aren't the norms, and equity is very likely going to be illiquid (meaning you won’t be able to access or sell it until the company has some sort of exit).

Company cash flow typically determines the base salary a hire will receive. On average, post-Series A startups are less competitive on base salary than you would find at a more prominent tech company.

Startups will often justify this in two ways:

  1. “The experience, growth, and responsibility you’ll find here will be much more meaningful than what you would find at a later-stage company.”
  2. “The equity you’re being offered has a serious upside that will end up being much more valuable down the line than what you would find at a later-stage company.”

Very early employees generally work at below-market (often substantially below-market) cash compensation and therefore receive much larger portions of equity than someone who will be hired later.

Equity

Equity (or stock) is a big part of how early-stage startups compensate their employees — and tends to be a big focus during the negotiation process.

Typically, Series A startups award a type of equity known as “stock options,” which gives you the right to buy a certain number of shares of the company’s stock at a specific, discounted price - known as your "strike price," "grant price," or "exercise price.”

The idea is that over time, the market or “preferred” value of the shares will increase, so - when you exercise your shares - you’ll be able to buy the stock at a very steep discount. And, typically you calculate the value of your shares by subtracting the strike price from the market price.

Just like at a larger tech company, startup equity tends to have a “cliff” - meaning you don’t receive any of your equity until you’ve been at the company for a year - and typically vests over four years.

Types of Equity

Two of the most common forms of options are Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) and Non-Qualified Stock Options (NSOs).

The primary distinction between the two is how they are taxed. ISOs are the form of stock option that receives the most favorable tax treatment - you want these!

  • ISOs: taxed when sold, not when exercised (i.e., purchased) & lower tax rate when sold.
  • NSOs: taxed when sold AND when exercised & higher tax rate when sold

It’s very unlikely that a company will change the type of option they’re offering you (ex., from NSO to ISO) - however, we’ve seen people effectively use this as leverage for an increased number of shares offered or additional base salary.

How Equity Is Priced

When an employee signs their offer, the strike price for the options they were given will be set (typically through a process known as a 409A valuation) and remain constant until the grant has been fully vested. Any new equity the company issues in the future - even as a refresh for you for continuing to do great work - will have a new strike price.

External investors pay $X per share to purchase a percentage of the company during a venture round -  this is known as the preferred price. The preferred price is almost always higher than the strike price, which we will discuss more in the valuation section.

Benchmarking Equity for Series A companies

The chart below, based on Babak Nivi's analysis, provides suggested equity amounts that many consider appropriate for companies in Silicon Valley that have just raised a Series A funding round:

  • Vice president (VP): 1–2%
  • Director: 0.4–1.25%
  • Lead engineer 0.5–1%
  • Senior engineer: 0.33–0.66%
  • Non-technical manager or junior engineer: 0.2–0.33%

These would usually be for restricted stock or stock options with a standard 4-year vesting schedule. They apply if each of these roles is filled just after an A round, and the new hires are also being paid a salary (you would receive more equity if you are forgoing any cash compensation!).

Still feeling confused about stock options? Check out our blog post about negotiating startup equity stock options to learn more!

Options vs RSUs

Options

Gives you the option to buy stock at a predetermined price

RSUs

Granted stock units outright
You can sell vested shares, or keep them

Offer 1000 options
$10 strike price
1000 units
Vesting Schedule Vests over 4 years Vests over 4 years
Market Price in 1 Year $30 $30
What do you own 1 year later 250 options have vested
You pay $2500 to buy $250 units
You now own 250 units worth $7500
250 units have vested
You pay $0 to own 250 units
You now own 250 units worth $7500

Another way companies can offer you equity is in the form of RSUs, or Restricted Stock Units. Unlike options, Restricted Stock Units are actual stock in the company with no purchase required (see chart above for more detail). RSUs are most common to receive from public companies, or very late stage startups (i.e. Airtable, TikTok, and Snowflake). It’s highly unlikely that a Series B startup would offer you RSUs.

Signing Bonus

Most startup offers do not include a signing bonus by default — and most hiring managers or recruiters (if the startup has them at this point) will tell you it’s very uncommon to receive one.

However - it’s definitely possible to negotiate a signing bonus if the offer is much lower than your current compensation, you have other offers, or you are a great fit for the specific role. However, the signing bonus will not be significant compared to FAANG companies. Depending on your role, you can expect to receive somewhere between $10K - $50K.

What’s unique about negotiating with startups

The first thing that’s unique about negotiating at a startup is that almost everything is negotiable! Since the company is early-stage, it’s less likely that it’ll have the same level of process and structure in place as a later-stage company, so you can often impact outcomes more than you might be used to! Startups are heavily focused on growth and profitability. If revenue goals aren’t met, the employees may not receive bonuses — something that may not happen at more established companies.

Negotiating with the C-Suite

Given that the average Series A company has between 50-100 employees, you’ll likely be negotiating with a founder or company leader vs. a dedicated recruiter.

This is a challenging negotiation since you might report to the person in the future and want to ensure that you start your working relationship on the right foot.

Furthermore - the executive you will be negotiating with will likely be really good at selling you their vision for the company and might convince you that their offer is competitive based on the future value of the equity. Don't let yourself be swayed by these tactics!

One effective tactic for negotiating with a founder (or senior leader) is to show that you’re genuinely interested in the company’s mission and are thinking about joining the startup for the long term — versus being there for a year or two before moving on. Asking for additional equity is one way to demonstrate this commitment — since you won’t capture much of the value of the equity if you leave before it vests.

Furthermore - founders tend to love hires who they believe will roll up their sleeves and do what it takes to get the company to the next level — so sharing specific ideas about how you can contribute and grow within the company can be helpful. Showing these as part of your negotiation can demonstrate the value you’ll bring and why you warrant higher compensation.

Lastly - some candidates ask to negotiate compensation increases tied to performance or future funding rounds. Often, this is done when you’re asked to take below-market compensation.

The most helpful counter-offers come from other startups

While it is helpful to have offers from big tech companies to use as leverage in a negotiation, most startups won’t try to compete with a Google or Meta offer. In fact, startups often justify a below “market” rate by saying that the standards differ for an earlier-stage company.

So, a higher offer from another early-stage startup (either with a higher base, higher equity, or ideally both!) can be a more effective way to ask for an increase.

However, if you’re not in this situation and either have a big tech offer or currently work in big tech and are considering making the jump to a startup, it can be helpful to ask the startup to try to “close the gap” between their offer and your other one (or current compensation).

Whether or not you end up with multiple offers, having ongoing conversations with other startups and competitors will improve your understanding of market trends and offer you an advantage when negotiating your salary.

Data Science, Engineering, and Product Manager Compensation Ranges

Before we share compensation ranges for different roles at startups, it’s important to note that Series A compensation varies WIDELY — and employees will have different preferences for what mix of base and equity they prefer.

The numbers shared below are the 90th percentile salaries for mid to senior level roles at Series A companies in Tier 1 locations (New York, Bay Area, Seattle).

Mid-Level Base Salary Equity over
4 years ($)
Equity (%) Annual Bonus Signing Bonus
Software Engineer $168,000 $120,000 0.60% $20,000 $15,000
Data Scientist $140,000 $75,000 0.25% $15,000 $10,000
Product Manager $145,000 $80,000 0.75% $15,000 $10,000

Senior Level Base Salary Equity over
4 years ($)
Equity (%) Annual Bonus Signing Bonus
Software Engineer $220,000 $180,000 0.99% $28,000 $25,000
Data Scientist $200,000 $120,000 0.36% $20,000 $20,000
Product Manager $210,000 $135,000 0.75% $20,000 $20,000

*Disclaimer: These compensation ranges are an aggregate for companies valued at $0-25M Post-Series A funding round.

Additionally, most startups will give you an equity percentage instead of equity value. Your equity value can be calculated by taking your current equity percentage and multiplying it with the current company valuation.

Understanding your equity ownership is helpful in estimating potential earnings. For instance, if you own 1% of a $50 million business that goes public for $500 million, your equity interest is worth 1% * $500 million * dilution rate. Although the dilution rate varies, a good rule of thumb is to assume 10-25% percent dilution per funding round. This implies that you become more diluted in a startup the earlier you join. Albeit, you'll start with a higher equity percentage and a lower strike price.

Series A startups that pay well

It is hard to generalize what constitutes “paying well”; this depends highly on what you’re looking for. Some individuals would value the learning experiences much more than the compensation that Series A startups may be offering. Joining a startup is a longer-term play since you won’t see your options be worth anything until there is an exit event (like a sale or IPO).

Here are some Series A startups that have recently raised funding and are hiring:

  1. Atmos
  2. Abridge
  3. Paragon
  4. Luminous Computing
  5. Septerna
  6. Qredo
  7. CoinTracker
  8. Voltron Data, and many more

Another great way to understand the compensation offered by these Series A startups is to check out job boards on angel.co, which clearly indicates what Series A startups are currently paying and how much equity they are offering.

External investors also play a significant role when researching the long-term health of a company. Look out for startups that are backed by a16z, Sequoia Capital, Accel, Kleiner Perkins, Bessemer Venture Partners, etc.

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1:1 Salary Negotiation Support

Negotiation strategy

Step 1 is defining the strategy, which often starts by helping you create leverage for your negotiation (e.g. setting up conversations with FAANG recruiters).

Negotiation anchor number

Step 2 we decide on anchor numbers and target numbers with the goal of securing a top of band offer, based on our internal verified data sets.

Negotiation execution plan

Step 3 we create custom scripts for each of your calls, practice multiple 1:1 mock negotiations, and join your recruiter calls to guide you via chat.

Frequently Asked Questions