Now that we have a fair system set out, there is one important principle. You must have vesting.bold* Preferably 4 or 5 years. Nobody earns their shares until they've stayed with the company for a year. A good vesting schedule is 25% in the first year, 2% each additional month. Otherwise your co-founder is going to quit after three weeks and show up, 7 years later, claiming he owns 25% of the company. It **never makes sense to give anyone equity without vesting.
This is an extremely common mistake and it's terrible when it happens. You have these companies where 3 co-founders have been working day and night for five years, and then you discover there's some jerk that quit after two weeks and he still thinks he owns 25% of the company for his two weeks of work.
Now, let me clear up some little things that often complicate the picture.
*What happens if you raise an investment? *The investment can come from anywhere... an angel, a VC, or someone's dad. Basically, the answer is simple: the investment just dilutes everyone.
Using the example from above... we're two founders, we gave ourselves 2500 shares each, so we each own 50%, and now we go to a VC and he offers to give us a million dollars in exchange for 1/3rd of the company.
1/3rd of the company is 2500 shares. So you make another 2500 shares and give them to the VC. He owns 1/3rd and you each own 1/3rd. That's all there is to it.
What happens if not all the early employees need to take a salary? A lot of times you have one founder who has a little bit of money saved up, so she decides to go without a salary for a while, while the other founder, who needs the money, takes a salary. It is tempting just to give the founder who went without pay more shares to make up for it. The trouble is that you can never figure out the right amount of shares to give. This is just going to cause conflicts.
Don't resolve these problems with shares. Instead, just keep a ledger of how much you paid each of the founders, and if someone goes without salary, give them an IOU. Later, when you have money, you'll pay them back in cash. In a few years when the money comes rolling in, or even after the first VC investment, you can pay back each founder so that each founder has taken exactly the same amount of salary from the company.
Shouldn't I get more equity because it was my idea? No. Ideas are pretty much worthless. It is not worth the arguments it would cause to pay someone in equity for an idea. If one of you had the idea but you both quit your jobs and started working at the same time, you should both get the same amount of equity. Working on the company is what causes value, not thinking up some crazy invention in the shower.
What if one of the founders doesn't work full time on the company? Then they're not a founder. In my book nobody who is not working full time counts as a founder. Anyone who holds on to their day job gets a salary or IOUs, but not equity. If they hang onto that day job until the VC puts in funding and then comes to work for the company full time, they didn't take nearly as much risk and they deserve to receive equity along with the first layer of employees.
What if someone contributes equipment or other valuable goods (patents, domain names, etc) to the company? Great. Pay for that in cash or IOUs, not shares. Figure out the right price for that computer they brought with them, or their clever word-processing patent, and give them an IOU to be paid off when you're doing well. Trying to buy things with equity at this early stage just creates inequality, arguments, and unfairness.
How much should the investors own vs. the founders and employees? That depends on market conditions. Realistically, if the investors end up owning more than 50%, the founders are going to feel like sharecroppers and lose motivation, so good investors don't get greedy that way. If the company can bootstrap without investors, the founders and employees might end up owning 100% of the company.
Interestingly enough, the pressure is pretty strong to keep things balanced between investors and founders/employees; an old rule of thumb was that at IPO time (when you had hired all the employees and raised as much money as you were going to raise) the investors would have 50% and the founders/employees would have 50%, but with hot Internet companies in 2011, investors may end up owning a lot less than 50%.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, but anything you can do to make it simple, transparent, straightforward, and, above-all, fair, will make your company much more likely to be successful.
This article originally appeared at via Answers.OnStartups.com.