Compensating an Advisor

startup advisor compensationHow much equity should you give an advisor?  Should the shares carry any special provisions like anti-dilution or change-of-control acceleration?  What about giving the advisor cash compensation?  Tough questions for a startup founding team that’s doing it for the first time and faced with an advisor they desperately want to bring on board (see related article titled “Selecting an Advisor”).

The short answer is there is no universally-agreed market rate for advisors.  And if you want a superstar, you’ll need to pay whatever they demand or be forced to go with one of your other options.  But I realize that doesn’t give any guidance so for purposes of this article let’s take superstar advisors out of the equation and just deal with “normal” scenarios.

startup advisor equity compensation

The compensation you give an advisor should be tied to three factors: expertise, timeframe and activity level.  Obviously, the greater the expertise, the longer the timeframe and the greater the activity level, the higher the compensation needs to be.  Let’s break these down a bit more:

Expertise

A serial founding entrepreneur with some huge exits under their belt and a Rolodex of contacts and investors to die for is going to command more than someone less experienced.  Part of this is the law of supply and demand, as the most experienced and successful advisors are in high demand and not only can be more selective in the engagements they take but also can demand more in the way of compensation. The other factor is that someone that’s done it many times before (both running and advising companies) and has highly relevant contacts and expertise should demonstrably increase your odds of success.  That’s worth something.

Timeframe

A general-purpose advisory engagement is commonly 1-2 years.  I say “general purpose” in contrast with a purpose-specific advisory engagement that might only be 3-6 months in length.  An example of a purpose-specific advisory engagement would be helping the startup get through a near-term fundraising round or the initial product introduction (launch) into the marketplace.

Activity Level

On one extreme you might need an advisor to meet with you for 2-3 hours every week plus phone calls and emails in between.  On the other extreme you might only need someone “on the bench” for periodic questions and to use as a sounding board.

Think about these three factors before even engaging in discussions with advisory prospects so that you can make it clear what you’re looking for.  You might find that if you need an advisor for 2 years at a fairly active level (weekly meetings), some of your candidates will need to politely decline because they aren’t able to devote that much time and energy to the engagement.  No problem, it is better to know that at the outset rather than after you’ve already signed them on with compensation.

As for the type of compensation to give, clearly equity-only is the predominant method for early stage companies.  For companies that have raised $1M or more, it’s possible that a combination of equity and cash is given.  But even then it’s most common for advisors to only take equity for their compensation.  Otherwise, they start to call themselves “consultants” that charge by the hour or day.

I know what you’re thinking:  just give me the ranges of what is most commonly used for compensating advisors.  Although I’ve said there’s no standard for advisor compensation, below are a couple of example scenarios that would not seem unusual to me for an experienced startup advisor that is advising a seed-stage startup (less than $1M funding to-date).  Hopefully with this you can adjust up or down based on various other factors such as advisor experience level, company maturity or desperation, engagement timeframe and activity level.

Short, Purpose-Specific Engagement

  • Compensation:  0.25% equity
  • Timeframe:  3-4 months
  • Activity Level:  1 in-person meeting per week (~1 hr) plus intermittent questions via email or phone

Light, General-Purpose Engagement

  • Compensation:  0.5% equity
  • Timeframe:  1 year
  • Activity Level:  1 in-person meeting or lunch per month plus intermittent questions via email or phone

Moderately Intense, General-Purpose Engagement

  • Compensation:  1.0% equity
  • Timeframe:  1 year
  • Activity Level:  1 in-person meeting per week (~1 hr) for the first 2-3 months, then usually less frequent after that.  Intermittent questions via email or phone

Adjustments over Time

As mentioned, the above scenarios are for a seed-stage startup.  There are generally two factors that cause the equity amounts to reduce over time:

  • Company Maturity – As a company’s financial results improve and its business model and management system matures, the odds of a successful outcome (ie – exit event) increase.  With less risk comes less upside reward (ie – equity).
  • Dilution Events – As a company raises equity-rounds of financing, previous shareholders get diluted.  For example, someone that has 1.0% equity prior to a Series A will might end up with 0.75% after the Series A.  As a result, after each equity round of funding you should be able to reduce the amount of equity you give to advisors.  It is also true that just raising funding makes the company less risky, which justifies reduced equity.

Terms Matter

What about the type of equity to grant and any special terms that should be offered?  Most companies will simply grant stock options from the Common stock pool and with a monthly vesting schedule that corresponds to the term of the advisory agreement.  Notice that I mentioned monthly vesting rather than the typical cliff vesting schedule that you probably have for your employees.  Advisor equity is a essentially a form of compensation.  If an advisor only worked 4 months of a 1 year advisory contract for cash compensation, you would have paid them each month.  It should be the same with equity using monthly vesting.

Here are a few other special terms to consider granting to your advisor:

  • Early Exercise – It is a nice benefit to give the advisor early exercise/purchase rights if the stock is still “cheap”.  In the US, this allows the advisor to lock in the cost basis by filing an 83(b) election with the IRS.  You don’t have to take any responsibility for filing the 83(b) election but make sure your advisor does it within 30 days (IRS requirement) and ask them to provide proof afterwards for your files.
    • What if the advisory agreement is terminated half-way through the engagement and they have already purchased the shares?  Typically, the company has the right to re-purchase the shares on a prorated basis throughout the term (in this example, half of the shares could be re-purchased).
  • Exercise Window – Most US stock option plans force non-employees to exercise their stock options within a short window of service termination (30-90 days).  Because of this, you should consider giving your advisor 5-10 years to make an exercise decision by writing this into the advisory agreement and/or stock option grant document.  Of course, if your advisor purchases the shares via an early exercise option, this is not an issue because they became an owner of the shares at the start of their service.
  • Change of Control – The founders almost certainly have special vesting acceleration terms in the event of a change of control (ie – acquisition).  In most cases, this provision should also be extended to your advisor.
  • Anti-Dilution – Usually, advisors are not granted anti-dilution rights, which is a special provision you want to be very careful granting to anyone because of its downstream implications.
    • Potential exception – If the primary purpose of bringing on your advisor is to help with fundraising, you could have a misalignment of motivations if you don’t grant some level of anti-dilution.  For example, the right amount of money to raise might be $2M but if your advisor will be diluted via the fundraising activity, they might push you to raise less money to minimize their dilution.  To better align interests between you and your advisor in this case, consider granting them anti-dilution rights for a certain period of time (enough to successfully complete the fundraising).

Disclaimer:  I am not a licensed attorney and none of the legal mentions in this blog article should be considered professional legal advice.  Instead, make sure to consult with your attorney to properly understand the concepts and suggestions described.

This is the second article of a three-part series.  See the associated blog articles titled “Selecting an Advisor” and “Maximizing Value from Your Advisor“.

Wait, there’s much more!!!

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love what I cover in my video library called Founders Academy, which includes all of the key concepts and insights to help you dramatically increase your odds of success using topic-specific streaming video modules.  Click Here to Learn More

“Founders Academy is a must!  Gordon unlocked new value in concepts I thought I was already familiar with.” (startup founder)

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Author: Gordon Daugherty

Over the past 15 years Gordon has seen nearly 1,000 startup pitches, advised more than 200 entrepreneurs and been involved with raising over $45M in growth and venture capital. Throughout his 28 year career in high tech, serving twice as President and three times as CMO, Gordon has both an IPO and a $200M acquisition exit under his belt. Now his emphasis is purely focused on helping startups and early stage tech companies. Through his Shockwave Innovations advisory practice and as Managing Director for Austin’s Capital Factory startup accelerator, Gordon is an active angel investor, VC and startup advisor.

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