The Tricky Issue of Splitting Equity

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One of the more complex issues Founders face in structuring their start-up is how to split equity between Founders, Team Members and Advisors. It’s a tricky issue to navigate if you haven’t done it before, one that is easy to second guess at a later date. There are some basic concepts to grasp as you fund your start-up, getting these right is mission critical as it creates the right structure to keep all key parties properly motivated in the ebb & flow of building a start-up and fairly rewarded when you have a successful exit. Some thoughts:

Founders – the easy answer of splitting equity 50%/50% is the one thing that most every Founder I know agrees is absolutely the wrong answer.  Instead, the Founders need to do the best, fairest job they can of assigning relative value to what each other bring to the table. Who had the idea? Who is creating the business plan? Who has domain experience?  Who will raise the capital? Does one of the Founders have previous start-up success that makes it easier to raise capital or hire key early team members? These are just a few of the questions Founders should ask each other. I’d suggest assigning a value to each of these questions to get to a starting point of what feels like a rational and fair equity split. In my experience, navigating this discussion with your co-founder in a way that makes everyone feel positive is the first test of how well co-founders will work together. Getting this variable wrong often results in a later startup failure due to an obvious inequity.

Team Members – the goal for your first key hires is to create emotional/ financial alignment on the product and company they are building. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to use a formula for equity grants to these first employees, it’s definitely more art than science. However, a rule of thumb for those first 10 – 15 hires is that they will own roughly 10% of the business in aggregate. As your start-up matures, it’s incredibly important to switch from art to science when granting equity. Not doing so is very expensive and will create structural issues at a later date. I highly recommend you assign a value to the equity based on the valuation investors or potential acquirers have recently placed on your company. 

Advisors – getting the right group of advisors to support your start-up is one of the most strategic tactics you can deploy in setting the tone for how your product is used in addition to leading to early adopters.  Typically, a start-up allocates 1.5% – 3.0% of equity for advisors. It’s important to keep the grants small, somewhere around 1/10th of a point in the company. Grant the shares as fully vested, doing so will remove much of the friction out of the deal by shifting the conversation from “what % of the company am I getting?” to “that’s great, happy to help out.” It’s a smart deal for everyone involved. The advisors aren’t burdened with unclear expectations on what they’re supposed to do, and they get compensated no matter what happens. On your end, because the grants are properly sized, it gives you flexibility to engage more advisors than normal, advisors with various backgrounds and expertise, regardless of the degree to which they were able to commit time to your company – that’s an advantage in my experience. 

Because dividing up equity at the beginning is typically more art than science, it’s one of the more challenging aspects of getting your start-up structured correctly from the outset.  It’s also one of the areas I highly recommend you get experienced outside help (legal counsel, potential investors, startup advisors, other founders), as they may be able to provide experience and more importantly, an unbiased view that everyone involved can trust. Gettignthis right will help you get off to a great start in building your company, one in which everyone is in alignment.

Some Thoughts on Mentorship


I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship lately and how I’ve been fortunate to have impactful “mentors” for most of my personal and professional life. When evaluating investments or hiring people, I often ask people to tell me about their mentors/ advisors — surprisingly, it turns out, a lot of people have a hard time identifying or locking down mentors/ advisors. I’ll start by telling you that though it may seem hard on the surface, in reality, it’s just a question of figuring out some key steps. A good mentor can be a great sounding board, devil’s advocate, or a voice of experience — depending on what the situation demands. I’ve even tapped into mentorship for my company we have 26 advisors that provide a range of insight and credibility. Some tips:

1. Be clear in what you expect from a mentor. A lot of that has to do with your next steps and a good sense of your goals. It’s tactical and strategic input, not a magic wand. What do you want to learn? Where do you need to grow or be more motivated? Or do you need a sounding board? The more you know about your needs, the better your odds of identifying the right person(s). One of my favorite sayings is “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” — :)

2. Look within your network to identify potential mentors. Focus on people you truly respect and who resonate with you. It’s not important that you know the person well, but it does help to have some familiarity. Avoid people who have too much time on their hands — I find they can be a bit intrusive. Don’t be afraid to pick a mentor from a different industry, gender, or generation.

3. Keep it informal, keep it flexible. I never make it official except for when the mentors are serving my company in the role of advisors. Most entrepreneurs like to give back but their most scarce resource is time and they often want to avoid additional “official” expectations on their time. The essential paradox is that the very people you would want as mentors are exactly the same people who simply don’t have the time to serve in that role, because they’re doing the things that make them good mentors in the first place.

4. Keep it fluid. I’ve had some mentors for 10+ years and others for less than 6 months — both types have been incredibly helpful. Set up a loose structure for meetings and other communication, with the understanding that it may change as the relationship grows. I’ve found the best, most committed monitors/ advisors, are those people that over time just became part of my world. I think it’s powerful to constantly be open to adding new people as informal advisors.

5. Meet consistently. This is hard to do without it becoming a burden for the mentor. Remember, mentors typically are busy. Make it easy, go to them, meet them at a convenient location that fits their schedule. Keep it short and always send a follow up note of thanks. Make your relationship reciprocal by letting them know how their advice is making an impact, mentors like to make a difference and be on a winning team.

Mentors take an interest in you because they believe in you. By telling them about what makes your world, your work special, you are offering your perspective. They’ll enjoy that, regardless of their success, especially if you’ve taken the time to get to know them, their personal goals and you’re offering something relevant.

When you create relationships with intelligent, credible and inspirational people, the potential for personal and professional success grows exponentially.

What Makes A Compelling Pitch Deck?

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 2.49.42 PMA few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on Q’s I think you should be prepared to answer when raising your first round of capital. I thought it might be helpful if I shared inputs on what you might want to include in your pitch deck.

I’ve seen several thousand pitches at this point as an investor. When raising seed capital, your first meeting is your most important. Most investors will know within 20-30 minutes if your idea is something they’re excited to pursue. Creating a compelling deck is relatively straight forward if you have a great vision and team. Before we dig into what your deck should cover, let’s talk about two small things I highly recommend you do to get a more focused/ engaged investor during your pitch:

  • Build trust and establish a rapport quickly. Typically, your first meeting with an investor will be a 1 on 1 pitch. It’s easier than ever to know background details of the person you’re pitching and find something you have in common (school, entrepreneurs, etc) – it’s a proven ice breaker. Another trick I learned from co-founder Tim Young is to avoid projecting your pitch and use your laptop screen to walk through the slides which creates a more comfortable and relaxed environment.
  • Establish a time-frame for your pitch. Investors are notoriously a bit A.D.D. and love it when Founders state up front that they’ve got a short deck of 5-6 slides, needing about 20 minutes to cover the introductory material. our deck needs to be crisp and avoid unnecessary slides. Your deck should reinforce this point by numbering each of your slides, 1 of 6, 2 of 6, etc. 

Now to the deck. Most initial meetings last 30 – 45 minutes. You want to make sure you have enough time at the end of your pitch to dig into the investors input as well as better understand what’s important to them when making an investment. A good pitch deck should be crisp and complete, thorough enough that it conveys the big vision and current traction.  You should be able to accomplish this in these 5 recommended slides:

Cover Slide – Company Logo, Meeting Date and Name of the Investor you’re pitching. Use a beautiful full screen picture that captures your idea. Since you’ll likely be in the room early, have this slide displayed when the investor walks in – it’s your first impression. 

Slide 1 – Team & Company Snapshot: I think this is one of the two most important slides in your pitch deck. This slide should include the amount of capital you’re raising and the date you founded the company. Bring your team to life by Including pictures of all the key people currently involved including Founders, Team Members, Investors & Advisors. As mentioned last week, if you can effectively sell the investor on why you, your team, investors & advisors are uniquely qualified to solve the problem you’re tackling, they’ll begin to lean in and give you a fair listen. 

Slide 2 Numbers & Traction to Date: Share early performance data if your product/ service is live. If you’re pre-launch, no problem, include development milestones, user test data, anything that might demonstrate momentum. Also include # of Twitter, Instagram, etc, followers.

Slide 3Vision & Market Opportunity: This is the other most important slide in your deck, it’s your opportunity to tell investors about the future of your space and how it will evolve. Investors love patterns and if you can create a narrative that shows how your vision has happened in other categories, you’ll have a better shot at moving the investor from skeptical to believer.  

Slide 4Product Demo: This is your shot to demonstrate how your product/ service is addressing the market opportunity. If you don’t have a working product, you still need to show visuals of what you’re building. Hand drawn images are totally fine if you don’t have visuals developed. You should rehearse your demo 25+ times until it flows naturally. 

Slide 5 – Go-to-Market Strategy:  You want to clearly demonstrate the fact that you have thought about how to roll out your product and how to capture market share. 

Other Slides – if you feel like you need additional backup, and you likely will, include those slides in the appendix. 

The last thing that you’ll want to think about in pulling together your deck is the tone that you want to convey.  Be engaging and try to avoid a dry, mind-numbing presentation.  At the end of the day, great content makes a great deck.  But if you can sprinkle in some creativity and personality on top of great content, then you have a winning combination.

Raising Capital – Questions You Should Be Prepared to Answer

You’ve got a big idea, youhave a vision. In my experience raising capital, investors have a tendency to ask similar questions around Team, Market, Product, Outreach, Business Model and Capitalization. In my opinion, there are better question to ask (more on that later) but these are the basic 6 areas you need to proactively address when pitching investors. Before we get into the list, I’d like to take a step back and talk about the two hats I have the privilege to wear.

In 2005, Jon Callaghan & Phil Black founded True Ventures and they asked me to join as a Venture Partner. At the time, I had recently founder Sphere so I was very focused on bringing to life my idea. Jon & Phil are entrepreneurial and they proposed a part-time investor role that would allow me to operate my start-up while investing in start-ups. My original plan was to help navigate Sphere to a logical “hand-off” point, switch to a board role and then focus my attention as a full time Partner investing in new opportunities. The mythical “hand-off” never happened (what a surprise!) and the team at True Ventures embraced the idea that I continue to do both roles (CEO/ Founder & Partner). I’m not sure how it works but it does, I’m a better entrepreneur because I invest and I’m a better investor because I’m a Founder. Since 2005, I’ve founded and successfully sold 2 business ( & Sphere), bought back and True Ventures now manages 5 funds totaling $1 Billion with investments in 175+ start-ups. It’s been a privilege to be both a Founder and Venture Capitalist simultaneously. While the roles are symbiotic, they do require a different mind-set that has me switching hats frequently. For today’s article, I’ll wear my “VC” hat so let’s focus on questions Founders should be prepared for investors to ask when raising seed money. Next week, I’ll switch hats and we’ll tackle questions Founders should ask investors, something most Founders rarely do well. So let’s get into it – here are the basic areas most investors will want to dig into when you pitch them:

1. Team – Who are you and who else is on your team? Why is you uniquely qualified to solve the problem you’re tackling? What unique insight do you have? What unfair advantages do you have? Who are your key advisors? Which angel investors have indicated they’d like to invest? If you effectively sell the investor on your team, they’ll start to lean in and give you a fair listen.

2. Market – what is the big opportunity you are addressing and the steps to getting there? What are you doing that is different and uniquely positions you to become the market leader? How big of a market is your specific market really (i.e. the market or customers from which you will extract direct value, not “Local is huge, and we are in local, so of course we will be huge”)? 

3. Product – What problem are you solving? Why do users care? How is this better than what is out there? How big of a difference is this really? What are your major product milestones that are coming? Who is the competition? Why will you beat them?

4. Outreach – How are you going to drive awareness and early adoption for the product? How are you going to acquire customers (SEO, SEM, viral, radio ads, direct mail, PR, other)? Some may ask about per customer acquisition costs and ARPU. What advantage if any do you have for distribution? How has distribution worked so far?  What has worked/ not worked? What do you plan to do next for distribution?

5. Business Model – What is your business model? How will you make money? What is the market structure and dynamics? How do these dynamics map against your strategy? What are your customer unit economics (CPA, churn, LTV)? Are there any legal or regulatory issues that you’ll need to address?

6. Capitalization – How much are your raising? Why that amount? What will you use the capital you are raising for? What will you be able to achieve with that money? What is your pre-money target range?

As mentioned above, I’m not a fan of most of the above questions. They’re definitely important but our (True Ventures) primary focus is a bit different. We obsessively focus on 2 things: 

1. Are you building a company or founding a movement? Why are you doing this? We want to understand what is driving a Founder. We want to dig into the emotional need of a Founder(s) to see their idea come to life – it’s essential to determine if they have the motivation to build a great company, and more importantly, do they have the magic to spark a movement. As an example, it’s why we invested in James Freeman, Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, one of the founders of the coffee artisanal movement. When we met James, it was instantly clear that Blue Bottle Coffee wasn’t just about coffee drinks, it’s so much more than that. What we saw and why we got involved, is that James and his team are founding a movement. It’s not just the very specific experience around the coffee Blue Bottle roasts and serves, what we see is his core beliefs in the way he sources ingredients, supports farmers in developing regions of the world to grow the purest, highest quality organic beans that promote sustainability, the way he chooses his store locations that often acts a vote of confidence for a developing neighborhood, how he obsesses over small architectural details that make each cafe unique, how they serve the product [what cup, what glass, what temperature, single origin versus blended bean mixes, espresso drinks only on premise….] – thinking through every detail to offer something beautiful in our daily lives – it’s a philosophy/ an approach that has led to a movement around the integrity of experience around coffee. 

2. Does your product capture the imagination? We’ve learned that the most inspiring founders do more than just create companies, they envision a way of life, a vision of how the world will be in spite of how people do things now (remember when carried physical maps not so long ago…) and it’s having a sense in their mind, knowing how people are going to use their product to impact their life is what makes it visionary. We want to support those type of Founders in a way that empowers them to go for it. Take Chris Anderson, Founder of 3D Robotics, former Editor in Chief of Wired magazine. Not only did his drone capture our imagination, it absolutely blew our mind. On Chris’s kitchen table, he decided with his kids to hack some Legos and make them fly. Fast forward a few years and 3D Robotics is the leader in commercial drone applications. We’re hearing a lot about drones because of privacy concerns and defense, etc. But what we’re not hearing about is how this technology is impacting agriculture industrial applications, farmers deploying for surveying, crop management, livestock management, sports coverage, the motion picture industry, real-estate – the applications for this technology are limitless – it’s that horizontal, it’s that profound and that’s why it captures our imagination.

When you prepare your deck, think about how you weave your motivation into the team slide. Similarly, before you demo your product, pause and tell a story around your product will impact people’s lives. If you can effectively do that, you’ve got a very good shot at attracting high quality investors.

Ingredients for a Beautiful Page


So many spot on tips for making your page vroom

Originally posted on The Blog:

Amy Lu  has a fantastic page, let’s take a moment to understand why. Read below for a breakdown of the page including tips on the best use of a free page.


The background image is a photo with nice ‘depth of field‘. Amy’s face draws the eye, while the out-of-focus cityscape behind her remains blurred and less distracting. The page is about Amy, so a sharply focused image helps to convey her personality. The smile helps too!

Name and Headline

The name and headline are easy to read in a clear and simple font. Generally, people are accustomed to reading black and white text. There’s no need to get overly colorful with your text. Before making your page flashy, remember that the best pages are simple, clear, and easy to read.

Colors and Design

Amy does a great job of making her bio readable. The accent color on…

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