Experienced entrepreneurs know that when it comes to slicing up the equity in their new startup companies, the longer you wait to hand out big slices, the better.
That’s because a startup company can create a ton of value in a very short period of time, and in many cases, with relatively little effort.
It’s exciting to get others wrapped into your new idea, and their willingness to bet on your idea may feel like something you want to reward with shares of the company. The issue isn’t whether or not you reward these individuals, but really when you reward them, and with how much of the company.
As a rule of thumb, the longer you wait to slice up the equity (assuming you’re growing the company) the less equity you’ll have to give up. Here are just a few milestones that you may be able to get to on your own, before you’ve begun slicing up the cake.
The fastest way to turn your idea into a company, at least legally, is to incorporate. You can incorporate yourself on-line in less than half an hour for a few hundred dollars at most.
The benefits of incorporating early are that you can force every discussion of stock into a legal matter, and not just a handshake deal. If I just tell you that I’ve given you 50% of a company that hasn’t even been incorporated, it’s not the world’s most binding document. But if I update the Operating Agreement of an incorporated company to show that you own 50% of the company, there’s no question that you’re a shareholder in the business.
The process may sound simplistic, but it helps create some value. People tend to take ownership of an incorporated company far more seriously than ownership of an idea you emailed them, which usually means it’s not as likely to get diluted as heavily.
Build a Prototype
The next step is to put together a basic working model of your idea. No matter how rough your prototype is, having an existing product to talk about is far more valuable than just talking about it in a PowerPoint presentation.
Your prototype can come in dozens of forms. It can be a barebones version of the Web site you want to build. It can be a service that you want to offer that you’re delivering to customers by yourself right now. It can be an artists’ rendering of the product you intend to build.
Regardless of its form, the prototype gives you the ability to switch from just talking about an idea and to start talking about an actual product. It’s also possible that an early prototype could even lead to a sale to a customer, which would be the ultimate value generator!
Building a prototype can be a challenging task, and one that you may find yourself needing to seek outside help on. If you absolutely feel that the only way to present the product to a customer or potential investor is to bring on another equity partner, then so be it. But if you can get by with just some sketches or a simple working model to convey the product idea, this would be a great time to keep that equity in your own pocket for a while.
Get Some Traction
If you can get past the prototyping stage yourself, without carving up much equity, and get on to selling even just one customer on your own, you’ll have achieved one of the greatest leaps in value creation.
Getting some traction with partners and customers completely changes the value of your company. Up until this point you had a company with an interesting product. Anyone could second guess whether your idea was useful. No one can second guess paying customers though.
It’s not impossible to get this far with your company idea without any help at all. You can incorporate yourself, piece together a working prototype of your product, and pitch it to some early customers that you setup meetings with. In essence, you’ve done the hard part by actually starting the company. The next step is to grow it from there.
Time to Slice it up
Once you’ve put your company in a position that it simply needs to grow to create value, not just get started, that’s a good time to take on equity partners. At that point the value of having more employees, investors and partners will likely outpace the cost of giving up more equity.
In each step of the journey, you want to keep asking yourself “Is it at all possible for me to get to this next stage without taking on more help?” You may get past the incorporation stage and realize that any hope you have for growing your idea into a company is going to require a few partners. That’s not a problem, as long as you’ve agreed that unless you slice up the cake today, it’s not going to get any bigger.