How to motivate a team when you have nothing to offer but equity?



  • I recently got into the whole startup scene, and I was hired as CTO for an early-stage startup. I've got a fair bit of engineering experience, but when it comes to management, I'd definitely be in the junior range...

    I think I understand the essentials when it comes to managing people:

    • Align user stories with their personal aspirations
    • Give them independence
    • Do not criticise in public
    • Set an example
    • Sell the whole thing as an opportunity to gain new skills fast
    • etc

    I'm doing all those thing, and yet... the output I'm getting is minimal.

    I should clarify that we hire people on a part-time basis (10 - 20 hours a week), and we offer good equity (and no actual pay). New joiners always have an enthusiastic disposition, and they can get loads done in their first couple of weeks. Then they stop appearing online on Slack; they stop responding to my messages; and, eventually, they stop posting the weekly standup messages. The people that do contribute only offer the bare minimum -- not even 10 hours worth of work weekly.

    I'm really at a bit of a loss here. I shared my vision, and received no pushback from anyone. I can only assume that we're aligned and everyone agrees with the vision. This begs the question: if I can't offer money, how can I possibly motivate my engineers?



  • If you aren't paying people, you really shouldn't expect them to stay around. If you want to give someone equity in exchange for payment; it should be a large amount of equity, and it should be spelled out in a contract, that stipulates the vesting period (if they aren't getting any money it should be an accelerated vesting period tied to milestones), but let's face it, equity is a lottery ticket. How often have you worked 40+ hours a week for a lottery ticket? How can you expect others to? A lottery ticket won't feed their family or pay their rent.

    More basically, however, I invite you to take a step back and to figure out why you come to work, and why anyone should care about the work you're doing. If I were you I'd raise money and pay these people. If you can't get investors to give you money then it may not be the type of idea you can hire people for yet. But, even more basically then that, I'd figure out my "Why".



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