No Equity for You….how to motivate and engage your early stage start-up’s part-time, perhaps unpaid, team

Founders of pre-seed start-ups rarely have all the capabilities needed to build their product and gain traction in their market.

Some expertise can come through their Advisory Board, but they need someone to do the work whether its coding, navigating the FDA approval process, or supporting customers. It’s time to assemble a team. Given the risk associated with such early-stage ventures, there has to be a decent value proposition for someone to want to work there.

Cash isn’t plentiful, though, so how do you assemble and motivate the people you need, when they will be mainly part-time workers or unpaid interns?

You could offer them equity, but that’s a limited and valuable asset that you should carefully guard. Let’s assume that’s not on the table.

What are your other options?

Align them to your “why”

What is your company’s core purpose? You founded it for a reason that is deeply important to you. Others may find it equally as compelling. Create loyalty by choosing a team who share your fundamental beliefs. As Simon Sinek says, people don’t buy (into) what you do. They buy “why” you do it.


Make it worth their while

Tap into a need they have, whether it’s to build their network, increase their “client” list, keep their skills fresh, bolster their credentials, or being part of something from the beginning.

Play the long game

This can take two forms. The first is the promise of a rosy future which could turn their part-time work or internship into a well-paying full-time job. The second is that, for you serial entrepreneurs, they could be part of a team that will move with you from venture to venture.

Respect their work

People want to know that what they do matters. This means that you have to pay attention to it. Create a culture of high standards. Measure and give feedback on performance. Reward positive outcomes.

Make it interesting

Nobody wants to work for a boring, impersonal, and un-stimulating company. Create a culture that not only represents your brand and your why, but that also has the habits that would make a person come to work every day.

Be a good leader

Be relatable, treat your team as the whole people they are, have appropriate fun, be passionate about your goals, show empathy, and continuously seek to engage them in the purpose you are all pursuing. Everyone has different needs around work, so you will have to customize the motivators for each person.

And, let’s not be naïve; sometimes you may have people on your start-up bus for a specific need who should get off at the next stop, so that you can fill the roles with the people who are a better fit as you evolve.

Managing people isn’t easy, and it won’t get any easier as your company grows. Starting off on the right foot builds the culture you want and establishes you as a leader at the time when it matters.

Many thanks to TEDCO’s Builder Fund portfolio companies and participants for their contributions to this article: Michael Adelson (Bloosurf); Fereshteh Aalamifar (Pediametrix); James Brinkley (IPGen); Sue Carr (CarrTech); Elizabeth Clayborne (BleedFreeze); Sarah Iranpour (PersonClinic); Hector Ocasio (PetConnect); Samantha Scott (JuneBrain).

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