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How Founders Decide What They Should Get Paid

“We all took really, really small salaries to optimize the runway for the company,” she said. At Syndio, she tried a different approach: While her leadership took below-market salaries, “they were not as drastically low as the choices we made when we co-founded SmartSheet,” she said. She added that it was a good idea for founders and start-up executives to simply ask their investors about what an appropriate salary might be. (Ms. Mandelbaum is among her investors.) She said that moments of economic uncertainty can exacerbate inequities.

Ms. Lefcourt said that, in general, she preferred to see founders use some of their funding to pay themselves a comfortable salary. An amount like $100,000, which is within the $80,000-$180,000 range she deems appropriate in most cases, would probably not “move the needle” on a company’s overall financials, she said. That amount could move the needle on a founder’s quality of life, however.

Mariam Nusrat, the founder of Breshna, a gaming company, said she believed that “there’s an opportunity cost to every dollar” that comes from investors. At a conference earlier this year, she moved hotel rooms every night to save money. She had recently received investor funding and she thought, “this $100 could go into more Twitter ads or something.”

Reflecting on venture capitalists’ role, Ms. Mandelbaum said: “I think we have a responsibility to make sure that people are paid fairly. I really do.” She added, “I think it’s also our responsibility to make sure that companies, regardless of who the founder is, are being financed at the same level so then we can actually pay people what they deserve to be paid.”

As tech companies face layoffs — last month Cameo, a celebrity shout-out app, and On Deck, a career services company, were among those who cut at least 20 percent of their staffs — and valuations plummet, it is possible that some founders will feel pressure to reduce their own pay.

“Maybe eating ramen in a small apartment will feel more normalized again,” Ms. Lefcourt said, quickly adding, “I’m not recommending it.”

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