What salary should I be making as a product designer at a startup?
August 15, 2018 4:44 AM   Subscribe

What should my salary be as a Product Designer at a startup with [x] years of experience living in [x] city?

Here are the details:

• I'm 40 yrs old
• Since 2000 I've designed and built websites and apps
• I've been a senior designer and run a freelance business, but never a startup
• I've been recognized on the web and design communities with a modest following
• In 2017, I joined a startup as sole Product Designer

The startup is in New York city and I'm currently making $130,000.

The reason I'm asking about my salary, is that in the past 1.5years at the startup, I have gone far above and beyond any typical duties as a designer. I'm the only employee included at higher level strategy meetings, partially (possibly) because I'm older than anyone else by about 10 years and they listen to my feedback. I contribute javascript and CSS to our React codebase. Much of the marketing copy and messaging was crafted by me. I designed the entire experience for web and mobile. Half of the big groundbreaking features we're building the next year were created and explored by me.

However—I also have about 20,000 private options in the company. Though I have never regarded this too seriously since for so many startups that equity never amounts to anything.

But given my age and the cost of living in New York and the sheer energy and skillset I'm pouring into this product... I think I'd like to make more money. But I honestly don't know if I'm asking too much. And I'm not privy to what other designers working at this level are making.

Thanks for any advice you have.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your actual role sounds like it doesn't match your job title. Figure out what your real job title should be, and then try to get your position officially changed over to that, with a salary change as appropriate.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:49 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

At this point you ought to be 'Director of [something]' or maybe 'Head of [x]' or '[x] Manager', which reflects the fact that you're working at a managerial within the company, i.e. you're actually in charge of stuff, as opposed to simply doing specific things you're asked to do. Presumably as the company grows and takes on more people, they'll want you to be in a senior position with respect to new hires, so they ought to be laying the groundwork for that (at least that's how I'd pitch it).
posted by pipeski at 5:09 AM on August 15, 2018

You sound like a Director of Product and Design to me, given that you're involved in high-level strategy. Your department is small, but you're still more than a designer.
posted by entropone at 6:15 AM on August 15, 2018

It's hard to answer this question without knowing the size and age of the company. Agreed with the other answerers that you're doing a higher-level job, but without knowing what stage of funding your company's at it's really hard to say if you're being underpaid or not.

Similarly, the raw number of options is less important than what percentage of the outstanding shares they represent, and whether or not there's a liquidation preference for the funders. (Although you're probably right to count them as worth nothing.)
posted by asterix at 8:20 AM on August 15, 2018

According to Glassdoor (fwiw?), Design Lead or Head Designer roles would, according to the New York average, entail a salary drop. You probably want to be talking Director of this or VP of that if we're looking at the "role justifies salary" route. Salaries by role and location are very Googlable.

Another option may be just to have a frank discussion about your value to the company – not just in terms of past achievements, but in terms of what you're doing and what you could do. This should be possible in a startup culture.

However justified, a "pay me what I'm worth" conversation leaves a sour taste in your employers' mouths. If you can pitch it, however superficially, as "how about I do this next?", it gives them something to buy into and a way to save face. Then name your price. The worst they can say is no.
posted by nthdegx at 8:35 AM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure if you've ever been at a startup before, but compensation (and expectations) work a bit differently, and because of that, so does the negotiation process, starting before you're officially hired. As a potential hire, it's a lot easier to ask for an elevated title up front to boost your market value, and it's free for them to give it to you.

But since you're already working there, you still have a lot of negotiating power. Think about what would make you happy enough to stay. What title? How much salary? How much equity/stock? Insurance? Vacation time? Intangibles like work flexibility or 4-day work weeks?

For me, the answers are: a Director title, enough salary to be comfortable, a very generous % equity because I'm directly contributing to the success of the company and I want to benefit from it, absolutely insurance, unlimited vacation, and full-time remote live-wherever-you-want location. Some of these I had to ask for, some were offered up front, but I had to think ahead of time about what I wanted to come away with after negotiating was over.

The reality is that, because of limited startup finances and the company's individual balance between compensation vs how many people they can afford to hire, you likely won't be compensated at the market salary for the title you want. But it does put more pressure on the company to offset their lack of salary with equity, benefits, work flexibility, etc. Unless you're considering outside offers from other companies who ARE offering higher salary -- at the cost of the title you want, or vacation, or whatever will make you happiest -- I wouldn't focus solely on salary as an indicator that I'm not being fucked over.

It was very important to me when I got hired at the startup I currently work at that my title reflected my responsibilities & experience. The pay was negotiable, because I wanted a fat slice of equity knowing that I would be working in a hyper-niche area of tech doing a TON of generalist work (like you are now) and critical to the success of the company, so that makes me super valuable to get and keep. Your unique value = negotiation leverage.

If raw $$$ matters the most, and the trade-off of some earning potential in exchange for equity or benefits isn't worth it (or you don't expect you will be able to make up for the loss in salary with whatever the equity will be worth, AND the job isn't a huge resume builder), expect that you might not get offered what will make you happy and you might need to consider leaving for a place that will compensate you for the work you're doing in a way that feels fair to you. The geographic location and cost of living will play into this somewhat (for perspective, you're already being compensated substantially higher than I am).

If you thought about it, and there's something they could offer to make you stay, here's what I would do in your shoes:

1. ask for the title you want asap, it costs them nothing, this shouldn't be a big deal if you make a clear case for it

2. ask for more equity. no, more than that. be demanding. find out what the strike price was for the shares you have already, ask them how many shares are in the company, ask them how much of that is ear-marked for employees/hires. do your due diligence. and always ask for a percentage first, hard stock numbers are easily diluted & sometimes startups use numbers instead of % to mask how much stock is in the company overall (the internet has more info on this)

3. ask for a healthy raise, to wherever you think is a good compromise between salary and equity

And, in the future, when you're negotiating a new job at a startup, think about doing what I did at my current job: put a clause in your employment contract that you will receive a raise of XX% or $XX,XXX when the company clears their next round of funding -- yay, now you have a built-in raise that will get you closer to market salary for your new title.

It depends on the stage of the startup, obviously. I was the first hire at my current company, but maybe the next round of funding at your company is 2+ years away, or they're preparing to IPO. Ask questions about what stage of funding they're in, their exit strategy, inspect the business model, understand the market cap -- get a better idea of what your equity will be worth. Know what you've signed up for.

(Source: Director of Design at a 2 yr old startup 🍹)

If you want to talk about this more offline, send me a DM, this is my 8th startup or something & I feel VERY strongly about not getting fucked over by startup culture, pushing back and negotiating for what you're worth as someone who is exchanging labor for [fill in the blank].
posted by Snacks at 9:51 AM on August 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

I agree that it really depends on the age of the startup, their financial situation, and future. As a vague point of reference, I work with Senior Product Designers in NYC who do far less than you and make $160k salary plus have >$200k in stock grants that vest over a 4 year period.
posted by joan_holloway at 1:42 PM on August 15, 2018

Lots of good money advice above, I only want to add that "20,000 options" is meaningless. You have to find out how many shares there are total, what your percentage is, what the valuation is currently, and so on. I fell for this at a company once, which was acquired, and my "5,000 options" turned out to be about $12K, or about what I gave up in salary to work there. I obviously didn't do my due diligence when negotiating, so please learn from my mistake.

Also you should probably be a Creative Director or something like that. You are under-titled no matter what.
posted by rhizome at 4:00 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Disagree about the recommended alternate job titles (maybe principal/staff/senior product designer is appropriate if there are others at your company you are not managing - director/CD imply management) but you are probably underpaid if your startup is successful and has any runway. If the startup is tanking, well, don’t hold your breath. Also keep in mind that working in-house is very different from freelancing and your salary is highly dependent on how well you do what they need you to do, and the cachet of the job — doing “everything” doesn’t really matter unless you are excellent at at least some of it. Citation: 10 years as a product/ux designer
posted by thirdletter at 8:19 PM on August 15, 2018

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