How many employees should a startup have?

Getting Started

A pragmatic and provocative answer?


A “startup” is a venture in search of a business model. Meaning, you don’t yet know how to sustain-ably make money. You can’t be sure of any success.

An “employee” is explicitly known as a person employed for wages or salary, especially at non-executive level.

So… with what are we promising a salary??

Sure, you may have some revenue. You may even have funding. But people seek “employment” for a measure of stability; for personal security, to some degree.

And startups have none to offer.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m advising, you need a team. Just don’t think of them nor treat them as employees. It’s unfair, to them. Yes of course, I know most startups seek “employees,” that’s the conventional word for people working for you. I’m suggesting we change the way we all think about working for startups.

It’s unfair to people to promise employment when you have none to actually promise. Hire contractors, hire freelance help, or allocate equity to your team so that everyone is working as part of the company.

I’m a just fan of Jason M. Lemkin’s Simple Commitment Test For You And Your Co-Founders because it really helps clarify how LIKELY it is that a startup loses people, takes longer than expected, and should focus on commitment.

Granted, his view there is about cofounders but I find it applied just as well to “employees,” that, everyone needs to know, clearly, what they’re getting into. Odds are you’ll be out of business in 18 months (unfortunately, but those are the odds), and it just never sat right with me for startups to say they are hiring employees, in the same way that established companies genuinely hire employees.

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