Designing Incentives in Startup Teams: Form and Timing of Equity Contracting



Entrepreneurial teams assign equity positions in their startups using a term sheet that details equity splits and conditions for being granted those splits. It is conventional wisdom in the entrepreneurial press that equal splits are poor choices. The conventional logic is that by not connecting rewards to contribution level equal split contracts can encourage free-riding behaviors. We experimentally test this conventional wisdom, among other entrepreneurial contracting hypotheses. Our results confirm the relationship between equal splits and depressed effort and contribution, but suggest a different causal sequence relative to conventional wisdom. Rather than the contract form being the primitive and the behavior the derived consequence, our results suggest the reverse. The differences in contract performance are driven primarily by the sorting of high contributors into non-equal contracts and of low contributors into equal contracts. However, delaying the contracting mitigates these sorting effects, reducing the effort gap between contracts. Taken together, our results suggest that both investors and founders should pay as much (or more) attention to personality type as they do to contract form, but if one is stuck with a given set of personalities delayed contracting (more so than contract form) can improve performance.