Startup Life/Opinion/

We celebrate unicorns, so why is money still taboo at startups?

Startups love to talk about valuations and cash. So why is talking about money when it relates to salaries and financial health still taboo?

James Routledge
James Routledge

By James Routledge

“I’m not in it for the money,” claims the passionate founder pitching their mission-led, world-changing tech startup. 

Yeah right. Give it a rest, mate. 

I spent the last five years pretending money doesn’t matter to me. I started a mission-led business in the mental health sector and happily sat on my high horse: “I’m better than money, it’s all about the mission. It’s all about the cause.”

In startup land, we live in a perpetual state of irony. Founders and VCs know that a business must have a purpose that goes beyond profit in order to change the world. Yet they spend the majority of their time talking about money just as much as or more than the essence of the startup itself. 

I see money talked about in the startup scene all day every day, I see money being chased desperately. I see valuations revered. Yet I see little honesty around money — especially from founders. Money is a dirty word in startups with a social purpose in particular. Because it’s all about the mission, man. 

The money taboo has huge implications for diversity and inclusion. It’s a privilege to be “above money”

A VC with integrity isn’t afraid to talk about money to a potential investee. They’ll explain that their stake in their business has to have the potential to return their whole fund. They’ll be honest in asking, “Do you want to sign up to try and build a billion-dollar business?”

But founders, I don’t hear you talking about money. You sweep your financial aspirations aside like I did for many years. You pay yourself a low wage to keep cash in the business. You don’t consider your financial goals. You might be worth millions on paper, but in reality, you’re broke.

The implications of the money taboo

I’m guilty of this. I negated my own desire for wealth and financial security for many years. Call it my British stiff-upper-lip, but I believed I was above money. I focused on making sure my startup had enough instead of making sure I had enough. I planned out the company’s financial goals, but never my own. I’ve paid myself an average wage over the years, but I’ve seen the mental health of so many founders suffer when they didn’t pay themselves a liveable wage. 

This doesn’t just hurt founders. Employees are encouraged to take the below-market-rate salary because they’ll get some magic bean stock options that they probably don’t understand and are worthless in real terms. There’s an expectation that founders and early employees should sacrifice comfort in service of the mission and be “in it for the long game”. But what about providing for their families? Or the impact of being underpaid on their mental health?

The coaching was illuminating — I was financially inept. Like many founders, I’d put all my eggs in one basket

The money taboo has huge implications for diversity and inclusion at startups. It’s a privilege to be “above money” (which nobody is), and it means we repeat old patterns, hiring the same university-educated white people, reinforcing gender and ethnic pay gaps. 

Money coaches

At the start of this year, I started working with a money coach, Patrick Venn at TOMII. I had six sessions alongside my partner. I learnt some financial basics that I didn’t know and I reflected on my financial values and goals. How much wealth do I want in five years? When would I like to retire (if at all)? How much am I spending right now?

The coaching was illuminating and quite startling. I was financially inept. Like many founders, I’d put all my eggs in one basket — and an unstable one at that. Most of my wealth is locked up in a company, and I might not be able to get access to it for years, if ever. The coaching gave me a greater awareness of my financial position and my psychological relationship with money.

I see now how hidden dynamics around money can cause anxiety, stress and disappointment

Now that I better understand my own financial aspirations, I feel more aware of the impact of money on myself and our team. I see now how hidden dynamics around money can cause anxiety, stress and disappointment at work. I see too how a lack of confidence in money can hold people back, whether it’s negotiating what they feel is right for their salary, feeling secure for their future or selling their own product.

Increasing an awareness of our own relationship with money and our own financial desires is an absolute must for founders, and where possible, their teams too. Sanctus now offers financial coaching to all of our employees through TOMII, and I know other companies are doing the same. 

Talking about money openly will be a big step forward in fighting for a more equitable world. And it will also give people the basic security and stability in their jobs that they deserve. It’s time to kick the money taboo. 

James Routledge is the founder of Sanctus and author of Mental Health at Work

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Pauliina
Pauliina

So true, especially in the helping fields such as coaching. I am pulling money closer to form part of my core-values, both personal and business ones! And working on the various blocks.