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March 6, 2024

What is a Founding Engineer: job overview and salary

John Kim
Co-founder @ Paraform

For many startup founders, especially non-technical ones, the role of a Founding Engineer can be ambiguous. What exactly do they do? What are the expectations? And how much do they get paid?

We’ll aim to answer all your burning questions about Founding Engineers and provide valuable insights for your journey through the early stages of a SaaS venture.

What is a Founding Engineer?

A founding engineer is one of the first few employees hired by a tech startup. They play a crucial role in shaping the company's technological foundation and work to design, build, and maintain the company's product from a tech standpoint.

Unlike the company’s founders themselves, Founding Engineers typically don't hold ownership in the company at its inception, but get equity and oftentimes receive a higher salary than the founders themselves.

The job of a Founding Engineer is a unique opportunity to shape a company from the ground up

What do they do?

Early-stage SaaS startups often need generalist, multiple-hat-wearing engineers as they typically have limited resources and must be able to survive–and thrive–in an extremely competitive market where 90% of all startups fail, and 25% close down in their first year.

A founding engineer’s main job is to take ownership and build out an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) for a startup and tend to take on the following:

  • Building the core product: This involves translating the founders' vision into a functional technological solution, often from scratch.
  • Defining the tech stack: They pick the programming languages, frameworks, and tools that will power the startup's future growth.
  • Writing clean, efficient, and maintainable code: They write the foundational code that future engineers build upon.
  • Build a team: They help to form a team of engineers who can build the company’s vision.

Although a Founding Engineer’s job is predominantly occupied by coding, they can sometimes find themselves performing other tasks to help the founders, like speaking to potential customers to solve minor technical issues, helping out with demos, or conducting market research.

An early-stage startup won’t always have a Product Manager, Customer Success Manager, or UX Researcher, so everyone, including the Founding Engineer, will pitch in to cover those activities.

What traits should I look for in a Founding Engineer?

There are many traits to look for in a Founding Engineer, these extend beyond just coding.

A Founding Engineer should be able to perform a wide range of other activities to help a startup grow during a phase where they don’t have a lot of options or budget.

A great FE hire should look something like this:

The tech know-how

A founding engineer should be someone who knows how to build MVPs, fast. They’ve done it before and know what needs to be done from a technical standpoint.

A believer in your vision

Founding engineers take a financial risk when they join a startup as they could earn a lot more working in a big tech firm. But, in the long run, it could be a greater benefit given that they receive substantial equity in the company.

They have to believe in your vision and see it as an opportunity, not something they just have to live with.

Go the extra mile (or 10)

An unwritten rule for a business owner is that you have to put in the hours. These days, more than 70% of business owners work over 40 hours a week, with 19% of them doing 60+ hours. It’s no different for a founding engineer.

They’ll be taking on a ton of responsibility in helping shape the company so have to be ready for evenings and weekends at their computer if need be.

Be adaptable

There’ll be a bunch of changes and unexpected problems that come with running a startup.

A founding engineer should be able to adapt to an ever-changing market and not be afraid to pivot or learn something if push comes to shove.

Salary and compensation

The salary of a Founding Engineer generally depends on their location, experience, skillset, and the stage of your startup. But the general starting ranges in the United States are:

Glassdoor: $181k

Zippia: $96,978 per year, average $46.62 per hour.

Comparably: $136,578

Y Combinator: $160k-$180k $121,731

The above is a national average for a Founding Engineer's salary, salaries will be slightly higher for residents in San Francisco, New York, LA, and Chicago.

The average base salary for a Founding Engineer is slightly less than what a similar engineer might earn at a larger, established tech firm, $195,222 on average. They do, however, get equity which can translate into substantial rewards if the company succeeds. The typical range for equity is around 1-2% of the company's ownership.

Find your Founding Engineer via Paraform, today!

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