Why everyone at our start up knows everyone else’s salary

Hillary Frey
Jul 20, 2016 · 4 min read

When Mark and I signed on to run Matter Studios, we were offered exactly the same amount of money, despite the fact that I had a bunch more years of experience—and a higher base salary + bonus structure to match—than he did. In fact, in our previous jobs, I brought home about twice as much as Mark. So in our new roles, my salary scaled down fairly dramatically while his went up a touch.

When we got the offers after many conversations with Ev, Mark had just one negotiation to make: That I earn $1 more than he does, so that we can continue to be a married couple where the wife makes more than the husband. (This was not my primary concern, but I did appreciate it.)

I explain all of this because we are building a truly transparent company at Matter Studios, and the first thing we knew we could be totally fair and transparent about inside our workplace was around salary. Mark and I are paid the same because we hold the same title at Matter Studios: Co-Chief Creative Officer. We each bring everything we have to this company, and so we are compensated the same (except for that buck).

We wanted to design a salary structure for our employees that followed the same simple idea: people doing similar jobs, or operating in a similar position of authority, should be paid the same, regardless of what they were paid before. The past wasn’t relevant. Our operating budget and corporate philosophy was.

So we decided to make flat, non-negotiable offers.

This was a gamble, especially because we were hiring people from places like Bloomberg, Conde Nast, Politico and Vine. We are beyond fortunate to have a significant investment from Ev, but we run a very tight ship operationally; this ensures that we keep a healthy amount of money available to fund projects and do right by our creators.

Yet despite the risk of losing our top candidates, some of whom (like me) were earning more in their current roles than we had to offer, we — and especially I — believed in this idea, and Matter Studios committed to it.

Why? It’s easy. I have been in this business long enough (18 years, sigh) that I have seen salary discrepancies do irreparable harm to workplace relationships, morale, production and more. As a senior manager in many of these jobs, I have been at the listening-end of dozens of venting sessions — and not all from the less-well-paid young people! Most of these conversations were with well-compensated senior staffers — about others who were suspected of being paid more and perceived to have done less. People may well have vented about me. I have (of course!) participated in these venting sessions, too. Oftentimes, but not all, they were valid complaints. Was it often women venting about men, who still routinely earn more than women doing the same jobs? Yes. But not exclusively. Not at all.

As a manager who has managed teams ranging in size from four to 45, I was privy to budgets, and I have made dozens of job offers in my career. I have worked on diversifying newsrooms with more women and people of color, and paying people good salaries appropriate to the work, but that also convey a vote of confidence. Still, what I couldn’t do in any of my previous positions was go back in time and rationalize compensation with a staff I inherited. At times I managed people making exponentially more than I did, because they’d been hired at a time the place seemed to be minting money. At others I struggled to lift the floor for longtime or young, super-performing employees, even though I’d been given a bucket of money to hire new staff. The only way to make things right was to be able to start at the beginning, like we are now at Matter.

So we set up three tiers to start: Mark and myself as c0-founders; our COO and Creative Director as tier 1 employees (grouped together because their work is most directly tied to new business, identity and revenue generation); and our development executives (in creative, community and platforms) in tier 2. People in each tier were offered the same base salary and participation in our profit-sharing structure. We also sketched out two more tiers, which we would add if/when we grow, and talked about setting a clear path for review, promotions and raises (though that path is not yet established — will report back!). All employees were offered the same benefits packages.

Like I said, going this route was not without its risks. But, man, was it easier to make offers: “This is it.” Doing it this way also allowed me (and I made all the verbal offers to our team) to explain just how serious we are about transparency and fairness. I was able to explain why we decided to do it this way, and share some of my own experience. I have also shared with the staff what Mark and I are paid, and what the other tiers are paid. Everyone knows everything now. It is such a fucking relief.

And you know what? Each person we extended offers to accepted. There wasn’t even pushback — even when previous employers came back hard with counteroffers. What there was was an understanding and appreciation of what this company aims to be.

In that spirit of transparency, we’ll keep posting about what we’re doing here on Medium, our ups and our downs, as we go. All our staff will take turns, and we’ll address struggles, theories, practices, and victories as honestly and clearly as we can. If there’s something you want to know about our company, we’ll try and answer explain it. Just email me at hillary@matter.com.


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