Profit Sharing Plan that Really Works for Small Business


I am running a small business of 10++ people, and am looking to expand the head count to 20++ this year.

The business is profitable now, so I am thinking about how to create a profit sharing plan that REALLY WORKS in the sense that it will motivate people to do their best for the benefit of the company, and that will entice many more bright young people to join the company, and that will give people a sense of ownership into the company.

From what I know, fogcreek has a profit sharing plan that really works, but unfortunately the details are not divulged.

Also, Paul Graham has an excellent article on how to give the equity to startup employees. But I don't think the formula is applicable in my case here, for the simple reason that I'm no longer looking for co-founder.

Profit Sharing

asked Mar 5 '11 at 20:11
871 points

5 Answers


Our current profit sharing plan is actually quite simple: There's a bunch of profit at the end of the year and the amount over what the company conservatively needs to operate is split up amongst the employees based on how long they've worked at the company.

I believe this creates a fair and just reward for all the hard work that the employees have put into the company. It also gives everyone a share in the responsibility for the fiscal health of our company. Regarding Jesper's answer on motivation, profit sharing is not meant to be incentive pay in that it isn't meant to incent any particular action. It's meant to be a transparent distribution of income based on how well our entire company does. It serves as an incentive because people feel that this system is fair and they want to work for a company that treats their workers fairly.

The flip side is that if the company does not do well, everyone shares the responsibility for less overall pay.

I think this works well for the size business you have (<30), however my personal opinion is I don't think it scales well to larger businesses. People want to feel like they have control over their destiny, and if there's too much distance between their actions and the overall health of the company it could actually work against your company. It depends on if everyone at your office actually does feel like they are on the same team.

You still need to motivate people in some other way and I think that Daniel Pink's advice is spot on regarding autonomy and mastery. Understand and communicate to the teams at your company that they are responsible for making decisions related to their job. Don't micromanage.

This doesn't mean you have to let them make bad decisions or that you shouldn't care about what is going on at every level of your company, but remember that your responsibility is to the overall health of the company - not in the details of their job. Let them direct their jobs. If they do well, praise them. If they don't, then you probably need to replace them.

We also have a professional ladder so employees can demonstrate their mastery. We base our salaries on this ladder.

All of our policies and value revolve around our goal of creating a company where great software devs want to work. .

answered Mar 7 '11 at 09:53
Michael Pryor
2,235 points
  • Great answer. :-) Spot on with regards to the difference between true *profit sharing* and *incentive pay* (and yes, I was thinking of the latter). – Jesper Mortensen 6 years ago
  • @Michael, it seems that fogcreek is rewarding people based on seniority; don;t you think that it will create a bunch of lazy old guy sitting there entire day and do nothing? – Graviton 6 years ago
  • @Graviton That's a separate issue. Lazy people regardless of seniority should be sent packing. – Michael Pryor 6 years ago
  • @Michael, how can you send them packing when 1) the labor law makes it extremely difficult, 2) you reward them base on their seniority in the name of profit sharing? – Graviton 6 years ago
  • @Graviton (1) is not a problem in the US, and (2) is not an entitlement. It's a perk of the job, just like health insurance, vacation time, etc. Everyone still needs to perform their job duties exceptionally in order to remain employed. – Michael Pryor 6 years ago
  • @Michael, but still, firing people because he's not up to the task ( a very subjective call) is an option pretty hard for employers to take, even though they can do it by law. Do you seriously fire people in fogcreek? I doubt it. – Graviton 6 years ago
  • @Graviton "Do you seriously fire people in fogcreek?" Yes. I understand in other countries firing people can be very difficult, but in the US this is not the case. – Michael Pryor 6 years ago
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Don't do it. Read Daniel Pink's book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" to find out why.

I realize that this might not be the answer you're looking for, but based on my own experience as recipient in 2 bonus systems / profit sharing models, I really think it is at best no better than regular pay, and at worst might actually do damage. Wikipedia has a quick overview of the issue:

Academic evidence [..] that performance related pay leads to the opposite

of the desired outcomes when it is applied to any work involving cognitive
rather than physical skill.
In my personal experience, the problems with performance pay are:

  • The tendency to "externalize costs". Say you measure only the number of sales closed, then there comes a tendency to bring home marginal sales or bad sales which actually cost the company money to fulfill.
  • Erosion of motivation. With performance pay, you're in effect saying that a tiny percentage of the activities of a company are valuable. To some extent people will hear that as "those activities not part of the bonus system are of no value", and that tends to be demotivating.

Instead of profit sharing, Daniel Pink suggests to use:

  1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
  2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

That said, if you feel a profit sharing model should still be implemented, then I think Jarie Bolander's suggestion is wise.

answered Mar 6 '11 at 03:48
Jesper Mortensen
15,292 points
  • This is a great flip side and an answer I wasn't expecting here. I was planning to implement profit-sharing in my business one day. I will definitely give it more thought now. I have physical laborers as well as cognitives. Thanks for the Wikipedia link. If I recall correctly, IBM did well with performance-based compensation back in the day. That may be an interesting case study to look at. – Clint 6 years ago
  • Good point. Daniel Pink's stuff is great. I agree that bonus programs are tricky and in general don't work. I think the key to them is that they are the same for everyone and just part of doing a good job. The ideal bonus program is the surprise one where you don't know you are getting it. – Jarie Bolander 6 years ago
  • The "tl;dr" version 4 years ago
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The best bonus program/profit sharing plan I have ever been involved with was the Days of Pay program.

Essentially, the company would set quarterly target for simple things like sales, growth, profit, etc. At the beginning of each quarter, the CEO would set the upper level target or the maximum we could all get. For example, 7 days of pay.

Next, the plan would monitor the metrics and calculate the days of pay each employee would get. The beauty of this is that everyone gets days of pay -- no one gets more or less. This was a great way to do it because everyone understood what a day of pay meant and it was equal for everyone.

In this program, you could also get something even if you did not meet the maximum days of pay. For example, we would track new product revenue and depending on how good that went, would determine the percent days of pay awarded below the maximum.

I think the main takeaway was that the program had to be simple to understand and be the same for all employees. That way, everyone has an equal stake in making it work.

answered Mar 6 '11 at 02:00
Jarie Bolander
11,411 points
  • +1 for simplicity – Clint 6 years ago
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Sorry, I'll be the spoil sport here. I have owned my own companies for over 30 years and have experimented with all kinds of bonus programs to try to motivate people more. My experience with profit share in a small company was dismal at best. Its like burning your money. If your company is consistently profitable, then, basically, you are just sharing the wealth. A nice thing to do but it is not a motivator. For example, lets take a company that has 100 employees and makes 1 million a year in profit. If their profit share formula is to share 20% of profit, then $200,000 goes to the 100 employees or $2,000 each. Now, say Jack in the warehouse feels motivated to help the company because of his positive perception of the wonderful profit share plan, so he figures out some inventory control system that works great and saves the company an extra $20,000 for the year. So now, profits for the year are 1,020,000. Take 20% of that for distribution and you now get 204,000 for distribution. Jack ends up getting an additional $40 for his year long great effort. Whoopee! Sooner or later, every employee does the math and comes to the same conclusion. They have no real power to affect the size of their own bonus. Motivation drops to zero.

Another problem with profit share in any size company is that Management can foul it all up with one decision. Let's build the Edsel! How about we double the charges at NetFlix? Any bright idea that goes astray can wipe out all the good little things that individual employees might do. Additionally, they usually have to wait a full year to get the bonus and in this instant-gratification society that is far too long to keep them motivated day to day.

I found that if I truly wanted to motivate workers, that I needed to design specific programs for each class of worker. The very short version of this is to identify what it is that that worker does which most contributes to the bottom line, do your math and figure out what they are contributing now and then how much more it would be if they did, say 20% better or more. Design a frequently paid bonus (monthly works best) that pays them about 30% of the extra savings or earnings over and above what they were doing anyway and turn them loose. People are very motivated when you can drill down to the specific act they are performing daily and know they can increase their paycheck for doing better NOW.

It is not as complicated as I made it sound. I have done it for years with every employee in the company ... not just sales and management, everyone, even entry level and all hourly personnel.

answered Feb 3 '12 at 05:55
Gary Brose
11 points


I've been wrestling with this at my previous company. I ended creating a compensation pool that is a percentage of profits and then people share ownership in that compensation pool according to their impact, which is calculated taking into account time at the company, level/seniority, and performance evaluation. So this is similar to Michael's model, but more complex from the math standpoint. What was important to me was that people feel that they can leave and profit from their hard work if the company is successful, so once people leave they divest out of the compensation pool over time instead of dropping to zero - this creates a feeling of ownership.

I think the most important thing is that people perceive the model as fair, which is very sensitive to the individuals involved. I discovered that if I am transparent and have the right intentions, people forgive mistakes and allow for adjustments in the future. But this means you really need to be careful about managing expectations. At this point, some friends and I are actually starting a company around this compensation model. I'd love to find out more about your specific situation - feel free to drop me a line.

answered Jan 11 '12 at 16:32
1 point

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