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An answer backed by unsolicited offers in their inbox without any negotiation.
Product designers in tech are typically paid in base salary, bonus, and equity—and data on this topic vary quite a bit. Even with some US states now requiring that the salary band be included in the job description, it only cites the base salary. The other variable is the term ‘Senior,’ which can be used for anyone with 4—10 years of experience depending on the company. With all these variables, the spread of total compensation (TC) seems to vary from $50,000—$1,000,000+ USD per year. And Glassdoor data averages much lower than levels.fyi and Blind data.
Here’s another data set — a senior product designer (non-FAANG résumé, 8 years of experience, & at the center of the matrix of domination) inbox with salary bands (non-FAANG) from July 2021 — July 2022. All offers are based in USD and are annualized.
This is from a design agency in a high-cost-of-living area (HCOL). Agencies typically don’t offer equity and bonuses are hit or miss, so the total compensation is $160k.
This $160k is citing the base salary only. This means bonus and equity are added to this. With an average bonus being 10%, that’s an extra $16k. The wild card is private equity — it could be anywhere from $100k to $1M over four years. But if they don’t go public, the equity can’t be counted. So let’s keep it simple, this unsolicited offer probably comes in at $176k.
Since the plus signs are after the solid $170k number, I’m going to assume that’s referring to the base salary and the other items will be tacked on to get a total compensation figure. $170k + $17k = $187k, and we can count some public equity… These figures vary a ton, but don’t go as high as private equity, so let’s just say this senior living in a HCOL area can negotiate a $200k equity package over four years. That’s not too high, nor too low — it’s $50k extra a year at the current trading price. So this offer could come in at $237k per year.
We don’t know what company this is from because the recruiting firm doesn’t specify. So all we know is the offer comes in at $120k with no bells or whistles.
This one is also non-specific. But they do say “salary of up to $140k,” which means cash. And they are only asking for four years of experience — so this is an early career senior role.
This offer is for a private company and shows a base salary band of up to $210k, probably for more experience in a HCOL area. Bonus isn’t mentioned, and lots of companies roll sans-bonus, so we’ll not include it. “Significant equity” leads me to believe this is one willing to hand out one of those high equity packages. Let’s just pretend that the equity package comes in at $700k for their current evaluation. That would be $175k extra per year, which brings the total compensation up to $385k per year. If this company goes public, that $700k could also double or 10x. But that is very rare. There are a lot of big IFs in this scenario. If you don’t believe this company is going to go public while you’re employed there though, you could sell your private shares on the private market (if allowed), and turn some of this vapor money into real money. Let’s say you did that to half of your shares over the four years, and not factor in any refreshers (new shares from raises and promotions). You could make out with $297.5k per year in cash.
Here’s a similar story with a start-up with a good amount of funding. Maybe sans-bonus, and maybe a less hot equity package. This is also for a real estate platform, so let’s pretend the equity ends up being vapor, and keep the offer at $189k.
This is a very early stage start-up since they are still gaining the founding team. “Unlimited cash compensation” sounds pretty unique, but they’ve also given a number: $250k. I would suspect this means you could pick how much of your total compensation you would like to be in cash. Let’s say founding cash/equity is rounded off to $2M over four years, and you negotiated that you want to be paid 50% in cash. Then you’d be paid $250k in cash and $250k in equity per year. That’s a big assumption, but I’ve seen this validated within the fintech start-up scene, where principal designers (not even founders) can allocate up to 90% of their package to be paid in cash and make over $650k TC per year. So the estimate above is even a little conservative. Let’s say you chose a 50% split and sold half of your shares on the private market over four years. You could be making $375k per year in just cash here.
This salary range may be pushed up a bit by that founding designer listing, or it’s a coincidence and another company is citing $250k base salaries.
Here’s one where it’s unclear if $180k is the base salary or if it’s the total of base salary and equity. Let’s not inflate this offer and keep it at $180k TC per year.
There’s not much here to go off of, but they do mention “salary,” so we’ll assume $160k cash since they don’t mention bonus or equity.
This is a different listing than the other founding role and in a different industry. That’s a promising data point on founding designers at well-funded start-ups. Let’s assume we could inflate this offer just as much as the last one ($375k in just cash per year). One thing I didn’t mention on the other listing was the work-life balance. A typical salaried worker clocks in for 40 hours per week. But let’s say you’re the founding designer at a “fasted paced fintech start-up,” you might work 80 hours per week and no vacation time to keep the company afloat. This hustle cuts your effective pay per hour in half. Compare that to a freelance designer working 40 hours a week and ending up with $187k by the end of the year. You’d both be charging $89.90 per hour of work.
Still, this offer sounds enticing.
There’s no mention of a breakdown here, and the range is referred to as ‘comp,’ not base. To estimate conservatively, we’ll keep this one at $180k.
This is another well-funded start-up, but there is no mention of the breakdown of base, bonus, and equity. Maybe the whole package equals $200k for senior designers.
If benefits are the next mentioned item, we’ll just assume $135k all-in for this one.
Here’s the average of the guaranteed cash first:
$135k, $200k, $180k, $240k, $160k, $180k, $250k, $250k, $189k, $210k, $140k, $120k, $187k, $176k, and $160k
A=$185,000 of guaranteed cash
Average adjusted for public equity ($50k per year) and private equity (valued at half sold on the private market ($25k unless founding/significant package cited) and half vaporized):
$135k, $200k, $180k, $375k, $160k, $205k, $375k, $375k, $214k, $297k, $140k, $120k, $237k, $201k, and $160k
A=$224,000 of cash and speculative equity
It pays well, stick with it…
I’ve seen some seniors make $70k and some make $500k+, but most of us lie somewhat in the middle. Notice none of these unnegotiated offers start at under six figures, and none of them are from the high paying players (Meta, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, Twitter, Coinbase, etc.) so being a product designer can pay off. Especially since we don’t require graduate degrees to enter the field. If you’re just getting started or in mid-career and don’t have financial stability, it may be time to look for something new. Refreshing portfolio, résumé, presentation deck, and practicing white boarding challenges will help you get the best bump in total compensation.
I’m an anonymous product designer working in tech in a high-cost-of-living area. I’m writing about salary transparency in order to stop gatekeeping high-salary jobs. Follow me for more articles about my own salary progression and breakdown (why I didn’t respond to any of these emails), other designers’ salaries, offer letters, refreshers, levels, negotiating with or without competing offers, and other topics from behind the gate.
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