I'm developing a web-application for an active shooter defense training company. They go to organizations all around the country and teach them how to be best prepared for a horrible unexpected event. They want to take their training program online to reach more people.

I've been actively working on this for a couple months now and a friend of mine started helping me. He was very motivated at first, but his effort has started to die off.

Background Info
I can't pay him because I don't make any money until after the application has been developed and deployed. Anyone working on it (including myself) are pretty much volunteers. Once I start producing income, I can pay him. But, I don't expect to be able to do that until last quarter 2019 or first quarter 2020.

I've come to a deal with him that once I start creating income, he'll receive 10% of it up to 100k per year. I originally got him motivated by the technology we'd be using, the fact that he could work on the fully technology stack, and the cause behind why the application needs to be created.

How can I keep him motivated while he's basically volunteering his time for me during these "startup" phases?

  • Also, if you're going to downvote, please provide feedback so I can improve my question. Don't just aimlessly downvote, specially to someone new to Workplace Exchange like me.
    – Corey P
    Feb 5, 2019 at 17:18
  • 2
    @Corey You need to talk to him, come up with a good percentage number that both of you agree, then ink a contract and sign it. One contract in black and white is better than one hundred promises.
    – tweray
    Feb 5, 2019 at 17:18
  • 1
    @Corey depend on your location. Typically in US this kind of contract is relatively easy to draft. Talk to a lawyer and he's probably able to get it finished in half to an hour of his billable hour. Or you can use online services like rocket lawyers something. The key part is that both of you reviewed and agrees with the terms inside the contract.
    – tweray
    Feb 5, 2019 at 17:24
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    So, if it tanks, he get's nothing, and if it takes off, his reward is capped? Soooooo, he takes all the risk and gets little of the reward. Sounds like a great motivator Feb 5, 2019 at 19:43
  • 1
    @CoreyP So did it work out? Would be interesting to see what came of this.
    – Nelson
    Jul 28, 2021 at 2:10

5 Answers 5


How can I keep him motivated while he's basically volunteering his time for me during these "startup" phases?

Probably he is losing his motivation because, as you mentioned in comments, this person already has another job that actually pays him, and his effort and time should go there in order to complete his responsibilities and keep his job.

This person has already helped you a lot, but if you want him to keep "volunteering" for you you have to give him reasons to keep helping you:

  • Mention to him that you are thankful for his job, and after the project launches you will be more than willing to pay him X. Mention an estimated time when you will be able to do so.

  • Offer this person some share of the incomes or stock when the project launches.

The point is you have to show that his effort will be rewarded eventually, and not leave it implicit.


Pay the man or offer him a share of the business. Cool tech alone is a very lousy motivation.

You'll sometimes find fresh people who are willing to work for free for a very short amount of time in order for them to build a portfolio that they can display. That's obviously not the case here and even if it were you couldn't expect someone to do that for a long duration of time.

Can he even be sure that you'll pay him once the startup phase is over? Do you guys have a contract? Don't wave future money around that you can not guarantee. There has to be a bigger upper limit in it for him to work without pay. There must at least be binding contract that makes him feel sure that you're not actually ripping him off when (if) the money starts coming in.

Your best bet is to offer a piece of the pie, in a binding contract. Give him a carrot which is basically performance driven. On the plus side you won't have to pay him a dime if this doesn't work out and that's perfectly fine if he knows about that chance from the beginning but you can keep him motivated that way. Chances are that the profits will be more if he's actually invested in the business.

Either that or take a loan, or get funds from future customers right now: have you considered funding platforms like Kickstarter or Karolinafund?

  • Great ideas. I haven't done a Kickstarter campaign before, which is something I think I'll look into. You're the second person to suggest the contact idea. I think I'm going to do that as soon as possible. Is the contract something I can write up myself initially?
    – Corey P
    Feb 5, 2019 at 17:27

The typical draw for working for free on a startup is the possibility of getting rich. It's actually a pretty good motivation, and one that you aren't offering. Assuming this guy is good, he can get a job paying him somewhere around $100K/year. You're capping the possible reward there. You're saying that, if he works hard and everything works out, he might get a reasonable salary out of it starting in a year or so. I wouldn't work on those conditions.

At the very least, remove the cap. Consider offering a higher percentage. He's putting in a lot of the work here, since the actual software development is usually more work and harder to get than a neat idea.

  • OP even said in comments that this person already has another job, that actually pays him (most likely around 100k/y if he is good)...
    – DarkCygnus
    Feb 5, 2019 at 17:48
  • @DarkCygnus He's not making 100k per year...he's making about 13 per hour. However, he does get his education for free if he chooses to pursue his masters. He's currently working as a developer for a University.
    – Corey P
    Feb 5, 2019 at 20:16
  • I like your idea of removing the cap and/or offering a higher percentage. I'll admit, at first I wasn't willing to take as much risk on him, but after reading this thread there's a lot more in the game on his part and he should be rewarded for it.
    – Corey P
    Feb 5, 2019 at 20:17

How can you motivate him? Here's a few thoughts..


Money isn't the only thing that can motivate people, but it's certainly a very good one. Especially since money can be exchanged for goods and services. I know you don't have any right now - but have you sought funding? Startup loan? Crowd funding? Your reference to the fact that you are developing this product for an existing company suggests you already have a client at least somewhat on the hook - can you get some funding milestones established with them?


This probably was what motivated your friend previously. Unfortunately by it's very nature it's not sustainable.


You can try appealing to ego in the sense of giving him the opportunity to have some control in the project that he perhaps doesn't get at the day job, or you could try telling how you need skills he has that you don't etc. It can work - but it has to be said it's flimsy at best and most people are going to see through it like a freshly polished window.

Money (later)

It sounds like you have a possibility of this - unfortunately it's very far in the future so it's not particularly motivating right now. In order for incentives to work as motivation they need to be obtainable and "maybe" in another year isn't particularly - it's entirely feasible that they could work their guts out on your project and never see a penny from it.

A cause

If putting the work in is related to something an individual cares about strongly then this can be a strong motivator (hence people volunteer at charities and so on), while your project is related to something that people can and often do feel strongly about it's not something you can manufacture.


Not sure how you translate your project into a plan for world domination so probably not hugely relevant here. You can offer him a significant level of ownership/say in the project/company but it has some of the same pitfalls of Money (later) - if the product/company never comes to fruition he ends up with a significant amount of nothing.


Yeah..you know, I'm just not going to go there.

  • Wow, I was wondering if you would mention the last point. Indeed you did
    – Ripstein
    Feb 5, 2019 at 17:37

You must establish a formal contract with your friend ASAP.

This is to protect both you and your friend. Right now he is relying entirely on your honesty and goodwill to be reimbursed for his time and trouble. You could decide to stiff him completely and tell him to sue you if he wants his money. Alternatively he could decide that his contribution to the project was much greater than yours, and claim that he's entitled to 90% if not 100% of the business. He may claim he still holds the copyright to all the materials he's produced and threaten to pull them, if you don't meet his demands.

Verbal agreements can be binding, but the process of enforcing them can require a long and expensive court battle, where the opposing lawyers will argue over every word and phrase in every communication between the two of you. A written contract doesn't guarantee there won't ever be a legal fight between the two of you, but it sure helps.

Do you have a contract with the active shooter defense training company? That's just as important! You and your friend could put a lot of time and effort into this and be left holding the bag!

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