The Matrix™ Method: A Startup’s Guide to Transparent Performance and Salary Conversations

Roland Grootenboer
4 min readAug 28, 2023

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s not a problem at first. And with the proper start-up mindset, you don’t fix things that aren’t broken. In the early days, people pick their own job title and even seniority level. You hire great people and after some benchmarking, you end up with a salary that is based on their old salary. It kinda works.

At some point, you start to see the cracks in your ‘system’. This usually happens somewhere with 20–50 people on board or when you need to hire a lot of people in a short period of time.

The first cracks appear when talking about performance and salaries.

Why is Angela earning €500 more than Job, who is doing the same job?

Well, Angela has a Master degree and is 5 years older.

But Job is at our company from the start and is performing better imho.

Hm, I actually value Angela’s seniority over Job’s coding skills.

So what value add does her seniority bring in your opinion and why is that worth more than Job’s ability to build things that improves our product?

To me it’s her ability to manage expectations with stakeholders, communicate clearly, give feedback and give a realistic timeline to our Product Managers.

That is important, yes. But is it €500 (6k per year) more important?

This conversation goes on for quite a while and you probably had a similar one already, as you are still reading. This is a real life conversation about the value add of a colleague, how to define seniority and how that translates performance assessment and a salary raise. Even as a nimble start-up who tries to stay scrappy, there’s no way around this conversation.

Between you and me, I think Job should get a €500 raise. Seniority should not be defined by age or degrees, but by impact, responsibility and value add. But that’s a decision for you to make. Whatever you do, make a conscious decision. A start-ups survival and success depends on making good decisions, especially when it comes to people, so let me help. I’ve built a framework that helps you define what good looks like per role and how that looks in terms of levels. This already sounds like corporate lingo, but trust me, I kept it really simple.

After reviewing hundreds of job profiles, roles descriptions and talking to People Ops leaders, I created The Matrix from scratch back in my start-up-days at Blendle. I created a method to define what we expect in a role, per level of seniority. The goal was to make it as concrete as possible, while creating space for people to be different. Here’s what I did.

  1. I created 3 categories: work, drive and fit (column A). Work represents anything role related, like coding skills. Drive is how you do your work, for example your ability to take initiative and proactively contribute. Fit is all about harnessing key elements of the culture and staying aligned. You can come up with your own categories, whatever works.
  2. Per category, I created a list of attributes (column B). For the Work category it differed per role. Coding skills for our developers, UI design for designers. All credits to my former colleagues, who helped to create a list of attributes for their function. I encourage you to make t his a collaboration. This resulted in a very rich profile per function. Each function has a different tab, feel free to look around and again make it your own.
  3. As a last step, I added three levels per attribute. While making this, we discovered that someone can be senior and advanced in one area and have a long way to go in another. This is a biggie. A great developer who can’t plan, mentor and take feedback is a junior developer. A great sales person who can pitch like Obama, but isn’t involved, preparing for meetings and able to translate feedback into improvements, is a junior sales person. This is a gateway towards a very rich feedback and career conversation. Last but not least, this translates well into a conversation about salary.

Pro tip: sharing The Matrix™ openly with colleagues is key, no secrets here. Make sure everyone has access and let people chime in. The Matrix™ isn’t static, it should change over time and trigger a constant and ongoing conversation.

From here, a lot of people topics and conversations will become easier. Defining what type of person you want to hire (and what they should earn) is easier. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to find, resulting into better hires. It will also create less (or smaller) salary gaps you can’t explain, making it fair to everyone. As pointed out, this framework is a great conversation starter for coaching and feedback, as it’s clear what the next level looks like. Last but not least, it allows for an informed conversation about salary raises.

Pro tip: in theory, you can create a Matrix™ for every individual. The downside is that it makes it harder to compare. People often do extra stuff, from other job profiles. A backend developer doing frontend work for example. This Matrix™ allows you to copy paste from other functions and make it part of the conversation.

Now, you might dislike or even disagree with some of the decisions made in The Matrix™, that is totally fine, as long as you’re making decisions. Go ahead and copy The Matrix™ for free (I know, wtf) and try it out.

Want more? Check out roloo.gumroad where I sell HR products for start-ups on key HR topics like Feedback and Hiring.

Please don’t sell this in any shape or form. Please do share your version, so it can benefit others and we build more companies where people thrive.

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Roland Grootenboer

Currently part of People Ops at Google. Formerly head of HR at Blendle. Opinions our my own.