A Step Towards Transparency: Sweet Fish’s Compensation Blueprint

Most compensation structures are a mess.

For 5 out of the 6 years Sweet Fish has been around, ours was too.

Startups do their best to be fair and clear, but without a plan, comp decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, are wide open to bias, and leave team members with no idea about what they can potentially make if they stay with the company.

When we first saw the Career Framework from Buffer, we were inspired to say the least. The Buffer framework, which in turn was inspired by Radford, lays out a series of vertical Levels team members can achieve in the organization, as well as horizontal ones.

Each vertical level brings more responsibility (and pay), while each horizontal level means the team member has demonstrated growth and expertise within the role they currently have. This helps people make more without moving positions in the company.

We knew right away we wanted to design a transparent comp plan for our own team. It took about half a year, but we finally rolled it out in December 2020.

The Sweet Fish Compensation Blueprint

Money isn’t everything, but it’s definitely something. After all, you’re not volunteering at Sweet Fish. You’re working hard, and you deserve to get paid.

Compensation, raises, promotions—they can be tough topics, both for leaders who make these decisions, and for the team members who are affected by them. But they don’t have to be! As much as possible, we’ll try to clearly lay out how compensation is structured at Sweet Fish, how and when we handle changes in pay, and what kind of opportunities you have for making more money and moving up in the organization.


Each position at Sweet Fish falls within a well-defined range that determines the minimum and the maximum salary for that role. Three primary criteria include job title, longevity with Sweet Fish, and/or relevant skills and experience.

Your compensation depends on 3 factors: 

  1. Your Level in the organization. 
  2. Your Stage within that Level.
  3. Loyalty (a.k.a., how many years you’ve worked for Sweet Fish)


Levels at Sweet Fish refer to your job title and where it falls in the hierarchy of the organization. The higher your Level, the more responsibility you are given over a broader range of the business.

For example, Level 2 people (Specialists) are responsible for their own work but do not typically manage anyone. Meanwhile, Level 4 people (Managers) are responsible to lead and supervise teams of people. Level 5 people (Directors) lead and supervise Managers, and so on, up to the highest Level.

Getting promoted at Sweet Fish means moving from one Level to the next. For example, when a Writer gets promoted to a Lead Writer, she moves from Level 2 to Level 3.


Stages define the ranges within the same Level. Each person at Sweet Fish is either at Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, Stage 4, or Stage 5 within their Level. 

Advancing from one Stage to the next is not a promotion: it is simply a raise. For example, if you move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 within Level 3, your job responsibilities remain exactly the same—your compensation has simply increased. Here’s our guide to document what the stages look like.

Team members move from one Stage to the next by increasing their level of expertise. Stage 1 is the base level of expertise, Stage 2 is Intermediate, Stage 3 is Advanced, Stage 4 is Expert, and Stage 5 is Master.

Important notes:
  • If you get promoted to a higher Level, you will typically enter that level at Stage 1. 
  • However, it is possible for someone newly hired or promoted to enter any Stage on the chart.


The third and final factor in your salary amount is “loyalty,” or the amount of time you’ve spent at Sweet Fish.

For every year you work at the company, you will receive an additional “loyalty bonus,” which is represented by a percentage of your base salary. This percentage is set each calendar year and is the same for people at all Levels and Stages.

For example, if the base salary of your Level is $40,484, and the loyalty bonus for that year is 3%, you’ll have $1,214.52 added to your salary on your work anniversary.

Note: This company-wide percentage may change each year, but it will likely fall between 2-5%.


How often will I be up for a raise?

Once a year, on your work anniversary, which we call your Career Day. Your manager and the Director of People Ops will sit down with you to talk through your current compensation as well as any adjustments that will be made.

Is it possible to get a raise outside of the annual Career Day?

Yes. Other considerations are made on a case-by-case basis.

Do I have to move to a new Stage to get a raise?

No, although that is the primary way to get a raise. The other two ways to get a raise are 

  1. To move to a higher Level [promotion].
  2. To work an additional year at Sweet Fish [loyalty bonus].

How often will I be up for a promotion?

There’s no set schedule for promotions. Promotions happen whenever we have a need for someone to fill a new position. 

While we can’t guarantee this in every hire, we will almost always look to promote from within before hiring someone outside the company to fill a role. So if you are interested in eventually moving to the next Level at Sweet Fish, make it known to your manager in your 1:1s, and also share this in your quarterly OTR Sessions.

Important: Promotions are given out based on the needs of the business, not individual needs or desires. Simply being at Sweet Fish a certain amount of time does not guarantee you a promotion, nor does your desire for advancement. Instead, promotions open up as new positions are identified and made available, at which point you would be considered based upon your qualifications. 

Still, we definitely care about your career goals, so if there are no promotions available or given at a time you are actively seeking one, we want to help you in one of two ways:

  • Identifying the skills and knowledge gaps you need to fill to be considered for the next available promotion, and then giving you the resources to fill it.
  • Helping you identify opportunities outside of Sweet Fish that would help you more immediately satisfy your career goals.

What factors go into whether or not I get a raise?

The loyalty bonus is fixed and is initiated each year on your anniversary date.

However, you also have the opportunity to advance to the next Stage in your Career Day meeting, depending on several factors (see below). 

The decision of whether to increase your compensation each year, including advancing you from one Stage to the next, is influenced by the following factors:

  • Surveys and feedback from your manager
  • Client feedback (if applicable)
  • How well you’ve performed the responsibilities listed on your job description
  • Adherence to our three core values
  • Whether you meet the criteria for the next Stage at your Level

What if I don’t advance to the next Stage?

If you’re told in your annual Career Day meeting that you won’t be advanced to the next Stage at that time, don’t lose heart! 

In that meeting, we will walk you through the decision and how it was made, and will lay out a plan for you to improve in whatever areas are necessary for you to advance in the future. 

Keep in mind, though, that each progressive Stage is harder and harder to reach. Most team members will be able to advance from Stage 1 (Base) to Stage 2 (Intermediate). Some (but not all) will be able to advance from Stage 2 to Stage 3 (Advanced). But advancement to Stage 4 (Expert) is going to be rare, and advancement to Stage 5 (Master) will be even rarer.

What other factor could prevent me from getting a raise?

The financial health of Sweet Fish obviously has an impact on our ability to provide increased financial incentives. This blueprint serves as a guide, but it is possible that extenuating circumstances may impact our ability to make desired changes. In that case, we’ll be as transparent as we can about the factors that affect our decisions.

Who makes the decision about whether or not I get a raise or promotion?

Raises are determined by your manager, pending approval by the Director of People Ops.

Promotions are determined by your manager, pending approval by the Leadership Team.

Why might someone be hired at Stage 2 or Stage 3 instead of Stage 1?

There are two primary reasons this might happen:

  1. They have lots of relevant experience.
  2. They have a significant breadth and depth of relevant skills.

What is pay equity?

According to SHRM, pay equity means “paying employees fairly and consistently, without discrimination on the basis of gender, race or other protected categories but taking into account job-related factors such as education, work experience and tenure.”

Sweet Fish is committed to a pay structure that is fair, and this blueprint and compensation plan are designed to be as clear and objective as possible.

How often will the pay ranges be reviewed and updated?

The entire compensation structure will be reviewed annually. Please feel free to provide feedback to the People Ops team, so we can keep making it better!


Ryan Drawdy

Director of Culture and People Ops at Sweet Fish Media

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