The day I gave my staff blank cheques

Published: Jun 11, 2019, 05:44 IST | C Y Gopinath

Here's what happened when I told my staff at our writers' agency that they could take home whatever salary they wanted

The day I gave my staff blank cheques
With this, I announced the plan: everyone would get a blank cheque which they could fill as they wished Representation pic/Getty Images

C Y Gopinath My first monthly salary was R600. It was a fortune. It was more than I needed to pay for my food, transport, rent, cigarettes and a few evenings out. I was even able to send R200 home, which made my father very proud.

As sub-editor at the Reader's Digest, my next job, I was paid R1,300. Of course, they didn't pay me anything extra for writing, since I was staff. I should have been happy with R1,300, it was double my previous salary, and who gets that?

But I felt cheated. By then I had arrived at a conviction, not evidence-based, that I was a much better writer than I actually was, and deserved a much higher salary than I actually received. It galled me that someone else should be deciding what I was worth.

So I finally left all employment and started Sol Features, a writers' agency of my own. Word got around that an angry journalist was setting something up, and other angry wannabe writers began showing up. Soon, we had a bunch of serious writers.

I paid them no salary. Actually. Zero. I told them plainly that I had no backers. I promised them that I would go to war to get them a rupee per word when they wrote instead of a hundred rupees per 1,000 words, the going rate then.

But we needed to pay the typist, the rent, the phone bills. Soon, we began designing company house journals and using that money to run an office. I could finally pay salaries to people who also earned from writing. I awarded myself, for the first time, the salary I thought I deserved.

And I gave my other writers the salary I thought they deserved.

It took a while for the extent of my own hypocrisy to hit me. The man who had resented anyone else deciding his salary was now the chief honcho of his own company — and deciding what other people should get paid. Nobody objected or thought twice about it, since this is the norm. Your bosses tell you what they'll pay you.

But one day, I cracked. I didn't want to be the Decider-in-Chief any more. I called my team and broke it to them, "Seems to me there are at least three ways you could decide how much you should be paid: worth, need and want. One, you take whatever you think you're worth, based on what your assessment of your merit. Your criteria, your decision. Two, you could decide that you need a certain sum, based on your expenses, savings needs and other dues. It's unconnected with your merit, market value or how good you are at your work."

Someone might have quoted Marx here: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." I continued: "Three, you could decide to be paid what you want. Any number. Maybe you'd like to retire by age 35, so you want a fortune each month. Now, I don't know which of these three is the fairest, but I don't want to be the one making that decision."

With this, I announced the plan: everyone would get a blank cheque which they could fill as they wished. The bank balance would be made public. I promised not to monitor the withdrawals and swore this was not a test of some kind.

Here's what happened.

Nobody wanted it. They thought it was a trick. Everybody suspects an offer with no strings attached. Raju Bist, now a professional photographer, asked me, "What if I discover that I'm greedy?"

"Well, better to find that out sooner than later, right?" I replied.

Someone else asked me what would happen if a person took out all the money in the bank and disappeared. "Well," I replied, "we call that eating someone else's lunch. How far do you think they'd get?"

In the first month, everyone withdrew less than what I had been paying them. And in the second month, slowly, they began exploring the limits and contours of the system. I genuinely didn't monitor anything. I knew they simply couldn't let it go bankrupt.

One day, I learned that they had used the system to help one of them buy a bicycle. By mutual consensus, everyone else agreed to withdraw a little less so that one person could draw a little more.

People got involved in finding new work. Suddenly, Sol Features felt like it belonged to everyone of us.

A London-based startup called Markets ( lets employees decide what they'd like to draw. It's transparent and people can be challenged by their colleagues and defend why they think they're such hot stuff. The owner says 99 per cent of his people are happy. In our case, I'd say it was 100 per cent.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at Send your feedback to

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