Entrepreneurship for Engineers: Solo Founder or Co-Founder?
If you have an idea for a startup, sometimes there’s an obvious group of people to embark on the startup journey with — for example, if you co-created an open source project with one, two or three others at your day job and jointly decide to start a company around it. In those cases, the question of whether or not you should be a solo founder is already decided.
But not all aspiring entrepreneurs have an obvious set of co-founders ready to quit their day jobs and join the startup grind. If you have the itch to start a company but don’t have any obvious co-founders to work with, is it worth the effort of finding a co-founder or should you just go solo?
There are pros and cons to both approaches.
The Advantages of Going Solo
You’ll Move Faster.
On the other hand, solo founders can sometimes move faster, because there’s no need to build consensus, especially in the early days. Getting one person to agree on a course of action can be a lot simpler than three or four co-founders.
“The buck literally stops with you,” said Vidya Raman, partner at Sorenson Ventures, a venture capital firm.
You Can Always Hire.
One of the advantages of having co-founders is having access to a diverse set of skills, but solo founders can just hire people with the necessary skills — and often they’re able to hire someone who is better at whatever skill than a co-founder likely would be.
Being able to hire essentially all your leadership roles makes it easier for solo founders to build a team that is even better than they are at pretty much everything — and that is good.
The co-founder relationship is very much like a marriage, and perhaps more intense even than a marriage in some ways. You’ll need to put in long hours together, working toward the same goal, and will be jointly responsible for creating a company culture, attracting and retaining employees, and making sure the company is meeting financial goals.
Disagreements between co-founders can be personal, or can be business or technical — or all of the above. Just like in a marriage, you might be better off with a fabulous spouse than single, but you’re better off single than married to a jerk.
The same goes for co-founder relationships, compounded by the fact that you might have three or four people founding a startup together. That’s a lot of relationships to manage, and keeping the co-founder dynamic healthy is critical to the startups success. A co-founder who has too much ego or too little empathy isn’t something you should overlook — it will cost you.
In this blog post, Akriti Dokania, partner at Ridge Ventures, a venture capital firm, talks about passing on an investment because one of the co-founders was a jerk, even though she had been on the brink of investing in the company.
No Risk of ‘Divorce.’
Co-founder breakups happen, and they are really damaging to the company, often taking the startup down. If you don’t have a co-founder, you don’t have to worry about a co-founder break-up tanking the company.
So there are certainly benefits of being a solo founder. So why is being a solo founder decidedly not the norm? There are, of course, also advantages to having co-founders.
The Advantages of Having Co-Founders
You’ll Have Emotional Support.
Founding a startup is hard, and it can be a lonely road, especially for solo founders. There are a lot of issues that come up in a startup that you can’t talk about with your employees, you can’t discuss with your investors, your friends won’t understand (unless they are also startup founders themselves) — and your spouse won’t get, either.
“I was a founder, and I had a co-founder, and I can not thank God enough to have had that opportunity,” said Dokania. “It definitely makes it easier emotionally.”
Raman echoed this sentiment. “It’s incredibly hard to build a company, and doing so while knowing that you are entirely responsible for the success or failure through that entire journey is exceptionally stressful,” she said. “The highs are very high, but the lows are so extremely low.”
Many founders, especially early on, think of the advantage of a co-founder as being about finding someone with complementary skills, so you can build the business while each focusing on your strengths. However, Dokania and Raman agreed that the primary benefit of having co-founders is emotional — because humans are social animals and building a company is stressful enough without also being lonely and isolating.
It’s Evidence That Your Idea Has Merit.
From an investors’ perspective, having at least one co-founder also adds a bit of credibility to your idea. You have convinced someone other than yourself that this idea is a good one. That’s a good sign, Raman said, especially because selling, whether to customers or to potential hires, investors or open source users, is the primary job of startup founders.
Choosing Your Path
What if you don’t have a co-founder yet? As we mentioned previously, co-founding a company with someone is like marriage. So it’s no wonder that the process of finding a co-founder is called “co-founder dating.”
There are events dedicated to helping people match with co-founders, like those run by On Deck and Entrepreneur First. TechStar hackathons or other events focused on technology and business can also be a good way to meet a co-founder.
Getting to know lots of people, including those outside of your specific department, is also a good strategy for meeting potential co-founders. Particularly if you work in a big company, cultivating relationships with a wide range of people in the company will increase the likelihood that you’ll find a potential co-founder.
Just as proposing marriage after a first date is probably a bad idea, you don’t want to jump into a co-founder relationship too soon, either. For Dokania, ideally you’ll know and work with someone for at least a year before making him or her a co-founder.
And if you don’t find the perfect match, don’t be afraid to go it alone.
Even with all the downsides solo founders face, Dokania and Raman had exactly the same message for solo founders: Do it anyway. Lacking a co-founder shouldn’t keep anyone from starting a company, and both invest in solo founder and co-founded companies.
“I’m not biased at all,” Dokania said, about whether or not she has a preference for co-founders or solo founders in her investments. “Out of the 13 boards I’m sitting on, eight or nine of them have at least one co-founder, but the rest are solo founders. And it’s OK, it’s totally fine.”
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