Startups come in all shapes and sizes and there is plenty of room in there for single-founder companies. I have represented at least one single-founder company that eventually grew to $16B valuation in the fiber optics space and another that grew to $1B valuation in consumer electronics software. Are these unusual exceptions to the rule? Sure. But they do exist and there are undoubtedly a reasonable percentage of successful startups like them that start in just this way.
The startup process is best viewed as a continuum, ranging from the very early formative steps to much-more sophisticated steps later on. At some point along the continuum it is essential for most successful startups to add other team members because, when you scale to something great, you basically can't do it alone. But no one says this teaming process has to occur as the absolute first step in the process. It can occur later and, indeed, much later (both of the multi-B companies I mention above were several years into the process before the sole founders brought in other key team players).
The key at the beginning is founder credibility, whether found singly or in a team. If someone is sharp enough, he will find the means eventually to add key people even though, at inception, he finds himself working all alone.
Having said that, I will be the first to say that it takes a pretty exceptional founder to be able to start alone and build to large success. But many such founders exist and they can rank right up there with other founders in all the qualities that count toward success. At least that has been my direct experience in having worked with a broad range of founders over many years.
I've found that people have wildly different ideas about both the reason to do a startup, how to execute, what's important, and where to exit. There's a great diversity even among people who know/read a lot about it. In fact, I'm amazed that the multiple founder system works at all. Except for cases where everybody is a college friend or something, it looks like a recipe for a lot of conflict.
The question is not whether or not you and your cofounder disagree. The question is whether you can nonetheless find a way to make decisions and move on. If every disagreement causes your progress to stop dead, you've got a problem. If every disagreement is resolved in favor of the person with the loudest voice, you've got a problem. But it is in fact possible to make progress even with a team full of people who disagree, provided everyone is sufficiently open-minded, mutually respectful, and willing to indulge in whimsical experiments.
A lot of startup stories contain moments in which the cofounders had big disagreements; e.g. the time when Steve Wozniak had to be dragged kicking and screaming into quitting his day job with Hewlett-Packard.
What I've found, however, is that cofounders are especially tricky to integrate. I think once you have a running app/business it gets easier, but that entire process of taking something fuzzy and making it concrete is just a very difficult process for some folks. People are really good at BSing! Heck, if there was a prize for sitting around talking about startups it'd be a big bunch of folks winning it (myself included at times). But once you move past idle talk and start feeling for a market and a problem? It's not so sexy any more. And then when you're talking about all the hours that's required? People have a tendency to melt into the woodwork.
The ones that are extremely motivated are usually that way because they're emotionally attached to some concept -- and that concept may or may not be workable in the market. Which means it's like pulling teeth trying to have an honest conversation about viability.
Then there are the technology bigots, of course, and the "idea" guys.
I don't know about other startups, but the one I'm working on now is a pretty big commitment -- big enough that my "day off" is basically taking a long lunch today and surfing HN. The rest of the week, day and night, I'm working.
I don't see that combination of willingness to work on something that might not be hot at first and also being able to pivot when needed as being very prevalent. It's probably just me, though.
“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!” - Edison
(I'm behind both)
This is true only of American dating sites. A number of Indian dating sites are based on that exact model.
I guess the lesson to take from that is this: if your expectations are low enough, and social pressures not to quit are strong enough, any reasonable pairing can be made to work.
To me, first and foremost, the fact that you don't have any out of pocket expenses is a good thing, it eliminates one barrier to entry. Virtual companies achieve that. In comparison, joining a "real" incorporated startup as co-founder, the first thing you do is split the legal costs and buy your shares. So right there, a few thousand dollars before you even know if you should work together. And there is no "undo" button, unlike virtual companies.
That's also why in the co-founders meetup I ask the presenters to not only present their business, but reveal a bit of their own personality. I believe that compatibility as co-founders comes equally from being passionate about the same things but also being compatible personality-wise (read this http://blog.fairsoftware.net/2009/11/19/first-co-founders-me... for more on the topic).
#1 - Two of us. A package for specialty manufacturers. I wrote the software, he sold and implemented it. We agreed to make it a product business, but he sold it as a service. Totally different animals. We were always behind and had no chance of building any equity that way.
#2 - Four of us. A package for continuous manufacturers. I was one of 2 programmers along with a designer/analyst and a business guy. I should have been spending all of my time programming, but I spent 75% of it refereeing among the other 3. I kissed the ground when I left.
#3 - Two of us. A package for job shops. Things were just taking off when he died.
#4 - I'm taking everything I've learned from the other businesses and from my customers over the years and writing a self-service web app that builds enterprise quality systems for small & medium businesses. Single founder is the default. I'd gladly have a co-founder or two, but only if the fit is (almost) perfect. One of the many reasons I came to hn was the possibility of meeting co-founder(s). Who knows, it still may happen...
Source: "If you’re going to launch a startup, how many friends do you need?": http://buzzpal.wordpress.com/2008/01/06/if-youre-going-to-la...
Nor was Amazon, really: Bezos had a de facto cofounder called Shel Kaphan, who wrote all the initial code.
"Over blueberry pancakes at the Sash Mill Cafe in Santa Cruz, Bezos managed to convince one of them, Shel Kaphan, to become employee number one."
A bunch of the other ones seem suspect too. Wikipedia lists the founder and first CEO of Lycos as Bob Davis - Michael Mauldin invented it as a research project, but if you go by research project inception and not incorporation, Larry Page is the sole founder of Google.
Be wary of information from random blogs. ;-)
Berkshire Hathaway is a textile mill that Buffett turned into an investment company, but by then he had been a successful investor for over 10 years.
It's hard to lump financials in with tech startups, though. Technically, when he Buffett started the Buffett partnership, he had lots of cofounders. The structure of an investment fund is a single managing partner (who makes the decisions) and then lots of limited partners (who put up the money). In the eyes of the law, they're all cofounders.
If you go by practical instead of legal definitions - who provided the know-how? - then Buffett's early partner was effectively Benjamin Graham. After all, it was at Benjamin Graham's firm that Buffett first learned about investing, and Graham served as a mentor long afterwards.
1) I tried co-founders, but found that they didn't work as hard as me. Most people like to be lazy, so finding someone with the same work-ethic is difficult
2) I want to make decisions quickly and having a co-founder could slow that down for me
3) Employ people quickly who can help you. You don't need to give up part of your business to get good people. What motivates people is not just money - its often pride in a good job, good working conditions etc. I always run a very flexible in terms of time that people work. They work when they want and always get the job done
4) Don't be afraid to fire people. There are "givers" and "takers". I always fire takers as soon as I recognize them.
"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."
I've been thinking of starting a "braintrust" of solo entrepreneurs so that we can pursue our respective passions but also reap some of the benefits of having a co-founder, by sharing ideas, debating stuff, etc.
Anyone interested in joining?
It's not smarts you need - it's self organisational ability, and most people lack that if there is nobody else watching them.
Being a single founder is tough, but for those who can do it , it can work really well. There are some strategic downsides to it like decision making is based on just the single founder's gut/knowledge/experience, and its important that single founders understand the downsides and work around them.
I found that the only thing that makes me significantly upset in the startup is people I deal with. Working with another founder I bet would create a lot of conflicts.
"Even when there are multiple founders, somebody is in charge"
Co-founders don't necessarily mean "equals." You can have co-founders that are less involved than yourself (still giving you the value of a co-founder, without requiring them to be equally as invested as yourself).
Another thing to think about is ownership of the idea- almost by definition, the person who comes up with the idea will be the most involved. If you're looking for a co-founder, it will be much easier if you don't yet have an idea, and come up with one together.
you could have a syntax so that once someone leaves a project, you'll go back and scan their HN profile for changes. Or else just a way for someone to leave their username and the site will go out and scan the profile page, either once or periodically as per user setting (which can even be on the HN profile page)
For example, the essential difference between a co-founder and employee #1, and why you might want the one to perform some set of duties rather than the other.
But assuming you can afford employee #1 (making cost somewhat moot), why otherwise might you decide to go in either direction?
I haven't employed anyone, but I'd say if the only thing you need is to 'speed up' as OP says, employing someone is probably the way to go. If you're still feeling your way around finding traction then maybe a cofounder. But this is just my 2c.
I just wanted to see further discussion of co-founder vs. employee (#1). I tried to ask it in an enthusiastic way.
This is why I'm single, I guess. :)
But with a startup, you don't usually have any time before you start building something. So if something does go wrong, the split up is bad.
It'd be like having a baby with every one of your ex girlfriends :/
I think ideally founders should have already worked together on something.
"I always thought it was contradictory that venture investors call out "conflict between founders" as the #1 reason for startups failing, yet they're always very reticent about funding a single-founder startup."
I think the same is true for creative startups. I find that getting employees and giving them stock and calling them 'co-founder' is all fine as long as there's no confusion that they're to follow my lead.
I think you can argue that all great startups are, in a sense, single founder startups. Woz for Apple, Gates for MS, etc.
Can you tell me what vision Jobs added to the Apple II?
Mac was almost stolen outright from Xerox PARC
Also incorrect. The Xerox Star was an expensive prototype used for research. Many ideas were taken from the Star, but while the first Macintosh looks a lot like a modern computer, the Star was quite different, even having windows that couldn't overlap and other things we would now consider silly.
But, Jobs didn't create the Macintosh - he just hired the engineers who worked on the Star to join his great engineering team to polish and productize it. His contribution has always been to set the bar and only allow things that are great into the final product. This is possibly the most important thing an executive can do, but rarely properly executed.
Cringely did a good job with Triumph of the Nerds (based on his book "Accidental Empires") - if you haven't seen it, I'm pretty sure that you can find it on YouTube.
Well, Adele Goldberg, head of the Star, and who held the meeting with Jobs, is still around and would tend to disagree. She fumed at the idea of sharing the GUI and had to be strong-armed into giving away the technology.
You might want to read "Dealers of Lightning" which details a lot of this. It's a great read.
Adele is right that the Star pioneered graphical computing. I a somewhat amazed at how little credit people today give to Xerox PARC team. But to say that it was stolen is misleading. The Mac was not a clone of the Star but a derivative system with usability improvements and resource compromises to allow it to run on consumer hardware. (Compare this to Windows, which was a half-hearted implementation of the Mac, compromised to run on common consumer hardware.)
If Xerox had actually productized the Star, it would have sat on the desks of publishers and C-level executives, and probably have been mostly forgotten. Jobs certainly stole Adele's thunder, but I think that he did the right thing.
You might want to read "Dealers of Lightning" which details a lot of this. It's a great read.
I'll check it out. Much of this was also covered in Triumph of the Nerds.
Well, yes... but there are many things that are genius that I have never heard of. And plenty that I know of that will never be well known.
no one cared what color the case was
Well, Jobs did. As a programmer with some depth, I know how little engineers care about product development and marketing. Great things sell themselves, right? I used to agree, but after seeing the waste of unwanted products and the tragedy of unused pearls, I can no longer believe the Field of Dreams mantra (If you build it, they will come). The guts of the Apple II didn't sell themselves, and the color of the case does matter to buyers. Certainly it was a feat of engineering that would have been impossible without Woz. I also think that it would have been a forgotten player without Jobs.
After that it was imitating and copying, where the only added value was in marketing/colors/user experience. In music, people sometimes would ask "Lennon or McCartney?" to separate the wheat from the chaff. In hacker terms that question might be "Woz or Jobs?"
I think emotional stability is the most important personality prerequisite.
- Zero communication overhead so you're more efficient.
- Huge incentive to automate daily maintenance tasks.
- You know the codebase inside out and can make massive changes (you understand the entire system). But that kind of thinking has also led me to screw up spectacularly so be careful.
I started my first two companies alone, then started a third as a partnership with three others where I was a silent partner, then closed down my first company, then brought in a co-founder for my second company and renamed it, then took over the third company (the partnership) through buy-outs, then desolved my partner for the second (renamed) company.
It's kind of confusing, but the punchline is that every single co-founder who I at one time had a lot of confidence in has not held up their end (all of them admitting they hadn't at one point or another).
That being said, I would love to start a company with someone who shares my drive and capability.
(edit: His name is Jason Cohen)
Purely from an FU-money-exit point of view, I suppose SB was successful. But IMO that guy seriously needed a good technical cofounder.
(He's also remarkably forthright about his experiences and finances... something I find really motivating)
I'm currently developing (with Rails) a timeline app called Preceden, which will compete with more established timeline sites like Dipity and Lifeblob. I'm in the Philly area, but I'm shooting for the Bay Area in a few years. If you're interested in talking, you can find details in my profile.
P.S. We really need a central place for this.
I like knowing how to do EVERYTHING that has anything to do with my application. I do design, coding, sysadmin, marketing, feedback studies. Its been a fun experience, but hopefully this will give me some street cred so i don't have to do it again. Maybe someone could do an article on best sources to outsource areas of web development in the future.
As far as i'm concerned my site development has been free yes i have to pay server costs, etc. but i haven't had to outsource or hire anyone to do anything else yet. True i've spent quite a few of my own man-hours on the project but i consider the lessons learned and experience gained more than payback for that time.
I think being a single founder can be great if you're just getting started, and your idea is manageable, the lessons you learn will be invaluable. That being said, in the future, I would like to be able to produce more in less time, and having some extra help would be very nice, especially now that I know what I'm doing!
Though I've admittedly almost burned out on it. I certainly understand why almost all my advisors insist on the necessity of a cofounder. When you hit the lows and there's no one there to balance off of you can just hit rock bottom. I think a lot of the single founder success stories are guys that had a lot in their favor when they started.
But maybe its also harder to kill a company when there's only one person. Like the business currently makes nothing but I could keep it alive as a hobby for 4 years and then sink money into it again when things change. Thats an advantage that a lot of startups don't have or think about, "slow cooking"...
Maybe it's something that should just happen organically? Has anyone met a cofounder at a mixer or cofounder matching site that worked out well?
I think I'm going to stick it out on my own, at least for now.
EDIT: I originally said I was "on the verge" of bringing out my startup, but the language bothered me. I've given myself a two-week deadline to get the Web site off the ground, and a bit more time after that to get the business actually running. HN taught me I should push myself to get the startup moving, or it'll never happen, and that's what I'm doing now. =)
It can be really, really, tough at times (I remember being on the verge of pulling my hair out a few months ago), and it can get a little lonely, but I decided to go solo as I really didn't find anyone that could had the same level of ambition and resonated well with my personality. though that can change in the future. thinking about a couple of new ideas that I will be looking for co-founders.
Maybe we should start a list of companies interested in finding cofounders?
I have been through enough to learn to engineer my startup plans to the resources I have.
I spent two years waiting for technology to catch up, refining the concept and business model according to how the industry was changing, and it's changed a lot. Just launched the beta a couple weeks ago.
Being a single founder has forced me to engage and figure out how each segment in the company functions. You're doing everything so when you grow and start hiring people you'd have developed deeper insights into how to manage them, what kind of results you should expect and what challenges they face. Experiencing the nitty gritty of every facet of your business is crucial - I believe, to steer the ship competently. It's not just about knowing the people but the shoes you're asking them to fill and being a single founder there's no option but to learn that, especially on days you'd otherwise just pass the task off to someone else or share the burden. Innovation comes out of struggle.
But it is a rollercoaster and it's equally important to have people in your life to pick you up when you hit the wall, and knock you down when you get too cocky. If those people can't relate to or can't appreciate the work you're doing then a lot of that support can be lost unless you can relate it to them and figure out how to get feedback. Being able to sell your idea to people outside your niche is a valuable skill to master in itself.
As for me, the beta testers and other musicians tend to be hugely passionate and supportive, but that source of inspiration might be limited to my particular product. People might not get as excited at you when you're working on postagestamplickers.com. It's important to tell people what you're doing and discuss your idea with as many people as possible. It's both motivating and good for spotting holes in your bucket. I'm a firm believer in doing over talking, but when you're cold, tired, and lonely you'll be glad you're on a solid path and took the time to store some enthusiasm away for the hard times.
I'm not explicitly for or against being a single founder, but in my case gaining a deep understanding of the company as a living breathing organism from every possible vantage point is absolutely the most important thing, which when it comes down to it, is about creating something organically and moving forward pragmatically. It keeps you from taking steps you're not ready to handle. If I had a co-founder certain things would be more fluid, but I'd miss out on a bunch of raw experience that will shape how I lead and venture in the future.
So, are we going to do something about this (like a support group or something) this or will this just die out after this thread?
I do try to get as much advice and input from friends and colleagues as I can, so in all honesty I'd have to say it's a team effort.
More founders == more points of view. If some of them coincide with the customers' points of view, so much the better...
(As an atheist, I'm still looking at my screen and waiting for my app to self-generate...)
Edit: Most systems seem to lack any sort of intelligent design
Seriously, why so negative? It's not like five are necessarily better than two.
imho, it is always a mistake to make somebody not strictly necessary for the business a founder. dishing out vanity co-founder titles at employee level equity stakes is debatable.
YC has has been called a cult before, and I don't think anyone would argue that there are some eccentricities, and one of these is the over-valuing of the two founder model.
You can't become a trailblazer until you embrace this dogma.
That's a great line, actually, and says it all.